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Fleabag: sex, sisterhood and that stepmother

2 Jun
Fleabag

Fleabag

You hear the hype about a certain show, and you go in cynical: surely this can’t be that good. The show is British: are people in love with it because of widespread Anglophilia? And yet, brisk 25-minute episode after brisk 25-minute episode,  I saw why Fleabag has garnered so much attention. It is often hard to watch because of the emotional honesty of the nameless protagonist, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator/writer of the show. Fleabag, as she is referred to in the credits, walks around with grief- her mother died a few years ago, and her best friend committed suicide in the near past. Her sister is awful, her brother-in-law is repulsive, and her stepmother delights in insulting her stepdaughters with a smile and a barb. I am of thinking of season one, which introduces us to this world, a bleak one punctuated by the wit of the main character. Humor is the coping mechanism in her chaotic life, and she frequently breaks the fourth wall with a wink, eye roll, or smirk. We end up coping along with her.

Season two is decidedly brighter, following the events of season one a year later. Fleabag announces to the audience at the beginning: This is a love story. And we see two parallel love stories play out: one, between the main character and an endearing, lonely Catholic priest, and two, between Fleabag and her sister, Claire. First, falling in love with the priest, the ultimate unavailable man. Both he and Fleabag lead unconventional lives, with tenuous grasps on how to embrace (or reject) their sexuality. The priest flirts with Fleabag, not seeming entirely comfortable with his vow of celibacy, whereas she admitted in the previous season that sex is more interesting to her as pursuit than act. Both characters open up to each other, and Fleabag is vulnerable in scene after scene with the priest, culminating in a tearful monologue in the confessional. Twitter user Ellen O’Connell Whittet shares an interesting theory about what foxes symbolize throughout the season and especially in the last scene (spoiler alert: only click if you’ve already watched the show). The writing is at its most insightful when both of these characters talk to each other, though there is also a memorable rant delivered by the still-luminous Kristin Scott Thomas on the pain of womanhood that reminded me of the cool girl observations from Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl”.

And the other love story at the heart of season 2 of Fleabag, the one that shows its protagonists’s evolution as much as, if not more than, her affection for the priest: her sister Claire. Brittle and unsmiling, she couldn’t be more different from her sister, an open book who can’t help but blurt out what’s on her mind, especially to her rude stepmother (wonderfully played by Olivia Colman). And yet the sisters push each other to be better throughout the season, with Fleabag supporting her on several occasions, defending her from the smarmy brother-in-law from hell and providing a united front against nasty stepmom. One of the sweetest moments of the show is when the reserved Claire tells her sister that she’d only run through an airport for one person- for her.

There are so many aspects of the show to delve into. I’d love to explore the writing,  the feminism, the spirituality. Each season lasts just over 2 hours. This is two evenings, or one cold Sunday, at home. Watch the show if you haven’t already, and if you have, let me know what you think, or if you’ve bought the Fleabag jumpsuit.

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All Hail Game of Thrones

8 Oct
Ser Jorah Mormont

Ser Jorah Mormont

Earlier this summer, I finally succumbed to the mass hysteria, the constant urgings of friends, and began watching Game of Thrones. I resisted for so long. I likened the show to Dungeons and Dragons with nudity, not inclined to watch a show that was so tied to an un-cool genre, fantasy. But I decided to start watching. And I was enthralled.

I used to study Shakespeare, and so I recognized the timeless appeal of these characters. In the case of Jon Snow, you have the outcast determined to prove himself, a bastard at the end of the world, bound by honor and surrounded by men who either admire him or mean him harm. Daenarys Targaryen, similarly cast out to the peripheries of the realm, sheds her skin as a fearful girl and finds her way as a queen and liberator of enslaved men and women. Will she be a benevolent ruler or follow in the footsteps of her Targaryen ancestors and rule with an iron fist? These are just two of the many well-written and well-acted characters in the world of the show.

As a student of literature, I find the characters to be fascinating archetypes, all caught in an intricate power grab. Add in a bit of swordplay, the occasional nude form (more on that later), an attractive cast (as seen in the dashing Ser Jorah Mormont above), and stunning locations, and it’s no surprise why this ‘genre’ medieval fantasy show is so popular. However, as a sensitive person who easily recoils at violence on screen, there were many scenes that were difficult for me to watch. This is not only true of massive battle scenes, but scenes in which characters inflict psychological violence on each other. There is one whole season where we witness one character, Theon Greyjoy, suffer brutal torture at the hands of a mysterious sadist. I had to watch the scenes of his torture through my fingers; it was not only the violence that was hard to stomach, but the cruelty. The consistent message of Game of Thrones seems to be: conducting yourself with honor earns you nothing but suffering. In a dog eat dog world, as Cersei Lannister famously stated in season one, either you win the game of thrones, or you die. Watching Game of Thrones submerges you in a dark universe. Enter at your own risk.

With this being an HBO show, there is plenty of nudity. Before I started watching the series, I had heard criticism of the show’s portrayal of women, specifically its reliance on the abundant female nudity. The nudity is gratuitous, and we see many more naked female bodies than male ones. There is no question that the we see Westeros through a distinctively male gaze. Titillation is the point; the first time we see Daenarys Targaryen, we see her nude. There is no narrative purpose for her nudity. So while the frequent nudity on the show is mostly aggravating, and a result of the show being created largely by men, I commend the writers and producers for crafting so many interesting, multi-dimensional female characters. While watching the series, I often thought to myself, this show would make for such interesting material for a thesis in women’s studies! One reason why I find Daenarys Targaryen, AKA Khaleesi, to be such a fascinating character, is that she is both fierce and feminine. Unlike Arya Stark, who rejects the traditional feminine role she sees her older sister Sansa playing, embracing sword-fighting and even dressing as a boy to evade capture, and Lady Brienne of Tarth, who acts as a knight and denudes herself of all shades of femininity to survive in a man’s world, Daenarys is strong and feminine at the same time. She doesn’t need to shed her femininity to be imposing. I’ll perhaps explore other female characters from the show, like Ygritte the wildling, Margaery Tyrrell, and Olenna Tyrrell in a future post.

So now, like many, I eagerly await the next season of Game of Thrones. Especially the resurrection of Jon Snow by Melisandre the priestess. And just for fun, here is the web recap series Gay of Thrones.

Guy Code and Rape Culture

2 Dec

brosSometimes you’re multitasking, reading something online and watching something on TV simultaneously, and it all seems to line up perfectly. Here I am, reading about how the prosecution of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston for rape has been stalled, and I’m watching a program on MTV2 called Guy Code. The latter was due to curiosity after hearing a young male co-worker talk about the show; I figured if it resonated with him it would be interesting to see. Think of me as an anthropologist who wants to keep up with what the kids are watching. So I watched the half hour show of thoroughly unremarkable comedy, all unoriginal insights into being young, privileged and male. That old word from my undergrad days, heteronormativity, came to mind.

“Guy Code” assumes that the guys in the viewing audience are straight, and that women are satellites revolving around their sun. The few female commentators are highly made up, with big fake breasts, and the sexy baby tone of voice that is endemic to young girls nowadays. The dilemmas the bros face include hitting on chicks, getting chicks to sleep with you, dealing with your bro’s chick, bringing your chick home to bang, etc. Yes, this show probably makes twenty-something life seem idyllic to hormonal 13 year olds watching at home, and many of the situations dealt with are indeed a part of life for young men in their early to mid-twenties. But…is this it? Are women so foreign that they need to be decoded? Do these bros not have female friends, girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, sisters, coworkers, teammates, cousins…in short, women in their cohort with whom they are not sexual?

No, it is understood that a dude has to do what a dude has to do to get laid. And if he’s leading his team to a national championship? Hush hush and look the other way. Boys will be boys.

 

We are all Miley

26 Aug
Typical School Dance

Typical School Dance

Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs last night is all anyone can talk about today, and everyone seems to have a different angle: Miley as a disappointment to her parents, Miley as troubled child star putting her Disney past behind her, Miley as appropriator of black culture, Miley as trashy stripper. But I propose that the Miley we saw at the VMAs is just what is seen in sweaty high school gymnasiums all across the country. We American girls are all Miley now.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in high school, and yet I remember the way we would dance closely with the boys. We wouldn’t jam our butts in their crotches like Miley did, but we danced close. Face to face. And this was the mid to late 90’s. Later on, in college, and in my early 20’s when I would go out dancing, we wouldn’t do the Viennese waltz. We would do what you could consider a primitive form of twerking. The world of the strip club and pornography had already entered our dancing styles.

I won’t claim that no one danced this way in the past, but if they did it was not the norm. It was frowned upon. Whereas now, the transgressive is now what’s expected. The bar is raised such that the norm is dancing like Miley, at Homecoming dances, at bars and at nightclubs. So why are we shocked? Miley is just another American girl gone wild.

The Anti-Bucket List

20 Aug
I don't want to, and that's ok

I don’t want to, and that’s ok

I’ve just come across a short and sweet blog post by Rachel Weight at HuffPost called simply Creating my Anti-Bucket List. I love the idea behind it. We always hear about what we should aspire to do before we kick the proverbial bucket, and these lists serve a purpose, giving structure to one’s life goals, whether they are gravely serious (make amends with loved ones) or whimsical (learn to bake a blueberry pie). But it is good to know oneself enough to know what one absolutely will not do. It’s good to know one’s limits and respect them. With that in mind, and taking a cure from Rachel Weight (who made the list as part of a turning 30 realization), here goes my list:

  • I won’t own a giant dog. I am a life-long non animal lover. That is to say, I’ve always liked animals, but never loved them. I am coming around to small and medium-sized dogs, however, and will stop and pet and play with friendly ones I see on the street. That is a big change for me. And yet. I will not be owning a big dog any time soon. If a small child can ride it, it’s too big for me.
  • I will not travel to Pakistan. There is at least one place on each continent that fascinates me. In South America, that’s Brazil and in Asia, Japan. But Pakistan, with its sandy plateaus, acid attacks on women, honor killings, and threatening environment for Westerners and women in general, would be appealing if there were historical or cultural sites of interest to me. There are none.
  • No buggery.
  • I will not try to get through a book that feels like a chore (and yes I am currently in a book club). I’ve always said, life is too short for bad books.
  • I will never ever stay at a youth hostel ever again (even at age 25 I found that I was way too old for it).
  • I will color my hair, cut it, curl it, put pretty bows in it and alter it in many ways, but you better believe I won’t ever shave it all off.

Well, that was a fun exercise in knowing my limits. And it certainly got the wheels in my head spinning about what I AM willing to do. That will be for a future post.

What about you? What is absolutely NOT on your bucket list?

Matisse, Picasso, and Women

29 May
Matisse Woman With A Hat

Matisse Woman With A Hat

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of seeing “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde”. The thrill of seeing a blockbuster exhibit like this is entering a room and catching sight of a painting you have long admired, and always seen reproduced, and seeing it up close- each brushstroke remarkably vivid. I wanted to see this exhibit because I like Matisse- his colors, his strokes, and his portrayal of women. Compare the latter to Picasso’s nearly literal objectification of women in his work, and you see an important difference between the two artists.

Consider the beautiful work above. “Woman with a Hat” was controversial in its time for its use of color. Yet Matisse infuses the woman with not just color but emotion- her face is a canvas that conveys longing, wistfulness, perhaps regret, and sadness. The bright color contrasts the sadness in her eyes.  Matisse has drawn a fully human portrait here.

Now look at the painting below. Picasso’s “Head in Three Quarter View” shows an up close view of a tribal mask gazing downward. Or is it the face of a woman? The face has the color and texture of a bronze mask; as a matter of fact, it looks detached, as if there is nothing in the back. Picasso’s women were wild objects of desire, objects of fascination that served as muse (I also saw a report on the exhibit “L’Amour Fou” at the Met this morning on CBS Sunday Morning, about Picasso’s muse and lover Marie-Therese Walter.) The women are flat and one-dimensional- a receptacle for the artist’s talent.

In any case, if you are in San Francisco at any point before September 6th, you should see this extraordinary exhibit.

Head in Three Quarter View

Head in Three Quarter View

HPV: Lose the Stigma

25 May
Vaccines

Vaccine

A few days ago I was speaking with a friend about the stigma attached to HPV, or human papilloma virus.  Then just a couple of days ago my company got to work on a campaign for a new cervical cancer vaccine, and the chuckles and smirks of some colleagues regarding the whole issue underscored what my friend and I were talking about.  Let’s undo some of the stigma around HPV and cervical cancer here. From the CDC:

l Most sexually active people will get HPV at some time in their lives, though most will never know it because HPV usually has no signs or symptoms.

l There are about 40 types of genital HPV. In most cases, HPV goes away within two years, without causing any health problems. It is thought that the immune system fights off HPV infection naturally.

The common nature of HPV should not belie the fact that it is something to be concerned about.  When women do not get regular screenings that could catch abnormal cell growth in the cervix, the virus could lead to further cell abnormalities, and cervical cancer.  Nevertheless, the two points above should also underscore how common HPV is. Unless you are a virgin, there is a strong chance that you will contract it, or have already. And if you do get it, because there are so many strains, you may get one of the milder strains that your body will clear on its own in two years.  But because there are high-risk strains of HPV that lead to cervical cancer, these vaccines are wonderful news.

Glaxo Smith Kline has developed Cervarix, and Merck was first on the market with Gardasil.  Getting these vaccines will greatly reduce the chances that a young girl will contract a high-risk strain of HPV when she is older.  But reread the two stats above from the Centers for Disease Control.  Stigmatizing HPV would be like stigmatizing spring allergies or sunburns- if you haven’t had these common ailments, chances are you know someone who has. Just like the human papilloma virus.