The Real L World but Not the Real L A

post still in progress – images added tonight

Let me start by saying I watched the entire run of the L World on Showtime, wrote essays about both its import and its failings, and teach it in my popular media course. Despite the many things I enjoyed about the show, from both an academic and viewer standpoint, the promises Chaiken made to be a multicultural show written from the perspective of biracial lesbians and lesbians of color, as well as white lesbians seldom panned out in the ways she promised. So I admit it, I was cynical about the racial politics of the “reality” show version of the L Word from the minute I heard it was in the proposal stage.

Like many of you, I watched 6 seasons of the L Word where overall the characters and storylines were compelling but black women, butch women and trans men (the latter of which were often collapsed into a single category) were largely absent and/or almost always depicted in profoundly offensive ways: Kit starts out as a drunk and bad mother whose parents and children hate her. Though she improves over the series she is also the outspoken gender and transphobe whose only white counterpart is the always inappropriate Jenny. As the only consistent black female presence on the show, she also acts as a subtle reinforcement of the idea that black people are more homophobic than white people (the visibly white, tho multiculti cast is all lesbian, the visibly black woman is straight with offensive gender politics) even as she subverts this idea by being openly supportive of not only her sister but the entire community. Yolanda, the only black woman in Bette’s lamaze class, is perpetually angry and constantly attacking Bette for passing. The audience is invited to judge her anger and be repulsed by her politics and beliefs even in the one scene where she is not yelling or on the verge of yelling. More than that, this first season encounter establishes the narrative of whiteness that often undermined attempts at diversity on the show, ie that if you can pass for white, live a life in which you are largely or completely treated as white, then you should and so should the show. As Better put it in response to Yolanda’s accusation that she had failed to embrace her entire cultural heritage and become white, “why shouldn’t I?” And her list of all the privileges and advantages that passing affords her are stated without irony nor complexity as if to further affirm the politics of privilege. The only offset to this mantra is that Bette makes an effort to have a biracial baby with her white partner and that her search is intentionally juxtaposed with her decries about the rightness and goodness of whiteness or lightness.

Latinas faired slightly better in the L Word partially because Papi, who was the quintessential “hot tamale” stereotype, was brought in for a plot twist and then quickly edited back out. Yet like Chaiken’s promises of multiculturalism in the promos for the first season of the show, quite a bit of media buzz surrounded Papi’s entrance into the L Word as a Latina lesbian character. Promotion promised us a character that had largely been missing from the show, what they delivered was a character who helped white lesbian Alice get her groove back and then was largely missing from the show.

At the same time the L Word did give us more interesting secondary characters of color. Candace Jewell, Bette”s fling, though tight-lipped was decidedly not a Saphire character, instead she offered us one of the only positive depictions of working class, [soft] butch identity on the show. She was intelligent, passionate, and hard working. Though some of have criticized the character for the jail house love scene which for them tapped into certain stereotypes of blackness. Tasha also went a long way in fixing some of the earlier missteps of the show with regards to gender politics and class identity. While her character was also more fleshed out than others, it still tapped into certain, more subtle stereotypes, about black women as angry, aloof, and conservative (vis-a-vis white liberal feminists). Carmen, as femme, also complicated an alarming equation of butchness and working classness or hickness that seemed to permeate the show, especially when Moira arrived before transition but also with Kelly. She was perhaps the most well-rounded and integrated character of color in the series. She was tied to a main character so that she was hard to marginalize and the scenes involving her family dealt with both Latinos who are opposed to homosexuality and those who embrace it in ways that avoided stereotypes about people of color and homophobia. At the same time neither of the Latina characters were played by Latina actresses bring the sum total of prominent Latinas employed by the L Word to ZERO. The absence of Asian women, which can only be countered by the casting of South Asian women to play Latinas, was also glaring in a show set in LA.

Given the racial and gender politics of the fictional version, I doubted the unreality of the proposed reality show would veer much further from Chaiken’s seeming preference for feminine, white or light characters; the previews for the Real L Word seemed to confirm my suspicions. There are no black women on the Real L Word and the emphasis on upper class identity in the show seems to imply that black women are poor and therefore not running in the same circles as these “top 10% ” lesbians (to borrow one cast member’s self-description). While I doubt the class-race connections were intentional, the failure to provide wide shots during Rose’s class discussion which would have shown an array of visibly brown and black women leaves the viewer with a particular message even as Rose’s own presence complicates it. More than that, the tight shots in these first scenes may have been an issue of consent and production but also serve to further erase darker women of color from even the background of the show.

Both Latinas in the Real L Word are white by Latina standards and at least one can likely pass by U.S. ones. In fact, I did not know she was Latina until she makes a Spanish language phone call to her mother in an anglicized accent. Interestingly, Rose, the more outspoken of the two could not pass.

At the same time, Chaiken has made an effort to include both butch women and her oh-so-light woc lesbians as equals in the show. Two of the main characters are women who self-identify as not feeling comfortable in a dress. One makes sure to tell us she is “a top” (though her make up artist girlfriend promptly says otherwise) and the other one says “There are heels and boots” and she is definitely “boots”.  A lot of time is spent on Miss Boots storyline in the first episode, so perhaps the producers are discovering something we already knew, ie women of all gender presentations are interesting not just us girlie girls.

The show also spends a considerable amount of time with both Latinas. Unlike the Papi character, Rose’s loud-mouthed womanizing is offset by her time with her family, discussions of growing older and getting out of bad relationships, and her negotiations with her live-in partner who I think is also Latina. Thus, she is transformed from a stereotypical version of Latina womanhood into a well-rounded character who likes to party. Since this is reality tv and bad girls sell, Chaiken’s decision to depict Rose’s complexity is particularly important and a key sign of the growth in racial representations begun in the later seasons of the L Word. Rose’s time with her family is also a critical counterpoint to Tracy’s conversation with and about her mother. While Rose has a supportive family who actively discusses her love life, Tracy’s mother has simply refused to address it and Tracy has had to make the difficult and familiar choice of cutting her emotional-sexual life out of her relationship with her parents. Again the two women’s experiences give us a much wider view of Latina women than we might otherwise get from someone invested in uncomplicated racial stereotypes and sensationalist tv.

Ultimately, I found the first episode of the Real L Word compelling. Not only does it expand the discourse of gender and race beyond that of the fictional show but it offers us a wide range of interesting characters with recognizable issues and lives. It humanizes the experience of lesbians across the lifecycle and thus offers another opportunity for people to see the gay community as normal or to see a snippet of themselves reflected on tv. However, that snippet continues to erase black and Asian women and to privilege a preference for lipstick whiteness and/or lightness that makes me wish Chaiken would deal with her own biracial issues and come into her racial own (instead of emulating Bette’s “why shouldn’t I [pass for white]“). As one biracial girl to another, I can tell her that life is much better on the other side of racial confusion and fear of blackness (all though I cannot say I ever shared those two issues with her). So I will keep watching the Real L Word while rooting for Chaiken to live up to some of the promises she has made over the years and let go of some of the baggage she has defended. And truthfully, the show is interesting, often compelling, and literally hard to turn away from even in the midst of the worst dyke drama.

What did you all think?

Give Us Free

This Juneteenth, I find myself wondering just how free we really are. There is a black man in the White House and a black woman still dominates afternoon tv, even if her ratings are slipping and have been since she supported said black man. Black people can apply for jobs, business and home loans, buy, sell, eat, drink, in public and alongside white patrons. Unlike our brown brothers, we can even live in Arizona, as long as we are a deeper shade of berry that is, tho I don’t know why we would. In the eyes of many, the legacy of slavery and the existence of racism are things of the past.

unattributed

But let’s break down the difference between then and what many scholars and activists have come to refer to as The New Jim Crow:

  • We have a black president but for the first time since the troubled days of reconstruction, or those of 1963, 1965, and 1968, both nationally syndicated radio and talk show hosts are calling for a “million gun march” on Washington and supporting a movement that contains openly racist elements
  • Despite the loss of basic civil and human rights under the Bush Administration we only see the rise in law enforcement willing to “defend the rights of states and citizens” after Obama’s inauguration and specifically implying that he will at some point try to “enslave” people, “create concentration camps”, and/or rise up against the “people of the U.S.” based on neither history nor voting record nor any other indication except his blackness (see Oath Keepers manifesto – and no I am not linking there)
  • The intentional, and illegal, targeting of black people and other poc for predatory lending , particularly women of color, helped cause the economic crisis and left entire black communities without homes or good credit and the only response has been two administrations handing over stimulus checks to the perpetrators
  • Despite exposure of predatory racialized and engendered lending, the bid to profit off of poor black women and other woc (as well as poor white people to a lesser extent) continues in the form of tax loopholes and property law manipulation (You should note that even though the documentary Flag Wars shows a white lesbian real estate agent intentionally targeting and intimidating black home owners, including at least one homophobe, and then reveling in one hold outs death as she picks over her things for resale, that same agent was later featured on an episode of House Hunters, for which she was hired and paid by both the show and the home buyers, living in a mansion in FL)
  • Unemployment for African Americans is at a 25 year high while no programs are specifically earmarked to help them
  • White supremacist and other hate groups are on the rise with a 54% increase in membership since 2000
  • Liberal blogs, established “zines”,  journals, news shows, publishers, departments, etc. continue to exclude or tokenize (defined here as having 1-2 people but no more despite multiple opportunities) intellectuals of color giving the sense that we are still only important when discussing race and that only a handful of us have the intellectual chops to do so
  • Despite evidence to the contrary, liberal circles are just as likely to blame African Americans and other poc and resort to racism for losses in rights we share but are perceived of as their own as conservatives
  • Gentrification that displaces African American and other poc communities is still largely spoken about by liberals as “bettering the community” “saving neighborhoods” “creating community” or “fostering multicultural communities” and applauded without a single thought to the economic, social, and psychic damage done to displaced black folks
  • More black trans women are being killed now than in the past and less is being done about it even as gains in protections for trans communities are being won largely on the basis of murders of trans women of color
  • police brutality against black women and girls continues to be documented on video and yet excused away by review boards
  • and if listservs. livejournal, and blogs are any indication, the number of white people who believe that “racism” is a “slur” levied by black people to make “innocent” white people feel bad about themselves and not an actual indication that discrimination has occurred is any indication, the number of white people who feel immune to being called out for discrimination and absolved of ever being discriminatory is also on the rise
  • That liberals, conservatives, and hipsters think racism is something they can joke about as if it is both a thing of the past and theirs to laugh at

So this juneteenth, I find myself not in the mood to celebrate the last black folks to be told they were in fact free and subsequently let out of bondage but rather musing on how long the white people in that Texas town kept black people enslaved despite 2.5 years of laws to the contrary because they could and neither their neighbors nor the nation was interested in making sure equality was upheld.

While I am grateful that black people in the U.S. are no longer enslaved (not counting black and ther poc “servants” trafficked here from other countries to clean elite people’s homes or serve as sex slaves), I am saddened by the fact that we are still not equal in this nation and that the spectre of segregation looms at every turn.

Dr. Who Take II: The Beast Below (A Super Quickie – Spoilers)

BBC 2010

For those who thought I was exaggerating about some of my long time Dr. Who fan companions who said they would not watch after last week’s episode, I am sad to report, I watched this week’s episode alone. That’s right, they were that turned off by last week. I, on the other hand, am semi-glad I watched again this week, because many of the things that turned me off last week were absent from this episode. As I predicted, the show’s “new” creative team knows a considerable amount about the genre and the reboot and really can give us something good if they try. That said, this episode’s plot was still re-tweaked re-hash from the last 5 years and worse, the Doctor comes across as morally reprehensible. Here’s the breakdown:

Plot:

Dr. Who and Amy Pond arrive on a ship with a mysterious and seemingly dangerous creature at the heart of the ship that the inhabitants mostly do not know about.

Sound familiar? It should. Remember when David Tennant arrived on the space ship with the alien that was eating people while they walked around in a daze? Moffat’s only new contribution to the rehash is to shift the alien’s motivation.

BBC 2010

They are also policed by creatures called The Smilers, who also seem like a mix of other villains from both Torchwood and Dr. Who past. I think they are supposed to be scary, but truthfully, how many times can we see statues move, change expression, or otherwise come to life before we point to every statue on the show and think “I bet that is an evil alien or at least made by one!”? Worse, the Smilers have me thinking of a particularly famous Buffy episode … I’m just sayin’, Whedon does it better by a mile.

(And while I am being nitpicky, didn’t the queen’s guard look like he had been shopping in Obi-Wan’s closet? But that I hope was a nod to scifi geekdom more than ripoff.)

Gender:

This episode gives us two adult female characters and one little girl, all of whom are central to the plot. The little girl is mostly absent from the episode, except as the motivation for the Doctor’s arrival and for the final plot twist. She acts as an archetype, damsel in distress, spelled out for us on more than one occasion because they writers are not content to just give us a stereotype, they have to make sure we know it is one.

The other two women, Pond and Liz 10, are strong, intelligent, self-sufficient, and essential to the plot. While Pond, fully clothed this time out, offers the heart of the show this episode, Liz 10 is all action. When the Doctor can’t seem to rescue himself or Pond from the mouth of the ship, Liz 10 comes to the rescue doing her best impression of a caped crusader meets a Martha Jones – Gwen Cooper hybrid. Both female roles are much more solid, much less stereotypical, and far more respectful overall than last week.

BBC 2010

Race:

Liz 10 is Afro-British and also the Queen of England. On the one hand, there isn’t much to say about race in this episode except for the “surprise” shift in the image of The Crown. On the other, Liz 10′s leadership oscillates amongst seemingly duped monarch, under cover spy, and morally reprehensible torturer. She is almost always clueless about her own rule, her own age, her own cabinet, etc. And while I liked her personality, I cannot decide whether her cluelessness and culpability are a comment on the promise of hope and change versus the realities of status quo or something all together more insiduous.

I feel the same ambivalence toward the white porcelain mask she wears when doing her sluething; when she is the duped Queen, she appears in her own smiling face, but when she thinks they are not looking, she dons a white mask and roams the ship. Again, the meanings are likely multiple, with both astute comment on the meaning of the British subject and problematic equations of good and evil with racial stereotype.

A similar shift happens with one of her guards who is Afro-British when he walks in and asks her to do something and then his head spins into an angry smiler when she refuses; smilers are white. The seeming reversal of race-moral character is incomplete since both versions of the guard want her to do something she does not want to do and both are in on the torture.

There is something there in the messages about race, but they are so subtle as to be innocuous. Honestly, I think we’ll have to wait for more episodes before I can really weigh in on race issues. (I have already mentioned some of the positive shifts in ethnicity issues on the show in the previous review)

Matt Smith as Dr. Who:

The good news is that Smith has already moved away from his bad Tennant impression. This means that the yelling, strutting about, and general mania are all gone from his performance. While I find his interpretation of Tennant insulting, the fact is I’m glad most of the truly annoying parts of his inaugural performance was him trying to be David and not the way he was approaching the role for good. Smith did an outstanding job of showing the more serious side of the Doctor this time out as well. His range of emotions was spot on for what his character goes through in this episode and he revealed an angry streak that could lead to some fascinating episodes in the future.

That said, the jerky movements, cocky stride, and condescension of last week seem to be core elements of Smith’s Doctor. Some of these things, like the jerky movements, are off-putting, others are a matter of taste. There have been cocky Doctors before and I have liked many of them … and, yet there is something about Smith that still does not sit right for me. All I can say is that I’ll probably like him well enough in a year or two, but I think the condescension coupled with the morally challenged nature of this doctor are really pushing the bounds of what we have all come to love about Dr. Who.

Moffat’s Doctor (or specism):

Moffat continues to flatten out the wonderful complexity of the main character or at least allow the writers and actor to do so. This episode was particularly egregious in the sense that the Doctor was willing to murder the last of a majestic species to save a few 1000 British people who were either directly involved in or complicit in the torture of an animal for 100s of years for their own benefit. Worse, he made the choice to side with abusers while being indignant about the abuse.

While, thanks to Amy, the episode ends on the moral high ground, the Doctor’s decision left him morally reprehensible in my eyes. Dr. Who has killed many creatures in his time but most of those creatures were guilty of torture, abuse, domination, or simply snacking on humans because the could. To kill a majestic creature who had been aiding the survival of the human race so that a handful of British subjects could continue to live docile lives in space is offensive at best. When one factors in that the origin story, in which the British did not move fast enough to save their own country nor take time out to determine what the creature wanted when it originally appeared, and the fact that 100s of years have passed since the torture began without a single person in power trying to figure out an alternative way to power and navigate a space ship (something everyone else in the universe manages to do just fine), the Doctor’s choice to save the humans over the space whale is incomprehensibly wrong.

We’ve just spent 4 years watching the Doctor confront the demons of being a Time Lord. From the very beginning of the reboot, we are told he is the last Time Lord because of a war that ended his race and that war has left huge scars. As the years have moved forward, the Doctor has sworn over and over again that he will not commit nor participate in genocide, and he has only gone back on his word when to do so meant preventing the genocide of another species. The space whale has killed no one, threatened no one, and does not have the ability to commit genocide, and yet Mofatt’s Doctor Who would kill the whale to save the human beings who trapped and tortured it for 100s of years, for no other reason than he likes human beings.

Gone is the Doctor who questioned his emotional and physical impact on companions, worlds, even time. In his place, a cavalier and self-righteous #11 who brazenly calls back fleeing aliens who threatened the earth just to chastise them up close and decides to kill the last of a majestic race just to save a handful of humans who tortured it shamelessly for 100s of years. Who is this man and where is his moral compass?

Final Verdict:

The look and feel of the show is still recognizable Dr. Who magic. For those who do not recognize or care about the unabashed rehashes every week, the storylines are obviously in keeping with what we have come to expect. And while there are things that still remain disconcerting, the leap from episode 1 to 2 this season has been large enough to quell my fears. I’m still watching, and if you are, please feel free to weigh in.

Go Ask Alice II (SyFy Channel Movie Review – Spoilers)

In Part I of my “Go Ask Alice” posts, I suggested that your money might be better spent renting the SyFy Channel’s update of the Alice in Wonderland story called Alice and waiting to see Tim Burton’s version on cable.  While I enjoyed much of Burton’s film, I honestly have no faults with the SyFy version (though the lyricism of the original is gone from the latter). Those familiar with SyFy Saturday film offerings should be reasonably skeptical here, but unlike those z-rate bad CGI throwaways, Alice is a medium budget film, has both new comers and accomplished actors and actresses, and a well written script.

James Dittiger/SyFy

Like Burton’s version, SyFy’s Alice also stars a grown up main character in a Wonderland set in the far of future from the time of the original story. This time the mid-to-late 20 something Alice lives with her mother and believes her father abandoned them when she was just a girl. She is drawn into the world of Wonderland through the capture of her boyfriend and potential fiance Jack, who is seemingly kidnapped by the White Rabbit. Thus begins an adventure that is more 1960s 007 than Victorian classic in which Alice holds the key to restoring both Wonderland and the lives of enslaved human beings.

At the center of the plot for SyFy’s version of the classic tale is a sort of Brave New World dependence on drugs to make the Wonderland population docile and obedient. To quote Director, Nick Willing:

“What I was interested in was [the idea of] being able to manufacture your emotions. One of the things I fear may happen to us is that we swap genuine emotions for something that is given to us. We cry at the television commercial and think that those tears are genuine. I was fascinated with, not so much in how these things could be addictive, but how we are slowly constructing a world where we swap genuine emotions or something which is manufactured cheaply. Wonderland seemed to be a good place to set that in because the Queen of Hearts has that kind of personality in the book.” (SyFy)

In this world, the “soma” comes from the milking of human emotions against their will and without their knowledge. The White Rabbit, an organization of henchmen trained to serve the interests of the Queen of Hearts, use the Looking Glass to enter the human world and steal unsuspecting humans for the procedure. These humans, called “oysters” because of the “precious pearl” of emotions inside them, are then put in a trance state and sent to the Casino where neurotransmitters in the floor collect their emotional responses to sexual stimulus, success at gambling, and other similar emotions. Like the oysters in the original Alice and Wonderland, the humans are entirely consumed by the people supposedly caring for and keeping them safe. Their emotions fuel a legal drug trade that is robbing Wonderland of its sanity, strength, and sense of purpose. Among those in charge are the re-imagined Walrus and Carpenter who are in control of the emotions extraction science and who, in the case of the Carpenter, ensure Alice’s import to revolution.

Standing against the tide is the resistance made up of a series of human versions of anthropomorphised animal characters from the book.

Animals

white rabbit/Dittiger/SyFy; white rabbit promo event/unattributed; Mad March/Dittiger/SyFy

There are no animals in Alice, unless you count the completely erased Cheshire cat. Instead, each of the characters has been re-imagined as human on both sides of the war. As I’ve already said, the White Rabbit is no langer a bunny in a top coat but instead a white haired man in a full suit with two ponytails down his back like rabbit ears. Alongside him, and his fellow henchmen who wear the mark of the White Rabbit organization, is Mad March (the hare). Willing’s March is a goon straight out of Goodfellas with a heavy accent and a pension for violence. A previous accident has left him without a head, so in keeping with the animals as human theme, Mad March’s head has been replaced by a porcelain rabbit head.

Tim Curry as Dodo/Dittiger/SyFy

The “animals” on the resistance side are no less imaginative. Dodo has been transformed from a bird into a cunning leader of the resistance played by Tim Curry. Where the original Dodo and the “caucus race” highlighted the problems with governmental caucus during  the late 1800s, the re-imagined Dodo questions the efficacy of a resistance in which winning matters more than the people for whom one fights. Tim Curry’s Dodo is willing to kill both oysters and Wonderlanders to overthrow the Queen of Hearts and he is willing to do so without consulting the rest of the resistance leadership. Moreover, at one point in his struggle with Hatter, he tells the members of his cell (also animals in the original) that they will not have to live in the basement any longer, implying that his real motivation is his own personal power over the political system of Wonderland. Whether you read Dodo as a beleaguered rebel who has sold his idealism for the follies of power over others or as a dogmatic leader who was really never as interested in the people as he was being at the helm of the cause, this re-imagining is a powerful though brief critique of politics on the left.

Alice, Caterpillar, & Jack/Dittiger/SyFy

Perhaps the best re-imagining of an animal character is the Caterpillar, who is now the eccentric head of the resistance. While he is visually stunning in his velvet smoking jacket that resembles the actual animal, gone is the seemingly nonsensical wisdom and condescending majestic of the character. Instead, this Caterpillar knows exactly who Alice is and why she is needed. Though he still seems to float outside of both worlds, he lets Alice know in no uncertain terms what is at stake in the struggle for Wonderland. Like Burton’s White Queen, he also asks Alice to choose the burden she must bear, but unlike Burton’s White Queen, he comes across as both compassionate and burdened by the struggle around him. As the alternative face of resistance, he both contextualizes why Dodo would have grown weary with his underground machinations and why real activism requires a commitment to The People (both the oppressed and those who have not yet learned that oppression exists) as much as the ideas for social justice to be successful.

While all of these characters are truly innovative and seeing how they translate is its own kind of magic, the absence of the Cheshire Cat illustrates what is lost in the SyFy version. Instead of the magical disappearing creature who is both wise and wily, we get an ordinary cat who walks through one scene in order to direct Alice’s attention to where she must go. In the original the animals provided both the biting critique and the whimsy of the text, their poetry and lyrical deconstruction of words and ideology was essential to the wonder in the land. SyFy’s Alice has neither lyricism nor much non-human magic, in fact, in a very literal sense, magic is replaced by technology. For die-hards of the original, the absences here will be a major stumbling block and yet, as some one who loves the lyricism and what it represents in the orignal Alice in Wonderland, I can’t say this version is worse, rather it is unique and intriguing despite its key differences. (I would also add that Willing’s Hatter is in some ways the way I would imagine the Cheshire Cat as human. His spikey hair, humor, and ability to move between the Queendom and the resistance with guile, is very similar to the dual agent I assume the Cat would be in Willing’s Wonderland, and yet, I think Willing really should have put his immense imagination toward transforming the Cheshire Cat as a character in his own right.)

You will also note that the absence of animals also means the absence of comment on the treatment of animals.

Women and/or Feminism

The conflict in SyFy’s Alice is between the resistance and the Hearts. Men outnumber women on both sides of the conflict, and in fact, the resistance is almost exclusively populated by men versus the Hearts which have some key female players. This is obviously problematic; what kind of new world will Wonderlanders have if there are no high ranking female resistance fighters? Nevertheless, the women on all sides of the conflict represent intelligent, savvy, and self-directed characters who do what they want to get what they want.

In the real world, Alice is a martial arts expert with commitment issues. One of Willing’s most subtle comments on gender politics, is the way he consistently blocks the characters in fight scenes so that the men of the resistance try to position Alice behind them but ultimately Alice must come from behind to protect both herself and them. Time and again, it is Alice who rescues them from impossible odds with her physical strength and bravery. Though, like the original, she often marches into situations without a clue how she will handle them, she also comes up with some of the best plans to rescue her father, her friends, and the humans.

Alice and Jack/Dittiger/SyFy

Where her feminism may falter, is in the fact that Alice is motivated by her heterosexual love affair with Jack. All though she will not go with Jack when he invites her to meet his mother, she follows him through the Looking Glass when she thinks he is in danger. Her decision is far from lovestruck, she actually falls into the Looking Glass while demanding the White Rabbit agent tell her what he has done to Jack. Nevertheless, she does not go to Wonderland out of curiosity or interest but rather to find her boyfriend.

Despite all of the stories about the oppressive reign of the Queen of Hearts, during the first half of the movie Alice cares very little about the oppression in Wonderland. Instead, she continues to redirect everyone to her quest to save Jack. When Hatter tells her that she has inspired him to join the resistance in earnest and fight for his people’s freedom, Alice actually gets upset because she is starting to like him and his decision for the greater good means he can’t spend all his time following her around. This is hardly revolutionary sexual politics here. All though her motivation changes near the end of the film, toward saving all of the humans, her story still ends with the kind of family romance tale of patriarchy’s past. (And just to be clear, it is a romantic tale in which I too rooted for the man Alice chooses and was swept away by their reunion, but it is still problematic that Alice’s story ends with “alas dear reader, I married him.”)

Queen and King of Hearts/Dittiger/SyFy

The Queen of Hearts in Alice is true to the original in her myopia and her cruelty. Unlike Burton, who reduces the Queen to a differently-abled meglomaniac whose psychosis is a direct result of her “laughable” physical difference, Willing gives us a Queen drunk on power. She runs the kingdom with a heavy hand not because she is unloved, the King loves her, but because she is easily bored and does not tolerate incompetence. Her commitment to the mining of human emotions is also more complex than simply oppressing one group of people (humans) in order to oppress another (Wonderlanders); in this version, the drugs keep Wonderland’s economy booming and an economic depression at bay. Much like Dodo then, the Queen is a commentary on investment in power by any means necessary.  Like Thatcher, the Queen of Hearts uses the master’s tools to run the Queendom and those tools are based upon and honed in oppression. For those who support a feminist narrative invested in female leadership at any cost, the Queen of Hearts has done her part. She employs a vast amount of the population, works to keep the economy prosperous, has ended overt war, and is respected as the most powerful person in the land and yet, she is a violent, slave-owning, leader who spies on and terrifies her people and revels in the psychotic aspects of her rule. Hardly the woman anyone would want in charge or representing the face of feminism.


The Duchess/ Dittiger/SyFy

Rounding out the female cast is the Duchess, Jack’s fiance. I must admit that what I love about her is that she looks like she was torn from the pages of Barbarella with her long tresses, heavy eye make-up, and go go boots. As implied, where Alice represents female brain and braun and the Queen of Hearts represents corrupt female leadership, the Duchess is all female sexual power. While many will dismiss her as just another pretty face in a short skirt, the Queen of Hearts tells us the Duchess is one of her best operatives. Not only is she good at getting information and manipulating men around her, but it soon becomes clear that the Duchess is no coquette. Instead, she understands that in the largely male world of Wonderland her survival depends on the ability to both manipulate men and align with powerful women. Like Alice, in the course of the story, she never compromises her own integrity for power. And while she does feel considerably jealous of Alice, Willing makes sure not to play up unilateral violence or internalized sexism between the two women beyond the Duchess’ reducing Alice with a glare. There is something wonderful about how Willing allows the Duchess to work while still making Alice the object of desire in the room; in lesser hands, these moments would have come off as trite, useless female infighting, or simply a game of who is prettier (which they do play but only until everyone’s motivations are finally on the table).

The Duchess, Jack, and Alice/ Dittiger/SyFy

While I would not say that these characters are all feminist or even that the majority of them are, they are far more complex than either the orignal Alice in Wonderland or Tim Burton’s film make women out to be. I liked that each one of the main female characters had both positive and negative characteristics, that they were motivated by both individual feeling and larger structural issues, and that at no time did the script degenerate into a “cat fight” that demeaned one or more of the women involved. Instead Willing’s directorial eye seems to treat each of these women with respect even as he remains true to the critique of the Queen and her Queendom.

This is not to say that film is without unnecessary eye candy. The casino is populated by Vegas Show Girls and mini-skirted black jack dealers whose job is to look pretty and keep the peace. Most of these girls have no names and no lines and are simply background. And while the femme in me revels at the Duchess’ outfits and thinks they are appropriate for the role she plays, some will likely take offense to how much skin she shows and that her major power comes from seduction.

The only woman on the side of the resistance, besides Alice, is a mouse; literally a woman playing what was once a mouse in the original text. She dresses like a 1950s housewife and squeaks her way through her role. However, when she believes the resistance is threatened she steps up, showing a steely resolve that is otherwise absent from the character.

Race

10 of clubs/dittiger/SyFy

Willing also does a great job of taking a film originally set in England and remembering that it can populate it with anyone. While there are no people of color in major roles, there are two in recurring ones. Both the Nine and Ten of Clubs are played by men of color, one Asian-Canadian and one Latino. Both of these characters are high ranking officers in the Queens court and empowered to put even her son and her spies in check when they are not following the Queens demands. The Nine of Clubs, played by Alessandro Juliani, formerly Commander Gaeta on BSG, is so important that the King of Hearts stays his execution when the King orders him killed in a rage.

There are no major female characters of color in Alice. However, Carmelina Cupo, who is 1/2 Italian and 1/2 Latina, plays the only dealer in the Casino with a speaking role. Like the men of color in the Queens court, Cupo holds a position that is seemingly interchangeable and yet integral to the running of the entire Queendom. Cupo also tries to stand up to Alice when Alice begins the overthrow of the Hearts.

The near absence of women of color calls the Duchess’ role into question. As the femme fatale, her blonde-haired blue-eyed, alabaster skinned, presence as the woman everyone wants reaffirms white hegemony through sexual desire. Not only is she Barbie but she is a Duchess to Cupo’s black jack girl. And yet, in a world in which woc are absent, Willing really does take the Barbie as beautiful myth to task by making Alice the center of everyone’s attention and desire and recasting Alice as a dark haired, intelligent, and physically strong woman. Ultimately, the critical eye he takes to white women does not negate the need for more women of color in this film.

It is always easy to excuse away why there are no characters of color in fantasy or sci-fi, especially when the material was written in the past. What astounds me about how easy it is, is the fact that people are willing to accept talking animals, singing plants, or even aliens and twenty tentacled demons before they are willing to ask why there are no people of color or queer folk in fantasy land. While Willing doesn’t offer us major poc characters, or any queer ones, I for one am grateful he at least tried.

Ability

Frewer as the White Knight/Dittiger/SyFy

As I said in my review of Burton’s Alice and Wonderland, the ableism of that movie is entirely invented when it comes to physical difference. Willing therefore neither needs nor uses similar devices in his plot. In fact, he has stripped Hatter of his supposed madness, which readers of the book will know was more of a disguise than an imbalance anyway, and replaced it with cunning and know-how.

There is one character who is clearly “mad”: The White Knight. Matt Frewer, who usually delights, was grating as the seemingly unstable man who has taken on the White Knight persona in lieu of there being any surviving Knights from the war. His madness however is indistinguishable from his actual psychic abilities and pure luck. In many ways, Willing offers us a character whose abilities are more in keeping with the idea of people, regardless of ability, as differently-abled; while the sane characters in his script are prone to inexplicable behavior, the mad man in Alice is often able to use his “madness” to get the job done. When he fails, he fails due to cowardice not mental instability.

Conclusion


What Alice lacks in whimsy and lyricism, it more than makes up for in intrigue and innovation. The story is compelling from beginning to end. Instead of giving us trite and transparent venues and flat characters, Alice and it’s Director, Willing, gives us a vibrant, three dimensional, reimagining in which each and every character is complex. (Though I didn’t spend time on them in this review, It should also be noted that Potts does a superb job as Hatter and the re-imagining of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum as mindbending torturers for the Queen is inspired.) Willing also retains both the class critique of the original and adds to it a critical eye to modern societal issues and what they mean for who we are becoming. His criticism of leadership and his subtle exploration of resistance are far more powerful than much of what we get in this world of blogging, twitter, and headline news.

My only criticisms are that the Cheshire Cat is missing and the White Knight is truly annoying. When Frewer is centered in the scene, I literally found myself holding my head and looking away. But other than that, I did not want to miss a minute and neither should you.

If you didn’t see it on cable in December, you can rent it at your local video store, check it out through Netflix, or buy it for fairly cheap on both itunes and local video stores. I guarantee you that in comparison to the over-hyped and underwhelming Burton version, you will think it is money well spent.

BHM: Lucille Clifton

Today’s Black Herstory Month post is both in honor of an amazing poet and a sad announcement that Ms Clifton died early this morning.

Lucille Clifton wrote her first book of poetry, Good Times, while still employed as a social service worker for the state of New York. Despite critical acclaim for her premiere collection, she stayed with the state for 2 more years out of a commitment to doing social justice from within.

In 1971, she became a full time poet and frequent artist in residence. She was part of a contemporary African-American and black poetic re-imagining that posited a black aesthetic into poetic form. Thus she used a number of free form and “unconventional” techniques to centered the lives, language(s), and vision of black people in her work and also combined several spiritual traditions from Christianity to Hinduism to Yoruba. The radicalism of her first collections, especially Good News, led some white reviewers to conclude that she “hates whites” rather than to see her complex confrontation of racism and her hopeful positing of poems about black leadership and religious figures as a way to over come them. Her collections also centered women’s lives and women’s issues. Two such collection, The Good Woman and the Two-Headed Woman were nominated for Pulitzer Prizes. She also received several female poet awards, local artist awards, and two fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts. The Good Woman in particular addressed many of Clifton’s personal triumphs and tragedies as a woman, wife, mother, daughter, and sister. Many of these poems also addressed mental and physical disabilities in her family and the way they intersect with the women in her family’s lives. In her collection Quilting, she uses the quilt forms often associated with black female quiltmakers to tell a story of black female history from unnamed slaves, to Fannie Lou Hamer, to Winnie Mandela, embracing the diasporic identities of black women around the globe and highlighting specific liberation struggles. Her poems to her uterus and about menstruation are oft-quoted amongst feminists and women’s groups as well.

Clifton reading her poem “Homage to My Hips”

She was also a prolific writer of children’s books geared toward African American children and showing them in a positive light in literature. Among these books was her Everett Anderson series that centered the adventures and life lessons of young black boy living in the inner-city. Everett Anderson’s Goodbye won the Coretta Scott King Award in 1984. Her collaboration on adaptations of her books led to an Academy Award. Her children’s books about women and girls often centered black girls lives but also included a story with a white female protagonist showing Clifton’s commitment to the progress of girls across the color line. Among my favorites is The Lucky Stone, that shows three generations of black women made who have been blessed by possession of a wish granting stone; each generation of women has used the stone wisely to enhance their community and the position of women, at the story’s end the stone is passed on to the granddaughter with the hopes she will carry on the tradition.

Whether speaking about her poetry or her children’s books, Clifton’s thematic issues remained largely the same. She was deeply concerned about inequality based on both racial and gender prejudices in N. America. She often wrote characters and poems that directly challenged images of women and people of color as predatory, evil, impotent, or constant victims, refusing to take on either the vilification or victim stance often required of women’s and ethnic lit/poetry by publishers and instead gave us characters and poems that were complex and independent. While her focus was often on the racism and sexism experienced by black women, she also made important connections to Native Americans, Asian Americans, Indian women, and the black diaspora in general. One such poem connected Gettysburg, Nagasaki, and Jonestown. Her words worked to highlight the interconnections of women and girls even in conflict and to celebrate the resilience of women and black people even as the scathingly critiqued racism and sexism.

While her prolific publishing rate in a declining market and her endless list of awards and accolades help to credential her, it is her poetry itself that matters most.

Sisters

me and you be sisters.
we be the same.

me and you
coming from the same place.

me and you
be greasing our legs
touching up our edges.

me and you
be scared of rats
be stepping on roaches.

me and you
come running high down purdy street one time
and mama laugh and shake her head at
me and you.

me and you

got babies

got thirty-five
got black
let our hair go back
be loving ourselves
be loving ourselves
be sisters.

only where you sing,
I poet.

L. Clifton

BHM: Marisa Richmond – Rocking the Intersections

In 2008, Dr. Marisa Richmond made herstory as the first trans woman to win an election in the state of Tennessee. Though some have disparaged her win of 99.7% because she ran unopposed, they are ignoring the massive election based movements around the country designed to shove queer people out of politics. Dr. Richmond’s candidacy was so solid in her district that no such concerted opposition led to an oppositional candidate on the ballot. In fact, only 6 people who cast a named vote in her district voted for someone else. Her overwhelming win thus tell us a story of powerful success against an increasingly hostile national political climate.

Dr. Richmond is also the first black trans woman to be elected a delegate to a major party convention from any state in the union. She worked tirelessly to ensure increased representation of queer people at the DNC in 2008 and specifically requested that more trans people were included in the Democratic Party and its representation at the DNC and other critical caucuses. She was also an active participant in the Women’s Caucus there advocating for women’s rights. (You can read more about her impressions of the DNC in a 5 part post here – brief discussion of immigrant rights, black caucus and LGBTQ caucus meetings, here – some discussion of women’s safety at the DNC and her response to both anti-Obama hecklers and “get over it” anti-Clinton delegates, here – where she talks specifically about creating an impromptu trans women’s caucus on the DNC floor, here, and here- where she talks about the Women’s Caucus and Michelle Obama)

She has also worked tirelessly to ensure transgender equality, and equality between white and poc transgender people, in TN. As such she is President of the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition and served on the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Equality Project & Board of Advisors of National Center for Transgender Equality. she was also a Board member of the Nashville’s Rainbow Community Center, helping to provide leadership, publicity, and critical funding for the now defunct queer hub. Her work on the planning committee of Nashville’s Black Pride 2004 also represented a critical intervention into the whiteness of Pride events and the dominance of gay and lesbian people in leadership positions for Pride events in general.

Her work has also had an important impact on education and social discourse. She served on the Boards of American Educational Gender Information Service and the International Foundation for Gender Education working to create and support gender inclusive education at the local, national, and international levels. In 2008, she started a column for the Triangle Journal News in Memphis, an area with one of the highest rates of murder of black trans women in the nation. Like her participation in Pride, her column helped serve the dual purpose of re-inserting black and trans identities into the queer alphabet for readers. Since the column is also written in Memphis is gives voice to the plight of black trans women in the area and hopefully helps to humanize black trans women in the eyes of those who are systematically killing them and the people (both in the community and in law enforcement) who are doing nothing to stop it. When the Triangle Journal News made the decision to stop print circulation, Dr. Richmond began contributing to Out and About Today, a feature on local news.

Dr. Richmond’s tireless work to create and sustain transgender communities and equality for transgender people is an important part of black herstory. Not only has she participated in milestones in both trans and black history but has taken on the sometimes difficult task of representing black people in the queer and straight communities, trans people in the queer and straight communities, trans women and trans women of color in the trans community, and black trans people in these same spaces. More than just working on representation, she has been a strong advocate and activist for multicultural trans inclusion in education, media, government, etc.

As a black woman representing her district in local, state, and national politics she also increased the visibility and inclusion of black women’s perspectives and leadership in our government. She works actively on women’s and feminist issues at the national level as well. She was a Clinton delegate, hoping to support female leadership at the highest level of office and a strong Obama supporter. She has offered women’s and gender analysis at the structural and personal level throughout her career. And she is able to talk about “women’s issues” while actively resisting the mainstream urge to reduce those issues to white, straight, able-bodied concerns. Her ability to move across intersections from a feminist perspective is invaluable to women’s equality.

BHM: More than My Hair

To start this year’s Black Herstory Month (BHM) posts, I thought we would keep up the tradition of doing a puzzle of a famous and groundbreaking person.

click image for puzzle

Melba Tolliver was the first black woman to anchor a network news channel. She did so in a 5 minute segment called “News with a Woman’s Touch” centering women’s opinions of key news stories. Unfortunately, that job required Tolliver to cross a week long picket line by broadcast journalists. Though she was already working for the network at the time of the strike, this promotion still made her a scab.

Tolliver has over 30 years of journalism experience and during that time the bulk of her writing has been on women’s issues including breast cancer, covering the Houston Women’s Conference, and the controversy inducing invitation to the White House to cover the Nixon wedding. She also did numerous guest spots and articles addressing race, key black figures, and racial consciousness.

Tolliver is best remembered for the controversy surrounding her hair. In 1967 she made the decision to stop processing her hair just weeks before she was supposed the Nixon wedding. Despite having one of the strongest followings on local news, Tolliver was taken off the air until she either processed her hair or committed to covering it with a hat or a scarf. Her refusal sparked national conversation about black female beauty and the offensive stereotypes and racist stereotypes surrounding the enforcing of straight hair as good hair in our society that cast black women with natural hair as ugly, barbaric, and unsuited to middle class jobs. Unlike the discourse that surrounds hair now, the conversation hinged on the idea that this hair hatred did not come from within the black female community but rather from colonialism turned post-slavery economic and sexual policing of black women and that internalization of these stereotypes was a direct result of survival techniques in the black community that understood that white employers with middle class job openings were only willing to hire women with processed hair in the most blatant version of liberal bigotry which had white people hiring black people against the unspoken proscriptions but only if they “didn’t make them uncomfortable” just like today.

While the Tolliver hair controversy helped increase conversations about black as beautiful, encouraged women to embrace the features they were born with and celebrate them, it also overshadowed Tolliver’s journalism career. Despite her tremendous body of work and her firsts as a black female journalist, she is often still reduced to her hair.

You can read more about Tolliver at Heats Up! and The Maynard Institute or read her blog Accidental Anchorwoman