By Sabrina Vetter
Mother figures in the “Star Wars” universe are as rare as they come – not necessarily a surprise for a film franchise built upon the central storyline of a young man in his late teens coming to terms with the fact that his biological father is the Jedi’s (and his own) worst enemy. Father figures (biological, adoptive or in a mentor role) are thus quite present in stories from a galaxy far far away: Obi Wan (to Anakin as well as Luke), Owen Lars, Din Djarin and Han Solo come to mind, not to mention Darth Vader himself. These literal and figurative father-son-relationships are well-explored over the course of several films and streaming series. And where are the mothers in these stories that play like Greek tragedies so often? From Smy (who is abandoned) to Padme (who dies in childbirth) to Leia (whose underexplored broken relationship with her son is never mended) to Leia’s adoptive mother (a very supporting character to the supporting role her husband takes on in the “Obi-Wan Kenobi”-series), mothers are not so much parents as they are the great unknown in the “Star Wars”-franchise.
And then, in 2022, along comes the first season of “Andor” which gives us both: a hero and an antagonistic figure with very present mothers who shape their children’s lives even in their adult years decisively. Despite existing at the opposite ends of the spectrum of good and evil in the Star Wars universe, both sons, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Syril Karn (Kyle Soller), have brought trouble and sorrow to their respective mothers. Maarva Andor (Fiona Shaw) and Eedy Karn (Kathryn Hunter) each live as single mothers somber, inconspicuous lives: one of them on the industrial, remote planet Ferrix, the other on the crammed city planet Coruscant. Living within different socio-economic contexts and raising their children in homes with drastically different alliances to the Empire, they were left to instill different future outlooks in their sons in terms of status, power and chances for upward mobility: one mother is laying low and is if not physically at least mentally always on the run, the other is sending her son out for a promise of bigger and better things to come.
Rebels Taking Cover: Maarva and Cassian Andor
As the initial circumstances of their first meeting have implications beyond a chosen family coming together, audiences might get a sense that Cassian and his adoptive mother Maarva’s relationship could be hardened: Landing with her husband Clem and their droid B2EMO on the planet Kenari to raid a crashed starship for contraband, Maarva comes upon a young boy whom she carelessly takes along once the trio hastily cuts their heist short in the face of approaching danger by a Republic ship. The boy is Cassian, then known as Kassa, who lives on Kenari with a group of young children without adult supervision after what is hinted at as an environmental catastrophe occurred. Since Kassa neither gives his consent (for one, he doesn’t speak Galactic Basic, second, he is unconscious after Maarva gives him tranquilizer) to be taken from his home planet nor is Maarva aware that the young boy leaves behind his young sister, the mother-son-relationship starts off with a complicated dynamic. Since the boy’s chance of survival without Maarva’s actions and the fate of Kenari’s other citizens when invaded by Republic forces is left up in the air, Maarva’s hasty however instinctive decision to bring young Kassa along with her to a secure home can be read as both: a rescue and a kidnapping. Complicated from its start, Maarva and Cassian’s relationship is as close as it can get and not one of resentment at all when we catch up with them in the show’s present.
Now in his 20s and living on his second home planet Ferrix, Cassian is shown to deeply care about Maarva who has naturally taken on the role of his mother and has made sure that her adoptive son has had a family and home to turn to. Their relationship feels quite real in its depiction of an adult child dealing with an aging parent: he chastises her for not turning up the heat in her apartment as to not to freeze, she disapproves of his restless existence and risky adventures as a petty criminal. These common as well as in parts minor quarrels underline how close their relationship is: it is all love between this mother and her son. All of Cassian’s actions are always done with his mother’s wellbeing in mind as he continuously makes clear that all money gained from his cons goes towards her, while Maarva’s overprotectiveness is a result of losing her husband to the violent actions of the Empire years ago and not wanting to see her son to share the same fate.
A decisive scene that spells out how deeply rooted this mother-son-relationship occurs in episode 7: Cassian and Maarva part for what could be the last time (since Maarva’s advancing age also goes hand in hand with worsening health). In this moment, Cassian has to leave Ferrix for a fresh start to escape Imperial rule, Maarva wants to stay to fight the more than ever ruthless Empire forces. A rattled Cassian reveals that he is reluctant to leave her behind, as he could never find peace without knowing she is safe: “I will be worried about you all the time,” he says. “That’s just love. Nothing you can do about that,” she replies. The duo’s deep-rooted love for each other is revealed, laying out how their accidental meeting on Kenari many years ago was the start of a tight-knit bond. When Maarva declares “I have never loved anything the way I love you,” it is a final reminder for the audience that even without biological relations, Maarva and Cassian are mother and son.
Up in the City: Eedy and Syril Karn
Taking the sci-fi genre as a chance to tell not only a story about good and evil but also to depict how decisively different life is like on different planets, not only in terms of cultural identity and social interaction, “Andor” very much is reliant on telling Cassian and his family’s story as part of a working-class culture. Besides their constant struggle for money, it is no narrative accident that the Andor family’s home planet Ferrix is economically and industrially reliant on scrap and salvaging starship materials, visually and narratively reminding of the mining industry of the UK in the 80s and the familiar working-class hero trope associated with it. On the other end, we find Syril Karn whose worker’s existence is solely white collar. His fall from Imperial Inspector to a desk job at the Fuel Purity sector of the Imperial Bureau of Standards is central to how his relationship with his mother Eedy is presented. While Maarva and Cassian might not be biologically related, their relationship is emotionally decisively more vibrant than Syril and Eedy’s could ever be.
As he is introduced in the show, Syril is convinced that as one of its Deputy Inspectors he is to implement the Empire’s power by all means – even disregarding the Empire’s order of power and the clear-cut borders of administrative districts. Once he fails the self-assigned task to hunt down Cassian, his purpose of life, serving the Empire, has become void. Like many who have lost their jobs and find themselves in economically dire situations, also Syril moves back in with his mother. Welcoming her son back after he his fired (or rather “relocated”), she smacks him across the face, then gives him a tight hug. It is a moment of disappointment and relief at the same time, which greatly defines this mother-son-relationship. In her depiction, Eedy comes across as a stereotypical overbearing mother – one who cannot wait for her grown-up son to leave the nest, while at the same time meddling with his life decisions and snooping through his personal belongings. Simultaneously, Syril’s unwavering sternness as well as his lack of drive seem to be overly familiar to his mother, who refuses to give into his childish sulking over consequences to a mistake he made all on his own.
Universal Experience, Exceptional Relationship
Interestingly, show creator Tony Gilroy cast both mother figures with two RADA trained actresses, who have extensively worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC): Fiona Shaw and Kathryn Hunter. Both bring a different kind of intensity to their roles, as both of their mother figures are faced with different kinds of sons. Syril, and we can only guess how he was before his demotion, is a sad sack, eerily staring out the widow of his mother’s home desiring to go back to the offices in the upper levels where he came from and slurping colorful cereal while having no outlook on what to do in the future. Maybe his mother’s unwavering reluctance to have him slack off in her apartment, instead making sure that his uncle gets him a new job, is a reaction to her son’s apathy. Maybe her never-good-enough tough love style of raising a child has driven Syril to a lack of understanding proper social interaction, instead making him hyperfocused on righting what he thinks was done wrong to him. It also is no coincidence that Cassian has turned to a life of thievery to get by financially. After all, he was raised by two scavengers, thus taking after his adoptive parents’ conviction that to make a living in uneven economic realities laws have to be bended to one’s advantage. In so many ways, Maarva and Cassian are similar: they are both criminals and like to lay low, both broken due to the loss of husband and father and both find their ways to fight against Imperial forces. Also, Cassian unwavering desire to take care of his aging mother and make her feel a sense of pride that he is her chosen son, in a way undoing all trauma of the past and the frugal living circumstances of the present, mirrors Maarva’s act of providing him with a safe home in the first place. Seemingly broken after her husband’s murder at the hand of the Empire, Maarva is still a fierce and powerful figure – to both her son as well as the townspeople. As a member and once-president of The Daughters of Ferrix, a close-knit community of women and support system, she stands as a leader figure amongst the people of Ferrix. This hints at a strong will instilled in Cassian, which makes mother and son clash at times, while simultaneously giving each other a hand of support.
In the end, Syril’s illogical insistence on righting what was done wrong in his eyes is very much a mirror of his mother’s insistence of him going on to better things than to waste his life in a crammed apartment, while Cassian’s eagerness to stay under the radar not causing commotion is as much instilled in him by Maarva as much as his eventual turn to rebellion. His mother has been both in her lifetime as well: a criminal and an iconic leader. In bringing mother-son-relationships to be foreground, “Andor” touches upon themes and centers relationships previously neglected in the “Star Wars” franchise. By drawing parallels between the quarrels mothers and sons can face, the show depicts the universal in the exceptional. At the same time, by locating their mothers and sons within different social, economic and emotional contexts, the show depicts how parents not only influence but also inspire their children, igniting sparks for their desire for a better and just future – a desire that can evolve for better (Maarva in Cassian) or worse (Eedy in Syril).
“Not Okay” and Main Character Syndrome
By Sabrina Vetter
Do you like Danni? No? Well, you are not the only one, because neither do her co-workers, her boss, her crush, or anyone else for that matter. Not that there seem to be many people present in Danni’s life anyway when she is introduced at the beginning of Not Okay. As the character is depicted, there is good reason for this state of general aversion people have to Danni: in the first few minutes of Quinn Shephard’s film, the protagonist comes off as annoying, ignorant and aloof, showing no interest in the person opposite her if it isn’t for the chance of being popular. She does not respect people’s boundaries, regards her talents better suited for an area which she has no expertise in and only cares for the attention of cool people.
But just like any other person, Danni has another layer of existence. Despite her outward
abrasiveness, she knows she isn’t seen. She knows she is isolated. She knows she isn’t liked or
desired by those whose attention she craves for so much. She hides these insecurities under a layer
of false self-confidence, in which she follows what she considers the newest fashion trends (all of
them at the same time!) and a desire to be a writer, when she actually is a skilled photo editor at the
trendy New Yorker magazine Depravity. Her wish to move outward instead of upward in her job
seems irrational, her need for attention by everyone she deems worthy reveals itself to be a daunting
task. But, in her desire to be recognized for anything, in her desire to connect, in her desire to be popular, Danni’s life has shifted to online spaces long before the film starts. It is here where she finds her uneventful life contrasted with the glitz and glamour of influencers, whose everyday existence seems so much more interesting than hers – at least on the surface from which she can witness.
Isolated, drugged out and over-self-medicated she falls for the promise of a better existence
conveyed through the fake reality of influencer-life. As the more media-literate Insta users know, the
most hard-working influencers skillfully filter, photoshop, edit and stage the images they share of
their fashion shots, make up hauls, family holidays and what not. Danni however preys on those who
believe that what we see on social media is a 100% real. Instead of continuing to just follow
unreliable narrators such as Caroline Calloway, she becomes a scammer herself: pretending to
participate in writers retreat in Paris, she photoshops herself in images of famous and not so famous
corners in the city of love, while never actually leaving her Brooklyn home. From here on boldly
and rightfully criticised for its lax treatment of real recent historical events, Shephard goes full dark
comedy. After a terrorist attack takes place in Paris (the film excuses itself from referencing the 2015
terrorist attacks in the French capital or the Charlie Hebdo shooting the same year but goes for a fake
incident), Danni is expected to return to New York as a purported survivor of the traumatic events.
Instead of coming clean that she never went further from her Bushwick apartment than necessary to take a few quick shots of herself wearing a red beret, she decides to continue the lie. As line after line
is crossed, Danni becomes enthralled by the attention she receives from media and people for her
emotional strength following a traumatic experience. She eventually finds herself in a trauma
support group where she befriends Rowan, a school shooting survivor and an activist for stricter US
gun laws, whose real emotional responses to her past experiences serve as a blueprint for Danni on
how to continue her lies. It spirals out of of control from here. Desperately seeking Insta-fame and the red hearts, she has made the leap beyond the point of no return, where forgiveness for her actions
are no longer an option. Not that Danni cares: with her new-found fame as the face of tragedy getting the best of her, she is unable to stop.
Not Okay doesn’t fear big themes, such as social media, mental health, narcissism, isolation and privilege. In its representation of how a dire need for popularity can be at a center of a person’s life who has long lost quite a bit of a touch with reality, the film is positively ruthless. Also, in its depiction of its protagonist, it is quite daring. Despite the fact that Danni is mentally ill, she is not someone the audience is supposed to root for. Complaining about her Bushwick apartment, coming from an affluent home, navigating life extremely in an extremely tone-deaf way, believing that being intrusive (instead of being humble) will make you friends, Danni is, as the film puts it, a “privileged white girl who thinks she is the main character”. Unsurprisingly, the film doesn’t ask for her redemption. Rather it wants to steer us into the direction of how a desire to be seen coupled with the unlimited attention social media can give, will lead to downfall. An impressive number of likes and followers on social media does not result in any kind of improvement to your life outside the internet, especially if you have gotten rid of any semblance of common sense along the way. And this lack of improvement also applies to a person’s character. It is hard to feel for Danni, since her horrible decisions are just further underlined by her continuation of this false narrative. Writing a piece (finally she is a writer) about the fake story of her survival inspired by Rowan’s emotional experiences, she becomes a trend: HashtagNotOkay. It is all she ever wanted and it is all a lie. As a biting dark comedy about how online life, its trends and performativity can be valued above the personal well-being of others and the self, Shepherd’s film is worth the watch. And one has to give credit to lead actor Zoey Deutch who convincingly portrays Danni’s complicated character. She switches from real sadness to phony internet girl within seconds.
Obviously making a film about a person who is the villain of her own story isn’t easy. How far can
you go with the unlikability of your main character? Not Okay makes some gutsy choices in its approach to critiquing social media, however once the audience tries to understand Danni and her way of thinking, the unevenness in the representation of the main character becomes clear. Shepherd, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, is unsure who she wants her main character to be: a mentally ill woman who puts on a happy-go-lucky façade of while trying to connect to the people around her in the most clumsy ways or a sociopath lost in the oblivion of online life whose attention-seeking pampered self has made her go full-narcissist. While there are many aspects presented that make sense for the audience to realize how Danni spiraled out of control, we just know too little about how she got there. We can only guess why Danni desperately seeks attention; how it manifested in a desire to be seen so badly that she not only fakes surviving a terrorist attack and takes on the publicity that comes with it but also befriends a survivor of a school shooting whose traumatic experiences are very real and very much still shape her day-to-day. Danni is exquisitely cruel but why and how does not come together for one. Since she has enough confidence to ask for a writer’s job and live religiously through colorful attire, why can’t she bring this confidence to other spheres of life? Also, one could argue that Danni has lost all sense of reality in a sort of parasocial relationship with online life, but at the same time we know that Danni is very much aware that she is not fine. There is a point in the film where Danni isn’t lying for once: during one of the trauma support group’s meetings, she finds herself confronted with being asked about how she experiences the aftermath of the events in Paris. She simply answers “numb”. It is in these moments that she is telling the truth. Yes, she feels numb and she knows it. However, she does not feel numb due to experiencing terrorist attacks, but because her life
is void of so many things. So what is it? Has she lost grip of reality? Is she just ignorant? Or is she
highly aware and just really, really desperate? Or is she really so evil that she ruthlessly re-writes
reality by making some else’s trauma her own without looking back? I know multiple things can be
true at the same time, but I can't make sense of it. You will just have to use your imagination here.
This unevenness found in the main character also shows how Not Okay can’t make up its mind
about what it wants to be. A biting satire about white privilege? A study on mental health? A
commentary on the toxicity of social media? A mediation on confidence, albeit a misplaced and bloated one at that? Not Okay takes on many tasks, and despite its many attempts to complete them, it is still hard to follow. In the end, Not Okay does good on its choice of dark-humored storytelling, calling out privilege, ignorance and influencer culture in the process. But due to some uneven choices, and maybe putting too much on its plate in the end, it wastes quite a bit of the criticism it aims for. However, as a study of “main character”-syndrome it delivers most obviously. To be seen is better to be not seen at all. No matter how cruel or self-deluded you are.
By Christina Schultz
Many reviews of the most recent Austen adaptation of Persuasion directed by Carrie Cracknell have been unfavorable, with the most common gripe being inauthenticity to the original source material.
To name a few "issues" I have read so far: Anne Elliot (delightfully played by Dakota Johnson) displays unladylike behavior throughout the film, such as drinking wine straight from the bottle and dramatically lamenting her long lost love with frustration and tears (eight years later, no less; it's Regency Britain, she needs to "get a grip", Mrs. Russell would claim); the cast is anachronistically diverse (the most problematic critique on the list); conversations revolve, albeit nuancedly, around sex; and Captain Wentworth offers moments of woke remorse for the societal repression of women.
While the slight enhancements, as I shall call them, to the story do not stem from Austen's writings of the early 1800s, they are meant to do primarily one thing, I would argue, and that is to bring Jane Austen's literature to a completely new audience. The makers are clearly striving for a Bridgerton vibe, and seeing how wildly successful the Netflix adaptation of Julia Quinn's best-selling novels has been, I can't blame them. Wider viewership will hopefully bring new readers to Austen's works.
Yet I can hear some Austenites groaning at the lack of accuracy. Myself an Austenite for decades now, I will extol the virtues of the BBC's 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle (who played Johnson's mother in the Fifty Shade of Grey movies) like Mr. Collins of Rosings Park. It simply cannot be topped. You have a different opinion? Then "you take delight in vexing me" and it simply cannot be borne. Yet I too giggle with glee whilst watching Austen-based romcoms such as Austenland (2013), Lost in Austen (2008) or even Clueless (also from 1995). As silly as they might be, Austen is there, but generally with more Americans and modern technology. But I digress. The 2022 version of Persuasion is not meant for those who call themselves Austenites - I know, I just called myself one, but let me finish - and turn up their noses at the modern adaptations and sometimes make racist statements about the non-white cast members. They represent the vain and snobby Elizabeths and Mr Elliots of this world. Shame on them! This is much bigger than portraying the world as it was, and haven't we seen enough of the drier period pieces? The new Persuasion gives us a bit more realism, a bit less whiteness, while still sticking to the story and doing Jane Austen's witty storytelling justice.
So why not embrace the modern take? Why should anyone be so offended by a black Mrs. Russell? Or an imbibing Anne Elliot who breaks the fourth wall and carries around a cute little bunny? Or a rather wooden Captain Wentworth (honestly, he's channeling Firth, but no one can beat Firth's Mr. Darcy)? These details certainly don't detract from the plot, because let's face it, Austen's writing is that good. The love letter Anne reads at the end of the story still melts your heart.
Jane Austen continues to persuade readers and audiences alike, more than 200 years after her works were first published. Case in point that I have written about her and the newest adaptation of Persuasion. If you haven't read the book or seen the movie, allow yourself to be persuaded.
Can't get enough of Austen? Well you're in luck! The illustrious writer Felicia Carparelli has just released her thrilling murder mystery entitled "Killing Mr. Darcy"!
Buy it on Amazon now! Click on the book cover to be taken to the Amazon page.
By Christina Schultz
After a long maternity leave, I am happy to say I will be writing again from time to time! This first postpartum post will arguably not be my best work, but bear with me as I get back in the saddle.
Rewatching all seven seasons of NBC's Parks and Recreation (2009-2015) with my husband over the past few months began as a nice evening diversion amidst all the turmoil and upheaval in our personal lives and in the world around us. It also gave me a chance to think about the excellent female characters in the show: Leslie, Donna, April, Ann Perkins and even the self-proclaimed "legendary newswoman" Joan Callamezzo. I might even talk about not one, not two, but all three of the Tammys...
Let's start with Leslie Knope (SNL alumna Amy Poehler), the fiercely dedicated and relentless public servant for the Pawnee (IN) Department of Parks and Recreation. She is the person I sincerely wish all politicians actually were. Leslie is honest, intelligent, hardworking, compassionate, feminist and creative. She holds herself to such high standards and yet still finds the time to help everyone else around her and lift up her coworkers and friends. Yes, some might say she is a "pain" or even a "bitch", but wouldn't you want someone like her fighting on your side? She is a true inspiration to us all.
Donna Meagle (Retta) grew into her own as the show progressed. What impressed me most was her true baller style that she would give up for no one or no thing ("Treat yo self!"). She eventually leaves the Parks Department to become a highly successful real estate agent, but Donna always remained Donna. Sassy, classy and badassy!
April Ludgate-Dwyer (Aubrey Plaza) was not my favorite throughout most of the show, I will admit, but she really grew on me in the last two seasons. She is another character who, despite her quirks and flaws, remains true to herself. She is a strong-willed and caring person - when she wants to be - and even though she doesn't have all the answers, she isn't afraid to try new things in order to get closer to her goals.
Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) is perhaps the most bland of the bunch (her?), but she has a big heart. She is always there when you need her, proving she is the ultimate gal pal. She even manages to wear down April, who bore Ann a grudge because of Andy (April's husband, Ann's ex). Her willingness to kill 'em with kindness is, I think, quite admirable.
Where do I even begin with Joan (Mo Collins)? She is Pawnee's larger than life celebrity and hottest mess, but she also does not shy away from letting it all hang out. We wish we had her confidence, and that hair! Her gotcha journalism screws Leslie over on many an occasion, but one does have to admire her tenacity for doing her job well and creating her own headlines.
The Tammys - Tammy One, Ron's first wife, Tammy Two, Ron's second wife and the Tammy I shall dub Tammy Three, Ron's mother - may be an odd choice for this list but these three women who bear the same name are strong women. Perhaps some of the strongest we have encountered in this show. They are intimidating, demanding, and weirdly loyal, especially when it comes to Ron (portrayed by Nick Offerman). Leslie holds her own with them to be sure, and even supports Ron in every way he can to be rid of his horrific ex wives and mother. In one particular episode, however, it is Ron who steps in to end Tammy One, Tammy Three and Leslie's fight over him. That might have been a slight cop out, but it just goes to show that Ron knows these women well. Without his intervention, I'd like to think the Tammys and Leslie would have been in a fight to the proverbial death, as the three women together in the same room amount to the strength of the British Navy during its glory days. Tammy Two (portrayed by Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman's real life wife) is out of this world insane, so whenever she comes on the scene, everyone is on edge.
Flawed as they may be, the women are uncompromising, incredibly confident in their own quirky ways, but also know when they've been beaten. When something doesn't work out, they adapt and bounce back because they all have each other's backs (except for the Tammys). I wish I could have worked with these inspiring ladies!
Review of 'Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Popular Culture'
By Christina Schultz
If I’m being honest, Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Popular Culture is one of the strangest films I’ve seen in a long while. It certainly has its merits, and I can see why it has created a stir among the film festival circuit (most notably Cannes and Slamdance), but it is certainly not for the prude or faint of heart.
The disclaimer at the end of the film states:
“Even though this film accurately depicts the actual, crazy shit that people do to women, the characters in this film, including those based on real persons, are fiction.”
Reality, however, is stranger than fiction, and unfortunately the scandalous, outlandish, misogynistic occurrences similar to the ones in Dollhouse have actually happened.
Nicole Brending’s film makes it painfully clear that women have no subjectivity, especially in the pop celebrity world of Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and the fictional Junie Spoons (voiced by Nicole Brending). I remember consuming the tabloids, perhaps not as avidly as some, in the 90s and early 00s, unable to believe what I was reading. Female celebrities were particularly demonized and I was made to believe they deserved the “crazy shit” that happened to them. Rather than defend the women for being exploited or question the shady managers and insiders trying to earn a quick buck, I scoffed at them.
What the hell is wrong with society? We have systematically tolerated and even financed the eradication of female subjectivity from American popular culture. Even as a young woman, I had unwillingly aligned myself with the dominant male perspective. The literally frightening puppet show Brending uses as a vehicle for her brutal feminist takedown of the pop (prison) industrial complex jars its viewers to arrive at this realization. We are a large part of the problem.
There are certainly some that still might find Dollhouse hilarious and reminiscent of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police (2004), even in this woke, intersectional feminist, Instagram activism culture, despite the fact the film shows how every point in a womxn’s life is scrutinized to the point of hysteria (another problematic historical term linked to women). The supposed adoration of teen pop stars reveals a scarier obsession and downright hatred, where a woman cannot own her own body, cannot make her own choices, cannot simply be.
Junie Spoons winds up fading away - she literally becomes a sidebar in her own mockumentary - to be replaced by “Trans Junie Spoons” (previously a man named Larry) who undergoes multiple surgeries to become the pop star she felt she was all along. Trans Junie Spoons, however, finds more public support, and literally pushes the real Junie Spoons out of the public eye, because everyone is afraid of appearing transphobic. It is a strange end to this pop puppet porngraphic mockumentary, but it again drives home the sad truth that we might come inside the dollhouse, but certainly without consent.
Rock Salt Releasing will release Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Popular Culture onto various digital platforms August 11th (Amazon, inDemand, FlixFling, Fandango, Vimeo on Demand).
So be sure to check it out and let us know what you think of the film!
Ella Bergmann-Michel’s Short Documentary Films
By Guest Contributor Sabrina Vetter
For the majority of her career, Ella Bergmann-Michel (1895-1971) was known as a collage artist, a photographer and a pioneer of modern art. For a brief period she added filmmaking to her list of talents. Between 1931-1933, Bergmann-Michel shot five documentary films until the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany eventually forced her to retire from filmmaking because of their avant-garde, even experimental nature. By looking at everyday aspects of society (with particular focus on poverty and unemployment), she observed how individuals live and interact with each other and in what ways they are influenced by their surroundings. In this article, we take a look at Bergman-Michel’s unique film work and how her short films documented realities that shaped public spaces.
New in Frankfurt
Bergmann-Michel’s work in film is undeniably interconnected with Frankfurt, Germany and especially the public housing program called “Neues Frankfurt” – which seems to have started it all for Bergmann-Michel as a film director. “Neues Frankfurt” (“New Frankfurt”), which lasted from 1925 until 1930, was supposed to shape the landscape of housing in Frankfurt, as well as solve the city's housing shortage. It was therefore as much an urban development project as it was a social one. The architectural and interior design concepts developed at that time were decidedly marked by a modern aesthetic, breaking with traditional conventions and focusing on comfort, functionality and homogeneity for standardized housing. All in all, “Neues Frankfurt” was interested in exploring new ways of looking at and creating things. A piece of trivia about this era: the implementation of the architectural designs of “Neues Frankfurt” also marked the birth of the famous Frankfurt kitchen.
In order to get scientists, artists, designers, economists and others on board with the innovative public housing program, the network “Das Neue Frankfurt” was founded within “Neues Frankfurt.” As part of “Das Neue Frankfurt,” a special section focusing on film (also known as the “Arbeitsgemeinschaft für unabhängigen Film”) was founded under the guidance of Bergmann-Michel in 1931. This project aimed to create modern, candid films that were critical as well as informative.
At that time, photographer Ilse Bling, a member of one of Frankfurt’s wealthy Jewish merchant families, introduced Bergmann-Michel to the Dutch architect Mart Stam. Stam, alongside architects Werner Max Moser, Ferdinand Kramer and Erika Habermann, was responsible for planning the construction of the “Henry und Emma Budge Altenheim” as part of Frankfurt’s housing program. It was Stam who proposed that Bergmann-Michel should shoot a film about the nursing home. The final product, the short film “Wo wohnen alte Leute?“ (“Where do old people live?”), was supposed to be an instructional film on how to build better nursing homes, while also addressing the ever-growing housing shortage – the heart of “Neues Frankfurt”.
Interestingly, for this first film, Bergmann-Michel wasn’t even equipped to shoot properly. She didn’t own a camera when Stam approached her about the documentary project. A fellow photographer luckily did and handed his camera over to Bergmann-Michel so shooting could begin.
As with all her documentary projects, “Wo wohnen alte Leute?” was about observing everyday events, revealing new as well as previously unseen aspects of public life – and thereby opening up spaces that had remained invisible up to that point. Therefore, this work was not just about simply depicting a building and its individual rooms, walls or corridors; rather, Bergmann-Michel depicted the home as a living organism, in which social interactions between residents show the necessity of space for people to thrive, which is why a building’s architecture is so important. After “Wo wohnen alte Leute?“ was finalized, Bergmann-Michel was responsible not only for directing but also for writing, production, cinematography and editing on all further documentary projects.
"Bergmann-Michel depicted the home as a living organism, in which social interactions between residents show the necessity of space for people to thrive, which is why a building’s architecture is so important."
Avant-garde and Experimental
Her second venture „Erwerbslose kochen für Erwerbslose“ (“Unemployed People Cook for Unemployed People”) dove even deeper into observing how individual members of society live alongside each other, by carefully examining social issues like poverty and unemployment. “Erwerbslose kochen für Erwerbslose” lives in a murky area – just like „Wo wohnen alte Leute?“ – in between showing its audience how people as a collective can do better for the good of all and propaganda. In its final shot, “Erwerbslose kochen für Erwerbslose” directly addresses its audience in bold letters by stating that “Alle!” ("All!") have to help.
Still, it was with this second film that Bergmann-Michel could truly manifest herself as an avant-garde, even experimental filmmaker. With a 35 mm Kinamo camera in hand – after large film companies denied their interest in shooting a film focused on “Erwerbsküchen” and claimed the money for such a project wasn’t worth it – Bergmann-Michel made the film on her own and against all odds with minimal resources. The director recalls how she put the negative in the Kinamo in dark cellars or in photo shops – if there even was film stock to shoot with in the first place. However, with all required material shot in the end, Bergmann-Michel was able to fulfill the initial task: to shoot a promotional film at the request of the “Verein der Frankfurter Erwerbslosen-Küchen” including images of the everyday events happening in 28 kitchens, where unemployed people handed out 10,000 liters of food to other unemployed people. The goal was to convincingly show that people should donate to support the initiative. Despite no support from larger film companies, Bergmann-Michel finished her short film and it was a success. The film was screened outdoors at Frankfurt’s Hauptwache under the then-Schiller monument, with each showing during the evening generating over 600 Reichsmark.
Incited by this success, Bergmann-Michel went into her 3rd and 4th short features all the more hopeful. This time around, she created films based on her own ideas, not on commissioned works.
During the shooting of “Fliegende Händler in Frankfurt am Main“ (“Peddlers in Frankfurt am Main”), the director relied even more on experimental – even guerrilla – filmmaking techniques. Equipped with a 35mm hand camera, Bergmann-Michel shot material of “Fliegender Händler” – unemployed tradespeople who sold a variety of goods in the streets of Frankfurt to make some money, often without official permits, therefore always hiding or on the run from the police. On the final day of shooting, Bergmann-Michel shot “carnies” performing at the fairground of the central market hangar. Having caught the eye of the police, she counted herself lucky to get the finished material home where she was able to edit the film stock and finish the documentary.
“Fliegende Händler” is especially interesting in terms of space-taking. A woman secretly filming a group of people that is also in hiding, both unlawfully present in the cityscape, was a singular if not unique means of entering public life, especially in 1932, the year of the film’s release. This setup allows for an examination of how women claim their space in the public sphere even when they are prohibited to do so by social, legal or historical limitations. Bergmann-Michel and her guerrilla-style filmmaking used for a documentary about tradespeople illegally selling their goods thereby also tells a larger story about how women filmmakers have for most of film history operated at the margins, if not at times completely invisible. In the end, the director is able to talk about the invisibility of women filmmakers by relating the stories of hiding tradesmen to marginalized female directors.
Her next undertaking was “Fischfang in der Rhön (an der Sinn)” (“Fishing in the Rhön Mountains (by the Sinn)”). This project proved to be less adventurous than its predecessor but even more so calming. Inspired by fishing, Bergmann-Michel made use of a walk along the river Rhön to shoot jumping trout in the water. Not much planning went into this project except for a basic idea gestating in the director’s head; no script, no larger concept, just filming nature and light and shadow and people meeting alongside the shore – shots of moments in time. “Fischfang in der Rhön (an der Sinn)” is therefore documentary filmmaking at its most basic and also at its most essential: pure observation and storytelling frame-by-frame.
Bergmann-Michel’s last filmic venture was cut short. “Wahlkampf 1932 (Letzte Wahl)” (“Election campaign 1932 (Last Election)”) was shot on the eve of the rise of the Nazi party. Due to the NSDAP’s rejection of “degenerate art” (art that did not support Nazi ideals), this documentary remains a fragment. Bergmann-Michel shot images of Frankfurt during election time - bustling streets and alleys, campaign posters and pamphlets, and lively political debates between voters. Similar to “Fliegende Händler”, Bergmann-Michel looked at the seemingly everyday happenings in Frankfurt’s streets – only this time during a time of election campaigning. However, it was the year 1932 that Swastika banners were most prominent in the streets. The director even was shortly arrested for recording a fist fight in front of an NSDAP election office, a precursor of the looming limitations and bans waiting for all kinds of artists once the Nazi Party won the election of 1932.
Bergmann-Michel abandoned her work on the film in January 1933, the same month that Hitler was named Reich Chancellor. What remains today is 13-minute of cuts between images from the streets of Frankfurt with people going on about their everyday tasks and engaging in political discussions, and posters, signs, flags, party emblems, banners in the weeks leading up to the German federal election in July 1932. There is no dialogue, the shots are only accompanied by music.
Not only did that film become a fragment, Bergmann-Michel was forced to end her work as a filmmaker and indefinitely stop production on all projects. She worked as a graphic designer in London for some years during WWII and was able to return to her work as an artist – even giving lectures on modern painting and filmmaking – producing paintings and collages after the war ended in 1945. “Wahlkampf 1932 (Letzte Wahl)” remained her last film.
Sabrina Vetter is freelance writer based near Frankfurt, Germany. She received her M.A. in American and English Studies from the Goethe University in Frankfurt, where she focused on film, gender, literature and post-colonial studies. Her previous jobs include editorial assistant at a publishing company and Social Media manager. Besides her freelance work, Sabrina is busy finishing her PhD on marginalized bodies in media, including film and TV. She has also created the Instagram Challenge #365Plus6Films, which will look at 371 films directed by women. Each Monday for the next year, Sabrina will post a list of seven different films directed by women on a specific theme. One film for each day of the week. So be sure to follow her on Instagram!
Edition Filmmuseum, Ella Bergmann-Michel: Dokumentarische Filme 1931-1933
Tagesspiegel, Die Chronistin der arbeitenden Bevölkerung
Remake Film Festival, Alle Filme von Ella Bergman-Michel und das Filmporträt Mein Herz schlägt blau
Body Positive Pinups: A Review of Bombshells and Dollies
featuring cinematographer Marie Ilene
By Christina Schultz
When I hear “Viva Las Vegas”, I think of the 1964 Elvis Presley film and song of the same name. But thanks to the documentary Bombshells and Dollies (Dan Halperin, 2019), I learned that “Viva Las Vegas” now also refers to the world’s largest Rockabilly Festival, for those in the know. Now in its 23rd year (although it was canceled this year due to the coronavirus), the Rockabilly Festival includes music, dancing, a car show, tiki pool parties, jiving classes, a tattoo lounge, burlesque shows, on-site weddings and - the highlight of Bombshells and Dollies - a pinup contest.
Sounds like a typical weekend in Vegas, right? Yes and no. While the 20,000 plus attendees celebrate the music, style and panache of the 1950s, Viva Las Vegas is a modern, liberal update of those turbulent post-war times. While women à la Rosie the Riveter were gaining respect as a valued part of the workforce and filling in the shoes of the damaged and fallen soldiers, women’s rights, including the body, period, and sex positive movements, equal pay and workplace equality, the right to abortions and birth control, trans rights, and so much more, were simply left out of the narrative. Pinups, in particular, looked fairly similar in terms of body type back then; they generally were long, leggy, Barbie Doll shapes.
According to Marie Ilene, cinematographer for Bombshells and Dollies, filmmaker, burlesque dancer and Rockabilly enthusiast, the modern day Rockabilly pinup community is completely different, which the documentary makes clear. Marie explains how the women in the community are incredibly supportive of one another, welcoming of all bodies and allowing an overall atmosphere of empowerment to thrive. Rather than lamenting the supposed shortcomings of the body and discussing what “needs” to be changed, women discuss their bodies openly and share tips for where to find clothes that actually fit them, no matter what their shape or size. The vintage clothing the women don, Marie states, is actually made to celebrate curves. This is what makes the pinup contest so different from other beauty contests out there.
The winner of VLV ‘18 (2015), the contest featured in the film, is Miss Victory Violet, and she definitely (at least at the time of filming) has curves. The other contestants range from petite dollies to big babes and everything in between. Over the course of the film, we become acquainted with the 12 contestants: Angie Honeyburst, Brittany Jean, Dixie Delight, HellCath, Jayne Dean, Ivy Fox, Marilia Skraba, Miss Lulu Devine, Miss Victory Violet, Pinup Little Bit, Ruby Red and The Blue Haired Betty and see such a range of styles, colors and bodies - no beauty standard BS going on here! We also learn that each woman has her own unique reason for joining the pinup scene: to support veterans, to feel empowered, to promote body positivity, to reclaim their bodies from society, bullies and damaging beauty standards, but also because they love it!
Women should always feel comfortable in their own skin and VLV shows us that the Rockabilly pinup scene is another way to achieve this. If a woman wants to walk down the street sporting blue Victory rolls, wear a skin tight top and poodle skirt with a set of killer vintage heels and cover herself in tattoos, that is her choice. She should not feel ashamed or afraid to show off her badass style or her beautiful body, regardless of what is supposedly trendy or “in” right now. So in choosing to be a member of this community, I would argue that the women are also fighting for women’s rights (whether they actively do so or not). The right to live their lives as they see fit; the right to reject commercial beauty standards; the right to embrace their bodies and love themselves; the right to let their voices be heard and to stand up for what they believe in. So while Bombshells and Dollies might seem like a documentary about “just another beauty contest”, you better think twice! These women are truly beautiful, inside and out.
The "pinup camera chick," Marie Ilene in action. We love her style!
Our full interview with Marie Ilene will be up on FemFilmFans soon!
*All images have been graciously provided by TriCoast Entertainment (thanks, Jenna!) and Marie Ilene.
A review of I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story
By Christina Schultz
Throughout the course of the film, we meet four legit fangirls, each pining away for a different boyband:
As their stories unfold, we quickly learn there is so much more to their fangirl-ness than the stereotypical hysteria and open display of female sexuality, but we will come back to this. The boybands fill a void in these women’s lives. For Elif, it was a connection to her new home country and a rejection of her parents’ Turkish traditions (“there are no boybands in Turkey,” she tells us). Sadia found that The Backstreet Boys allowed her to freely express herself and go against the grain of her conservative Pakistani-Muslim family. Dora, a lesbian and former Olympian hopeful, didn’t just love Gary Barlow, she wanted to be Gary Barlow; her love of the group coincided with the time she sustained a career-ending injury. The Beatles accompanied Susan through the early, happier years and later provided her comfort through the later, more difficult years. The boybands therefore represent so much more than what meets the eye, which is no doubt aesthetically pleasing.
Each woman tells such a complex, multi-layered story and this film acknowledges them so lovingly and non-judgmentally. The women are able to tell their stories authentically so that by the end we have learned enough about them to make us feel like we are their friends or therapists, one of the two. The feelings of hurt, shame, guilt, inadequacy, longing, but also of love, desire, euphoria, even empowerment all come across, as they arguably would in any relationship. The fact that these women have struggled shows that the boybands mean so much more than the aforementioned stereotypes we associate with the fangirls, although they too are subtly dealt with in the film.
The first of the stereotypes, hysteria, seen mostly in montages (reminiscent of 1964 Beatles romp A Hard Day’s Night), reveals itself on a deeper level as a sense of belonging, a communal ecstatic response to the “perfect boys” and their uplifting music. Women gather together to enjoy the boybands, making them feel part of something much greater. And even though the four women in the film love different groups, they too have similar bonding experiences with other fans. So the love of a boyband is in essence a great unifier. Nothing hysterical about that at all, really.
The second of the stereotypes, the open expression of female sexuality, which is unfortunately still problematic for some, is falsely demonized. As we all know deep down, the boybands are (unfortunately) unattainable. If anything, the fans are so devoted to their boys, that they avoid “real men” altogether. This is a common theme throughout the film. Sadia, for example, admits that Nick Carter & Co. were “the five most consistent men in my life.” Elif thinks “real boys are jerks.” In their pursuit of their “perfect” boys, they actually reject the cultural norms the bands’ music plays into. While this might sound contradictory, it is in this rejection that they empower themselves. The women’s families, but especially Elif’s and Sadia’s, do not understand their daughters’ unrequited love, hoping their girls will find a man and settle down, just like they did. But the girls do not want to settle. It might seem as though they are unable to form healthy, romantic relationships and are wasting their time in the pursuit of their idols, but Dora found her soulmate and Susan was married and had two children. Yet their love of the boybands never waned. Elif and Sadia are still finding themselves and do not want to go the arranged marriage route. In all cases, the women were stripped of the power to see men simply as objects of desire and to make their desires public on such a grand scale. The double standard robs women of their freedom and is harmful and downright wrong (but I’m preaching to the choir here).
In the end, the film fights these stereotypes and features women who have found themselves through their love of the boybands. And while they “used to be normal” (Elif’s words quoted in the film’s title), normal is boring and certainly does not empower us quite as well as dancing to the beat of our own favorite Beatles/One Direction/Backstreet Boys/Take That song.
TriCoast Entertainment has released I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story onto the following digital platforms: Amazon, inDemand, DirecTV, Hoopla, Vimeo on Demand, AT&T, FlixFing, Vudu, FANDANGO, Sling/Dish.
All materials were graciously provided to FemFilmFans by TriCoast Entertainment.
The Act of Selling Drugs
By Guest Contributor Esther Louise
If you are looking for a coming-of-age series with lots of pop culture references and fast storytelling, How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast) might be your new favorite show. Another bonus: you can binge-watch it within one day. At least that’s what I did because the mixture of fun, tension and “relatable-moments” I experienced while watching as a woman in her mid 20s had me hooked.
How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast) has six episodes which are between 25-35 minutes long. The series has an easy feel to it, even though it is dealing with social issues and, of course, drug culture. Throughout the series, the multiple story arcs show how drugs are circulated, consumed and what effects they (can) have.
I would like to start by pointing out the following, which serves as the basis of my critique: the series was produced mainly by men, which is abundantly clear from the way the story is told. The plot focuses on the main male characters, what they are going through, their feelings and actions.
Moritz (Maximilian Mundt) is waiting for his girlfriend Lisa (Lena Klenke) to get back from her year abroad in the U.S. While he can’t wait to give her his welcome back present, she wants a break from their relationship. She feels like something inside her has changed after being away from home for so long. Moreover, Lisa started to experiment with drugs while studying abroad. Moritz, however, portrays the “classic nerd,” as in not too popular, being socially awkward and in contrast to almost all the other characters, he is not too enthusiastic about social media. But by trying to win Lisa back he gets out of his comfort zone and does a lot of things which do not seem like him. Long story short: Moritz gets into the drug business hoping to win his girlfriend back by supplying her with ecstasy. One could argue that he changes from being a nerd to being a drug lord, also because the first episode is called, “Nerd Today, Boss Tomorrow.” But since most of his classmates and family do not know about his double life, he is still the nerd he was before.
The male viewpoint becomes even clearer when looking at the way the relationship between Lisa and Moritz is portrayed. His reaction to their break results in selling drugs through an online shop. Moritz tries everything possible to win her back. We see him sitting in his room overthinking their relationship and looking at old pictures again and again. Meanwhile Lisa is partying and trying to avoid her parents, who are going through a divorce. We do not get to know much about her, but know exactly what is going on in Moritz’ mind.
Moritz wouldn't be able to do any of those things without his best friend Lenny (Danilo Kamperidis). They are both into computer science and wanted to start a business since they were kids. With “my Drugs”, their online shop through which Lenny and Moritz sell their goods, they finally seem to have found a successful enterprise.
A pivotal part of this success is their supplier Buba (Bjarne Mädel, of Der Tatortreiniger fame). The three men have a bizarre codependent vibe. Every conversation between them ping-pongs between laugh-out-loud jokes and the violence and seriousness of being involved in the drug business. For example, Buba hurls death threats at Moritz and Lenny right before giving them health advice on diabetes after he took a sip from Moritz’ energy drink. This unsettling way of communication confuses the viewer about what’s going to happen next.
This all-male threesome, which is one of the fundamental bases for the story, is definitely an important point of critique and also one of the reasons why I was not surprised by an almost all-male film crew. We get a lot of male perspectives and just a few female voices that are not as present compared to their male colleagues. Proof of this is shown especially at the moment when Moritz and Daniel (Damian Hardung), who both vie for Lisa’s attention, join forces to bring down their common enemy Buba. Meanwhile Lisa has no idea what’s going on and is expected to stay at home and leave it to the men.
Even though the series would fail the Bechdel Test, there is one positive: I would argue that Lisa portrays a young woman some teenagers might be able to relate and/or look up to. She takes some time figuring out who she is, without having a boyfriend and explaining or defending every decision that she makes. While choosing herself first, she is very mature about their breakup as well. Lisa still gets along with Moritz and treats him like a friend with respect and kindness - an equality with which her parents seem to struggle. Her parents are constantly fighting and finally decide to get divorced because of their poor communication skills. Lisa also shows that a woman can have casual intimate relationships without directly falling for the other person or being slutshamed for having those casual relationships. One could argue that her experimentation with drugs liberates her from adhering to cliché gender roles. Rather than reassuming the role of the good, loyal girlfriend, she follows her own path and breaks from the constraints of heteronormative, monogamous relationships.
Apart from the storyline, the special effects department came up with creative ways to outline the show’s intentions, namely to reveal the entanglement of violence and criminality that accompanies dealing drugs. Even though Moritz and Lenny might not be ready to use violence themselves and they are not aware of their own contribution to it, they are part of the issue. Furthermore one of Lisa’s best friends, Fritzi (Leonie Wesselow), argues that nothing they do really has an impact or consequences. That mindset combined with the consumption of drugs, but also other relevant life decisions, like where to go after high school, show another misconception concerning the power their decisions (can) actually have, which might not be too far away from teenagers’ realities.
Another bonus is Moritz breaking through the fourth wall and explaining to the audience how he got into selling drugs in the first place (FYI: the story is based on a true event). In addition, the series provides definitions and explanations of drugs and their consumption within its storytelling. What caught my attention as well were very briefly discussed social issues such as working conditions for letter carriers and responsible usage of social media platforms.
Since the first season ended with a cliffhanger I am crossing fingers to see more social issues discussed embedded in a comedy-series that will serve us a variety of complex female characters in the second season.
By Christina Schultz
Warning: This review contains spoilers of Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
“Netflix and chill” has long become routine for folks who shell out the dough for a monthly subscription. And with the vast array of shows and movies available on the VOD giant, you can binge-watch to your heart’s content.
And binge-watch I did when I first heard about Riverdale (The CW, 2017-)* and later on about Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix, 2018). There’s something about sexy, angsty teenagers we just can’t resist. Add a feminist, LGBTQ+ discourse to the mix, and you’ve upgraded those old-fashioned Archie Comics to the 21st century.
That’s what makes these shows, loosely based on the comics, so refreshing: pleasantly “different” characters. Yet the shows are not without their flaws, although I have a clear feminist favorite. By that I mean one of the two shows features a more diverse cast of strong, independent female characters who have multiple scenes or plotlines not revolving around their lovelife and who are not overt sexual objects of lust (although they might use their womanly charms to get what they want on occasion). Here’s a FemFilmFans breakdown of Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (CAOS).
In the original Archie Comics, Betty and Veronica were frenemies par excellence, pettily and pathetically vying for Archie’s affections. Riverdale quickly overcomes the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle - after Betty reveals her feelings for Archie and he firmly places her in the friend zone - by pairing off Betty and Jughead (#bugheadforever), although this represents a totally disappointing departure from the asexual Jughead in the comics. A positive departure is that Betty does not pine away for Archie, plotting ways to get him back from Veronica. Boy problems solved. However, it seems as if the be all and end all of the show is to have an s.o. Can’t anyone be single for two seconds? Asexual, questioning, or just plain single viewers don’t have much to identify with. In any case, B and V become inseparable, sticking up for one another and for just about anyone needing help (they mercilessly took on Riverdale High’s slut-shaming jocks, for example). This is a positive, empowering female friendship much needed in today’s media landscape.
But all that female empowerment sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Cue Cheryl Blossom (played by Madelaine Petsch): rich, beautiful, egocentric, domineering, and hell, let’s call a spade a spade, bitchy to the core. Even though she winds up dating Toni Topaz later on in the show, a (generally) positive development for her character, she initially stirs things up with everyone. Let’s put it this way, you wouldn’t want to be on her bad side, because she could make your life hell. We have nothing against strong female characters who speak their mind and get what they want, but not only does her combative cattiness make her problematic, it’s her overall presentation, too. Call me old-fashioned, but Cheryl always looks as if she’s about to head to work at the strip club. Betty and Veronica dress more conservatively, but you see a lot of toned midriffs and cleavage in the show. Where are the nerdy kids, the average, chunky or even plus size characters, the kids with disabilities, even kids with glasses? There’s Ethel Muggs (played by Shannon Purser), but that’s about it. Even though we have gay, lesbian and bi characters, and Veronica, Josie (of Josie and the Pussycats) and their mothers Hermione and Sierra respectively as women of color, we’d still like to see more diversity, especially for people of all shapes and sizes.
Equally problematic is Riverdale’s very own cult “The Farm” with its male leader Edgar Evernever (played by Chad Michael Murray). The fact that mostly women, like Betty’s mom Alice Cooper, her sister Penny - and eventually Cheryl and Toni - join and offer themselves up body and soul to this man chills me to my feminist core. Betty is the only one who truly sees through The Farm (or does she?) but in the end she learns that her mother needs to heal and can only do so with her new family (and, with Betty’s suspicions confirmed, through some sort of “marriage” to Edgar). What happened to smashing the patriarchy? Or is the show trying to low-key undermine religious or cultish groups by showing how backwards they can be? I would need to do some more digging to get to bottom of this (or just keep watching), but The Farm plotline leaves me cold. We also have the return of the Black Hood, The Gargoyle King and Hiram Lodge on the loose, three more male figures wreaking havoc on and thus controlling the town, albeit in completely different ways.
Yet Riverdale gets kudos for directly referencing the Bechdel Test, featuring the musical number “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage” (Season Two, Episode 16 - “Chapter Twenty-Nine: Primary Colors”), subverting the male gaze as Betty, and thus the viewers, watch Archie through her bedroom window and having Jughead’s mom, Gladys Jones (played by Gina Gershon), show up to town only to reveal she wore the pants in Riverdale’s criminal underworld all along. Shocker!
Riverdale thus receives a score of 2/3 Fs (Finely Feminist)
*Special thanks to Ji Strangeway for tipping me off to the show!
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (CAOS)
At first I was skeptical when I saw the ads for the Sabrina reboot. Even our FemFilmFam voted for Melissa Joan Hart as their favorite Sabrina in our Insta Story, so I know I’m not the only one pining away for our favorite witch of the 90s.
While Sabrina is an attractive petite blonde, sticking to the norms of “Western” beauty standards - the rest of the cast makes up for this lack of diversity - she is a modern feminist hero we can get behind. Sabrina Spellman (played by Kiernan Shipka), half-mortal, half-witch, has an uncanny knack for witchcraft, although she is not a full-time student at The Academy of Unseen Arts. She comes from a powerful Satan-worshipping family, headed by her Aunt Zelda and Aunt Hilda. Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto) is cold, ambitious, strong-willed and clever. For example, she marries Father Blackwood not for love, but for the power and privilege with which such an alliance comes. Aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis) at first appears to be the exact opposite of her sister: meek, kind, motherly. However, Hilda reveals her true colors in Season Two - she is not to be trifled with. She also keeps Sabrina grounded and reminds her that the mortal world isn’t all so bad. Sabrina’s aunties thus provide the basis of one of the most badass witch matriarchies around and are great role models for Sabrina (and for female viewers).
Sabrina also receives (mis)guidance from someone whom she thinks to be her favorite teacher Ms. Wardwell. It turns out that she is actually Lilith, Madame Satan herself, the first wife of Adam (yes, that Adam from the Bible). Lilith is the ultimate OG Biblical, or rather Satanic feminist, having refused to submit to Adam, which led God to banish her from the Garden of Eden. Eventually Lilith meets Lucifer Morningstar, aka The Dark Lord, who was an archangel banished from Heaven by God. Lucifer gave Lilith power in return for her help, making her the first witch. But everything comes with a price: she was bound to him as his handmaiden. Throughout Season Two, we see two sides to Lilith/Ms. Wardwell. First, her vulnerability during her struggles to outsmart The Dark Lord and second, her lust for power as she uses Sabrina as a pawn to become Queen of Hell. Despite her life of servitude, the fact that she was finally able to beat The Dark Lord (at least for now) makes her a true feminist warrior. She simply would not accept her fate and bend to His will (and talk about long game).
Other strong (albeit problematic) female characters include The Weird Sisters, and especially Prudence, although they are more malicious than weird and are often at odds with Sabrina until the latter proves herself at The Academy. Prudence has some serious Daddy Issues, but it is a welcome change to see a strong, black, pansexual witch. But we can’t leave out the mortals when talking about strong female characters. Sabrina’s bespectacled black gal pal with beautiful natural hair, Ros(alind) Walker, finds out she has powers of her own (“the cunning”). Having inherited this gift from her grandmother, Ros has psychic visions, which helps Sabrina on numerous occasions. She is also outspoken about issues that matter to her and I was pleased when she founded a feminist book club at Baxter High.
It is important to mention that CAOS also includes a trans character. Susie in Season One becomes Theo in Season Two, played by non-binary actor Lachlan Watson, and the character has been a cause for debate among some viewers. Whether or not you like Theo, it is still important to see trans characters included in mainstream media. The show is creating space for characters like Theo and the ones mentioned above. In my book that’s a definite plus.
And now back to Sabrina - what makes her feminist as f*ck is her power, confidence, persistence and yes, even her arrogant hubris at times. Rather than pandering to the “damsel in distress” stereotype often attributed to women like her, she literally can’t wait to run off and try the most difficult magic (and when she succeeds at it, she amazes everyone) - she gets shit done, no matter what anyone tells her. She also sticks to her guns in her relationships, not allowing herself to be pressured into having sex. Her virginal, good girl vibe is refreshing, especially when compared to shows like Riverdale (although there are some steamy scenes with Nicolas Scratch). She, like Lilith, also fools The Dark Lord and plans on future deceit and trickery with her eclectic bunch of family members and friends by her side. Needless to say, we cannot wait for Seasons Three and Four!
With a multitude of strong, diverse female characters, CAOS receives a score of 3/3 Fs (Fabulously Feminist)