Fluff: Drag U or Why Gay Prof Was Right

 

RuPaul at a party for the launch of her Starrb...

Image via Wikipedia

 

Last year, Gay Prof wrote a post about RuPaul’s drag race being one of the only shows on Logo that both entertained and had a thoroughly multicultural cast. (Mind you, later he critiqued it for “subtly discriminate against contestants with an accent“) I admitted then and now to having never watched the show. My biggest concern with televised versions of drag is that they almost always center white male performers who are doing exaggerated and sometimes insulting versions of blackness (or browness or Asian Face, or all of the above) and that this has become so normalized in drag that there are actual full on racist performers who appear in black face with boozy-welfare-queen-watermelon-eating back stories that mainstream audiences excuse away as “performance”.  (And by mainstream, I mean straight, bi, and fay audiences including some of the stars of Queer for the Straight Guy whose picture with one particular racist drag performer I have posted on the blog before.) While televised drag does not require, nor defined by, racism and classism, I have always been concerned about how the lack of critical attention and critique of oppression in certain forms of drag opens the door for certain people to center those oppressions as normative and acceptable from TV to Gay Pride events. So I staid away from RuPaul, who I have always loved, for fear that his own actual black face would further legitimate the under currents of race and gender or racialized gender that I find problematic. Instead, Gay Prof painted a picture of the show in which men of color from a wide variety of backgrounds, spoke openly about class, race, identity, sexuality, and the self all in the context of recognizable fun. The show was groundbreaking not only for opening a space for men of color performers to speak about performance in mainstream-ish media, something that has not been done since Paris is Burning, but also in expanding Logos’ ever lightening line up after the big, unexplained, cancellation of Noah’s Arc.

Last night, I flipped on Logo to watch a completely different show. The schedule was wrong in my area as it often is here. But hey, at least we get it.

To my surprise they were showing RuPaul’s Drag U, a new incarnation of RuPaul’s show in which drag queens teach primarily hard working, working class, cis women to strut their stuff like a queen. This is not a show in which men who play women teach women how to fit into a gender box. If it was, you know I’d have something to say about it. Instead, it combines basic self help principles with drag style to give women who have given up on themselves a chance to shine. From what I saw, the basic premise is not to convert from butch to femme but rather from emotionally lost to fierce!

It is also the best send up of Tyra Banks’ insipid America’s Next Top Model I have ever seen. RuPaul does Tyra so well, he could stand in for her if she ever gave up the reigns one day. And it is this self-reflexive, ironic stance that helps contextualize the tv makeover genre as something that really can’t solve all your emotional issues or childhood traumas just by putting you in some makeup and a dress. But what it can do is give some rudimentary tools to start working on your ish while looking fab doing it. Thus when one woman talks about her problems with people making fun of her in the past, RuPaul whips out a Lil’ Kim lyric that is as unhelpful and pseudo-supportive as any Tyra Banks’ show. In so doing, he is reminding both the audience and the contestants that this is reality tv and unlike Jillian Anderson who thinks she can come into a family’s life for a few days and empower them to stop grieving the death of their babies or stand up to domestic abuse by running on the treadmill, RuPaul is an entertainer and this is nothing more than entertainment.

That said, it was equally nice to see women who work hard all day in jobs reserved for men or surrounded by them, get a chance to girl-out. Rather than posit femininity as a solution to every woman’s problem, ie to argue that women just need to shop, wear make up, and have dinner ready by 5 to be happy, the show highlights gender performance. It shows the women on the show that there are no set ways of acting. They allow them to discover at their own pace, or at least the pace of shooting a season, that the choices they have made to protect themselves at work or in the world do not have to define them. They are playing roles and they can play other, more flirty or vivacious roles, with the switch of a costume. Hey … who told RuPaul he could steal our femme secrets darnit!

Also, unlike Tyra and other body image based reality shows, DragU invites people from all walks of life, body size, and identity group to participate. They do not tell big women the goal is to become super model thin on an unhealthy and unsustainable exercise and diet regimen or to tell Anorexic girls they are “plus size”, instead the show helps women embrace their bodies and the powerful gender performances they can engage in from within them. Similar to cognitive behavior therapy, yeah I said it, the drag professors address the thoughts and actions of the women in ways that both provide correct information and skills they can use to embrace multiple versions of themselves at any given time. The mantra of you are beautiful just as you are is actually fairly honest in this context as opposed to the lipservice it is paid elsewhere.

Finally, the drag professors are also a very diverse set. They are large and thin, young and old, white and poc, urban and rural , new and seasoned, etc. And many of them talk about the issues their students raise as issues they have had to face themselves. The ability to identify across gender and through performativity seems like a light and accessible way to highlight the humanity of both women and drag performers who are often targeted and abused in our society for some similar and some disparate reasons. The moments when the drag instructors offer insights about their students opens the door for the otherwise standard makeover fair to be transformed into social commentary that thoroughly centers gender oppression from multiple targeted gender perspectives.

Ultimately, DragU is a comedic send up of a genre I find largely detrimental to both the female viewers and female participants. While it is nothing deeper or more meaningful than light entertainment, it does it with the kind of diversity and attention to people’s needs that rings decidedly hollow in shows that claim to take these things seriously. So yeah, Gay Prof was right, but isn’t he always.

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?

Glee Fail?

I love Glee. I love Joss Whedon. And oh yes, I love Neil Patrick Harris as long as he is singing or typing out a late night journal entry after a hard day at the hospital or trying to take over the world … And who hasn’t rocked out to Aerosmith’s Dream on at least once, perhaps during a road trip?

While some have criticized the show for its snarky take on queer identity (from gay predator stereotypes, to bitchy lesbians, to negative references to transgender identity), I would argue that the queer content on Glee is often about insider speak and satire. Unlike offensive material that claims satire status, Glee is actually written and portrayed by members of the queer community who are exaggerating long told insider jokes and outsider fears in order to both amuse and provoke. And while they often come very close to the line in this vein, particularly for a mixed audience, they have been largely successful at raising the bar of entertainment while giving people things to talk about and consider in ways they might never have otherwise.

Last night’s show promised to be a queer extravaganza with resident bad girl Sue fighting for her program budget while NPH belted out classic rock under the wise and wry direction of none other than Whedon himself. I was giddy with the idea of it since the previews last week! And Whedon delivered from minute one, when he brought us that mix of tender and treacherous love in the relationships between Glee members and between NPH and his microphone. The comic timing in some of those scenes was only matched by the musical timing of the two male leads.

So imagine how sad I was that they coupled this genius with ableist diatribes about how impossible dreams are if you are not able bodied.

There has been a lot of controversy from disability rights advocates over Glee’s decision to cast an able-bodied actor to play wheelchair bound Artie. In some ways, I think last night’s episode of Glee was a pathetic attempt to respond to those criticisms by having Artie get up out of his chair and do an entire dance sequence that would have been impossible for someone who actually had the character’s spinal injuries. Regardless of whether it was a response or not however, the message was clear: being able-bodied is great and being differently-abled sucks.

In an episode in which everyone featured is trying to fulfill their dreams, Artie is the only one who does not succeed. Rachel finds her mother. Rachel’s mother finally gets the chance to be with the child she has mourned losing her whole life. Rachel’s boyfriend, who was a suspected villain, realizes he loves her fulfilling his unspoken dream of finding love as well as Rachel’s desperate desire to be loved by someone other than her dads. Mr. Schuster gets his dream role in Les Mis. The Glee Club gets a huge budget increase and the subsequent chance for all of them to fulfill their musical aspirations. NPH’s character gets to go back to his love of music and shed his bitterness at not making it the first time around. But what does Artie get? Artie gets a dream sequence where he gets out of his wheelchair to dance while actually sitting alone in the mall waiting for his girlfriend to bring back pretzels from the second floor; apparently this is the only mall in N. America that does not have elevators.

Thus while everyone else is reaching for their dreams Artie’s gets thrown in the trash, literally and figuratively. At the beginning of the episode NPH takes the piece of paper that Artie has written his biggest dream on, crumbles it, and throws it out in front of everyone. While Tina, Artie’s girlfriend, initially tries to help him make his dreams come true by helping choreograph a tap sequence for them to do together, a particularly humiliating moment in Artie’s own internalized ableism leads her to adopt the ableist mantra of the show. By the episode’s end, Tina is handing Artie internet research on how to regain mobility and dancing with someone else while Artie sings Dream a Little Dream. As if this isn’t pathetic enough, Quinn, the blonde, blue-eyed, ex-cheer leader who lost her popularity and got shuffled to the background for getting pregnant, rubs Artie’s back with a consoling “poor, sad, sad, boy in wheelchair” look on her face mid-way through the song.

(I wish they had video showcasing all of Auti Angels moves with her music, but most are bad recordings)

Tina’s counterpoint, the guidance counselor, does not offer an alternative way for Artie to meet his dreams  either. While she could have pulled out a myriad of videos like the ones dotting the rest of this post, of successful dancers who do all of the styles Artie likes, she simply offers us her doe-eyed pity for the boy in the wheelchair. Worse, she tells him “you will never walk again” not as a wake up call to his own ableism but in commiseration with his supposed great loss. Thus the only “triumphant moment” left for Artie is to accept his “own limitations” and give up his dreams. In dialogue that clearly appeals to the way able-bodied people view differently-abled people’s lives, Artie smiles into the camera and says it is ok that he doesn’t get to dance because he can do other stuff “really well” …

Linking racial narratives and ableist ones, Artie’s story ends with him singing a solo while his girlfriend dances with the only other Asian in the cast (a boy who has been referred to as “other Asian guy” in a tongue-in-cheek reference to how racial casting happens in Hollywood). Every single song Artie sings this episode serves to reinforce the idea that he is broken and pathetic.

The layers of wrong here could fill an entire book. Instead I am going to simply say, that one of the most moving ballets I have ever seen was done by a mixed ability dance troupe. Their performance was visually stunning not because wheelchair dancers contradicted the ableist expectations of the audience but because they, and their fellow dancers, moved with such grace and emotion that it left the audience silently moved and wanting more. As a girl who spent far too much time in a pink tutu, I wish I could dance half as well.

While Glee cannot imagine a world in which able-bodied people are happy (remember last week’s Laryngitis episode which included the paralyzed football player in his dark, lonely, bedroom?), those of us with disabilities and people who have moved beyond ableism recognize that our lives are not just tragic morality tales for weeping women in the background. In fact,  whole competitions have sprung up around the world for differently-abled dancers:

While it is true that there are things that we cannot do based on our bodies’ abilities, this is true for everyone. What separates our experiences is the disabling expectations of able-bodied people that tells differently-abled people “your dreams will never come true” and “your highest aspirations are to be like us but you can’t.” Neither of these are true and perhaps if McHale had cast a differently-abled actor as Artie he would not have approved such a horrible fail in the midst of such an exciting episode. It’s sad to think that none of the genius represented on the writing staff or by the guest stars and directors for this episode led anyone to question the message(s) being sent about difference and success.

Dr. Who Super-Quickie

Doctor Who Series 5 episode 4/BBC 2010

So as much smack talking as I have done about Matt Smith and the rehashed plots of the first few episodes of season 5 of the rebooted Dr. Who, you know that if I am saying what I am about to say, you better take it seriously: If you watch no other episodes this season, you need to watch “The Time of Angels” and “Flesh and Stone”. The two episode story that brings River Song and the Doctor back together to face the Weeping Angels are classic Doctor Who episodes that I would argue are among the finest the series has offered overall. (In the U.S. they air this weekend and next weekend.)

The writing is fresh and compelling; even though they are bringing back old villains, there is no re-hash in this episode at all. Everything is new. The story moves both the plot and the characters forward in truly compelling ways. More than that, it reinvents certain aspects of recognizable characters in ways that honors the past, something that has been missing from other episodes, while taking a fresh new and complex look at them. I wasn’t scared of the Angels before, in fact I found them kind of boring, but Moffat’s version ratchets up the creepy in ways that will make you think twice about how you look at statues and shadow.

ibid

Matt Smith’s emotional range in these episodes continues to be spot on, and unlike previous episodes, the arrogance he brings to the character is appropriately tempered by both the gravity of the situation he is in and the return of complex concerns the Doctor has about time and human connections. Watching these two episodes confirmed for me what I thought when watching the original one this season, when this year’s cast and crew gets it right they are going to knock it out of the park and knock it out they did. Smith’s Doctor was all the right mix of strength, concern, inquiry, and compassion. Unlike other episodes where I have worried that both the lack of restraint in his acting and in the writing itself was transforming the Doctor into a morally ambiguous arrogant twat, the Doctor who stand us in these two episodes is the Doctor I think any fan would follow to the ends of time and back again.

ibid

The only place these episodes fail for me, is when Amy Pond tries to jump the Doctor’s bones at the end of the two episode story arc. For younger viewers, this will no doubt go down in the “the new Doctor is HOT!” drivel that is dominating reviews of the show; for those of us with a more critical eye, it is another attempt to make Dr. Who racy instead of just trusting the plot and the audience. Obviously, I am not opposed to the Doctor having a life or hooking up with a companion, but the feminist in me sees nothing empowering about young Amy Pond’s googly eyes at the Doctor while he backs up in farcical horror. My issue is with the tone of this scene more than its content. The actors and the director seem to switch gears from typical Dr. Who fare to a British comedy in which the actors are laughing with the audience at something none of us is supposed to take too seriously. It isn’t just a totally different direction than Davies took with Dr. Who’s relationships, its that the direction lacks any real weight or seriousness that compels us as an audience to question what Amy Pond’s desires mean for her and for the Doctor or ties into the plot in ways that can be transformative or even sexy. (I am not saying the actors lack sex appeal for many people watching, I am saying it lacks sophistication and thus comes off comedic and I think that is intentional.) And I worry about how Moffat will make the leap from his comedic leanings with regards to these characters desires to the moments in every season of Dr. Who where these desires become serious.

Far more compelling for long term viewers is the way River Song takes the Doctor’s aid for granted and wraps him up in winks and nods tied up in a “Sweetie” bow while Pond teases him about it. Alex Kingston brings her A game to these episodes and raises the bar for everyone else on set and it shows. These three characters are at their best in this episode and especially when on screen together. If this is what is in store for us with Smith’s 5 year contract, then I am finally excited and on board.

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.

The 11th Hour (a Dr. Who Review)

deviant art/dtd studios

Long time readers of the blog know two things about me, if nothing else, 1. I am a huge Dr. Who fan who watches from both a fan and academic perspective and 2. I oppose the tweening of SciFi, including Dr. Who.  While I oppose the tweening of Dr. Who and other SciFi shows, I have seen every episode of Dr. Who, found things to like in some of the lesser seasons, and overlooked how poorly the low budget translated in the first season of the Dr. Who reboot, all because I truly love the mythos and the magic of the show and because I have the privilege to do academic work on it as well. So, you should know that I watched the 11th Doctor’s debut with the same fan energy and intellectual commitment as I would any other.

The Plot

Matt Smith as the new Doctor, is still transitioning from his former self. As such, he is having a hard time controlling the TARDIS and other well known devices (ie the screw driver). However, time does not wait for a Time Lord to sort things out, so the Doctor finds himself in small town England discovering the prison break of a dangerous alien through a crack in a young Scottish girl’s wall while he is still transitioning. As the episode unfolds, the Doctor moves in and out of Amelia Pond’s life, with little regard to his impact on her, while trying to stop the escaped alien’s guards from incinerating Earth.

BBC 2010

The Good

Karen Gillan does a great job as companion, Amelia Pond. She brings a nice mix of dead pan/incredulity and excitement to the role. Her cynicism, born out of unintentional abandonment by the Doctor when she was a child, seems much more palatable than that of Donna Noble. While Tate’s Noble was often judgmental and grating, Gillan comes at Pond’s cynicism from a place of hurt that wants to heal. And while both characters embodied a healthy modern interpretation of how anyone would react to the Doctor, Gillan’s character also lacks the sometimes questionable crassness of Tate’s choice in her role as Noble. This is important not only for the longevity of the character but also because of the sometimes negative stereotypes about the working class that Gillan’s Pond seems to shed.

For me, it was also a nice nod to Doctor’s past that Pond is Scottish and allowed to speak with her Scottish accent. While it may just represent the shift to a Scottish producer, ie Moffat, one needs only ask how many people in the Whoniverse have had to stifle their accent to get the job done to know this is an important shift in the ethnic representations of the show. One quibble, however, is that Gillan’s accent fades in and out throughout the episode. At some points her accent is thick enough that some N. American audiences will have trouble understanding her and at others she sounds English. Given that Gillan is in fact Scottish, the shifts feel very odd. They also represent a very minor indication of a larger problem with directing in this episode: often, the decisions the actors make seem to be completely without direction or directed by someone whose vision needs more editing.

The Bad

BBC 2010

The plot of “The 11th Hour” is essentially rehash of several different Dr. Who episodes with a dash or two of Torchwood ones. There is nothing new nor fresh about the escaped alien prisoner and the possible explosion of the world. In fact, I think one of the first Tennant episodes covered the same territory early in his time as the 10th Doctor. Worse, according to the “First Look” information, Moffat came up with the idea based on the combination of wondering about what caused a huge crack in his son’s wall and curiosity about what one sees or misses out of the corner of their eye. I don’t know what is worse, Moffat’s insipid inspiration or the fact that he thinks this rehash was born solely out of it. Given that Moffat wrote some of the most moving episodes of Dr. Who and that he is a long time fan of the show, I expected so much more from his first time at the helm.

despite tagging on this image, the real copyright belongs to BBC 2010

In keeping with the tweening of the series, I think this is the first time the show has every wasted 10-15 minutes on toilet humor. While many of the Doctors have included transition jokes, like spitting out food they once liked or mocking the clothes they once wore, Moffat has Smith tasting an endless supply of increasingly liquid based foods and then spewing them out from different camera angles. He is aided in this stupidity by the young Amelia Pond, who is there to remind us: this is funny. Perhaps this kind of humor is entertaining in the genres Moffat is more familiar with as a writer, but in Whoville it plays like a bad episode of Pee Wee’s Playhouse minus the irony and wit.

No one watching the episode with me laughed. In fact, the combination of a young amused child and an adult behaving like a two year old with his food made everyone at my house question the taste level of season 5. It did not help that the background music to these scenes was the same cartoonish score they use in children’s programming … I’m not sure any adult watching was particularly interested in seeing Smith spit out his food over and over again, but I feel fairly certain no one was entertained by him finally settling on yellow pudding spooned into his mouth with fish sticks. As the father of a young child, Moffat may have been nodding to new parents, but let’s be clear, that is not his demographic. Intimately tied to the poor directorial decisions in this episode is the potential to alienate true Dr. Who fans in order to get younger hipper ones. (And can I just say, I resent that fans are characterized as neither young nor hip in these decisions?!?) Worse, none of this inane behavior is tied back to the plot with the exception of an apple he rejects at the beginning of this farce.

That Face, London’s Royal Court 2007

Also in keeping with the tweening of the series, Matt Smith’s Doctor Who is given to vernacular. At one point, near the end of the episode, he throws up his arms and shouts “whose your daddy?” While even the characters around him frown with disdain, the fact is they put in the script and the show. Something that clearly is meant to stick is Smith’s constant thumbs up to both the camera and the people around him when he talks. It’s an affectation that both annoys and speaks more to the age of the actor than the remaking of the character. His other references are a little less well known, and some involve unsuccessful, or banal, gay innuendo.

Moffat is straight and it sho. Davies introduced us to a mainstream SciFi world in which sexuality was fluid and characters identified across the spectrum. In Davies’ Whoniverse, characters who had picked a team were still at ease switch hitting or at least flirting with the idea. It made the series hot without resorting to typical sexist and otherizing gazes that permeate Moffat’s new world order. Surprisingly, given that Moffat gave us the first incarnation of Captain Jack Harkness, Moffat’s Whoniverse is a landscape in which Davies’ well scripted fluidity falls flat. While many of the jokes are at no one’s expense, they are executed by Smith in such a way as to permanently cement the character in a heterosexist narrative. The circulation of images of Smith from his outstanding role as Henry in That Face, a play about a confused young man, sexually molested by his mother and forced to wear her dresses, are misleading at best. The PR machine hopes that the sight of Smith in a dress will call up the playful goodness of both Tennant and Barrowman and ensure that those of us who are drawn to the queering of scifi will come a running. The reality is, that Smith looks no more comfortable in a dress in these shots than he does making gay innuendo in The 11th Hour, nor, at least in the case of the former, should he, since the decision to put him in a dress is not his own. Effectively playing opposite transmisogyny and homophobia is not the same thing as being able to embody sexual ambiguity or effectively convey insider humor. You don’t have to be gay to get it but you do have to be able to act beyond the basics.

Similar failures can be found in the handling of women in this episode. There are two women besides Pond, one of whom is a woman of color. The women of color, an Asian, plays the stereotypical role of dragon lady doctor. The other woman, an elder, fulfills the same role most non-main character elder women have on who, i.e. the quirky busy body who recognizes the Doctor immediately.

While Pond is a strong and funny woman with a mind of her own, the character also embodies several female stereotypes. As a child, she unquestioningly allows a stranger into her home and cooks him a number of meals without question. Despite being young, she is at ease in the kitchen. Smith’s Doctor is comfortable allowing her to stand on tiptoe to heat his food rather than help or do it himself. In fact he orders her around like she was made to cook and serve him. As an adult, Pond is a “kiss-a-gram” worker, which I can only assume is the tweened up side of sex work. Despite the fact that we are supposed to believe Pond is a Police Officer, she is in a uniform with shorty shorts and fishnet stockings with the proverbial line up the back of each leg. The camera makes sure to give us several long slow shots of her legs in these first reintroduction scenes, lest we miss it. And Pond wears this outfit throughout the episode despite it being inappropriate for the amount of running she needs to do. If you look at the image at the start of this section, you will see Gillan running while trying to hold the shorts down so as not to flash anyone. It’s insulting.

Thai Soldier

In fact, many of the early reviews have had little more to say about Gillan or Dr. Who than that they are “sexy.” SciFi Wire’s review is almost entirely about Gillan’s fishnet stalkings and the long slow shot that introduces them. Other reviews have been illustrated by similar montages to the one above, which was taken from a review that mentioned nothing else but Gillan’s “sexiness.” Not only does this behavior prove my point that Pond’s intelligence is overshadowed for many viewers by the objectifying camera gaze and costuming, but early releases of other shots of Gillan’s wardrobe imply that her skirt length will likely always be this high. Like many young actresses weened on a watered down version of “girl power” Gillan sees using sex appeal on the screen as empowering. When she is the one making the costume decisions, determining the angles at which she is shot, and how she embodies the character, she is absolutely right. As a femme, I could not possibly argue that being in control of one’s sex appeal is anything short of powerful. My concern here however is that Gillan is not the one making these decisions nor are they being made to increase the character’s power or depict female sexual power in general. Instead, Gillan’s gams, wide eyes, and fiery hair, are being used to bring in the pre-teen male viewer. Her body has been part of the marketing campaign to get people to watch the first episode and her costumes are part of the ploy to keep them watching. Why not trust that Gillan is an outstanding actress and market her as such? Why not trust that Dr. Who has a loyal following that would watch, and has watched, some very unattractive people in major roles on the series? These are the questions I think we need to ask about gender while watching this latest incarnation of the show. Moreover, they are questions that I think run markedly counter to previous visions for the show, especially with regards to the sort of feminist revamp of the companion role in it.

It should be noted that the gaze is supposedly shifted when the Doctor changes his clothes near the end of the episode. In a particularly homophobic moment, Pond’s boyfriend freaks out about Doctor Who changing his clothes in front of them and demands he stop. The Doctor simply tells him to turn around if he is bothered, which he does amidst loud proclamations of disgust. Pond, on the other hand, stands there drinking it in with a wide smirk on her face. Rather than subversive, this scene serves two purposes: 1. to once again cement the overarching heterosexist vision of the new series and 2. shift criticism of the sexist cinematic gaze by equating Gillan with the viewer. The problem with the second, is that there are no accompanying slow shots of Matt Smith’s body to objectify him nor his potential objectification steeped in oppressive gender norms. Put another way, he is an object for a brief moment and only to Pond, while Pond is an object for anyone interested throughout the episode, in the marketing campaign, and possibly throughout the season.

In Style Magazine/unattributed

When Pond signs on as the new companion, she is not allowed to pack her own things like other companions. The Doctor simply tells her, there’s plenty of leftovers in the TARDIS for her to choose from. This episode was full of leftovers, the female companion should not be one of them.

Moffat also fails to adequately address the transition from Tennant’s broken-hearted refusal to have a companion in the last season to Smith’s open search for one. Pond asks the Doctor why he wants her to come with him and he responds by saying he was lonely and had started to talk to himself. The Doctor had been lonely for quite some time and that did not seem to matter. Worse, the previous Doctor had spent a considerable amount of time considering the impact of his presence on the women around him. This first episode of the 11th Doctor was defined by this same preoccupation, the Doctor drifts in and out of Amelia’s life irreparably changing who she is and how people see her, and yet he is the only one who does not seem to notice. He does not ask her what has happened to her since his last visit on either return. When he finds out that she has been forced to go to a series of mental health providers and mocked by townspeople, he neither apologizes nor attempts to rectify it. There isn’t even a moment when he stops to think about what he has already done to her life in the context of his promise to never disrupt another companion’s life again. And while we are all clear that the Doctor could not possibly keep from causing disruption in people’s lives, and that he is better with someone than without them, it does an extreme disservice to this storyline to have the 11th Doctor not only fail to recognize his impact but to appear indifferent to it in the face of some serious consequences.

When he whisks her away, he doesn’t even bother to find out if she has other plans, and in the ultimate rehash, it turns out she does: like the other red-headed companion of late, Amelia Pond is joining the Doctor when she is supposed to be getting married. The mix of old storylines and new anti-introspection bravado is one of the largest disappointments of the series next to the fish stick pudding stupidity. While the Doctor is supposed to be new each time, there is no reason to write in so much old information only to leave it unresolved. From the failure to address his impact to his ignoring all the references to Pond’s crush on him,  this Doctor’s self-absorption insults the storyline to date and fails to reflect the critical lessons he has supposedly learned. Again this is a failure on the part of both directing and writing, either give us a new Doctor divorced from past issues or deal with his past in a legitimate way. At the very least, direct Smith to look tone down his mania and look introspective in these moments.

dtd studios 2009

Finally, my opinion of Matt Smith as the Doctor remains on shaky ground. According to one of the people who watched the episode with me, Matt Smith’s performance “was so over the top” and annoying. It was as if Smith had watched Tennant at his most manic and turned it up 20 notches. He was in constant motion throughout this episode in ways that were dizzying rather than plot related and he also delivered most of his lines in a yell that was meant to convey urgency and really just came across as loud. While Tennant’s babbling and occasional grandiosity were endearing, precisely because they were meant to highlight the strange and “human” parts of Dr. Who, Smith’s seems like a bad parody for the Graham Norton Show. It grates early and often.

At least one of my companions walked out based on the combination of the food scene and Smith’s performance and another said several times that he would not be watching again as long as Smith was in the role. (Smith has a 5 year contract, so that is a really long time to not watch.) For my part, I tried to remember something Tennant himself had said about a photo from his first episode, “Oh yeah, that’s me doing my best impression of Eccleston.” In that episode, Tennant seemed oddly out of place as well. He still wore Eccleston’s signature leather jacket and tried to strut around the way Eccleston had. It was only in the second and third episodes that Eccleston’s ghost wore off and Tennant’s new version of the Doctor came to life. At the time, I remember worrying that Tennant was the wrong choice for the role; looking back on it, I think his ability to both embody Eccleston and make that embodiment seem strange and wrong, was an early sign of his genius. While I can’t say that Matt Smith is that kind of genius, his performance was clearly a parody of Tennant and did show signs of recognizing the subtleties of human interaction and the compassion that makes the Doctor so magnetic, even if those signs were rare and fleeting. If both Smith and the director can move away from the mania, I do think he has a chance to make the character his own and to give us something worth watching. My viewing companions, disagree.

Conclusions

Ive seen some really bad episodes of Dr. Who over the years, so it would not be fair to say this is one of the worst one’s I’ve ever seen. What I can say is that it was both insipid and insulting on multiple levels. The writing had little to no redeeming qualities and the plot had even less. The acting was uneven, with the supporting characters far outshining the main one. Both sexism and heterosexism seeped into this episode in complete defiance of the standards previously set. And yet, Gillan’s performance and Smith’s mostly hidden, but still slightly visible, potential make me want to give it another go.

Moffat is best known for his comedic writing and I think that is going to work against him here. However, he is a life long fan of Dr. Who, who has written several introspective and powerful episodes of the reboot in his time. I believe he can give us a brilliant new Doctor if he tries. Perhaps all he needs is for the acting, writing, and directing teams to gel. For now, belief in the franchise is all that will be bringing me back to watch the show next week that drove other fans watching in my house out of the room (and in one case to drink).

You should note, other people really loved this episode and their reviews are available online for those looking for a contrasting opinion.

Unbelievable: Corey Feldman Will Not Attend Corey Haim’s Funeral

Normally, I put these kinds of updates in with the original post, but I felt like this one needed highlighting. Corey Feldman, Corey Haim’s best friend, has released a statement saying he will not attend Haim’s funeral. According to Feldman, Corey’s mother’s religious beliefs and desire for an “intimate” funeral are keeping him away. However, in the same press release, Feldman indicates that while he will not be attending the burial/ceremony for family and friends, he is planning a memorial of his own where he promises the media full access. So is he not going to his best friend’s funeral because Haim’s mom is more religious than the ordained by mail one time celebrity preacher Feldman or because there is no opportunity for a photo op?

note how Feldman has a grp standing around listening to Feldman’s call without telling him

&

when he stands up Haim, all Haim says is he expected more but will work on himself

In the previous post on the two Coreys, I tried to give Feldman the benefit of the doubt despite the way he and his wife seemingly treated Haim and the brutal way they dished over him in his absences on the reality show. (I especially think he deserved this given some tell all interviews Haim did about the couple and the fact that reality shows are scripted and edited, not in fact reality.) Like most people, I have no way of knowing what their friendship was like behind the cameras nor how much damage each Corey did to the other as the years went by. More than that, as I argued in that previous post, both Coreys have linked abuse histories that seemed to create a bond that was both brotherly and a particularly toxic codependence. We can never know what they went through together or depths of Feldman’s emotions.

Unfortunately, despite empathizing with both young men, the latest actions from Feldman (both his accusations about other people not looking out for Corey Haim until his death, while he too gave up on Haim multiple times, and now his promised media friendly memorial service in lieu of attending his “best friend’s” actual burial) make it hard to not at least question his motives. In the wake of Haim’s death, Feldman has taken many media opportunities that other people in his position in the past have shunned. And while Corey Haim is ultimately responsible for the choices he made and the bridges he burned, Feldman too is responsible for the what he has done and is doing.

No one but Corey Feldman knows what Haim would have wanted him to do with regards to his funeral, but I believe Corey Feldman deserves more than what is being offered him in death as much as he deserved more than what he got from life.

Quickie in Whoville

Matt Smith as Dr. Who/BBC

I have it on very good authority that the new season of Dr. Who will be arriving on BBC America in mid-April with an air date in the UK at the beginning of the month. Despite my reservations about the new Doctor, I am positively giddy.

Now back to Spring Break!

update: If you go to Wondercon in San Fran you can watch the first episode of Dr. Who on April 3rd in the US, otherwise you can watch on BBC America on April 17.

atest trailer release below (not as interesting as the previous one):

BHM: The Women of Vampire Diaries

Before the John Mayer debacle broke on Wednesday, I had been planning to do a slightly fluffy Black Herstory/Latinegras post on the black diasporic connections embodied by the family of witches on the Vampire Diaries. The post was fluffy, but I had a critical race feminism point. (see footnote one for more) It is broken into two parts: analysis of the black female characters on the show and praise for the black diasporic actresses who played them, and marked accordingly. Even if you don’t care about the show and its meanings for black female representation in television take some time out to read the second part on the amazing black actresses who play the roles.

The Plot and the Characters:

Vampires are hot, or so sayeth the media. Since True Blood took HBO’s ratings to new heights and Twilight sent tweens and their parents into uncritical swooning fits, Vampires have dominated television, film, and published Young Adult fiction. Despite the rush to capitalize on the vampire craze, many of these projects have failed to garner the attention of break outs like True Blood and Vampire Diaries (which is based on a YA series). These two shows have dominated the ratings amongst their age groups and represent key anchors in the line up for their respective networks. Both blend vampire lore with other supernatural forces and the strong bond between a lead actress and an apologetic vampire lover that seem to be critical to the fan base, and both have a black family amidst their main characters, but that is where the similarities end.  While True Blood offers us a dysfunctional black family riddled with racial stereotype and storylines that often capitalize on both a racialized and sexualized gaze, Vampire Diaries offers an alternative vision of blackness as critical to the town’s success.

Thus in the small town of Mystic Falls, the popular kids, the stoners, and the vampires (all mostly white) are joined by a matriarchy of witches, all of whom are black. Like the white families in this small town, the Bennetts can trace their heritage back to the founding of Mystic Falls and also like them, the Bennett’s friendships and relationships are entwined with all of the prominent families in town. Though this seems like an obvious way to build character development and ensure cohesion of story lines, Vampire Diaries like True Blood stand out precisely because they tied the main black character’s histories and story lines to the main white ones rather than using the add black people and stir method. In most television programs black characters’ story lines only go back as far as their present friendship with a white character, they often have more relationships outside of town and off screen than on them, and they often represent the only person of color or the only black person on the show. All of these factors help make it easy to write black characters out of multiple episodes in a season or drop their story lines all together; in the worst versions of this, black people simply disappear one day without the writers or the show ever explaining where they went. And while True Blood has come dangerously close to permanently splitting the story lines between white and black characters that facilitates this process, after such a promising start, the same cannot be said for Vampire Diaries, where not only do the humans have important generational connections, but the supernatural characters are dependent on their connections to one another.

The fate of Bennetts (the black witches) and the Salvatores (the white upper class vampires) were forged through persecution. At the center of both their stories is an ancient vampire named Katherine, played by Easter European actress Nina Dobrev. For love of Katherine, the Salvatore brothers become vampires just before the Mystic Falls vampire massacre led by their father, while Bonnie Bennett’s Great Grandmother Emily arrived in town as part of the famed vampire Katherine’s entourage.  While Katherine and the other female vampires in the town successful insert themselves as prominent Ladies (title not gender) in the town, Emily Bennett is left to play servant. She moves amongst the then-young/human Salvatore brothers with an ease that shows their respect for her and while she maintains her servant role, Katherine’s references to her invaluable interventions speaks to her import amongst the vampires as well. When the town’s people rise up against the vampires, Damon Salvatore asks Emily Bennett to save the vampires’ lives. In his mind, and that of his brother Steffan, Emily Bennett casts a spell that saves the brothers and the vampires at his request; however, her spell gives both families their freedom. Emily is set free from the servant role she plays vis-a-vis Katherine’s class aspirations and the Salvatores should be set free from their blinding love for Katherine. Emily’s magic also seemingly binds the two families together in ways that has often protected both their lives through generations.

For Damon Salvatore, the Bennetts represent power he both needs and coerces to his own ends, while for Stefan the Bennetts are important allies against any number of supernatural evils, including in the vampire ranks. While from the perspective of the Salvatores, the Bennetts fulfill the traditional role of black women in the white imaginary, as Saphires and caretakers for their hopes and dreams, rather than subjects with their own agency, the Bennetts are far from stereotype. In fact, not only do the flashback episodes (“History Repeating”, “The Turning Point”, and “Bloodlines”) call into question how the humans learned of herbal defenses against the vampires, something a witch would certainly know, but when Damon first attempts to free the vampires from the spell Emily cast to keep them from dying in the town’s genocidal burning attempt, Emily returns from the dead to stop him. It seems her goal was not just to save the lives of the vampires but also the humans whom they would have extracted vengeance upon. Further, Emily lets Damon know that she has seen how he has threatened and harassed her family throughout the generations and that he cannot win. Though the youngest Bennett, Bonnie, has barely come to know her powers and is taken hostage by Emily’s possession of her, she too stands up to Damon to ensure that she and her family are not manipulated or abused by him. Finally, as Shiela Bennett warns Stefan, in “Bloodlines”, “I will help you but if it comes to a choice between you and Bonnie, I will protect my own.” In other words, the witches are willing to help out but they are not objects for the Salvatores to move across the chessboard of their own making; the Bennetts make their own destinies and their own choices and ultimately determine their own subjecthood and agency. And while Stefan Salvatore is clearly protective of Bonnie and treats all of the Bennett women with respect, Sheila Bennett’s warning also reminds us that Stefan’s kindness still does not completely translate to seeing the Bennetts as equally important in his struggle with his brother Damon.

Unfortunately, the repeated powerful agency of the Bennett women begins to wane in the serious as Damon enacts vengeance on several of the Bennett women. Though Emily is able to best Damon magically and ensure that her will remains unbroken, Damon repays her defiance with a violent banishing of her soul and an attempt on the life of her grand-daughter. This penchant to murder Bennetts for failing to do what he wants, will ultimately decimate the Bennett line before the end of Black History Month. In what will likely be seen as a throwaway episode in the franchise, Damon takes Stefan’s girlfriend Elena, to visit Bree Bennett, played by Cuban-American actress Gina Torres. As “Bloodlines” unfolds, we find out that Damon found and wooed Bree Bennett in college, failing to tell her that he knew exactly who she was and that his love/attraction to her was a mask to get her to do help him let Katherine out of the tomb in which her ancestor Emily had sealed her. And though we are told that Bree considers Damon the love of her life, we are not told why they broke up, only that he cannot be trusted. Since Bree is the one who told Damon how to do the ritual that brought Emily back to protect the spell in the first place, we can only imagine that part of Bree’s broken heart is related to Damon’s obvious manipulation of her.

Bree is no victim however. While she pretends to entertain Damon, she is secretly helping to get him drunk and off guard so another vampire can kill him. She sets him up for heartlessly killing Stefan’s best-friend, a 300 year old white female vampire who poses no threat to the Salvatores except that she encourages Stefan’s independence. When Damon discovers the ruse, Bree also makes it known that she takes the same vervain that the humans who hunted down Katherine miraculously “discovered” in the past.

There are two ways to interpret Bree’s actions and her ultimate fate. On the one hand, while Bree never paid Damon back for whatever emotional, and potentially physical and sexual, violence he has done to her in the past, she risks her life to make him pay for killing her white female friend following a mammy narrative that disregards abuse against black women for the safety and comfort of white ones. On the other hand, Bree’s final stand can be interpreted as her fially coming into her own against Damon’s abusiveness and showing female solidarity. In other words, Bree had to come through whatever abusive history she had with Damon first, in order to find the strength to fight back; often we think of empowered, strong, women as exempt from cycles of violence and the emotional scars that come with them, but DSV crosses all classes and all types of women and Torres infuses Bree with a knowing reticence that speaks to this history even where the writers have failed to provide it. If we see Bree as a survivor, then we can also interpret her actions in “Bloodlines” as an attempt to ensure that Damon is not able to perpetrate against any other women, vampire, witch, or human, ever again.

Unfortunately for Bree, the assassination fails. Damon kills Bree by reaching into her chest and pulling out her still beating heart. The implication is that Damon is crushed by her betrayal because a part of him loved her and that he thinks her attempted murder was heartless and her inability to help him save Katherine has ripped out his heart. But again, that version of the story requires the centering of Damon and his desires over those of the women he continues to manipulate and/or kill. Both Bree and Emily understood that where they had shown love and compassion to Damon he could only repay in violence and thus had to be stopped. It was not an expression of Damon’s broken heart then that caused him to tear out Bree’s but rather a visual reminder of how Damon expresses his own disappointment and desire for dominance through emotional violence and manipulation of women’s desires often culminating in murder. Thus watching “Bloodlines”through the lens of intersectionality moves us away from a throwaway “road trip” bonding episode between Damon and Elena into the realm of powerful commentary on how we, as women, especially young women, are conditioned to interpret abusive behavior as love and obsession as praise. If you are inclined to see Damon as tragic the way Elena does despite all of the violence she saw him enact on her own friend, Caroline Forbes, in this episode, the image of Bree’s still beating heart in Damon’s bloody fist, reminds: He’ll tear out your heart, if you let him.

Bree’s senseless death marks the beginning of a critical shift in the discourse of female power represented by the Bennett women. For all their magic, Damon continues to kill them. Bree casts no spells, she places no protections around herself, her bar, or the vampire she calls to kill Damon. Outside of drinking vervain “every day since [he] left”, Bree does nothing but beg Damon to let her live. Unlike Emily, who stands defiant against Damon at the tomb, Bree’s last breaths are choked out through sobs begging for her life.

In “Fool Me Once”, the final episode before the current hiatus, Sheila Bennett, played by the formidable Jasmine Guy, also dies because of Damon’s quest to free Katherine. The strongest of the Bennetts, Sheila agrees to help Stefan and Damon free Katherine in the hopes of ending Damon’s reign of terror against her family. Though she warns Stefan again that her help will not supersede her commitment to her family, both brothers rush in as if their desires are the only relevant ones at play. However, they soon discover that Sheila’s warnings are never idle and that the Bennett women are never just pawns in vampire games. While Sheila promised to open the door to the tomb, she never promised to lift the curse that keeps vampires inside it and thus when Damon rushes in to get Katherine, he should end up trapped forever.

Though the Bennett women should finally have been free from the menace of rogue vampires, Stefan also enters the tomb against warning to save Elena who he fears is being drained by an Asian-American vampire named Pearl, also trapped in the tomb. Though Sheila warns him against it and feels no remorse for the choice he makes, the youngest Bennett, Bonnie, begs her to let him out. When Sheila refuses, Bonnie, like Bree, puts her friendship with Elena over that of everything else and tries to work the magic on her own. In an act of female and familial solidarity, Sheila helps her, echoing a tradition of joining magic across generations of black women in the show.

Despite great risk, the two remaining Bennetts work the ancient magic needed to free Stefan from the tomb. Had he exited the tomb with Elena, this act of solidarity would not only have upheld the bonds of women within and outside of the Bennett family on the show but also ensured the ongoing love story between Steffan Salvatore and Elena upon which the show hinges. However, with little regard to the lives of the two black women holding the magic at bay, Elena gives Stefan permission to go back into the tomb to find Damon because her word to a manipulative and often abuse vampire matters more to her than the friendship with and the lives of the black women who put their lives on the line to save her boyfriend. Stefan, who was prepared to be trapped forever only moments before, rushes back into the tomb to save his brother with equal disregard for the weakening witches reminding us of why Sheila keeps her distance from both Salvatore brothers.

Like Bree, only a few episodes before, the Bennett women’s cross-racial feminism is repaid by death. By episode end, Damon, Stefan, and Elena are free and primarily worrying about each other. Pearl and her daughter Ana are also free; though once again, Damon shows up and threatens them, almost crushing the life out of Pearl, because he didn’t get what he wanted. The weakened Bennetts go home with a simple “thank you”, and while Elena goes to check on her bestfriend, after taking care of herself and her boyfriend first, Stefan makes no similar gesture. As evening turns into night, Sheila, the most powerful of the Bennett witches, dies from the expenditure of magic it took to hold the door open for the Salvatore brothers. Three black women gone, two in the course of black history month, all walking a very thin line between subject and object.

What started out as a powerful commentary on black female strength and a critical counterpoint to the weakness and obsession shown by many of the younger female characters in the show, regardless of race, ends with a dignified whimper.

The Actresses and the Diaspora:

Not only does the Bennett family initially offer us a critical intervention into the increasingly eurocentric vampire folklore and a media machine that sees black women as tangential if at all, its existence also offers the opportunity to see powerful black female actresses infusing the roles with both feminism and to some extent race consciousness. Just as three generations of Bennetts are shown on screen, the actresses who play them also represent three generations of black women. The casting of the characters also gives us an opportunity to see the diaspora at work, as two of the actresses are Latinegras/Afra-Latina, one is Black British/African and the other is an African American.

Jasmine Guy

I was actually drawn to the Vampire Diaries because of the re-emergence of Jasmine Guy on the show. Guy, who is African-American and Portuguese, is best known for her role as bourgeois Whitley Gilbert on a Different World. She infused the character with such elitest flair that I actually despised Guy, the actress, for some time. And yet, anyone who watched that show, also witnessed Guy transform Whitley from a stereotype of the light-skinned black bourgeoisie into a complex character with insecurities, heart ache, and compassion.

After a series of guest appearances on black sitcoms, including a powerful role as a therapist to Khadija, played by Queen Latifah, on Living Single, where she helped Khadija come to terms with her mental health issues and how “strong black women” are encouraged not to take care of their mental health, Guy returned to serialized tv on Dead Like Me. While her character in Dead Like Me, Roxy Harvey, was also largely a stereotype of the angry black woman, Guy infused the character with just enough pathos and compassion to elevate it out of stereotype.

Having watched her expand so many black female roles into complex meditations on the lives of varied black women, I can’t help but think of Jasmine Guy as a modern Hattie McDaniel. For those who do not know, Hattie McDaniel was instrumental in transforming the role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. While the character remained largely mired by stereotype, McDaniel refused to say several of the more offensive lines in the original script, successfully getting them removed at a time when black female actresses had even less power in Hollywood than they do now. McDaniel’s also managed to work in double consciousness readings of several of her lines and unscripted appearances in that otherwise extremely offensive film “classic”, and was rewarded for her talent as the first African-American woman and person to win an Academy Award. If Guy were given the right vehicles, I think she could become one of less than a handful of black women who have been awarded in this way.

Her ability to transform characters no doubt also stems from her commitment to black women’s empowerment. Among the many speaking engagements she has done to encourage black women and girls to follow their dreams and love themselves, Guy collaborated with Afeni Shakur to write one of a handful of black female panther memoirs, Afeni Shakur: Evolution of a Revolutionary. Thus it comes as no surprise that Jasmine Guy’s Sheila Bennett was a powerhouse on Vampire Diaries despite being given so few lines. Each time Guy graced the screen, she infused Sheila Bennett with compassion and care for the women and girls of the show and strength beyond measure against the men who would manipulate and potentially abuse them. Though most of her time on the show amounted to a few lines uttered through a cracked door way, Guy made Sheila sing with strength and race and feminist consciousness. When Stefan Salvatore waxes poetic about his memories of her oratory skills during the Civil Rights Movement, it comes across as genuine rather than pathetic chronology which always reduces blackness to either slavery or civil rights in this country, precisely because of Guy’s presence in the role. And when she steps outside her house to stare down Damon Salvatore, I actually stopped breathing. The way she put him in check with one glance spoke volumes about the potential for female power on the show and for Guy to transform and lead the female characters around her.

Gina Torres

Watching Jasmine Guy die on Vampire Diaries was like a knife through the heart, as the last death of the established strong black women actresses on the show, she left behind only new comer Katerina Graham to fill the void. However, Guy was at least given time to infuse her character with such strength and determination that she became invaluable to the storyline and at least my connection to the show, beyond an academic interest. Gina Torres, on the other hand, was largely wasted talent on the show.

Gina Torres, an Afra-Latina of Cuban descent, played Bree Bennett in a single episode during black history month. Despite only having the one show to work with, Torres brought her immense strength and humor to the character and the show. Her Bree exuded sexuality and power, humor and flirtatiousness, and a quiet strength that was only undermined in the last few minutes of the character’s life. Two moments speak to her considerable talent in this episode: the way she managed to show solidarity with Elena, warning her about the company that she kept with body language and inflection in dialogue that in less capable hands would never have brought the two women’s story lines together, and the fact she managed to make Ian Somerhalder look taller in the scenes where they flirted and menacing/able to best her in the scene where he ultimately kills her despite being several inches taller and more muscular than he.

Despite the fact I know they won’t, I can only hope they bring Torres back in flashback sequences. She has a long list of scifi and fantasy credits under her belt, including the critically acclaimed Firefly, Alias, Angel, and Matrix series. Whether in hit or miss television shows or films, Torres has always been a powerful presence on screen. She infuses her characters with strength, humor, loyalty, and knowledge that makes her stand out in even the smallest of roles. And what some may not know is she is also a theater actress, who has appeared in stage productions like Antigone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Dreamgirls.

Like Guy, Torres also brings considerable socio-political consciousness to her roles. Prior to moving in to television, Torres worked with a theater company that brought classic plays and plays written by and about black people into low income schools in New York in order to encourage people of color to embrace the arts and see themselves reflected in them. At the same time, these performances also helped mainstream audiences learn the tradition of black theater and imagine canonized plays beyond the unspoken race orientied casting that often excludes black performers. Also like Guy, Torres has resisted the urge to play a “pretty face” on television and film despite overwhelming beauty in order to be taken seriously and to develop/use all of her considerable acting talent; subsequently, she helps show young actresses that while looks are becoming even more important in Hollywood than ever, that what really matters is your ability to act.

Gina Torres’ work not only encourages basic gender and race consciousness in tv and film, but she also helps to reverse the trend of erasing the African diasporic presence in Latin@ communities. As and Afra-Latina/Latinegra, Torres reminds mainstream audiences of the diversity of the Latin@ community and Latin@s of our mixed heritage. She also provides Afra-latinas themselves the chance to see one of their own succeeding in Hollywood as a beautiful and powerful woman. This impact is immeasurable.

Katerina Graham

I can only imagine what it was like for African-Swiss “new comer” Katerina Graham to work with these two women (if in fact she was able to meet Torres, with whom she shared no scenes). Guy, who played her mentor and grandmother on the show, no doubt also mentored her off screen as well.

I recently pointed out that Katerina Graham could easily have graced the cover of the Vanity Fair “Young Hollywood” edition. She began her entertainment career at the age of 6, starring in a series of commercials before landing several roles on Disney shows known for making tween stars, including Hannah Montana. Disney was committed enough to her to offer her a major role in their remake of 17 Again, which though it flopped helped her land the Vampire Diaries.

What you may not know, is that Katerina also has a successful music and dancing career amongst the international tween market. She has danced on the BET Awards and as back up to artists like Missy Elliot, whose choreographer is universally critically acclaimed. While it isn’t music I would listen to it is certainly no less insipid than Cyrus or Swift. Her collaborative work continues work with the Black Eye Peas, Will.I.Am and Snoop. One of her first songs was featured in a blockbuster film. More important, she is a self-taught engineer and producer. After her first few songs broke, Graham decided to buy her own studio and learn that production end of music in order to empower her own craft and that of other young artists. She later went on to complete a degree in music engineering before reaching her 17th birthday.

Her role as the youngest Bennett on the Vampire Diaries represents a critical shift away from the unofficial whites-only policy that seems to dominate the casting of teen and tween shows on the CW network. Graham plays the bestfriend of the main character, Elena, on the show and also the youngest witch on the show. Her character follows in the footsteps of the other young women on the show in being concerned about fitting in and dating that is both typical of the age group and yet handled by the show in ways that is largely miss in terms of female empowerment. Graham’s character Bonnie, much like Caroline Forbes, often makes the wrong choices in love and finds herself on the receiving end of mental and physical abuse or disdain. During black history month, she was beaten, kidnapped, and ridiculed by the boy she liked for being “so needy”; but that is pretty much par for the course for the young women on this show, with the exception of Elena and Ana.

Graham’s character actually has some of the most potential on the show. As a new witch who was just learning how to use her powers, she has the ability to grow and develop into a powerful presence in the town. Stefan Salvatore has already showed considerable interest in helping her develop her powers and stay safe from Damon’s unfair influence; though as I noted in the first part of this post, one cannot assume his interest is completely altruistic. It is also disconcerting that the show’s producers decided to leave a vacuum in Bonnie’s education by killing off her grandmother that will now be filled by Stefan. Not only does reinsert a master narrative of race and gender, but it severs the important storyline about shared female power and powerful family ties in the black community.

Bianca Lawson

Finally, African-American Bianca Lawson rounds out the cast in the critical role of Emily Bennett. While she wasn’t really given a chance to breakout in the role, she did a great job of playing both a subtle background character in the flashback sequences and a powerful presence in the tomb sequences against Damon. Both she and Graham collaborated well to pull of a possession that was partially acted by Graham and partially by Lawson. Lawson has over 37 television and film credits during her long career as a child star turned young adult actress. She has appeared in a number of television roles including her brief stint as Kendra, the racially problematic slayer on Buffy, and is set to appear on ABC Family, an affiliate of Disney’s, as 1 of 4 main characters in Pretty Little Liars, a YA book series turned tv program. Should the show do well, Lawson may finally be poised for her big break.

Conclusions

While I am sure the casting agents at the CW do not pay nearly as much attention to ethnicity as I do as a teacher and published author on race and media, it was nice to see them include such a wide range of the black diaspora in their show. For young black women watching, it provided them not only with the rare chance to see talented black women doing there thing on a popular tv show but also to find their unique reflections in one or more of the actresses. The only thing missing in their casting decisions was the use of dark-skinned black actresses along side these talented, and mostly bi-racial, women. By casting astute and gifted actresses who took their roles very seriously, they also ensured that even the smallest parts would resonate along both feminist and race consciousness lines while appealing to a wide range of the audience.

Now that the black history month cleansing of black folk on Vampire Diaries has come to an end, it will be interesting to see if they retain Bonnie as a central character or shove her to the side like that black kid from Smallville. While I still believe the show has done more for ensuring the presence of positive black characters, played by strong black actresses, than many other shows on tv, I can’t help but be concerned about the recent loss of so many of them coupled with the rise of the black male demon image in the final moments of “Fool Me Once.” For now, I am just grateful to see so many amazing black women in major roles on the show and the reinsertion of diversity into both the CW tween market and the vampire folklore as depicted by modern television and film.

——

footnotes

  1. My goal in writing this post had actually been to use the tween-oriented People’s Choice Award winner for Best New Show as a launching point for talking about the diaspora and setting the stage for a contrasting piece about the treatment of blackness and black families in popular vampire television. The post was partially inspired by my post, Do You See What I see the Black Herstory edition, on the Vanity Fair white washing of “young Hollywood”. It was also an attempt to reconcile the differences between a show that most of my contemporaries find entertaining and frothy, while failing to address the overarching racial messages embedded within, and a show that is universally mocked outside of its age demographic that openly chooses to avoid these messages. Unfortunately, in the two days that the post waited on the shelf in my brain, the realities of blackness on Vampire Diaries radically changed. In the course of just 3 episodes, all aired in February, the black matriarchy on the show has been reduced to one survivor; two of three black women, both played by Afra-Latinas, have died or been killed in the service of the white male leads. Another member of the matriarchy, who was already dead, was also re-killed last month. And while brutal murder is an essential part of the vampire lore of the show, the death of 3 of 4 central black characters to the show, espec in February, raise major questions about the shows actual commitment to diversity; what ultimately clenched it for me was that last night’s show ended with the resurrection of the black demon/black male rapist as a cliffhanger for their second mid-season hiatus.

images

  • Unpleasantville episode Guy D’alema/The CW
  • Children of the Damned. Quantrell Colbert/The CW
  • History Repeating. Quantrell Colbert/The CW
  • Bloodlines. Guy D’Alema/The CW
  • Fool Me Once. Quantrell Colbert/The CW
  • Unpleasantville. Guy D’Alema/The CW
  • Bonnie and Grams cast spell. Quantrell Colbert/The CW
  • Jasmine Guy/unattributed
  • Gina Torres/unattributed
  • Buffy The Vampire Slayer/WB/unattributed

What Might Have Made Me Watch Sex & The City

The marketing campaign around Sex and the City makes me feel like I am the only person on Earth who did not watch this show. To be honest, I did not have HBO when it premiered. By the time I saw an episode of it, it was well underway and I was unimpressed. Specifically, I was concerned by Amanda who all my students said was so empowering. In the epi I saw, Amanda was sick and spent the whole day calling everyone in her address book in the hopes of finding someone who would care for her. Intermittently she would go to the window and yell at the trans sex workers outside to be quiet and they would yell the same back at her. Ultimately, no one in Amanda’s “little black book” would come to her aid. Most were one night stands or standing booty calls, and even her friends were too caught up in their own stuff to care for her. By episodes end, Amanda had invited the trans sex workers she had been verbally abusing all day to come up to her place for a drink. Instead of being freeing, the episode played out like an old anti-woman morality tale supported by cissexism. Amanda’s supposed sexual liberation was clearly disciplined and punished by her friends and the narrative (she has a huge address book but no real friends), and her sexual “freedom” was juxtaposed with trans sex workers in a way that posited them both as outside of “real womanhood” and as “whores.” In other words, both sexism and cissexism worked to vilify everyone involved. This was hardly the feminist tome I had been promised and so I let the ship sail alone.

Then the movie came out, and guess what, I didn’t see that either. Instead I heard tons of criticism from one of my good friends who watched the show religiously. Included in her complaints were the resurrection of the mammy figure, this time in the form of a black assistant instead of black and brown trans sex workers, the policing of the female body (the shaving incident), the racism (both Hudson’s role & Charlotte’s refusal to drink the water in Mexico), & sexist pairing off of all of the characters. I watched clips on youtube that confirmed many of these interpretations for me, as well as the heterosexism embedded in the sexist pairing off of the characters.  (In truth, I tried to watch it on cable but was appalled that Miranda was being blamed for her husband cheating on her by both her friends & her therapist, and turned it off.) And I began to wonder why any of my students or the myriad of female viewers of this show bought the surface level premise of female empowerment through sexual conquest when just beneath was the same old retread of sexist messages about needing a man, betraying or back stabbing one’s friends, and not being “a slut” as well as all the other problematic oppressions like racism, classism, ageism, cissexism, etc.

Well no one has ever really answered my question, beyond pointing to its barbie-dream-house-like “escapism” and I’ve never felt the need to comment on the blog about it because well, I don’t watch it enough to take on the trolls.

So why write about it now?

Well, besides the fact a sequel is fast approaching in which the key plot seems to once again revolve around the relationship woes of these women and the fact they have to give up independence to get love, oh so feminist that, there is this amazing video by Elisa Kreisinger that actually reframes the series through a queer lens that makes it far more intriguing to me. (In truth, what Elisa is doing with the video and her overall project are actually the intriguing part, but at least now I’ve said my bit about Sex and The City publicly and got it off my chest once and for all).

Watch and tell me what you think:

I am indebted to Pia Guerrero of  Adios Barbie for bringing this video and this artist to my attention. If you don’t read Adios Barbie, you really should.