Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

I don’t normally write about TV shows, despite being a big TV junkie, but ever since I started watching Once Upon A Time, I’ve wanted to write about it frequently. I refrained from the urge because I felt I would dwell too much on its feminist aspects, something I would not like to do for a show that’s mildly complex. I say mildly, not as criticism, but as truth; it’s a good show, but it lacks the layers and complexity of a show like, say, Fringe for example (another show I’m in love with)

Instead, I’m focusing on the portrayal of women in Once Upon A Time. Its devious of me, I know. Its still a feminist theme, but cleverly disguised as television discussion. I’m evil that way.

And so is Regina. The Evil Queen Regina, who wanted to kill her stepdaughter, Snow White. When the brothers Grimm transcribed this folktale in their first edition of Grimm’s Faerietales, they wanted to keep the evil mothers as stepmothers, not just because it was un-Christian to want to kill your own blood (the brothers were deeply religious) but also, because doing so fulfilled their nationalist intentions for writing this book, i.e. to emphasize that when you are with your own people, be it countrymen or family, you are safe and loved (as indicated by the pure, motherly love of mothers in The Goose Girl, The Wolf and the Seven Goslings, and strong bonds between siblings in The Twelve Brothers and The Brother and Sister, to name a few)but when you are with an out-group, you will suffer, and be treated as a secondary citizen, denied your rights; in the case of the faerietales, those rights were a child’s right to be safe, loved, protected, taken care of.

Because of this, women in the Grimms’ stories had one-sided characters. Ambition was a characteristic for evil women such as Aschenputtel’s evil stepsisters, who aspired to marry well. Submissiveness, an inability to fight against injustice, being a constant victim, were characteristics of good, modest, pure women awarded in the end with the overly hyped knight in shining armour.  Strength, more importantly, was a vice, wielded, along with power, by the evil female characters. And so, Snow White’s evil stepmother tried to kill her, because Snow White was prettier than her. Note that Snow White is all the more fairer for being unaware of her beauty, whereas the Evil Queen is less beautiful because she is conscious that she is attractive; a confident self-image it seems, is not worthy of the good Christian woman the brothers Grimm wanted to portray.

So is that who the Evil Queen Regina is in Once Upon A Time? A woman driven by jealously to murder her own stepdaughter? No, not really. Actually, Regina was a sweet, kind, gentle soul. She hated magic which her mother wielded with darkness. She strove to escape her mother’s evil influence several times, and feared her so much that she did not even tell her of the stablehand she loved, afraid of her mother’s rage, since her mother wanted her to “do well” in life. And as for Snow White, Regina saved her life when she was a little girl. She was friends with Snow as well, something that Snow’s father deeply appreciated, and therefore, asked for Regina’s hand in marriage. Regina’s ambitious mother, happy her daughter would be a queen agreed to Regina’s dismay. Then Snow discovered that Regina loved someone else, and accidentally let it slip to Regina’s mother, who promptly killed the stablehand. And that was why Regina hated Snow; because her childish naiveté cost Regina all her happiness.

Regina didn’t kill Snow immediately though. It took her many years to formulate her revenge, culminating when Snow was an adult, starting with the death of Snow’s father. As events unfold in the TV show, a battle resulted, where Regina was defeated, but banished instead of being executed. She then transported all the citizens of the kingdom to a land without magic, a town named StoryBrooke in our world. Here they would live their lives stuck in stasis for 28 years, remembering nothing of their past lives. What would happen in 28 years, though? Snow and Prince Charming’s daughter, Emma the Saviour, would come to break the spell on the town. And in the meantime? Emma had a baby she gave up for adoption. This baby was adopted by Regina, who grew up to be a precocious eight-year-old and brought his mother back to StoryBrooke to break the spell.

This is where the show starts, with flashbacks to the past in The Enchanted Forest, the land where it all started. And Regina is evil, yes. She’s evil not for insane jealously, but out of love; her son Henry has found his real mother, and knowing the truth about Regina, drifts away from her. Regina loves her son with the fierce, protective love only a mother can possess, which is why Emma is her enemy. She takes steps to ensure Henry remains hers and hers alone, from keeping him from meeting Emma, to finally resorting to poisoning Emma. Tragically, its Henry who eats the poisoned apple pie meant for his mother, which results in Regina breaking down, and teaming up with her enemy to save her son.

The layers begin to unravel. From a mean, vindictive, petty woman, Regina turns into a young girl who lost her happily ever after, and swore to deny the person responsible every chance at happiness as revenge. From the embittered witch that does so, she transforms into a mother terrified of losing her son, and willing to do anything to keep that from happening. This evil stepmother is apparently, an onion. That statement is hilarious for me but unfortunately, people don’t understand my sense of humour, so you probably think its lame. I apologize. Amidst much chortling.

By season two, Regina starts to see parallels between her mother and herself. She uses magic to keep Henry from escaping her clutches, the same way that her mother did with her so long ago. Whatever her reasons, she remains evil, you think. Ah hah! That’s where you’re wrong. In an episode which critics described as pivotal in Regina’s redemption, memories of Regina’s tortured childhood drives her to “free” Henry, allowing him to live with his grandfather, Prince Charming/David Nolan in the absence of Emma. Her redemption continues when, to keep a promise she made to Henry, Regina refrains from using magic, making a conscious effort to change and be a better person for Henry. Though once again, Snow and her daughter Emma keep Regina away from her happily ever after with her son, she doesn’t remain the static evil character throughout the show; she evolves, as a woman, a mother, a human being. She’s driven, not by insane hateful jealousy, but rather, by an aching loneliness from the ever-human yearning to be loved, channeled into vengeance against the person responsible for the loss of her happiness. In StoryBrooke, she’s driven by the same desire to keep the amnesiac Charming and Snow apart, but also, by love, love for her son, and her heart is broken time after time when Henry rejects her. She isn’t an evil, stone-hearted monster; she feels, loves, aches, weeps, and when Henry, out of his still-childish love for his mother, spends time with her, she smiles from happiness and contentment at being with her son.

So there you have it folks. An Evil Queen in a faerietales with a heart, layers of complexity, and more importantly, despite her power, frequently vulnerable, like all humans are. The brothers Grimm gave you countless women to hate simply because they were powerful females; Once Upon A Time gives you powerful females that you not only have difficulty hating, but can also relate to. Can anyone really blame a mother for trying to keep a son all to herself? For saying, “No, you gave him up for adoption and I gave him the love you denied him, how dare you come back and try to make any claim to the child that’s rightfully mine?” Can anyone blame a woman who lost the love of her life for her anger at those responsible, for trying to destroy that person’s happiness? We’ve all had dark moments when we have either come close, or done the same. I know I have. I know I’ve tried. At times, I’ve successfully stopped. Other times, I haven’t. And such is that darkness that to this day, I don’t regret a thing. That darkness, along with the knowledge of knowing there’s no justification for cruelty no matter how great the wrong (let’s not confuse justice with cruelty here)but being capable of both immense good and evil makes us human.

Like me, like you, like all of us, Regina is very much human. She’s capable of good, like saving a child’s life, and evil, striving to destroy that same child years later. And like all of us, she’s capable of learning, changing, redeeming herself, of leaving her past to be a better person for the sake of someone she loves. And isn’t that more interesting and realistic than the evil stepmothers of the Brothers Grimm?

It’s no secret that I’m a huge TV buff. Nor do I hide the sort of television shows I watch. Back in 2011, a newly-made friend was surprised when I told him I liked Californication for example, and immediately chuckled and said, “Don’t tell the feminists you watch it, they’ll eat you alive!” The statement was less of a slur to feminists and more an acknowledgment that as charming as Hank Moody may be, he’s a womanizing, misogynist douche who cannot be vindicated by his true love for Karen of how he sexually objectifies women.

Meh. The man’s a pig, but what can a feminist who was watching The X-Files when she was nine years old do?

Other favorite shows of mine are the old historical dramas like Spartacus, The Borgias, The Tudors and lest we forget, Game Of Thrones. All the shows have gratuitous soft porn in common, as well as a generous dose of misogynist societies where women, even those in power, often wind up victims of crimes, abuse, or just plain unfortunate circumstances. There is also the fact that even the women in power have limited authority, which is second after their husband or father’s authority. Patriarchy you see, still prevails, despite the illusion of female power. And this power is displayed in fascinating ways; on the Orbis Mediology blog, a post regarding Spartacus describes this female power;

Women’s roles in Spartacus are complex. Lucretia and her rival, companion, and ‘frenemy’ Illythia, often call the gladiators to them. They gaze upon them as objects, just as women were so often objectified by the ‘male’ gaze in traditional Hollywood cinema and film. This new female gaze is no more kind, for the men are viewed as objects to be used and abused and little else, for they are slaves, and in the eyes of the wealthy Romans, living toys and workers. Hulking men with exquisite bodies and complex personalities are treated like toys by the women.

I’m not a fan of the soft porn at all either, at times, it gets tedious waiting for it to end. I feel that perhaps, the defense of the producers and writers of the show would be that they aim for a historically accurate show, which means getting the social system of a society right, however misogynist it may have been, and considering that slavery, which is a key aspect of Spartacus, was as common as the show portrays, that the slaves were helpless to their master’s whims, to see how casually women are fucked or used as currency for sealing deals isn’t really surprising. But does that justify the graphic nature of the show? A feminist writer to whom I expressed my disgust to regarding subliminal advertising responded, “Sex sells sweetheart. Number 1 rule of advertising.” I’ve never forgotten this, or how accurate it is for television overall. But, I’m also reminded of The L Word creator Ilene Chaiken’s interview in The Advocate, where she’s asked about a plot twist involving a character Jenny Schecter, and the revelation to the audience that she was sexually abused as a child.

“We all know that it was an incident of sexual abuse. I had not wanted to be more explicit about it than that… I really am loath to portray rape as a film-maker. I think it’s really hard to do it without becoming complicit and exploitative.”

Veering off from that statement into Spartacus, we return to the point regarding gratuitous soft porn and too-frequent images of women being fucked. What happened to the days of television shows where all you saw were two people making out, and then suddenly under the sheets in bed, smiling at each other? The answer is quite simple; sex sells.

But if we move beyond the crude sexuality and porn and the station of women in Rome, the show is complex, to say the least. Its premise is Spartacus, the soldier taken from Thrace, away from his wife Sura, to serve Rome. Lets talk about Sura. She reminds me of Grandmother Willow from Pocahontas, firmly rooted into the earth, gentle, wise, and yet, fierce in her own right. At first, she’s just the pretty, wise wife whose husband marches off to war; then the Romans attack her, and she whips out a knife and well, shows her fierce side. Nor does Spartacus sweep her aside when he rides in, not to the rescue btw, but to fight side by side with her.

Throughout the first season of the show, Sura is the driving force behind everything Spartacus does, first to reunite with her, and then to avenge her death. Spartacus cannot develop as a character without Sura. Essentially, he has no storyline without her. And this storyline comes full circle in the end of season 2, when as he raises his sword above the last person who was complicit in Sura’s death, we see flashbacks of the woman who wasn’t behind Spartacus, but right beside him.

Crixus, who is the champion of the ludus and Spartacus’s initial rival, falls in love with a slave girl. Unfortunately, he has earned the fondness of Lucretia, the dominus of the house, and therefore, their relationship is doomed due to her jealousy. And sort of dull. This excellent, fangirly blog describes my feelings for season 1 Naevia/Crixus perfectly.

“He went from caring nothing about glory and honor in the arena to being blindsided by feelings that he obviously had no experience in.. seeing him struggle to keep this relationship alive while he and Naevia were at the mercy of those above them. But of course, this was at the expense of Naevia, who seemed nothing more than a faceless cipher for the development of Crixus, who had no characterization beyond being beautiful and gentle.”

So let’s flash-forward to season 2, and the real reason behind writing this blog; Naevia’s rescue. It is revealed that she was ferried around to various influential men by Batiatus to curry favour, once the cunning slave Ashur exposed her secret relationship with Crixus, and when this was finished, she was sent to the mines. Naevia is traumatized, and suffering a great deal. But then, something magical happens that seldom happens on television;instead of continuing to mope and die a tragic victim, doomed to be eternally exploited and harmed, Naevia asks Crixus to teach her to fight, so that no man can ever hurt her again. And Crixus agrees. The transformation here is staggering. It is as if learning to fight is the healing Naevia needed, bringing back courage, and strength, so that the passive little slave-girl is but a thing of the past.

And then, there is the climax to her transformation; Ashur visits the rebel encampment, and Naevia asks to avenge herself for the crimes he committed against her. The ensuing scene is beautiful. As Naevia battles Ashur, the men stand by. The terror and anguish on Crixus’s face is visible; he is terrified that he may possibly lose her a second time. But, oh the beauty of this fact, he would rather risk losing her as she fights to avenge herself, rather than swoop in as her white knight and lose her by dishonouring her in the worst way possible. There is a point when Spartacus starts to step forward, seeing Naevia’s possible defeat. And the cocky prettyboy-turned-lover Crixus stops him. And then, it happens; Ashur stands above Naevia, mocking her, saying that she was and remains weak. The men stand by, anguished but determined to honour their fellow warrior. Then it happens; Naevia stabs Ashur in the crotch, screams that she is no longer weak, and rises to lop off his head. As a relieved Crixus embraces her, Naevia admits that he was right, that it is not easy to take a life. A humble man,  gazing at the woman he loves and his equal, solemnly says, “then I will teach you,” and embraces her again. The beauty of this entire scene cannot be forgotten. Naevia seems to have come full circle.

Lets not forget Mira, Spartacus’s lover, whom he drifts away from and eventually severs romantic ties with amiably. Mira weeps as this happens. But she also wipes away her tears and tells him that she needs to go conduct archery training, as she is one of their best archers. This is the same Mira who, in season 1, was so helpless to her master’s will that if they told her to have sex with Spartacus, she had no choice in the matter. And when Mira is training in archery herself, another slave-girl who uses sexual favours to win protection from gladiators says that she is trying to make her place in the world. Mira tells her to do so of her own worth, and not by what’s between her legs.

The show’s also LGBT-friendly and multi-racial, by the by. That wasn’t part of this blog, but I feel it important to mention this fact, because it adds to how much win this show is made of. While I’m still uncomfortable with the porn and the way women are treated and portrayed, I’m still a fan, for Saxa, the fierce, madcap Germanic warrior woman, for Mira, for Naevia, and for feminism. It isn’t an ideal feminist show, no, but for me, it’s a step in that direction.

The past couple of weeks, I’ve been re-watching movies from the 90s. These are the movies I grew up watching, and have a fondness for, and I thought it would be interesting to watch them as an adult. Half the time, I couldn’t understand the jokes, or the actors would speak too fast for me to understand. Two of these movies were Father of the Bride (1991) and The First Wives Club (1996). I feel the need to write about them, and urge everyone to watch them, because they’re that good.

First off, I never cease to be startled by the differences in movies within a decade. It feels like movies are so centered around being lavish and glamorous and stylish, that the plot somehow gets lost in between the Blackberrys and the iPhones and Birkins and bling. In The First Wives Club, Goldie Hawn’s character was an actress, but there were never gratuitous displays of her wealth, though it was implied, and referred to frequently. If this movie had been made in this current era, there would have been a half hour devoted to visual details of her wealth alone.

Secondly, and more importantly, I absolutely love the portrayal of movie in these films. In Father of the Bride, Diane Keaton is a stay-at-home mom with no angst or regrets about it. She’s calm, patient, wise, in-control, and just, well, spectacular. The daughter she raised never wanted to get married because there’s more to life, and when she does get engaged, she breaks up with her fiancé briefly because on their anniversary, he gives her a blender, which disturbs her because, what is he trying to suggest with such a home-maker type present? I don’t watch women’s interest movies because they’re shallow and superficial and make me hate my own sex, but I loved the character of Annie. When she tells her parents she’s engaged, she explains that her fiancé is encouraging and wants her to work and have a life. Her independence and strength of character is gently insinuated throughout the movie in such instances, putting her in sharp contrast with most of the female characters I see in movies these days.

(I also liked Father of the Bride because it’s about a dad freaking out over his little girl getting married, and when the montage played in the end, of him remembering his daughter from childhood to the moment she announced the engagement, I couldn’t help tearing up, being daddy’s princess myself but that’s another story)

Then there’s The First Wives Club. Here’s the story; 3 women are abandoned by their husbands in middle-age for younger women. All three women gave up their lives to cater to their husbands as a sacrifice. All three women plot revenge. Typical movie you’d seen these days, no? Ah hah! Here’s the twist; along the way, these women develop and blossom into the people they could never be, because they were too busy being wives. They end the movie with opening a women’s shelter in memory of a friend who committed suicide because her husband left her. One of the characters reconciles with her husband; Diane Keaton’s character, a doormat in the beginning of the movie, tells her husband to get lost when he comes back to her; and all three ladies end the movie dancing down the street singing a song of empowerment and female emancipation.

Admittedly, I am more a TV than film person. But honestly speaking, the “chick-flick” movies coming out these days all have the same clichéd storyline, more or less. Even when women are portrayed as career-women, they’re shown to be either chasing love, or they’re cold and heartless and their lives are empty without love. “Love”, of course, always means the man and the children and the white picket fence. Its one of the reasons I loved The Hunger Games, despite having read the book.

Comparatively, I find a more positive portrayal of women in television shows. There’s Once Upon A Time, for example, which was recommended to me as a “feminist show”. True Blood has independent minded women who know what they want. I’d like to list Spartacus here, but much as I love the show, the soft porn makes it difficult for me to count it in. And my personal favorite, Claire in Modern Family; she’s smart, creative, in-control, slightly loopy, all while being a housewife and stay-home mother. Let me add here, that I don’t like her because she’s a stay-at-home mother or housewife, I like her because she is very well capable of having an extremely successful career, and isn’t some stereotypical brainless airhead, and more importantly, she has a supportive husband. A new show recently popped up by Amy Sherman-Palladino, Bunheads, with a sassy, fast-talking ex-dancer who won my heart in the first season for asking her mother-in-law what was wrong in wearing shorts.

Another interesting trend is sexuality. When I see old TV shows from the 90s, even early 2000s, I see very few plunging necklines and over-emphasized bare legs. Although this is more visible in shows on the CW network, there’s no denying the disturbing increase of hyper-sexualized women. I was hesitant to praise Spartacus for this very reason, but its not the only show guilty of blatant objectification. When a male friend of mine found out I’d started watching Modern Family, he excitedly brought up Sofia Vergara. I wonder if he knows the name of any other cast member aside from the sexy Columbian constantly clad in revealing dresses and tops to highlight her chest.

Here’s what I’m looking forward to watching in my list of old movies; Double Jeopardy, the story of a woman jailed for killing her husband, and finds out he’s alive and framed her to start a life with her friend, Enough, a Jennifer Lopez film about an abused wife who escapes her husband, and The Virgin Suicides, of which I remember very little. Something tells me the last one will have me pretty depressed.