By Lissy Granzow
SPOILER ALERT - If you haven’t watched the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale and do not want it to be spoiled, stop reading!
“The Word,” the last episode of the second season of Hulu’s critically acclaimed dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale, left many viewers and TV critics baffled. After numerous escape attempts, protagonist June (Elisabeth Moss) finally has her best chance yet to escape the tyranny of Gilead with her newborn daughter Holly (or is it Nicole now?) and reunite with her husband in Canada. However, in the last scene she hands off her baby to Emily (Alexis Bledel), another handmaid on the run, and decides to stay in Gilead. This ending, which sets up a third season of June remaining in Gilead, came as a big surprise and shock to many viewers seeing her decision as incomprehensible or straight out nonsensical (The New York Times provides a great summary of the different reactions from critics). While I generally liked the second season, the last episode also left me quite confused about the future of the series and whether creator Bruce Miller has a clear plan for how the series will coherently continue and eventually conclude.
My viewing experience of the thirteen episodes of the second season was very different from watching the first season. While the series remains thrilling and captivating, it was often almost too much for me to take in and I truly needed the full week in between each episode to recover. One main reason why it was harder to watch for me lies in the fact that season two goes beyond the source material. The first season closely resembled Margaret Atwood’s novel, which I read for the first time right before Hulu aired the first episode. As a result, I was already familiar with the horrific world of Gilead and June’s experiences, although it was still very chilling to see it come to life on the screen. At the end of the first season, as in the novel, June’s fate is left open after she is hauled into a van without knowing where it will take her. The second season picks up where the novel ends and from then on every viewer is as much in the dark about what’s happening as June herself.
The second season depicts June’s three escape attempts, which are juxtaposed with scenes of her return to the Waterfords. Throughout the whole season, June is continuously in danger: with her rebellious behavior against Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes); her secret love affair with Nick (Max Minghella); and as she tries to escape, of course. The only thing protecting June from life-threatening harm is the fact that she is pregnant since fertile women are even more in demand after a number of handmaids are killed in a bomb attack. Not knowing the fate of June in the second season and the horrendous things that happen to her and the other characters makes this show increasingly difficult to watch. My anxiety is further amplified by real life events in the U.S. and the Trump administration’s and conservative politicians’ policies and viewpoints aiming to control women’s bodies, which sometimes makes me wonder if a real-life version of Gilead is not that far off.
And here lies my main criticism and my confusion about the ending of the second season. After June’s unsuccessful escape attempts and Eden’s execution following her own escape attempt, I was hoping that the show runners were setting up the storyline of June reuniting with her husband in Canada and fighting the Gilead regime from the outside. Instead, June gives up her newborn baby Holly, which makes me wonder who will take care of her. Will it be deeply traumatized Emily who will probably be reunited with her wife and son? Or will June’s husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) take care of the love child between his wife and another man (although Luke will probably think the baby is a product of rape).
And what will happen to June? After “stealing” the child of one of the most powerful people of the regime, all of Gilead will probably be searching for her. Where will she go? And how is she supposed to get to her other daughter and bring her to safety? Saving Hannah is probably the only reason why she decided to stay behind. But would her chances to get her daughter back not be better with an organized mission from the outside? I’m not sure if her decision to leave her infant daughter so she can go on a suicide mission to rescue her older daughter seems like the sensible thing to do, as this will very likely leave both her children without a mother. Of course, I don’t believe June will die, but considering the numerous dangers she will face remaining in Gilead, it is hard for me to imagine a believable scenario that leaves her coming out unharmed.
Another major event in the last episode that I could not comprehend was Serena’s major turn of character. Serena’s flashbacks depict her as an educated, highly conservative and religious working woman who wrote books and gave public speeches about her viewpoints on the woman’s place in the domestic sphere. Her ideas helped shape Gilead’s regime of terror. Before Gilead existed, Serena was better known and yielded more power than her husband. But when the men of Gilead, including her husband, overthrew the American government, she lost this power and her husband became one of the most important figures in the new regime.
The paradox of her old-fashioned values compared to her life before Gilead puts Serena in a tricky position in this season. She is clearly bored with her life as the dutiful housewife, just waiting to be a mother while knitting, gardening and tormenting June every day. When her husband is injured after the bomb attack, she seems thrilled to assume some political power again, acting in secret on her husband’s behalf, which results in her husband spanking her as punishment.
During a diplomatic visit in Canada with her husband, she experiences contempt from other women for her more-or-less voluntary lifestyle as a housewife. In Canada, she is also approached by a diplomat and secretly offered asylum. The diplomat points out that with asylum, she has the chance to bear her own children, since her husband is probably the person who is infertile. She refuses the offer, however, although I had the impression that she briefly considered it.
It seems like her highest priority is to have children and be a mother. In her life before Gilead, her viewpoints blame the whole infertility crisis on the loss of core family values and conservative Christian beliefs. She cannot conceive children with her husband and in the first and second season her whole life revolves around her desire to become a mother via her handmaid June. With June about to give birth, she is closer than ever to finally having a child. This is probably one of the reasons she does not take up the offer of asylum and, of course, the fact that her whole life is built upon her vision of Gilead and the oppression of women. Even though she seems to become more disillusioned with her role as the wife and her place in Gilead, her main hope is to have a child of her own.
This is why I struggled with her decision to let June flee with “her” baby in the last season finale. In the episode, June points out to Serena that baby Nicole will not be safe in Gilead as a girl, since even pious Eden (Sydney Sweeney) had been executed for defying Gilead’s rules. Serena was clearly shaken by Eden’s brutal death and tries to slightly change the laws by addressing her husband and the council of Gilead’s powerful men and propose that women should be allowed to read the Bible (women are not allowed to read at all in Gilead). She even reads a passage from the Bible in front of the council. But her husband and the council refuse to consider her proposal and instead her husband orders for her finger to be cut off, which is the punishment for women reading in Gilead. After this shocking event, Serena realizes that neither she nor other pious women are safe in Gilead. When she catches June fleeing with “her” baby, she first tries to stop her, but June convinces her to let the baby go.
To me, this decision still seems very out of character. As mentioned above, both seasons highlight how Serena’s whole life goal is to be a mother. Throughout the series it seems that her finally being a mother makes all the torture, violence and rape worth it for her. But when she loses a finger and the violence is directed against her and another wife in her household, she finally realizes how dangerous this regime is for her and has a change of heart? And now, after she let June go and sacrificed being a mother, has she redeemed herself and are the viewers supposed to sympathize with her?
While I find her character fascinating, especially because women like Serena who advocate for their own oppression exist, I do not think we should let her off the hook for the one decent decision she has made. She helped shape Gilead’s violent laws and is implicated in the rape and torture of June and other women. This is also why I find it incomprehensible that she would give up her daughter since her being a mother was the one thing she always wanted and one of the main purposes of Gilead.
So in the end, both mothers decide to leave their daughters behind. But for what? Will Serena be alone with her abusive husband and continue to garden and knit? Or will she try to escape Gilead as well and be hated by everyone inside and outside of Gilead for her hypocrisy?
After all the violence, torture and abuse, I think this show is in desperate need of hope. The viewer understands the horror of Gilead now. I think the series needs to wrap up by showing the fall of Gilead instead of more seasons of torture porn and violence against women that is so prevalent on television already. There needs to be some narrative purpose for violent depictions and shocking decisions besides shock value.
Sometimes, the problem of TV shows, in comparison to a novel for example, is that many showrunners do not have a clear, coherent plan of how a show is supposed to end, but rather go with it as long as they are successful, providing a rushed, unsatisfying ending when the show is canceled. I truly hope this will not be the case with The Handmaid’s Tale. Why not end on a high note and go into history as a coherent piece of quality television acclaimed by critics?
The unconvincing decisions in the final episode, however, make me worry that we will have another season of Serena deluding herself while being disillusioned by her abusive husband and June experiencing the full terror of Gilead with no end of violence in sight. Atwood’s novel and its visualization in the first season already gave us enough of the horrors of uncontrolled oppression of women. The purpose of a TV show that goes beyond this source material should be to give the viewer some hope and satisfaction. There is nothing wrong with a - more-or-less - happy ending in dystopian fiction.
(Note: Our editor Christina translated the text from German into English.
The original German version can be found here --> Time is Up for Irony: Notes on Hannah Gadsbys Nanette)
Cynicism is easy. It it a way to get involved in something without getting involved in something. In male-dominated stand up comedy, punchlines and ironic distance to the subject have become essential genre conventions. Actress and comedian Hannah Gadsby, known for her lesbian “gender not-normal” perspective in the Australian television dramedy Please Like Me, completely does away with these conventions in her show Nanette and in doing so, criticizes central mechanisms of the culture industry and the patriarchy.
Hannah Gadsby recalls how she was confronted with homophobic and sexist violence at a bus stop at the age of 17, however; a man assumed that she was a man - albeit a “faggot” - and was hitting on his girlfriend. She mentions this at first just for the punchline: the man apologizes to her when he realizes she is a woman - he doesn’t hit women. The audience laughs. She then delivers several other punchlines that have to do with her past: with her coming out; with the omnipresent and until 1997 legally backed homophobia she faced growing up in her small hometown in Tasmania; with her deep-seated dissatisfaction, her depression, her isolation and her shame. It appears to be a self-deprecating coming to terms with the past. But Gadsby has had enough of not telling her story and her memories to the end. She has had enough of jokes about women and lesbians, even if they are ironic. In the middle of her show, she radically questions all of this and her profession itself: “I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor and I don’t want to do that anymore. Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it come from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore, not to myself or anybody who identifies with me. If that means that my comedy career is over, then, so be it.”
Gadsby is through with self-deprecation, cynicism and humiliating and retraumatizing punchlines. She thus tells one memory vividly to the end. The man who let her have it at the bus stop returns, “he beat the shit out of me and nobody stopped him,” precisely because she is a lesbian woman and does correspond to the dominant gender norms. And because of these dominant gender norms, she did not turn to the law enforcement authorities: “I thought that was all I was worth. And I didn’t take myself to hospital. And I should have. But I didn’t, because that’s all I thought I was worth. I am ‘incorrect’ and that is a punishable offense.”
Like a successful drag performance, Gadsby’s show is mimetic. Mimesis involves imitating, deconstructing and reassembling someone different from us (but this process can also apply to societal practices) with aesthetic intention so that the individual pieces no longer belong to a whole in a hierarchical relationship. In Hannah Gadsby’s case, this applies to narrative modes and gender norms that are de- and reconstructed. They are placed in new relations to stand up comedy as a genre and to the masculine as an idealized norm. In comedy, life stories and societal shortcomings are commodities; what counts are the punchlines that pay off, ones with a high short-term rate of return. Aesthetics and ethics only have a functional significance. Stories are then told to the end if it pays off. But “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” (Joan Didion); to tell our stories first gives history and meaning to our lives and makes it possible to orient ourselves morally in the world.
The time is up for irony.
Great news: Hannah Gadsby says she's no longer quitting comedy (click to read full article by Broede Carmody)
Deconstructing the Stigma of Witchery
By Christina Schultz
Zambian-Welsh director Rungano Nyoni’s award-winning debut film I Am Not a Witch poignantly thematizes the stigma of being a witch in her home country Zambia, a place steeped in tradition. However, the traditions might appear more like odd superstitions comically amplified to viewers from the Western World.
This absurd contrast between reality and possible fiction comes to life as the patriarchal society firmly in place in Zambia and the general authority of men are undermined and even threatened by a tight-knit matriarchal community of “witches,” who are kept like animals in the zoo by the government. Once accused and confirmed as witches, the women are bound to servitude in both the literal and metaphorical sense: the witches must wear white ribbons attached to mounted spools, allowing them to go only so far. When moved, the large spools and the mounts allude to a penetrating phallus, which seems to be no coincidence on the part of the director. The symbolism makes us think the women are beholden to their male keepers but relatively early on in the film, we, the feminist-minded viewers, realize the witches have the power to (figuratively) screw the men and not vice versa.
The male government official, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), wants to exploit the witches for his own benefit but depends on their cooperation. They are, among other things, an integral part of the justice system as they determine whether someone is guilty of committing a crime. They also perform manual labor, mainly fieldwork, which turns into profit. They are even put on display for tourists, resulting in one of the film’s funniest scenes. Without the witches’ cooperation, Zambia would certainly be worse off, so the film suggests.
The star of the film, an incredibly terse but bright eight-year-old orphan named Shula - played by Maggie Mulubwa with a poignancy seldom seen in children on screen - causes enough trouble to lead the townspeople to suspect she is a witch. All it takes to be accused is to be at the wrong place at the wrong time or to make people uncomfortable by doing the unexpected, which is not actual witchcraft, as far as am I concerned. Shula, whose name appropriately means “to be uprooted,” appears ungendered or unidentified when we first meet her. The prepubescent child wears neutral clothes (although one tragicomical camera shot reveals her in a shirt brandishing the phrase #bootycall) and has not yet found, or chooses not to use her voice. Her presence unsettles the townspeople and quickly she is coaxed into joining the witch community because otherwise she will become a goat, so she is warned.
Shula, while at first unhappy, quickly adjusts to her new life as a witch and lives happily among her matriarchal society. And even though being a witch is a decidedly female occupation, if you could call it that, she maintains her gender neutrality and much of her freedom. She becomes part of a family, gains respect and has opportunities she otherwise would not have had. Mr. Banda’s wife (Nancy Murilo), however, shows how deeply ingrained the hatred of witches, i.e. strong, emancipated kweens, and traditional gender roles are in society. She tells Shula that she herself was once a witch but she gained “respectability” through marriage, which set her free, allowing her to live a relatively lavish lifestyle with her husband. In other words, if witches change their “evil” ways and do as they are told, they can be released from their ribbons and their lifelong servitude. But aren’t they just exchanging one type of servitude for another? Is not the ribbon merely a physical limitation, a trifling nuisance, and the bonds of marriage and societal shackles placed on women a much worse kind of servitude?
It would seem that the answer is the stuff of Kindergarten because even eight-year-old Shula could not be hoodwinked by the glamor or the promise of “freedom.” Sure the witches might be persecuted or ridiculed, as witches have been throughout history in just about every part of the world, but they are free in a different way. Their independence is their strength. They are not repentant for their “non-conformist” behavior, they are not adherent to traditional female roles, they are not seeking out “respectability.” Shula is clearly happiest with her family, the people who embrace her for who she is. And that family, that group of people are all women. Women who care deeply for one another, who stick together through thick and thin, who embrace new members with open arms and would (more or less) prefer to live by different rules than the ones society expects of women. I would say the film’s message couldn’t get much more feminist. Yet the feminism on display here is not blatant; it is incredibly subtle, albeit undeniably present. It’s the kind of feminism that causes you to think about what is worth fighting for and what “freedom” really means. And in this aesthetically beautiful, narratively creative, emotionally moving film, it is quite freeing to be a “witch.”
The Phantom Menace
Han Solo, accurately recreated by Alden Ehrenreich, and Lando Calrissian, expertly portrayed by Donald Glover, have never been feminist icons, nor should they be. They are chauvinistic, self-absorbed scoundrels, the lovable, but flawed products of the seedy underbelly of the Star Wars universe. Yet behind the women, weapons, and card games, the viewer is always aware of their hidden loyalty and compassion. Han and Lando’s bravado undoubtedly makes up part of their identities, but it can still be easily punctured by the wit and gaze of the late great, and hopefully still around in Jedi-ghost form, Carrie Fisher. “I love you,” says the princess. “I know,” answers the smuggler, while allowing himself to be frozen in carbonite. An act of compassion, which displays what his words cannot. Overall, the characters Han and Lando don’t exude aggressive masculinity, but perform it rather obviously. This performance was made legible through their actions, failures to perform, and most importantly, the strength (physically, mentally, and politically) of Princess Leia as a balance in the force.
The Princess Strikes Back
Leia is of course imperfect. Subordinate to Han and Luke, she only succeeds in (accurately) criticizing their plans, not changing them. But it was the 70’s and one had to start somewhere. Unfortunately, years and years in the future in a film not really that far away, the balance she provided back then, however imperfect, is wholly missing from the new Han Solo story. Unlike Leia, Khaleesi the…wait, I mean, Qi’ra the love interest and presumed counterweight to Han’s hubris in Solo, portrayed by the talented Emilia Clarke, is complicit in, rather than skeptical of the arrogant criminal that young Han wants to perform.
Where Leia calls Han’s bluff with cutting sarcasm and political rank, Qi’ra lacks power and cunning. She is not a senator, but the assistant to mob boss, Dryden Vos. Rather than rejecting Han’s attempted outlaw routine, she is wooed by his antics and can’t talk with L3 about anything other than love. Although she does have some pretty awesome sword moves in her brief fight with Vos and ultimately assumes his powerful role in Crimson Dawn next to robot-legs Darth Maul, her action-hero abilities are never explored. Even her decision to abandon Han for a promising career in crime comes across not as agency involving forethought, planning and execution, but rather as betrayal and opportunism, both old tropes about strong women. Ultimately, Qi’ra serves to reinforce rather than resist Han’s machismo, creating the mess that Princess Leia will have to clean up later.
A New Hope?
One could ask: Maybe the balance in the gender side of the force doesn’t come from a human at all, but a robot!? One could ask, but one would be wrong. L3, Lando’s droid co-pilot, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is a noticeably activist figure, so much so that it comes across as parody and farce. When confronted with the injustice of robot-fighting at Lando’s hideout, L3 attempts to incite the droids to rise up and resist their oppression. Her powerlessness to affect the situation is obvious and allows the scene to function as comic relief, rather than having an empowering edge. The moment is awkward enough that Lando, embarrassed by his droid/partner/crush?, guides her away like a child. Thus, the fight for equal rights, equal representation and equal voice for droids, Banthans, workers, women, POC, LGBTQ and many more, becomes nothing more than a silly distraction and one that ultimately costs L3 not only her voice, but her life. While leading a failed revolt, she is hit by a laser blast. Her hard drive is then integrated into the Falcon and permanently made part of the ship’s system, never to be heard again. With L3’s assimilation, Qi’ra’s weaker character, Val’s early death, and the narrative unimportance and limited screen time of Enfys, Solo falls short in leveling out Han and Lando’s bravado. Without this counterbalance, there is little artifice to their arrogance and even less reason for introspection in the viewer.
An Actual New Hope
It feels like it’s time for something more positive. There’s always a lot one can find wrong and too seldom suggestions for what can be done better. To the credit of director Ron Howard and the film team of Solo, the film is very Star Wars and there are interesting, subtle moments that challenge the observations above. Also to their credit, it would have only taken one simple suggestion to return balance to the force of the movie: to have Val (Thandie Newton), super smuggler villainess (she, I assume, would also then be entitled to a last name), keep Han in check. In many ways, it is Tobias Beckett (played by Woody Harrelson), Val’s lover, who takes on role of Han's mentor and counterpoint. He is strong, but self-serving, wise, but untrustworthy. Had Val taken on Beckett's role, the story remains the same, except she would provide the strong, clever, complex, influential and indeed longer living character that would have given Solo all the Leia-esque female counterweight it needed to check Han’s brash bravado exterior. But in Yoda’s words “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Solo provides all the camp, action, intrigue, and adventure one loves in a Star Wars story. Han and Lando are their scoundrel selves, and the viewer is sucked along to seedy depths of the galaxy and the enticing debauchery of the smuggler lifestyle. Solo captures much of what there is to love about a Star Wars film from the 70’s. Unfortunately, it brought with it the many problems of representation in a space western from the 70’s.
By Elisabeth Granzow
With the introduction of many streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Sky, the consumption of TV shows has become easier than ever. Unfortunately, however, picking the right program to watch has become much harder with the vast selection of scripted television. Another challenge for a critical viewer like myself is to find a show that transgresses common stereotypes of race, gender and class among others and includes complex marginalized and underrepresented characters and viewpoints. Many programs on television still revolve around straight white men and do not even pass the Bechdel Test, which already sets a low bar for the quality of female representation.
This is why I compiled a list of my top 5 current TV series that can be watched on Netflix and Co. Of course this is just my personal selection and does not constitute an exhaustive list. It should be noted that even the best shows can have problematic characters and storylines and could do a better job in some areas. Yet the programs that have made it into this list present complex and complicated female characters, are often partially written and produced by women and include important storylines that feature empowered women.
Please feel free to comment about your opinions of these shows and offer your own recommendations!
The Handmaid’s Tale (2016-, Hulu)
This widely acclaimed Hulu original might not be watchable for everyone. The drama is set in a near dystopian future, where a stark decrease in the fertility rate has resulted in a theocratic revolution in the U.S. In this world, women are oppressed and assigned certain roles for specific purposes, such as housewives who support their husbands or house servants called “Marthas.” The protagonist June/Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss) serves an infertile rich powerful couple as a “handmaid.” Her duty? To become pregnant by the husband in a cringeworthy religious ritual that involves the wife as well.
Season One is based on the novel by Margaret Atwood. The series was created by Bruce Miller, but has a number of female producers and writers. The drama also has a fantastic female cast (Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd among others) and gives the viewer a chilling outlook of the dangers of uncontrolled systems of oppression. I highly recommend this show for fans of thrilling, suspenseful dramas and dystopian fiction. The show presents highly artistic cinematography and depicts the resilience and empowerment of complex female characters in a world that treats them as subhumans. However, I also should warn viewers about the graphic depictions of rape, violence and torture, which makes this drama not for everyone. In addition, the Handmaid’s Tale has been criticized for not addressing race in this world, but rather using a colorblind approach in its treatment of its characters of color. The show does, however, include a number of actors of color, such as Samira Wiley.
Westworld (2016-, HBO)
This big-budget HBO drama blends the Western and Sci-Fi genres into a thought-provoking product that delves into philosophical questions, such as what makes humans human and whether violence and oppression against AI robots is ethical. In this futuristic world, Westworld is a theme park reminiscent of the Wild West, in which rich people can interact with intelligent robots called hosts that resemble humans so much that they can hardly be distinguished from the human guests. As a result, most park guests live out their darkest fantasies, which includes violence against the hosts, whose memory is wiped out after each violent death.
As the first season progresses, the hosts slowly start to rebel, although it is not always clear whether they were programmed that way of whether they have found “consciousness” and therefore their own agency. The drama is created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan. Having a woman co-create such a popular show is still rather rare in the industry. In addition, women take on the most important roles in the typically male worlds of Westerns and Sci-Fi with very strong performances by Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Bloom. They play the female hosts Maeve and Dolores, the first to realize they are not human and to fight back against their male/human oppressors. The particular abuse of female hosts therefore serves as a metaphor for violence against women in our present world. Yet one can raise the question whether gender even exists for robots. I argue that the programming of the hosts’ gender parallels the construction of gender in humans. Both in terms of human gender and race, the world outside of the Westworld park seems egalitarian with many women and people of color in positions of power within the companies that are involved with the park such as Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), an executive director of one of these companies. Westworld is a compelling drama with fantastic performances by the many female lead characters and a variety of plot lines centered around female protagonists.
Dear White People (2017-, Netflix)
This Netflix comedy is based on the 2014 indie film Dear White People. Both the film and the series were created by Justin Simien and follow a number of (mostly) black students at a fictional, predominantly white Ivy League college. The title Dear White People refers to the name of a campus radio show by Samantha White (Logan Browning), who uses her program to address racism and share the experiences of black people in the privileged environment on campus. Each episode follows one main character, shows their unique perspectives and interweaves their storylines into one coherent plot. Thus, this satire of campus life is not only witty and smartly written, but also includes many complex male and female black characters with different backgrounds and sexualities - such as biracial Samantha, Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson) and Joelle Brooks (Ashley Blaine Featherson) - as well as political and social viewpoints. Throughout its two seasons, it tackles relevant and urgent topics including debates around activism and protests against racism, internet trolling, abortion, racism and police brutality. The intelligent writing combined with compelling characters and great performances by the cast presents the viewer with an entertaining dramedy and insights into the diversity of black life in the privileged setting of an Ivy League school.
One Day at a Time (2017-, Netflix)
This Netflix sitcom was created by Gloria Calderon and Mike Royce and depicts the life of a working class, Cuban-American household. The family includes three generations of women with single working mother Penelope (Justina Machado), her mother Lydia (the fantastic Rita Moreno) and her daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez), as well as her son Alex (Marcel Ruiz). The comedy includes many important topics around identity into its storylines, such as sexuality and Cuban American identity. Furthermore, One Day at at Time tackles the everyday struggles of working class, veteran and immigrant families. While these are serious topics, One Day skillfully manages to combine social and political commentary with the lightheartedness and comic elements of the sitcom genre and shows that sitcoms can also be thought provoking.
My full review of One Day at a Time can be found in the review section of our Femfilmfans website.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-, The CW)
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a quirky, intelligent musical dramedy created by two incredibly talented women, namely Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom. Bloom also plays the main character, the successful Manhattan lawyer Rebecca Bunch. Rebecca decides to move to the California hometown of her summer camp love Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) on a whim. While the title and premise suggests problematic stereotypes of the crazy and romance-obsessed woman, the show is actually quite self-aware of sexist stereotypes and adds complexity and nuance to them by thoughtfully depicting Rebecca’s mental illness and its stigmatization. Despite this serious topic, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend includes incredibly hilarious yet thought-provoking musical numbers and a coherent narrative, which will be wrapped up in its fourth and final season. I can truly recommend this show to everyone for its freshness, wit and many extraordinary female characters.
For my full review of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, please check out the Femfilmfans review section.
By Christina Schultz
This review contains SPOILER ALERTS! If you haven’t watched the new episodes of Arrested Development on Netflix, be warned, some of the details will be revealed below.
Consuming television shows or films critically helps us as an audience hold mainstream media accountable for producing problematic images. Being aware of what happens behind the scenes of our favorite shows and movies feeds into this critical-viewing process. For example, watching the show Arrested Development (Fox 2003-2006; Netflix 2013-) post-scandals certainly leaves a funny taste in my mouth, and not the good kind of funny. The first incident involves Jeffrey Tambor, who was fired from the show Transparent (Amazon 2014-) when two team members accused him of sexual harassment, which he never really apologized for (because how can you apologize for something you deny having done?). The second incident involves Tambor yet again and his now-notorious verbal abuse of Jessica Walter and Jason Bateman’s mansplanatory brushing over of the whole affair during a New York Times interview. Knowing about this now, I can’t help but blur the lines between actor and character as I view the first half of the new season (Netflix released the first 8 episodes of Season 5 on May 29). But that’s not the only reason why I feel the show falls flat in comparison to previous seasons.
For the record, I have been a loyal fan of the show for years, even wearing cut-off jean shorts and wielding chocolate-dipped bananas and “juice boxes” (what Buster calls Lucille’s boxed wine) to AD viewing parties. The previous seasons of the show have provided me with so many LOL moments and hilarious one-liners that I still quote them as if I just saw the episodes yesterday (which is not far off, I rewatch the show a lot). Yet Season 5 shows everyone’s age and another round of quite literally being stuck in arrested development somehow has lost its charm in this generation of promoting the exact opposite: self-love, acceptance, personal growth and honesty with a firm refusal to put up with the same old bullsh*t.
The family dynamics somehow seem more cruel and painfully awkward in the once laughably comical dysfunctional Bluth family. Ron Howard tries to add some freshness by including more of himself and his family - his children, wife and father have cameos in one episode and Isla Fisher reprises her role as his daughter from Season 4 - in an odd pseudo-nod to the comparatively squeaky clean sitcom Happy Days (ABC 1974-1984; which also starred Barry Zuckerkorn actor Henry Winkler as the Fonz), which doesn’t really help rejuvenate the storyline. Every returning character has clearly hit rock bottom, and one cannot help but see the bitter irony in this now.
While this is an admittedly brief breakdown of Season 5, it demonstrates just how worn out the show appears to the critical viewer aware of the important behind-the-scenes context.
Michael, played by Jason “mansplainer” Bateman, tries to maintain a relationship with his son George Michael but often fails because of poor communication. He lies, avoids the true problem, puts words in his son’s mouth and, worst of all, ignores both their feelings (oh, the irony that Michael Bluth behaves like an ass!). George Michael (Michael Cera) tries to do the right thing but unfortunately goes to his cousin Maeby for advice (it’s always terrible). Maeby (Alia Shawkat), technically not related to the Bluths because her mother Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) is adopted, still schemes her way through life because her parents failed her. Tobias, Maeby’s “actor” “father” (the quotes on both words is intentional), pathetically clings to his wife’s family despite their pending divorce so desperately because where else can he go? He spends more time with his newfound son Murphy Brown this season than with Maeby in the previous four. Lucille (Jessica Walter), meaner than ever, has stooped to (court-ordered) “therapy” sessions with Tobias. The youngest Bluth sibling Buster (Tony Hale), once Lucille’s constant companion and admirer, winds up in jail and she could care less. GOB (Will Arnett), once the ladies’ man, pines away for fellow (real) magician Tony Wonder (played by Ben Stiller) and even lets it slip to Kitty (Judy Greer) in Episode 6 that he’s “got a lot on my mind right now with work / am I gay? / my brother Buster’s in jail” and even wants to undergo “conversion therapy” but literally winds up in a “closet conversion” store (in typical GOB fashion, he didn’t do his research). In perhaps the most ironic twist of all, George Sr., played by Jeffrey Tambor himself, cries a lot, shies away from conflict, has no libido and cannot perform for his wife, Lucille (Jessica Walter). Their relationship is, needless to say, on the rocks.
As you can see, the characters’ not-so-funny nastiness and the many cringe-worthy, awkward moments they create hit so close to home in real life that you can’t help but wonder how, or if, the show can redeem itself in its second half by shedding some of the emotional Bluth baggage and recapturing the family’s wild and wacky wit with which we fell in love. Viewing Arrested Development critically allows us to reassess the show and the messages it is sending. More importantly perhaps, by seeing the show’s weaknesses in relation to the actors’ real-life behavior, we continue the discourse of respect and accountability begun by the Time’s Up and #metoo movements. If we, the consumers of images, voice our opinions, we can unleash the power to shape the images we consume. My far from glowing review should not deter you from watching, but stay informed about what you view on screen and off, share your opinions and you will have an empowering viewing experience.
If you have watched Season 5, you might be thinking what I’m thinking: WHERE THE HELL IS LUCILLE 2? Share your theories in the comments!
Lissy, our resident TV expert will also weigh in on Arrested Development soon!
From left, Buster Bluth (Tony Hale), Maeby Fünke (Alia Shawkat), George Michael Bluth (Michael Cera), Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter), Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), George Bluth (Jeffrey Tambor), Lindsay Bluth (Portia de Rossi), Tobias Fünke (David Cross), GOB Bluth (Will Arnett) (photo: Flickr, Methodshop.com)
By Marina Brafa
Black Panther is one of the hottest movie tickets around. But let’s be honest. Black Panther is a fairly conventional superhero film in the Marvel Universe. The plot mixes a bit of everything to please the crowds: romance, action, politics and moral lessons. However, in contrast to other Marvel movies, Black Panther puts stronger emphasis on political and social issues than its predecessors. Sure, there is still the hint of a love story and exciting car chases through the streets of Seoul, but these scenes are the weaker ones in a generally good film. They seem to be relics of a time when superhero movies still had to stick to strict patterns with regards to content and aesthetics.
The movie opens with visually stunning views of the East African nation of “Wakanda,” a high-tech society still connected to its ancient tribal roots and folkloric culture. One of the characters calls it “El Dorado,” alluding to the hidden kingdom sought out for its gold reserves by foreign adventurers. And Wakanda is one hell of a gem: a blend of modernity and unspoiled beauty, tucked away from other parts of the world with a precious horde of “vibranium.” This extremely valuable material, when used for good, can fuel, heal and power practically everything and is therefore of huge interest to others.
Here is where the problems start for Wakanda. The country pretends to be poor and “less developed.” However, the obligatory greedy villain of the plot (Andy Serkis) knows about the “vibranium” and tries to get his share of it to use for evil purposes, of course.
That’s not the only challenge Wakanda faces. Internal turmoil threatens to tear apart the allied tribes after the death of Wakanda’s king T’Chaka. His son and new king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) starts to question his beloved father when he discovers a dark secret T’Chaka has kept for decades. The secret (no spoilers, promise) almost destroys Wakanda and raises questions of morality. What makes a “good king”? Were all decisions made by the old king “good”? It is up to T’Challa to find out the answers.
T’Challa’s journey is therefore one of reflection and self-discovery, with the action often taking place elsewhere, making Black Panther different from other action heroes. The impenetrable black suit conceals a sensitive kitten rather than a fierce panther. This is why T’Challa heavily depends on the support of four female characters on his quest: his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and two women, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), who fight for him in Wakanda’s special armed forces, the Dorja Milaje.
We are well into the review and yet I have not touched upon the one thing everyone has been talking about when it comes to Black Panther: its nearly all-black cast. This is an important element of the movie and the main reason it sparks such enthusiasm worldwide among critics and viewers. Is this Marvel film a story of the Black Panthers, or just one Black Panther? Does it have the ability to empower black communities?
Yes and no. For sure it was a long overdue step to shoot such a big-budget action film in which almost the entire cast consists of actors of color. But Black Panther does more than just star black actors, the film tries to show a diverse range of black communities. However, the representation of these communities - the plural is important here - is more complex than many viewers might want to acknowledge. The movie was shot on locations in the U.S., Argentina and South Korea, the director and screenwriter Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole are African-Americans and the lead actors were raised in the U.S., England or Africa. This, in a way, reflects far more diversity of black or African communities than audiences are used to. Yet, paradoxically, Black Panther still focuses on U.S. American Black culture and represents African Black culture from this point of view.
Beyond the cast and settings, the plot opens up a binary division between African and African-American cultures. Representing the latter is Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a Wakandan by birth who lost ties to his ancestors’ origins and has instead been formed by the place where he grew up: Oakland, California. Logically, he was influenced by Black American culture. The division between the two continents is represented by the characters’ outfits and by the music that accompanies their screen time. The Wakandan characters wear tribal clothes with designs that derive from several African groups (readers, please excuse my lack of knowledge here), Killmonger sports what one might call blipster or hip hop clothing. Wakanda and its characters are supported by a drum-based score, Killmonger is prefigured by a catchy soundtrack curated by none other than Kendrick Lamar. Language equally serves as a dividing cultural marker. Members of the Wakandan tribes speak English with various African accents whereas Killmonger clearly speaks Black American vernacular.
A closer look at the female characters in particular reveals another binary in the film world: old-fashioned gender roles. Women appear strong in certain settings, most of them traditionally female-gendered. They are clever and can fight, no doubt. But in the end, their task is to support T’Challa. Nakia and Okoye literally stand next to him to protect him, or behind him in front of the United Nations. T’Challa is surrounded by gifted women all along but still remains the center. Pretty conservative, I would say. Do not get me wrong, Black Panther is a step in the right direction, especially since it introduces questions of race into mainstream cinema. But for now, the panther is still a kitten waiting to grow to its full size (and potential). To be continued for sure.
By Elisabeth Granzow
I was very hesitant to start watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-) when I first heard about it. The premise of the musical dramedy is that successful Manhattan lawyer Rebecca, played by the show’s creator Rachel Bloom, runs into her summer camp boyfriend Josh Chan and on a whim moves to West Covina, California, which also “happens to be” Josh’s hometown. I am not a big musical fan and I was put off by the problematic title and the premise of a crazy woman who is obsessed with finding romance. One thing that piqued my interest, however, was that the male lead character Josh Chan is played by Filipino American Vincent Rodriguez III. Including an Asian man as the main love interest seemed to me like a promising signal that the show might delve a little deeper into topics around diverse identities since Asian men are still highly underrepresented and desexualized in American film and television. Now, after watching all three seasons on Netflix, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of my favorite shows currently on television (it airs on the CW), because it consciously deconstructs common stereotypes around women, sexuality and mental health among others.
This deconstruction is part of what makes the dramedy unique. Another part is the fact that it is created by the incredibly talented women Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna and centers around complex female characters, their ordinary lives and female-specific experiences. However, it does not only deal with female perspectives, but other important topics around identity, such as sexuality. The latest season - season three - for example has been praised for including three bisexual main characters. What further makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend special is its combination of smartness, quirkiness and liveliness with moments of tragedy, such as when the viewer realizes that Rebecca is struggling with serious symptoms of mental illness.
Other aspects that makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend stand out are the hilarious characters and the witty writing. In addition, the 2-3 musical songs per episode usually spoof common music genres and satirize different topics. The comical musical numbers and recurring jokes and references also give the show an intelligent coherence, which enables and invites the viewer to rewatch the program and still find new things. Another thing that gives me high hopes is the announcement that the next season will be its last, which means that the creators have a clear, well thought-out ending in mind. Although I am sad that the program will end soon, I believe that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has the potential to be part of a canon of high quality television shows by and about women.
The songs and writing frequently revolve around gender-specific topics and particularly around unique female experiences, for example, when Rebecca’s best friend Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) sings about the “The First Penis I Saw” on the episode “Getting Over Jeff” in the third season. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend even breaks with many taboos. In the second season, several characters start singing the song “Period Sex” suggesting sex during menstruation. However, the full song was deemed too controversial for the CW network and even for Netflix, Therefore, “Period Sex” has only been teased on the show, while the entire song and video can be watched on Rachel Bloom’s YouTube channel (see video below). The comedy does not only portray topics around women, however, but also brings in male perspectives. As the show progresses, the male characters like Josh and Rebecca’s boss Darryl (Pete Gardner) become more complex and receive more screen time for their own storylines and viewpoints. For example, in his first individual song Darryl sings “I Love My Daughter (But Not in a Creepy Way)” (Season 1, Episode 5) and explores the nuances of a healthy and loving father-daughter relationship, complicating the trope of the more or less cold and “absent” father commonly found in many TV dramas. These are just a few of many examples in which Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gives balanced and nuanced viewpoints around gendered experiences, while at the same time poking fun at prominent sexist stereotypes.
But beyond all the quirky jokes and satire, there also lies a deeper, more serious layer within the dramedy, namely its complex portrayal of mental illness and its stigmatization. My first thought was that the stereotype of the crazy woman obsessed with a man could reproduce a problematic sexist image. However, the show is very self-aware of this issue, probably due to the fact that Rachel Bloom herself has had to deal with mental illness. From the very first episode, it is clear that Rebecca displays clear signs of anxiety and depression. She also had been taking medications in Manhattan and starts seeing a therapist in West Covina in the first season. At first, her obsession with romance and Josh seems like an exaggerated premise of a comedy that ensures hilarious encounters. Yet, as the series progresses, it becomes obvious to the viewer that her behavior and longing are not about Josh at all, but just symptoms of her mental health state. In the third season, the show goes deeper into in Rebecca’s self-awareness of her situation and she is finally diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BMD). Her diagnosis and group therapy sessions allow Rebecca to start facing her mental illness and coming to terms with the fact that having a healthy and fruitful romantic life among other things is more challenging for her than for others. Therefore, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gives a complex and complicating context to the trope of the crazy ex-girlfriend and reveals just how stigmatized mental illness is in our society, as Rebecca is mostly concerned about hiding her true self from others. While the series also highlights how dealing with mental illness is a long process filled with potential setbacks, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend still remains quirky and hilarious, therefore demonstrating that dealing with mental illness is not all bleak, but also makes Rebecca special, which is underlined by her charisma and her friends’ deep affection for her.
It is difficult to describe how smart, funny and unique Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is and I can only recommend viewers to tune in for a few episodes before judging it. While the show might have some weaknesses, such as how most main characters are white and racial identities are only discussed on the surface, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend still has so much to offer. To me, it stands out as a coherent piece of art that is intelligent, hilarious and entertaining and proves the value and importance of media programs created by women.
By Christina Schultz
Jan Henrik Stahlberg’s Fikkefuchs, released in Germany in November of 2017, did not make a lot of money at the box office, nor did it gain a lot of attention. Perhaps because it was overshadowed by the blockbuster German comedy Fack ju Göhte 3, released three weeks prior on October 26, 2017, and other big studio pictures. Or perhaps because the topic just doesn’t seem that interesting: a fallen, albeit self-proclaimed, sex God finds out he has a son and the two form an odd relationship while they embark on a quest to get chicks. It gets better, though. The 50s-something father, Richard “Rocky” Ockers (played by none other than director Stahlberg himself), is a misogynist and his son shows that the apple, his son Thorben (whom he calls Thorsten, which hilariously highlights Rocky's stubborn ignorance), not only doesn’t fall far from the proverbial tree, but that it has taken root and grown into an even bigger, more misogynistic tree. The son winds up in a psychiatry clinic for sexually assaulting a cashier at a grocery store. Whereas the father once could charm his way into women’s pants, or so he claims, the son has not an ounce of charm and in his delusion thinks all women are DTF.
The only redeeming things about this movie in my opinion are the truly excellent acting performances of Stahlberg and Franz Rogowski (Victoria, In den Gängen). The two leads are uncompromising in their commitment to the wretchedness of the characters. The characters themselves, however, do not redeem themselves at all, except for Thorben/Thorsten. Maybe. But not really. He pulls through for his dying father, but I just don’t think he transforms into a better person by the end of the film. He has intercourse with a Greek woman who luckily can’t understand what he’s saying and somehow the attraction is mutual - although he still speaks to her like they are in a bad porno, so in a sleazy, objectifying way. So I’m not convinced he has learned his lesson and will treat women better after his consensual sexual encounter on the Greek beach. The fact the woman he connects with is not German seems to be the key to his “success,” not his new-found respect for women. German-speaking women, such as the cashier he assaults or the other women he verbally accosts, would be able to understand his misogynistic and aggressive language and behavior and thus reject him, which suggests that the cycle of his violence can only be broken abroad. However, the films concludes in Germany. Rocky succumbs to cancer and after the funeral, Thorben abandons his father’s dog and walks off into the unknown. Not exactly commendable behavior. Not exactly rehabilitated characters. Rocky dies and Thorben never has his epiphany. Stahlberg lets them get off easy (pun somewhat intended).
Stahlberg also lets his male characters be presented as victims. We, society, should pity men because we place too many, and ofttimes contradictory, expectations on them. They should be excellent lovers, the main breadwinners, physically fit, sensitive but tough, etc. etc. While it may be true that men feel pressured and insecure - and I’d like to add we should be respectful of everyone and their feelings (except maybe for rapists - personal thing, #sorrynotsorry) - it is highly troubling that the film fails to shake the father-son duo’s hubris. It is equally troubling that the “c-word,” or Fotze in German, which I take issue with enough on its own, is thrown around with reckless abandon like the dice at a Vegas casino. While the certainly has its funny moments, and some really gross and uncomfortable ones, it is more provocative than anything else. I think it is meant to be a (poor) response to the growing number of people, myself included, supporting the Time’s Up, #MeToo and Equal Pay movements because, you know, men have to defend themselves from the threat of liberals and feminists!* Whatever side you’re on (but hopefully not on the a$$hole side), Fikkefuchs ultimately tries to sell the idea that male insecurities somehow excuse misogyny and rather than teach the two wretches a lesson, they can either die or walk away from the sexual crimes unscathed. Nope. Sorry. That's just not good enough anymore. The times they are a-changin. And one thing’s for sure: time is definitely up.
*Please note the sarcasm here: the author is what most people would consider a liberal and a feminist, if you’re into labels.
**Other side note: I find it striking that the film was reviewed almost exclusively by males, although as Beatrice Behn pointed out in our interview, the world of film criticism, like so many other professions, is dominated by white males. I would be curious to read what other female audience members and reviewers think of this film. Please feel free to post your respectful comments! I’m certainly glad that the male reviewers generally found the film disgusting and even mentioned the #MeToo debate. Here is one example, in German, written by Oliver Kaever: http://www.zeit.de/kultur/film/2017-11/fikkefuchs-film-jan-henrik-stahlberg-sexismusdebatte/komplettansicht
By Marina Brafa
The stakes are high: In the third edition of their introduction to film history, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell promise no less than an overview about dates, names and developments in the history of film not only in the U.S. but worldwide. How can a book possibly cover such an amount of information? Indeed, the volume contains close to 800 pages with only a few stills or illustrations and the authors provide a flood of facts. Fortunately, they do so in a very structured way so that it is easy to follow their argumentation. Basically, Thompson and Bordwell assume and admit that several inventions and events took place more or less simultaneously worldwide and that one has to consider continuities as well as differences between times and spaces. They come to the conclusion that most occurrences are somehow related. This conclusion is a common thread throughout the rest of their book.
The book is divided in six parts, each covering a certain time period, e.g. Part Two: The Late Silent Era 1919-1929, or Part Five: The Contemporary Cinema Since the 1960s. They chose the periods wisely as the starting points of each are marked by a turning point. However, the authors do not suggest that movements, techniques etc. introduced in one era would stop existing in another but show how they might have been changed, replaced or continued to exist.
Each large chapter is subdivided into smaller ones that focus on specific topics or national cinemas. This structure helps to clearly connect or contrast developments in the film industries on a national or international level. For instance, writing about the era of early cinema - when “cinema” still had to be defined - the authors manage to capture the many relations between technical innovation, audience demand and business foundations in the U.S., France or England. Often, the competition among production companies would force them to be more innovative than others or would cause them to work together on certain areas whilst cutting each other out of other markets. Moreover, Thompson and Bordwell point out decisions that persist in today’s cinema such as editing standards and take a brief look at film markets outside the U.S. or Europe, e.g. early cinema in Japan.
Each chapter introduces not only historical facts and developments but also film terminology that emerged along with technical inventions or events in film history, thus contextualizing and historicizing specific terms that are still of importance in today’s film production. How and why did the “shot/reverse shot” standard form? Where does the word “nickelodeon” stem from? The answers can be found in the book as well as many more explanations of – nowadays - common cinema terminology.
Finally, the book is accessible for film scholars and newbies because of its practical nature. Thompson and Bordwell’s language is concrete and developments and events are never isolated but incorporated into a bigger picture of film industry. Drawing on movies from each era and the people “behind” the stories and history of film, the abstract subject is personalized and thus rendered more traceable and understandable, especially to people without much or any previous knowledge.
However, the authors could have problematized national cinemas from a race and gender point of view in each of the chapters to raise awareness of such questions, especially for a non-academic audience. The book definitely lacks a conscious discussion of important theories from gender studies, queer studies and postcolonial studies in film. This could be addressed in a further edition of the book.
Still, Film History: An Introduction is worth having on your bookshelf or to use in your classroom. It would be impossible to to memorize all the facts and figures provided in this book. The book can serve as an encyclopedia of quick information about a certain type or era of cinema, and it is a relatively short, easy-to-read insight into a comprehensive subject. And most importantly, it makes readers understand that no development is an island!
*Note: There is now a brand new 4th edition of Film History: An Introduction that just came out on March 1, 2018. See how to get a copy of the book here --> from the publisher McGraw-Hill or here --> from Amazon