Archive for category Film
When John Lasseter announced the return to traditional, hand-drawn animation for the new Disney film The Princess and the Frog, people got excited. After the negative fallout from 2004’s Home on the Range, pen-and-paper animation for the cinema was a dead prospect, save the maybe-occasional independent/foreign/low-budget anomalies (Persepolis, The Secret of Kells, Winnie-the-Pooh). But here we were: Disney was ready to back a new, fully-fleshed, big-budget animated movie again. And while some people bemoaned yet another princess-based tale, the idea that this could lead to new, fresh, original 2D animated films was way too tempting. All it had to be was a hit.
And it was… kinda. The Princess and the Frog opened to positive reviews, but with a budget of $105 million, it barely made back its budget domestically. It did much better worldwide, grossing over $265 million, so it wasn’t a colossal failure. But still, the passion and excitement behind the return of 2D animation was palpable. Even the producers and executives were excited by the life of the medium and seemed eager to pursue in different ways.
And then… it completely stopped. Like a 80 mile-per-hour train colliding into a diamond wall, the passionate voices heralding the hand-drawn format suddenly died out. Even critics and average proponents of 2D animation went silent, save for a few folks here and there. It all became a dream deferred, and especially so when Bob Igor announced that there were indeed no plans in the works for traditional 2D animated films, going so far as to layoff a majority of their 2D animation staff. The medium that seemed to be right on the verge of a resurgence dried up like an open bottle of ink.
Why? Perhaps part of the problem is that The Princess and the Frog didn’t do as well as Disney may have hoped, but tons of 3D CGI films do poorly, and they’re still going strong. Hell, in the last couple of years, stop-motion has exploded with the occasional work – Coraline, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, Pirates! — and none of them were exactly runaway hits. So why did 2D animation get the short stick?
To try and answer this question, I re-watched The Princess and the Frog, to see if the answer was somewhere in the frame. To be honest, I had saw the film in theaters with a friend, and we both came away from it with a very blase attitude. We both kinda liked it, but deep down inside we were rather unimpressed and, frankly, disappointed, which seemed counter to the opinions of most of the critical community. But we couldn’t express why we were so disappointed. And now, since I have a stronger critical mindset (thanks to blogging and reading other blogs), I want to give the film another go, and see why, perhaps, the IDEA of The Princess and the Frog was more popular than the actual movie. In other words – is the very film that signaled the return of hand-drawn animation the very thing that killed it?
The Princess and the Frog, upon the fantastic revelation that it was going to be 2D, hand-drawn animation, had a choice: should it be a straight-forward, character driven, clean n’ direct princess tale? Or should it be a sillier, wackier story of the Looney Tunes mold? The cast and crew, as talented as they are, hadn’t made a 2D film in years, and the last batch that came from the studio were barely mediocre at best, so the decision to make it a mixture of both was probably not the best one. Audiences may have been drawn into the story but it didn’t keep them there – the disappointing and sad truth is that most people seem uncomfortable with their serious animation mixed with their wacky animation.
Do not get me wrong. The Princess and the Frog is an amazingly beautiful movie. It captures the power and glory that hand-drawn animation can do, and it is a delightful experience, even upon my re-watch. In fact, I think it actually gets better at some points; but its flaws also become more and more apparent. And I don’t mean it in a nit-picky way (although it probably comes off like that), but in terms of the financially lukewarm reaction and the sudden drop-off of 2D-animation championing, I just wanted to figure out why this film didn’t “have legs” for the medium like so many people felt it did.
Of course, there’s the easy excuse – it stars an African-American cast within an African-American setting, and because of which, mainstream white audiences didn’t go see it. I don’t think that’s true. Or, rather, not quite as explicitly direct as that. Most studios, Disney in particular, craft their stories of black people in such a specific paradigm, focusing heavily on ideas of strength, overcoming, power, sass, and self-efficiency, which makes it difficult to get into the most important part of creating character and conflict – vulnerability. Part of this is because executives seem extremely afraid of offending black audiences, they mistake vulnerability for weakness, fearing either might rally the NAACP to attack their lead as a shallow showcase of black women. So Tiana, our “princess” in play, is perfectly fine on her own.
This creates a problem; Tiana, in truth, has no stakes in the story. After all, she just wanted a restaurant. Hell, she managed to buy the place that she always wanted within the first 15 minutes of the film. The conflict and thrust of the film is really over Dr. Facilier (the Shadow Man) and his desire for Prince Naveen’s money. All these things – the Shadow Man’s deal with Naveen, Lawrence’s envy of Naveen, Naveen’s own lack of funds – have shit-all to do with Tiana. Thinking about it, she gets involved with all this in a silly, convoluted fashion – a higher bidder threatens to steal Tiana’s purchase right under her nose, she gazes at the stars depressingly, then in some bit of desperation, kisses the transformed-frog Naveen, which turns her into a frog herself, which is then followed by some wacky antics which flings them towards the bayou. One could probably argue that the entire scene is a play on the typical “wish upon a star” trope, a subversion of the various princess films before it. But because Tiana isn’t exactly part of the actual conflict, this subversion is pointless, since it really doesn’t have anything to do with the plot. Tiana is dragged along because the script demanded it – and for some reason, on this trip, she learns that she needs to love?
One could argue that The Princess and the Frog suggests, uncomfortably so, that Tiana, a woman who had agency and her admittedly justified and perfectly-fine dream to own a five-star restaurant, ought to drop her dream and get with a guy (Mama Odie’s insistence that this is so is particularly telling). The film goes through great length to combine the goals of success and love into one perfect Platinum achievement, but like any gaming achievement, they’re really unnecessary, and this overwrought metaphor gets to one of the many core issues with the film – Tiana really has no agency here. She’s roped up into a situation not by her own choice, but by circumstance. The main villain, who is a cypher all his own, has no personal stake with her. His concern is the prince – and even that isn’t personal. It’s a long con for his wealth (or what’s left of it), and Naveen is so ridiculous that he’s really just the comic relief with a point. Is this Tiana’s story or Naveen’s? The film doesn’t say.
The various audio commentaries on the Blu-ray dances around a lot of these problems as strengths, despite a lot of background talk of the script going through many, many revisions. Also, not a single woman was involved in this creation of the story, let alone a black woman. This isn’t necessarily the root of the problem, but in relation to the difficultly of giving Tiana stakes or agency, I can’t help but mention that it has to be part of it. Getting a black woman’s say on the direction of Tiana’s tale couldn’t necessarily hurt things, could it? The audio commentary is particularly telling: in their desire to do a “princess movie for people who don’t like princess movies,” they only end up paying lip service to one. There’s a “princess,” and there’s a “frog,” but that’s really all there is, and breaking down the princess fairytale doesn’t necessarily bring anything else to the table – and making the characters black doesn’t hide this.
The three secondary characters that Naveen and Tiana meet along their trip back to the city feel just as untethered to the story as Tiana is, and the set up to the meat of this section is weirdly rushed. Upon getting ported out of the city towards the bayou, there’s a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment where Tiana hears a dog speaking English, which sets up the ability for the humans-turned-frogs to communicate with Louie, the alligator who wants to play in a jazz band, and Ray, a lighting bug who is in love with a star, along with Mama Odie and her omnipotence to see and hear everything. This is tonally confusing. According to the audio commentary, Louie originally was supposed to be another human who was transformed by Dr. Facilier. Presumably dropped because it was too complicated (it isn’t) or it takes too much away from the story of Tiana and Naveen (it doesn’t), it raises the question of a more thematic nature – namely, that there is none. It’s funny and enjoyable to see the extreme hilarity of gator who wants to sing, but lacks the resonance of, say, a rat that wants to cook. Louie’s drive is perfunctory and defined by its comic relief since there’s nothing behind his desire. It probably would have worked better if he just was willing to help them, in contrast to the vicious gators introduced five minutes beforehand.
Ray takes the “helping” mantle, which gives him a tighter connection to Naveen and Tiana, and his outlandish idea of love – he has his hearts set on a bright star named Evangeline – contrasts Naveen and Tiana a lot more closely, especially since both she and he have separate conversations with the insect that are regulated to their respective approaches to love. Ray is the strongest secondary character, although he is a bit overbearing at times, but because he still is more of a helping figure than someone tied to the characters, his death, while effective, lacks the emotional one-two punch that it should have. In some ways, I’m reminded of the death scene of Robin William’s robot sidekick in Flubber (not a film I exactly recommend). It’s effective and it’s meaningful, but not exactly earned.
Then there’s Mama Odie, who arrives, sings, exposits, then never returns. Mama Odie is a problem in so much that she just pops up in godmother fashion and, in the form of a musical, tells Naveen and Tiana – and by proxy, the audience – what they need to know. In fact, her song, “Dig a Little Deeper,” is so specific and direct that its jazz-infused choir awesomeness is overshadowed by its on-point message: “HEY! THIS IS WHAT YOU NEED TO FEEL.” (In fact, a lot of The Princess and the Frog’s songs, while musically fun, more or less simply reiterate the plot and feelings of the characters in the current scene, to their detriment). I love Mulan’s “Be a Man,” but that middle part kills the song dead. Again, like Louie and Ray, she isn’t connected to Naveen or Tiana, which makes it feels like everyone is striking on their own.
That’s The Princess and the Frog in a nutshell. The film is a constant push-and-pull of juxtapositions, leaving nothing that connects or sticks with you. Is this about Naveen or Tiana? Is this a princess tale or a subversion of it? Is this a cartoony tale or a serious one? Naveen is crushed by a book and jumps back to life; Ray is stepped on and dies. Aside from the jarring difference here, this results in a movie trying to be both comically ironic and deeply sincere, not only in its story but in its animation as well. Again, the visuals here are fantastic, but at times overwhelmingly so; only in a few bright spots do we get to see the animation being effective to watch, letting characters be characters instead of part of an excited, vibrant tapestry. I often think of it as the film trying too hard, a desperate plea of “Look at the hand-drawn animation! Isn’t it awesome!?” The sad part that it is awesome, but in the way where spectacle trumps practicality. More is less, and it’s a lesson that I feel may have been lost here.
So, as much as I’ve grown to enjoy what The Princess and the Frog has to offer, I can’t help but point out that its deficiencies may have been more detrimental to its success than the creatives might have believed. I can’t say for sure that this film killed off the burning desire for hand-drawn films, but in all honesty I can’t say it helped. It functioned perfectly fine, flaws and all, but audiences reacted to it with a shrug, a sentiment that clearly went up the chain of command at Disney HQ. There is a scene in The Princess and the Frog where Tiana, Naveen, Louie, and Ray do battle with a couple of frog hunters. It, like the rest of the movie, works very well but truly has no purpose. Films require that every scene and every character should matter. The Princess and the Frog comes to the correct answers in its visual panache, but it, sadly, forgot to check its work.
PLEASE NOTE: Normally, I wouldn’t do this – it’s usually in bad taste, makes the author seem wishy-washy, and suggests things could change at the drop of a hat. But missing Miss Piggy I felt was too big a mistake to let go. So I threw out all the results, revised the brackets (sorry Pig from Back at the Barnyard!), and reposted the polls again, to really find out who the best pig is. Sorry for this, but I definitely thought it was a necessary change. So, if you wouldn’t mind, please vote again!
Dear internet: the flamewars need to stop, now. I hate going to various websites and seeing the comment section erupt into a battle of… non-wits over this. It sickens me. I know we can do better, but until this thing is put to rest, we will continue to belittle and bemoan everyone and everything they stand for.
This ends now.
THE GREAT PIG-OFF OF 2013.
Finally, in our great history of noteworthy pigs, boars, warthogs, and pig-boar-warthog-men, we will determine beyond a shadow of a doubt, which pig is the best pig of all time. OF ALL TIME. The results of this bracket cannot be contested. The final outcome will be law, the next amendment to our great and wonderful Constitution. Any and all protest will be dealt with immediately. Void where prohibited.
Vote now. Get your friends to vote. Your family. By gunpoint if need be. Because this is the end of all things. Of all PIG things. RECOGNIZE.
I) Literary/Allegorical Edition
1) Wilbur (Charlotte’s Web) – The venerable star of this classic children book is a comely, fat oinkster who comes dangerously close to being chopped up into bacon and perhaps some ham. Luckily, plucky spider and blood-sucker arachnid Charlotte uses her extreme spelling skills to shock humans into thinking that Wilbur is terrific and radiant. What does she get for her efforts? An overly-dramatic death scene. Still, Wilbur ends up taking care of her three sickly spiders children (of the millions that hatch and haul ass). Some pig indeed.
2) Napoleon (Animal Farm) – I regret admitting I have not read this book, so I will let Wikipedia sum it up: ” ‘A large, rather fierce-looking Berkshire boar, the only Berkshire on the farm, not much of a talker, but with a reputation for getting his own way’. An allegory of Joseph Stalin, Napoleon is the main villain of Animal Farm. In the first French version of Animal Farm, Napoleon is called César, the French form of Caesar, although another translation has him as Napoléon.” So yeah, COMMUNISM.
Wilbur or Napoleon?
- Wilbur (67%, 33 Votes)
- Napoleon (33%, 16 Votes)
Total Voters: 49
II) Animatronic Edition
1) Babe (Babe) – Babe, the curious piglet that seems to have a knack for bizarre adventures, earned an unrequited amount of love by treating sheep with respect and winning a sheep herding contest by being nice. He may be incredibly stupid (at least to some dogs), but his warm heart and carefree innocence can win over even the most headstrong wool-producing animal. And to think, Farmer Hoggett almost shot him!
2) Maxwell (Geico commericals) – Geico never met a commercial marketing gimmick it DIDN’T beat mercilessly into the ground (the cavemen, the gecko, the money with the googly eyes, Mike McGlone and his creepy look, the two string-instrument players on that shitty stage), and good ol’ Maxwell is yet another victim. The screaming, pinwheel-loving-turned-playa porker seem to be everywhere nowadays, inescapable but still as cute as a button. Hate him? Tough luck. Get used to it.
Babe or Maxwell?
- Babe (80%, 37 Votes)
- Maxwell (20%, 9 Votes)
Total Voters: 46
III) Animated Movie Edition
1) Pumbaa (The Lion King) – Ah, Pumbaa, what a wonderful pig! The flatulent but loyal warthog that sticks by Timon’s side may not have all the rocks in his head when it comes to common sense, but he definitely showcases a surprising amount of specific knowledge at random times. He’s big, strong, and easily confused, but when scrounging around for bugs, he’s the best in the business – although he will definitely gorge on his fair share of them.
2) Harry Plopper (The Simpsons Movie) – This extended, 12-dollar-to-see Simpsons episode dropped in this random Homer Simpson gimmick to, basically, use for their commercials. But hey, Harry Plopper is adorable and innocent in all this. And his alter-ego, SpiderPig, is seriously badass with a seriously badass theme song. As much as The Simpsons may have wore out its welcome, Harry Plopper deserves his one spin-off and over-reaching merchandise.
Pumbaa or Harry Plopper?
- Pumbaa (86%, 43 Votes)
- Harry Plopper (14%, 7 Votes)
Total Voters: 50
IV) Animated TV Show Adorable Pet Edition
1) Waddles (Gravity Falls) – A pet pig that Mabel won at a carnival (after a complicated time travel situation), Waddles is clearly the love of Mabel’s life, and often seems to be a great life coach and a remarkably impartial judge. Soos even got to be inside him at one point, and seemed to love everything about him – save for nearly being the meal for some crazy man with a beard.
2) Abner (Hey Arnold!) – Arnold’s pet pig was “bestowed” upon him by his parents, who received him as wedding gift, then promptly disappeared. Abner is an adorable little tyke, seemingly able to tough it out with the other animals in the building. His favorite food is garbage, which is kinda stereotypical, but hey, it returned him to his rightful owner when he went missing.
Waddles or Abner?
- Waddles (63%, 30 Votes)
- Abner (38%, 18 Votes)
Total Voters: 48
V) Video Game Edition
1) Pey’j (Beyond Good and Evil) – The uncle to the plucky protagonist reporter Jade, Pey’j is a brilliant tinkerer and mechanic. He has a gruff, grumpy side but definitely cares for those close to him. He also has a badass leadership side to him, as it is revealed that he is the leader of the IRIS network, the station attempting to expose their DomZ overlords of alien corruption. With a guy so busy, how is it that he’s so fat?
2) Ganon [pig form] (Legend of Zelda games) – Sooooo… Ganon, broadly speaking, seems to be a master of different forms, which more or less depends on which “timeline” of Zelda were dealing with. But classic Ganon was, for the most part, portrayed as a blue vicious pig beast that rained down terror across Hyrule. Which is really odd, since killing him takes a few sword swipes and an arrow. THIS is the scourge that we saved the land from?
Pey'j or Ganon?
- Ganon (68%, 27 Votes)
- Pey'j (33%, 13 Votes)
Total Voters: 40
VI) Wacky Cartoon Edition
1) Porky Pig (Looney Toons) – There was one time that Porky was a fat, stuttering mess. Since then, it seems that he got his life together – he lost weight and got his stuttering under control, transforming it into more of a minor speech impediment. He also went to school and became an accountant, even helping Bugs out on occasion, the same rabbit he often tried to kill and eat. Boy, how times have changed, eh?
2) Hampton J. Pig (Tiny Toons) – Porky’s miniature doppleganger in Spielberg titular foray into after-school animation was a delightful, charming scaredy-cat and neat-freak, who was best friends with the dangerous schemer and manipulator Plucky Duck. Hampton, overall, was not a hugely influential character, but his family (and their outlandish road-trip) single-handedly makes him worthy enough to follow.
Porky or Hampton?
- Porky (81%, 38 Votes)
- Hampton (19%, 9 Votes)
Total Voters: 47
VII) Unimaginative Name Edition
1) Miss Piggy (The Muppets) – The infamous large swine from one of Jim Henson’s greatest creations is a large mouthed pig dedicated to grabbing attention and the affections of her unrequited love, Kermit D. Frog. Her love for the limelight makes her the most delightful and disturbing diva of the entire Muppets clan, but you can’t really call her out on it – she will “HI-YAH!” you clear across the stage. Say what you want about the gal – she can definitely hold her own.
2) Piglet (Winnie-the-Pooh) – Now this was a book worth analyzing – before Disney cleaned it up with songs and color. Winnie-the-Pooh was a goofy, quiet tale of a boy’s in-depth imagination of his stuffed animals – a British Calvin and Hobbes. Piglet himself was an easily scared stuffed piglet, cute as a button, but kinda clumsy and useless when things got hairy. Still, he’s dependable and fairly loyal, whatever that might be worth.
Miss Piggy or Piglet?
- Miss Piggy (68%, 34 Votes)
- Piglet (32%, 16 Votes)
Total Voters: 50
VIII) Military-Ranked, Air Pirate-Fightin’ Edition
1) Porco Rosso (Porco Rosso)- An ex-military WW1 flying ace, Porco Rosso was cursed into pig form after fleeing/surviving an aerial dog fight. The talented “Crimson Pig” battles air pirates and cocky American douche-bags, all while staying away from the Italian Air Force who wants him tried for desertion. Porco was just in a bad situation, made worse by inexplicable divine magic, a shot-down plane, pirates that want him dead, and an Air Force that wants him in jail. He sure seems to take it all in stride.
2) Colonel Spigot (Talespin) – The midget military leader of Thembria’s Air Force is kinda pathetic but exerts his power to the fullest nonetheless, mostly in service to please The High Marshall of Thembria himself (in so much that he isn’t sent to the firing squad). His loyal assistant Sgt. Dunder gets most of the abuse, but Spigot can’t avoid all of it, considering his every move is scrutinizes on the threat of immediate execution.
Rosso or Spigot?
- Colonel Spigot (53%, 20 Votes)
- Porco Rosso (47%, 18 Votes)
Total Voters: 38
Vote early and tell your friends. It’s time to find out which pig is the epitome of anthropomorphic swine in all of entertainment! First round voting will end next Thursday, and results/round two will be revealed on Friday!
Our big picture attempt to critique our social and cultural spheres have led to aggressively ignore other minority voices within them. How the forest for the trees thinking hurt criticism more than we want think.
The Onion called Quvenzhané Wallis a cunt. It was Oscar night, on February 24th, 2013, when the veritable satire site, which was shit-talking the Acadamy Awards along with everyone else on Twitter, dropped the c-word, in an attempt to comically disrupt the over-fawning of the young actress and her first nomination. It went too far, according to many people and many bloggers, and The Onion quickly deleted it and apologized.
Seth MacFarlane sung a song called “We Saw Your Boobs”. It was Oscar night, on February 24th, 2013, when the controversial host did a song-and-dance number recounting the number of times an actress showed her breasts on screen. It went too far, according to many people and many bloggers. No one really apologized for it, although it was definitely discussed in the weeks to come, about its tastelessness and the sad inevitability of it, what with the program’s solely male writers. Everyone hates Seth now, so of course this was the perfect opportunity to rage on him even more, and the egregious problem of male-focused entertainment that is plaguing Hollywood, and the manner in which it curtails the rising concern of the feminine role within it. We need more women in field to prevent, or at least limit, the number of Chauvanisitic and sexist attitudes.
But then The Onion, a few days later, wrote a comical write-up calling attention to is mistake by pretending it didn’t happen. It was funny! And, unlike Seth MacFarlane, we simply, and uncomfortably, never spoke of this again.
Intersectionality has become a serious problem in the realm of new pop culture criticism – the criticisms that now elevates our understanding of what Robert Fisk, in his essay “Television Culture,” called “codes,” the social elements in our pop culture that we take for granted and, at our core, understand without thinking. Codes are why commercials have women hyping cleaning products while in the kitchen and bathroom; if a man does it, he’s portrayed as a bumbling fool or some kind of prodigy. Codes are why KFC and McDonalds use minorities a tad bit more often in their commercials. Codes are why many gay innuendos are portrayed in comic fashion. Codes have been discussed but not called out, and as a result they have infected our criticism more than we wish to care for.
Coined by the feminist sociologist Kimberlé Crenshaw, interesctionality “is a methodology of studying ‘the relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relationships and subject formations’ (McCall 2005). The theory suggests that—and seeks to examine how—various biological, social and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic social inequality. Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and religion- or belief-based bigotry, do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.”
That’s a lot of words. Let’s make it simpler: intersectionality happens when our unilateral focus on a criticism seemingly ignores the full implication of the very essence of the criticism, primarily due to espousing a personal stake within that criticism and masking it as a broad systemic issue. Intersectionality is why when you hear feminism, you are thinking about white women – specifically, affluent, educated, well-spoken, middle/upper-class, adult white women. It’s why you think race is black vs. white only. It’s why sexuality is a gay vs. straight problem, and why Dan Savage doesn’t seem to believe in bisexuality, and why gay people have their own hang-ups with transsexual people, and why even transgendered people have their own hangups with other transgendered people. It’s why the massacre at Newton got a ton of press in relation to gun control, while the ongoing violence in Chicago barely instigated a peep. It’s why when networks and writers demand shows that are “relatable” and themes that are “universal,” they specifically talking about white and affluent. And it’s why the debate continues on today about feminist issues in Hollywood and games, and why the conversation over a small black child being called a cunt maybe lasted about two days. OH ONION, you so cray-cray.
Intersectionality is why there’s a a ton of discussion over the portrayal of a sorcerer’s outfit in Dragon’s Crown (which I discuss below), part of the ongoing discussion of how feminine bodies are portrayed in games, and yet we’ve shrugged off the questionable portrayal of the character of Letitia in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
I. Deus Ex and the Letitia Anomaly
“Well sheeyit!” Letitia says, with an unflattering, kinda-Southern-but-no-where-particularly-specific accent. “If it ain’t the Cap’n, hisself!” Protagonist Jansen meets Letitia digging around in the trash. To get information out of her, you have to get her beer. Not necessarily the bottled beer – the canned stuff is fine. This has, rightly, caused a bit of controversy, over here at GamesRadar, Kotaku, and the soon-to-be-defunct 1up. I’m sure, of course, you forgot all about this. So did the feminist blogs, in their righteous assertion to inject more three-dimensional women into the field and the narratives that fill our games. Letitia certainly represents a lot that feminism strives for. She’s never given as an example. Dimes to a dollar not even Anita Sarkessian will bring her name up.
Letitia continues to speak inexplicably, in a vocal tic one might describe as “just black enough”. She doesn’t even get the “benefit” of being sexualized, a not-deserved attribute given to white women in games. I don’t think I would mind too much if black women were a lot more prominent as significant characters in games, preferably as characters who actually have meaning to the main character and the main plot. (I’d dear not suggest a black female character be the main character in a game, and that’s before I get into a whole ‘nother thing about “light-skinned vs. dark-skinned” debate of the use and portrayal of black characters [specifically for those of you who would offer Jade or Alyx as potential counter examples]). In fact, isn’t she’s the only black female character in the game? In all of Detroit?
Feridah Malik, on the other hand, is probably Arabic, but she was born in Michigan, according to the Wiki. She’s put into a position when you can save her or she dies, which is already dangerous feminist territory, but at least she has a voice and agency as a pilot. Her being (maybe) Arabic has nothing to do with the game, and not to say the game needs to go out their way to instill Arabic-ness into her character, but as a thought experiment: wouldn’t it be nice if Malik said something about her past, about discussing -something- about being Arabic in 2027, giving her another dimension to her character? It would make the stakes in saving her life even higher. But we don’t even get that.
Anita Sarkeesian probably won’t talk about her either.
In the valid push to improve the presentation of female characters within our pop culture sphere, it has become obvious that the racial, class, and sexual elements of feminism has not become part of the discussion. Feminism, like all cultural progressivists, ultimately seek true equality among all people within problematic social areas. But in this “strike while the iron is hot” moment, the voices of other races, creeds, colors, class systems, and sexualities have been dismissed and ignored, and even excessively ridiculed. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the rise of feminist-cultural-improvement, which happily have its supporters in the blogsphere of all types, directly ignored the counter-criticism that directly spoke up addressing this. A fantastic piece over at The Feminist Wire pulls no punches in relation to the Onion’s tweet and the surprising lack of a followup:
“Many white feminists jettisoned the opportunity to think about silence as racism. Instead, they cited examples of white women’s response to defend against the critique of white silence. While it is true that some white feminists publicly responded, the very impulse to deny a pattern of silence sidesteps critical feminist and anti-racist work. The legacy of feminism has taught us to ask: in what ways am I oppressed and marginalized? In thinking about race, racism, and anti-racism within feminism, an equally important question is: in what ways do I oppress and marginalize?”
The critical sphere has gotten questionably silent as the pop culture sphere gotten more and more white and straight. Critics rallied together to bemoan Daniel Tosh’s rape joke (to a white girl), and Jezebel even had the uncomfortable audacity to authorize which comedians (all white, male, famous, and straight, mind you) could joke about rape [this list originally had five comedians; they removed one because commentators rightfully called out that the comedian made third-world country rape jokes]. (And aside: it’s not a coincidence that race/queer issues are discussed quite randomly between Gawker and Jezebel, while Jezebel focuses directly on predominately feminist white women issues). And as bloggers rant how “tired” they are of being random objects of eye candy to a writing field dominated by men, they strangely took comic comfort in the Onion’s retraction/satirical followup (Choice quote: “Focusing on the word “cunt” is a distraction; for example, the Onion debacle kinda overshadowed how sexist the Oscars were overall.” Overshadowed? Isn’t this issue PART of the conversation?). How very funny indeed.
II) The Uncomfortable Cult of Lena Dunham
I truly, truly, wish Lena Dunham success. I hope her show runs several seasons and she continues to win accolades and rewards in the future, leading into a promising, exciting career. But just because she is very talented does not mean her and what her show represents is above criticism. If Ryan Murphy’s portrayal of gay people as comic caricatures (and subsequently his non-portrayal of legitimate gay characters) triggers valid critical responses, then so can her portrayal of being young, female and white (and her non-portrayal of being young, female, and black/gay/etc.).
Be very, very honest with yourself right now. Would you want to watch an HBO show about being young, female, and black in your 20s? I’m black, and I wouldn’t want to watch it. I would be VERY, VERY glad it was on the air, and given I had the time, I would probably make the time to check it out, but it certainly wouldn’t be on my to must-watch list, and I doubt it would be on many critics’ or bloggers’ sphere. The black experience to most people seems inaccessible unless filtered through a white experience, or a white-glossed experience. Anything beyond this is, to white people, stereotypical. It’s not a coincidence that black characters on the shows like House and Elementary and Person of Interest all, strangely enough, come from broken homes and tough upbringings who pushed through it all and became successful. The black story is broken down to WE SHALL OVERCOME. It’s why, when approached with concerns about using more black people in their works, writers dismiss them due to not wanting to make it into an issues-story (black people got issues, ya’ll). It’s why white women are baffled that the First Lady’s efforts focusing on family, gardening, health and childhood obesity is gearing to be her legacy (despite the severe problem that the US has with obesity and health). We’re an uncomfortably long way away from black people being healthy, smart, comfortable in their own skin and go-getting from the start. Remember when Bill Cosby made it a point to have positive black role models in his classic The Cosby Show? Different Strokes, Martin, Living Single, hell, even the misaligned WB programs The Wayans Brothers, The Steve Harvey Show, and The Jamie Foxx Show all came from positive places (despite being problematic in their own ways).
What hurts is how, in the rise of The Golden Age of TV, in the rise of the showrunner-as-auteur and the exposure of the TV show as legitimate pop cultural artifact, in the rise of that very auteur theory of the TV program and the power that it holds, prominent critics have dismissed all this as a product of network/cable decision-making. And, to be fair, it is. But you would think that the onus would be on the critical community to call it out even more, not less. After all, the portrayal of females have reached a breaking point, with filmmakers such as Lena Dunham and Katherine Bigalow receiving just accolades, and the pressure it consistently mounts for the next Bridesmaids. Decision-making hasn’t stopped the voices of (white) feminism, but it seems to befuddle those same voices in relation to the race/sexuality problem.
III) The De-Naming Assault on Tyler Perry, Spike Lee, and Sapphire
In the climactic scene in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, John Proctor signs his name to the false confession of witchcraft, but refuses to give up his name publicly since, at the end of the play, it’s all he has left. He is executed rather than have his name dragged through the mud. I adore Arther Miller’s work. Miller, among other things, understands the importance and value of The Name, the signifier of oneself and how that Name is perceived by not only others, but by yourself. The Name is not a big deal until it IS a big deal. It’s of value to the voiceless, who do not have money or means or power. The Name is what the outcasts have to their… well, name.
It’s why the Kunta Kinta/Toby scene is so crucial in Roots; in his lowest moments, Kunta’s last representation of who he is beaten out of him. His name is gone, and with that, goes everything else. The black experience derive a lot of importance on names, which partially explain why a lot of modern black names seem so strange and confusing, and white people love to make fun of them. But I digress.
So it follows how people, even our most venerable critics, spend an uncomfortable amount of time disparaging the names and titles of the three most well-known black artists in recent memory. The number of parodies that begin “Tyler Perry’s…” or end with “A Spike Lee Joint” or has “Based on a Novel by Sapphire” somewhere in the middle is disconcerting. This isn’t necessarily wrong – parodies can be far-reaching and certainly are allowed the leeway to ridicule anything. But coupled with the already-established lack of understanding (and attempt to understand) the black experience, it’s akin to adding the ridicule on the already intersectional fire.
Tyler Perry is a polarizing figure. His films have a number of detractors, both white and black. Tyler Perry’s power comes in a simple form: he makes cheap movies for a specific audience that always turn a profit. SPOILER: his audience isn’t just black. It’s black ministry, the African-American Christians comprised mostly of older black females (not ironically an oft-ignored demographic from producers and critics alike). Tyler Perry films are the equivalent of Kirk Cameron films – movies of questionable religious/moral ethics – that happen to star black people instead of white people. It’s accusation of minstrelsy, gender problems, and feminine issues are probably as weighted as the similar problems that are in Cameron’s oeuvre, but only speaks to a subset of a group of people (so no, South Park, black people indeed CAN not-laugh at a Tyler Perry caricature).
And as much as I agree with those problems, I’m not sure I can follow through with Joshua Alston’s piece. He makes valid points, specifically about the problematic idea in making AIDS a punishment for infidelity, and for Perry’s films’ strict adherence to gender/sex roles and stereotypes. But his end game seems to be to create a collective, authorizing universal hate on Perry’s works. Which, well, isn’t quite needed, since there is already general hate on his films, although a lot of critics do seem to have problems or issues expressing them fully. But why is the end game to hate his films? I don’t like them, but I’m glad they exist. Perhaps the end game should be what feminism trying to do right now – collectively demanding a stronger voice in the pop culture field (Alston, strangely, downplays the need for more minority voices in the creative/critical community, but then again, so does most of the critical community). Feminists are working on three fronts – 1) support the rise of female entertainers while 2) aggressively attacking the piss-poor representations of women and 3) courting their male cohorts to do the same. The minority critical sphere seems to only be about developing anger towards someone (warranted or not – Spike Lee and Alice Walker got similar responses towards their works) instead of using this moment to build towards more representational. We have one person who made it, let’s push it further. Executives are probably reluctant to hire more black people with bolder and more creative ideas because of how we’re responding to Perry’s work, which forces them to stay within a safe, money-making sphere. Critics are too busy and focused on calling out Perry instead of instigating a push to demand more black (male AND female) voices. And feminists are doing the same thing.
Intersectionality has the critical community in a tough position without not even realizing it. Progressive attitudes have gone from legit concerns to agenda-based assaults. It’s selfishness masked as selflessness. We’ve all, in effect, have become Mad Men’s Pete Campell, and I add myself to that.
IV) Dragon’s Crown and the Non-Debate Debate
Returning to the Dragon’s Crown controversy highlights intersectionality at its most out-of-control form. When Kotaku writer Jason Schreier singled out the outfit of a female sorcerer as a visual so embarrassing that he claims he wouldn’t want to be caught playing it in public, and Destructoid’s Vito Gesualdi followed up with an article literally titled “In Defense of Boobs,” intersectionality has reached its absurd pinnacle. In trying to point out his concerns about the trend of provocatively-dressed women in video games, Schreier makes it oddly personal, calling the artist a 14-year old and getting strangely defensive. Gesualdi defense is too strangely put, less about defending boobs but about the danger of censoring the artistic expression. Gesualdi’s line here represents the entire thing in its absurdity:
“The insinuation [of Scheier’s 14-year old insult], of course, was that only a teenage boy could design something so blatantly over-sexualized, scribbling his depictions of Amazonian fantasy women in a dark corner of the middle-school cafeteria.
“I personally found this joke both lazy and offensive, diminishing the abilities of character designer George Kamitani and missing the obvious elements of parody evident in the art style. See, unlike our fourteen-year-old strawman, Kamitani’s seems entirely aware that his absurd depictions of the female form are beyond even the realm of fantasy, which seems to be the point.”
The lazy, offensive visual of a big-boobed woman (despite the artistic fantasy backdrop, which always had its criticisms as well) is critiqued in a lazy, offensive way, which is called lazy and offensive in… well, a lazy and offensive way. Holy shit.
If you actually look between the two pieces (and the various other pieces that popped up in their wake), you’ll actually notice all this is, at best, tangentially related to feminism or art. It’s really personal preferences and semantics, with a side of various ad hominem attacks, over video game aesthetics. Schreier has a point but muddles it in his WOE AS ME diatribe. Gesualdi refutation emphasizes individualistic art preference without acknowledging that art can be criticized, prompting self-interested fears of censorship. In all this, no one is saying anything ABOUT games, feminism, or progression. These are self-interested worldviews, words concerned less about making a point and more about being louder (how can a piece entitled “In Defense of Boobs” not be?). If you think about it, these two aren’t arguing over anything because neither side’s core points are mutually exclusive. A social concern has become a personal crusade for each writer, which helps neither women nor games.
See also Salon’s outlandish article on Patton Oswalt and rape-jokes, two non-related concepts inexplicably linked. (Oswalt is a comedian and doesn’t have any expectation to open critical discourse on rape jokes, and also, to force a connection between rape culture [systemic] and a violent terrorist act [individualistic] is disingenuous as best).
Two questions come out of all this: 1) why are critics so dismissive of the sheer lack of minority voices with the pop culture/critical sphere, and 2) why are minority critics reluctant to aggressively advocate for them within these spheres?
V) The Bottom Line
The former question, I hate to note, but as implied by section IV) above, has more to do with critical self-interest. Often, commentators toss around the complaint that certain pieces are written (and titled) in such a way to garner a degree of outrage, controversy, and pageviews, which in turn leads to a higher advertising revenue. I don’t personally believe the intent of well-meaning writers is specifically to maximize a hit count. I DO think that, through the lens of intersectionality, critics are keen to capture an element of a current social zeitgeist and delve into the outrage without necessarily working on understanding both sides or exploring it in its entirety. I think that it seems impossible for critics and commentators to not only explore and critique a complex issue without taking an unsubstantiated, singular stance, but to open up the dialectic to acknowledge both sides without getting defensive or sounding aggressive. Criticism isn’t a demand for censorship, but artistic expression does not exist in a void, especially since that expression has, throughout history, has had social/racial/gender/sexist systemic issues (to claim no one criticized Friends for being mostly white, for example, ignores that, yes, there was indeed criticisms of it, and the fact minority shows were relatively plentiful at the time). It’s an issue that’s solvable (or more accurately, can be dealt with) if more creatives AND critics expressed the need for variety in gender/sexist/racial output, but with the critical community going through a powerful surge of readership and sustainability, there’s little incentive to turn the criticism onto itself.
And for those who do… as implied above, there’s a weird hostility. Feminist bloggers often get attacked as “feminazis” or scam artists, but at least their convictions are strong enough, as a collective, to power through it. Not so much with racial critics, as their tones are often refuted as unrighteous anger or dismissed as simply systemic – AKA, racial critics are “just mad” or can’t accept “things the way they are.” I find this deeply troubling, especially as prominent critics lavish in their critical esteem and accolades while occasionally pointing out the flaws in the overall system in which they exist. This flaw trickles down, as feminist critics downplay racial feminist issues, straight critics downplay gay critical issues, gay critics downplay trans/gender issues, and so on. Trickle-down theory works wonderfully when it comes to disavowing entertainment’s serious intersectional problems.
I’m not saying critics need to take such issues as precedent, nor am I saying that creatives should be forced to deal with these issues in their “art,” nor should executives be legally beholden to acquiring talent and media that’s racially/sexually diverse. But in not doing this – even in not dabbling in this – entertainment and art (and the audience’s reception of which) is viciously stifled, more than we want to believe it is, and we just blindly continue praising the current state of things without playing with the social/racial/economic/sexual differences of newer entertainment forms. It took some fifteen years to acknowledge hip-hop as legit musical form, you know.
The crux of all four thousand words of this piece is simple – we can do better, critically and creatively. We need to explore our media and entertainment, and our critical response to our media and entertainment, and constantly ask ourselves how we unconsciously split our approaches and focus on a single idea without acknowledging the full effect of the idea. We need more writers and critics and creatives to take a real, direct moment to look at their production, their products, their output – and take in account how they blind and bind themselves and their work, not only ignoring but actively discourages the roles and positions of other types of people within it. It’s no long about “us vs. them.” It’s “us. vs. ourselves.”
That is intersectionality. Let’s do something about it.