Stranger Things: More normal than you’d think.

I’ve been trying to write some kind of review on Stranger Things for a while now, but every time I sit down to do it, I find I just don’t have the energy.

So here goes. Really gonna try this time. Definitely gonna contain plot spoilers. This is probably best read after you’ve seen all eight episodes.

There’s about a million reviews on Stranger Things out there, the vast majority of them are full of positive hype, much of which the show deserves. If you like a nostalgic retro-feel 1980s homage, this is your jam. It’s Super 8 meets Stand by Me meets ET meets The Goonies, complete with an awesome soundtrack, solid casting, and an engaging (albeit not terribly original) plot. And it’s creepy. I’ve been craving a creepy show, and it’s been hard to find one that isn’t one rung down from torture porn (Hemlock Grove, what a crushing disappointment).

However.

Stranger Things has some major shortcomings that made it cringingly hard to watch at times. As happens with most things I watch/read, at one point I said aloud, “If they kill Barb, I’m gonna stop watching this.” Obviously I didn’t. :P But that I found myself saying that at all points to ST‘s first major weakness: predictability.

ST is at its heart a reverential throwback, playing on all manner of (especially Spielberg-esque) 1980s movie tropes, which as The Atlantic‘s Lenika Cruz points out, is both good and bad. The nostalgic ambience makes for an immersive environment, on the one hand. But on the other, the temptation to fall back on, er, other historically relevant tropes certainly makes the show less relatable for some of us.

I wasn’t upset that they killed Barb because I believe characters should never be expendable. Rather because from the moment she appeared on screen, she is immediately recognizable as precisely the kind of character deemed expendable in 80s cinema, as well as the present: nerdy, not conventionally attractive, peripheral, marginal. All things that I (and many other people who don’t generally see themselves represented in media) can connect with. And all things that, in combination with being feminine, female-bodied, and/or a woman, can be lethal for a character. The giveaway for me was the short hair. “This girl’s a goner,” I thought. Man, I hate being right.

It isn’t merely that characters like Barb are pathetic tagalongs, tripping up the much more glamorous adventures of their more conventionally attractive (in all its senses) counterparts– in this case, Nancy. And it isn’t that they rarely-if-ever are the hero protagonists. It’s that they have to die. In Barb’s case, a gruesome on-screen death. “Unnecessary” doesn’t begin to describe it. The creators, the Duffer Brothers, felt the need to dismember Barb and then later show us her rotting body to reinforce this violence.

“But but but,” I can hear the refutations of the DnD ST fandom begin, “the four heroes of the story are nerdy, not conventionally attractive, marginalized characters. They’re always getting beat up by bullies, their only ally at school is the science teacher.” That’s wonderful. I’m glad the nerds/misfits/outcasts get to be heroes for once (except that this is arguably another 80s trope– à la Goonies, Weird Science, Bill & Ted). But all those heroes have something in common: they’re (cis)boys. Barb can’t be a hero, or even a hero tagalong, and in fact it’s okay to disembowel her– ’cause she’s a girl. It’s pretty straightforward misogyny, really.

“But but but,” another refutation may start, “what do you call Eleven, if not a hero? And she’s a girl.” Sadly, the most interesting character in the story becomes a martyr for the boy-heroes, but not before they play out their heteronormative fantasies playing dress-up doll with her. Cruz’s review is a very solid description of ST‘s failures when it comes to El’s plotline, so I won’t reiterate them here.

I suppose some might try to raise Nancy as a girl-hero, but whatever character growth she accomplishes is certainly dampened by her choice to stick with her abusive boyfriend. To be fair, her alternate love interest is also her stalker at one point, so…

At the end of the day, it’s the Duffer Brothers who mold the girl/feminine/female-bodied characters on the show and choose their fate. The Duffer Brothers play out their fantasies (and the fantasies of countless [especially nerd] boys) in ST, through boy and girl characters alike– oh, and it is really that binary. Friendships, adventures, romances, and heroism all revolve around the boy characters.

I had other issues with ST, including the treatment of madness, single motherhood, and the show’s overwhelming whiteness. It’s not perfect, but Stranger Things is entertaining, and a wonderful fantasy, especially if you’re a cishet boy. Who knows, maybe Season Two will have something for the rest of us.

Reblog: Akala on Xenophobia In Britain

Feminist Philosophers

This is footage from Frankie Boyle’s Election Autopsy aired in 2015. Akala starts talking around 1.38. Worth a watch.

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Rape, and love.

I’ve been reading a lot about rape, as I try to finish my thesis, which deals with sexual violence as well as institutional violence. I’ve listened to and read a lot of survivors’ accounts of these types of violence. It’s too much at times, because this is how I spend my academic life, my intellectual life, but it’s also on the news all the time. It’s in songs, in movies, on TV, in teen fiction, in casual jokes and everyday conversation, in political discussions.

There was a time not so long ago (2008, 2009) where I would’ve been astounded and pleased to see nation-wide media discussions about sexual violence. So much changed in the time I was gone. It still blows my mind that we are including things like bystander intervention training in college freshman orientations, or that the FBI updated its definition of consent to condemn sexual acts against an unconscious or drugged person as rape. This seems like massive progressive. Seems like we’re headed in the right direction. Then why the fuck am I filled with anxiety, why am I drawn tight like a bowstring whenever sexual violence arises as a topic of conversation, a court case, a news story, a song lyric, a painted subject. Is it just because I’ve experienced it? Is it just PTSD, blah-dee-blah? Something tells me otherwise.

At certain times in the history of feminist theory and activism, some feminists have voiced the opinion that rape is a crime of violence, only, not a crime of sex. Susan Brownmiller has been cited as supporting a view of rape as a being about violence, not sex (see Cahill 2001, 16-28). While I was a SAC advocate and crisis counselor at the Listening Ear, I shared this view of rape. “It’s not about sex,” so the line goes, “it’s about power and domination.” Of course, this is coming from people who either cannot fathom an association between power, domination, violence, and sexual arousal, or who cannot admit to themselves that for many people, such a connection exists.

There are many people who associate violence, sex, and power. Sometimes this is enjoyable, and sometimes it is born of traumatic experience—undoubtedly sometimes it’s both. Many kinksters who associate pain and pleasure, and who derive enjoyment and arousal from playing with power dynamics. However, kinky sex is not rape, due to the fact that communication, consent, and mutual enjoyment are the central tenets of BDSM and fetish practitioners. Rape happens when genuine consent is absent, whether when a person says no, when a person is silent, or when a person feels that they cannot say no (e.g. because they are being coerced, threatened with the end of a relationship, etc.).

Something that strikes me is that among all these discussions of the relationship between violence, rape, and sex, something that never seems to come is the subject of love. Now, we know that the vast majority of rapes are perpetrated by people known to their victims. In fact, they are often the closest people to us. They are our friends, our parents, our pastors, our teachers, our siblings, our neighbors, our lovers, our partners. They are people for whom we often feel a great deal of trust…and love. This doesn’t strike me as coincidental. It is the people whom we love the most that can often get away with doing the worst kinds of things to us, because we cannot admit to ourselves, let alone anyone else (e.g. a court of law), that they would do something to us that contradicts our understanding of their love for us. This seems to cross boundaries of all kinds of love. The love felt between parents and children, teachers and students, spouses, siblings, and so on—these are all very different kinds of love. But it seems to me that all of these kinds of love (perhaps all kinds of love) are founded upon trust.

This is what makes rape so devastating. It is a violation of bodily autonomy, it is a violation of the mind, and it is a violation of trust and love. Even where trust is broke, even again and again, love remains… Maybe it gets chipped away, maybe it wears like beaches shaped by waves, maybe it erodes into nothing, over time. But when it comes to the people we love most, we will suffer the worst kinds of betrayals, even more than once. We tell ourselves whatever is necessary to endure this kind of abuse: we put the people we love before ourselves, that is what true love is; we keep faith in them even when they fuck up, because love conquers all, and through love they will change and improve; love doesn’t always come easy, sometimes it requires work, maybe it even requires sacrifice; we can’t betray love, even when the people we love betray us.

I feel compelled to say something that I have suspected before, that makes my stomach turn and that I know the thought of which makes many people feel ill. Rape and love are connected. I won’t claim to understand their relationship. Either rape and love are connected (hence why it is most often the people we love who perpetrate our rapes), or we do not yet understand rape, or love. Quite possibly I think it is both. I suspect that until we better understand both rape and love, sexual violence will always be a normative aspect of our culture. Even as we say, “Rape has nothing to do with sex, rape has nothing to do with love,” we lie to ourselves that our rapists—our parents, our pastors, our best friends, our partners—love us. Maybe it is not a lie… Maybe they do love us. Maybe we do love them. Then we’ve got it wrong… Rape and love have something to do with each other. It seems fucked up, it seems unimaginable. But we also say that rape, itself, seems unimaginable. We say bizarre things about rape: “I’d rather die than be raped”; “I’d kill anyone who raped you/me.” We say sensical things about rape: “I can’t believe that person committed rape”; “I don’t understand how that person could have rape their best friend/spouse/child/classmate.” All of these utterances seem to me to indicate a serious lack of understanding about rape, but also love.

Something that we fail to talk about and to really seek to understand are the motivations of rapists. We pass them off as deviants, as psychos, as one-offs, as aberrations, as monsters under the bed, as strangers in the shadows. When it’s the people we love who fit this description, it’s like they become unknown, unknowable to us. It stops making sense. Our relationship stops making sense. Love stops making sense. Our bodies stop making sense. Our will stops making sense. It’s unfathomable, it goes against everything our culture has taught us about love, it goes against everything we feel and understand about love, about relationships, about ourselves, about the people we love. This isn’t how it’s supposed to work, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s incoherent, it’s like living in a horrific faerieland where nothing makes sense, nothing ever coheres.

It makes no sense to me whatsoever that a person whom I love and trusted very much raped me repeatedly. They made me feel like I was wrong for refusing them. They made me feel that I was saying “I don’t love you” whenever I said no. They made me feel that I was hurting them by saying no. They made me feel that they had a right to my body—more than that, they had a right to my bodymind and they had a right to believe I enjoyed it. Eventually I ran away from them because I felt like I was going to die—on some level I believed that it was me, or the relationship. One of us was going to end. I had come to believe that it was my destiny to kill myself, and that I wasn’t deserving of love, and I believed everyone who made me feel that my partner was ‘putting up with me’ and that I was abusing them. Probably most of those people had no idea what my partner did to me for more than two years. Sure, a lot of them knew that that person had jerked me around and gone out on me, had manipulated me and lied to me and so on and so forth. All part of the game that is college relationships, I suppose. But they didn’t know that my partner would touch me against my wishes, even in public places, like work. My partner wasn’t afraid of consequences, I think; I suspect that they felt they were in the right. They made me afraid to be alone at work with them. They made me afraid to walk up the stairs first. Eventually I couldn’t let anyone walk up a flight upstairs behind me, because I’d start having a panic attack. Of course, I wouldn’t figure out for a long time that that’s what they were.

Despite all this, I loved my partner so much, I couldn’t imagine my life without them. They were so smart and considerate and creative and funny and good-looking, they were going places, they had a good head on their shoulders, they were kind, everyone said so. Many people said I was lucky to be with them. I believed this. But in order to keep my partner happy, I had to do what they asked. If that was holding hands, or kissing, or letting them touch me, or having sex, then that’s what had to happen. It took almost four years for me to figure out that all of that was wrong, was not my fault, and the sex we had wasn’t ‘sex’, it was rape.

The part that is now very difficult for me to get my head around is that that person thinks they didn’t do anything wrong. No, scratch that, I can get my head around that. We live in a culture that tells some groups of people they’re better than other groups, that they are entitled to things from groups which are beneath them. Shrug. I can understand that. I read books and shit. What I can’t understand is how that person can live with themself, because they work in a place that is directly involved in people’s sexual health. What makes them think that they have even a modicum of understanding about sexual health? They made me feel that there was something wrong with me, with my body, when I didn’t enjoy having sex with them. Having sex you don’t enjoy over and over again—this is the opposite of healthy.

Writing helps… I’m feeling a bit better for having written this. Writing is a Lens of Clarity in faerieland. Maybe now I can get back to my thesis…

1 is 2 Many: A Step in the Right Direction

In the early 1990s, then-senator Joe Biden and a grassroots coalition of anti-rape advocates scripted the original Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was signed by Clinton in 1994. Despite significant Republican opposition (nothing changes, eh?), VAWA was reauthorized in 2013.

VAWA is significant in terms of the protection it offers sexual assault survivors. That’s right, our legal system is so messed up that sexual assault survivors need extra protection from it. :D The 2013 reauthorization also made special effort to extend protection to the queer community, Native Americans on reservations, and undocumented immigrants. This kind of legislation is essential to protecting survivors, but ultimately we also need to be working towards the prevention of sexual assault, as well.

The White House’s new PSA, 1 is 2 Many, is a step in the right direction in terms of prevention. Featuring Benecio Del Toro, Dulé Hill, Daniel Craig, Steve Carell, Seth Meyers, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama, the PSA discusses consent, victim blaming, and supporting survivors. They even daringly use the word ‘rape’. Pretty cool stuff, right?

Okay, you knew I was gonna be a downer… So here it is. The glaring issue with this PSA is the “if I saw it happening” part. This language makes sexual assault seem like something that we see others doing, not something that we do, ourselves. This has always been the problem with defining consent and talking about rape. It is not a surprise that people– men– are uncomfortable analyzing their behavior. They do not want to see themselves as rapists. They do not see their behavior as rape. Therefore, they do not want to define consent in a way that potentially frames them as rapists.

I can see a lot of people, a lot of boys and men, watching this PSA and pumping their fists and chest-bumping and being like “Yeah! I’m part of the solution!” and not stopping to think about what it means to hear a partner tell them no, or not be able to tell them no due to drug or alcohol consumption. Being told no is not often something for which we prepare men and boys, yet is an important part of consent in sexual relationships.

Also. Obviously a high proportion of rapes are committed by men, against women, but this does not exclude girls and women from taking responsibility in their own sexual relationships. Everyone needs to get consent from their partners. It should go without saying. The more I listen to girls and women talk about sex, the more I realize that a lot of them do not know what consent is or how to get it, either. Keep in mind that VAWA protects male survivors just as it does LGBTQ and female-identifying survivors.

All that being said, this PSA is still pretty bad-a and definitely a huge step in the right direction. Way to go, Joe Biden.

p.s. Tim Walberg and your fellow Republicans, you do not represent me and you do not deserve to hold your office!

 

A Little Female Empowerment

All right, I don’t usually make a thing of waving the female empowerment flag since it seems to give people (including feminists) the wrong idea about my feminism. Some of the films I have been watching (or rewatching) lately, however, seemed worth throwing it up for. They may or may not pass the Bechdel Test, and I don’t care. (Barbie: The Pearl Princess passes it and Gravity doesn’t. I rest my case.) Check these out for your next stay-at-home movie night!

Moolaade

Moolaade

 

 

 

 

 

If you watch only one of these movies, make it Moolaade, written and directed by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene. Moolaade tells the story of Collé, a mother who refuses to allow her daughter to be cut and who shelters other girls from female genital cutting. She calls upon the moolaade, an ancient magic, to help her protect them from those who would see them ‘purified’ in order to uphold tradition. It manages to say a lot about tradition versus human dignity without creating good guys and bad guys. I enjoyed it start to finish.

 

Gravity

gravity

 

 

 

 

 

 

I guess a lot people were dissing this film, and I, too, had written it off when I heard Sandra Bullock was in it. Well, I’ll eat my hat: this film was awesome and Sandra Bullock was awesome in it. I even (mostly) liked George Clooney as her Jiminy Cricket/Yoda coach. And it was just a beautiful movie. Astronomy nerds, at least, will surely enjoy watching this Kessler syndrome fantasy unfold.

 

Boys Don’t Cry

Boys Don't Cry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

See why I didn’t wanna call this post ‘female empowerment’? (There are more than two sexes/two genders, surprise! :D) Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry is about a Nebraskan boy trying to understand and express himself, simply put. Hilary Swank owes all the credit she won with this movie. So difficult to watch, but so worth it. I’ve read a number of reviews of this movie to the effect of “expect to be depressed”, but it should be remembered for more than tragedy. In a word: bittersweet.

 

The Help

The Help

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Help is probably the only movie I’ve cried most of the way through– the happy parts and the sad parts. A lot of people (such as bell hooks) hated this movie and completely dismantled it… I agree that they didn’t go far enough in showing the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. I also question their depiction of “love” between Skeeter and Mae as probably denying reality. So is this a shining example of feminist filmography? Far from it. Nevertheless, this movie is a step towards empathy, and for that I find it valuable.

 

All About My Mother

All about my mother

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Set in Madrid, All About My Mother takes a colourful, personal look at familial relationships, transgender issues, and living with AIDS, among other things. Stars Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, and Penelope Cruz. While comedic at times, this is a serious film about what it means to be a mother, and a woman.