Film Thoughts: Tarantino’s Borrowed Vengeance

Even without knowing that he is a classic scumbag, it can be hard to know what to do with Quentin Tarantino.  From where he began as an indie-darling ‘auteur’ to now, his films have developed an undeniably unique voice, primarily with the aid of ‘chapters’ segmenting the film (also common to Wes Anderson) and most recognizably, highly stylized violence (Wes Anderson, not so much).  The ease and lightheartedness that Tarantino brings to blood and gore make it difficult to distinguish if you’re enjoying yourself or if you’re disgusted.  And perhaps the point is that he lures you into both.

I first watched a Tarantino flick (Pulp Fiction) in the dorm room of a group of boys I knew in college.  I enjoyed it, but I knew immediately that this was a film not only not targeted to me, but I would go so far as to say that it is a film that indulges everything masculine and makes that the point from which the world unfolds.  (Is this the way that straight white men see things by default?  Because – oh god, that’s a terrifying thought.)  Odds are, even 23 years later, you can walk into any odd dorm room inhabited by a man (a boy?) and find Uma Thurman staring off mysterious and lustful on a poster.

The second Tarantino film I saw was Django Unchained (2012), for a history class focusing on violence in pre-Civil War America.  We were meant to watch it and explain our thoughts as they related back to the course, particularly in relation to Tarantino’s revenge narrative.  I remember watching it with alternating confusion and horror in the library on the 3rd floor, totally baffled by what I was supposed to be getting out of this.  With due respect to Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington, (and a little to Leonardo DiCaprio’s dedication in that one scene, I guess) I hated the whole thing.  I had a hard time articulating why, other than the feeling that movies about slavery are supposed to be somber and important.  Especially as a white American, I knew that slavery is the thing you are supposed to hang your head and be quietly sad (or, actually, sadly quiet) about.

The reviews raved that Django was a slavery revenge fantasy.  We could all delight in Foxx destroying the unquestionably evil Calvin Candie and his plantation because we know slavery was wrong and bad.  No moral gray area means you can get on board with the blood and guts with no qualms.

On the one hand, this is totally legitimate.  Slavery is and has been and will always be an incredibly heavy part of American history.  What one can argue Tarantino is doing here is providing a recourse, an alternative history, wherein the enslaved recoup the power and literally take back the agency denied them in real life.  By making it over the top and unthinkingly, amusingly violent, it can be said Tarantino takes that pain and translates it into power, confronts the traumatic past and owns it, sort of like the idea that if we can face our suffering, we can overcome it and tackle it into place in a narrative of our choosing.

I don’t mean to say on some level this isn’t true, or that there are no redeeming qualities to Tarantino’s depictions of slavery and the South, or whatever fantastical, exaggerated facsimiles he created thereof.  But for me, it rings hollow.

The reason is because Tarantino is a white man.

It’s one thing to have and to create a revenge fantasy, but it is another entirely when the revenge is not your own.

Tarantino’s Trio of revenge

Tarantino’s politics are another thing that make him a bit of a slimy character.  I recently rewatched Resevoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), and I was admittedly taken aback by the language that he used – not just the prolific amount of f-bombs, but also the liberty he took with using the n-word and the word ‘bitch’.  He has argued in the past that his lexical freedoms are a way of representing historical accuracy, which, maybe he could get away with in Django (although please call up Steve McQueen for a lesson on tact, pronto), but really doesn’t hold water for Resevoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, set as they are in the present (or, now, the 90s).

Some have accused Tarantino of wanting to be Black and/or acting it out, somewhat farcically.  But the truth is, Tarantino is not black, and Django is a revenge fantasy appropriated to earn him nearly $450 million worldwide.

I have a problem with Tarantino, a white man, making a slavery revenge film because (and do I really need to say this?), he has never had to deal with the cultural baggage and the historical trauma inherent in this period of American history.  It means almost nothing for him, again, as a white man, to make light of the past.  White people have been trying to claim slavery ‘wasn’t that bad’ since before slavery even got going.  Tarantino can disregard the complex systems that have continued to oppress African Americans in present times and make up a slave revolt that is more ‘bloody romp’ than ‘righteous revenge’.  And the really skeevy thing, of course, is that he is making money on this, selling shallowly entertaining, ultra-violent, surface recreations of stories that are not his own.

Additionally, Tarantino is neither Jewish, nor a woman, and yet we have Kill Bill (2003) and Ingloious Basterds (2009), another set of revenge narratives.  (Full disclosure, I actually liked Inglorious Basterds and in light of recent news, do not ever see myself watching Kill Bill).

What I mean to say is, there is a double-edged sword to a white, Gentile man making a film that not only avenges the Holocaust, but in its insular timeline, erases it altogether.  Punching Nazis is good.  Assassinating Hitler is great.  Alternative histories are tricky because they’re just that, raising the question of how much of reality we can eschew without disrespect to the past.  Can violence and alternate narratives, then, be cathartic?  And if so, does it matter who the retelling is coming from?  Can Tarantino trim the narratives of others (specifically, marginalized groups to which he does not belong) to fit in his spaghetti western package and sell them back, whether or not they’re fulfilling/cathartic to watch?

I don’t know.  And obviously, many of these are experiences I can’t really speak to.  I do believe it’s a problematic little set-up though.  Especially now, with TimesUp and #MeToo, and literal physical violence Tarantino committed against Uma Thurman on the set of Kill Bill.  Or the comments resurfacing in which he defended Roman Polanski’s assault of a young girl, claiming that statutory rape isn’t real violence (see the link to Jezebel above).

Oh, Mr. Tarantino.

Have you considered that the villains in your films are really just you?


Film Thoughts: Reflections on Moonlight and Hype, One Year Later

A year ago, when we were gearing up for the Oscars, I don’t think anyone truly believed Moonlight – the vignette re-telling of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,  the heartbreaking and poignant story of a young gay black man’s struggle with masculinity, poverty, and internalized homophobia – could win Best Picture.  Nobody saw it.  And by nobody, I mean, for all of the “importance” heaped on it by the media, people didn’t flock to the theaters.

If you’ll excuse the presence of Aziz Ansari, this SNL sketch basically sums it up. 

La La Land was the big film of the year.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I  love La La Land.  I saw it twice in theaters.  It makes me so happy, I’d even go so far as to use the word ‘giddy’. And everyone expected La La Land to dominate at the Oscars, and to very likely win Best Picture.  Everyone saw it.

And then came the Oscar ‘flub’.

(I mean, at least Damien Chazelle and everyone was gracious about it, but.)

Here’s the thing – Moonlight was the better and more deserving film by far.  It is beautiful and thoughtful and carefully paced, but more than that, it commits to film a story that is almost never told, one of a queer black man coming of age and how the intersections of his identities are compounded into invisibility.  Not only does he contend with toxic masculinity, but he must do so in a way that also deals with what it means to be a young black man.  This film fleshes out the stereotypes of black poverty and refutes them, showing us humans where caricatures reside – Juan deals drugs, but takes care of Chiron when he is Little, makes painful small efforts to protect him from the homophobia he is already beginning to feel.  Teresa is warm and self-sufficient.  Paula, Chiron’s mother, realistically swings between attentive to Little and frantic in her drug use, to ultimately on a path of redemption as Chiron becomes Black.  None of them are one note characters who inhabit the mythos of black criminality and primitivism America likes to sell.  This movie struggles with what it means to be visible/invisible, to suffer the internal conflict of self versus society, this movie is so, so, so, so important and beautiful and painful, and words cannot even express the significance of its having been made, much less having been awarded Best Picture.  (Just listen to the end credits suite. This music encapsulates the feelings of the film so well) ( Also, as you’re listening, give a thought to the three part structure of the suite and the three part framing of Chiron’s life.  Damn, that’s powerful.)

Last year, I was surprised at how angry some people got at the Best Picture flub, given that it was what I saw as an honest mistake.  But I’ve come to agree that there is so much more laden deep within these confusing 2 minutes that speaks volumes about the devaluation of black artistry in America.

First of all, consider the fact that everyone involved in announcing Best Picture took it so far for granted that La La Land would be the winner that no one even noticed at first that the wrong name was read.  This is the kind of movie that the Academy loves, with its Hollywood-darlings as stars, its inoffensive and accessible (for white people) premise.  People didn’t believe in Moonlight’s Best Picture potential, not because it wasn’t good enough, but rather because it is so far out of the ken of the people who reliably bring you #OscarsSoWhite every single year.  Moonlight is uncomfortable, particularly for white people, and it doesn’t try to make nice and end with a bow and wrapping paper.  It leaves serious questions asked and unanswered that force us to consider empathy and otherness.  So it seemed obvious, it seemed default, that even though Moonlight is the superior picture, La La Land would win.

In and of itself, this is deeply insulting, because it means we know as a society, that regardless of quality, whiteness wins.

And so, yes, it was a big deal that La La Land overshadowed Moonlight’s victory, because it is a symbol of our communal lack of respect for black artists.  It tells us that when we recognize black excellence, we do it tongue in cheek, a sly pat on the back that says, ‘Thanks for making that to be consumed by us white folks, now move along’.  We don’t allow it a platform to shine for what it is.  Moonlight‘s Oscar win will never be completely its own – it will always also be ‘the year La La Land didn’t win’.

Today (because somehow I’ve missed this until now) I watched the video for Jay-Z’s “Moonlight” off of 4:44.  

It rips on a fictionalized African American version of Friends for claiming to be ‘subversive’ (though, I’ll be honest, I’d definitely watch Issa Rae and Tiffany Haddish if they did do some kind of Friends sitcom reboot… but that’s way beside the point).  As it dawns on Jerrod Carmichael that what they’re doing is essentially acting out a pantomime of whiteness (what’s up, Patricia Hill Collins!), he walks off the set and through a kind of portal into a park under a full moon.  The audio of La La Land ‘winning’ best picture plays over the title card of both the song and the rightful winner – Moonlight.  The one to do the work and get little of the credit.  It’s intense.  And if you consider the sitcom Living Single, which featured a similar setup to Friends, and actually pre-dated it, with an all-black main cast, the point is pretty clear.  Look at this lyric:

We stuck in La La Land,

Even when we win, we gon’ lose

I’ve been thinking a lot about Moonlight as we’ve gone into awards season.  I watched it again recently, the first time I’ve seen it since I went to see it in theaters, and it impacted me more, if not just as much as the first time.

The thing on my mind has been how Moonlight was production company A24’s first best picture, but this year, Lady Bird became the company’s highest grossing film.  For some reason, I can’t get my head around that, because even though I think it’s spectacular to see a female-directed, female-fronted movie garnering so much support, it doesn’t tell a new story.  It’s white-teenage-girl-unpopular-and-misunderstood-grows-up-and-learns-to-love-her-mom.  Do I need to go see this movie?  Man, I’ve lived it, and it wasn’t even all that exciting the first time.  The movie version was… okay.  Mediocre.  I’ve seen it before.

I can’t find the article I read a while back, but essentially, it argued that Lady Bird, like La La Land, is a far less accomplished and significant film than Moonlight, but because Lady Bird centers around a white protagonist, it can get away with it.  Lady Bird, because it is about a white person, does not have to be as good as Moonlight in order to win.

It’s a common thread you see when you examine race and black success in any field.  To be considered good at what you do for a person of color, you don’t just need to be great or talented – you need to be damn near flawless.  This attitude of black exceptionalism destructively claims talent for white people alone… except for those few guys who did that one good thing one time.  But again, we move them right along.  It ignores that black excellence and artistry exists everywhere, and is often the precursor to something white people think is great.  (See: jazz, hip hop, rock and roll, Friends, comfort food, LGBT activism, etc.)

And this is why, still, a year later, Moonlight‘s Oscar moment matters.

It’s a white person’s world… even when black people win, they lose.


Gun Control Is About More Than Blame

I make it a general rule that I don’t get into Facebook fights with people I haven’t talked to in 5 years, if I ever did when I actually knew them.  But this piece of stupidity, out of all of the blog posts I have wanted to write recently, is the thing that spurred me into action.

I’m not going to argue with this unfriended-nameless person directly, but like hell if I’m letting it go.  She posted:

“No one blames the gun when a cop shoots someone.  Let that sink in.”

Dear fucking lord.

There are so many things to be addressed here that we need to break it down.  Obviously, this is in reference to the Florida school shooting that happened last week and the rightful resurgence it has brought in the debate on gun control.

The primary contradiction translates to this: “if liberals want gun control in the wake of a mass shooting, why not when a cop kills someone?  If a cop kills someone and is held personally responsible, why are we focusing on gun control and not the shooter themself?”


This post suggests we shouldn’t blame the gun.  Nobody, and let this sink in, is attempting to blame a gun as if it were an automaton or we were all living in a very messed up version of Toy Story.  Nobody is claiming the gun got up on its own one day and decided to murder some children.  What we are arguing, Karen, is that if access to guns was a little more restricted, people wouldn’t be able to pop over to Walmart any time they have a violent urge.

This post suggest cops do get blamed when they shoot someone (which… well… look at the conviction statistics on that.)  Here’s a fundamental difference though: cops literally have training not to shoot people.  It’s literally in opposition to their supposed purpose to shoot people.  When a cop shoots someone, they’ve made a judgement call to end someone’s life, hypothetically for the safety of the community at large.  We all accept that cops have guns, and when we talk about gun control, it is largely around public use and control of firearms.  So no, we don’t blame the gun when a cop shoots someone, because cops are the ones who are supposed to be able to use them responsibly.

No one blames the gun when a cop shoots someone, because the authorities in our society who are supposed to be able to use firearms responsibly primarily shoot people of color – overwhelmingly black and indigenous people, trans people, disabled people, those with mental health issues, etc., etc.  Guns aren’t the ones holding those biases.

(Side not on this person’s grammatical choices: when a cop shoots someone.  Smell that inevitability.  Not if a cop happens to shoot someone, but when.  Notice the lack of reflection on whether cops should be shooting people at all.)

Whether or not cops should have guns, the debate, and the point this post is missing, is that we’re talking the public at large.  The NRA has a loud and very public hand in politics, making sure guns are accessible and easily obtainable.  Gun control is about shutting down opportunities for mass shootings before they can happen.  We take it for granted in our society that cops will not commit mass shootings.

This post suggests then, that we should be blaming that shooter for the terror he caused in Florida, which is true, because he was the single perpetrator.  You want to blame the individual?  Okay.  But how’s your special snowflake approach to white terrorists going?  We are already treating school shooters like we treat cops by pretending we can excuse them on a one by one basis, primarily by putting it off on mental illness rather than access to firearms.  In other words, we treat each school shooting like a bizarre and isolated event, rather than a systemic problem.  And thanks to this brilliant strategy, we have had just eighteen (18!)  My god, aren’t we progressive?

I will make this simple: if nothing else, diagnosing these men with schizophrenia or autism or whatever condition you want to villainize this week, has not reduced the number of school shootings.  Do you know what would?  NOT HAVING GUNS!  

By all means, let’s have better mental health care.  But when we are talking about mass shootings, it’s beside the point and it’s a pretty shitty lock on the barn door after the horse has already escaped, and puts the tendency toward violence on innocent people trying to take care of their health, rather than on the actual reactionary, racist, terrorist organizations that shooters, like this one, have ties with.

Because if we had gun control, if the FBI had followed protocol (which is the least and most basic of job requirements, for god’s sake), the shooter would not have had access to a gun, which had bullets, which killed people.

The survivors, bless them, are not silent and suffering victims.  I’m so proud and so inspired and so determined when I see their immediate push back on those offering their ‘thoughts and prayers’, on those arguing that ‘we need to give the victims time before we bring up the politics of gun control’.  These brilliant, incredibly strong students know the rhetoric and have contested it, starting within hours of the shooting itself.

I’m sick of watching kids getting killed.  And I’m sick of backwards arguments like these that forget that having a gun is the first step toward using one.  We have to acknowledge the complexities and intersections that come with gun issues, whether it is police brutality or a mass shooting – but one does not cancel out the other.

The Solidarity of the Internet Generation

“Africa” by Toto is the greatest song ever made.

I couldn’t tell you precisely why, but it’s a fact that anyone born between, say, 1980 and 2005 has collectively accepted to be true.  Whether on twitter and tumblr and instagram and vine and snapchat, you can find this kind of discussion all over the internet.  The irony of choosing a song that came out early in (if not before) our lives reveals a lot, I think, about the zeitgeist of a generation entering adulthood.

Yes, this is yet another essay on millennials and their younger counterparts, but no, I’m not planning on listing all of the decrepit institutions we are killing off.  This is a generation being reported on in an unprecedented way – not because previous generations didn’t think youth culture wasn’t newsworthy, but because in the age of the internet and the 24 hour news cycle, there are more people saying more things about us than about any other age group in history.  They wonder why we aren’t buying (uh… no money ?), why we aren’t conforming to our parents consumer habits (again, um, please just think about that), why our priorities are out of line with the traditional American dream.

There is a great article, on Thought Catalog I believe, that digs into why 90s kids are so unanimously and deeply nostalgic.  A tl;dr for you all: we were born in a moment of rapid change, where we went from cord phones to cell phones, dial up to wireless, a mixture of cultural elements drifting from the 80s while screeching toward the millennium.  It’s not at all surprising that we long for the days we grew up in, if not even earlier, when we have felt our lives accelerating non-stop, the exponential shrinkage of time combining with the compacting of a globalized world.  It’s not surprising, particularly when so many issues that have been simmering at the surface have begun to boil… perhaps because no one older than us was watching the pot.  This generation is more fluent (I write, perhaps idealistically) in the languages of social justice, gender, race, sexuality, mental health, and ability than our parents’.  It’s a blatant, useless, and potentially dangerous generalization to argue that this makes us more liberal as a generation, implying all young people are liberal (and I shudder to say this, but we can look at Trump’s supporters to see this is false), but I will argue that we are exposed to these dialogues far earlier and far more consistently.  I had never considered white privilege in high school.  Never had a conversation about sexuality, never even heard of a spectrum beyond the gender binary.  My dear friend Mia, who is a junior in high school this year, not only is aware of these things, but discusses and advocates for the rights of the people concerned.  At 16, she is learning to think critically about identity.  On the other hand, I didn’t go to my first protest until January of last year, at 22.

The thing that is important to consider here is this: our parents didn’t teach us any of these things.  Our teachers largely did not politicize their history lessons to bring us the stories of people of color or explain to us the endless variety of ways gender and sexuality can be expressed.  Some of us didn’t even get factual sex-ed.  And no one, no one, spoke to us about mental health, encouraged us to take care of ourselves, to find ways to create our own wellness.  Becoming an adult is hard enough, and sure, Boomers, giver yourselves a pat on the back for getting through it.  But we are coming of age in a time where information is compressed and coming to us in a constant bombardment.  Unlike anyone before us, we cannot get away from the news.  We are coming of age in a time where our futures seems increasingly unlikely, whether from global warming or the increasingly rigorous expectations from the workforce, or the threats being made to policies our parents have been able to rely on, and it’s hard not to feel like we’re being sabotaged by the people who promised to take care of us when we were younger.  Sort of like swearing there are enough lifeboats on the Titanic, but cutting empty ones loose when it comes time for the ship to sink.

So we’ve educated each other.

When Boomers report on this generation, they see sloth, entitlement, laziness, greed.

When I think about it, I am astounded because we have innovated and used the tools at our disposal to create communities where we feel gaps, discourse where our education is lacking, support for total strangers and causes that we can only know about because of the internet.  A study came out recently, claiming that millennials are the least charitable generation in decades.  And perhaps we don’t have the funds to give twenty bucks a month to ASPCA or the Red Cross or what-have-you.  But what I have seen is the intense effort to pass along strangers’ stories until they reach someone who can help.  What I have seen is crowdfunding to find the money for someone’s insulin, or their therapy, or a surgery for their pet.  We are compelled to reach toward each other.  And so I believe that study is bunk.  Our charity is the most interpersonal charity a generation has had in decades.

The internet has given us a shared language that can be understood around the world like never before.  Social media (with (sorry) the exception of Facebook) has become a place of cultural exchange and creation that is absolutely unique.  To whatever extent that people are involved with these platforms, most have an understanding, if not a direct participation in the shaping of humor, lexicon, discourse.  We enjoy and use fatalistic humor.  We know acronyms and understand variations on linguistics, even when we haven’t seen them before.  Millennial culture depends on a rich underpinning of interconnected jokes and beliefs and concepts that are often meta and self-referential and wordlessly complex.

And this, my friends, is why I love memes – because they are a distilling of years worth of references into a common expression; an in-joke between thousands and thousands of people.  Their implicit, rather than explicit, nature of presentation (for example, the collective decision that this year, “elf practice” would become a meme without any single person deciding so (and again, this relates back to the whole nostalgia thing)) means that they are enriched by background knowledge, but not exclusively decipherable because of it.  Nobody understands memes when they first come into existence, but we incorporate them into our cultural knowledge without needing explanation.  How cool is that?

And so, this is why, from time to time, I am in awe of our imperfect, fractured, sometimes downright fucked (or fucked up) generation.  We have created places for ourselves and a dadaist approach to meaning on a massive, collective scale, and that’s kind of amazing.  Because each time I laugh at a meme, I know I’m a part of a community larger than just me.  And then I go listen to Toto.

This is not justice

It has been two weeks since Jeronimo Yanez was found not guilty in the death of Philando Castile.

He had been charged with second-degree manslaughter (specifically meaning the defendant caused a death through recklessness) and endangering safety by discharging a firearm.

And I repeat: Yanez was cleared on all charges.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when an officer uses a weapon and it results in somebody’s death, it seems like that somebody’s safety has definitely been ‘endangered’.

We should be enraged at the implication that the court did not even consider Philando a somebody.  He worked at a school.  People knew him.  People loved him.  I was teaching in Minnesota when the shooting took place, and some of my kids had had many interactions with him.  They lived just blocks from where all this took place.

But this is the thing with black bodies: the state does all it can to avoid recognizing them as human.  Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was in the car when the officer shot him, and began livestreaming immediately afterwards.  You can hear her, sitting next to her boyfriend’s bloody body, saying, “You shot four bullets into him, sir.”  She says ‘sir‘.  She says ‘sir’ at the end of every one of her sentences.  In the midst of this traumatic and horrific moment, Diamond Reynolds had the presence of mind to use to term of respect and deference to the man who had just shot her boyfriend.  This shows both great strength on her part, and the depth to which people of color know that their survival depends on successful and defused interactions with the police.  You find this lesson again and again in black history.  To be considered even barely human, people of color must follow all of the rules of white society better than perfectly.  At the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, black students wore their Sunday best to sit-ins.  Women got their hair done each time.  And still, for all this ‘civilized’ behavior, they were spit on and attacked and screamed at.

Perhaps Philando had a gun in the car (which, under the 2nd Amendment, mind you, is perfectly legal).  Perhaps he had marijuana.  These ought to be irrelevant details, because had Philando Castile been white, they would not have gotten him killed.  At worst, he would have been fined.

A few months after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, I remember having a conversation with my mother about the officer, Darren Wilson.  He claimed that he had been frightened for his own safety when he shot Brown.  We sat in a Panda Express watching him speak on Fox News, and discussed how this murder was racially motivated even while from his own perspective, Wilson was likely telling the absolute truth about being afraid.  The stereotype of black men as dangerous and violent is so deep and so ingrained in the American imagination, that when Wilson encountered Michael Brown, all of these unconscious alarms started going off in his head.  I do not doubt his fear was real.  But its basis is a lie constructed on centuries of oppression.  As wrong, as terrible as his actions were, I could follow the logic that had motivated Darren Wilson.

I feel no such empathy now.

There have been too many acquittals, too many repetitions.  The precedent is now that police officers that kill people of color face no repercussions.  They are overwhelmingly found innocent and sent on their way, and nothing changes, and black people keep dying.  They’re often not even charged of murder.

Yanez faced the charge of second-degree manslaughter.  Recklessness resulting in death.  But keep in mind, Yanez shot Castile not once, not twice, but four times.  How can recklessness possibly explain pulling the trigger four times?  It can hardly be considered an accident.

I feel no such empathy, because we cannot keep explaining away individual cop’s motivations, their trains of logic.  The fact that this keeps happening, despite media coverage, despite protests, despite literal footage of cops shooting African Americans with zero justification, and that they keep getting away with it, is indicative of a far, far, far larger problem systemic in America’s policing and judicial institutions.  They are by nature, racially biased.

Philando Castile was guilty of nothing.  He was reaching for his wallet, like he was asked by Jeronimo Yanez, like you are supposed to do when you get pulled over by a cop.  For that, he was killed, and for that there has been no justice.  These are murders, straight up.  The longer we deny that, the closer we get each day to court-excused genocide.


Film Thoughts: The Shining and Shelley Duvall

I want to start by getting the Stanley Kubrick hagiography out of the way, because this post is not about him: The Shining is a brilliantly realized film, the use of colors, angles, and space are all innovative and smart, and it succeeds at being very creepy.

Okay, done.  Enough of that.

If you’re not familiar with The Shining, here’s a quick recap: based on Stephan King’s bestselling novel, the film is about a family of three – Jack, Wendy, and their young son Danny- who move into an old Colorado hotel for the winter, where Jack has been hired as caretaker.  They are completely isolated, which isn’t so great, because the hotel is kind of evil, Danny is kind of psychic, and Jack, a kinda recovering alcoholic with anger issues, slowly descends into murderous insanity.  You might notice that Wendy is nowhere to be found in that last sentence.  Keep it in mind.

Horror films are infamous for their poor treatment of women, including weak characterization, sexualization and objectification, and subsequent bloody deaths.  The tropes are so standard in the film industry that Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods, a parody of the teen horror genre, specifically lampshades the virgin/slut, life/death dichotomy.

Of course, The Shining is not a teen horror film, and Kubrick’s approach to the film was specifically to break the molds of horror movies that were cementing even in 1980.  However, misogyny plagues the film, from its making to its characterization, to its reception even today in the viewing public.

In the book, Wendy is, yes, a mother and wife, doing her best to deal with the issues of a tenuous marriage while taking care of her son.  She stays with Jack through his anger and alcoholism, not because she’s stupid, but because she legitimately has nowhere else to go.  She stands up to her husband and keeps an eye out for the return of reasons for divorce, although she simultaneously hopes for the best, trying to ignore the discomfort of potential dangers ahead.  She is allowed significant chunks of narration, and we know she doesn’t simply just follow her increasingly abusive partner around unthinkingly.

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In the movie, Wendy is played by Shelley Duvall.  Kubruck characterizes Wendy as indecisive, jittery, and weak, and I get the sense he blames her for just being in a bad relationship.  She stays because she’s impossibly fragile.  What’s more, Kubrick centers the blame on her lack of ultimatums toward Jack, as opposed to, oh I don’t know, Jack’s abusive behavior itself?  Even as Jack becomes more and more violent, we don’t hate him, whereas it’s easy to condescend to the pathetic and sometimes blandly frightened reactions of Wendy.

Stephen King, who famously hates the popular 1980 adaption of his book, has said of Kubrick’s Wendy that she is “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film. She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid and that’s not the woman that I wrote about.”

Watch practically any YouTube video about The Shining, and you will see plenty of hate directed at Wendy/Shelley Duvall.  Some people out there like Kubrick’s Wendy and Duvall’s performance; however there’s no lack of viewers that consider Wendy to be weepy, overplayed, and boring, and they tend to blame this on Duvall as an actress.

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It has come out over the years that during the filming of The Shining, Kubrick terrorized, verbally abused, and isolated Duvall.  He refused to give her any praise for her acting, ordering other not to “sympathize with Shelley”, constantly criticized her performances, ideas, and suggestions, and condoned her when she didn’t have the latest version of the constantly changing script.  Duvall told Roger Ebert that their were periods where she spent ’12 hours a day crying’, and she can be seen on behind-the-scenes footage showing Kubrick and Jack Nicholson tufts of hair she was losing due to the stress of filming.  And that’s not even mentioning the scene where Wendy confronts Jack on the stairs with a baseball bat, which Kubrick forced Duvall and Nicholson to do 127 times.

By contrast, Nicholson described Kubrick as “warm”.

Do I even have to say it?

It honestly enrages me that people have the gall to critique Shelley Duvall.  If her acting is indeed weak, it’s because she was being terrorized by a misogynistic director for months on end.  If her character is weak, it’s because Kubrick wrote her that way.

In the meantime, the brilliance of the film has been accredited to, (who else?), two men.  Praise is lavished on Kubrick for his control and style.  Fans say that it is Nicholson’s impeccable acting that make it so frightening and exciting.  Duvall sits through all of the adoration of the men around her (she actually calls it sycophantic) and demurely says only, “Of course, I get a little jealous.”  Kubrick and Nicholson have monopolized the narrative surrounding the making of the film.  The months of intense work Duvall put into The Shining have been washed over, or worse, labeled lazy, bad acting, annoying.

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And even worse than that is the posthumous adulation that Kubrick receives, while Duvall’s mental illness is exploited on daytime TV, like her recent appearance on Dr. Phil.  Did filming The Shining cause Duvall’s mental illness?  No, probably not entirely.  But was there an underlying condition she had that was gravely aggravated by Kubrick’s enforced ‘method acting’?   I don’t doubt it.

One of Kubrick’s daughters has sought to raise money on Duvall’s behalf, speaking out against her Dr. Phil appearance.  I may be wrong, but in this I see an act of repentance.

Just one more thing: while researching for this post, I stumbled across a short essay by Danielle R. Pearce (you can find it on her Tumblr).  In this essay, she argues that Kubrick’s “complex use of misogyny can be attributed to his authorial signature – one of using cinema to explore and develop understandings of humanity and the self.”  Pardon my french, but this is bullshit.  Kubrick’s ‘understandings of humanity and the self’ are not about humanity, they’re about men.  And believe it or not, you can make movies about men and misogyny without making them misogynistic.  Rather, Kubrick uses women across his canon as mainly objects and plot points for his male protagonists (in The Shining, we have only Wendy, who’s there as helpless audience surrogate, the female doctor, and if you really want to stretch it, the woman in the bathtub).  This isn’t a complex use of misogyny.  It’s just plain ol’ misogyny.  The fact that he has been lionized and enshrined by the academy does not make this acceptable.

Shelley Duvall deserves far better.

On Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche and Laverne Cox


Laverne Cox at Paley Fest for Orange is the New Black – Wikipedia Commons

I was really disappointed to hear about the controversy facing Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche surrounding her comments on the place of trans women within feminism.

I read Adiche’s Americanah earlier this year and thought she wrote brilliantly about race and nationality, I have heard her TED Talk about diversity in literature, you might remember her collaboration with Beyonce and her famed talk about feminism.

The source of the controversy is this: Adiche claimed that trans women experience male privilege because they are not assigned female at birth.

I’ve spent some time thinking about this.  As a cis-woman, assigned female at birth and still identifying that way, I understand what Adiche says and I will admit, the question has crossed my mind – do trans women experience male privilege?

However, embedded in this question is the very heart of the oppression that trans people face.  By asking if a trans woman (who doesn’t try to pass, who has not yet transitioned if they plan to, who was assigned male at birth) if she/they has experienced male privilege, we are revoking the idea that this person is a legitimate woman.  That they are not naturally and fundamentally a woman.  It says that once you were a man, and so you are not completely in league with ‘us’ who have been women our whole lives (who are ‘actually’) women.

TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminism) is an ideology that has its own system of logic, even if it’s oppressive (and we must remember that systems of oppression do operate on a certain kind of logic, even though that logic depends on a perverted and flawed worldview).  In resisting misogyny and patriarchal oppression, cis-women have pulled back into their own community, one that says this is us, women, and that is them, men.  In creating that distinction cis-women defaulted to the biological ‘origins’ of gender, the difference upon which we see our oppression as having been built  on.  Holding onto this makes it nearly impossible to be trans-inclusive, because no matter how ‘womanly’ a trans woman is, she was one of them at some point.  Cis-women want to guard their community from the oppressors.  This is understandable.

But it’s wrong.

TERF ideology posits that trans women experience male privilege, but this ignores the reality that gender oppression hurts everyone because it is based on a rigid binary that everyone is expected to adhere to.  This means that cis men, despite the power they hold, are also dehumanized because they are expected to be unerringly masculine, unemotional, etc., and when they or anyone else assigned male at birth fail to exhibit these traits, they are subjected to a range of oppression meant to bring them back in line with the binary.

Trans women never get to experience male privilege because they are constantly critically evaluated by society’s gender binary, seen as not masculine enough, and punished for it.  Laverne Cox addressed this in a series of tweets recently that I’ll link below.  She writes that in her childhood, when she was considered a boy by society, she was never masculine enough, and now, ironically, cis-feminists struggle to consider her feminine enough, even though she is a woman.

TERF ideology is damaging to women.

Trans women are women.  Period.  It’s not up to me or any other cis woman to decide that.  We are not the gatekeepers of ‘actual’ womanhood, deciding who gets to be in the club.  When we do so, we become the oppressors.  Defining gender from reproductive organs is already arbitrary – who says one is male and one is female?  They’re just body parts.  Trans women don’t have to pass as ‘female’ because they already are.

Trans women are women.

I don’t like the recent uptick in articles that say “if you’re not ___, you’re doing it wrong” because I think it’s negative and prohibits the growth and learning of potential allies and communication between sides, but I will say this: if you are not at the very least trying to understand that trans women have every right and every place within feminism (as difficult an idea as that may be for you to wrap your head around), your feminism contributes to a system of oppression.  If you are not reaching out and trying to learn, there’s a good chance your feminism only serves yourself.  It may be uncomfortable to rearrange your definitions of gender, but all of us suffer when we continue to live under the old ones.

To read more, follow the links below:

Laverne Cox’s tweets about her experiences growing up: 

Huff Post’s coverage of Adiche’s comments w/ video of Adiche’s interview & tweets from transgender activist Raquel Willis

If you want to learn more about the experiences and history of trans women start with these links: