The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Lazy Stereotyping Undermines Original Storytelling

Fresh from the festival circuit, the Coen Brothers latest instalment has landed. It’s being lauded as a masterpiece, the brothers’ greatest work (clearly untrue, Fargo is their only film that can righteously claim that title) and is sure to snap up a few wins come awards season, even though it was released via Netflix (enemy of cinema-goers everywhere, apparently). Perhaps this is a bigger topic for another article, but don’t we want films to be seen and isn’t Netflix a far more affordable and accessible option that overpriced cinema screenings? I digress.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t a ballad, as the title suggests, and nor is it really a film, as the format suggests. It’s a collection of stories set in the late 1890’s that focus on the ins and outs of Frontier life in America. The stories all rest on a pivotal time period for the people of America – a time of growth, expansion, unfettered violence and change which no-one could ever come back from.

Buster Scrugg’s six vignettes don’t have an obvious thread tying them together, other than the de-romanticising of the Western genre which we will talk more about later, but they do all dabble in death. A brief overview of each segment; the titular ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ stars Tim Blake Nelson as a cartoonish ‘fastest gun in the West’ who prematurely killed by someone wanting his title, ‘Near Algodones’ sees James Franco (ew) fail at robbing a bank and is consequently hanged, ‘Meal Ticket’ explores travelling entertainment and what happens when one isn’t useful anymore, ‘All Gold Canyon’ features a prospector digging for gold in a lush valley and  ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ follows a woman on the Oregon trail who meets an untimely end at her own hand. The final segment, ‘The Mortal Remains’ deals with death in a different way – the entire segment could be interpreted as the grim reaper driving his victims to the other side, but it is also the only segment where no-one is killed onscreen.

The Coen brothers take imagery and stories that have regurgitated about the West, the Pioneers, the Gold Rush and more, and put their signature spin on it. Take for example the Cowboy, a staple of American culture – an image derived from the ‘Wild West’. We have two cowboy characters in Buster Scruggs – James Franco’s bank robber and Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) who leads the wagons to Orgeon in ‘The Gal who Got Rattled’. They might look the part but Franco’s character almost ends up strangled by his own horses inability to stop eating, and then dies by the noose anyway, and Knapp is unhappy with his life on the trail, proposing to Alice as a way of escaping and not because he actually feels anything for her.

The romantic image of the good old days is tainted by the destinies of each protagonist in each story – Blake Nelson’s fastest gun may be jovial and singing but he gets shot in the head before his story even gets started. The prospector from ‘All Gold Canyon’ not only destroys the tranquil landscape, but is shot in the back by a competitor ready to steal the fortune that he worked so hard for.

The entire landscape that the Manifest Destiny was written against is critiqued and questioned throughout the film but there’s one aspect which stands out as a glaring oversight at best, racism at worst.

So this is where Buster Scruggs becomes problematic. Its main mission seems to be subverting our expectations and ideas about Westerns (the films of old and the time period itself). Yet it treats its Native American characters as a homogeneous group of villains that can be called upon to attack the white characters as and when the plot depends on it.

The Native Americans are an integral part of the history of America – there is no looking at the American West without making some mention of them. By the late 1800’s, many of the Native Americans were relegated to reservations as dictated by the Government – they were methodically exterminated or forced to assimilate. Yet this group of people is still used as a lazy stand-in for villainy or savagery (or as a basic opposition for genteel white folks) whenever there is need for some action or threat in the narrative.

Buster Scruggs is guilty of using this technique. Native Americans appear in two segments – ‘Near Algodones’ and ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’. In both segments, they appear as a large group – none are individually named and none have any lines of dialogue. We are not invited to know more about them, just that they seemingly like to inflict violence for no discernible reason. They appear on horizons or in the distance and do so when dramatic tension is required, but their own stories are not investigated or explored

In a film which charts the stories of six different people living in the American West, all six people are white and there are no stories about the Native Americans. In a way, it would have been more respectful to leave them out altogether to avoid the damaging and lazy stereotyping which occurs in the film. Yet again, the Coen Brothers are not stupid. It is not an accident that the Native Americans are underdeveloped and under-represented in Buster Scruggs. This is a leftover tactic from the Westerns that Buster Scruggs draws upon – the John Wayne movies, the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1970’s. Back then racist representation was the norm, but this is 2018 and one cannot plead ignorance anymore.

With the biting commentary on idolised ideology of that era, why not include criticism of the commonly held view of Native Americans too?

Chloe Zhao’s The Rider: Authenticity & Identity

Chloe Zhao’s The Rider was released in UK cinemas last week, and I was lucky enough to see a preview of the film, hosted by Birds Eye View. A panel including a brain injury survivor and an equestrian therapy facilitator talked at length, post screening, about the complexities of protagonist Brady’s condition, his role in the world and his identity post injury.

The strange world of The Rider is seen through the eyes of Brady, a rodeo rider and horse trainer. Though scripted, Zhao’s film blurs the lines between fact and fiction in a way that’s reminiscent of Samira Makhalmbaf’s work – in particular The Apple. The two young protagonists of Makhmalbaf’s first feature were really kept captive by their father, and their journey to rehabilitation in the outside world is a genuine journey that they are undertaking. Similarly in Zhao’s The Rider, Zhao follows Brady after a severe head injury sustained from riding the rodeo and films the actuality of his recovery.

Documentary or Fiction?

There is an increasingly thin line between documentary and drama – recently there’s been an influx (Kate Plays Christine etcetc), and Zhao’s film adds to this conversation. Zhao and Brady had formed a friendship prior to his accident, and Zhao had wanted to make a film about Brady’s intimate relationships with the horses he trains – after seeing this connection on a big screen, you can understand why. It wasn’t until after Brady’s accident that Zhao realised the film she wanted to make. It’s almost impossible to ascertain what is scripted or rehearsed in the film, but all of the main characters (particularly Brady) have an authenticity that feels like it can only come from genuine emotion and behaviour.

There is an innate desire for us to know what is ‘real’ and what is fiction – Mia Bays of Bird’s Eye View explained that Zhao hadn’t scripted most of the film and simply let these situations play out in front of the camera. Yet Brady and his family have different surnames to their characters, the camera-work is stylised and not reminiscent of traditional documentaries. The nature of putting a camera in front of group of people automatically changes the authenticity and so, by the very definition of filming, no ‘documentaries’ are ever going to be ‘real’. There are degrees of ‘realness’, and there is what the filmmakers chooses to show the audience. Zhao has done just this within The Rider. She chooses to show, very specifically, parts of Brady’s life post accident which make the narrative more interesting. This doesn’t make The Rider any less ‘real’, it means that Zhao is curating the image we see before us. And the image is phenomenal.

“Man-up” – Masculinity in The Rider

Toxic masculinity is a prevalent theme throughout the film, hiding around each and every corner in Brady’s home, at work and particularly at the rodeo. The phrase ‘man up’ (partner up) are used continuously throughout the film – often by Brady’s father or brothers and directed at Brady. The rodeo is a sign of ultimate masculinity and when Brady sustains his injury, he is told that his life will be in danger if he rides again. He attempts several times to ride, but this results in Brady becoming physically sick and developing a clenching reflex in his hand.

The only time that Brady is outwardly emotional is when he is with Apollo or his friend Lane, an ex bull rider who is now paralysed and suffering severe brain damage. It’s heavily implied that these injuries were sustained whilst bull riding, but this is never made explicit. In Lane, Brady can see a mirror image of what is life was and what his life could be if he continues down a path of self destruction, both at the same time.

With both Lane and Apollo, Brady is free to express a side of himself which doesn’t have to be strong, unfeeling or brave. Perhaps it is because these conversations are (in a technical sense) one sided. Lane and Brady communicate but in a limited way – Brady takes the lead in the majority of their exchanges. With Apollo, there is a clear connection but again, Brady is (literally)steering the dialogue.

In both instances, the non-verbal communications are integral to Brady being able to be vulnerable and feel his pain and anxiety about never riding again. During the Q&A I attended, the film was acutely praised by audience and panel alike for it’s depiction of disabled people, the non-verbal communication being a huge part of this. His character has an actual personality and is tangible, unlike many depictions of disable characters who generally treated akin to furniture.

For Brady, his current situation actually goes beyond the expectations of masculinity. Brady’s entire life has orbited around the rodeo and horses. During the Q&A, there was talk that Brady had been sat on a horse at just 15 days old. It’s always been his dream to ride the rodeo, and for a while he was living his dream. Now, if he tries to live it – he will almost certainly damage himself further, and possibly even die. In addition to this, it becomes clear during the film that Brady’s rodeo winnings (and money he made from breaking in horses) are integral to the families upkeep. His father has a gambling problem and seems incapable of caring for his younger sister alone. Letting go of the rodeo also means letting go of financial stability, which in turn is another marker of being a man – the ability to provide for one’s family.

I went into The Rider knowing nothing about the film or it’s narrative. I naively expected a typical Western, with overblown cowboy stereotypes, lassoing and chaps. What I found instead was a near perfect film, one which gently explores the idea of identity – particularly what it means to be a man in a particular context – but also one which explores what it means to be human and to have dreams. The Rider is as majestic as the horses on-screen, and as authentic as the humans it portrays.

The Rider is out in UK cinemas now, and to find out more about Birds Eye View, click here.

Annihilation: A New Era for Science Fiction?

Alex Garland’s latest feature film, post Ex-Machina, dropped on Netflix last week to varied reviews. Some are calling it incomprehensible, some are calling it a standout sci-fi of our time. It’s been heavily implied by others that Annihilation is the first true Anthropocene sci-fi film. I would argue that there are only really two sci-fi films which closely examine humanity as a part of the geology and history of earth, and the effect we have had on the planet and ourselves. The first one would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the second would be Annihilation.

The two are not dissimilar. Garland borrows many motifs, scenarios and characteristics from critically acclaimed sci-fi films that have gone before him. Borrows is perhaps a too simple word here – Garland extracts these motifs audiences have come to know so well, and re-purposes them within Annihilation, giving the audience a sense of familiarity and originality at the same time. Before delving into how Annihilation examines the heart of humankind like Kubrick does, it’s interesting to look at the elements that Garland uses from films such as Alien, Contact, Arrival and others, but particularly how he changes them.

The similarities to Alien are instantly noticeable. Ridley Scott’s space-horror sets up a crew, each character with defining characteristics – the working class engineers worried about their paychecks, the introverted scientist (turned android), the terrified and incapable woman, and Ripley herself – the Strong Female Character. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these characters, but they are very clearly defined to fit into a particular category. Garland, initially, does the same. Natalie Portman is Lena, a guilt-ridden scientist and military veteran. We would expect her to be the hothead, due to her military background, but Lena is calm and collected.  Gina Rodriquez’s paramedic Anya is, at first, is the glue which holds the group together but soon finds herself unravelling in the absurdity and confusion of The Shimmer. Josie (Tessa Thompson), the physicist is introverted and shy, speaking far less than the rest of the group. There’s an expectation that Josie will follow the leaders of the group (Ventress and Lena) but Josie eventually makes her own very unique decision, and one that feels like the end of a very complete character arc. In a different way, anthropologist Cass appears to be the guiding voice of reason, a wise character who will continue to support the group until the very end. Of course, Cass is the first of the group to die, leaving the rest of the team in an uneasy tension. 

Finally, Dr Ventress. A psychologist who is leading the group, Dr Ventress has been watching and directing expeditions into the Shimmer since it began. She positions herself away from the group, not joining in with any social activities. It’s notable also that, even when the other women are in life threatening danger, Ventress does not attempt to help them. When Josie is pulled into the lake by an alligator, the other women rally around to pull her out and drag her to safety. Not Ventress. Instead, she watches from the back of the half submerged boating shed. There’s a strong indication from the very beginning that Ventress has a different purpose for this mission – not least because of her cool, emotionally removed manner that Jennifer Jason-Leigh portrays so well. She is not a part of the group, often signified by her physical distance from the others.

This is a typical element of science fiction – the one member of the ‘group’ is not aligned with everyone else. Their mission (as in Alien) may even go against the wellbeing and safety of the rest of the team. Garland strongly introduces this idea with Ventress, but never goes so far as to confirm if this is really the case. Rather than revealing this information, Ventress disappears into the world of The Shimmer, becoming one with it – now unable to communicate any personal desires or missions of her own. Essentially, any purpose or ulterior motive that may have existed, is no longer.

This lack of confirmation ties in with the ambiguity of Annihilation as a whole. The film is told through a flashback – Lena is recounting the events to a fellow scientist in isolation on her return from The Shimmer. We learn, before we have even met them, that many of the group are dead. To the fate of the others, Lena responds that she doesn’t know. This a risky tactic – what will hold the viewer’s attention if they already know how this will end? In Annihilation, however, these early reveals actually help to heighten the ambiguity of what is to come. Lena seems unsure about the order of events, of what happened to her peers and even what happened to her. She is not the strong or confident biologist that we see in the first of the flashbacks – teaching a class, painting her house or consoling her husband. She’s different. How did she become different? What happened in The Shimmer? These are the questions that are unearthed at the beginning of the film. Depending on the reading of the film, it’s possible that none of these questions are ever answered. What is clear, though, is humanity’s own hand in what could be its downfall.

When Lena finally reaches the cavern under the lighthouse, what is assumed to be the heart of The Shimmer, she finds Ventress who has also evolved into part of the alien landscape too. As she struggles to understand the implications of this, the figure turns towards Lena and the two fight. As the entity absorbs a drop of blood from Lena, it creates a duplicate of her which begins to mirror her every move.

The mirroring movements lead Lena to be pinned to the door by her duplicate, who is following Lena’s attempts to escape. It is Lena’s own actions which are bearing down on her, closing the door, it’s Lena’s own inner guilt, inner turmoil which is stopping her from being able to carry on. The duplicate copies all of Lena’s behaviours. It is non-threatening but is dangerous because Lena herself is. Lena, who it is revealed is harbouring guilt for cheating on her husband, is harbouring grief at her husband’s imagined death on the previous mission.  and feels that her affair caused him to take that mission. She views herself as a destroyer – of both her husband and her relationship. In copying her DNA (as we can assume it has done), the alien also copies all of this pain and suffering that Lena is carrying with her. It is Lena herself who is the enemy, her destructive DNA now imprinted in the world of The Shimmer and the alien life within it.

What is perhaps the most important part of Annihilation is the design. The imagery of DNA merging, nature evolving and changing is so integral to understanding how The Shimmer operates, and what that means for the humans within it. Visually, Garland and the design team have created an enticing and beautiful world. Even the parts that are scary or unnerving are laced with things which humanity usually reveres as beautiful, fragile or representative of purity. Unlike many of its predecessors, Annihilation shows the alien space (The Shimmer, the lighthouse etc) to be a place of momentous wonder. It’s filled with colourful flowers, evolved elements of fauna that have spread in beautiful patterns across the area. Even within the swimming pool scene, where the group find the remnants of a previous crew member, has a certain tenderness. The crew member whose DNA is irrevocably intertwined with nature is horrifying, yet also strangely alluring to look at. It feels like art.

Is Annihilation an allegory for how humanity is more destructive of itself than any alien species ever could be? Garland’s film certainly leads us down that path, and portrays this idea more fully and artistically than any sci-fi film that has come before it.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: A Few Key Questions

I have a few questions after seeing Martin McDonagh’s latest feature, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I guess the first one is on me because, for some reason, I thought this was a true story right up until I actually saw it. I have no idea why, but if anyone else thought it was based on a true story, please let me know so we can all not feel so confused together.

Aside from that, I have a lot of other questions.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri follows Mildred Hayes  (Frances McDormand) in her attempts to find her daughters murderer. Seven months after her daughter Angela is brutally raped, killed and set on fire, the Ebbing police department have still not caught the killer. In order to keep the case in the public eye (and also encourage the cops to do their jobs), Mildred rents three billboards just outside the town to ask the question; why has no-one been arrested for this crime? Woody Harrelson plays cancer-cop (he has cancer, he doesn’t arrest it) Chief Willoughby, who seems like a stand up guy apart from the fact he defends co-cop Dickson (Sam Rockwell) who is renowned for torturing black people in custody. Which seems like it should matter more, but the Three Billboards forgets this pretty quickly as Chief Willoughby is portrayed as someone doing their best, and then someone quickly committing suicide after having sex with his wife, a few metres from their children playing by the river (???).

The town blames Mildred’s billboards for Chief Willoughby’s death, even though his multiple suicide notes explicitly state that he killed himself before his condition deteriorated, and things get a bit weird. There’s a weird redemptive arc for Officer Dickson, whose racism, homophobia and bigotry seem to be off-set by the fact that he saves Angela Hayes’ files from the police station. I don’t want to go too into here, because there are a LOT of other people who are more qualified, and who have articulated better than I ever could (Ira Madison’s article at The Daily Beast is the best op-ed I’ve read on it), but trust me when I say that it’s a bizarre bait-and-switch as far as I’m concerned.

Though McDormand is phenomenal throughout, McDonagh spends at least half the film  exploring Dickson’s inner turmoil and his home life, time which (in my humble opinion) would have been far better spent exploring Mildred’s grief, mental state and acceptance of her daughters death. I have a lot of of nit-picky questions about this film, about character intentions and just general confusion, so I’ve decided to break it down below.  Lets go!

Why is Chief Willoughby’s wife half his age?

Okay, so this may not be the most pressing issue but it is one that I took umbrage with. There’s a lot of focus on the fact that Mildred’s ex-husband is dating a much younger woman (it’s implied that she is barely out of her teens). So it’s a bit odd when we see Chief Willoughby’s wife and no-one makes any kind of mention as to the fact that she is 21 years his junior. Maybe not the biggest issue with this film but it annoyed me so it’s on the list.

Why so many offensive slurs?

I know that a lot of white people (and I say this as a white person) think it’s big and clever to use offensive language to point out how offensive it is, and how it proves people are racist if they say it. Well, guess what – you saying it, even trying to prove a point, is also racist. I was really onboard with Three Billboards until the scene where Mildred and Dickson are talking about Dickson’s torturing of black folks, and there’s a back and forth where the N word is liberally applied. Perhaps there was a point behind it all, but I fail to see it.

The film also employs offensive slurs against the LGBTQ community, the kind which many of us (I am sure) last heard in the playground at school whilst having things thrown at us. Considering McDonough didn’t actually cast any LGBTQ actors, or write any LGBTQ characters into the film – what possible justification is there to use these terms?

Why are the only black characters there to support white characters in their journey?

Following on from my previous point… the only characters of colour in Three Billboards are in the film solely because they are black. They have no other personality traits, narrative arcs or reason for being other than their blackness. Denise, Mildred’s friend, is arrested on possession of marijuana (original) to prove that the police force are prejudiced and will do anything to stop Mildred. Willoughby’s replacement, Abercrombie, is a black man, seemingly only to rile up Dickson and the other white cops in the precinct.

When was this film set?

Following on my THAT – when on earth was this film set? This question led myself and three friends to have an incredibly detailed debate as to when it was actually set (something I feel you should NOT have to do – establishing the time period is a VERY basic requirement of cinema). We concluded that, with the use of smartphones and Dickson’s reference to googling, it must be set within the last five years. Which begs the question: why is everyone so cool with bigoted language and attitudes in the town? Mildred seems to be a very progressive woman (at least, we assume from the pedo-priest conversation), so why is she using slurs too? Adding to this the constant jokes aimed at Peter Dinklage’s character, the film felt incredibly dated….

Unless this is just how rural America is? I could be completely mistaken. Do let me know if this is the case, and if you live in an area like Ebbing, you should also let me know so I can try and start a Go Fund Me to get you out of there.

What’s the deal with Mildred’s son?

This is kind of self explanatory, but what is his deal? One minute he’s spouting some crap about how the domestic violence charges against his Dad were only Mildred’s word against his, the next minute he is holding a knife to his father’s throat as if this had all happened before.

One minute he hates Mildred, the next minute he supports her. It’s all a bit weird, and he seems to change depending on what the narrative needs him to do rather than any kind of character development.

Why does Mildred tell her daughter she wishes she was raped?

Just….no.

Does being on fire lead to a complete personality transplant?

The real lesson I took from Three Billboards is that we need to take all racist, bigoted, homophobic police officers in rural America and put them in a burning building but ensure that they survive the ordeal. Apparently, this leads to a complete personality overhaul and they become nice decent people almost instantly.

Is this film going to win best film at the Oscars?

Probably.

“I Never Want to See Josh Again” – Crazy Ex Girlfriend’s Exploration of Mental Illness & What It Really Means to Be ‘Crazy’

*Trigger warning for suicide*

*also spoilers obviously*

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — “I Never Want to See Josh Again” — Image Number: CEG305b_0209.jpg — Pictured (L-R): Tovah Feldshuh as Naomi and Rachel Bloom as Rebecca — Photo: Scott Everett White/The CW — © 2017 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

 

In last week’s episode of Crazy Ex Girlfriend, our beloved yet highly distressed heroine Rebecca takes a turn for the worse. Yes, in the past she has manipulated, lied, destroyed her friends lives, broken into her own house, installed tracking devices in Valencia, and last but not least, stalked Josh Chan across the country. Though the series has lightly (and not so lightly) tapped into Rebecca’s mental illness before (often at the hands of her long suffering therapist), ‘I Never Want to See Josh Again’ went to a place the show has not visited before.

Throughout the witty humour, social commentary and catchy musical numbers, there’s always been an underlying theme of mental illness in the show. The title, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend refers to a misogynistic phrase that women often get branded after a relationship breakdown.  Crazy Ex Girlfriend, as well as being incredibly self-aware and progressive in other aspects, often debates the use of the word crazy. Regularly, women are labelled as a ‘crazy ex’; a sexist, simplistic marker that men can use to diminish any of their own responsibilities for a relationship failing. Rebecca Bunch, the ex of the title, bucks the stereotype by being a interesting and developed character. But, as the show goes on, something becomes abundantly clear. Rebecca Bunch may actually be crazy. Not in a flippant way, or derogatory way. Rebecca is seriously mentally ill – something which is brought to the forefront at the beginning of S3.

This isn’t the first time that we have been invited to think about Rebecca’s actions as the behaviour of someone who is really quite ill, rather than as a caricature or humourous. Crazy Ex Girlfriend is a hilarious show, but from the end of season one, it was clear that Rebecca needed help of some sort. Real help.

At the beginning of the episode, Rebecca is reeling from her newest attempt to destroy Josh’s life, in the style of Swimfan, a film I have never seen but now desperately want to. Rebecca has gone off the deep end this time (sorry for the pun) and when she sends Josh a thinly veiled threat about his mother, it’s the last straw. Josh reveals everything that was in his ‘Rebecca Bunch’ envelope, including Robert who is NOT a dog, to all of the gang in West Covina. Not cool Josh, not cool.

Unsurprisingly, despite Rebecca’s anxiety-child telling her differently, Paula, Valencia and Darryl all rally around her, desperate to help her through this dark time. Rebecca, naturally, becomes defensive and proceeds to tell each one of them what is wrong with them. It’s one of the saddest scenes in Crazy Ex Girlfriend yet, Rebecca’s words are cold and callous, and the hurt that is caused is clear.  She tells Paula that she is fed up Paula treating her as a daughter, and suggests she spends time with her own family. She then proceeds to rip into Valencia and Heather, mocking Valencia for planning her dream wedding for Josh and Rebecca, and Heather for perpetually being a student and being unable to make up her mind about anything. Finally, she tells Darryl that there is no way White Josh wants a baby with him and he needs to realise that.

Not only are all of these things hurtful, they are almost all true. Rebecca, due to understanding how insecurities work all too well, manages to tap into each of her friends’ vulnerabilities in a pretty sadistic way. And, although all of them are hurt, they are still determined to help her. However, we begin Episode 5 with Rebecca flying back to New York to move back in with her mother – Naomi, trying to avoid any contact with anyone in West Covina.  As we well know, Rebecca and her mother are not exactly best friends. In fact, it’s very heavily implied in earlier episodes that Naomi’s controlling nature might just be a factor in Rebecca’s mental illness.

To begin with, Naomi continues her controlling streak – resigning Rebecca from her job in West Covina, insisting that she get up and stop moping around. It’s only when Naomi discovers that Rebecca has been researching ways to kill herself that things begin to change.

‘Maybe She’s not Such Heinous Bitch After All’, Rebecca sings, as her mother brings her strawberry milkshakes, gives her a cuddle on the sofa and wears the matching tracksuits Rebecca has bought her. It soon becomes clear though, that Naomi’s intentions are not entirely pure – though this is debatable. It turns out she has been lacing Rebecca’s milkshakes with anxiety medications.

Now, whilst it isn’t a great idea to drug anyone against their will, I can see Naomi’s logic here. Realising that your daughter might be on the verge of suicidal must be a terrible, terrible feeling – and Naomi’s controlling instincts went into overdrive. She saw the medication as a quick fix to get Rebecca back on feet. I believe she genuinely cares, but Naomi see’s Rebecca as a problem that needs to be fixed, rather than a human being who needs emotional nourishment.

Meanwhile in West Covina, the gang are getting used to life without Rebecca. ‘I Never Want to See Josh Again’ gives a glimpse into how life would be for them if Rebecca was a ‘normal’ employee/friend.  When Whitefeather & Associates hire a replacement for Rebecca though, it begins to become apparent what a terrible friend Rebecca has been to the people who brazenly adore her. Daryl is overcome with emotion that Cornelia will simply reply to his emails, Maya praises her as a #feminist for signing her mentoring form and Nathaniel is just happy that she gets on with her job without any distractions (including no inappropriate swimsuits). Basically, Cornelia is a functioning human being who does her job, treats her co-workers like people … well the opposite of Rebecca. This is a hard pill to swallow, because although we always knew Rebecca wasn’t the greatest person in the world, we never really saw how much destruction she causes to those around her until she wasn’t there anymore.

After the altercation with Naomi, Rebecca, upset and angry, gets on a plane back to West Covina. Then she remembers that she’s essentially pissed off everyone there, so she asks the flight attendant to drop her off ‘around Ohio’. Not possible. Rebecca, after ordering a glass of wine, proceeds to overdose on the anxiety pills. Right at the end, she utters the three words we’ve all been waiting for her to say. I need help.

Covering suicide is a tricky thing to get right, even though more and more TV shows are trying it (on that note DO NOT watch 13 Reasons Why). Crazy Ex Girlfriend, as always, approaches suicide and mental illness with the tact, sensitivity and bleak humour that it is known for. Rebecca’s mental illness isn’t funny, but we laugh because we all sort of get it. We are all Rebecca to some extent. Watching Rebecca hit rock bottom was hard not only because she’s our protagonist and we want her to succeed, but because we hit rock bottom with her.

In some sense, this episode has been a long time coming. Finding out about the Robert situation and Rebecca’s stay inside a mental rehabilitation facility hinted heavily towards this kind of thing happening again. Bloom has fed us subtleties, titbits of information throughout the series, until an episode like this was absolutely inevitable. Rebecca does a lot of things in the series that we don’t actually see that would lead us to think that she is actually mentally ill. Like reading the entirety of the Hunger Games in one night just to be able to make a joke from it. We dismiss these because we only hear Rebecca say it, we don’t actually see her in this situation. It’s really easy to hear these anecdotes as funny stories rather than as a indication of a serious mental disorder. 

Yes ‘I Never Want to See Josh Again’ was a hard watch, and emotional, but it also might have been the best episode of the series so far. 

Crazy Ex Girlfriend has shown mental illness to be serious, ridiculous, sad, distressing and funny all at the same time. Rebecca has a long journey upwards from here, and no doubt that will change the dynamic of the show, but I am with her all the way*.

Also, if you really want to get in deep with the critical analysis/psycology/social commentary of Crazy Ex Girlfriend, then check out Bagels After Midnight on Youtube who makes the best vids on this!

 

 

*Apart from sleeping with Greg’s Dad. Ewwwwwww what???

 

Motherhood & Monsters in Under The Shadow

Time to get spooky! My halloween treat this year was to watch Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari, 2016) and I was NOT disappointed. Terrified yes, but not disappointed. Read my analysis of Under the Shadow’s interrogation of motherhood and monsters over at Bitch Flicks, for their Women in Horror Theme Week!

 

 

 

Bisexual & Proud: Discovering myself through Sugar Rush

To celebrate Bisexuality Day 2017, I am going to talk the moment where I first realised I might like gals and guys (as a teenager in a small town, i had no idea there were any genders other than guys and gals), and the TV show that had the biggest influence on my sexuality to date. Let’s talking bisexuality!!

In 2005, Sugar Rush graced our screens for the first time. I was 14. I felt like I knew everything, as most teenagers do. I’d had crushes on boys and i’d had strange feelings for girls. Of course I now know they were also crushes, but growing up in a very small town with little to no exposure to anything other than heteronormativity meant that I really couldn’t process those feelings until a long time afterwards. I had a weird fluttery feeling when I was around one of my friends, that I just couldn’t place. After watching Sugar Rush, I realised it was an attraction. The show allowed me, and I am sure many other young women in the early 2000s, the vocabulary and space to articulate having feelings for someone of the same gender. It was, something I’ve only recently realised, a seminal show. Nothing quite like it, for women, has graced our screens since.

Sugar Rush, inspired by Julie Birchill’s novel of the same name (but PLEASE don’t it judge it on that*), tells the story of Kim (Olivia Hallinan), a 15 year old girl who has been forced to move with her hapless Dad, irritating stepmother and weird brother to Brighton, away from her school and friends. She befriends and becomes enamoured with Maria ‘Sugar’ Sweet (Lenora Crichlow). Sugar is that girl. You know the one – stunningly good looking, knows how to get booze, has men clamouring to be with her. The girl who never takes anything seriously, who lives life for today. If you haven’t been friends with someone that fits that description, it’s probably because you are her. No cares, no worries, always fun, all the time. This is in total opposition to Kim, who has led a relatively sheltered life in comparison. The series follows Kim’s infatuation with Sugar, and the ‘adventures’ the two of them have. I say adventures, but it’s a lot of sex, drugs and genital crabs. It’s a brilliant show.

Sugar Rush worked so well because it didn’t try to glamorise any part of teenage life. From the awkward masturbation scenes, to drinking vodka and coke from used cans, to drunken misdemeanours. As well as being wildly funny, it was also down to earth and gritty. Unlike Skins, which idealised the drug taking, anorexia and abuse of it’s characters, Sugar Rush always felt realistic. Sometimes things were great, and sometimes things were terrible. Kim’s pain of unrequited love for Sugar is heartbreaking – as we all felt at 15. Sugar’s ‘carefree’ lifestyle leads her to some deeply awful places, and the show doesn’t hold back from showing those.

Of course Sugar Rush employs the gay-girl-falling-in-love-with-her-straight-bestie stereotype, but the developed characters and genuine dialogue manage to move it beyond this pretty quickly. Kim and Sugar’s friendship feels very real, and the happy ending of series 1 felt absolutely deserved. And let’s face it, even today it’s tricky to find a lesbian tv show where everyone doesn’t end up dead or heartbroken (with the exception of San Junipero *heart eyes*). So, in that respect, Sugar Rush was an amazing achievement.

What I really want to talk about though, is just how revolutionary Sugar Rush was for it’s time. It was the first show aimed at young people that involved conversations about sexuality and had a lesbian protagonist. Scrap that, it was the first show I had aimed at anyone which had a lesbian protagonist and opened up conversations about different sexualities.

Never before had I seen anything in my immediate ‘media’ circle (by which I mean, on terrestrial TV or at the cinema) which included lesbian, bi or gay characters. Well, that’s not strictly true. Eastenders had included gay, male characters but there was little out there to be inspired by in terms of female sexuality. Representation is a big thing, and when there isn’t any out there, it’s hard to accept yourself for who you are. Sugar Rush made me feel normal. It made me feel like there were other people in the world who were attracted to women and that I wasn’t a freak. The things Kim and Sugar did were familiar to me (sneaking alcohol out in plastic bottles, avoiding judgemental parental eyes and generally just wishing for more in the world), and so Kim’s infatuation with Sugar felt completely normal too. Which meant maybe I was normal, and there wasn’t nothing weird or perverse about having feelings for other girls. 

The addition of Kim’s on again and off again girlfriend Saint in the second season is pretty revolutionary too. Saint and Kim begin dating but hit setbacks (mostly due to Kim’s unfaltering love for Sugar). By the end of the series, they agree to try again, and Kim seems to finally be moving on – which is the best things for her. Saint is a pretty revolutionary character – especially considering this was 2006 – because she dates men and women. I can’t actually remember if the word bisexual is ever said during the series, but Saint makes it pretty clear that she is attracted to both genders and happy in herself.

It took years (literally, 8 or 9 years) for me to become accepting of my sexuality. I’d like to think that if there were just a few more tv show and movies where bisexual characters aren’t portrayed as cheaters, maniacs, confused or non existent – then maybe I could have got there a little sooner. We’ll never know! What I do know is that Sugar Rush was ahead of it’s time, and I am eternally grateful for it.

Amazing news, Sugar Rush is AVAILABLE TO WATCH ON ALL 4!!!! I know what I will be doing for the rest of the weekend.

*Julie Burchill, for those who are unaware, is a horrid journalist TERF who seems to make it her life’s business to be as transphobic as possible.

Essential Reading for ‘Millennial Feminists’ – Part 2

Welcome to part two of my recommended books for ‘millennial feminists’. This time, it’s fiction. For part one, which is non-fiction, please click here!

There are many, many books that naturally belong on this list. Well known and well loved novels which instantly capture ideas about feminism and the reality of being a woman. Books like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale which is now more popular than ever due to the critically acclaimed (and now Emmy award winning) TV series. Books like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story which perfectly details the sexist concept of hysteria and how it has been used to silence women. Books like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson’s vivid re-imagining of her own childhood and her sexuality. Or Octavia Butler’s brilliantly written and wholly absorbing host of novels, particularly her Xenogenesis series, which reaches new levels of sci-fi in her exploration of gender, humanity, survivalism and prejudice. 

The books that have been chosen, however, have all had a personal effect on me and challenged my ideas about feminism, intersectionality, sexuality and identity. So yes, it is a personal list, but one I hope will resonate with many of you too.

That Thing Around Your Neck (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

This selection of short stories is Adichie’s third novel, and yes I am slightly cheating as That Thing Around Your Neck comprises of not one but twelve short stories. Though Adichie may be most renowned for definition of feminism, as used in Beyonce’s ‘Flawless’ record, Adichie has been writing on feminism, both fiction and non-fiction for many years.

Adichie, born and raised in Nigeria, frequently writes about her hometown of Nsukka, the 1967- 1970 Nigerian civil War, Igbo culture and colonialism in Nigeria. Set against these backdrops, her stories explore how women are treated in Nigeria, issues of race and (most predominantly) emigration and the effect it has on identity, family and heritage.

Many of the stories in That Thing Around Your Neck deal with abuse of women – either within family relationships or by society in general. One of the stories which resonated with me the most was the titular story, ‘That Thing Around Your Neck’, which features a young girl who gains an American visa, only to be repeatedly abused by her uncle when she moves there. In Adichie’s works there are often discussions of the elusive American visas, and an idealisation of what life would be like away from the poverty and corruption of Nigeria. Like Akunna, the protagonist of ‘That Thing Around Your Neck’, many of Adichie’s characters discover that America presents them with just as much violence and corruption, but in a different form.

In ‘On Monday of Last Week’ and ‘A Private Experience’, Adichie gives us a closer look at relationships between women of different races, classes and nationalities. She bridges a gap between the interesting and diverse women she writes about, and is constantly toying with western ideas of feminism and racism.

Above all, That Thing Around Your Neck showcases her extraordinary ability to write relateable characters within such a short space of time. Each character in each story felt truly developed and I could identify with their inner struggles even after only a few paragraphs.

The Power (Naomi Alderman)

The sizzle of electricity. The spark of power. The smell of burning. Reading Naomi Alderman’s The Power is an experience for all the senses from beginning to end. I could see the lightning bolts of electricity being released from young fingertips. I could smell charred skin. I could envision the scenes which Alderman conjures up – the inspirational moments and the ones which outline the very worst that humanity has to offer.

Alderman’s story starts out from a very simple premise. Imagine if women developed a power. A power which made them physically stronger than men. What would happen? Through the eyes of orphan Allie, rising politician Margot, fearless journalist Tunde and Roxy, the daughter of a crime boss, we see the world begin to change and distort.

The Power could have been a simple gender reversal story. It could have righted the wrongs for women who had suffered for years at the hands of men. It could have slotted women into ‘male roles’ and had them become pseudo men. It could have shown us a good, kind and moral world where women rule peacefully, now that toxic-masculinity is no longer in power.

Alderman’s cleverer than that, though. She show us how power is transferred (quite literally), how the greed of power seeps into the hearts of men and women alike. She shows us triumphant survivors who can leave their captors, but she also shows us dictators and murderers. The intersections of politics, religion, culture with gender are fully explored with each of the characters. This a fundamental part of why The Power works so well – gender does not exist within a vacuum.

The result is a believable world, fleshed out from every angle. Alderman dissects all of our beliefs and all of our preconceptions to give us a glimpse of a world that (whilst strange) feels somehow familiar. Alderman puts rape culture, misogyny, tradition and oppression under a microscope and reveal the structures that exist within society.

The Power’s strength lies in its colourful and energetic descriptive language.  The words leap from the page, enticing you in. Only pick this book up if you have a 12 hour window free because you won’t be able to stop reading.

Gather the Daughters (Jennie Melmed)

Written on the blurb of Gather the Daughters is a recommendation. “If you liked The Handmaid’s Tale or The Power, then read this book.” So, naturally, I did. Whilst Gather the Daughters does invoke the sort of feminist camaraderie and oppression that The Power and Handmaid’s does, Jennie Melmed’s first novel is a powerful work by itsself, with it’s own story to tell.

The narrative follows four girls, with different chapters outlining their individual journeys. Vanessa, Amanda, Janey and Caitlyn. The girls live on an island amongst a patriarchal community, who are beholden to a Christian-like religion which dictates their every decision. They live a simple life, The religion, and the loyalty their Ancestors, is not dissimilar to most major religion – the women and girls are subservient to the men in on the island and do not hold any positions of power.

The main story involving the four girls begins just before the summer – a time of the year where children are a law unto themselves. They are allowed to run, play and scream – luxuries that they not usually allowed. Vanessa, Janey and Caitlyn enjoy their summer, roaming around the island but Amanda has become a woman and so she must face her ‘summer of fruition’. A ritual where girls who have began their periods must find a husband.

I’d quite like this to stay spoiler free, but I will say this: Gather the Daughters will break your heart. I think it’s also important to mention that Gather the Daughters deals with sexual abuse, particularly of young children. Having said this, Melmed’s discussion and explanation of the abuse is amongst the most tactful I have ever read. It is never said outright, merely implied between the lines of text. Melmed allows us inside her characters minds, and so we don’t need to be told what is going on. We can feel it.

Ideas about conditioning are prevalent throughout the novel, showing how oppression and abuse are born out of systematic misogyny. Other than Janey, who doesn’t even fully understand her own reasons for not complying with the norm, the girls take a long time to realise the harm that is being done to them. They have no language with which to express it, and no environment to express it in. Gather the Daughters lays out the idea of the cycles of trauma and the strength in the unity of all women (or rather girls in this case) to break out of it.

And one for younger readers – Time Zero (Carolyn Cohagen)

Interesting and unique dystopian novels for YA audiences are pretty difficult to come by. Time Zero exists, for me, as a little sister to The Handmaid’s Tale. With many similar themes and ideas, Time Zero builds upon the world that Handmaid’s built but brings to the 21st century. Protagonist Mina is just like any other 15 year old, except for the fact that she lives under an extremely oppression regime, one which aims to keep women and men completely separate. Mina has a powerful secret though, and she is just beginning to wake up to the world she is in.

I would highly recommend Time Zero to all readers, but it’s a fantastic book for younger feminists. Cohagen writes Mina as an average 15 year old, somone whom we can all relate to, and so when Mina begins to question the rules imposed on her, we go on that journey with her.

Time of the Month: BART CURLISH & FARAH BLACK (DIRK GENTLY)

Since watching Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, I have decided I need a change of career. I want to be a holistic assassin, like Bart Curlish – one of the greatest characters in the Dirk Gently series. With that said, all of the characters in Dirk Gently are pretty bloody incredible. In fact, they are all so incredible that September’s Time of the Month brings you not one amazing character, but two! Bart Curlish (Fiona Dourif) and Farah Black (Jade Eshete). I agonised over which to write about before deciding that actually, this month you can have two for the price of one.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency tells the daft but charming story of Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett), a ‘holistic detective’ who is investigating a crime. He enlists the help (or rather, pre-determines the help) of Todd (Elijah Wood) to assist him with solving the case. Cue bizarre plot twists, cute animals, unpalatable murders and a whole lot of time travel. ‘Dirk Gently’ is a mad, quirky hot mess and it’s absolutely brilliant because of it. It’s tonally terrific and though it makes almost no logical sense until the very last minute – it will keep you gripped the entire series through.

 

 A STORY OF THEIR OWN

Farah Black and Bart Curlish are two characters that have their own subplots, running alongside the main narrative. Bart is a self-titled holistic assassin who displays a lot of the same intuitive tendencies as Dirk, and coincidentally also believes it is her life mission to assassinate him. Bart is (putting it nicely) pretty unsocialised and a bit of a lone wolf. She has killed countless people and seems to have a knack for it, although she always affirms she doesn’t ever kill anyone who doesn’t deserve it.

Farah is a young security officer, working for the Spring estate, desperately trying to track down Lydia Spring, a young girl who is at the centre of the case Dirk is trying to solve.  Coincidentally, Patrick (Lydia’s deceased father) hired Dirk to track down his killers, a few weeks before he was murdered. Yeah – time travel features a lot in this show.  Farah, whose only prerogative is to return Lydia safely home, is swept along in the tidal wave of puzzles and clues trying to save Lydia and solve the case. Farah is fierce, determined and also ever so slightly neurotic.

What is apparent though, is Both Bart and Farah kick gender stereotyping to the curb. Their job titles (security officer and assassin) are traditionally assigned to men, neither of them are involved in a romantic narrative and they both have confidence and conviction in their individual skills.

Even better still, Bart and Farah, though caught up in the spiritual drama concerning Dirk and Todd, both have narrative arcs of their own. Which is another way to say that they don’t exist merely to support the two male protagonists. The difficulty with an ensemble cast, especially when female characters are in primarily supporting roles, is that they usually only exist in relation to the main male characters. More often than not there is little character development, and they seem to not exist in any way unless they are onscreen with the male character(s).

In our first introduction to her character, Bart’s existence (in her own words) is for the purpose of assassinating Dirk Gently. So how can we claim she exists as an entity unto herself, and not just in relation to Dirk? Well, even though Bart’s raison-d’etre is to kill Dirk, her narrative supersedes this. Bart grows, changes and develops throughout the series. She enjoys the backstreet boys. She learns what a shower is. She actually makes a friend, despite initially claiming that she doesn’t need anyone in her life. Bart’s edges become softer, but she doesn’t compromise who she is to get there, but in the process she becomes a little happier. Bart begins as the anti-Dirk – a character created solely to destroy Dirk – a trope employed in many superhero stories. In a wonderful twist, Bart’s story takes on it’s own life and direction.

STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS

It would be easy, and a complete cop out,  to claim that both Bart and Farah are ‘strong female characters’.

‘Strong female character’ is a term which is very liberally applied to any female character who displays any hints of strength, independence or determination. The problem with strong-female-characters is that they are usually portrayed as so “strong” that they are either pseudo-men or have no infallibility whatsoever. This doesn’t make for an interesting or authentic character, and certainly leaves no room for development.

Farah, as a WOC, could easily have fallen into the strong-sassy-black-woman stereotype. Sure, as we said earlier, her job does mean that she has to be somewhat strong and very brave. As a security officer, she does display strength, and she’s got the personality to match. However, Farah demonstrably struggles with weakness too. Farah is determined and clearly skilled at her job. But she also failed to get into the FBI academy, something which clearly still haunts her. When one of the minions pretends to be an FBI agent to try and fool Farah – we expect her to see straight through his act. We have an expectation that her physical strength transfers to her emotional strength and that she is infallible because of this. However, due to Farah’s own insecurities about not being ‘good’ enough for the FBI, she is hoodwinked. Farah isn’t a ‘strong’ person, she is insecure. This insecurity makes her relatable, and it makes her human.

Farah’s breakdown is a realistic response to the situation. Though brave and headstrong, she has little faith in her abilities because of rejection in the past. When faced with what she thinks is an authoritative figure, she crumbles – like many of us would.

Likewise, Bart’s entire life trajectory has been to eliminate Dirk Gently. When she finally comes face to face with him, she discovers that she simply can’t do it. The universe, or whatever it is, will not allow her to kill him. Bart has to come to terms with the idea that the thing she has been living for, is actually not going to happen. It’s almost a rejection from the universe. Bart seems to stumble through life relying only on intuition, but this time it has failed her. A girl who has lived as little more than a killing machine, finds that she really does have a moral compass.

Additionally, the revelation that Bart actually only kills people who kind of deserve it, completely changes our perception of her. We can actually identify with her, and start to like her as a person now we know that she doesn’t just kill at random. Or, she does but somehow she knows that her victims are all terrible people. Holistic assassin, you know?

Both Bart and Farah are vulnerable, lonely women, masquerading as strong fighters who don’t need anyone in their lives. Dirk Gently not only allows us to see behind their masks, but also gives them the opportunity to learn and grow as the series goes on. Instead of giving us stunted tropes, Dirk Gently has blessed us with two wonderful female characters who (I hope) will continue to shine throughout the second season too.

Now, if the writers could just orchestrate a Farah/Bart spin-off, I’d be very, very happy….