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“Black Lightning” masterfully puts black pain–and black power– in the spotlight

I remember when people were up in arms about the fact that Black Lightning wasn’t going to be a part of the Berlanti-verse alongside The Flash and Arrow. Even though I don’t watch either of those shows, the news did sound like CW was making a negative “Whites Only” distinction between the Berlanti-verse and Black Lightning. However, after watching the Black Lightning premiere, I’m actually quite glad that Jefferson Pierce/Black Lightning (Cress Williams) has his own universe to play in. With the salient themes the show wants to get across, it needs a specific, concentrated point of view, and getting bogged down in the more comic booky setup established by The Flash and Arrow would, in my opinion, get in the way.

The show, brought to us by Maria Brock-Akil and Salim Akil, has a pointed message: too often, black pain is ignored or stuffed down, either to keep the peace or just so to stay alive. But at some point, enough is enough, and black pain turns into black power. In this case, that power is taken from subtext to text, with Jefferson revisiting his ability to generate and control lightning.

Jefferson’s pain isn’t just hinted at; it’s shown to us in stark moments, like the opening sequence which shows Jefferson as a well-regarded principal in his town and a few minutes later, he’s the victim of a racist police pullover. The pain is both external and internal, when his oldest daughter Anissa (Nafessa Williams) argues with him about his style of protesting–which could be critiqued as playing to respectability politics–versus her style of protesting, which is much more in line with today’s Black Lives Matter movement and other grassroots movements.

This particular argument is something I feel will come up in the show over and over again, as it’s an argument that is happening in the real world all the time.  It’s a discussion I often argue with myself over–technically I’m a “millennial,” but I’m of the older set; I’m much closer to Generation X than I am millennials, and on top of that, I’m someone who has always felt older than her age. I understand why Jefferson is more concerned with what looks like “keeping the peace” and focusing more on education and, to be blunt, status. For Jefferson, the way out of the existential predicament African Americans are in is through higher learning, and for many of us, including me, that’s what we were taught. I feel like I’m of the last generation when The United Negro College Fund was prominently on TV, drilling the catchphrase “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” in our heads. We were literally taught that the only path forward for us, the only path towards being treated with humanity and dignity, was through attending college, attaining that quintessential “good job with a 401K,” and getting that house in the suburbs.

However, there’s the other side of me that knows that protests are the only way we’ve been able to attain even that level of privileged thinking. The blood sacrificed for us to even establish a college fund means something, and to honor that, we have to continue putting ourselves on the front lines in whatever way we can. We have to fight for ourselves and our humanity, otherwise, the rights we have will be taken away from us. The Black Lives Matter movement and other movements like it are essential to the ongoing conversation our nation has had about race, privilege, power, and humanity.

But, as Jefferson pointedly said to Anissa, many young activists forget that the same older people they deride for playing “respectability politics” were fighting the good fight longer than they’ve been alive. The disconnect between the generations sometimes results in unnecessary animosity, with both sides not wanting to come together in the middle and recognize the similarities. The Black Lives Matter Movement, Movement for Black Lives, Dream Defenders, and others are just the ideological grandchildren of SNCC, CORE, the NAACP, the Black Panther Party, and others. Recognizing the history shared and coming together to develop solutions for going forward should be part of today’s activist movement instead of the isolation and chiding I’ve seen among some younger activists and some of the older generation.

It’s this combustible combination of a society gone rampant with fear and police brutality coupled with activism in the social media age that have put Jefferson between a rock and a hard place. At his core, he is an activist. A vigilante, even–Black Lightning is the scourge of the police, but beloved by many in his city. But as a father and a man who wants to reconcile with his wife Lynn (Christine Adams) after his do-gooding split them apart, Jefferson just wants to be able to work, come home, and have his family safe in America. He’s a hero who doesn’t want to be a hero, but is often called to be one. I think that’s one of the more interesting things about Jefferson as a character. It’s similar to how Marvel’s Luke Cage didn’t want to be a hero, but was called to be because the community needed him.

This calling is often the hallmark of black superheroes in both Marvel and DC Comics. Whereas some white or white-passing superheroes like Superman can think of heroism as a luxury, black superheroes arise because no one else will help them. A superhero has to be borne out of necessity. There was an episode of Superman: The Animated Series that shows the origins of Steel; in many ways, his story is the same; Superman wasn’t holding things down in Steel’s neck of the woods, and he had to rise up and take care of the crime in his community. What’s odd is that I don’t remember Superman ever getting called out on his oversight.

Overall, I feel Black Lightning is setting up to be, like Luke Cage was when it premiered in 2016, the superhero we need for these complicated and excruciating times. Black Lighting, like its Marvel counterpart, shows how these “feats of daring-do” can speak to our current fears and hopes. These characters might be fictional, but the carry a very real weight. They can also, when put in the right hands, carry messages to help us learn and grow and, hopefully, become better, more compassionate human beings towards each other.

A key moment of this is when we see how Anissa is affected by almost every black male villain in this episode calling her a bitch or pulling a gun out on her. Black men take a lot of abuse, no doubt, but black women take a very different and very specific kind of abuse, one that’s leveled by men outside and within the race. This type of abuse leveled against black women by black men can be intellectualized and understood–as shown on the last season of Underground, abuse within the black family can be traced back to slavery, when some black men would take out their aggression for their white slavemasters onto their black wives, who had no recourse for help or understanding outside of their home or in the nation at large. It’s shown in The Color Purple, in which Whoopi Goldberg’s character Celie is a constant victim and Oprah Winfrey’s character Sofia talks about the sexual and physical abuse she’s faced from every man in her life, including her own husband. But that doesn’t make the lasting effects of it in today’s society any less painful. After being jerked around, called ou of her name, kidnapped, almost forced into prostitution, and nearly killed, Anissa has had enough. Now, like her father, her own powers bubble up from black pain and become transmuted into strength.

Black Lightning airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on CW. 

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New webseries “Munkey in the City” puts fresh spin on making it in the big city

Official synopsis (courtesy website):

Munkey in The City is a whimsically poignant dramedy series about a delusional young novelist in search of a dream–of fame, of fortune, and the pursuit of happiness. But he also brings the one thing standing in his way: himself. His name is MUNKEY, and he’s learning that The City is one big jungle he needs to survive.

Munkey dreams of writing the great American novel. The problem is, it’s already been written. He’s also looking for love in all the right places, but he’s just the wrong person. And just what is that thing that’s following him?

Determined yet confused, hopeful yet awkward, he comes to The City, one of the most vast and wildest places on Earth, in order to “make it.” On his journey, he struggles to connect with the people around him, escaping instead through alcohol, drugs, and his own writing. Through much trial-and-error, and with the help of an eclectic band of friends, Munkey must come to realize his own purpose in life, before The City swallows him whole. Though he soon realizes that the singular Evet is the key to unlocking his full potential and future.

Can our hero make it out alive with his sanity intact? Possibly not. But he’s going to try anyway.

Kenny Leu as Munkey. (Screencap)

Review:

Munkey in the City, the debut webseries from Michael T. Nguyen, is one that deftly weaves surprising turns of mystery and surrealism into a coming-of-age meets fish-out-of-water story about a young man who wants to find himself. The only problem is that he keeps getting in his own way.

The hero of the story, Munkey (Kenny Leu, who will be seen next in National Geographic’s miniseries The Long Road Home) is a man who is scared to use his own voice to make his mark in the writing world. Instead of coming up with his own story to sell to a publisher, he keeps rehashing the plots of famous ideas, plots he knows have found an audience. His creative struggles mirror his personal ones, as he’s a man who has no bearing on his place in the world or who he’s meant to be. These struggles are made known in overt ways, from his alcoholism, has failure with the ladies, and his severe lack of style (except for the glasses–I actually like the glasses, unlike other characters in this show). But there are also unspoken ways we see him struggle, from being adopted into a white family, his fear of adapting to a big, bustling city, and his fear of facing himself.

That’s where the Munkey King comes in.

The Munkey King (spelled that way on purpose) acts as Munkey’s aggressive conscience. The aggression is because Munkey is intent on not listening to it. Each time  the Munkey King tries to show Munkey things he has to face, all Munkey can muster is a blank stare, unwilling to tap into the root of that hidden anger.

Kenny Leu as Munkey, Henry Lee as the Munkey King. (Munkey in the City/Facebook)

The inclusion of the Munkey King is just one surprise this webseries has to offer. Even though it’s only six episodes, with each episode only lasting about five minutes, Munkey in the City manages to address certain tropes associated with Asian American male characters and turn them on their heads. Munkey never gets the girl in the end. But his lack of game isn’t based on Asian stereotyping; it’s because Munkey is so messed-up, he’s not mentally ready for any girlfriend (what’s sad is that he doesn’t even realize it). Ditto for Munkey’s dorkiness; he’s a dork because he’s been sheltered and because he’s insecure, not to mention that he’s also emotionally and mentally lost. Basically, his traits are there because of the life he’s lived and the choices he’s made, and seeing a well-rounded character who also happens to be Asian is refreshing.

If you’re wondering if revealing the Munkey King and Munkey’s lack of romance are spoilers, don’t worry; both points are well established before you ever get to the final episode. What I won’t reveal is the series’ biggest secret, and it has to do with this lady, Evet (Monica Barbaro).

Monica Barbaro as Evet. (Screencap)

Keep an eye on her.

I will say that even with a mysterious character like Evet, character moments become barbs aimed straight at old tropes. Are you sick of the “lesbian-turns-straight” trope? One scene featuring Evet will show you that Munkey in the City is tired of it, too–in fact, it uses the moment as a way to take a stab at its leading man, further showing the place of desperation Munkey is at in his life.

I found Munkey in the City to be fun and surprising. Munkey, like the fabled Monkey King in Journey to the West, is hoping to find his own nirvana at the end of a sojourn. I’m excited to know just how Munkey plans to tackle his demons as he goes along his quest to find himself.

Watch Munkey in the City on its website , Vimeo page and YouTube page, and follow the series on Facebook, Twitter,and Instagram

Hollywood’s obsession with toxic masculinity, as seen in “Blade Runner 2049”

SPOILERS for Blade Runner: 2049 and a possible TRIGGER WARNING for mentions of rape and sexual assault.

Hollywood is still reeling from the revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s abhorrent conduct. Even though Weinstein is being dismissed from various film boards, including the Academy, it begs the question: What about the other men in Hollywood who uphold toxic masculinity and rape culture?

Hollywood has been a hotbed for all versions of toxic masculinity, from predators to the benign “as a father of daughters” type–however that type is just as insidious. Like Martin Luther King’s abhorrence for the “white moderate” who does nothing in order to not make waves, the male moderate does and says nothing when women around him cry for help. It usually takes someone close to him (a daughter, for instance) for him to see that society treats women as second class citizens.

Toxic masculinity is not just apparent in Hollywood (and various other industries); it’s also apparent in the stories Hollywood tells. The latest blockbuster in theaters, Blade Runner 2049, is rampant with toxicity. Yet, it also wants to have its progressive cake and eat it too. But placing two women in roles of power doesn’t make it okay for every other woman in the film to be treated like a walking Barbie doll. Here’s  how Blade Runner 2049 fails its women and illustrates the double standard in Hollywood.

Women as props

(L-R) Sylvia Hoeks as Luv and Jared Leto as Niander Wallace in Alcon Entertainment’s action thriller “BLADE RUNNER 2049. ( Photo credit: Stephen Vaughan) © 2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC

The effort Blade Runner 2049 goes to make sure women are seen as objects is astounding, especially contrasted against how much effort the film went into making sure we recognized Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) as a “strong female character.” (To be honest, most of the likability of Joshi comes from Wright’s force as an actress, her ability to make rather static, paint-by-numbers-“I’m a hardass police boss” lines have some actual weight.)

As in the original Blade Runner, which focused its attention on Deckard and used rape as the titular “romantic” shift in the relationship between Deckard and the film’s replicant love interest Rachel, Blade Runner 2049 uses women as a backdrop for male angst and women’s pain as a tool to show male dominance.

Using women as a blank slate is best shown in the existence of Joi (Ana de Armas), a female companion anyone can buy, made by the Wallace Corporation, the company that replaced the Tyrell Corporation in replicant-making superiority. Joi is a virtual girlfriend, and while we don’t see all of Joi’s capabilities, it’s insinuated that she can take on any personality that best fits her “boyfriend.” In Joi’s introductory scene, we see that she takes the form of a 1950s housewife–the cliche of male superiority and female objectifcation–and in her daily life, she usually dresses in clothes reminiscent of the mod 1960s and 1970s. I believe, since K has a love for the 1950s and 1960s–what with him listening to swingers’ music in his apartment–K probably programmed Joi to dress this way; Joi’s actual “default mode” of dressing is in comfortable, yet cute athleisure wear. It’s quite ironic that Joi, a woman who is stripped of personal choice, is programmed to dress in the clothes of the women’s liberation.

If there’s Joi, where are the male companions for sale? It would have been more interesting to show how subjugation has become a big theme of Blade Runner‘s future, with both women and men virtual dolls available for customers. Something similar is ignored in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.  As I wrote in my review for Mediaversity Reviews:

Heterosexuality is large and in charge in Marvel’s cinematic universe, even in outer space. You’d think if it’s plausible for Peter to be in a relationship with Gamora, an alien, there should be some mention of same-sex attraction or asexuality. There was one explicit chance for different sexual preferences to be subtly brought up—a scene on a pleasure planet where sex robots available for touring ne’er-do-wells. There could have easily been male Johns paying for the services of male sex robots. Or there could have been women utilizing either male robots or female robots. But the film only shows us men with female sex robots. In fact, the reason we’re shown this planet is to reintroduce us to Peter’s questionable father figure Yondu, who is buttoning his pants after finishing a night with a female sex robot.

With the future usually thought of as a time when fears about sexual orientation have subsided, you’d think that for ever huge Joi advert, there’d be one for, let’s say, ‘Yul’ (since this world is all about mixing Russian themes in with its Japanese futurism). If I saw a naked Yul billboard, I might not be so annoyed by seeing one featuring a naked Joi.  Male fragility blocks Blade Runner 2049 from engaging in any type of equitable conversation about male and female objectification–how dare a man be shown in a fetishistic way! Male fragility blocks most films, including “harmless fun” like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, from showing men a less powerful, submissive position.

The catch with the replicants and AI made by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto)–the reason his company has become the new standard in replicant-making technology–is that his replicants obey all rules. This would be an interesting thing to explore if this quality was actually explored in all replicants, male and female.

Yes, Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is supposed to be a Wallace replicant, and up until the point we meet him in the film, he has been following all rules to a T. But, as the male lead, he’s afforded the ability to go against his programming; we only see mental complexity in the men in this movie, replicant and human. Meanwhile, female robots don’t get that type of treatment. Joi, we’re led to believe, is supposed to be undergoing some type of mental progression. But it seems more like she’s fulfilling her programming by choosing to love K more intensely over the course of the film, to the point where she asks him to transport her to a portable device. When K initially refuses, scared that it might cause him to lose her forever, she does exert some power by saying if he didn’t do it, she could do it herself. But this one moment of personal power isn’t enough to overcome her other moments of mindlessness. Also, the two times she does use her own power is only in service of K, not for her own mental exploration.

Ana de Armas as Joi. (Photo credit: Stephen Vaughan) Copyright: © 2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC

The other replicant in this film, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), also follows the rules without being given the opportunity to challenge her role. She clearly has feelings–she sheds tears several times in this movie, indicating how she’s internally at odds with Wallace’s orders and her own place in the world. Yet, we see her dutifully follow Wallace’s directives, even after seeing Wallace gut a newly-born female replicant just to show how docile his replicants are. Why doesn’t she ever challenge Wallace? If she knows the importance of the story’s mystery figure–the child borne of a replicant–and that having that figure in the clutches of Wallace means no one any good, why doesn’t she ever team up with K? What makes her loyal to Wallace when all she seems to know is abuse?

If K can get emotional growth, why can’t Luv?  She’s earned it as much as K has.

Also, Rachel is revitalized in this film, only to have her be shot mere seconds later. Her entire point in this story is to be used as an object in Wallace’s plan to turn Deckard to his side. But when Deckard doesn’t fall for it (Rachel had green eyes, not brown, he says), the fake Rachel is shot by Luv. Once again, Rachel’s pain is used only to further Deckard’s storyline. It would have been nice to know what this Rachel thought of everything happening; was she aware of how she was being used? Did she retain any of the original Rachel’s memories? What part could she have played in the burgeoning uprising? And could she have at least lived long enough to meet her daughter? Deckard gets to.

Blade Runner 2049 overcomplicates its own story by how grotesquely it uses the female form to titilate, shock, and arouse awe. Take a look at how old Las Vegas is depicted in the film:

(Screencaps)

There’s more nakedness shown in the actual film; the remnants of huge naked women dot the wasteland, helping the film achieve its R rating. Why does Las Vegas have to be proliferated with humongous naked women statues? What purpose does this serve?

As Li Lai wrote in her review for Mediaversity Reviews, the film is a “trainwreck for gender equality”:

To watch this film is to suffer through a parade of hypersexualized female bodies that are purchased as digital toys, deployed as prostitutes, or gutted through the uterus to demonstrate man’s control over the world he created. The gratuitous violence against women is never challenged by the filmmakers; on the contrary, the camera seems to delight in rendering shock value as if it will make the film harder, or edgier. Devon Maloney pens a great piece on the misogyny of Blade Runner 2049 for Wired:

“Three men manage to take up 95 percent of the emotional frame on screen, leaving little room for the women around them to have their own narratives. There’s manic pixie dream girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), whom K (Ryan Gosling) has literally purchased. K’s boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), berates him at work and then invites herself over, drinks his alcohol, and comes on to him. Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), the sex worker with a heart of gold, repeatedly comes to K’s aid (in every way you can imagine). Wallace (Jared Leto)’s servant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) has the most tangible personality, yet she’s obsessed with pleasing Wallace. Even Rachael makes a cameo as a plot device for Deckard, embodying the final archetype—the martyred Madonna—of this Ultimate Sexist Megazord. Not one of these female characters voice an ambition or desire that does not pertain to their male counterparts.

Additionally, the character of Joi, K’s digital girlfriend, employs the damaging trope of ‘Born Sexy Yesterday’ as described by Beth Elderkin:

“’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.”

The film’s obsession female sexuality doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If anything can be learned from the Harvey Weinstein scandal and other scandals that have hit Hollywood in recent weeks, it’s that women in Hollywood–on screen and off–are only given a box to express themselves inside of, while men get the entire playground. Too many men in Hollywood seem to think that women only exist to be sexual objects. Either you’re supposed to be like Joi and do whatever you can to please men in charge, or you’re meant to be a relic like the statues, forgotten or blacklisted as “hard to work with” because you decided to stand up for your voice. And even then, your body is used against you; just like how the statues showcase the barren wasteland of Las Vegas, an actress’ body can either be used as sexual currency or the reason why she doesn’t book any roles.

The conceits that women are sponges for abuse, “born sexy yesterday,” or sirens who need to be punished are myths that has been ingrained into Hollywood’s storytelling. Many of the men who tell the majority of these stories are also men who don’t know how to treat women fairly is highly troubling. This is a general statement–I’m not casting singular doubt on the folks behind Blade Runner 2049, but this film is full of that standard male-dominated thinking that believes itself to be progressive, when it’s actually regressive.

To take the heat off of Blade Runner 2049, let’s look at another filmmaker, Joss Whedon. For whatever reason (Buffy, I guess),  Whedon has been lauded as a feminist writer. Even before his own scandal surfaced, Whedon’s version of feminism has never included women of color, so immediately, it was suspect. But now, it’s apparent that Whedon’s feminism wasn’t for anyone other than to serve his own agenda. Whedon’s ex-wife, Kai Cole, said Whedon only utilized his clout as a “feminist” to get closer to actresses he wanted to cheat with. According to Cole’s op-ed in The Wrap, Whedon’s own description of the women he was surrounded by flies in the face of his supposed politics.

“Fifteen years later, when he was done with our marriage and finally ready to tell the truth, he wrote me, ‘When I was running ‘Buffy,’ I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it.’ But he did touch it. He said he understood, ‘I would have to lie — or conceal some part of the truth — for the rest of my life,’ but he did it anyway, hoping that first affair, ‘would be ENOUGH, that THEN we could move on and outlast it.’”

He’s blaming the women he decided to pursue for his own martial transgressions instead of taking responsibility for his actions. And yet, he’s the one chosen to write the upcoming Batgirl film, even after his draft of Wonder Woman, which is completely written from the male point of view and only highlights Diana when he wants to showcase her as a sexual object or a thing for his Steve Trevor to act against.

Can someone claim to be a feminist and still see the female only in virgin/whore dynamics? Yes. Similarly, can a film like Blade Runner 2049, which tries to show women in progressive roles, still reinforce staid, tired tropes? Yes. Can Hollywood claim to be forward thinking while female actors (and male actors) get harassed and even assaulted by toxic men just for daring to do their job? Yes.

Women as interchangeable

Mackenzie Davis as Mariette. (Screencap)

Out of the entire film, the grossest part for me was seeing Joi pay for the services of replicant prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) in order to have sex with K. The scene was supposed to be one that inspired pathos for Joi’s condition as a hologram–she can’t actually touch K–but seeing it play out was like watching an idea that seemed good in someone’s head become horrifying when enacted in real life.

The scene doubled down on the Blade Runner franchise’s lackadaisical treatment of women, this time proving that it does believe that women are not only props, but are interchangeable ones. Was K having sex with Joi or with Mariette? Does it even matter? It seems like it doesn’t, since towards the end of the movie, K caresses Mariette’s face with the same loving tenderness he tried to caress Joi with–and Joi had just “died” in the prior scene.

Again, to go back to Hollywood, the theme of interchangeability is rampant within the industry. Women are usually written as tropes in films–either as supportive girlfriends or wives, quirky “manic pixie dream girls,” “strong female characters” (which just means the woman curses and fights, but still fulfills the patriarchal demands of a sexual object), or they’re “smart,” meaning they’re usually dressed “unattractively” but still act as a type of sexual release (think of how Velma from Scooby Doo has become one of most pornographically-presented Hanna Barbera characters) or they’re dressed unattractively (and behave like a stereotypical dork) as if to say smartness in women equals ugliness.

It’s only been in recent times that films featuring women living outside of the patriarchy have been presented in ways other than the 1940s “women’s prison” films. Yet, there’s still so much further to go. Blade Runner 2049 is case in point. With as futuristic as the film’s supposed to be, everything about the film references Hollywood’s past and current treatment of women as both actresses and characters. Joi’s defining characteristic is that she’s sexy. Joshi’s main characteristic is being “tough.” Luv’s main characteristic is “loyalty.” However, K  is allowed to be sexy, tough, loyal (to a point), and smart, discerning, confused, self-aware, brooding, cool, sad, disillusioned, etc. He gets a range of emotions, while the women either only serve one purpose or are used interchangeably to serve one man, as is the case with Mariette and Joi serving K and Luv and Rachel serving Wallace.

Ana de Armas as Joi and Ryan Gosling as K. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Alcon Entertainment)

The fact that nearly every female character dies in the film is also evidence of the film’s belief that regardless of these women’s various stations in life or their motivations, they are all interchangeable and disposable. This movie reeks of the “fridged woman” stereotype, which means that women are killed in stories solely to advance a male-driven plot. Comic book writer Gail Simone has compiled a huge list of female comic book characters that have been killed or brutalized solely for the male lead to be spurred into action.

However, Blade Runner 2049 fails at even allowing he male leads to be spurred into action because of female death. The deaths of these women are treated with nihilism, as if their deaths are to show how brutal this futuristic world can be. Maybe that point would be better made if we saw more male characters be faced with certain death throughout the film; most of the male characters we meet at the beginning of the film are still alive at the very end, while most of the female characters are dead. Even though K gives up the ghost in the film’s final seconds, he still survived all the way to the ending credits, which is more than we can say for more deserving female characters.

The only male character that dies in this film is Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista). His death links him to these women; he’s the only male character in the film to show any deference to the female-made miracle he’s witnessed–Rachel giving birth to her daughter. The only man in the movie who shows any ounce of respect towards a woman gets killed because of it.

Women who are erased from their own narratives

(L-R) Ryan Gosling as K and Ana de Armas as Joi. (Photo credit: Stephen Vaughan) © 2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT

A female character that does survive, however, is Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), but that’s only because she has to be kept in a sterile environment due to a condition (maybe a condition related to her birth). Ana is also the prodigal  daughter everyone’s been looking for. However, as far as the film’s storytelling goes, is she only considered useful by the story because Deckard’s her dad, not the power she has as the first of her kind?

This might seem like nitpicking, especially since Ana inverts the audience’s trained expectation for the leading man to be the golden child. Having K realize he’s not the chosen one is actually quite satisfying–he’s built a huge mythology in his head by this point in the movie, so when he learns the truth from replicant leader Freysa (Hiam Abbass), one of the few women of power in this film, it’s fascinating to see his ego deflate before our eyes. When he realizes his only purpose is to be the usher for a female savior, he becomes disillusioned once again.

However, when K has this great realization should be when the film actually starts. The real story isn’t K’s journey from replicant-to-human-to-replicant; the real story is Ana’s. Why is it that we follow K throughout his search–which has K go around 360 degrees back to his emotional starting point–and watch him die, when the real story is happening off screen? This film should have been about Ana, not K.

Having the film follow K instead of the real focus is toxic masculinity at work. It’s subtle, but the film’s basically saying that K’s story is more important not because of any revelations he might have, but because he’s a man. That’s the only reason I can see as to why we don’t follow Ana, who has the balance of the entire world in her hands. The real mystery isn’t if K is a human; it’s how did a human (or suspected replicant) and a known replicant have  a naturally-conceived replicant child? What’s the science behind this? And what would Ana do with this power once she’s made aware of her unique position? She might be alive, but why is she fridged out of her own story?

There’s a parallel here. Just like how we’re told K is more important than Ana, we’re often told men’s stories and emotions are more important than women’s. Women are often portrayed as being naive and not knowing what they want, while the man somehow magically does. This is indicative in the rape scene between Rachel and Deckard, which is played more like a love scene than the brutal act it actually is.

As Eric Haywood wrote for Roger Ebert (linked above):

Here’s the scene in a nutshell: Rachael’s with Deckard in his apartment. They’re sitting together at his piano when he tries to kiss her. She pulls back, then jumps up and races for the door (the shaky handheld camerawork emphasizing her urgency and determination to leave). She opens the door, but Deckard jumps in front of her—looking quite angry, mind you—and slams it shut with his fist, then grabs her with both hands and physically slams her against the window.

That’s our hero in action.

Then, as if all that weren’t creepy enough, he orders her to say, “Kiss me.” She doesn’t want to, so he orders her again. This time she says it. He kisses her (because, hey, she just told him to, right?), she kisses him back, and they continue as we fade to black.

To be fair, there’s an argument to be made that the scene is probably attempting a certain level of emotional complexity here. Rachael is a replicant of an advanced design. She’s had the memories of her creator’s niece implanted in her mind, leading her to believe that she’s actually human. Anyway, the idea seems to be that she and Deckard are both overcome with passion, but she’s resisting because (having been dismissively told by Deckard that she’s actually an android) she can’t trust her emotions. But the basic thrust (sorry) of the scene remains the same: Deckard wants sex, he wants it right now, and she does not. So he literally holds her hostage until she agrees to give it up.

Basically, Deckard, like so many men before him, believes he knows what Rachel wants, even though she clearly states the opposite. Her feelings don’t matter, since its Deckard’s feelings that are given precedence in the story.

If Rachel did proclaim that she was raped by Deckard, would anyone believe her? And would anyone disbelieve her because she’s a replicant, or would it be because she’s a woman?

In real life, women are often disbelieved, regardless of the positions they hold in life. They are made out to be liars. It shouldn’t be a surprise that so many women have never  come forward with their stories of sexual assault and harassment, since people would only be concerned with how they somehow “asked for it.” What did they wear? What were their actions? Did they, like Rachel, say what the man wanted to hear (never mind if it was said out of coersion)? However, what’s hardly ever asked is what did the hero of the story–what did the man—do. Like too many men that populate Hollywood (and the White House), Deckard’s actions are never explored or punished. He remains our hero. Even his storyline with Rachel is remade into a noir-esque love affair in Blade Runner 2049. The truth gets turned into something more palatable. Rachel is erased.

In conclusion

What would be cool is, if the Blade Runner 2049 sequel ever gets made, that Ana becomes the lead of the story. We should have been  following her all along. What I fear is that Deckard will become the lead again, and the film will be all about exploring if he is actually a replicant. This would be a huge disservice to the story, since everything hinges on Ana.

As far as films go, Blade Runer 2049 is only but one of the many films out there that do a disservice to its female characters. The film, like  many before it, is also victim to the illness of toxic masculinity in the Hollywood industry. It’s not the fault of the films who suffer from this toxicity; it’s the fault of the filmmakers. Sadly, too many screenwriters, directors, and producers don’t even realize that they have a problem. Too many enjoy living high off the hog, misusing their privilege. However, until those in charge do have a wake-up call (or are replaced), women like Ana, Joi, Luv, Mariette, Joshi,and Rachel will stay in their boxes while men continue to take up all of the playground. ♦

Review: “Still Star-Crossed” is fun, needs to find its mojo to be even better

Lashana Lynch as Rosaline. (ABC/Manu Trillo)

Synopsis (IMDB): A period drama that picks up where the famous story of Romeo and Juliet leaves off, charting the treachery, palace intrigue, and ill-fated romances of the Montagues and Capulets in the wake of the young lovers’ tragic fate. Based on the book by Melinda Taub.

My thoughts: Okay, so first things first, I like the bare bones this show has to offer. There’s a good story here and, seeing how apparently well-loved the YA novel it’s based on is, it has all of the elements there for the adapting. Basically, it should be a slam-dunk. “Should” being the operative word.

I’m going to start with the positives. I’ve talked about how people of color should be in more historical fiction, from books to TV to movies. The big draw Still Star-Crossed has for me is that its a show filled with people of color in Shakespeare’s classic story, Romeo and Juliet. Lashana Lynch stars as our heroine Rosaline Capulet, who lives with her sister Livia (Ebonee Noel) in the home of their uncle Lord Silvestro Capulet (Anthony Head) and hateful aunt Lady Guiliana Capulet (Zuleikha Robinson). In an effort to end the violence that only increased after the elopement and deaths of Romeo (Lucien Laviscount) and Juliet (Clara Rugaard), Prince Escalus (Sterling Sulieman) proclaims that Rosaline should marry her blood enemy, Benvolio Montague (Wade Briggs), the son of Lord Damiano Montague (the scene-chewing Grant Bowler, who seems to know and embrace the type of campy show he’s in).

Sterling Sulieman (ABC/Manu Trillo)

Lynch, Noel, Laviscount, Sulieman, and Medalion Rahimi as Prince Escalus’ sister Princess Isabella cement the series as one that will frequently showcase various POC in roles they rarely get in Hollywood. On that level alone, Still Star-Crossed is important. We as an audience need to see more men and women of other ethnicities in roles like this to help erase the “history is white” narrative we’ve learned throughout our lives. History is not only full of white folks; it’s full of all kinds of people, making their marks in the world.

If I had to compare Still Star-Crossed to anything other than the costume BBC drama it’s analogous for, it’d be the 1997 Cinderella adaptation. I, like many black girls, loved it because a black girl finally got to be the princess for once. But I also liked it because there were so many different people playing roles they wouldn’t ordinarily get. Anyone could literally be anything, from the royal family to a random townsperson. That was cool.

Of course, one of the biggest complaints people had about that adaptation is “How are these people related to each other?” Again, this could be seen as a positive–I’m sure Cinderella spoke to many adopted kids or kids in blended families in which there were racial differences. The same goes for Still Star-Crossed; there are families in which race isn’t defining factor, and that means a lot in the conversation about how media can better portray families with a mix of racial backgrounds.

However, even though I am putting my weight behind this show, I am hoping that it gets its act together, speaking bluntly. Like I said, there are a lot of fun historical fiction tropes that would be right at home on a “traditional” historical fiction show like the critically-lauded (but actually spottily-written) Downton Abbey. However, just like how I came down on Downton Abbey for its infuriatingly precious treatment of Lady Mary and it’s stagnant dialogue (i.e. how many times did characters in love say, “Shut up and kiss me”? AARRGGHH!!!), I have to throw the book at Still Star-Crossed for is choppy script and even choppier transitions.

Medalion Rahimi (ABC/Manu Trillo)

I feel like as a pilot, Still Star-Crossed suffers from severe Pilot-itis. What I mean is that it wants to impress so badly that it falters on basic pacing and even basic characterization. Escalus and Rosaline love each other, because….why? What kind of characterization does Isabella have? What’s her motivation? How did Livia escape the melee at the funeral? These things are important to the story, but they’re glossed over.

I don’t know where the book drops us in the story since I haven’t read (I didn’t even know about it until this show came out). But from where I’m sitting, it seem that it would have made a lot more sense to just start Still Star-Crossed at the moment Romeo and Juliet die. For the most part, we already know the story of Romeo and Juliet, or at least, we know the important parts–two kids die of dueling families because their love is forbidden. Since we know they’re dead at the end of the Shakespearean story, why not just start at the moment of the funeral? Then we’d have more time to spend with Escalus and Isabella, understand more of their motivations and Escalus’ background with Rosaline, have quick flashbacks to the roles Benvolio and Rosaline played in Romeo and Juliet’s elopement, etc. etc. Also, maybe the will-they-won’t-they romance-ish thing the show’s trying to set up with Rosaline and Benvolio could have more grounding? IDK, but those are my thoughts.

At the very least, it’d be great if the show decided AGAINST those weird transitions. The zooming into the town square during the ball, the zoom towards the palace, the awkward high angles over the city, etc.–I get that the show is trying to give us scope, but it would seem Still Star-Crossed is trying to do BBC-style presentation with a small ABC budget (not to small, mind you, since this was shot in Spain). However, just because there’s a small budget doesn’t mean that BBC-style presentation can’t happen. Even though shows like Father Brown and Call the Midwife are considered “prestige shows” by American standards, it’s not like they have lavish The Hollow Crown budgets. Yet, they still give viewers a sense of escape and production value. Still Star-Crossed has enough production value inherent in its story, filming locations, and costuming/set design without trying too hard. Adding what seem like CGI transitions make the show look more like a TV movie rather than a high production value TV show.

Lucien Laviscount (ABC/Manu Trillo)

Hopefully, the show will even out these problems and tell a much smoother story as the show goes on. Still Star-Crossed is a show that definitely deserves to be told in this way, and it definitely deserves its shot to get the story right. With Shonda Rhimes’ clout at ABC, hopefully this means ABC will give Still Star-Crossed the time it needs to shake off its rough edges.

“Riverdale” recap: Now, a warning

Pictured (Front L-R): Tiera Skovbye as Polly Cooper, Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper, (Back L-): Nathalie Boltt as Penelope Blossom, Hayley Law as Valerie, Asha Bromfield as Melody, Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge, and Madelaine Petsch as Cheryl Blossom — (Dean Buscher/The CW)

Riverdale Season 1 | Episode 8 | “The Outsiders” | Aired March 30, 2017

AAAAAUUUUGGGHHH!!!!

Yes, this is how I feel right now about Riverdale, and all of that got bottled up and compacted into this particular episode. Yes, Polly had her baby shower, she’s moved in with the Blossoms, Archie and Betty found out that Jughead’s dad is a Serpent, Kevin’s Serpent boyfriend Joaquin is having second thoughts about deceiving him, etc., etc. Now, let’s get to what really needs to be discussed: JUST WHERE IS THIS SHOW HEADING?! 

I feel like this show is treating us like how Lisle Von Rhuman treated Madeline Ashton in Death Becomes HerRiverdale is teasing us with a show beyond our wildest imaginations–inclusion, diversity, a fresh take on Archie and the gang, etc.–and it gives us what we think we want. But then, it comes back to us and says, “Now, a warning.” To which we say, like Madeline, “NOW a warning?!” For us, that warning would have been that the show would begin to lose its way and forget what made its characters great and, indeed, avatars for those who didn’t feel included in their everyday lives.

First of all, I feel like, and have always felt like, Riverdale has the potential to be amazing. There’s so much raw stuff inherent in the Archie Comics canon and it’s so frustrating to see how little the show is using what it could use. Instead, it’s pulling from every kind of pop culture reference from the past 30 years to show it’s “smart” and “edgy” and “hip.” And yet, it still comes off as dated and try-hard.

I think Emily Nussbaum hit the nail on the head in her review of the show for The New Yorker, “Archie’s and Veronica’s Misconceived Return to Riverdale,” in which she eviscerates the show for the reasons presented above. To quote her:

“…[S]even episodes in, it’s devolved into dull cosplay bracketed by bogus profundity. Betty and Veronica don kink-wear and roofie Chuck Clayton, a slut-shaming football player. The girls’ tart-tongued gay bestie, Kevin (a character from the new version of the comic strip), seduces a bi-curious Moose. Archie, when not working out shirtless, pursues a songwriting career. “Your songs,” a critical music professor sneers at him. “They’re juvenile. They’re repetitive.” That’s true of ‘Riverdale,’ too, but the show clearly knows it and doesn’t care. Every time a plot feels corny or prurient or preachy, there’s an acknowledgment in the dialogue. It gets exhausting, like hanging out with someone who keeps saying, ‘God, I’m such a nightmare!'”

It’s like the show desperately wants to prove that it’s new and fresh. “This isn’t your mom’s Archie!” is what it wants to say. But it’s consistently showing that it’s a a show that doesn’t realize that teenagers, in general, don’t talk in decades-old references, which makes it seem like this is a show actually for older Archie fans who recognize all of these references from their own childhoods. As Nussbaum said, the show brings up Lolita, Rebel without a Cause, Wild Things, Gossip Girl, Beverly Hills 90210, Pretty in Pink, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill, and plenty of others they off-handedly mention in snarky asides. Like, what do you actually want to be, show! Are you for the young kids or are you for 30-year-olds? Make up your mind!

I have been growing frustrated by the plot becoming a spinning-of-the-wheels type situation. Jason’s killer is no closer to being found, and clues seem to keep simultaneously popping up and disappearing at the same doggone time. At this point, I’m not sure if I’ll even be shocked when I find out who the killer is because I’m just so bored with the whole procedural element. Again with the references, with the murder mystery itself, the show is trying to be Twin Peaks, another reference for someone much older than the target audience. But, if the show is trying to pull a Twin Peaks-ian surrealist-fest, then when are we actually going to get into the surrealism? Again, Archie Comics has tons of surrealist moments, and that’s not even counting the amount of side-universes they have. Surrealism could come in the form of simply introducing Sabrina, a teen witch who often wants to use her powers for good, but usually ends up messing things up and has to right everything back to how it was. Sabrina could come into town, learn about the murder mystery and, after becoming friends with Cheryl and learning of her sadness, reverse time so that Jason is still alive. That could also be a good opportunity to introduce Afterlife with Archie at this moment, since Jason would be, in a way, undead. There’s your second season.

Or, the show could become a true deconstruction of the idea of classic Americana, something it was billed as being but hasn’t truly delivered on yet. Instead of having Jughead tell us that’s what the show is every week in his voice overs, we could actually see some depth of character and real explorations of race, class, gender, sexuality, and anything else that could use a thorough prodding. I’d say that if Riverdale wanted to take notes from a show doing that right now, it’d be Atlanta. This show, like Riverdale, uses the backdrop of a well-known city to explore the underpinnings of American society and culture, and it does so in a specific, tailored way. It doesn’t have to prove to the audience that it’s “edgy”–it shows its edginess in each episode by delivering on its synopsis each week.

If any place needed a deconstruction, it would be a fictional town like Riverdale, which has stood as a the center for clean-cut “American” life, which usually means white life. With much of the cast race-bent, this would have been a great opportunity to see just how destructive and soul-wrenching it can be to live in a town in which you’re the minority (which, in turn, provides context for the larger conversation about living in a country which still harbors racism against you). We could see how some folks in the football stands might be surprised to see Reggie as the captain of the team. Or, there could be some townspeople who resent that Mayor McCoy won over the white candidate (something the character actually brings up in an episode). Or, we could get more insight into the life of Moose, who doesn’t yet have the courage to live his life as an out gay young man due to fear, pressure to be “manly” or what have you. We definitely could have used Chuck, Josie, and Trev to explore life for black kids in a majority-white town.

Pictured (L-R): Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones, Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper, KJ Apa as Archie Andrews, and Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge (Dean Buscher/The CW)

I write about this in my piece for Ebony, “Riverdale’s Woke Report Card: Does the Drama Get Its Black Characters Right?”. I give the show a passing grade, ultimately, but I still write about how the show really needs to do better by its black characters.

“Out of the Pussycats, Josie is the one who has been given the most screen time; Valerie has only just now started coming up the ranks, but only because of her relationship with Archie. Meanwhile, Melody still hasn’t spoken more than two words during the run of the series and Pop Tate and Mr. Weatherbee may have been racebent, but they also don’t say much either—and in the case of Pop Tate specifically, nothing at all. Pop Tate is a conundrum; even though it’s great to see more representation on screen, it’s also puzzling as to why he has to be characterized as a silent, kindly butler of sorts, even though he’s the owner of the teen hangout, The Chocklit Shoppe. Basically, Riverdale’s Pop Tate reminds me too much of Uncle Ben, and I don’t like it.”

The show proved my point once again by making Valerie merely a sounding board for Archie this episode. She had three lines, and not one of them was about her point of view or her opinion on the matter of Archie’s dad being driven to near bankruptcy. Instead, her lines were there just so Archie could say he was going to go after the Serpents, as well as to give the appearance that they’re in a loving, stable relationship (which we see in the previews for next week that that might not be the case after all). The next time we see Valerie, she and Melody are at Polly’s baby shower, saying nothing.

If the show wants to be actually inclusive, the least it could do is not make its brown and black characters set dressing or talking props. The most it could do is not create a problematic plotpoint of a black boy in handcuffs at the mercy of a white girl who is acting out a revenge fantasy. 

Also for diversity, the show could do well to actually eliminate Bughead and reinstate Jughead as an aromatic, asexual boy, since that’s what he actually is.

Comics Alliance’s Andrew Wheeler wrote “Jughead, Bughead, and the Need for Asexual & Aromantic Heroes in Comics” to point out just how demoralizing Riverdale‘s asexual erasure is (and how it flies in the face of their “inclusion” standpoint).

Wheeler interviewed colorist Sigi Ironmonger  (a grey-asexual nonbinary trans-man); webcomic creator Sarah “Neila” Elkins, (romantic asexual), webcomic creator Jayelle Anderson (demisexual) and literature student LuciAce (aroace) about their opinions on Jughead in the comics and in Riverdale. They mentioned how important it is to have asexual representation in the media, especially for young kids still figuring out who they are. As Elkins said:

“To me it’s important because, growing up, I didn’t know it was a possibility to be asexual. I thought there was something wrong with me that I wasn’t interested in the idea of having sex like other girls my age. Friends called me a ‘prude.’ These were good friends of mine, friends who were also queer, that didn’t know that asexuality is a queer identity. Even among the ‘weird kids’ I was the odd one out.

I think if there was more representation (or any) of asexual and aromantic characters in comics as well as other books aimed at young readers, and other media, that my friends, and myself, would have known I wasn’t broken or weird. I didn’t learn about asexuality as an orientation until I was out of college. I stumbled across it online and thought, “Oh, wow! That’s what I am! This makes so much sense!” I don’t want anyone else to have to go through that, so I write asexual characters in my stuff. I hope to write something in the future, be it a comic or a novel, that’s aimed at younger readers.”

They also discussed how disheartening it was to see Jughead and Betty actually become an item, erasing the canonical asexuality the character had before (and, as far as I’m concerned, has always had). To quote Ironmonger, Elkins, Anderson and LuciAce:

Ironmonger: “Honestly, as soon as I heard about the erasure, I’ve steered clear of the show, so I can’t speak of the storyline at all. I don’t watch a lot of TV as it is and I don’t feel like prioritizing something like that, you know? I don’t really understand a decision like that and I can’t stand shoe-horned relationships of any kind but especially at the expense of LGBTQ+ ones.”

Elkins: “I really had my hopes up about that show before it came out. I was so hopeful I know I dismissed friends who said “you know they’re just gonna screw it up, right?” My friends were right. They announced online that Jughead in Riverdale “wouldn’t be asexual” and that he’d “totally want sex” or something like that. It deflated the big hope balloon I had clung onto that we’d finally have some representation on TV in a show aimed at younger viewers. It was crushing. I can’t even bring myself to look at the commercials for the show. Each time I hear the music for them I mute the TV or change the channel.”

Anderson: “Getting rid of this trait in Jughead for the television show just perpetuates the cycle of normalizing often hypersexual behavior that doesn’t fit everyone’s life. Sometimes young people’s only role model are the characters they see on television, so it is important to show that asexuality is a thing, too.”

LuciAce: “I’m really angry about the way they’re handling things. Having aroace representation on TV would have been huge, and instead, they… made him straight? Because apparently there aren’t enough allo straight characters on TV yet. I’ve never seen a character like myself on TV, and I would have been a die-hard fan of the show if they’d kept Jughead aroace and touch-averse like he is in the comics. As it is, the show just makes me furious and sad.”

The show seems to have an understanding of just how offensive Betty and Jughead as an item are, which seems evident in how they are doubling-down on shoving it down our throats (or so it seems, since the episodes have been filmed months before now). Having Jughead and Betty kiss in almost every scene seems and feels unnatural, just like how it felt unnatural when writers would try to give Jughead an interest in girls in certain comic book issues. Jughead’s characterization just isn’t one in which he’s a guy who is interested in the opposite or same sex like that, and that’s perfectly fine and normal. However, the show’s insistence on making him straight and sexual feels like a very 20th century thing to do. If we’re in an age where Kevin Keller can be proudly out as a gay teen, then we should also be in the age where Jughead can be proudly out an asexual aromantic teen. Teens in general, regardless of sexuality, shouldn’t be made to feel like they have to be in a relationship to be normal.

Pictured (L-R): Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper and Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones (Dean Buscher/The CW)

The last grievance I have is about that twist of a plotpoint with Hal Cooper, who apparently forced Alice Cooper to have an abortion. ¿¿Qué??

Why, what when and where did this plotpoint have to come up? Why have we had such little to show for Hal’s characterization until now? I know we had that part where he told Betty that Polly was with the Sisters for whatever dire reason they have, but I wish we had gotten the sense that Hal was a total abusive husband way before now. If that had been built up from the very beginning, that would have been really interesting and it would have given us more reason to try to understand Alice until this very episode. We would already know why she acted like someone driven to desperation–it’s because she’s been brainwashed by her husband’s fruitless demand for perfection from his family.

I guess what I’m getting at ultimately with this point is that for this to be a dramatic show about a murder, there are literally no dramatic stakes coming out of these characters. Yeah, we get it every once and a while, like with Jughead confronting his father and still trying to find some hope in his heart for him, and Cheryl coming to grips with her brother’s death. But the show is quickly losing the plot of both what it wants to say and who these characters are. The reason we have connected with these characters for 50+ years is because of their relatable cores. We all know some hapless goof like Archie, who is a great friend, but is endearingly clumsy (and sometimes emotionally tacky) all other areas of his life. We know someone like Jughead, who is so cool and interesting, yet they’re so enigmatic, you feel you know nothing about them. Veronica is definitely that person that many of us wish we could be–cool, rich, and a boy magnet–while Betty is who we feel we are at the present moment–the girl or boy next door, nice, loyal, but just “regular.” Their strengths and flaws are what make them so much fun, and either you see yourself or you see your best version of yourself in these characters. Right now, I’m not seeing anyone I relate to anymore. I was seeing it at the beginning of Riverdale, but now, as Nussbaum points out, all we’re getting is some great cosplay without the real commitment.

I’ll say that the only person in the main cast who feels like they are with their character in spirit is Cole Sprouse. Not too many of the main cast have read the comic books back to front, but Sprouse has said in many interviews how he studied his source material and, in so many words, came in with a gameplan as to how to approach Jughead from a position that would remain true to the character. However, the show itself is limiting him from actually playing Jughead the way he truly wants to play Jughead, I feel. While the powers that be want Jughead to be a sexual being, Sprouse has been advocating for Jughead to be canonically asexual, as he is in the comics. However, the powers that be aren’t hearing him, and it’s a shame, since not listening to the actor who knows the character is what could actually make this show a whole lot better and definitely a whole lot more interesting.

In short, I hope the show quits trying to prove that “It Goes There” like Degrassi and actually goes there. If this is going to be a teen murder mystery, then by all means, up the murder, up the mystery, and definitely up the characterizations, plots, and respect for the differences in others.

“RuPaul’s Drag Race”/”Untucked” Season 9 recap: Give a cheer!

RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9| Episode 2 | “She Done Already Done Brought It On” | Aired March 31, 2017

Oh, Jaymes Mansfield. I had such high hopes for you. We all had high hopes for you. If there was ever a time to use that Tyra Banks “We were all rooting for you” .gif, now would be the time.

I’ve recently become a fan of Jaymes Mansfield from her YouTube page, and after seeing how lively, bubbly, energetic and knowledgeable she is on her channel, it’s a shame none of it translated to the Drag Race stage. Jaymes already knew she was in her head too much, but she just couldn’t shake whatever shellshock she had. I’m not knocking her for it, though. As an introverted person, it sometimes takes a while for us to get used to a new environment, and in the meantime, we’re left looking and feeling like a shell of ourselves. That’s what happened to Jaymes here. All of the girls (well, almost all of them) seemed to understand that and tried to help her out as best they could, but ultimately, the real challenge was up to Jaymes and she just couldn’t get out of her own way enough to really shine. She’ll be fine, though–she’s got tons of fans, and she’s garnered even more after folks sympathized with her during her short time there.

However, wouldn’t it be amazing if Jaymes got the Trixie Mattel save and was brought back for a second chance? That would be spectacular!

Speaking of second chances, how great is it to see Ms. Cucu, Cynthia Lee Fontaine, back again! I’m a big Cucu fan, so I’m excited to see her energy on this season. It’s especially great to see her healthy after her liver cancer bout. I’m glad she was able to overcome this serious disease and come back to her full vigor.

This challenge was all about vigor, since it was a cheerleading challenge, but not where the queens just had to look like cheerleaders–they actually had to perform real cheerleading moves. As Nina said during Untucked, that was the most strenous challenge yet on Drag Race. I’m almost surprised they let that one be a challenge period, much less the first challenge, since it requires skills not everyone has, like doing splits and cartwheels and stuff.

However, like true professionals, everyone rose to the challenge and did what they had to do. Even Jaymes, who did some really athletic-looking tumbling. However, I have to say that while Valentina gave great Overcaffinated Cheerleader Face, Shea Couleé really gave me Real Girl Cheerleader. I didn’t go to a black school (unfortunately), but I feel like I would have seen cheerleaders like Shea Couleé at the black high school of my dreams.

She was also a very strong contender to win; in fact, most of the girls thought was going to be Shea Couleé’s win, what with her living out her Dominique Dawes childhood fantasy with a ton of flips and splits. Also, her White Party look was really strong, too. But the win ended up going to Valentina, who mesmerized the judges with her zany cheerleader persona and stunned them with her bridal look, which is based on her own mother’s wedding video.

Since I’m talking about the White Party Looks, let’s just get into my favorite looks, which are a lot. All of the looks were strong; this might be the first season in which all of the first runway looks for competition were this strong.

Shea Couleé

As the judges (which included the B-52s this week) said, this was a very Barbarella moment. It’s executed flawlessly, and she looks like a supermodel in it.

Valentina

Again, another flawlessly-executed look. If Michelle Visage hadn’t pointed out Valentina’s nude shoes, I don’t think anyone would have even noticed. At least, I wouldn’t have noticed. In any case, if that’s all she had to complain about, I think that’s a clear win for Valentina. Besides, this is ode to her mother and her parents’ love. You can’t really get too mad at her for this, especially when it looks not only amazing, but expensive and luxurious.

Cynthia Lee Fontaine

Cynthia really gave us a My Fair Lady moment with this outfit, and I think it’s the perfect outfit to use as your comeback dress. I feel like we’re going to see a lot of fun, gorgeous stuff from Cynthia this season.

Trinity Taylor

Trinity Taylor is someone I haven’t mentioned a lot, but I’m rooting for her as hard as I am other queens. She’s a Birmingham, AL queen who has made it to the national stage, and even though she’s repping Orlando on the show, I have to keep an eye out for a hometown girl. So far, she’s done the city proud and she’ll keep doing it if she’s consistently turning out looks like this. If there’s one thing I can say about Trinity is that she has an extremely high level for commitment to an uncomfortable look. If you’ve seen her Season 9 premiere party performance (and I’m sure other performances out there), you have seen how severely she tucks, to the point where it looks like she has a va-jay-jay. She’s not called “The Tuck” for nothing. This look continues that throughline of commitment, because this is all vinyl. How she can stand it, I’ll never know.

Nina Bo’nina Brown

This is giving me a “Storm at a P-Diddy White Party” vibe, which I’m a big fan of. She looks amazing, and that hair color is really something special; I’m glad she went with an unexpected gray.

Jaymes Mansfield

Jaymes might have gone home this episode, but I think he had one of the strongest runway looks. Who doesn’t like a well-done late ’50s/early ’60s pinup look? I love it, since this is Jaymes Mansfield at her most Jayne Mansfield. The judges are also right that Jaymes is one of the best padders (is that a word?) in the race.

Charlie Hides

I really like the detail in this dress, particularly that faux-two-piece look. I love a high-waisted skirt or pant, and I love to see it especially when it’s executed expertly.

Also, let’s talk about how the commenters are ablaze with love for Charlie for telling Eureka to shut up in Untucked. I think some of it was Charlie’s own frustration at being in the bottom and his fear of being ousted because of his age, but I also think he was genuinely frustrated with Eureka and has been for some time. I’m not going to get into severe Eureka discussion right now, but Eureka is quickly becoming this season’s hated queen, if the comments are anything to go by.

The bottom two were Jaymes and Kimora Blac, who had to lip synch for their lives. I thought Jaymes would be able to get something out of this performance, since she’s campy and the B-52s are nothing but pure camp, especially their most iconic song, “Love Shack.” But instead, she copied Kimora, who, if her Season 9 performance is anything to go by, isn’t the best performer. But I have to hand it to Kimora; she gave the judges personality and a palpable desire to stay, and that’s what RuPaul was trying to coax from Jaymes. Darn it, Jaymes!

It was sad to see him leave the show; his Untucked departure was particularly tough, seeing how torn up he was about his performance and how he felt his dreams came undone. This is why I feel like we’re in for a surprise with Jaymes. I seriously think she’ll be back.

Final thoughts:

• Hearing Peppermint’s story about finding acceptance after a horrible high school ordeal and Cynthia’s story about battling cancer are the reasons RuPaul’s Drag Race has an Emmy. I love when the show decides to get real and give viewers an insight into the real lives of these contestants. It’s not always about glamour and fabulosity; sometimes, it’s about overcoming bigotry, finding acceptance, and overcoming what seem like insurmountable obstacles. It’s moments like these that show how much of a role model drag queens are.

• I’m glad I was able to being somewhat professional with this recap and not make it a pure gush-fest over Valentina. I’m torn between idolizing Valentina as a woman and harboring a crush on Valentina as James Leyva the man. It’s a battle of emotions right now. A result of that is screencapping a ton of Boy Valentina images.

The beautiful people of the world can be really frustrating, can’t they?

• Last, but not least–we’ve got the first RuPaul in Drag moment!

I thought, oddly enough, that this was demure and covered-up for RuPaul. Not that she’s always naked or something, but something about the dress looked understated, even though it was a loud cyan-teal. In any event, it’s not RuPaul’s Drag Race without RuPaul as The Monster, and it’s good to see her continue the tradition.

What did you think of this episode? Do you think Jaymes will come back? Give your opinions below!

“RuPaul’s Drag Race”/”Untucked” Season 9 recap: Mother Monster has arrived

Vh1

RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9 | Episode 1, “Oh. My. Gaga!” | Aired March 24, 2017

First, I’m SO GLAD RuPaul’s Drag Race is back! This is one of my favorite shows of all time, and even though I’ve never really recapped it because, frankly, I was selfish. I wanted to keep the magic and the glamour of the show to myself and just have something fun for me to enjoy. BUT, I also feel it remiss to not recap it when Season 9 looks to be the most polished season yet.

By now, most hardcore fans have seen the first 18-20 minutes of the first episode, so we already know that Lady Gaga walked into the workroom with the rest of the queens as one of them until she took off her mask. She’s inspiring to the queens, yada yada yada. I’m not trying to sound flippant about it; it’s just that I’ve seen the first 18 minutes about three to five times before the episode aired so that part of the episode is already passé for me.

Instead, let me show you the video of how Eureka was moved to tears by how Gaga helped her in her darkest times.

Since we’re talking about Eureka, why is she living out all of her insecurities through mild bitchery? If there’s one thing that annoys me, it’s when a big queen inadvertently plays into the “bitter big woman” stereotype. I think Eureka is funny and I’m sure she’s a lovely, witty person, but come on, girl, stop cutting people down right out of the gate. Also: stop with the “I’m a big girl” jokes. Again, another thing that annoys me is when a big queen makes all of their comedy based around their insecurities about their fatness. It makes me sad and, frankly, uncomfortable, if I’m being honest. Speaking from a personal place, I know what it’s like to have body insecurities. I think a lot of us get that. But for me, if you’re a big queen, you’ve got to show that you’ve got more up your sleeve than self-deprecating jokes. Rant over.

So the theme of the episode is a Gaga-centric Miss Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent Pageant Competition! The queens had to give two looks: one repping their home town, and the other one being their favorite Gaga look. Also: No queen is getting eliminated this episode! Hooray! We get to know the queens more!

So let’s get into my favorite looks.

Hometown

Shea Couleé–Chicago

I like how, even though she’s a beauty/makeup queen, she still gives you humor. Her reference to Mystique Summers’ “Bitch, I’m from Chicago!” line and her sexual hot dog jokes, coupled with that headpiece and the commitment to the Chicago-style hot dog theme really set her apart for me.

Aja–New York City

I know several reviewers hated this look, particularly since she and Peppermint both dressed literally as Lady Liberty and Alexis Michelle had the Statue of Liberty on her peacock fan-thing. But I just like this look. Maybe I’m just being biased, but it just looks cool to me, and I like the idea of seeing an edgy Lady Liberty wearing an orange wig.

Valentina–Los Angeles

The sombrero, the hair, the makeup, the flowers, the thigh-high garter-belt boots that are also tights??? I don’t need to say much more about this, do I? The look speaks for itself. It’s all so expensive, and that’s what I love about Valentina’s aesthetic; it’s rich and luxurious and I want to live that life.

Nina Bonina Brown–Atlanta

Again, do I really need to explain why this is amazing? JUST LOOK AT THIS PEACH HEAD! IT’S MADE OUT OF CARDBOARD! It’s simultaneously the freakiest and most creative, artistic thing I’ve seen on this show. I like the way Nina’s mind works.

Lady Gaga

Nina Bonina Brown

What I love about this look isn’t just that it’s clearly Gaga; it’s also the winning look. Eureka thought this wasn’t going to win Nina the pageant crown, and lo and behold, it did. I think what Gaga identified with was the originality that still came through Nina’s looks despite having to adhere to a theme, especially one as limiting as dressing as someone else. However, Eureka’s look was also one of my favorites.

Eureka

It’s very clearly Telephone, and it’s very well made. What Eureka does best is give body queen looks, showing you don’t have to be skinny to wear skin-tight or form-fitting clothes. I do like Eureka’s aesthetic and what she’s trying to do with her drag.

Aja

Kimora Blac was saying that picking Gaga’s red carpet looks were boring, and that she wanted to do one of Gaga’s everyday looks. Well, this is how you do one of Gaga’s everyday looks. While Kimora picked yet another black strappy number, Aja chose one of Gaga’s more daring silhouettes. For me, the Commes de Garcons look played very well into the Aja brand, which is simultaneously about pushing the boundaries and just being fun and accessible.

Valentina

I’m used to seeing Valentina in elaborate wigs, so this wig was kind of a letdown for me. But, the look is still one of my favorites because everything is so put together and fashion modely. Her walk was catwalk-ready.

Sasha Velour

It’s funny that Sasha Velour is already being clocked for being the artsy queen, as in that perhaps she’s probably relying too much on artsy-ness. Perhaps it’s the Brooklyn in her; I only visited New York for about a week, but for the time I was in Brooklyn, I definitely got the sense that it was an enclave all about art and expression. Also, having been in the art world for most of my teenage life, I know this type of artist all too well. I’m not saying she’s not great; she’s one of my favorites of the season. But I can already tell that her biggest challenge will be if she can switch from niche artsy-ness to clsasic drag camp. Versatility, if you will.

Having said all of that, I think the ARTPOP look suited Sasha to a T and she sold it expertly. However, ARTPOP itself also suffered from being too artsy, so it’s kinda ironic that Sasha would pick a look that shows both the strength and flaw of being the Artist Queen.

Final notes:

• Poor Jaymes Mansfield. I’ve seen her on YouTube and she’s great on her channel. But she’s coming off as shellshocked on this show, and it’s understandable. But I hope she’s able to get herself together through the season. I really don’t want her to go home early. She’s got tons of talent, and I think she has the potential to go far. But if I can get into my Untucked review, the biggest part I hated about the first Untucked episode is that Eureka decided to come for Jaymes just because she’s quiet. Unlike the other queens, who seemed actually genuine in their concern about Jaymes’ emotional state, Eureka just seemed like she wanted to cut at the person she felt was the weakest. Again, I feel a little personal about this because I’ve been cut at for being quiet or shellshocked in some situations. Not everyone’s got a loud personality and it seems like Charlie was among the queens who understood this. In fact, it was Charlie who inquired about Jaymes in the first place. Perhaps its because he’s acquired tons of wisdom, since he is, in fact, the oldest queen. But Eureka needs to chillax on this and let Jaymes gather herself.

• Gaga needs to become the Tim Gunn of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I feel like she has a deep respect for the art of drag as well as for the lives of drag queens themselves, and I like that she put herself on the mat when it came to discussing the line between appropriation versus appreciation. I know she gets a ton of flack for what she does for the gay community because to some, it comes off as weaseling her way into the a life she doesn’t understand. I admire that she discussed her own hesitancy to appear that way and her sincere desire to uplift the community, not try to selfishly insert herself as one of its members. I think that bit of self-awareness is refreshing, since I’ve also wondered about Gaga’s intentions on that front. I don’t think we see a lot of music celebrities exhibit that kind of self-awareness, and I responded well to it. I also came to admire how she told the queens how she felt about their looks to their faces during Untucked and not just keep it all nice on the runway, then kill them behind their backs. She kept it 100, but she also kept it encouraging. I like that. Good show, Gaga.

• I’ve listened to several reviews as I wrote this recap, and I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one not getting Kimora Blac. Do I think she’s snatched and beat? Yes, of course. But do I think she’s got a limited range as of right now? Completely. As other reviewers have said, she hasn’t varied her look much, if at all, and I feel like she could give us a lot more. I think she’s got the potential to do that; she’s just stuck in a rut.

• I know Peppermint is a seasoned performer, so it’s kinda astonishing to me how she let herself go out there on the runway with her lacefront visible like that. Sure, they don’t have a lot of time backstage, but everyone else had their wigs together! As Gaga said, it’s the details that Peppermint has to focus on, and her lack of focusing on the details seems to be consistent, from what I’ve seen of her in the “Meet the Queens” segment, her RuPaul’s Drag Race premiere red carpet look, and the looks she’s given us in this episode.

• My mom doesn’t watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, but if she did, her clear favorite would be Valentina. When I showed her Valentina’s entrance into the workroom, she said, “She’s gorgeous! And her body looks good, too! That’s amazing!” I completely agree. For your consideration, Exhibits A-D:

• I’m also going to just say this now: I’m a huge Valentina stan, so there might be some favoritism in this recaps, but who isn’t biased when they’re writing recaps of shows? I just love Valentina so much. Can they make a Valentina Barbie? I’d buy that right now.

• I’m also an Aja stan, and I can’t wait for a challenge that will allow her to dance her competition into the ground. As I showed in my predictions article, Aja can dance to literally any music you put before her, and she said as much in this episode. There’s a reason she’s the number one name in Brooklyn; she’s so exciting to me. And the fact that she gives big ups to John Leguizamo is awesome too. It must be true that sexuality is a construct since I’m attracted to Leguizamo both in and out of drag. (Heck, the only reason I liked the terrible Super Mario Brothers movie was because of how cute Leguizamo is in it.)

• I’m also a big Nina Bonina Brown stan as well. I love her originality, and I really identified with her statement in Untucked, in which she revealed that she was at her lowest point when she auditioned for what was going to be her last time. Everything she said about doubting if your dream is something that is actually meant for you hit home, so it encourages me to see that if Nina can make it and achieve her dream after crippling doubt, then I can, too.

The mystery queen!

The internet is saying it’s Cynthia Lee Fontaine, which would be major if that were true, because I, like tons of people, love the Queen of Cucu. Also, the hair, the covered-ness of the outfit, and the closeup on the queen’s butt seem to point in Cynthia’s direction. But some other guesses floating out there include Lynesha Sparx, Coco Montrese, and Jasmine Masters. All we know is that the queen is either Latino or black, has a big booty, and loves short hair, which means it could be any one of these queens since they all fit the bill. Who do you think it is? Vote here:

 

Who is the mystery queen?

Lynesha Sparx
Coco Montrese
Cynthia Lee Fontaine
Jasmine Masters

Poll Maker

What did you think of the inaugural Season 9 episode? Who gave you your favorite looks? Give your opinions in the comments section below!