LGBT

Can transgender TV characters help bridge an ideological divide?

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Erica L. Rosenthal, University of Southern California and Traci Gillig, University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

In 2014, Time magazine declared American culture had reached a “transgender tipping point,” with transgender people achieving unprecedented media visibility.

However, in light of recent policy shifts – such as the White House’s rollback of federal guidelines that supported transgender students and Trump’s July 26 Twitter pronouncement that the U.S. military will no longer allow transgender service members – some have questioned whether this visibility has actually meant greater acceptance of trans people.

Studies have shown that entertainment has the power to shape attitudes on health and social issues, from organ donation to the death penalty. But little research has explored the impact of portrayals of transgender people.

For this reason, we wanted to see how transgender TV characters might influence the attitudes of viewers. Specifically, we tested whether political ideology plays a role in how audiences respond to these potentially polarizing depictions.

Transgender media visibility

Time’s “transgender tipping point” from a few years ago was attributed to fictional trans characters in shows like “Transparent” and “Orange Is the New Black” and news coverage of controversial policy issues, such as discrimination lawsuits about school bathrooms. In April 2015, nearly 17 million people watched Caitlyn Jenner come out as transgender on “20/20.”

It was in this context that the USA Network drama “Royal Pains” included a storyline about a fictional transgender teen named Anna who experiences complications while transitioning from male to female. Although Anna’s subplot lasted only 11 minutes, it grappled with numerous issues: the medical profession’s historical treatment of transgender individuals as mentally ill, parental rights regarding adolescent transitions and the risks of hormone replacement therapy.

We first learned of the upcoming “Royal Pains” storyline in early 2015, when the show’s writers contacted Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S), a USC Annenberg-affiliated program that gives entertainment industry professionals accurate and timely information for storylines on health, safety and national security. (Erica is a researcher at HH&S.)

HH&S facilitated conversations between the writers and an expert in the medical treatment of transgender youth. The resulting June 23, 2015 episode, “The Prince of Nucleotides,” received a 2016 GLAAD Media Award, with transgender activist Nicole Maines making her acting debut as Anna.

Media bubbles

Before we could study the impact of Anna’s storyline, we wanted to make sure that the audience was mixed in its views on transgender rights – in other words, that the show wouldn’t simply be preaching to the choir.

Since the 2016 U.S. election, countless stories have explored the “media bubbles” in which Americans live. This trend toward fragmentation permeates news, social media and entertainment. TV shows with broad audience appeal tend to address hot-button social issues relatively infrequently and superficially. Regular viewers of boundary-pushing series, on the other hand, may already be left-leaning.

Research by GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) indicates that transgender characters have appeared primarily on streaming platforms and premium cable channels, while broadcast network shows – which have larger audiences – tend to feature transgender characters only in brief storylines, if at all.

This means viewers disinclined to watch a show like “Transparent,” which features several trans characters, might still encounter such characters in minor storylines in mainstream programs.

“Royal Pains” (2009-2016) was about as mainstream as TV gets today. The show had no real history of addressing LGBTQ issues, so Anna’s episode was unlikely to attract a particularly trans-supportive audience. For us, this made it the ideal show to study transgender portrayals and how they might influence viewers across the ideological spectrum.

Do minor subplots make a difference?

Because HH&S had consulted on the storyline, the members of USA Network’s social media team were open to helping us with our study. They posted links to our survey on the show’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts following the episode. We supplemented this sample by recruiting “Royal Pains” viewers from market research panels. Only those who had seen the episode or one of the two prior episodes were eligible. Of the 488 viewers in our study, 391 had seen Anna’s episode.

A scene from the ‘Royal Pains’ episode featuring Anna, a transgender teen.

Because there were several different shows at the time featuring transgender characters, we asked viewers which of these they had seen. We also measured their exposure to transgender issues in the news, including the unfolding Caitlyn Jenner story.

Finally, we examined several important variables that are known to impact viewers. These include identification with main characters, a sense of being drawn into the world of the story (what media scholars call “transportation”) and the emotions evoked by the storyline.

We found that “Royal Pains” viewers who saw Anna’s story had more supportive attitudes toward transgender people and policies, and we found a cumulative effect of exposure to transgender entertainment narratives. The more portrayals viewers saw, the more supportive their attitudes. Neither exposure to such issues in the news nor Caitlyn Jenner’s story had any effect on attitudes. In other words, the fictional stories we examined were more influential than events in the news.

Consistent with previous research, in our data, political conservatism strongly predicted negative attitudes toward transgender people and lower support for policies that benefit transgender people. However, exposure to two or more transgender storylines cut the strength of this link in half. That is, politically conservative viewers who saw multiple shows featuring transgender characters had more positive attitudes toward trans people than those who saw just one.

Political ideology also shaped viewers’ responses to the “Royal Pains” narrative. Those who were politically liberal were more likely to feel hope or identify with Anna, whereas those who were politically conservative were more likely to react with disgust.

Beyond the bubble

Hollywood is not a panacea for healing our nation’s deep partisan and ideological divisions. To influence attitudes on a broad scale, entertainment storylines must first reach audiences outside cloistered media bubbles.

However, our research suggests nuanced portrayals of transgender individuals – particularly in mainstream forms of entertainment – can break down ideological barriers in a way that news stories may not. Cumulative exposure across multiple shows had the greatest impact on attitudes, but even a relatively brief storyline had a powerful effect too. While politically conservative viewers were more likely to react with disgust, such reactions were tempered by seeing trans characters on a variety of shows.

At a recent GLAAD-sponsored panel, trans actress and activist Laverne Cox noted:

“We’ve got to tell these stories better because lives are on the line. Trans people are being murdered, are being denied health care, access to bathrooms and employment and housing because of all of these…misconceptions that people have about who we really are.”

The ConversationAs the future of thousands of active duty service members hangs in the balance, it’s more imperative than ever to understand how the public responds to media representations of transgender people.

Erica L. Rosenthal, Senior Research Associate, Hollywood, Health & Society, University of Southern California and Traci Gillig, PhD Candidate in Communication, University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Meet the 5 trans women headlining Ryan Murphy’s “Pose”

I can’t wait to see Ryan Murphy’s Pose! The new show is breaking ground for trans actors by employing the largest cast of trans actors ever on a scripted show.

Pose is set in the mid-1980s in New York City. According to Variety, the series examines “the juxtaposition of several segments of life and society in Manhattan: the emergence of tthe luxury Trummp-era universe, the ball culture world, and downtown social and literary scene.”

Along with Murphy, Pose is co-executive produced by trans activist and director Silas Howard, and will have scripts written by Janet Mock and Our Lady J. The show will also with with Murphy’s Half initiative, which will mentor trans directors.

MJ Rodriguez

(Photo credit: Dennis Cahlo)

Rodriguez is probably best known to Marvel fans for her non-speaking role as Sister Boy in Luke Cage. She has also appeared in The Carrie Diaries and Nurse Jackie. One of Rodriguez’s latest roles is as Ebony in the film Saturday Church, which focuses on a young teen boy who escapes to fantasy to deal with his struggles with religion and gender identity. The church opened at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Indya Moore

Indya Moore at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival portrait studio. (Oak NY)

Moore also stars in Saturday Church as Dijon. Before film, Moore made her name as a model and recently walked in New York Fashion Week. (You can read more about her in an interview she gave with NBC Out.)

Dominique Jackson

(Photo credit: Oxygen)

Jackson has been modeling for over 20 years and has appeared in fashion magazines such as Vogue España. Jackson has published her autobiography, The Transsexual from Tobago, and is also an LGBT and human rights activist.

Hailie Sahar

Hailie Sahar as Lulu. (Photo credit: FX)

Sahar is best known as Adriana in Transparent. Before that, Sahar played The Lady of The Night in Mr. Robot. Sahar is also a recording artist and was called one of Hollywood’s rising talents in OUT Magazine. She has also been crowned Miss L.A. Pride and Queen U.S.A.

Angelica Ross

(Photo credit: Missross.com)

Lately, Ross has been seen on TNT’s summer hit show Claws. She’s also appeared on Transparent and lends her voice to an Amazon Original animated series Danger & Eggs. She has also starred in the TV show Her Story, which follows trans and queer women and the ups and downs of their dating lives.

Pose begins filming in New York City this November!

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Who could be the tenth queen on “RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 3” Here are two predictions.

It’s been a week since the cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 3 was announced, and everyone’s been making predictions about who will go home first, who will make it to the final three, and who could be the villain of the season. But my big question is who is the surprise tenth queen?

Yes, there are supposed to be 10 all-star queens, not just nine. While the cast is full of heavy-hitters like Trixie Mattel, Shangela, Morgan McMichaels, Chi-Chi DeVayne and Kennedy Davenport, the mystery tenth queen must be someone that even tops them in terms of popularity.

I have two choices for the tenth queen.

Choice 1: Valentina

Of course, I’ve got to say Valentina. Rumor has it that she turned down a spot on this season because of her image (i.e. how she’s trying to rehabilitate her image somewhat since the end of last season’s RuPaul’s Drag Race), her work schedule, whatever. But if there’s any place to try to rehabilitate your image, an all-stars season of RuPaul’s Drag Race has to be it. Just see what happened to Roxxxy Andrews, who was the out-and-out villain of her season, but became the fan favorite during All Stars 2. She went back with the goal of fixing her image with the fans, and she more than succeeded. In that respect, she was the true winner of the season; even though Alaska won, she still came away with the fan-made title “Queen of Snakes” for being too focused on winning.

Valentina could certainly have this makeover moment on RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 3. Not only did has have an ugly time on her season’s reunion episode, but she left the season in such a shocking way. She probably felt like she let tons of fans down, and being on All-Stars could certainly be a way she could try to redeem herself in her own mind. Chances are good we could be seeing her face as the big reveal. Also, my gut feels like they’re setting Aja up for a Coco Montrese/Alyssa Edwards reunion a la All Stars 2.

Choice 2: Nina Bo’nina Brown

Nina doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar. But she totally should be! Regardless of what some obsessive Valentina stans think, Nina became a fan favorite, and not solely because of her jaw-dropping makeup skills.

Nina became a huge favorite because of her vulnerability. A lot of us can identify with her struggles with depression and self-esteem, and seeing her excel despite her self-sabotage actually gives a lot of people hope. If Nina can persevere, you might think, I can too!

Also, the fact that she was met with racism—just for doing what she was supposed to do, which was win the lip-synch—is also something that has bound fans to her. There’s been a virulent strain of fans who latch on to certain queens and degrade others, and unfortunately, race is the common denominator. Nina doesn’t deserve that, and neither does Kennedy Davenport, who also had tons of racism thrown at her for literally no reason.

If Nina shows up on All-Stars 3, I can only imagine that it’s RuPaul’s way of giving Nina a second chance to have the run she was supposed to have on her original season. RuPaul really connected with Nina, and I think it’s because she could identify with Nina’s struggles with her “inner saboteur.” If Nina comes back, I think she’ll kill it.

Who do you think will come back as the surprise queen? Write your guesses in the comments section below!

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Weekend reading: What Munroe Bergdorf meant in her Facebook post + more

There’s tons of stuff going on in the media including the continued fallout L’Oréal is facing for firing black trans model/activist Munroe Bergdorf for her comments about systemic racism in relation to the violence in Charlottesville. Here’s what’s happening out there:

What Munroe Bergdorf meant when she said all white people are racist|Quartz

19-Year-Old Haitian Japanese Tennis Star, Naomi Osaka, Defeats U.S. Open Champ|Blavity

Nitty Scott Celebrates “La Diaspora” In New Short Film|Fader

Janelle Monae’s Undiscussed Queer Legacy|Into

Chance The Rapper is starting a new awards show for teachers|A.V. Club

In Indonesia, 3 Muslim Girls Fight for Their Right to Play Heavy Metal|The New York Times

Waiting for a Perfect Protest?|The New York Times

How ‘Dunkirk’ failed and the continued historical whitewashing of World War II in big budget film|Shadow and Act

Why It’s SO Important That Comics Are Finally Including More Girls|TeenVogue

James Wong Howe: how the great cinematographer shaped Hollywood|The Telegraph

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Ruby Rhod and Bubble: Blackness in “The Fifth Element” and “Valerian”

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is coming out this month, and upon seeing Rihanna as the alluring dancer Bubble in the various trailers, I knew there was something to discuss, particularly how Bubble relates to another black character in a Luc Besson sci-fi film, Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod.

How so? You might be saying. Well, from where I’m sitting, having two characters who are at a crossroads between Afrofuturistic empowerment and reductive racial stereotypes begs to be written about. Clearly, these two characters are talking to each other, and deciphering their conversation is one that involves parsing through how blackness, black queerness, and black sexuality are constantly put at war against each other in Western society. These two characters embody that tug of war between ownership and exploitation.

With that said, let’s get into it.

Ruby as a statement—and condemnation—on black queerness

As a character, Ruby Rhod is an absolute conundrum. To put it bluntly, he’s the most singular character in The Fifth Element and certainly one of the most singular in sci-fi films as a whole. As Drew Mackie from UnicornBooty wrote, Ruby Rhod is “a queer-coded character the likes of whom audiences likely hadn’t seen before in a mainstream ‘popcorn’ movie—and by and large haven’t seen since.”

Ben Child for the Guardian breaks Ruby’s character down into even more detail:

“Decked out in extravagant Jean-Paul Gaultier outfits, and spending most of the movie either squealing in high-camp horror at the sight of aliens taking over a luxury intergalactic cruise ship or luring fluttery-eyed space vixens into virtual orgasms merely by his presence, Rhod is a character whose rejection of gender norms is so elevated that they seem to have arrived through a wormhole from the year 3000, never mind 2263 (The Fifth Element’s ostensible time frame). At one point Tucker chooses to be called ‘Miss’ Ruby, and yet there is a definite hint of phallicism in that rock star surname. Moreover, Rhod appears to be the very definition of red-blooded masculinity. Is it any wonder that Prince was the model for the role, with Tucker only recruited once it became clear the purple one was not going to sign on the dotted line?”

Ruby is a fascinating character to dissect because, whether Besson or Tucker realized it, Ruby’s at the center of the intersections of black queerness, black masculinity, and the influence of black American culture on mainstream pop culture.

The thing that’s the most apparent about Ruby, aside from being black, is that he’s most definitely a representation of queerness. I’m specifically using that term because as a character, Ruby doesn’t seem to define himself as straight or gay. While he overtly makes references to heterosexual sex, what with his seduction of the spaceship’s stewardesses, his spectacular rose-lined outfit, eye makeup, and tinted lip gloss suggests he’s subtly giving his time at the opera with Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas date-like undertones instead of merely a PR opportunity with a contest winner.

Speaking of his clothes, Ruby’s costumes directly reflect his gender-bending and sexually fluid sensibilities. Ruby doesn’t wear mere garments. He wears statements. His leopard print unitard exaggerate the feminine collars of the 1950s while also defining his very masculine bulge. His aforementioned opera outfit veers even more into feminine territory.

Ruby is at once a shining moment of Hollywood’s progressiveness and Hollywood’s tight grip on queer stereotypes.

Saeed Jones wrote for Lambda Literary about the push-and-pull effect he gets from Ruby, one of his favorite characters from the film.

“When I was a teenager obsessed with The Fifth Element, I was devoted to the idea that Ruby Rhod was a gay character who gets to take part in saving the universe. Except Ruby isn’t gay. I didn’t know about the phrase ‘gender bending’ at the time and had no schema for an effeminate male character who has sex with more women in the film than the macho protagonist. Ruby was a kind of man I thought would only be possible light years into the future: funny, black, attractive, fierce, and—most importantly—alive by the end of the movie.”

Yet, Ruby falls into many tropes that intersect with both the obsession of showing “black buffoonery” and “girly” gay men. Ruby’s blend of machismo and femininity is what gives the character power in the scenes where he’s in control. But it’s when the action starts that Ruby’s power dissolves into frantic screams worthy of a fainting couch. He becomes the worst type of damsel-in-distress—one who cowers behind the man, lacking the fortitude to use calm or logic in tense situations.

In one way, it’s daring that The Fifth Element even dared to show a black man—usually thought of as a lumbering, menacing powerhouse—as a lithe, vulnerable character taking on a traditionally femme role. However, that point could have been made more solidly if Ruby didn’t segue into eye-bulges and wacked-out facial expressions that are only reserved for the most buffoonish of black buffoons in media.

As much as Ruby uplifts the narrative of black queerness in the media, he also does just as much to cement a view of gay culture that has been traditionally held by a lot of people in the black community—that being gay or in any way an non-traditional male is the mark of a defective man. A lot of that view is based in a very limited view of Christianity, but the real root seems to be from the black man’s struggle to reclaim and express his masculinity in the first place.

David A. Love wrote in a 2012 opinion piece for The Grio that the traditional black aversion to homosexuality stems from slavery.

“Voices in the black community, particularly black gay men, point to black male insecurity as a root cause of black homophobia. And that insecurity comes directly from slavery. Since then, black men have struggled to get beyond this emasculation and redefine their image. It is for that reason that machismo traditionally has been highly valued among black people, and homosexuality viewed as a threat to black masculinity.”

Ruby plays into that perception of viewing black queerness as a threat—by acting in a cartoonish, stereotypical and racially-charged fashion, Ruby acts as an avatar for the very fears insecure black men have about black male homosexuality. Those fears aren’t crystalized more than when Ruby literally hides in fear behind Korben, the white male secure in his sexuality enough to take charge and lead the scared Ruby to safety.

To go back to Jones’ Lambda Literary article:

“Ruby Rhod troubles me. He explodes into the narrative, black, loud, and out of nowhere. Like the standard Magical Negro, he is functional in service of the film’s white heroes but has little to know story of his own. We know nothing about him except that he’s hilarious, really loud, and sexually promiscuous. When you set aside his costume choices, he’s really not that different from most black comic characters. In fact, he’s almost offensive…I’d rather not think about it.”

Even with that said, Tucker’s performance is one that makes Ruby one of the standouts from The Fifth Element. He’s vivacious, fun, and electric. Tucker takes Ruby seriously as an actor and channels Prince and Michael Jackson into the role, showing that Tucker gets what Ruby’s about. Speaking of Prince, Prince himself was supposed to play Ruby, but couldn’t do to prior tour commitments. If we look at how Prince played The Kid in Purple Rain and Christopher Tracy in Under the Cherry Moon, you have to wonder how Ruby’s gender and sexual explorations would have been played. Would Prince have challenged Besson about Ruby’s reactions to the first sight of danger or would he have gone along with Besson’s vision? I’m not a psychic or a mind reader, but I feel like Prince would have taken it upon himself to Jedi Mind Trick Besson into letting him rewrite the character into someone much more aware and much more willing to punch a bad guy in the face.

How Ruby Rhod gives possible clues to Bubble’s characterization

As of writing this post, we haven’t seen Valerian, so we don’t know much about Bubble. It also seems like she’s not in the original 1960s French comic books, so we don’t even have canon to draw from. But there are some things we can glean from the trailer from how Ruby Rhod was characterized in The Fifth Element.

Firstly, we see that there’s still the theme of blackness relating to entertainment in some way. Ruby’s claim to fame was being the universe’s most popular radio show host. Bubble’s claim to fame is being what outlets such as Billboard described as an “alien stripper,” but what other outlets have described as an “entertainer.” The idea seems to be that in Besson’s future, blackness is frequently tethered to—or defined by—the objectification and maybe even exploitation that comes with celebrity.

Both Ruby and Bubble are definitely cornerstones in their own universe’s cultures, and for that they are both exalted and exploited for things folks always expect black people to be good at—making music, dancing, and being sexual. They’re both enigmatic people and cariactures of our society’s incessant obsession with the black body, black sexuality, and black talent.

To further illustrate what I’m trying to say, I’ll use one of France’s most famous entertainers, Josephine Baker, as an example. She comes to mind for me because of the fact that eroticism featured heavily in her dance performances. Racial commentary also featured heavily—she often had a push-and-pull between exploiting racial stereotypes and subverting them in her acts. Her most famous act, in which she’s nude except for some sandals, necklaces, and her banana skirt, portrays knowledge of the hyper-sexual black “native” woman stereotype. She uses this stereotype to her advantage, but still, it showcases the Western obsession with the black body. In her acts, Baker becomes less of a dancer and more of an object, funneling all of Western society’s sexual fantasies about blackness into her performances.

Josephine Baker in Banana Skirt from the Folies Bergère production “Un Vent de Folie” (Public Domain)

Just from the trailers, Bubble seems to be a character at that same intersection. The only caveat is that it’s unclear just how much power she has over her own sexuality. In that respect, Ruby is more like Baker than Bubble is; we do see Ruby use his sexual prowess to his advantage (and, strangely enough, Ruby’s leopard suit brings up an animalism that is also apparent in Baker’s costumes).

How much can we expect to learn about Bubble in Valerian if we still don’t know a lot about Ruby 20 years after The Fifth Element’s release? I would say we should expect to learn nothing except that she’ll more than likely be defined by her singing and dancing talent, her sexuality—not only as an exotic dancer, but as a black woman, a race of women who have always been objectified and defined solely by sexual stereotypes. In fact, to use Jones’ words, having Bubble as a black woman whose main purpose for the film is to be used for her body is “almost offensive.” If Ruby was defined by stereotypes and not by motivations, it makes sense to expect that Bubble will also be a poorly-defined character.

However, I could be wrong. Like I wrote above, we haven’t seen the film yet. But if you’re going to see Valerian, take special care of how you view Bubble.  At the very least, make sure to take care of her in your mind the same way many take care of Ruby Rhod.

Takeaways from the gaggiest “RuPaul’s Drag Race” episode this season

Just when you thought this season of RuPaul’s Drag race was going to continue to be boring, the show came back in the rarest of rare form with its reunion episode.

Thank the Drag Race Gods that the reunion and the finale have been separated, so the queens can properly get into all of the shenanigans we viewers weren’t privy to. There was so much drama, reading, and downright nastiness going on–I haven’t felt this verklempt about a reunion since…Season 2?

Let’s get into some quick takeaways from this reunion episode:

• Valentina is the new Queen of Snakes: To paraphrase someone from Twitter, Valentina has now succeeded Alaska in earning the crown and title of The Queen of Snakes. Valentina really showed her true colors right at the end of the episode when she snapped and told Farrah–who had said Valentina wasn’t a true friend to her–to “just shut up.” Her snap came on the heels of Aja and others disagreeing with her being crowned Miss Congeniality and with her lack of reining in her fans on social media.

Look, I’ll be upfront and honest and say that if there’s one character trope I love on Drag Race, it’s a good, glamorous villain. And by “glamorous,” I mean a villain who owns the fact that she’s a villain and runs with it. Phi Phi O’Hara was like that in her season (before she tried to change her stripes in All Stars 2, only to fail), Raja and The Heathers were like that in their season, Raven was like that in her season, and now Valentina has truly revealed herself to be the classic Disney villainess her Princess Realness look foreshadowed her as. Think back to that look–it was a sweet ice skatery look but had the sidekick fairy that said, “hate everyone.” Looks like that’s how Valentina is in real life, and I lowkey love it.

Maybe it’s because I’ve always had a soft spot for Veronica over Betty, but I just love a character who knows she’s terrible and is still determined to live her life and her truth, however wrong that truth may be. And isn’t that characteristic kinda at the root of why we love some of the people we love, like Naomi Campbell and Mariah Carey? They’re divas who are, in actuality, prickly, but they live the “I don’t give a f***” life we all wish we could live deep down. Valentina gave me a lot of that in this reunion. The comment about how she feels she represents something akin to Selena for her fans gave me a lot of that Mariah Carey vibe that only a diva would have.

Valentina is no Selena, let’s make no mistake about that, but I have seen from her fanbase, particularly the young, ravenous fans, that they do see her as the Selena-esque star Valentina believes herself to be. Jiggly Caliente even brought it up in one of Hey Queen‘s recent Drag Race finale videos that when she was hosting a viewing party for the episode featuring Valentina’s departure, there were Valentina stans at the bar crying as if, to paraphrase her, they were seeing Selena’s death all over again. So her core fanbase helps prop up Valentina’s vision for herself, which is to be one of the great divas of her time.

I guess my personal feelings on Valentina are this: I knew she was a cunning, smart and savvy queen. I knew she was all about perfection in her public persona. I get it and I’m quite okay with it. As Twitter user @MarioSanchezx said, Valentina is totally Eve Harrington from All About Eve–someone who puts on an “I’m just a little girl” act to get where she needs to go in life, and is ready to slyly cut anyone out of her way to get to her goal.

Two final things on Valentina/Villaintina–yes, she should tell her fans to cut out all their bullshit. Excuse my language, but if I complain about Beyonce never collecting her fans when they get on folks’ social media and dog them out, then I have to do the same for Valentina. If you have a fanbase and you know they’re acting out of bounds, then you, as their leader, need to get on your social media platform and tell them to cool it. Now, of course, that won’t stop everybody, but it will make enough of them cower enough, I feel, to make them stop doing as much stuff as they were doing before. When these types of fans think they’re dragging folks in someone’s honor, they’ll go to any length to defend their queen. But this also speaks to today’s fandom culture as a whole–Y’ALL NEED TO STOP HAVING FAVES. Like, have the people you like, but this “fave” nonsense? As if a person can be a perfect vessel for an idea or a concept? Y’all need to stop that. And by “y’all,” I mean “the people that believe their favorite celeb can do no wrong.” Beyonce can do just as much wrong as doggone Keyshia Cole, and Valentina can do just as much wrong as anyone else on this show. At least go into the “fave” world knowing that your fave probably is going to be a “Problematic Fave,” because at the end of the day, ain’t nan one of us perfect and we’ve all said something or done something that we are not proud of. *End of soapbox rant.*

Second, while Valentina has clearly showed her colors, I do respect that she went into this playing the game. She went into this telling herself she was going to make it to the top–she didn’t go into this to make friends, she went into this to become a star and become a star she did. Maybe if she had said this upfront, like Bianca did, none of this surprise would have happened. More than likely, Valentina will learn how to do this and incorporate it into her brand so she can seem more…realistic and less of a soap opera character functioning in real life. But I am completely at peace with the fact that she didn’t try to keep up friendships with anyone on the show. Valentina has said before in an ABC News video that she keeps drag queen as colleagues and not as best friends, so…there you go. And also, it’s not a requirement to keep up certain friendships throughout our lives, right? How close were Farrah and Valentina, anyways? I believe Farrah’s emotions, but how close were they in actual life?

• Nina Bonina Brown needs to find peace: This is not me reading Nina or shading Nina or whatever. I’m actually being quite sincere, since I’m coming from a very personal place. I know Nina’s struggle well and I know exactly how her depression and darkness has been able to feed itself. She said herself in the confessionals that she still lives at home with her parents, she’s working hard to achieve her dream and to have that dream be her full-time career, while her family would rather her work so she can support herself. Basically, it’s that her family has felt like she was chasing a dream that they felt should just be a hobby and no a full-time profession.

Plus, Nina felt like she was being constantly excluded from the drag scene, and she probably felt like that inhibited her ability to make drag a profitable career. I understand exactly what it feels like to be working towards what seems like an impossible goal while trying to find a way to support yourself and meet the societal expectations of “adulting.” I also know what it feels like to see how the hivemind works–even in spaces where you feel you should belong, there’s always the idea that you still have to follow the crowd and what they believe in order to fit in and get somewhere. Just like how it works like that in the drag scene, it works like that on social media. Anywhere, really–the high school herd mentality is something that never really leaves.

In short, I get Nina’s pain, way more than I’m going to reveal in this article. I know that when the soil is primed and fertilized with this kind of pain, only the weeds of self-doubt, paranoia, and disillusionment can grow, and those weeds are hard to kill. You can literally tell yourself, “I need to stop thinking this way,” and you’ll still go back to thinking like that seconds later. These are hard habits to kill because they are partially hard-wired into the brain because the brain itself gets used to thinking in a certain way. But that’s not to say that you can’t defeat those demons. Nina has to take it upon herself to stop letting paranoia, self-doubt, and defensiveness run her life. As someone who is working on some of those same things, I know it’s a lot easier said than done. But you are the master of your mind. Whether that means going to therapy, mediating, getting a prescription, or doing yoga, you have to find mastery over your mental habits and inner demons, because it won’t happen just because it wish it would. It takes actual hard work. Will Nina put in that work? I think so. Or, rather, I hope so, because she is so talented and amazing. She deserves to have the life she wants.

• I’m rooting for Trinity to win: I know everyone’s expecting either Shae or Sasha to win, but I’m rooting for Trinity because she, like Valentina, has been playing the game to win, but Trinity has been upfront about it. She’s also been one of the most real queens this season–she hasn’t put on a persona or a facade; she’s been the direct, yet caring queen and she’s remained as such throughout the season. Also, she’s from Birmingham, so it’d be nice to have Birmingham make it to the top of the drag world for a little while (even if she’s repping Orlando).

That’s about it–what did y’all think of the Drag Race finale? Give your opinions below!

Mediaversity Reviews: “Wonder Woman”

Original review at Mediaversity Reviews

Title: Wonder Woman (2017)
Director: Patty Jenkins 👩🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Screenplay by Allan Heinberg 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈  and story by Allan Heinberg 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈, Zack Snyder 👨🏼🇺🇸, and Jason Fuchs 👨🏼🇺🇸

Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸

Quality: 4/5
Standard fare for a comic book origin story: thrilling action (with standout fight choreography), earnest idealism, and subtle humor. On the flipside, slightly uneven pacing and simplistic characters and storylines.

I’m giving this an extra half point due to the social impact of this being the first female superhero franchise—directed by a female filmmaker, to boot. Patty Jenkins shouldered a massive responsibility and met it head-on with this highly enjoyable popcorn flick, which ticks the box of female empowerment despite struggling to break into truly progressive territory.

Gender: 4.5/5
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
This was a tricky category to grade. I would love to give Wonder Woman a 5/5 in Gender for its unquestionable importance as a feminist work that impacts women and children around the globe. And if I were just grading the first third of the film, I would have done so, considering the all-female cast portrayed as warriors, politicians, and caregivers alike, covering a broad swathe of different types of women and relationships. However, the second and third acts of Wonder Woman shrink to a majority-male ensemble, save for Diana (Gal Gadot) as the leading hero and Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) as a welcome female villain.

Unfortunately, there were two glaring issues—likely carried over from its 1940s source material—that I simply could not overlook:

  • A Forced Romance – Chris Pine is wonderful in his role as Steve Trevor. But the closed-door love scene between him and Diana is wholly unnecessary, as is his awkward interjection of “I love you” before he dashes off. I hate that Diana only finds her true powers due to some sort of implied, romantic awakening; why couldn’t she have found her powers thinking about Antiope, who had trained and mentored Diana for her entire life? Or why couldn’t she have been inspired by Steve as a platonic embodiment of the goodness of human beings? This film would have been so much stronger if the tension between Diana and Steve was kept at mutual respect, rather than romantic interest.
  • The “Born Sexy Yesterday” Trope – I would highly recommend a viewing of Pop Culture Detective Agency’s explainer video, which covers the history of this common pitfall and how antithetical it is to female empowerment.Beth Elderkin sums it up:“‘Born Sexy Yesterday’ is the crafting of female characters who have the minds of children but the bodies of mature women…the idea that a sexy yet virginal woman needs a man to explain the basic fundamentals of being a person, making her dependent on him. It doesn’t matter how unremarkable he is, she’ll always find him fascinating, because she’s never known anyone else.”I was disappointed to see Wonder Woman unfold in these exact blueprints. Diana may be a warrior goddess, but she has never seen a man before Steve Trevor. Who she, of course, falls in love with and (as the film suggests) sleeps with. It’s frustrating to watch the actress be forced to play dumb; if Diana knows what hydrogen is and can speak hundreds of languages, why does she need Steve Trevor to explain the word “marriage” and what it means to “sleep with a woman”?

Lastly, mimicking the unfair tightrope all women have to balance, Diana is even more the paragon of perfection than male superheroes have to be. She’s physically incomparable but with the mind of a child so as not to threaten the egos of fanboys. She’s otherworldly in beauty and scantily-clad, yet manages to embody honor and virtue—contrasting attributes that real-life women are unfairly expected to exhibit simultaneously.

It would be much more empowering, in fact, to have seen Diana as flawed. If Batman gets to be an obsessive human with no real superpowers, Spiderman gets to be a twerpy nerd but still get the girl, and the Hulk gets to have debilitating anger issues and transform into an unsightly monster as his superpower, why does Wonder Woman have to be utterly perfect, with her only Achilles’ heel the eroticized, forced bondage at the hands of a man?

That being said, I still appreciate the undeniable role Wonder Woman is playing right now, advancing opportunities for women to direct big-budget blockbusters and to feature as leading characters. The visible gender role reversal—Steve Trevor as the gorgeous, flawless, and self-sacrificing love interest—is truly refreshing. I just want to get to a point where seeing a female superhero headline a franchise is de rigeur, as opposed to a rarity that occurs once every 76 years.

Race: 3.5/5
White-centric, though it could be argued that Diana, as a Greek goddess played by Israeli Gal Gadot, is less America-centric than it could have been. We see an effort at ethnic diversity within the mercenary group assembled by Steve Trevor—he hires a stereotypical Scot, drunk on whisky and clad in a kilt, along with slightly more nuanced appearances by the francophone, Moroccan Sameer and native American explosives expert known only as “Chief”. Sameer and Chief represent communities significantly underserved by Hollywood and whose parts feel fairly authentic, especially considering this positive reaction written by Vincent Schilling for Indian Country Media Network. Yet the film as a whole remains visibly white, with rank-and-file characters hailing from the Themyscira, Great Britain, America, or Germany.

Similar to the Gender category, I sincerely appreciate the effort to diversify—especially in looking across international borders for talent. Casting an actress who hails from the Middle East (Israel) is significant, while various cast members are non-American: Huston, who plays German villain Ludendorff, is Italian while Dr. Maru is played by a Spaniard.

But the bottom line is, despite their countries of origins, the aforementioned actors play white characters. So I can’t bestow much more than an above-average score in this category.

LGBTQ: N/A
We don’t grade films for omitting LGBTQ representation due the short running time of most movies, as well as the small demographic size of LGBTQ at roughly 4% of the American population.* That being said, thoughts on missed opportunities for Wonder Woman:

Wonder Woman has been an queer icon for decades, with the original comics containing lesbian subtext and the writer of the latest reboot going so far as to confirm Diana as canonically gay.

Yet in Wonder Woman, her romance with Steve Trevor is as heteronormative as its gets. Christopher Hooten puts it succinctly in The Independent:

“Her long-standing bisexuality will not be referenced. Instead, she will very boringly fall in love with the very boring Chris Pine.”

What a lost opportunity! How much stronger would Wonder Woman have been without this mind-numbingly routine romance? Now, don’t get me wrong—I don’t condone queerbaiting (the practice of filmmakers and TV showrunners coyly hinting at queer subtext in their stories without ever delivering actual LGBTQ characters). But considering this is just the first film in what we hope will be a full franchise, the writers could have left some breathing room, simultaneously paying homage to Wonder Woman’s longstanding role in queer and lesbian culture.

Mediaversity Grade: B 4.00/5
This is an exciting moment for women all over the world, make no mistake. But the outdated, male-created source material hinders Wonder Woman from reaching full-out beast mode, at least by 2017 standards of intersectionality and feminism. It isn’t enough for me just to see a “bad-ass” woman anymore—I want to see complex ones, as flawed and relatable as male superheroes are allowed to be.

Still, this is a huge step forward and I’m thrilled about how its worldwide success could open wallets for female directors.

So, for today, I genuinely enjoyed Wonder Woman and am thankful for the strides its making. But tomorrow, I’ll want to see more from this franchise—more complex women, more ethnic diversity, and a proper homage to its LGBTQ roots.

http://www.gallup.com/poll/158066/special-report-adults-identify-lgbt.aspx.

“RuPaul’s Drag Race”: How do we make sense of Valentina’s ouster?

VH1/Screencap

RuPaul’s Drag Race fans are both reeling and divided right now. Valentina, seemingly a shoo-in for Top 3, if not the winning spot on the show, was eliminated in the most stunning fashion, and people either don’t know how to cope with it or are blaming others for Valentina’s own mistakes.

In full disclosure, I’m a Valentina stan. (I’ve said so in this article!) Because I am a Valentina stan, I didn’t want to believe the Reddit rumors were true and was shocked when I saw Valentina leave. I was even more shocked by just how quickly it seemed like 1) the show turned on her and 2) how she’d set herself up for her own ouster. Thankfully, I can say that I’m not a Valentina stan that’s not going to view reality as it is–Valentina’s own actions led to her leaving the show. But what I’ve been parsing through is just how Valentina let herself slip up like this.

One thing people have always scratched their heads about is Valentina’s claim that she’s only been doing drag for 10 months. If my research is correct, she’s only been doing drag as a serious career for 10 months–she’s actually been doing it off-and-on for much longer. Either way, Valentina proved to those calling BS on the “10 months” claim that yes, she has been doing this for a very short time. Otherwise, I don’t think her Achilles heel–the fear of failure–would be so apparent.

I identify with Valentina when it comes to the fear of failure. Just like how I identify with Nina Bonina Brown on feeling so beat down by your career that you sometimes start seeing conspiracy theories as to why you aren’t where you feel you should be, I understand how Valentina might get so freaked out by failing (especially failing in front of an international audience, as she said in Untucked) that she would completely forget all of the words to the song and, in a peak out-of-body moment, delude herself into thinking she could get away with lip syncing with her Club Kid Realness mask on. In fact, it was that fight-or-flight response that made her keep the mask on–if she could preserve any shred of dignity she had left, she was going to do it any way she could.

I feel like Valentina must have put herself through a crash course of preparation before auditioning for Drag Race. If she’s the perfectionist she’s portrayed herself to be, she’s probably practiced her acting for months and scoured for the most detailed costumes and wigs and, probably, even rehearsed how she would answer RuPaul’s questions. Her goal, aside from winning the whole thing, was to go through the entire competition showing the most perfect version of Valentina possible. As she said, what she failed to prepare for was the possibility of actually losing.

I think that her perfectionism is why some folks were turned off by Valentina’s run on the show, because she came off as a completely stylized, rehearsed human being. I’d say that for me, that’s what made me like her even more after initially loving her performances from her videos; for me, her attention to detail and refinement is comforting in an OCD way. But regardless of how you feel about her, it was ultimately her journey towards unattainable perfection that led her down a dark ending.

(You could also say that her demand for self-perfection had already shown itself to be a debilitating factor–she had revealed that she battles an eating disorder and, like OCD and anxiety, most eating disorders seem to be driven by deep insecurity and a fruitless strive for perfection. Her dark side might be why she gets along with Nina so well, seeing how they both struggle with acceptance on some level.)

Her reliance on her charm also showed just how young in the game she is. While queens like Alaska and Alyssa have tons of charm to spare, and oftentimes can skate by in certain challenges on their charm, they also have a lot of experience and know how to recover when things go wrong. Valentina doesn’t have that experience in drag (as far as I know), and I think her lack of experience is also what led to her meltdown. It would seem she’s used to everything going right for her, and with a small amount of performances under her belt, maybe everything’s gone well because she’s been able to control the environment. But RuPaul’s Drag Race is sometimes less about finding the most talented, refined drag queen and more about finding the drag queen who can survive and adapt under pressure. Adapting under pressure is also what Alaska and Alyssa know how to do in spades. With reality hitting Valentina in the face as hard as it did, she’s now learning how to build her skills the hard way.

At the end of the day, though, it’s sad to see her go. You can tell how sad she was at her own performance on the mainstage afterwards. What I appreciated the most was how angry she was at herself. As you can see in Untucked, Valentina states that in any other situation, she would have fought to the end. Even with listening to the song before the lip synch, she just froze because she didn’t ever think that she would be eliminated. It’s heartbreaking to see how disappointed she was in herself because you can tell she really wanted this.

However, All Stars 3 could certainly be within Valentina’s sights. Like many have said, All Stars 3 could be Valentina’s to win, much like how All Stars 2 was Alaska’s to win. Until then, we Valentina stans can comfort ourselves with the fact that Valentina is still a star, whether or not she’s got the crown.

(Also, if you’re a stan who think bullying Nina Bonina Brown for winning the lip synch or talking smack to RuPaul for getting snippy with Valentina, knock it off.)

Why Salim and The Jinn’s story is the heart of “American Gods”

Starz

I’ll say up front that I am an American Gods virgin. I’ve never read the book, so I went into this entire season blind. Heck, I still don’t know exactly what I witnessed in my three-episode binge-watch, but I do know these three things:

1. Shadow Moon might be foine, but he’s annoying. He’s a character whose characterization is both inconsistent and nonexistent. How much magic has to happen around you before you believe in these gods, Shadow? You’ve got the freaking moon as a coin your pocket for goodness’ sake!

2. I’m liking all of the “Somewhere in America” scenes better than the actual storyline. If the show was just a meditation on the old gods and how they are trying to both fit in the new world order and keep their dignity (plus gain some worshippers in the process), that’d be fine by me. The less I have to see Shadow Moon dismiss the clear reality of gods, the better.

3. Salim and the Jinn’s “Somewhere in America” vignette might be the best one so far. 

I was heavily spoiled by Twitter before watching these episodes (not complaining about it), so I already knew about Bliquis swallowing people with her vagina and Mr. Nancy/Anansi telling his worshippers–now captive slaves on a surprisingly clean-looking slave ship–how the African people will be royally screwed in America. With all of the hype, I’m not exactly sure what I expected, but I probably would have been more “OMG!” about it all if I hadn’t known anything about those scenes. At the same time, there’s a lot of fodder to discuss, from the arguments that could be made for and against using a black woman’s body (Bliquis, the fertility and love goddess) to discuss sex and/or sexual objectification, to the haunting nature of Anansi telling his people the horrors they were in store for. No doubt I will write some articles on these very topics. But for right now, I’m voicing my opinion that for me, the Jinn and Salim are the heartbeat of American Gods. Here’s why.

• The Jinn, like all the gods, is seeking his former glory. But unlike other gods, he isn’t stealing worship. What I loved about the Jinn is that, compared to gods like Bliquis, Odin/Mr. Wednesday, Czernobog and even Mad Sweeney, the Jinn doesn’t demand tribute in the form of war, sexual conquests, fighting, or killing. Instead, it seems like the Jinn just demands respect. Sure, all the gods want respect, but the way the Jinn complains about his lot in life is more earnest and relatable than any of the gods so far. He seems to yearn for human connections in a much more intimate way than his fellow gods. Furthermore, his humiliation at having to taxi people around in New York City, hearing Americans believe the Jinn are just wish-fulfillment dieties, and cleaning up “wet shit” from the back seat rings much closer to real life issues people of color have had to historically deal with in America, such as cleaning white people’s homes to being thought of as stereotypes, to just feeling anonymous, with not many understanding your real power and worth. On several levels, the Jinn is just more relatable than some of the other gods as a whole.

The Jinn’s happiness comes from finding someone who finally understands what he’s going through. To be even more specific, the Jinn and Salim’s taxi ride was a scene all about code-switching. To be with someone from Oman seemed to take him back to a time when he was at home and was powerful, but most importantly, at peace. Again, that resonates with the very real feeling of being the only person of color in a white space and finally catching the eye of another person of color who gets exactly what you’re feeling through your shared history. You feel like you don’t have to navigate the space by yourself; you can voice your real self to that other person, and more than likely, they’ll understand.  Talking with Salim and having that human connection made the Jinn feel home, and he was able to be himself, which was more valuable to The Jinn than stealing someone’s worship.

• The Jinn and Salim are linked together as equals. Out of all of the gods, the Jinn and Salim’s story had the most calming and most normal resolution. With the rest of the gods, something has to be given to the gods, but the gods don’t give back anything in return. Instead, the Jinn and Salim’s story showcases a give-and-take that makes their relationship a lot more realistic and makes the entire scene a standout in the midst of the “Somewhere in America” scenes we’ve had so far. Salim worships the Jinn by showing him respect, compassion, and care; the Jinn worships Salim by empowering him through making love and leaving Salim with his identity as a taxi driver. The Jinn continues to thank Salim for his kindness by taking on his job as a tchotchke salesman.

Let me expound some more on the term “making love.” Usually, that’s a term I hate. I’ve never even uttered it in real life before, I hate it that much. Perhaps it’s because we as a human race sometimes interchange the phrase with “having sex,” even though the two are completely different acts. Anyone can have sex; it takes a special moment and a special person to actually say you’ve “made love” to someone, I think. I’m also a person who believes there is a such thing as a cosmic sexual experience (i.e. expanding your consciousness via tantra and tantric sex, etc.), and that’s what Salim experienced with the Jinn. The Jinn truly did worship Salim through this act, which is huge, since it’s not like Salim’s a god. But Salim’s interaction with The Jinn meant so much to him that, in the Jinn’s mind, Salim is on a high enough pedestal to be worshipped like a god.

At the same time, the Jinn gave Salim permission to be himself. As has been said in various articles, Salim is used to having intercourse quickly, cleanly, and in secretive places. I’m sure that for Salim, there’s a certain amount of shame associated with sex as well. To quote showrunner Bryan Fuller from The Hollywood Reporter:

“To portray Salim and the Jinn in a way that’s sex positive for a gay man who comes from a country where homosexuality is punishable by death and you can be thrown off of a rooftop. It was very important to us to look at Salim’s story as a gay man from the Middle East whose sexual experience was probably relegated to back alley blowjobs and didn’t have an intimate personal sexual experience. In the book, Salim blows the Jinn in the hotel, and then he’s gone. It was important for us in this depiction to have Salim drop to his knees and prepare to achieve sex the way he’d been accustomed to, and the Jinn lifts him off of his knees and kisses him and treats him much more soulfully and spiritually to change this perception of who is is and what his sexual identity has become. That felt like it was empowering in a different way, showing a protagonist as the one who is being penetrated. That comes with all sorts of preconceptions of gender roles and what it is to be a gay man at the same time.”

I’d go so far as to say that Salim is the only one so far who has encountered a god and came away with a positive experience. If anyone has faith in any of these gods, it’d seem like Salim has the most reason to have faith in his Jinn.

• The Jinn is one of the few gods that actually feel like characters you can identify with. Perhaps I should speak for myself–the Jinn is one of the few god characters feel like I can identify with. Maybe it’s how Mousa Kraish speaks while in character–the accent he gives the Jinn and the timbre of his voice sounds rich and musical–but I get where the Jinn is coming from. I don’t get that with Wednesday, Czernobog, or, heck, most of the gods we’ve met so far. Too many of these gods are opportunistic, and that’s not a criticism; I think that’s part of what the show is exploring. But Kraish’s Jinn looks and sounds like an earthy, warm protector. He wants what all us human want, which is to be understood, respected, and seen for who he is–he also requires no frills, unlike the other gods. I get that.

I’ll say again that I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if any of my current feelings towards the Jinn with change (I hope they don’t). But as for right now, I’m all about the Jinn and Salim and I can’t wait to spend more time with them.

For more on Salim, the Jinn, and American Gods, check out this Ars Technica podcast featuring award-winning fantasy author and critic Amal El-Mohtar, who gives her insights on the treatment of Arabic and Middle Eastern identity in American Gods so far.