A Star Is Delivered By The Patriarchy

I’m frankly disturbed by the praise that is being lauded on A Star Is Born. The film is a front runner for the Best Picture Oscar and likely to be one of the most nominated films of the year, so I feel compelled to add to the conversation. I was cynical when it was released but came around to seeing the film last week after all the acclaim. I was disappointed for is derivative take on the well-worn story and underwhelmed by all the production elements except for the music. However, I’m primarily writing this because I just haven’t seen many confront the film’s gender politics that feel inappropriate for the 2018.

Spoilers ahead. 

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Lady Gaga as Ally in the foreground in focus. Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine is – appropriately – in the background, out of focus.

Firstly, Jackson Maine. His behaviour at the beginning of the film is predatory. He finds himself backstage in a changing area (with consent) but it’s just a teaser for the way he will come to use his privilege. He touches Ally several times weirdly, removing her eyebrow at one point in a moment that is supposed to be…romantic? He invites her to his show that night and mishears her negative responses; he sends a driver to stalk her until she changes her mind. Later Ally wakes up and Jackson has been let into her room by her father and he is sitting on her bed watching her sleep. The Bechdel Cast recommends ‘the Buscemi test’ – would this behaviour be acceptable if it was Steve Buscemi doing it? The first act climaxes with Ally being bullied on stage to perform the song that she wrote. Jackson begins to play the song without her consent, effectively making her choose between claiming back her intellectual property and allowing him to plagiarise her work. This all happens in just the first 30 minutes of the film. Overall, Jackson has a male saviour vibe, attempting to convince us that without him Ally could not be successful.

As for Ally – who doesn’t get a last name until she marries Jackson – she starts the film with more personality than she finishes it. Signs of her character’s potential depth are sidelined for a familiar male-centric narrative. Multiple instances in the film occur when she says “no” and these are translated by men into “yes”. As Aja Romano writes, the film has a problem with consent. Her agency is eroded as she is increasingly controlled by Jackson and later by her producer. Because Jackson’s treatment of her is increasingly bad as she continues to climb the stardom ladder, she comes across as dependent on him. So when she insists on him coming on tour with her, it comes across as contractual – not as a gesture of love. Exploring her background could have helped the film to explain her choices and develop her character; however, the most significant attempt at this is derailed by more patriarchal writing and direction. This scene with her father helps us to understand her relationship with alcoholic men but the foundation of the scene quickly departs from its potential when Ally forgives her father for his behaviour without giving any focus on the impact on Ally or the pain that she might have experienced. There are only men in her life; however, the films inclusion of two best friend drag queen characters is refreshing. Ally’s career is treated as matter-of-fact. The insane standard of beauty that women in entertainment are held to is scratched at but never really explored or commented on as much more than just something that needs to be accepted.

The last point I want to make is the ending which is shoehorned into the final 15 minutes as it appears Cooper suddenly realised that traditionally the male lead in the Star is Born franchise needs to die so that Mrs Maine can sing a final sad song in an emotional climax. Cooper goes for a suicide, but irresponsibly treats this as a moment of heroism. Once again Ally is deprived of agency as she could very easily just leave him or they could attempt long distance while she tours. Instead Cooper, inspired by a convenient plot beat from Ally’s producer, decides gallantly to end his own life to deprive Ally of any chance to make a decision that might put her career before him. Making the scene more problematic is how Jackson is not sober. This is only a step away from the irresponsible representation of suicide in ’13 Reasons Why’. It’s hard to align this scene and Lady Gaga’s work on mental health.

It so easily could have been different. A remake could have revitalised the story by inverting the genders or at least updating the gender politics. The best version of this film would have cast Shangela and Willam as the leads. This kind of familiar straight white privilege patter should be unwelcome in our modern cinemas. But strangely, it is apparently the best film made in the last year.

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Casting & Representation

A recent activity I did with a Year 12 Media class who are working towards their L3 BTEC qualification raised some interesting bias. The students have created a pre-production for a new Netflix series that they were pitch. They needed to cast their shows, and had unlimited budgets to do so.

To facilitate some brainstorming around this, I gave them a slip of paper to write a brief character bio to find an actor that fits. The class then roamed the room, and made casting suggestions on each slip, folding it over each time so they could not be influenced by the other suggestions. The outcomes of this activities were fascinating. Here are some observations:

  • Of the 42 characters that there were bios written, the gender split was 50-50. (However, the class is 80% female).
  • The bios were prompted to suggest age, gender, appearance, occupation, … No student mentioned anything about class, sexuality, or disability. Gender was treated understand as binary, with no one making any offers about diverse expressions of femininity or masculinity.
  • If the ethnicity was not stated on the sheet, all the suggestions of actors were white.
  • All characters appeared to be middle-class or upper middle-class based on their descriptions. No narratives explored issues around class.
  • While there were a lot of teenage characters, the most common suggestions for these characters were older actors like Zac Efron (30), Michael B Jordan (31), even Ryan Reynolds (41). Students struggled to remember the names of actors under the age of 25.

This was an unscientific study, but as these findings came clear and the dialogue around them developed, I felt as though a lot of reflection and examination of personal bias was going on.

NZIFF 2017

201720poster20-20feature20slider-800-800-600-600-crop-fillAnother year, another NZ Film Festival. Overall, this one contained many a highlight, but I encountered more duds than I ever have before. This was disappointing for my holistic experience, but exciting for the diversity of this summary blogpost.

My festival kicked off with John Hamm playing a holographic version of a dead husband. Marjorie Prime contained ideas much more interesting than the execution: the text may as well have stayed on stage. On the flip side, the cinematic joy of Kiki: Love to Love was contagious. It was kink-positive and had some delightful scenes, but a story line that wants us to laugh at rape is unforgivable in 2017. The Ornithologist probably got a lot right, but not being versed in the tale of Saint Sebastian made for a challenging two hours. Finally the hot mess that was The Square shouldn’t really be in a paragraph about ‘duds’ because it really was close to something cohesive and commendable. Instead the result was one of the greatest cinematic sequences of all time, with another few outstanding scenes plus a lot of dribble. The film will stay with me, but it could have been another Force Majeure.

The festival’s closing night, Good Time, was a visceral delight. Stretching cinematic language to make something that was both raw unnerving realism and styled like a John Carpenter’s 70s back catalogue B-movie (including an synth-score). I Am Not A Witch set in Zambia was a bold in its absurdity and satire. The evocative images of the last minutes of the film are etched in my memory. Also hard to forget will be My Friend Dahmer which was chilling and extremely well made – but I’m left wondering where this serial killer fascination will end and why exactly I’m so happy to play along with the game? The game of The Teacher was delightful. A Czech story of corruption and a reminder of just how much power I have as a teacher, if I was to choose to use it…

Some of the documentaries I encounter this year were strong. I Am Not Your Negro is a contender for the best of the fest. Constructed flawlessly, for me it opened up a whole new angle to consider racism, privilege and identity. I will definitely watch it again and I will definitely spend more time finding out about James Baldwin. Step contained some outstanding subjects: the young women of Baltimore Leadership School were inspirational. The insight into their world and the school doing things differently to ensure they have the best chance of succeeding was truly moving. Less successful was The Farthest, which contained content that landed, but visual storytelling that was misguided. Completely misguided was 100 Men, which managed to mention every buzzword in gay history, but offered nothing more than a surface exploration in a highly limited form.

The highlights of the festival came in the queer cinema category. While the representation was really positive – the quality of the films themselves is really encouraging. A Date for Mad Mary is charming and quaint. While the script wasn’t flawless, it was accessible and well-pitched. God’s Own Country was another matter altogether. While it will struggle to find a mainstream audience, it has secured a NZ distribution deal which is a testament to it’s quality. It is moving – depicting the love between a hired hand and a lost local and the landscape of Yorkshire with care and intensity. Francis Lee is a filmmaker to follow. BPM (Beat Per Minute) also resonated. The context was Paris in the 90s as we follow an AIDS activist group. There is palpable tension in the political edge of the film, but it’s the interwoven personal threads which make the film so special.

The crown of the festival for me goes to Call Me By Your Name. Another queer film, this time in a Italian summer filled with literature, music, architecture and love. It observes the forming of a pure relationship with an inquisitive camera which often lingers on specific details and finds beauty throughout the sun-soaked setting. The central performances create the initially unsaid attraction and then later their beautiful sensual connection with such admirable care. It’s a masterpiece for queer cinema, but it’s a film that deserves to find a large audience as the storytelling is just so timeless.

Growing Up in a Pornified Culture

In a previous post I used David Buckingham’s ideas in looking at female representation and the opinion economy. Gail Dines TED talk, which I accidentally came across after a fortunate auto-play, developed some of those representation ideas which compelled me to write about.

The discussion of culture is really powerful here. So often we are critical and media debate occurs around a single representation or a one off event or moment. However, Dines focuses here on a culture cultivated and perpetuated by the sheer volume of images and portrays of femininity which are influenced or derivative of porn. The critique here touches on some well-known of often ignored facts like how porn is the major form of sex education available to young males. The images and messages are unpacked by these so easily accessible texts and so often they are seen to be violent, degrading and problematic.

From 40 years of research we know that the younger the boys get to porn the more it limits their capacity for intimacy, the more they engage in risky sexual behaviour, the more it increase likelihood of sexual assault, the more it decreases their empathy for rape victims, the more it increases anxiety and depression…Now we have a whole generation of boys desensitised.

How do we address this? Dines method is clear: education education, education.

Leaving Dines TED talk then, it leaves the question of how her ideas in the New Zealand context can be addressed. It starts with health education. Currently sexuality education guidelines are optional for schools to conform to and dependent on the community accepting these. Sexual health is opt-in with parental permission required. This area needs a significant overall, targeted at the primary level too. Dines’ research indicates young people are accessing porn from 12 years old on average. There has to be a parental level of education as well – while I find the terms problematic, it is still the clash between digital immigrants and digital natives. And finally, it has to be the responsibility of every teacher to teach media literacy and analyse the patriarchal structure and sexism embedded in the world around us. If students aren’t enabled to see it in the country’s politics, the films or TV shows that they watch, the advertisements and billboards they pass every day, then how are they going to recognise it in porn?

Representation, Rihanna and the Opinion Economy

I got pulled into this sea of opinion by David Buckingham’s post “Reading Rihanna: the burden of representation” and was immediately impressed by a number of statements being made about representation here. The key notion, which I will unpack a little through some of his key quotes, is the idea that representation is not a devisive struggle between binaries. I struggle in teaching representation to not have student make statements which can be paraphrased as “therefore this is good” or “therefore this is bad”. Getting them to understand the nuance in any text is a challenge, one which Buckingham suggests also exists for the mainstream media commentators.

The controversy itself is symptomatic of what I have called the ‘opinion economy’: the premium is on strong opinions, instantly and forcefully expressed, rather than any more nuanced consideration of the issues.

I really like the idea here of the opinion economy. There’s a commercial element here. A headline that screams a particular angle will get far more readers than a headline that suggests it will be a fair and reasonable account of all the relevant issues.

while most conservative critics confine themselves to raging against the immorality of the behaviour that is shown, more liberal critics are preoccupied with the politics of it all…As this implies, much of the debate takes the form of a litmus test. Either the video is revolutionary and empowering, or it is degrading and woman-hating. Either it is a manifestation of oppression, or it is a critique of it. And if it is not one thing, it must surely be the other…one of the recurrent rhetorical moves in this debate is to silence one’s opponents by invoking the checklist of oppression and thereby challenging their right to speak.

This idea recalls my recent visit to see Best of Enemies (which I briefly reviewed here). One of the key themes running through the documentary was the devisive state of American politics where the Democrat Vs Republican split has eroded the space required for genuine debate and issue navigation.

The problem here lies in the assumption that one can extrapolate directly from a reading of the text to an assertion about how an audience will interpret it – and by extension what (political, moral or psychological) effects it will have. A positive message (as identified by an expert critic) will have positive effects, while a negative one will have negative effects. And while we (the experts) might be able to identify a range of possible interpretations and hidden subtexts, the average person is only going to read it in one way. Yet without any evidence from audience research, all such claims are groundless.

I’ll be sharing this quote with all my student before they write about representation. The need for evidenced based investigation of the effect of media representation is essential to engaging with the nuances of any media text, rather than launching into the “checklist of oppression”. This is a huge challenge, one that I’m looking forward to when I teach the representation of the family unit in US Sitcoms later this term.

A key task for media educators is surely to encourage students to question the terms of debates like this – to identify and challenge the underlying assumptions, to seek out better evidence, and to move beyond the endless rehearsal of instant opinions.

Challenge accepted.

Representation of the Family Unit in American TV Sitcoms

Three additional articles on the Family Unit as representation by American TV sitcoms. Some key ideas and quotes are extracted and some unpacking is begun below:

‘Evolving Images of Family in TV’ by Jill W. Bishop

The producers of these families showed “…not the reality of most family lives, but a postwar ideology…”

Bishop here is referring to the idea of representation. A image is not a thing itself; it is mediated. Therefore it exists as not a realistic portrayal, but more an idealised portray that families could envy and attempt to emulate. Thus, the 1950s representation was standardized and normalised to exist within traditional structures.

He worried that “Cosby,” as the dominant representation of blacks on TV in the late 1980s, “…suggests that blacks are solely responsible for their social conditions, with no acknowledgement of the severely constricted life opportunities that most black people face.”

This is another angle on the same issue explored by Mike Budd and Carl Steinman in ‘White Racism and the Cosby Show’. A result of the silence on issues facing African American’s through the 1980s as civil rights continued to progress is a glaring omission to portray the societal structures that meant a civil rights movement had to occur in the first place.

Television does not yet reflect the diversity of the American populace; it is still largely dominated by mainstream white culture.

This is evident in the production team behind the shows as well. The narrative voices that contribute the representation are quite narrow and yet to fully demonstrate the diversity of American life.

American Family Sitcoms – The Early Days to the Present‘ by Valarie Reimers

In the mid-1970s, Michael Novak noted in his essay, “Television Shapes the Soul,” that television both “affects our way of perceiving and approaching reality” and “inflicts a class bias on the world of our perceptions—the bias of a relatively small and special social class”

A suggestion of the effect of television. A hint of the hypodermic needle theory here, but more a measured approach to the way that television is able to shape our attitudes and values over time as we are influenced by dominant ideologies.

The New York Times ran articles noting the resurgence of the family sitcom with the speculation that uncertain economic and political factors cause Americans to turn to the comfort of family humor

The role of the family sitcom is argued here to have a comfort element for audiences. Riemers suggests that during difficult times they settle on traditional representations. These are evident through modern sitcoms as well as the core values are still evident.

“Honey! I’m Home!” Sitcom Evolution Since the 1950’s‘ by Unknown Blogger

Sticking to the same basic formula, sitcoms show a problem solved and a lesson learned in a half -hour, usually with a strong foundation of laughable humour.

This summarizes the approach the creators have to the sitcoms’ narratives. Often the lesson learnt has something to do with realising the family unit is strong and loyal and the characters are after the trivial obstacle, ultimately loving to one another.

With the controversial shows of the 1990’s, there were also sitcoms that followed the ‘norm’ of previous decades, but still keeping up with the current trends of the decade.

This recognises the reactive nature of sitcoms. They respond to the times in order to be relevant to audiences. It is important to maintain interest from audience to build viewership which maintains the shows success.

A Rant on Generalisations

A generalisation is a point like: “Women then became a strong presence within the workforce and no longer depended on men to support them” or “Women weren’t happy with their current roles in society”. They are generalisations because while you are saying something that is generally true, you sound extremely silly because you are applying a trend as a absolute truth. Of course not all women depended on men to support them, of course some women were happy with their role in society. 

So don’t be a silly billy, THINK about what you are claiming. Find another way of expressing it: “as the traditional family structure broke down, more women found themselves in the work force with career aspirations. This meant a tension formed between the stereotypical role of house wife and the career aspirations of the new wave feminist. Some families could not cope with this tension and in some cases this contributed to the increase in divorce rates.”

In other words, don’t settle for a simple, ‘A’ happened and ‘B’ caused it. Take you time explaining the relationships between things. The more you can use evidence to support your points the better.