• Welcome to The Anti-Misandry Blog within SethBlogs! Confused? Click here for The Anti-Misandry Blog Introduction. Intrigued/enraged? Click on the “Anti-Misandry” link in the CATEGORY section to the right of this post for further episodes.

    THE ANTI-MISANDRY BLOG: EPISODE XV

    I watched Wonder Woman last week, and I’m pleased to admit that I enjoyed it. The film featured plenty of humour (albeit standard, fish-out-of-water comedy, as in Wonder Woman being awestruck by her first encounter with ice cream), back story (which is my favourite kind of super hero story), 3-Dimensional characters (although, I saw the movie in 2D), and an unusually clear rendering of action (in fact, Wonder Woman and her fellow Amazonians had an inventive fighting style that was entertaining to my non-video-gamed eye).

    Most impressive of all, the movie was not overrun by an infestation of “Girl Power.” This may sound like a contradiction since Wonder Woman is a girl with lots of power. However, by “Girl Power,” I mean the “Because I’m a girl” attitude that is exhibited increasingly often in movies (and advertising) these days where a person of female persuasion is treated as extra powerful by the very definition of her being a girl, as opposed to her particular circumstance and character having led her to that powerful place. In the case of Wonder Woman, her position of power is not parachuted in by her gender, but instead is explained by her supernatural back story and training.

    And, while the film occasionally panders to its feminist godmothers (comparing a 1910’s female secretary to a slave), it is not as blatant in that gendered agenda (“agender,” if you will?) that so many rival mega action franchises are today. Consequently, I found it to be relatively refreshing.

    Nevertheless, the media portrayal of this movie has been much more Girl-Powered than the movie, itself. For instance, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin Texas decided to have a women-and-girls only showing of the film on opening night (and women-only staff of it), and when a few equal-gender-defenders criticized the policy, they were dismissed by many mainstream pundits as sexist simpletons.

    I believe the following soliloquy from a Mashable.com commentator fairly sums up the pro-women-only argument:

    “Sounds like a good idea, right? Women getting together to celebrate a strong, empowered, three-dimensional female superhero on the big screen. Of course. It makes perfect sense. But, as we all know, we can’t have nice things… The Drafthouse received hundreds of comments from angry men who felt ‘excluded’ from the event… Of course there were also many people who loved the idea who understand that this film is a celebration of women finally being included in the world of superheroes and finally being represented on the big screen. Let’s hope these dudes can get themselves together…”

    I’m happy to hear arguments in favour of the discriminatory screening, but it is daunting to listen to such smug commentary, which seems to imply this controversy is merely about whether countering perceived injustice is worthy or not. Such “of course it makes sense” pundits are either unwilling or unable to consider the possibility that direct discrimination based on sex, no matter how noble it may be in intention and platitude, is an ethically dicey enterprise.

    It’s not obvious to me whether men or women on average deal with more real-world discrimination in the West today, but it is indisputable that men are the only sex that is currently the victim of open discrimination for which there is no recourse. I recently attended a BC Human Rights workshop in which I learned that it is illegal to discriminate in the workplace against a person on the basis of sex (and other irrelevant traits), unless of course you’re working on a special project to uplift a group that is historically disadvantaged. And, since we all know that the official gender policy of our society is that it is only women who have ever been disadvantaged (forget about wars, coal mines, and parental custody disputes), that means you can discriminate against men so long as you provide clear evidence that you stated that you were empowering women in the process.

    Political parties are doing it, too. From Justin Trudeau’s quota-based promoting of women to cabinet positions “Because it’s 2015,” to the BC NDP limiting the number of men allowed to run for office, it is clear that our society not only wants to ensure equal access to powerful positions, but also to discriminate against men along the way. The defenders of such policies, as well as those defending the Women-Only screening, seem unable to consider the possibility that a principle of discrimination might be dangerous even it is supported by a pleasing symbolic message.

    Indeed, my neck hurt from shaking my head as the hosts on a local Vancouver radio show, “Steele and Drex,” could apparently not comprehend why anyone would have any issue with a fun opportunity for women and girls to celebrate their potential.

    Thus, I penned the following letter to those local pundits, but as ever, I did not get a reply, so I am posting it here. Some might see my argument as melodramatic and overstating the impact of a tiny incident, especially as I ponder a hypothetical autistic man who might’ve been excluded from the theatre. However, as our modern, anti-“privilege” discrimination unveils new examples each day, I think it’s vital that we at least consider the possibility that by leaving people out because of their sex, race, or sexuality (even if they are of the demographic that is presumed to be advantaged), we are playing with ethical fire. Despite our best intentions, when you tell any person that they are less worthy because of what they are, instead of who they are (to paraphrase Youtube star, Sargon of Akkad), we are setting a worrisome precedent.

    As it is, not only do our mainstream pundits not consider the downsides of “affirmative” discrimination, but also, when they do learn of dissenters, they accuse such skeptics of being cranially-challenged bigots. So the counter conversation is not just ignored, it is ostracized. Perhaps I’m wrong in my assessment that the current level of popular discrimination is dangerous, but if we do not openly discuss this delicate subject now, how will we know when such exclusion has gone too far?

    And, with that, I give you me in epistolary form:

    Some friendly wonderings about the Wonder Woman Policy:

    Dear [guest host] Jody [Vance] and Drex:

    I wonder if you would consider a friendly counter argument to your analysis yesterday regarding the appropriateness of having a women-only screening of Wonder Woman (hereafter the “The Wonder Policy”).

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but you both seem to be arguing that a business restricting its audience to women for one occasion is benign, and just a fun thing to do given the circumstance of the movie being about a female superhero.

    Personally, I dislike the Wonder policy on principle, not because I’m opposed to fun and creative ways to take in movies, but because I’m opposed to discrimination based on sex (even if that sex is male). I suspect that most defenders of the Wonder policy would be less willing to support a men-only screening of Superman, and the distinction they would likely make would be that it’s okay to discriminate against men in this way because they are the historically privileged group.

    For the record, I do not think that assumed truth is as clear cut as we’re told; it seems to me that both men and women have been discriminated against in multiple different ways for a long time. For instance, women got the vote later than men, but it is only men who were drafted into wars.

    Nevertheless, even if it were clear that women have been significantly more oppressed than men throughout history, are you so sure that is still the case today? There are many categories today in which men are more often doing worse in North America than women (for instances, homelessness, workplace death, suicide). That does not necessarily mean those men are oppressed, but it does mean that the question of “male privilege” is more complicated than most gender scholars will allow, especially given how many more resources, advocacy groups, and scholarships are currently focussed first on women.

    But, even if I were to stipulate that in North America today, men are privileged, I still find the women-only movie viewing to be ethically suspect. The Wonder Policy is not just saying, “Yay, girls!” It is implying that the experience of seeing Wonder Women for the first time would be losing something if the boys were there, too. Every time you say, “X People Only,” you are saying, “Y People are NOT welcome.” And, while it may seem fun and benign in the moment because we generally don’t think of men as victims of discrimination, if you look for it, you can see male-excluding language and sentiment has become ubiquitous today in politics, advocacy, academia, and even the media (examples available upon request). The Wonder Policy is just one more pronouncement that it’s okay to discriminate against men because, well, there’s something different about them that makes it okay to exclude them.

    Maybe there’s an autistic man who’s loved Wonder Woman since he was a kid, and wants to attend the movie on opening night with his best friend in the town where the Wonder Policy is in place, but he’s going to be turned away, because he has the incorrect gender for that viewing. Are you sure such a scenario doesn’t make you question for a tiny moment whether the Wonder Policy is morally correct?

    I don’t anticipate that I have convinced you, and that’s fine if we have differing moral codes on what constitutes unethical discrimination. But I wonder if you would be willing to consider the possibility that, just because someone has an ethical objection to the Wonder Policy, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a sexist. Maybe some of us, on principle, think the policy is sexist, and would equally object to a hypothetical Superman Policy.

    Yours in Wonder,
    Seth

  • As someone who has been resistant to the omni-tentacled powers of social media, I am pleased with myself for noticing something that social media does with more audience consideration than mainstream media.

    As with all topics, this one can be best understood by travelling far, far away and backwards in time to the Star Wars galaxy. I recently watched a documentary, Rogue 1: A Star Wars Story, which examines the events just before the historical time period of Star Wars, Episode IV, A New Hope.

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    Worry not, I am aware that these characters are living in a fictional galaxy, but I jest because I am obsessed. I adore my Star Wars, so when new episodes arrive to fill in gaps in my favourite patch of fictional history, I am as excited as a Sith lord finding a new apprentice.

    But there is one tiny chink in my Darth Vader armour: the movie reviewers that I observe in mainstream media are often disrespectful of movies, such as these, that are meant to entertain.

    First, as I’ve discussed before, many reviewers are only capable of appreciating films that match their deep and dark genre sensibilities. If you’re not depressed or confused by the end of a screening, they’re not loving it. Consequently, they fail their movie reviewing duties because not all of us go to the cinema solely to cry and deconstruct opaque symbolism. There are other genres we like to imbibe, and many reviewers are unwilling to examine those movies’ abilities to live up to their genre requirements. For instance, if I’m looking to see an action film, and my reviewer treats Die Hard (an obviously brilliant offering in its category) and The Matrix (not so much) as equally “brainless collections of violence, stunts, and special effects,” then they will not have aided me in selecting between the two.

    Second, and more importantly in this case (since I do not need a critic’s help to inspire me to see Star Wars), many of the mainstream reviewers, with whom I have a begrudging one-sided relationship, have an annoying a penchant for spoiling the movies they discuss by giving away too much plot in their critiques. As in my first criticism, I think the leading causes of this aggravating habit are that the reviewers are arrogant and inconsiderate. Notice that, as they babble freely about the plots they’re exposing, they enunciate their unwelcome delivery with a patronizing tone of voice that implies, “Come on, in a movie like this, obviously that character was going to turn out to be that character’s dad. And, then obviously…”

    This condescending inconsideration is amplified by the reviewers’ distance from their audience. When my Friday afternoon movie reviewer, Katherine Monk, gives away too much of a movie in her Friday afternoon reviews on CBC Radio, she is not aware of me yanking my head phones out of my ears to protect myself.

    In contrast, then, after a trilogy of viewings of Rogue 1—which is a fantastic companion to A New Hope, and a superior installment, in my opinion, to its most recent rival, the pleasing, but troubled Episode VII: The Force Awakens—I craved more contemplations than my own about the new addition to the family. And, while I no longer had to fear the spoiling tendencies of the mainstream media, I was also aware that they were not going to consider my hobby with the nuance I was seeking. Therefore, I cranked up my internet, and dove into the wild space of Youtube, where I was greeted by individual and group conversations, featuring humour, intelligence, and appreciation for the subject. These youtubers were reviewing this Rogue 1 movie because they loved the Star Wars franchise, and even if they didn’t positively perceive this Star Wars story and collection of characters as much as I did, they had gone into the film—quite in contrast with our mainstream movie rebukers—hoping to like it. As a result, where it failed to delight them, I was open to their critiques because they hadn’t treated the movie as intrinsically irredeemable before they’d starting watching it.

    Now, I had visited in Youtube before, so I should acknowledge that I reviewed these reviews anticipating this level of respect. However, what I wasn’t expecting was that every Youtube reviewer that I surfed upon expressed concern about spoiling the movie for their audience, and so offered both a “non-spoiler” and a “spoiler” analysis of the film. In the latter service, every youtuber that I encountered reminded their audience at least twice that they were about to unleash vital plot details, so, if the viewer hadn’t yet seen the movie, they were invited to leave then or forever hold their complaints.

    I assume that this sort of consideration was motivated initially by the democratic nature of Youtube, wherein one starts with a tiny audience, which one can diminish or increase rapidly with every right or wrong turn of phrase. Regardless, the result is that such respect-for-audience has for now become a feature of Youtube culture: even the large, popular Youtube channels that I took in offer this same spoiler protection service.

    While Youtube has its vices (never read the comments: the many anti-social creatures who ply their crassness there will leave your belief in humanity scarred), this fantastic, spoil-resistant result has me pleased with the You-niverse. They have achieved a compassion for their audience that many mainstream reviewers have not even sought. In short, they have gone Rogue, and I like it.

  • I have been enjoying the Star Trek “reboot”* movies.

    *I think the films in this new series are more aptly described as “requels,” since the previous stories still “happened” in a prior timeline, but—after an incident with a wormhole and its resulting butterfly effect—those iconic tales are now being recorded over with new adventures of the same people.

    As I previously argued (against an eloquent but confused New Yorkerian attack), the first effort, Star Trek, was a brilliant combination of humour, adventure, and homage to the voyages that brought it. And the sequel, Star Trek: Into Darkness, continued that charming work well.

    I have now taken in the third, Star Trek: Beyond, and while I once again had a nice time hanging out with it, I think it was a small step for mankind less brilliant than its prequel requels, and I have a thought about why. As with most current big movie writers, the authors of Beyond (Simon Pegg and Doug Jung) fell into the unnecessary compulsion to always go bigger than anyone has gone before. For Star Trek writers, that means, if you’re not saving the world, your story’s not worth telling. In both Star Trek and Into Darkness, that was fine since the world-saving fit reasonably well into the larger plots.

    However, in many movies these days, the convention to go big is a narrative-distorting forced add-on to a smaller story that is (or could have been) thrilling on its own. Consider, in contrast, Die Hard, one of the greatest action movies humanity has ever conceived. The plot took place almost entirely in and around one skyscraper, where our hero, and the innocent building dwellers he was trying to protect, battled bank robber invaders. Had the Die Hard makers insisted on adding an attempt by the villains to blow up the earth, I think that would have undermined the smaller story that grabbed us.

    In Beyond, the crew is in year 3 of its 5-year mission to explore strange new worlds (i.e. they’re at lest few light days away from home), so it seemed Captain Kirk and crew were destined for an adventure that would not involve earth-saving tasks. Early on in the movie, though, we discover that they are making a scheduled stop at a Federation base (“Starbase Yorktown”).

    Yorktown is an atmosphere-containing orb city, which is both awesome (literally) and confusing. As someone who likes to imagine human-made civilizations in space, this one is as impressive and imaginative a rendering as I’ve seen. Nevertheless, upon first meeting it, my Spock-wannabe eyebrows rose up in confusion because Yorktown (circa 2263) seemed—to my uneducated, 3D-glasses-wearing eyes—to be more technologically advanced than the Federation would be producing more than a hundred years later in its base-based spinoff, Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (circa 2369). Despite my confusion, I was enjoying myself too much to realize that this amazing civilization was to be playing the role of the world-in-distress that would need saving during the end-of-movie chase scene.

    I’m not intrinsically opposed to movies about saving space stations, but, in this story, this extra task is of the variety of forced add-on, which cuts into the compelling smaller project of Kirk and friends. Nearby the station, there is a bermuda-triangle-like nebula that has recently captured a ship, so Kirk and crew warp in to investigate. Once inside the nebula, our enterprising team is ambushed by a voracious hive of mini-ships, and so are forced to crash land on a nearby planet where the hive’s leader has imprisoned crews from various ships over many seasons.

    It’s a wonderful idea for a Star Trek story, with lots of opportunities for creative uses of technology and moxie as our stars try to escape the bad guy’s evil plans. Sadly, though, in order to shove in the requirement of saving the nearby space-city into the overall plot, the writers had to shorten and simplify that brilliant adventure. And the subsequently squeezed in world-saving finale is so rushed that it was difficult for some of us in the audience to follow. Indeed, the complicated climax could have been stretched out to an entire movie on its own, but because it had to be packed into the final 10 minutes of the film, it is instead a jumble of frantic energy.

    Beyond is, I think, a fine movie overall, but its insistence upon limiting itself to the current “Go Bigger or Go Home,” trend is disappointing. For all their futuristic imagination, the creators of this film were unable to go beyond contemporary convention. Hopefully, in twenty years, when they three-boot this franchise, they’ll resist that temptation.

  • WARNING: This post contains plot spoilers. If you haven’t yet seen Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, please do so now, and then report back here to discuss.

    WARNING II: This review contains lots of details of The Force Awakens without full explanation because I’m assuming you have heeded the WARNING above, and have now seen the movie once or thrice such that you’ll be able to follow the details.

    And now, without further a Dooku:

    To bookend my nostalgia-aided anticipation of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, it’s time to decide what I thought of it.

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    I think The Force Awakens is both brilliant and disappointing. It respects the humorous yet earnest tone of the originals. It divides its time well between storytelling and action. And there are many delightful new characters ready to fill our action figure collections. Most significantly, I’ve had a great time in my trilogy of viewings, and in each instance I’ve noticed something I didn’t in the first attempt.

    So, if The Force Awakens were the first-ever Star Wars, I would mark it down as a ten and buy my ticket to a fourth big screening with a giddy smile on my face.

    However, Episode VII cannot be measured only by its own excellence; it must also be checked for its ability to contribute to the saga that brought it. And that is where I am a smidge frustrated.

    (Before I list my complaints, I offer two caveats. (1) I still loved the movie, and will support its sequel efforts with all my force. (2) I would be delighted if any of my quibbles were proven wrong in future episodes.)

    (I) THE DARK SIDE NEVER SLEEPS:

    Some have said that, by copying the plot structure of Episode IV: A New Hope, Episode VII was pandering to nostalgi-addicts like myself. I think the opposite. To my obsessive fancy, the best way to honour Star Wars fanaticism would have been to continue the story that came before. That is, Episodes I-VI gave us an account of how the dark side rose and then fell from power. But, by reinstalling the same scenario of the dark side dominating with an oppressive regime at the start of this film, I felt as if those first six movies did not have a significant effect on the structure of our current galaxy.

    I don’t object to the dark side rising again (if not, “it’s gonna be a real short trip”), but I would have preferred this movie to be more about how it re-rose. Instead of starting with a Darth Vader II (Kylo Ren) and an Emperor II (Supreme Leader Snoke) already back in the same dominating dark places that they were in Episodes IV-VI, I would have loved to see the new dark leaders slowly undermining our victory in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.

    As it was, it seems to me that director/co-writer JJ Abrams, along with co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, are essentially saying, “We’re gonna start all over, fanboys!”

    That worked for Abrams’s other epic directorial commission, Star Trek, since that starry adventure has long been a multi-version universe. However, I don’t think such rebooting fits for Star Wars which has always been a continuing saga). Maz Kanata’s (Yoda II’s) explanation that evil regimes always dominate in some form (from the Sith to the Empire to now, The First Order) didn’t satisfy me. If the dark side taking over is inevitable, does any of this matter?

    (Nevertheless, I repeat my willingness to apologize for these complaints if the future movies and stories illuminate what I’m missing.)

    (II) THE HAN SOLO GOES DARK (LAST CHANCE TO AVOID SPOILERS!)

    The choice to send Han Solo to another universe was understandable (and I think the decision matched the original vision of George Lucas who, in his director’s commentary for the classic trilogy, talked about his preference for killing experienced heroes—such as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda—so that new ones could get their own John Williams theme). And I thought that Solo’s death by his son’s (Kylo Ren’s) dark sword was a brilliant inversal of Luke saving his father from darkness. So I think the decision made good dramatic sense (and certainly the scene in which our Solo hearts were broken was wonderfully rendered), but I wish they could have picked someone other than the best character in the saga to sacrifice to such a noble dramatic cause. With all due respect to Princess Leia (and Carrie Fisher), I don’t think she has the charisma of her man, so she could have supplied all the dramatic significance of Kylo Ren killing a parent without us losing the guy who once brilliantly told Chewie to “Fly casual.”

    But again, from my couch, it seems that J.J. Abrams wants to remind us that the old guard is to be moved out of the way.

    (III) THE STORMTROOPER GOES LIGHT:

    Reformed stormtrooper, Finn, was a great character on his own, but to my psychological eye, his behaviours didn’t match what I would expect from someone who had spent his life being brainwashed at Stormtrooper Productions. I think Abrams et al lost a humour opportunity there wherein Finn might have felt a need to ask for orders at inconvenient times.

    Instead, Finn transformed from (I) being part of a brainwashed class who always had to follow orders to (II) being constantly delightful and ready to go his own way. There was little reference to any psychological consequences of what he’d been through (except his general fear of the First Order from whom he had escaped).

    Nevertheless, for his charismatic and humourous talents, I like Finn as Han Solo II.

    (IV) THE LIGHT OVERPOWERS:

    I’m confused by why Finn, a force-free fellow, did so well in a light-saber fight with force-wielding Kylo Ren. I recognize that Ren was injured, and that he still defeated Finn reasonably quickly. Nevertheless, Ren seems to have powers with the force that are pretty close to his grandDarth, Vader. In the original six episodes, I don’t recall any forceless foes troubling Jedi or Sith-level force artisans.

    Similarly, I thought Luke Skywalker II (future Jedi, Rey) seemed too powerful too quickly in her uptake of the ways of the force such that she was able to defeat Kylo Ren. Again, I realize Ren was injured, but he’s also been trained in the force by Luke Skywalker and Supreme Leader Snoke. Rey, meanwhile, seems to have had no training, and is relying only on her intuitive sense of how the force works. Indeed, without a single lesson on letting the force flow through her, she may already be most the skilled Jedi since Yoda.

    It’s been pointed out to me that Rey has likely got some impressive Jedi genetics roaming around her. I agree, but so did Luke Skywalker, and he wasn’t instantly infallible when he first realized he could deliver his own pizza without leaving the house.

    (UPDATE: Reading some of the blogs about this movie—which I’ve now seen four times—they point out that, in her flashback to being orphaned on Jakku as a tiny girl, Rey was wearing traditional padawan garments, meaning she would have had some Jedi training, after all. I’m still confused about how that would explain her ability to go lightsaber to lightsaber with Ren, who’s training was not interrupted in childhood, but I think the point does undermine my quibble there.)

    Nevertheless, I enjoyed the banter of Finn and Rey, and I’m happy to have them be my new heroes. And, once again, I would be delighted to be proven wrong on all of these points via the details that will entertain us in future episodes.

    (To that end, there’s a funny, albeit crusty criticism of killjoy criticisms of The Force Awakens by Matty Granger. Perhaps his arguments are sufficient to undermine my concerns, but I’m not satisfied yet.)

    May the next Episodes prove me wrong. 🙂

  • This week, the world gets to witness for the first time, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

    I was in grade 1 when the prior entry in this galactic log, Episode VI, Return of the Jedi first visited our movie screens. At the time, I was afraid of watching movies in theatres. I don’t remember why I was scared, but I know that I must have been quite anxious because I recall my dad having a serious chat with me, trying to persuade me that this movie would be worth overcoming my fears for.

    When he mentioned the movie, though, I was already aware of it. That very morning in “show and tell,” one of my classmates had told us about having seen Jedi the night before. He described a compelling story of a heroic Lifesaver guy dueling various evil forces (I can still remember the image I produced in my mind of a cylindrical lifesaver candy man wearing a rainbow of colours battling bad guys).

    So, halfway through my dad’s description of Return of the Jedi, I told him that I had heard of that movie, and that, actually, I was interested to see what would happen to the colourful hero. No further persuasion was required: I would deign to take in a film that evening.

    I don’t recall whether I realized, during that first viewing that the “Lifesaver man” I’d been daydreaming of was, in fact, the lightsaber-wielding Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight. There probably wasn’t room in my brain for such contemplations: it was already occupied by a thousand thoughts and emotions, as my new heroes and friends, Luke, Han, and Leia battled the evil yet mesmerizing villains, Darth Vader and The Emperor.

    There was now a force permeating my imagination that would never go away.

    I tell this candy-flavoured story of my first meeting with the greatest saga of my movie-going life not because I think it is especially unique, but because I suspect all those who love George Lucas’s galaxy far far away have their own story of complacent expectation turned to wide eyed, ‘What have we here?’ discovery.

    The fact that I was lucky enough to meet Star Wars for the first time in childhood probably intensified its effect on me. As did their unprecedented offering of action figures. All huge movie franchises have toys, but the Star Wars empire sold figures of every minor character who stumbled into frame long enough to wave “Hi” to their moms. And my brother, one of my sisters, and I wanted them all. Not just for the sake of completing a collection, but because each character seemed to be a true resident of that wonderful galaxy. They weren’t just cogs in in the wheels of Jabba the Hutt’s tomb, they were the keeper of the Rancor (i.e. the guy who trained the monster who was paid, in food, to eat unwelcome visitors). That shirt-less Rancor-keeper, who cried when his drooling, building-sized creature was killed by Luke Skywalker, was an important person to us. Rancors needed someone to take care of them just like our own pets did.

    Each character and location in the Star Wars galaxy existed independently of what would eventually happen to them: in our minds, they were significant people and places that housed communities and hierarchies and bureaucracies. To posses an action figure who worked on the Death Star was to have, in our Star Wars carrying case, access to that terrifying place.

    My parents and relatives supported my siblings’ and my Star Wars figure obsessions with birthday and Christmas gifts. My bother and sister’s unwrapping moments were consequently just as important to me as my own. (And my other sisters joined in, too: collecting Star Wars figures, which they could then use in trade to extort their Star Wars-addicted siblings to help them with their particular household tasks.)

    I am sure that every generation has their childhood-earned kinship with particular adventures and characters. (The Harry Potter generation, I imagine, feels Ron and Hermione are better companions than Han and Leia, while generation Oz probably thinks The Tinman, Lion, and Scarecrow are the best friends a person could ever have.) And so my hope here is not  to persuade anyone that Star Wars is the best adventure ever put to screen.

    But let’s face it: it probably is:

    You see, Star Wars isn’t just about space ships, it’s about the most textured space ships you’ve ever seen. Not just because they’re big, but because they have fascinating shapes and sounds (for instance, the iconic screech of the tie-fighter was created from an elephant roar). And George Lucas realized that not all space ships are new, and so he outfitted them with wear and tear in both their look and sound.

    Nor is Star Wars just about grand CGI-generated settings; in fact, the best of the Star Wars universe was built using models. (Unfortunately, Lucas tried to outdo himself with CGI in the prequels: but, to quote Yoda, while he tried, he “did not do.”) As Lucas said of his original achievement, he created those worlds by zooming in on the parts that made up the story, and so letting the backgrounds speak for themselves without the filmmaker announcing, “Look what I have created!” The results provoke the feeling that we are guests in a galaxy of stories that are happening simultaneous to our particular viewing.

    And Star Wars doesn’t just have great characters, it has more iconic characters per minute of story time than a Charles Dickens novel.

    Star Wars villains aren’t just dark and deep voiced. They have a whole dark spiritual side of the force to themselves, and they’re the most deep voiced of bad guys you’ll ever wanna hear (CNN even hired Darth Vader to introduce their network). Plus they’ve got personality. The Emperor doesn’t just mock his enemies, he mimics them. And he doesn’t just have a maniacal laugh, he has a maniacal chuckle when he sees Luke starting to succumb to his taunting.

    And the humour! Well, let’s just acknowledge that Jar Jar Binks is the worst character in the history of cinema (partly, I suppose, by relativity, because he is living in a saga that produced many of the best-ever characters); regardless, you can feel free to fast forward through his parts. (George Lucas, himself, acknowledged in the making of Episode I: The Phantom Menace that Jar Jar was either going to make or break the film. He was half right: although Jar Jar ruined every scene he was in, the story is still worth watching if you make sure to get pop corn during Mr. Binks’s scenes.)

    And the romance in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back isn’t just sweet, it’s entertaining and genuinely-earned. (Plus the love triangle has an accidental moment of innocent incest. Beat that, Hunger Games!)

    Star Wars doesn’t just have pure-veined heroes, it has champions who could turn to the dark side (like their dads did before them); it has reluctant heroes who only rescue princesses because they can imagine a hearty reward; and other heroes who betray their friends, only to try to rescue them from the chilling results.

    Star Wars doesn’t just have a good side and a dark side, it has a corpus callosum in every brain that puts its owners at risk of being pulled to the other side.

    And Star Wars doesn’t just possess catch phrases (“May the force be with you,” “Search your feelings,” “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”), it has echoes of language across all six films that is operatic in its placement and repetition. (This is something Lucas acknowledges was his intention.)

    And Star Wars doesn’t just have the most exciting music, it has the heart-starting scores of John Williams. Try humming the theme to Star Wars without smiling. But, equally as important, consider Williams’s melancholy yet hopeful music in Episode IV: A New Hope, as he serenades Luke Skywalker’s longing to escape his Uncle’s claustrophobia-provoking farm. Whenever I hear that somber tune, the force awakens in me.

    But again, my appeal here is not to argue that my Star Wars figures are more worthy than your Buck Rogers figures or your Catniss Everdeen posters, but instead just to say that there is room for one more on the Millennium Falcon if you’d like to join us.

    As the sequel to the Star Wars film that first triggered my imagination comes to screen this week, I would like to invite anyone who could use a boost to join us on this quest to see what happens next.

    And, if you’re afraid to get caught up in an imperial world of modern cinematic warfare, don’t worry, it’s not as overbearing as all that. It’s just a little movie about a little Livesaver-candy Man standing up to some bullies.

    (P.S. It’s now January 31st, and I’m on the other side of having seen this movie three times now. My thoughts on it are here.)

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  • Welcome to The Anti-Misandry Blog within SethBlogs! Confused? Click here for The Anti-Misandry Blog Introduction. Intrigued/enraged? Click on the “Anti-Misandry” link in the CATEGORY section to the right of this post for further episodes.

    THE ANTI-MISANDRY BLOG: EPISODE XII

    Last month, I attended a screening and panel discussion of a “documentary,” The Mask You Live In, which claims to compassionately examine serious issues facing the male people in Western society. I arrived in my seat with no expectations of an unbiased examination; instead, I was aware of the trend of such analyses not to be done by neutral social scientists, but by feminists, hoping to incorporate into their patriarchal-society-ideology the seemingly contradictory facts and figures that indicate that the “privileged” men have some struggles, too. Nevertheless, my resolve to be unimpressed was tempered by the MC’s opening remark that the issue was woefully underrepresented in our public discourse. But the tempering of my temper was tempered as I watched a brilliantly subtle 97 minute feminist editorial. If one squinted one’s eyes, the filmmakers seemed to care about their subjects, but, as they turned their gaze to solutions, it was clear that their answer was, as ever, feminism.

    Now, I don’t object to applying one’s ideology to an issue, but I think it is disingenuous to claim to be a documentary, only to sneak in one’s entrenched philosophical perspective as the panacea. A simple subtitle such as, “A Feminist analysis of the struggles of men and boys” would have done the trick. As it was, neither the film nor the panel that discussed it acknowledged the feminist elephant in the room. In response, I sent the following letter to the organizers as well as the panelists of the film.

    Two of the panelists have replied to me, but since the organizing agency has not responded, and it has now been over a month since I sent my letter, I offer it here for the record:

     

    To whom it may concern at The UBC Men’s Depression and Suicide Network:

    Thank you for putting on your free screening and subsequent discussion of the film The Mask You Live In, which purports to contemplate men’s and boys’ issues. I appreciated the enthusiasm with which the panelists were discussing this topic.

    Nevertheless, I think the ideological makeup of both the film and your panel is an affront to intellectual fairness.

    I think it should be noted that the film was written through a feminist lens.  Many familiar feminist talking points are ever-present in the film’s narrative, from the wild and unproven assumption that gender is purely a social construct, to the further controversial claim that video games cause violence, to the startling assertion that we live in a “rape culture,” and the supporting myth that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted (see philosopher Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers’s critical analysis of this specious statistic), to the notion that men are, by definition, privileged: “We must use our privilege [to forge change]…” was the common mantra of the male role models on screen, who seemed to have just taken language training from a gender studies course.

    However, while anyone familiar with feminist theory would recognize that the film was written from a feminist perspective, neither the film nor those who presented it at UBC acknowledged its ideological bias. Instead, the film claims to be a documentary, an objective analysis of these issues. That is either intellectually dishonest or ignorant. If the filmmakers had said, “We’re feminists, and we see that men are struggling, too, so we’re going to try applying our feminist theories to men’s issues,” then so be it. I would still want to criticize their feminist conclusions, but they would have honestly represented their project as a partisan analysis, which may be smart and well-articulated, but which is by no means an objective investigation offered by a neutral party. The audience, who is perhaps unfamiliar with feminism’s dominance over most modern discussions of gender, would then be aware that they are witnessing an opinion piece from a particular philosophy that views the world through the lens of patriarchy theory and the notion that gender is entirely a social construct.

    Moreover, each member of your expert panel seemed to be viewing the movie from either a feminist or, at best, neutral perspective, but there was no one up there to criticize the privileged feminist point of view. Indeed, when Dr. Jennifer Berdhal (a gender and diversity professor at the Sauder School of Business, who at least seemed to admit that that she was a feminist) explained that the phrase “Don’t be Mama’s boy” is one that tells boys that women shouldn’t be their bosses, there was no one to suggest that the expression might instead just be implying (and understood by most to mean) that male people are expected to be tough and not go metaphorically crying to their nurturing mothers when they’re struggling. (It’s not a nice expression, for sure, but from my perspective, it is much more misandrist than it is misogynist.)

    There were some subtle criticisms from the audience of the feminist leanings of the film and panel, but the feminist panelists either intentionally or unintentionally reinterpreted those questions to fit their feminist narrative. And again there was no one on the panel willing or able to critically respond to that bias.

    For troubling instance, consider the argument from Kyra Borland-Walker (of UBC Speakeasy) that the reason that males kill themselves significantly more often than females is because boys and men are socialized to use guns, and therefore, if girls played as much with guns, they would kill themselves just as frequently. This implied that the comparatively high rate of male suicide is not in any way related to men’s particular suffering, but instead is simply and solely the result of them having a greater kinship with a deadly weapon. No one in the panel pointed out that that there could be other reasons that men choose to use more lethal means. Perhaps, that is, men choose guns because they are more determined to kill themselves as they feel they have fewer options. Some suicide attempts are cries for help. And so maybe, in a society that seems to care more about women’s suffering than men’s*, men more often use guns because they don’t think anyone will help them if they do cry out.

    *By the evolutionary necessity of sending our boys into dangerous terrain (from fighting lions to going to war to working in coal mines), it is hard to deny that humans have come to value male life less than female life. How often do we hear news reports referring to victims of war, “including women and children” as opposed to civilians in general? Why are calls to “stop violence against women” ubiquitous, even though (according to men’s rights activists) men are equally if not more often the victims of violent crime? (Why not just, “stop violence”?) Why is more medical research spent on women than men even though women tend to live longer?

    Perhaps the men’s rights’ notion of “male disposability” is inaccurate, but a panel discussing men’s issues ought to be aware of it, and equipped to discuss it from a neutral perspective, instead of one that assumes that men are universally privileged. As it was, Borland-Walker was able to reach for her unsubstantiated claim that women would kill themselves as much as men if they had the weapons, and thus protect the notion that men are privileged, without a single counter argument from her fellow panelists.

    The imbalanced discussion is not Dr. Berdhal or Ms. Borland-Walker’s fault. They have their perspectives, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t provide them when invited. But it is once again intellectually egregious to have a panel, claiming to speak about men’s issues, without anyone there to criticize the feminist orthodoxy, which has a lot of misandry on its resume to answer for.

    “Man-splaining,” “Man-spreading,” “male privilege,” “male gaze,” “male entitlement,” “male violence against women,” “teach men not to rape”: these are all gendered insults brought to you by feminism. The same feminism whose perspective dominated this “documentary” that claimed to want to help boys be themselves. I’m not saying that the film was all bad: there was some interesting exploration of the pressures that many boys feel to be tough and aggressive, and to neatly fit into gender roles. However, the film’s biased interpretations of the cause and effect of these troubles demanded a sober response. There is research, for instance, that suggests that children who grow up with single fathers tend to be more empathetic than children who grow up with single mothers. Researchers don’t know why that is, but psychologist and meta-researcher Dr. Warren Farrell offers a compelling argument that men’s tendency to safely roughhouse with their children actually helps children better understand limits, and the distinction between assertiveness and violence. Another common hypothesis is that, because fathers tend to comfort children when they fall less than mothers do, and instead tend more often to encourage their offspring to get up and try again, children with significant fatherly involvement tend to be less self-involved, and in turn more empathetic.

    I don’t know if those hypotheses are correct, and by pointing them out, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t also emotionally nurture our children in the ways that mothers seem to more often, but the notion that the sole solution to boy troubles is for traditional dads to be more like traditional moms is simplistic. (More likely, I suspect that children do best with a healthy dose of both comforting when they fall and encouragement to get back up and try again.) Moreover, as Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers argues in The War Against Boys, part of the problem may be that we demonize common boy behaviour and pathologize their generally more rambunctious play from a young age: maybe that’s part of the reason that boys seem to be losing interest in school much more often than girls (because “they are treated like defective girls”).

    Again, perhaps Dr. Hoff Sommers is wrong in this assessment, but it would have been nice if the film and/or just one of your expert panelists had discussed her significant research on this subject.

    The film, I noticed, was written, directed, and produced exclusively by women (at least their names were traditionally female). I don’t have a problem with that in theory: if they were the best people to create a movie about men’s issues, then so be it. But I wonder: would a movie about an alleged problem of “toxic femininity” (that discussed how women needed to use their “privilege” to influence girls to be better people and treat boys better) that was written, directed, and produced solely by men have inspired such a supportive panel to convene at UBC? Or would such a film have been dismissed as sexist propaganda?

    I can understand the motivation, when looking at men’s issues, to utilize a feminist perspective in doing so. After all, when men’s issues clubs have attempted to form in other universities, they have been denied ratification on the grounds that they “do not centre female voices” in their discussions. However, I think we must resist such an autocratic notion that men’s issues can only be seen through a feminist lens, or not at all.

    Sincerely,
    Seth McDonough

  • I just watched a documentary of one of Canada’s greatest ever musical minds, Glenn Gould, The Genius Within. While my musical discernment is not sophisticated enough to understand why all the commenters thought Gould a genius, I nevertheless found evidence for his big brain in the following Goulden nugget:

    “I tend to follow a very nocturnal sort of existence,” he said, “mainly because I don’t much care for sunlight. Bright colours of any kind depress me. And my moods are more or less inversely related to the clarity of the sky on any given day. Matter of fact, my private motto has always been, ‘Behind every silver lining is a cloud.’ So I schedule my errands for as late an hour as possible, and I tend to emerge along with the bats and the raccoons.”

    Even though I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between Gould’s piano interpretations and Fraggle Rock’s greatest hits, I suspect we would have been sun-resisting brothers had we met during our small window of overlapping time on the planet.

    This rant’s for you, brother Glenn. (My own brother mocks me for my anti-sun position, so I’m happy to trade you in to his spot.)

    NOTE: Mr. Gould apparently believed in such acquired family as he one day suggested to his beloved audio engineer, Lorne Tulk, that they become brothers, and that they go down to City Hall to make the bond legal.

  • “Talking to the audience” is my term for the technique that some television, film, and play writers employ to unnaturally transmit contextual information, via their characters’ dialogue, to their audience. That is, they force their characters to supplement their natural communication with clarifying circumstantial details for the benefit of us viewers: such scripted characters are heard saying strange things that they otherwise wouldn’t if they were allowed to live their lives as if no one from another dimension were watching them.

    Here are a few of my favourite examples of this troubling tendency:

    (1) BACKSTORY COMMUNICATION:

    JENNY: Hi, Jim. How’s your broken arm from when you fell off your motorbike?

    Jenny’s specifying of the particulars of how Jim got his broken arm is not for Jim’s benefit (since Jim likely already knows why his arm’s so sore right now), but instead is an indirect message from Jenny’s author to us so that we’ll know why Jim is wearing a cast. If Jenny were allowed to speak to Jim without the obligations of communicating to us peeping audience members, she would have likely just said, “How’s the broken arm?” or even, “How’s the arm?”

    (2) EXPERT-TO-EXPERT DETAIL SHARING:

    When two scientists in a show are talking about something with which they are quite familiar, but their author realizes most of their audience is not, we often get the following result:

    JIM: Did you get any conclusive results on the DNA test?

    JENNY: Well, in order to check for a viable match, I need to first apply X scientific process to determine results.

    JIM: And, when you conduct that test, you’ll be able to see definitively whether the DNA sample matches that of our victim.

    JENNY: I concur, doctor.

    Admittedly, sometimes one scientist might not know the procedures or knowledge of another, but all too often in such dialogue, they tell each other things that they would have learned in scientist grade school and so would find quite condescending to be lectured upon at this advanced stage in their careers.

    (3) RELATIONSHIP IDENTIFICATION:

    Sometimes a writer might want us to know right away how two characters know each other, so they’ll offer the following dialogue.

    JIM: Nice outfit, sis, are you going somewhere fancy tonight?

    In my experience, real people rarely refer to their sisters as “sis,” but instead call them by their first names (or nicknames). This is not universal, so if the author of this dialogue honestly believes that Jim would refer to his sister as “sis,” then all’s swell in love and dialogue; however, I’ll be watching. If, during all other interactions in the plot, the character Jim nevermore says “sis” to Jenny, then we know for sure that in that anomalous first instance, Jim’s author was sending us a message (“By the way, these two are siblings!”).

    Whenever I hear an author calling out to me in the above and other ways, I find I am removed from my engrossment in their plot because the show is so conspicuously reminding me that its characters do not have free will, and instead are agents of the writer-god who created them. (In fact, sometimes, I’ll talk back to television characters when they are talking to the audience so that I can see if their awareness of my existence will translate into them being able to hear me.)

    Thus, from witnessing the works of many authors who don’t utilize this embarrassing information dissemination service, I would like to offer those who do a few proven suggestions for how to avoid it:

    (1) Use a narrator. Narrators are amazing! Their job is literally to talk to the audience for you, so they can offer meta comments about your characters’ lives without poisoning their dialogue with strangely unnecessary details. For instance:

    NARRATOR JENNY: There was Jim. I hadn’t seen him since the day that he broke his arm falling off his motorbike.

    JENNY: Hey, how’s the arm?

    (2) Tour your world through the perspective of a character just arriving in its grounds. So, for instance, your experts could be explaining their procedures to a newly-minted scientist just out of university.

    (3) Let the audience figure out the details for themselves. In most cases, if your world is well developed, we’ll be able to determine who’s who and how everyone is related to each other as we watch. Most of us have been watching popular entertainment since we were old enough to hold a remote, so we’re actually really good at extrapolating details that aren’t yet there. We’ll generally do this by a constant series of trial-and-error estimates as to what’s going on, which we’ll correct as we receive new evidence. So, for instance, when we see that Jim and Jenny are really familiar with each other, we’ll estimate that they have a shared history. As we see them talking about each other’s separate dating worlds, we’ll guess that they’re either friends or siblings, and when one says to the other, “Did you hear about Uncle Charlie?” we’ll determine that they’re probably related, and so on. We really don’t mind doing that. It’ll be our pleasure.

  • In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde claims, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” I’m not sure if everyone quoted below would agree with Mr. Wilde.

    Two film critics, Frances Ryan of The Guardian and Scott Jordan Harris of Slate have recently scourged the propensity, illustrated by the award winning film, The Theory of Everything, of able-bodied actors portraying disabled people in film. While both critics acknowledge that, in this particular case, the casting of able-bodied Eddie Redmayne to play Stephen Hawking may have been a logistical necessity (since the story covers Hawking’s life both before and after ALS disrupted his mobility), the two intrepid accusers nevertheless contend that the film represents a collage of Hollywood injustices against disabled people.

    Slate Article

    Guardian Article

    I think it is a worthwhile discussion and I do empathize with how daunting it must be for disabled actors to find work. Nevertheless, while both critics’ arguments are provocative and useful starting points for this moral discussion, their accusatory presentations seem to ignore the muddiness of these moral waters.

    I’ve thus broken down their arguments into five categories to try to distinguish their philosophical baggage from their more interesting cases for change.


    (1) Portrayals of disabled people on screen by able-bodied people cost disabled actors roles.


    “Like many other disabled people,” Harris says, “I have often argued that disabled characters should, wherever possible, be played by disabled actors. When disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors, disabled actors are robbed of the chance to work in their field.”

    I think this is a legitimate concern (although, I wouldn’t use the harsh metaphor of “robbery,” which suggests that such roles are intrinsically the rightful property of disabled actors). Logistically, disabled people cannot currently play able-bodied people in live-action films. Thus, if they’re going to work in the industry, they must be able to get some of the roles depicting disabled people. And, since such opportunities may exist at a lower per-capita rate, such performers, already generally besot by disadvantages in life, have extra trouble finding work, too.

    This is unfortunate, and so it seems reasonable to me that, as Harris suggests, all other relevant things being equal (or close to), directors should cast disabled people in the roles of disabled people.

    The trouble is that all other relevant things are often not equal. For instances:

    (A) Most roles about people with disabilities involve a spectrum between having the disability and not. Such a role, then, can only be played by an actor who can take on the full range of movements covered in the character’s story. As acknowledged by our bold writers, The Theory of Everything is such a film, and so they admit that it may be forgiven on that basis.

    (B) Sometimes the best available actor for the part does not have the disability that is being portrayed. All people, after all, have multiple dimensions to them, including their physical, intellectual, and emotional states. While a person with a disability may on the surface look the most like the person to be portrayed, they may not on a deeper level possess the desired connection to the character. To pigeonhole disabled characters by limiting those playing them to be equally disabled actors is to suggest that disabled people are essentially disabled, when that is, in fact, just one of many facets of their identity.

    One of my sisters puts this point more eloquently. “’Disability,’” she says, “is not a binary state; there are all sorts of points on the spectrum.  And a happy and well-adjusted [person living in a wheelchair] might not have access to specific feelings… that a standard issue person who’s struggled with depression has, that might be required in certain roles.”

    In my viewing experience, the greatest actor I’ve ever seen is Daniel Day-Lewis. If I were a director of any movie about anything, and Mr. Day-Lewis were available, I would cast him in the lead role, whether it were a disabled man, a four-legged robot, or a two-year old learning to talk. While it may be the case that actors win awards more often than chance when they transform their physical dimensions, they can usually only successfully do so if they are also able to transform their emotional dimension to the point that we believe they are a different person (not just a different mobility level). Nobody, in my opinion, does that better than Daniel Day-Lewis, and so to not cast him for a role just because he lacks certain physical characteristics would be an affront to the art of filmmaking.

    (C) Sometimes the disability in question can impede the person’s ability to portray someone else.

    Ryan highlighted the casting of non-autistic actor, Dustin Hoffman, to play the role of an autistic person in Rain Man. Well, correct me if I’m wrong, Wikipedia, but does not autism generally impede one’s emotional ability to relate to the outside world? Thus, unless we think all autistic people are the same, it might be challenging for most autistic people to emotionally connect with and insightfully portray a different autistic person.

    Meanwhile, a person with a physical disability that is different from the person whom they are playing may struggle – by virtue of their own particular mobility issues – with capturing those of someone else.

    (D) Sometimes, the disability is so specific that there are few people with a severe disability who could conceivably play the role.

    Both critics referenced My Left Foot, the film in which Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed a man with cerebral palsy who could only control his left foot, and yet did so with artistic dexterity. How many actors with a significant disability, I wonder, would have had the unique combination of ability and disability available to convincingly render that particular set of traits?

    (E) Audiences are less likely to see a movie that does not star a well-known actor.

    Unfortunately, in the case of the film industry, as Ryan acknowledges, the ability of actors to draw a crowd does seem to be a vital part of their work. Without predictably large audiences, most production companies won’t invest in projects, and so the promise of a previously-approved actor is more likely to satisfy their bottom-line requirements. This further compounds the problem for disabled actors. Without those first roles, they cannot build their stock in audiences’ familiarity-craving minds, so they don’t get a chance to get easier access to second roles. Most actors attempt to circumvent this problem by making a big first impressions in smaller roles, but since there are also relatively few small roles available for disabled actors, they are once again stuck in a doubly daunting position.

    Nevertheless, in spite of the clear disadvantage here for disabled actors, there isn’t an obvious solution to it. Requiring directors to always impose a disability symmetry between actors and roles would surely – by the capitalistic nature of film-making – result in fewer movies being made about people with disabilities.

    (2) We wouldn’t accept black people being portrayed by white people, so we should similarly restrict able-bodied people from portraying disabled people.

    “While ‘blacking up’ is rightly now greeted with outrage,” Ryan says, “‘cripping up’ is still greeted with awards. Is there actually much difference between the two? In both cases, actors use prosthetics or props to alter their appearance in order to look like someone from a minority group. In both cases they often manipulate their voice or body to mimic them. They take a job from an actor who genuinely has that characteristic, and, in doing so, perpetuate that group’s under-representation in the industry. They do it for the entertainment of crowds who, by and large, are part of the majority group.”

    This is a powerful and worrying argument. Expecting acting outfits to limit their roles to actors of similar physical characteristics would be practically and artistically daunting if applied to all cases. Our conventional moral wisdom has made an exception that doesn’t allow white people to portray black people because of the expired but embarrassing theatrical tradition of “blackface,” in which white and sometimes black actors wore black make up and portrayed black people as a cartoonish collection of stereotypes. Without that ugly past, restricting people from one race from portraying another is as arbitrary as restricting a young person from portraying an old person, or a person with or without glasses from taking on the opposite. In a perfect world without racism, race is as meaningless as shoe size. However, because of theatre history’s treatment of black people like puppets in vaudeville shows, blackface has understandably become synonymous, in most people’s minds, with racism. But this hard-earned convention of artistic restriction can have unfortunate consequences, too; consider how high school drama departments must feel limited only to the stories and casting decisions that happen to match the skin colours of their performers. This may mean that they don’t put on a play about Nelson Mandela because they don’t have someone of the right race to play the lead. Such troubling artistic restrictions ought not to be seen as intrinsically righteous such that they are automatically justified in all situations where a minority group has suffered.

    While noting the similarity between race and disability is understandable, we must also consider the differences before consenting to the additional artistic restriction that Ryan suggests. In the film world, now that blackface has been relegated to its uncomfortable place in infamy, and many black actors have found their way to prominence, it is hard to imagine any professional director having difficulty casting the part of any black character. There will never be an issue with discovering an actor who can play all physical states in a character’s trajectory. Moreover, unlike mobility, age, and even gender, race effectively never fluctuates between states. Thus the consequence of restricting white people from portraying black people in film and professional theatre is essentially just a philosophical injunction, which rarely (I assume) has practical artistic repercussions. However, applying the same restrictions to disability would likely have serious consequences in terms of the frequency of stories told about people with disabilities.


    (3) Able-bodied performances of disabled people cost the latter the right to portray themselves on screen.

    Ryan argues, “When it comes to race, we believe it is wrong for the story of someone from a minority to be depicted by a member of the dominant group for mass entertainment. But we don’t grant disabled people the same right to self-representation.”

    That is a dangerous justification for restricting art. Condemning “blackface” is not, or should not be, about self representation; it is, or should be, about attempting to undermine a specific historical insult. That is all. Limiting roles to people with equivalent backgrounds for its own sake is a scary idea. No one has the right to require performers, writers, and directors to have lived similar lives, and/or come from an equal demographic, to those whom they portray. Artistic freedom would certainly be damned if that were a legitimate demand.

    “When disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors…” adds Harris, “the disabled community is robbed of the right to self-representation onscreen. Imagine what it would feel like to be a woman and for the only women you ever saw in films to be played by men. Imagine what it would feel like to be a member of an ethnic minority and for the only portrayals of your race you ever saw in films to be given by white people. That’s what it’s like being a disabled person at the movies.”

    I find this to be a disturbing essentialist argument. Again, no group has an intrinsic right to a role simply because they match up in one particular characteristic. Stephen Hawking is not only a man suffering with ALS, he is also somewhat of a smart guy, heterosexual, and lacking in perfect vision. So must the person who portrays him also be a mathematical genius who likes ladies, but can’t read his own theories without glasses?

    Of course not. Hawking is not the property of any of those groups. He is a collaboration of many characteristics, and should be portrayed by the person who can capture, without necessarily possessing, the widest variety of them at the same time.

    (4) Portrayals of disabled people by the able bodied are inauthentic because they are just impersonations.

    Contends Harris, “The ultimate ambition of David Oyelowo’s performance [in Selma] as Martin Luther King, Jr. is to express the reality of black life and black history in a way that resonates with those within the black community and educates those outside it. The ultimate ambition of Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking is to contort his body convincingly enough to make other able-bodied people think ‘Wow! By the end I really believed he was a cripple!’ Our attitudes to disability should have evolved past the stage when this mimicry is considered worthy of our most famous award for acting.”

    I wonder if Harris has any evidence for his claims regarding Selma’s (racially divided) pedagogical intentions. Setting that strange contention aside, I can understand how a disabled person might feel annoyed by someone acting in the way that they have to suffer. Nevertheless, I think the argument to restrict performances for that reason is problematic because, in the end, all acting is “mimicry.” During the Harris-approved portrayal of Martin Luther King, Oyelowo is impersonating King’s then state of mind, circumstances, clothing, hair style, mannerisms, and voice. Moreover, returning us to the other side of the analogy, even if a disabled person had played Hawking, the chance that such a person would be someone also tortured by ALS at the same rare rate of progression is remote, so they too would have had to mimic the physicist’s movements at some point in the film.

    All acting performances are mostly make-believe. I cannot imagine any coherent line between acceptable simulation and mimicry.

    (5) The direction and writing of stories about disabled people are inauthentic unless done by disabled people.

    “Even if we accept,” Harris explains, “that Redmayne should get a pass to play Hawking, we are still left with a film that excludes disabled people while pretending to speak for them. The Theory of Everything is based on a book by an able-bodied person, adapted by an able-bodied screenwriter, and directed by an able-bodied director, and it stars able-bodied actors. DuVernay’s egregiously under-nominated Selma, burns with authenticity about black experiences because it was made by members of the black community, not by members of the community that has historically oppressed them. In contrast, The Theory of Everything flickers weakly with truisms that can be mistaken for insight only by people who are not disabled, because it was made by—and for—people who are not disabled.”

    Evidence is required for these inflammatory claims. For instance, who says The Theory of Everything purports to speak for disabled people? Maybe it wanted to speak for physicists, or, more likely, for no one, and just wanted to tell a good story. More importantly, though, if it’s the case that disabled people are usually better at directing stories about disabled people than their able-bodied cousins, then – artistically speaking – disabled people ought to indeed get the jobs more often on the basis on their superior merits. But we should never force such a generalization into all cases.

    The best antidote for bad story telling is not to criticize the physical characteristics of the storytellers, but instead to criticize their work. If such complaints about failed authenticity are legitimate, then perhaps The Theory of Everything is unworthy of its many award nominations. As a movie critic, Harris ought to point out what aspects of the film rang shallow (a single example of a false truism obvious to disabled people would be helpful). Thus, the next producers of a film about a disabled person may feel more obligated to get it right, and so perhaps would find themselves hiring a disabled director who seemed to have a better understanding of the issues he or she was intended to illuminate.

    However, to claim a lack of authenticity just by definition of the particular physical characteristics of the people involved is not only bigoted, but will again provoke the natural consequence of reducing the number of stories told about disabled people. Consider the case where an influential and successful able bodied writer or director is contemplating their next project: if, by Harris’s essentialist philosophy, he or she is barred from creating stories about disabled people – sorry, Herman Melville, Captain Ahab is off limits to you! – then surely we’ll have even fewer roles available for disabled actors. (Moreover, such a result may put pressure on disabled writers and directors to only tell stories about disabled people – since no one else is allowed to – even though some filmmakers with disabilities may want to tell other stories, too.)

    In conclusion, I refer us all again to the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Oscar Wilde claims: “The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” Once again, I’m not sure if everyone quoted above would agree with Mr. Wilde.

  • Last night I saw 12 Years A Slave. While I think the film is both significant (as it takes on the rare task of telling a story about American slavery from a slave’s perspective), and moving (as it grabs any human with a morsel of empathy by the throat through its detailed imagining of the daily suffering of slaves), I don’t think it is a great movie, for two reasons:

    (1) All of the slaves in the film, even those who were never educated, speak with a poetic prose that is almost Shakespearian; thus, while the barbaric reality of their situation drew my imagination into their dark past, their hard-for-me-to-believe linguistic prowess pulled me back out. It seemed to me that the screenwriter (John Ridley) and director (Steve McQueen) wanted to convince us that, even though the slaves were uneducated and could not read or write, they were still intelligent beings. Of course they were, but surely the writer can illustrate intelligence by other means (perhaps by the clever use of tools, and/or ideas, and/or an ability to manipulate situations and/or people) instead of an understanding of language to which they have not been exposed. It seems the writer and director do not think that their audience is smart enough to recognize subtler symptoms of active minds.

    (2) The story, as seems to be the convention of any movie that wants to be seen as sophisticated these days, is told out of order. It begins by taking us to one of the protagonist’s most painful moments as a slave, before flashing back to his origins as a free man, where we watch him for a few fleeting scenes. Then, his tale jumps between various spots in the narrative until finally resting in the main arena of the story. Why do modern directors fear the linear so much? The convention of bounce-around storytelling has become so prevalent that even the superhero movie Man of Steel (2013) thought it was important to go for a mixed timeline. I understand that sometimes non-linear sequencing can benefit the drama if:

    (A) Telling the story out of order allows different perspectives to be presented one at a time. This way, the audience is learning about new characters, or pieces of the puzzle, as the significance of the events grows, as in Vantage Point (2008), or, most impressively, in The Debt (2010). In the latter case, the story gives us a look at future events that will later turn out to not be as they seem, and so when the back story reveals the secret, the future plot and and the past plot collide beautifully. 12 Years a Slave, however, does not unravel puzzle pieces of the story in this fashion; instead, we know most of the story in the first few scenes.

    (B) Instead of one long narrative, the movie presents a collage of stories. As a result, the story is sometimes divided into several narrative strands that overlap in time, and so technically happen out of order; however, each tale has its own linear coherence that is not significantly altered by the slight knowledge of the future given by the other stories (for instance, Pulp Fiction (1994)). 12 Years a Slave focusses on one character throughout, and thus does not reap the benefits of such collage-based storytelling.

    (C) In special cases of character development where having the protagonist initially seen without their background context is later supplemented by flashbacks that enhance our understanding of them. This device allows us to realize that there is more to them, and perhaps humanity in general, than we realized (for instance, American History X (1998) and the TV series Lost (2004-2010)). The creators of 12 Years a Slave could have opted for this option and done it effectively had they begun with the protagonist as a slave and then inserted flashbacks that gradually revealed he was not always one. Alas, they did not.

    (D) The story is told from a future perspective such that we know the final result but are spared the details until they occur. I think this device is particularly effective in cases where the outcome is common knowledge, so the circumstances of how it happens is more interesting than the ending, such as stories about a famous historical event or figure, for instance, Titanic (1997) and Amadeus (1984). 12 Years a Slave could have used this option, as the title already implies the conclusion of the film, but, instead of telling us the entire story from a future perspective, the film merely mixes his past events into one murky stew.

    (E) The movie is actually about time travel, so an out-of-order sequence is part of the narrative, for instance, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) and Back to the Future (1985).

    Nevertheless, movies that effectively tell stories out of order are relatively rare, in my opinion. In most cases, the trick of giving away future events damages the drama because it diminishes the film’s ability to provoke curiosity and fear about what’s to come.

    In the case of 12 Years a Slave, the story begins with our hero already living in one of his most hostile southern environments during his time as a slave. The movie then slides backwards to his time in the north as a prosperous free man; his kidnapping, then, is not nearly as scary to us as it should have been because we already know how bad it will get. Moreover, even the kidnapping is not told in order, and so instead of luring us into the protagonist’s happy past at first, before shocking us with a moment-by-moment depiction of what went wrong, we are knocked back and forth between his future and his past such that we never settle into the joy of his initial happiness. The horror of his change in circumstances, therefore, is not nearly as well articulated as if it were simply told to us in order.

    Furthermore, the downward trajectory of his life as a freeman-turned-slave, while rendered with brutal and effective detail, is again not as powerful as it could be because we know, from the original flash ahead, how bad it will get.

    I think I understand why directors believe in this pinball-style story telling: along with wanting to capitalize on the strange perception that all smart stories are non-linear, they believe (A) that the audience needs to be constantly shown the contrast between the good times and the bad times, or the thematic relationship between past and present, by putting them side by side, so that we can fully empathize with the distinction, and (B) that flashbacks to past events during the action will remind us of where the character has been such that we will appreciate their current motives.

    If I’m right about any of these director and writer motivations, I think movie makers need to have more faith in both their stories and their audiences. A worthwhile and well-articulated story doesn’t need to remind the audience of the significance of current events (in contrast with the past) as we will have been on the journey with the protagonist, and so will feel the significance of the change instinctively; moreover, if the the characters are drawn well, we will understand their motivations without needing the director to constantly point at them for us as though we’re primary school children.

    In short, I implore directors and writers to trust their stories instead of leaning on this condescending and over-used gimmick.

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