Los Espookys on HBO is weird and brilliant and I already miss it, even though it’s not over yet
Los Espookys is a comedy series on HBO about a group of four weird friends in some unspecified Latin American country, who stage real-life horror scenes for their various weird clients. Even if you don’t have HBO, you can watch the first episode on YouTube.
I’ve read a bunch of articles and reviews trying to explain why the show’s so surprisingly fun and charming, but I don’t think any of them really nail it. And neither will this blog post, because it’s practical inexplicable. It’s the best weird concept for a comedy I’ve seen since The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt, and it’s probably the surprisingly funniest series I’ve seen since 30 Rock, and it’s somehow more impressive than both because it plays simultaneously to both Spanish- and English-speaking audiences. Which leads into the thing I’m picking as One Thing I Like About Los Espookys:
There’s a scene in the third episode where Andrés’s (Jose Torres) handsome but awful boyfriend asks “will you marry me?” and Andrés responds with a hilariously perfect expression that he later describes as “I said maybe with my eyes.” It’s great first of all because it’s perfect for Andrés’s character. He has a perpetual expression that’s a combination of being haunted by his dark mysterious past and annoyed to the point of he can’t even.
Even more than that, though, it’s a moment that’s hilarious but that doesn’t depend on language. Very little of the comedy in Los Espookys is wordplay or referential humor, since everything has to work for people relying on the subtitles as well as people who understand Spanish. Still, the dialogue is often hilarious, but more from stringing absurd ideas together. There isn’t a lot of slapstick, either, although there is some — like the best comedies, Los Espookys is constantly jumping across the lines between cerebral and silly. Because it’s not dependent on being “too Spanish” or “too American,” the humor is more universal.
I read an interview with Torres in which he downplays concerns about trying to sell a show predominantly in Spanish to an American audience, simply by pointing out that he grew up in El Salvador watching American programming with Spanish subtitles, and he handled it fine. That sensibility seems to drive everything about the series: it doesn’t feel the need to sacrifice any of its voice (literally or figuratively) to cater to an English-speaking audience, or in fact any kind of “mainstream” audience.
It doesn’t assume American by default; it’s conceived by people who grew up in Latin American cultures, and it’s adamantly about aspects of that culture — B-movie horror, ever-present Catholicism, copyright-infringing knock-off chocolate companies (a detail that I’d never heard of before but Torres asserts is common) — but is in no way an “intro to Latin America.” It really doesn’t feel as if it’s made for either audience; it’s universal. Or at least universal among people who like weird humor, and who pick up shared references to exorcisms, alien abductions, inheritance scares, and that thing where someone is sucked into a bed and falls through the ceiling to land on the bed again.
I also like that scene because it’s a gay marriage proposal in a universe where nobody treats being gay as all that exceptional. So far it seems like two of the main characters are queer and one seems to be asexual, but it’s just an aspect of their character and not any kind of plot point. In fact, there’s a moment when Andrés’s boyfriend tells him “good luck finding another gay guy,” and it seemed jarring, because until then no one had even seemed to acknowledge that they were a gay couple.
There’s just a sense of confidence and fearlessness throughout Los Espookys that makes it seem like true 21st century multicultural comedy with its own unique voice. And it refuses to do anything that would compromise that voice. It doesn’t tell you that it’s some kind of cultural bridge between English- and Spanish-speaking audiences, it doesn’t over-explain its gags, it doesn’t try to justify its weirdness. It just feels like a smart, goofy show that only tries to be funny; all of its multicultural and multilingual significance is something it says with its eyes.
Toy Story 4 is my favorite in the series, a perfect farewell to the characters and the more satisfying conclusion I didn’t know I needed.
I can’t write a “One Thing I Love About Toy Story 4” blog post, because I loved pretty much everything about it. If I were forced to pick one thing, it might be how if you stay to the very end of the credits, that one commando action figure finally gets his high five.
One thing I see consistently in reviews is that Toy Story 4 isn’t “necessary,” that the third entry was a perfect conclusion, and the additional installment is well-made but superfluous at best. I disagree. I think it actually reveals what was missing from Toy Story 3, which is something I didn’t notice at the time: that movie didn’t actually complete its main characters’ stories, but instead just left them hanging indefinitely in stasis.
I dug up my thoughts about Toy Story 3 that I wrote right after seeing it for the first time, and I still stand by most of it. (Even though part of it I have to stand by with clenched teeth and an explanation later in this post). The part where I was wrong was stating that Pixar had taken characters I’d assumed would just go on existing in perpetuity, and given them a story arc.
I interpreted the main message of Toy Story 3 as an allegory about growing up: acknowledging the things that we love from our childhood, and moving on with memories of them as important parts of our lives, instead of just abandoning them. Maybe it was the fact that I spent the last 15 minutes or so of that movie just in heaving, ugly, sobs, but I never noticed that the only character really given a conclusion to their story arc was Andy. But the Toy Story series was never really about Andy; it was always in one way or another about Woody.
The series started with a neurotic toy consumed with anxiety that he was no longer a child’s favorite. As of about nine years ago, it ended with that neurotic toy learning to let go — before immediately going right back to an unhealthily dependent relationship on another child. If it were an allegory for parenthood and empty nest syndrome, it seemed to say that the only cure for feeling sad your children are leaving for college is to have another kid ASAP.
Which might help explain why I could never find fault with Toy Story 3, but I still never felt like I loved it and never had much desire to see it again. (I honestly can’t remember if I ever saw it that second time). The ending is spectacularly, relentlessly, emotional, but I don’t think it felt cathartic. And I wonder if that could be subconsciously because it just leaves its characters locked for eternity in a nightmarish purgatory of sublimating their own desires out of fear of abandonment from a callous child who will inevitably abandon them.
I’m only exaggerating a little. The premise of the franchise is that toys are imbued with life when children play with them, but to some extent, Pixar has spent decades treating them less like characters who’ve come to life, and more like inanimate objects they can pull out of storage every few years to put together into a new sequence of emotional moments.
The “When She Loved Me” song in Toy Story 2 was the emotional core of the movie, but after getting used to reinforce Woody’s anxiety in the third movie, and then used as a plot device in Toy Story of Terror, it soon started to feel like “chronic fear of abandonment” is the only aspect of Jessie’s character. By the fourth movie, it’s become full-on PTSD, as Jessie starts to hyperventilate at the thought of being left in a closet. At the time, it seemed weirdly out of place in tone. (And for all I know, it could be the result of multiple rewrites of that scene from different creative teams). But when put in the context of the rest of the movie, it feels like an attempt to take all the more sinister ideas of the franchise and treat them as aspects of real characters instead of just gags.
I liked that Toy Story 4 took a lot of the same core components of the last two movies, and then started asking new questions about them. Do we have to see our villains humiliated and/or tortured, or can we get an even more satisfying resolution by acknowledging that our villains are motivated by the exact same anxieties as our main characters? Has Woody been turned into Pixar’s Mickey Mouse, i.e. stripped of the flaws and neuroses that made him an actual character, and turned into just a blandly wholesome protagonist for whatever random story they decide to tell next? At what point have we invested enough into these toy characters that they have stories of their own? (And also, are ventriloquist dummies “toys?” And can they talk without a person controlling them?)
One of the most memorable moments in the first movie is Woody asserting to Buzz, “You are a toy. A child’s plaything.” It’s satisfying to see the series saying now, after so many years, that it’s not as simple as that. We can define ourselves instead of letting other people tell us what we are.
Which leads into the other part of my old post about Toy Story 3, where I agree-but-with-significant-caveats:
That’s the main reason I don’t see any merit in the common complaint that Pixar movies haven’t had female lead characters — Pixar doesn’t need to be making movies to order or to fill some sort of quota; they need to keep making movies that feel honest.
It’s gross that I inadvertently used the same language that mens rights activists and other bigots often do, and especially awkward considering the issues that the studio has gone through, but I have to say I haven’t changed my mind since 2009. That’s definitely not to say I’m against more diverse representation and better roles for female characters, because that would be trivially stupid. But at the time, the arguments about representation in Toy Story 3 were frustratingly reductive and simplistic. Reviews at the time were reducing it to a zero-sum situation, in which it was impossible to call for more women’s voices without faulting Toy Story 3 for not being given a female protagonist. Instead of actually calling for diversity, they were holding one movie as somehow responsible for decades of male-dominated stories. Like so many things on the internet, it was in danger of devolving into self-parody, like The Onion’s “Chinese Laundry Owner Blasted for Reinforcing Negative Ethnic Stereotypes.”
Toy Story 4 just feels more inclusive, and it does so organically, whether it was actually organic behind the scenes or not. And the character of Bo Peep is so well developed and well handled (and excellently voiced!) that it puts the question to rest more effectively than a billion different think pieces could. They took a character who existed pretty much solely for Woody to have a girlfriend, and turned her into not just a bad-ass but the emotional core of this entire film (if not the entire series)! Plus at Disneyland last weekend, I saw they were selling toy versions of Bo Peep’s staff, so everybody’s happy (apart from the chuckleheads who get overly invested in the gender of cartoon characters of toys).
More diverse casts and more diverse creative teams make for more interesting characters; it’s just that simple. And I like that Pixar chose to show instead of tell. What makes it especially satisfying is that it’s not just an obvious transformation from “hand-wavingly feminine” character to “infallible bad-ass,” either. The message, both implicit and explicit, is that you can be whatever you want to be.
And the feeling of inclusiveness goes beyond gender. I’ve loved most of the Pixar movies, but even among my favorites there’s been something “othering” about them. They’re “family movies” in the literal sense, which is that they’re pretty adamant about the importance of having a particular type of family. Underneath every one there seems to be a voice whispering from Emeryville, saying this isn’t really for you, because you don’t have children. Even when they show non-traditional families, it seems as if the universe of the story aligns to provide surrogates for all the traditional roles, so they can feel “proper” again by the time the movie concludes. I’m skeptical that it’s at all intentional, but it still feels like I’m not their target audience and never will be.
For the first time, Toy Story 4 seems to present a world in which two-heterosexual-parent, one-child families exist, and they’re not they only option available. You can be single if you want. You can choose to have a kid or not. You get to decide whether you’re trash or not. The movie doesn’t put a value judgment on anything except letting other people define what’s right for you.
It’s kind of a subtle thing, but it was just so nice to feel like I wasn’t just enjoying someone else’s movie, but I was actually being rewarded with a movie that I loved and was made big enough to include me. And it was nice to see Woody plucked out of limbo, turned into a real live character, and rewarded with an actual conclusion to a genuine story arc that leaves him in a different place than where he started.
The new Millennium Falcon ride at Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland reminded me a lot of the source of all dark side evil on Dagobah, but in a good way.
There’s a scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Yoda’s daring Luke to go into this dark side cave they found, and Luke asks what’s inside the cave, and Yoda says “only what you take with you.” That came to mind when I was trying to think of how to concisely sum up the new Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland: at least at this stage, you get out of it what you put into it.
I mean, not literally. Thousands of people have spent countless hours and countless dollars to build this place and make it perfect, twice. It’s not as if Disney just puts you in a black room and tells you to think about Star Wars. But more than any other Disney experience I’ve had (even including Disney Quest!), Galaxy’s Edge felt less like being passively entertained and more as if it depended on my participation.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the whole thing. Considering what an emotional attachment I have to Star Wars, and especially after watching YouTube videos of fans losing their composure at the sight of the park (which I genuinely love), I expected that I’d be having some kind of breakdown as soon as I caught sight of an A-Wing or the full-size Millennium Falcon. Once I saw it in person, though, I was too removed from it to be overwhelmed.
Part of that was because of the crowds — although Disney did a remarkable job at crowd control, we were still in a pack of at least a thousand other Star Wars fans being shuffled from one line to another. Part of it was because I’d been watching so many videos that there was little left to surprise me. And part of it was the disappointment at having made a reservation to get in the land but still being turned away from the Cantina and the light saber experience. But I also believe it was intentional in the design; it’s more interested in creating a sense of place than a sensory overload.
Galaxy’s Edge seems to be an extension of a design philosophy that’s been prevalent in Disney parks for the last couple of decades — from Animal Kingdom, to areas like the New York Waterfront in Tokyo DisneySea, to Cars Land at California Adventure. The idea focuses on making a fictional place that feels real, instead of a collection of a bunch of themed elements. One of the best examples is comparing the China pavilion at Epcot’s World Showcase to the Asia section of Animal Kingdom. The former takes a bunch of architectural, cultural, and conceptual highlights from all around China and combines them into one place, to act as a kind of fantastic tour of the country. The latter goes all in on creating a fictional kingdom of Anandapur, located somewhere near Nepal or Tibet, trying to act like a highly detailed functional city that can serve as a kind of representative sample for a large section of Asia.
I’ve loved the Animal Kingdom approach for years, but it wasn’t until I saw it applied to Star Wars that I really appreciated a side effect of it: it sacrifices spectacle in favor of immersion. There are still bits of spectacle, of course: Anandapur has a beautiful camera spot set up with an altar to the Forbidden Mountain in the foreground and the mountain itself in the distance across a lake; and Galaxy’s Edge is designed so that multiple entry points all yield a gradual, cinematic reveal of the Millennium Falcon. But most of the lands are deliberately designed to look as if they haven’t been deliberately designed. You’re made to feel less like a visitor to a theme park and more like a street photographer; you’re not being explicitly shown what to look at, but pulling interesting details out of the environment.
(Which works especially well with Star Wars, since one of the most interesting aspects of Star Wars is how creatures and technology that are fantastic to the audience are seen as familiar or even ancient to the characters. The centerpiece of the land and its most obvious photo opportunity is something that multiple characters think of as “what a piece of junk.” So Batuu and the Black Spire Outpost can seem exotic to visitors but no big deal to the locals).
All of that background is relevant to Smuggler’s Run because it explains how the ride isn’t just an updated version of Star Tours. In that ride, you’re a passenger who’s riding along with someone else’s adventure. I think that never would’ve worked with Smuggler’s Run because getting into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon is all about wish fulfillment. It would’ve felt like a catastrophically missed opportunity to be in the ship and be forced to just watch passively.
And the interactivity isn’t like that of Men In Black or Buzz Lightyear or Toy Story Midway Mania, or any interactive ride I’ve seen before. In fact, it reminds me most of the Pirates of the Caribbean experience at Disney Quest. It’s cooperative instead of competitive, so your “score” is based on how well you work with the rest of the people on the ride with you. Which is the one thing I like the most about Smuggler’s Run.
A couple of friends posted an article by Robert Niles in the San Jose Mercury News giving his take on how the ride encourages cooperation. And while it was likely well-intentioned, it made me fear the worst. In particular, it made me fear getting stuck on the ride with someone like the writer, who took it upon himself to debrief his crew on how to correctly experience the ride, and whose key takeaway from the experience was how it was important to take control to guarantee the most successful outcome of the mission. Which made him sound completely insufferable.
I already dislike being forced to engage with strangers. I think that theme park designers frequently assume that guests are all going to be as extroverted as they are, so they design experiences that demand a certain level of audience participation. That’s bad enough, and when you add a layer of gameplay on top of that, it gets worse. Anybody who’s played enough cooperative board games, or gone through escape rooms, has encountered the type of person who appoints himself quarterback, telling everyone else how to “best” play the game. Niles’s article made it sound as if he were doing exactly that. It’s either spoiling the surprises of the ride for people who haven’t ridden before, or presuming to tell them that he understands the ride better than they do, and that what he wants out of it should be the same thing that they do. What’s the harm in “laughing as the whole thing comes crashing down?” That’s pretty much the entire premise of Star Tours, which has been beloved for decades. Suddenly I was anxious about getting stuck with someone who decided to tell me what to do, and my having to tell him to stay in his own lane and let me enjoy my damn vacation how I wanted to.
What actually happened, though, was the kind of “magical” interaction with strangers that is rare for those of us who are introverts. For our first ride, we were put into a group with four people who’d ridden before. I was assigned the engineer position, and I was a little disappointed because I’d already read reports that the pilot was by far the best experience on the ride, if not the only one worth doing at all. But as soon as they heard it was our first time on the ride, the other people on the ride offered to let us be the pilots, both so we could see it and so that they could try all the different positions. Once we got on board, they were cheering us on as pilots, clapping whenever the group accomplished something, gasping at stuff we hadn’t seen before, and generally making the whole ride feel like a big cooperative adventure.
We got to ride two more times that night. Each time felt as if the group energy brought as much to the ride as any of the visual effects. The second time was with a pretty quiet group of strangers (I believe they weren’t native English speakers), and I thought the experience was neat but unremarkable. The last time was with a couple of guys who’d been trying to ride with all the different roles, and we’d chatted a little bit in the waiting area while I was trying to get a picture at the chess table, and the ride felt more communal and fun.
Granted, this was during a period in which most everyone was seeing the land and the ride for the first time, and we’d all had to make reservations in advance, so it was a group of people predisposed to love everything Star Wars more than a representative sample of the public. Also, the reservation system meant that waits for the ride were rarely over 20 minutes, so we could ride multiple times and didn’t have too much investment in it. Maybe the dynamic will change once the flood gates open and people aren’t able to ride without a long wait, and then change once again after everyone has become familiar with the ride. (No doubt there will eventually be “min-maxers” who’ll be happy to coach you on how best to perform each role).
But for now at least, it’s a ride that takes one of my least favorite things — being forced to talk to strangers — and makes a magical, communal experience out of it. I hope to never be one of those people who tells people the “right” way to experience the ride, but I do know that the only “wrong” way is to expect it to be a sit-back, passive experience like Star Tours. In fact, I think the ride’s tendency to pull you away from facing forward and interact with buttons to your left and right isn’t a design flaw, but actually an element that encourages that kind of immersion. You can’t just sit back and watch. And that’s fine, because the point of the ride isn’t what’s on the screen, but what’s happening in your group.
I think Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang is a work of genius that dispels my assumptions about science fiction vs science fantasy
Whenever I meet another person who’s significantly smarter than I am, my brain immediately and involuntarily starts doing this thing where it starts looking for deficits. “Okay, sure, she may understand linear algebra in a way that I’ve never been able to, but I’d be able to understand it too, if I hadn’t devoted so time to developing a sense of humor to be a more well-rounded person.”
It’s complete bullshit, of course. And it should go without saying that it never actually works, because I don’t live in an 80s teen movie where people have one defining trait. And almost every time I’ve met someone frustratingly smarter than I am, they’ve also turned out to be creative, imaginative, and often funny. (And occasionally, infuriatingly, really good-looking as well).
It was a familiar feeling reading Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, a collection of short stories seemingly written by someone better than me at understanding linguistics, semiotics, and what it fundamentally means to be human.
Usually my attempts to read science fiction end in failure, even though it’s always seemed like I should be a fan. I think I bounce off “real” sci-fi for the same reason I didn’t enjoy taking astronomy in college: the amazing things that we’ve learned about the cosmos aren’t the result of seat-of-your-pants jaunts on a faster-than-light spaceship navigating through asteroid fields, but from centuries of earthbound study. On a purely intellectual level, I can appreciate the spectacular amount of work and brilliant insight that goes into just gathering images from outer space, but still I was disappointed that astronomy classes turned out to be 1% cool pictures of nebulae and 99% geology and physics. Science fantasy is flashier and more fun than science fiction, and both are orders of magnitude more fun than actual science.
It’s appropriate that immediately before this book, I read Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C Clarke for the first time. That’s long had a reputation as being a classic of “hard” science fiction, and for good reason: its drama comes almost entirely from insurmountable limitations of physics (along with some conjecture about interplanetary politics) instead of human interaction. Its characters speak in dry monologues, the attempts at humor are almost unforgivably corny, and there’s an air of just-give-her-a-smack-on-the-ass sexism that pervades the whole thing, although to me at least, it comes across as more musty and dated than genuinely misogynist. The only real personality in the book is that Clarke comes across as way into polygamy.
The preface to the edition of Rendezvous with Rama that I read acknowledges the weakness of character development, but gives it a pass because the book isn’t “about” that. It’s a stereotype about science fiction that I’ve long just accepted as true: a story can either have scientific rigor or good character development, but never both, because they’re inherently mutually exclusive.
The aspect I love the most about Stories of Your Life and Others is that it completely refutes that idea. It takes concepts from science fantasy (and high fantasy), tells them with the rigor of science fiction, and uses them to explore some of the same ideas as contemporary literary fiction. Most of the stories in this book are deeply, profoundly human.
And they don’t use the crutch of direct allegory to make their point — like using the story of an android to ask what makes us human, which can be well-told and effective, but is still processed intellectually. The stories in this book explore a fantastic premise in all its permutations, layering on idea after idea to leave the reader with less of a conclusion and more of a feeling. I didn’t understand “Division by Zero,” for instance, and I still don’t. Even (especially?) after reading Chiang’s afterword describing the impetus for the story, I don’t feel like I can understand the depth of its premise, or fully appreciate the implications of its premise. And still, it left me feeling shaken, in a way even more troubling because I couldn’t explain it. I had to put the book down and couldn’t go back to it for a couple of weeks.
That’s why I can’t say I loved the book, even though I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to call it genius. I do think the stories at the end of this collection were well told but felt either a little predictable or a little too direct when compared to the others, but honestly only suffer when compared to the strength of the first few stories. But more than that, it took an emotional toll on me, as if I’d read seven complete novels in the time I’d intended to read one. I’d expected a short story collection to be a light read, but it was anything but. These short stories don’t feel like sketches, but like sucking on bullion cubes of densely-concentrated ideas.
I haven’t yet seen Arrival, but it’s such a beautiful idea that makes perfect sense for a movie translation. And I’ve already got Chiang’s latest collection, Exhalation, but I’m not eager to jump into it right away. One of the review blurbs calls it “relentless,” and there’s a story called “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” both of which make me think I need to take a break first and read something lighter. I can tolerate somebody being smarter than me, and I can tolerate somebody being more insightful than me, but pulling both at once just seems unfair.
Thinking about the meanings of “pride” and “queer” and the problem with living your life according to someone else’s standards.
On the first day of Pride Month, I woke up, checked my phone, and saw the thing that terrified me the most throughout my teens and twenties turned into pancakes and used to perpetuate global brand awareness. Which, I think, proves that the arc of social justice is long, and it bends towards ridiculousness.
This is a weird time to be alive and gay. It’s gone mainstream enough that it apparently doesn’t even register in terms of diversity, but it’s still not so mainstream that I can donate my blood. It’s a time when at least 75% of the people in my home city wouldn’t even consider my relationship to be anything unusual, while 75% of the people in my home state voted to make it so that I could never be married there.
It’s also a time when one of the most promising candidates for President of the United States happens to be gay, and two of the most frequent criticisms of him are that America’s just “not ready” for a gay President, and also that as a white man he can’t win the progressive vote against women and people of color. So apparently it’s true that you can’t be too gay and also that you can’t be too gay.
Considering how much of my life I spent wanting desperately to be normal, then being in a society that doesn’t think “gay” is all that interesting anymore — at least until it becomes politically useful to discriminate against, of course — could seem like I finally got what I always wanted. Instead, it’s just made me realize that I’ve spent my whole life overly preoccupied with “normal” in one form or another.
I wish I’d learned that sooner! I’d never heard it explained so simply and directly. For years, I’d thought it was another example of activists choosing a world loaded with negative connotations and so easily misconstrued and misinterpreted. (For a fun time, ask me sometime how I don’t like it when people use “privileges” to refer to basic social injustices and inequalities). At worst, it’s associated with arrogance, or the seven deadly sins. At best, it suggests an accomplishment, which at least in my case felt undeserved.
But refusing to be ashamed for things that aren’t shameful: that’s a pretty great thing to celebrate.
Usually, I take Pride festivals and “National Coming Out Day” as an opportunity to do a status check. I look back on when I came out (15 years ago!) and compare my life and my mindset now to the way it was before. And when I look back now, it feels like my preoccupation with what’s “normal” has made me just swap one brand of unnecessary guilt for another. I wasted so many of my adolescent and young adult years feeling ashamed because I wan’t “normal,” but instead of shedding all of that when I came out, I’ve spent the last several years feeling like I had to make excuses for being “too” normal.
It could seem odd to celebrate a lack of shame in 2019, considering that the country is currently being violated by a bunch of people whose only qualification for public office is that they’re actually literally incapable of shame. And it could come across as tone deaf (at best) to assert pride for all aspects of my own identity — not just the gay part — in an environment where the media and the internet is obsessed with giving a microphone to every kind of idiot spouting bullshit about white nationalism, “men’s rights” assholery, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, or simply the disingenuous claim that liberal activism is all about being “racist against white people.” After all, we’ve seen how easily a bunch of chuckleheads could corrupt a simple and powerful message of “Black Lives Matter” into the spectacularly selfish and insultingly clueless whine that “All Lives Matter,” from people terrified that the national conversation isn’t about them for even one second.
But the key part of trying to live with integrity is that it’s got to be the same whether you’re surrounded by enlightened people or you’re surrounded by assholes. You have to stay alert, be aware of your own blind spots, show some humility, do what you can to help people and be sympathetic to what they’re going through, and trust people not to misinterpret or misrepresent what you’re talking about.
As I was growing up, I developed a whole suite of self-deprecating jokes or distractions or obfuscations to explain away any uncomfortable questions. Like why I didn’t have a girlfriend, or why I wasn’t interested in the usual stuff that young men in the south were “supposed” to like, or why I had so many posters of Han Solo. Once I came out, I finally got rid of all that, but then I went and replaced them with a new suite of self-deprecating jokes and pre-emptively defensive explanations to cover years of internalized white liberal guilt. So I’ll make fun of myself for being “not gay enough” or “too white” or “just another white man with an opinion.” It probably started to show some humility and empathy, but repeat it enough time and it turns into bullshit that’s not useful to anybody. Instead of conforming to somebody else’s idea of “normal” as good, it’s just conforming to somebody else’s idea of “normal” as bad.
Which reminds me of another word loaded with connotations: “queer.”
The podcast The Allusionist by Helen Zalzman did an episode about the history of the word, with interviews with various people describing why they do or don’t identify with it. I recommend it to anyone, since it stays pretty free of judgment, and people who’ve had a contentious relationship with the word get their say, too.
I don’t use the word to identify myself, and the reasons have changed over the years since I came out. At first, it was simply because it was used for so long as a slur, and I’ve never been a fan of the idea of “taking back” words, since it can make someone feel shitty unless they’re not 100% in sync with the context in which you’re using it.
But at this point, it’s been used in a positive way for so long that the idea of using it as a slur seems almost like a quaint anachronism. Like Mr. Roper on Three’s Company making a limp-wristed gesture; it’s not even offensive anymore so much as weird, and so dated that you even feel a little bad for him.
So many people love it as this big inclusive, unifying term, which is great, and something that would’ve been useful for me to understand years ago. When I first knew someone who came out as transgender, I tried to be as supportive as I could but still feel like I could’ve done better. I was too focused on the fact that I don’t know what it’s like, and worried that I’d say the wrong thing. I think I’d do a better job now, since I finally “get” that I may not know what it’s like to be transgender, but I do know what it’s like to feel “othered” and have to go through the experience of coming out and being obligated to make parts of your personal life public. It emphasizes a shared experience.
But still, I don’t use it for myself. It’s not a value judgment, because I love that so many people see it as inclusive. My reservations are about the literal meaning of the word and the significance of its meaning. (Even more than “less” vs “fewer.”) For “queer” to make sense for me, it has to be contrasted against “normal.” For some people, that revolves around sexual orientation and gender identity; for others, it’s a celebration of individuality with no “requirements” for inclusion; for others, it’s rejection of an abstract notion of “normal.”
This year in particular, I’m pledging to get over my preoccupation with “normal,” and that doesn’t matter whether I’m making excuses for not being normal enough, or whether I’m making excuses for being too normal. If I’m constantly feeling the need to acknowledge that I came out in about the least hostile environment possible, or feel the need to acknowledge that my experience is mostly white American middle-class male as if that somehow renders me devoid of empathy for anyone else, then I’m celebrating Pride with an asterisk. Which seems to miss the point entirely. I’ll acknowledge that there are plenty of people who seem to be able to navigate all of this with no problem. But I spent so many years feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere, that I can’t help but be depressed whenever someone uses any aspect of my identity to try and diminish or dismiss me.
We all have more in common than not. And empathy, kindness, and compassion aren’t in limited supply. Anyone who acts as if humanity is a zero-sum game, and that promoting one group means demoting another, has either lost the message or never had it in the first place.
Want to call for better representation in media, but without making disingenuous or simple-minded arguments that accomplish nothing? It’s a snap!
A couple of minor warnings first: the above video may be NSFW for language, and both the video and this post “spoils” details about a minor scene that happens within the first 30 minutes of Avengers: Endgame.
Edited 5/12/19: Since I wrote this, I’ve been seeing more interviews and articles that have made me change my mind about this. Worst is the announcement that a major character is going to be revealed to be LGBT in an upcoming movie. I’ve seen that interpreted as a new character being introduced, or an existing character coming out. Obviously keeping a character closeted for years and then treating it as a victory to reveal after the fact would be BS and invalidate every assumption I’ve made about what the movies are trying to do with “archetypal” characters. But really, the entire issue now seems more like a series of PR stunts and less like the sincere message of inclusion that I assumed it was when I first saw Endgame. I think I should probably stop trying to defend the multi-billion dollar franchise and let it speak for itself.
Original Post: Here’s something that annoys me, and these days, it’s such a relief to see something that just annoys me, as opposed to something that makes me outraged and unable to concentrate on anything except stomping around angrily muttering to myself.
The video above is from a recording of Jon Lovett’s podcast, and in it he calls out the new Avengers movie and director Joe Russo in particular for patting themselves on the back for claiming to make great strides in gay representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On the surface, it seems like bullshit for them to be bragging about it, since it’s the first and only mention of gay relationships after 11 years and 22 movies, and it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference from a minor civilian character not really affiliated with any of the super heroes. The scene is of a support group with Steve Rogers and a bunch of other characters talking about life after Thanos, and Joe Russo plays a man who describes going on a date with another man and how neither of them have been able to come to terms with losing so many people.
First, let me get my basic assumptions out of the way:
Representation in the media — even in something as seemingly trivial as superhero movies — is extremely important. I’m still convinced that if I’d seen more representations of gay men who weren’t caricatures when I was a teenager, I would’ve had a much easier time coming out and wouldn’t have wasted my 20s.
Making a marketing push bragging about this minor scene as being a step forward for LGBTQ equality would be bullshit, but Russo didn’t do that. What actually happened was that the Russo brothers did an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, and they were responding to a direct question the interviewer asked about it. It’s pretty disingenuous to make it sound like Marvel or Joe Russo were leading with it.
Obviously, neither Marvel nor the Russo brothers need me to be defending them; they’re not scrappy underdogs and they’ll hold up fine against criticism on the internet. But I just think that it’s churlish and asinine to take a sincere gesture and throw it back in anyone’s face. That’s true whether it’s wishing someone Happy Holidays, or putting in a brief acknowledgement of non-hetero relationships in a blockbuster movie.
It also seems churlish for me to point out how hypocritical it is for a speechwriter for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to be calling out anybody for spending years pretending that LGBT people don’t exist, before making a half-assed show of support and then expecting to be praised for it. So I’ll only mention it once.
If a billion and a half dollars’ worth of people in international markets see a brief but sincere and sympathetic portrayal of a gay man who’s just like everyone else, I’ll appreciate it. Both in the spirit that it was included in the movie, and for the potential it has to reach audiences.
If any other Marvel apologist (and I’ll concede that I am 100% a Marvel apologist) tries to claim that there are no gay characters in the MCU because these are action movies and not about relationships, tell them that that’s complete nonsense. The movies aren’t very sexy — apart, of course, from the constant stream of images going through my head every time Captain America or Thor are on screen — but they are full of heterosexual relationships. To the point where multiple storylines in Infinity War and Endgame, including a couple of the franchise-long story arcs, are driven by heterosexual romantic relationships.
I’ll also just say that I liked the scene. I noticed it when I was watching the movie, and I thought it was a nice little bit of welcome inclusion. Not earth-shattering, but welcome. And I don’t doubt its sincerity, both since Russo played the cameo himself, and because it’s played opposite Chris Evans, who’s been outspokenly pro-LGBT rights.
But Lovett practically sneers at it, both for being too short to be significant but also for drawing too much attention to itself. Of course I realize that Lovett is being hyperbolic in that video for effect, but he’s also got the tone of someone on a self-righteous tear fighting against bigotry and corporate cowardice. And to be clear, it’s not just Lovett. A simple Google search will turn up dozens of different think pieces calling out Russo and Marvel for being tone-deaf or much worse.
At the center of all of the arguments, I think, is the false dichotomy that Lovett presents: that either there’s an openly gay superhero in the MCU, or else Disney and Marvel execs are profit-driven cowards if not outright homophobes. That’s a claim that’s either short-sighted or disingenuous, depending on how charitable you’re feeling.
The actual choices are: the Marvel movies briefly show an incidentally gay character, as they did in Endgame; or there’s no representation at all. And if you want to blame someone for that, blame Marvel Comics. Or more accurately, blame over 60 years of Marvel Comics.
The reason the MCU doesn’t (and likely won’t soon) have an LGBT superhero is simply because all of its characters were created in a time back when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness. To claim that they can or should introduce new gay superheroes — or new superheroes, period — is to ignore why these movies exist. If you claim that they exist to make lots of money, that’s just lazy cynicism; these movies don’t need to be nearly as good as they are, and they’d still be plenty profitable. The real reason these movies exist is to bring decades’ worth of characters together into a cohesive “modern mythology” for a new audience. (Which will then make lots of money that they’re not making from selling comic books).
So as far as I’m aware, the movies have been dealing exclusively with the long-running “platonic ideal” versions of The Avengers and associated characters. With few exceptions, they don’t invent whole new characters that haven’t appeared in the comics, and they don’t significantly alter the existing characters. Origins are combined and streamlined, lengthy subplots or convoluted legacy storylines are omitted, and entire aspects of the characters might be left out or abbreviated, but for the most part, they’re not dramatically changed from the “essence” of the character.
With the caveat that I’m not a Marvel guy and definitely don’t know all the details (or even highlights for that matter) from the comics, here are the exceptions I’m aware of: Agent Coulson was invented for the movies, but he was created specifically to be essentially a MIB, an “everyman.” They used the Ultimates version of Nick Fury instead of the “main universe” one, but I would claim that’s less because of his race and more because Samuel L. Jackson is objectively and effortlessly bad-ass. They changed the origins of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver because they don’t have licensing rights for mutants. They changed the origins of Vision and Ultron because they hadn’t introduced Ant-Man yet. The only genuine, significantly-change-the-comics-storyline reversals that I’m aware of were in Iron-Man 3 and the Kree-Skrull war in Captain Marvel.
But the idea is that the main characters have key aspects to their origins and their personalities that aren’t getting re-imagined. Every version of Tony Stark has to be brilliant and arrogant and get trapped in a cave and build a suit to fight his way out. Every version of Captain America has to be noble and has to volunteer to take the super-serum. They’ve taken a lot of liberties with Thor, but he still started out as the arrogant and pompous thunder god, until they learned that that doesn’t make for very entertaining movies, and they need to make him funny.
I believe that it’d be weird and unnecessary to say “The Hulk was mild-mannered Doctor Bruce Banner until he was genetically altered by an overdose of gamma radiation, and also he’s into dudes.” (And I say that as someone who definitely wouldn’t mind seeing Mark Ruffalo making out with dudes). Orientation, along with gender and often race, is a significant part of identity, and to treat it as arbitrary is to cheapen it.
When you’re inventing new characters, then arbitrary choices in race, gender, orientation, and identity are great! They’re likely to make for a more interesting and unique story. At worst, it’ll probably be welcome representation for someone in the audience. But if you’re changing an identity-significant aspect of an existing character, then I believe that you’re obligated to answer the question “why?” The change draws attention to itself, so you have to devote screen time to do something with it.
For instance: I think it was a welcome change to cast black actors as Heimdall and Valkyrie, because it doesn’t impact the characters. The reason it doesn’t impact the characters is because Asgard presumably doesn’t have all the connotations of race that Midgard does, so it can actually be arbitrary and not have to “mean” anything. You just give better representation to more of the audience in movies already overfull of white people, and you also get to cast two of the most beautiful living humans in your superhero movie. Win-win.
Mild spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming: they did cast an actress of color as MJ instead of making her the iconic white redhead, but I’d argue that the movie and its casting don’t treat race as arbitrary, even if they don’t address race explicitly. For MJ herself, it’s just a clever surprise that this character crucial to the Spider-Man universe has been there the whole time; she just looks nothing like what you’d expect. It’s an extension of another play on the audience’s assumptions about race that happens earlier in the movie, which I won’t spoil because I thought it was one of the movie’s most effective moments. In both cases, they implicitly assert the notion that it’s our assumptions about race that are arbitrary.
As a counter-example from a different franchise: making Sulu gay in the new Star Trek. It was a change that drew attention to itself but then just sat there, doing nothing. If I’m being charitable, I’d say that sexual orientation was the least interesting way to show that they’re in an alternate reality. But really, I think it was just a ham-fisted attempt at diversity that chose Sulu solely because the original actor of the character is gay in real life, which doesn’t even make sense. Making alternate Spock gay could’ve been interesting (fascinating?) but the tepid attempt to show Sulu as a casually-happens-to-be-gay character didn’t make me feel represented; it made me feel like I was being pandered to.
So why can’t they use the LGBT characters that already exist in the comics? Because there simply aren’t many interesting Avengers-caliber ones on the Marvel side. I keep seeing lists of LGBT characters in comics online, and it’s always more disheartening than encouraging. Unless you’re a big fan of Northstar, I guess, but I’ve only ever heard of him via lists of LGBT characters. Iceman is the obvious exception, and maybe there’ll be room for him in the movies now that Disney’s bought Fox and they can start using mutants.
One weird, paradoxical side effect of all this: by trying to articulate why it’s okay that I’m not exactly represented in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I now feel more included in the MCU than I ever have before.
Several times over the last decade, I’ve mentioned my story of being at Wondercon with thousands of nerds all watching the first Iron-Man trailer, and seeing them all absolutely losing their shit over it, and me just standing there not getting what the big deal was. Ever since then, I’ve felt like I’m an outsider trying to catch up: I’ll watch the “what you need to know before watching Captain America: Civil War” primers or read the “15 things you should know about the Kree-Skrull War” blog posts or see the “25 Easter Eggs you missed in Thor: Ragnarok” videos, filling in gaps of my comics knowledge so that I can enjoy the movies as much as the comics super-fans who are the real audience.
But it took 11 years and 22 movies for me to realize that I am the real audience. It doesn’t seem like they’ve been making these things for the people who can name all the different lineups of the Avengers since the original incarnation; they can and will enjoy the hell out of them, but they’re not who the movies are “for.” It seems more that they’ve been making them for people like me, who want to enjoy seeing these characters together, but have never been able to get into them.
And finally, I should say that I think only the movies get a pass for it. And as they start phase two of the movies, time is running out and it’s something they need to start addressing. I haven’t been watching the TV series since the first couple of Netflix seasons and a few episode of Agents of SHIELD, and it seems like with all those hours of screen time, there’s really no excuse if they haven’t tossed in an LGBT character here or there.
I finally worked up the nerve to watch Get Out, and I really liked it. It was a close call, apparently.
(I’m going to avoid spoilers until the second half of this post. It’s remarkable how I managed to go about two years without having this movie ruined for me, and I think it’s vastly improved by going in as ignorant as possible!)
It’s been about two years since Get Out was released, and over a year since I bought it for home streaming, but I’ve only just watched it this week, mostly to make sure I’ve seen it before Jordan Peele’s new movie Us.
I could make excuses, but the main reason I haven’t watched it is because I’ve been scared of it. I love thinking about and post-analyzing horror movies but rarely enjoy watching them, at least if they’re at all serious in tone. I’ve got extremely low tolerance for gore and depictions of torture, as well. If I’m being honest, there are parts of Key and Peele that were almost too uncomfortable for me to watch, so how bad would it be without the necessity to be funny, and without basic cable censors? I’ve asked several times online for a summation of how violent/gory/scary Get Out is, but I always got mixed answers (because it’s subjective). My take, for anyone else who’s been interested but scared to watch it:
It’s excellent and deserves all the praise it’s gotten
It’s only got one real jump scare
Gore is minimal
It’s very funny in places, but isn’t a horror comedy
The scariest moments are all psychological horror and tension
Since it’s been so long since it was released, it seems like every white person on the internet has already posted their opinions and analysis of it, several times over. I don’t have much new to say, but I can at least be another white person on the internet and give my personal take on it.
Inclusion: I’ve said before that I was late to the party on both Inside Amy Schumer and Key and Peele, because I wasn’t sure that either show was “for” me, as someone who isn’t a woman and isn’t black. As a white liberal NPR-listening American, though, I’m 100% sure that Get Out is “for” me. I’m not exclusively the target audience, obviously, but I’m unquestionably part of it, and that certainty is actually pretty nice for once.
Even if Peele hadn’t explicitly said as much, it’s clear that the movie is a reaction to those of us who wanted to believe that the Obama Administration was a milestone, and that America was making progress towards becoming a “post-racial” society, even if we had a long way to go. This movie seems not only to reject that idea completely, but to make us question whether “post-racial” is a noble goal at all. The idea is really only appealing to those of us whose identities wouldn’t be assimilated — when white people say “post-racial” what we’re assuming (usually unconsciously) is actually “everybody looks different but is still essentially like me.”
Representation: I’ve been looking forward to Us as well — or at least, having every intention of seeing it and then chickening out to watch Captain Marvel again instead — because I still like the idea of intelligent horror movies and because I think Lupita Nyong’o is amazing. When I read the Rotten Tomatoes synopsis:
Haunted by an unexplainable and unresolved trauma from her past and compounded by a string of eerie coincidences, Adelaide feels her paranoia elevate to high-alert as she grows increasingly certain that something bad is going to befall her family. […] Us pits an endearing American family against a terrifying and uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.
I was embarrassed, because I realized there was no mention in the synopsis, or in any of the trailers, that the main characters were black. I’d just assumed that Peele’s next movie after Get Out would be another example of social movie commentary about race, and I didn’t consider that it might not have anything to do with the protagonists being black. Apart from being made by a filmmaker who’s loved watching movies all his life but rarely seen himself reflected in the characters.
I haven’t heard much about Us other than that it’s really good, and now I kind of don’t want it to be social commentary. I’d love to see an example in horror where the endearing American family isn’t white by default.
Empathy: As much as I want to understand all the issues that surround representation in the media, there’s always going to be a limit to how much I “get it” since I’ve very rarely been in a situation where I’m the only white person. Even trying to go the intersectional route and comparing it to growing up gay surrounded by media that 99.99% for and about straight people, it’s nowhere near a perfect comparison.
I can say that during those few times when I’ve been in a racial minority, there’s been this undercurrent of unease that I just can’t intellectualize away, no matter how hard I try. I haven’t ever felt threatened, just different. And every time I’ve thought, “this is just weird,” it’s been accompanied by the realization, “but temporary for me, while they have to feel like this almost all of the time, and wonder if they’re physically in danger on top of that.” It’s profoundly othering, in a time when I’m doing my best to by empathetic, and it’s perpetually frustrating and discouraging for anyone who believes in a future where we’ll all just be comfortable around each other. I want to be the type of person who just gets it, but I’m probably more the type of person who subconsciously keeps saying “my man.”
Which is an idea that Get Out handles so perfectly, it’s astounding. The movie presents the perfect visual representation of being simultaneously marginalized and exposed, which refers back to the image of watching people on TV who aren’t like you, with the addition of being powerless to stop it.
It’s a huge part of why the premise is so perfectly suited to a horror film, which leads to my favorite part of the movie, which is the final scene, which makes any discussion of it a huge spoiler.
Captain Marvel shows what can happen when you stop making superhero movies and start making movies for an audience familiar with superheroes
There’s a lot I loved about Captain Marvel, but if I had to pick one thing, it’d be how it culminates in a fight scene set to “Just a Girl” by No Doubt. It’s not my favorite scene in the movie, and I kind of agree with the criticism that it’s kind of corny and extremely on-the-nose. But it also felt to me like a perfect example of how everyone involved in the production just got it. It felt to me like a victory lap, not just for this movie, but for the entire decade-plus franchise of impossibly huge blockbusters.
To explain what I’m talking about, I have to take a step back and say that I disagree with most of the reviews I’ve seen of Captain Marvel. The consensus seems to be that this is a good but middling Marvel movie, which feels like a throwback to the first phase of origin story movies. And they say that Captain Marvel has a ton of potential, but that there’s little room for character development in this movie, and the story ends right as it’s getting interesting.
My response is to point out that Captain Marvel introduces multiple alien species; shape-shifters; a fight scene on a train through Los Angeles; chases in cars, jet fighters, and spaceships; a forgotten identity subplot; an investigation into a secret project buried deep inside a NASA base; an intergalactic war; and an adorable flerken.
It’s complicated, is my point, and weird in such a shamelessly nerdy, comic-book-saturated way that I still have a hard time believing that these are the biggest, most mainstream movies being made these days. This couldn’t have been released alongside the first wave of Marvel movies, since back then, people still believed that super-heroes were a tough sell for a mainstream audience. It wasn’t until Guardians of the Galaxy that the franchise got into sci-fi (and comedy, for that matter), but Captain Marvel tosses you right into the middle of a planet full of aliens in the first scene.
Over the years, I’ve tried several times to get up to speed on the whole sci-fi side of the Marvel universe. And even in comic book geek terms, Captain Marvel’s origin story is weird and confusing, with Krees and Skrulls and alien DNA fusion and multiple identities. I read and watched multiple “explain the history of Captain Marvel” articles and videos in preparation for the movie, and I never felt like I got it. Try explaining Carol Danvers’s back story in an environment where filmmakers still believe you have to show Bruce Wayne’s parents dying every single time or you’ll be completely baffled by the premise of Batman. After spending over a decade getting everyone accustomed to comic book storytelling, it’s a little easier.
And the best thing about everyone being accustomed to comic book storytelling is that it allows Captain Marvel to treat genres as pretty much irrelevant. So it can freely hop from car chase to space dogfight to spy movie to buddy movie and be confident that an audience in the 21st century is perfectly able to keep up.
It also means that it can trust that everyone in the audience knows how super-heroes work. Carol Danvers has the same character arc as every other super-hero: being thrown into an extraordinary situation, defining herself on her own terms, and gradually discovering the full extent of her powers. And when she finally becomes the Marvel Universe’s version of Superman (not a spoiler, since it’s all over the trailers!), there’s no longer any tension from just a fight scene. You know she’s going to win, so don’t insult anyone’s intelligence by pretending that the outcome is in doubt. Just lean 1000% into the 1990s girl power of the movie’s premise and acknowledge that the whole scene exists only to be fun spectacle.
So much of Captain Marvel felt to me like the filmmakers and the audience finally being completely in sync with decades of popular storytelling. It’s an origin story, but it felt like a long overdue relief from origin-story fatigue.
I can still remember being at Wondercon years ago and seeing hundreds of comic book geeks just losing their shit seeing the trailer for Iron Man. I was never a fan of the character, so I just didn’t get the excitement and was a little envious of it. Fast forward a decade, and I’m spending the first part of Avengers Infinity War grinning like an idiot at finally getting the chance to see Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Doctor Strange battling a bad guy in Manhattan.
In a way, it’s even more perfect that Marvel replaced the usual Marvel Studios logo at the beginning of Captain Marvel with a tribute to Stan Lee and a classy title card simply thanking him. This felt to me less like a genre film and more like an acknowledgement of just how pervasive and familiar that Stan Lee’s stories have become. It felt less like a superhero movie and more like a shared cultural moment.
Here’s a short list of only some of the bullshit I saw before lunch yesterday:
A manufactured controversy around a Democratic congresswoman, who made dumb but ultimately innocuous comments on Twitter that are being disingenuously portrayed as anti-Semitic. It’s a blatantly shallow attempt at dividing and undermining the Democratic party, and the Democrats are practically stumbling over themselves to take the bait.
The congresswoman’s tweet itself, which is indicative of this new round of freshmen representatives, who are in the news not for actual policy so much as for being able to tweet the sickest burns against the stuffy old establishment.
Anonymous comments posted to a friend’s review of the new Captain Marvel movie, filled with the usual lazy bullshit about social justice warriors and political correctness. They were posted within minutes of the review going up, almost as if they weren’t actual opinions of idiots responding to the article, but just a different type of idiot googling “Captain Marvel” for the sake of drumming up some false controversy.
A separate review of Captain Marvel that elevates the false controversy to the title of the review itself, comparing supervillains to “sexist trolls” in reference to the anti-feminist review-bombing on Rotten Tomatoes, as if putting a smackdown on internet assholes were part of the movie’s promotional campaign.
A video clip of Meghan Mulalley on the Ellen Degeneres show, casually delivering yet another story about how she and husband Nick Offerman are so quirky and iconoclastic and a refreshingly unconventional celebrity couple.
Maybe I’ve just been in a particularly bad, Holden Caulfield-y mood lately, but all of it seems super phony, and I’m not buying any of it.
Now I realize that when I equate talk show appearances with political deception, and when I complain about viral marketing being fake, I’m in danger of seeming as naive as the aliens from Galaxy Quest, saying acting was the same as “lying.” But the problem is that we’re so deeply buried under multiple layers of bullshit — from the embarrassment that is US national politics to the cesspool of social media platforms — that we’re over-saturated. The bottom has dropped out of the truth business, and nobody seems to put any value on honesty anymore. There’s no such thing as an innocuous lie in an environment like that.
Consider the 2016 Ghostbusters. I enjoyed the movie, but let’s be honest: it was mediocre at best. It wasn’t as corny as Ghostbusters II, but it also didn’t have anything as memorable as that Vigo painting. Or really, anything memorable at all. And yet it was one of the most talked-about movies in production for at least a year, all because of the nerd outrage over casting women in all the lead roles. I’m not cynical enough to think that all of the outrage was completely manufactured by Columbia marketing, but I can all but guarantee that they exploited it.
I wasn’t always so suspicious. In fact, until a couple of years ago, I was doing a pretty good job of shedding my 1990s cynicism and becoming a better version of myself. I can even name the thing that made me finally join the rest of the United States and shrug and say that nothing matters anymore.
At the top of this post I linked to a video. In case it disappears from YouTube for whatever reason, it’s a song from the soundtrack to the movie The Greatest Showman as ”performed” by the animoji animals available on an iPhone X. The video came out right as the new iPhone did, when people were just trying out the animoji feature for the first time, and just before the release of The Greatest Showman on home media. The video is “by” a guy who, at the time I’m writing this, has a channel with a little under 2000 subscribers and only four other videos, all of which seem to be nondescript vacation home movies.
My first reaction to seeing the video was “What a thoroughly disappointing bunch of twee garbage at every level.” I never saw the movie, but I’d assumed that a musical about P.T. Barnum would have period-appropriate music, or at worst use the default “contemporary movie musical” style that would make it timeless. (see: Rent) But this song is just peak Generic Millennial Pop Anthem, completely forgettable and already hopelessly dated. And the video treatment was a predictable example of someone with too much disposable income making an ostentatious display of wealth using the gimmick that Apple, Inc had chosen to make people think spending $1000 on a cell phone was quirky and whimsical.
But I caught myself! “That’s the old Chuck,” I thought. “The new me is more open and less judgmental.” I have no interest in the movie or its music, but some people just love it. Real people I know, even! I legitimately and deeply love Moulin Rouge!, which is something that a lot of other people find completely insufferable, so who am I to judge? If some dude on YouTube was excited to play with his new phone and make a video for a song he loved, then what’s the real harm? I finally was able to differentiate between “garbage” and “something that’s just not made for me,” and I was a better person for it.
Except, of course, for the fact that some dude on YouTube would never be able to post a music video without its being automatically flagged and blocked before it ever went live. I’ve tried to post videos that got blocked because of music I hadn’t even noticed was playing in the background. There’s no way a genuine fan-made video could include the entire song and survive unmolested.
It took me at least a couple of months to come to that realization, which made it not just a bummer, but made me feel really gullible. I think what made it feel like a betrayal was that it was taking advantage of my better nature — I could remember being a goofy teenager and loving a song so much that I felt like I had to make a video of it. Realizing that that earnest, goofy, vulnerability was being exploited by some marketing firm just seems inexcusably crass.
That extends to the backlash that seems to follow every single property that’s led by a woman or even features women in prominent roles. All the supposed nerdrage doesn’t even feel like genuine stupidity at this point, but just a shallow, predictable performance. With Captain Marvel, it feels so by-the-numbers that it’s actually tough to tell who’s orchestrating it. Is it a bunch of MRA fuckwits? A bunch of bored trolls who believe it’s still funny to pose as MRA fuckwits to get people all worked up?
Those would be the best case. I wish I could be 100% sure that it wasn’t all some marketing firm. Provoking a backlash and then taking advantage of people’s best natures to write think pieces and see the movie as some kind of feminist counter-protest. It’s almost impossible to tell how much of it is genuine, and as a result none of it seems genuine.
I guess practically, it doesn’t matter that much. Saying the right thing to misogynist is the same thing as saying the right thing to a crass marketing strategist. But one thing the Individual-1 administration has made clear is that it goes both ways: saying racist things because you’re trying to appeal to racists is no different from saying racist things because you’re a racist. I feel like we’re at the saturation point with inauthenticity and manipulation, and as corny as it may be, we need to find value in being straightforward and honest.