Thursday, May 31, 2012

Do Babies Ever Stop Being Heartstoppingly Wonderful?

this is the daughter of one of my former students. she'd just had small surgery at the hospital and was doing fine.  the outfit and pose make her look like a tiny nun praying her thanks for her easy surgery. i am sure that her beauty, composure, and utter adorableness are the direct result of her mother having been in one of my classes ten years or so ago.  what else could explain it?

Monday, May 28, 2012

May 28, 2012

To those we are "remembering" today: if you died truly believing that you were helping the rest of us, what can i do but thank you, mourn you, and wish you comfort in the next life. But I do not believe you were helping us, and I wish you were still here among us. for those who were truly heroic, i thank you for your heroism. for those who were there b/c economics made it appear your best survival option, i mourn you as well. i believe you were all victims of a government and of an economic system that has betrayal of its citizens built into it. My brother died years ago, probably as a result of war: he had been in an area of vietnam sprayed with agent orange. i have no need to try and remember him today: i remember him and mourn him every day of my life. But i will not confine my memory or my grief to american military victims. i do not believe any one human life is intrinsically more valuable than any other, and so remember and mourn also the soldiers of the countries we have fought, who died probably in the same convictions that spur american soldiers to die. and i also remember and mourn the civilian victims of all our wars, killed by soldiers, by war-caused famine, by all the other horrors that war brings with it. If we are to dedicate a day to memorialize our war dead, let it be not through depersonalizing sentimentality, but with real grief for the tragedy of their deaths, whoever they are, whatever they did.
 ·  ·  · 3 minutes ago · 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Glory of the Day

194. Harry Wilmans

I WAS just turned twenty-one,
And Henry Phipps, the Sunday-school superintendent,
Made a speech in Bindle’s Opera House.
“The honor of the flag must be upheld,” he said,
“Whether it be assailed by a barbarous tribe of Tagalogs         5
Or the greatest power in Europe.”
And we cheered and cheered the speech and the flag he waved
As he spoke.
And I went to the war in spite of my father,
And followed the flag till I saw it raised  10
By our camp in a rice field near Manila,
And all of us cheered and cheered it.
But there were flies and poisonous things;
And there was the deadly water,
And the cruel heat,  15
And the sickening, putrid food;
And the smell of the trench just back of the tents
Where the soldiers went to empty themselves;
And there were the whores who followed us, full of syphilis;
And beastly acts between ourselves or alone,  20
With bullying, hatred, degradation among us,
And days of loathing and nights of fear
To the hour of the charge through the steaming swamp,
Following the flag,
Till I fell with a scream, shot through the guts.  25
Now there’s a flag over me in Spoon River!
A flag! A flag!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Drop Dead Diva

When I posted here about women in TV drama, I managed to completely forget one of the best shows on TV. Lifetime channel has almost redeemed itself, after the end of all its wonderful 1990s show.  “Drop Dead Diva” began in 2009 and went into its fourth season summer 2012.  The show starts on a supernatural premise, but once it moved past its first few episode, the show was solidly settled in this world.  The premise is that two women who are strangers are killed at the same time: Deb is a gorgeous, vapid blonde model in her early 20s; Jane a pretty but quite fat genius lawyer in her 30s.  Due to a heavenly mix-up, the real  Jane dies and the real Deb survives, but Deb ends up in Jane’s body. Since the brain is part of the body, Deb discovers that she had acquired Jane’s intellect and her knowledge, and finds herself a star lawyer in a successful law firm.  She also discovers that fat women are treated far differently than thin young models.  Brooke Eliot is amazing as this hybrid Deb/Jane.  The thought of being fat horrifies Deb more than her escape fro death pleases her. 

It’s a show with a message, presented with palatable humor and charge.  Deb’s grieving fiancĂ©, who works at Jane’s firm, befriends Jane, but never sees through her hefty body to the soul of the woman he loves at least until 2011’s cliffhanger.  Deb, used to being a constant sexpot, still  quite literally walks the walk, and Eliot sashays though the room with Deb’s sexy sway, smiling provocatively at any man she passes. (A secondary advantage is the casting of Asian-American comedian Margaret Cho as Jane’s caring, cynical assistant.) And the new season has begun!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

If You Dislike Hate-filled Homophobic ministers, read this

if you're on facebook, check out the Christian Left.  They're always great, but at the moment, they are helping publicize the funkiest piece of guerrilla politics since Abby Hoffman. It's about that charming pastor of Westboro Church and his  idiosyncratic ideas about homosexuals.  fight charm with charm, say i, and idiosyncracy with idiosyncraticy.  it's the sort of thing rachel maddow might dub 'the best thing in the world this week.'

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Beyond Miss Kitty--Women in Modern TV Drama

 Since my return from the castle a month ago, i haven't blogged a lot.  First there was the decompression from the castle life and environment. then there was and remains the sheer delight of laziness, after pushing myself for the semester.  the laziness remains, alas: there is nothing i enjoy more than lying in bed or on my couch, watching the airy antics of the trees outside my windows.  they're a worse distraction than television, these trees;  like infants they are astounding in their very ordinariness; each detail, seen in so many of them over the years, remains intricate beyond belief  [i've never seen an infant whose fingernails i haven't fallen in love with].  i love the slow dignity with which each large branch waves in the wind, while its individual leaves flap frenziedly, as though they can't quite figure out what's happening.

i do, however, have one work project, self-imposed but with a deadline.  A few years ago, as textbook prices continued to rise and permission to use articles for reading packets grew pricier and more time-consuming,  i took the first half of summer-break to construct my own quasi-textbook for my TV in American Life class, tailoring it to precisely what i need  the for the class, and copiously quoting and paraphrasing, carefully under legal limits, from the articles i found most useful, gluing them together with my own transitions and, inevitably, my own opinions and observations.  this has worked pretty well, and when the textbook i have used for Women in Media went out of print, i decided to do the same for this class,  borrowing a bit from the already written tv thing.  ['thing' seems to be the only word i can find from this more-than-a-handout-less-than-a-textbook work.]

so it seems that a handy blog piece would be commentary on women in tv, and images thereof.  it's an old cry, and  likely to be reiterated for years to come, since tv is unlikely to change it.  Much as the medium has grown with the changes inspired by the influence of feminism on american culture, it has remained stuck in one inevitable groove, nourished by the omnipresence of advertising and the apparent willingness of audiences to collaborate with it. female characters on tv can now be featured in, even stars of, tv melodramas--primarily police procedurals and doctor-dramas.  women can be heads of police departments, private investigators, district attorneys, fabulously successful defense attorneys, spies, brain surgeons.  you name the job, there's a female tv character who has it.  Gone are the days in the '50s and '60s when the only regular female on a crime drama was the one who looked admiringly at the hero, exclaiming, 'but, perry, how did you know he wasn't really the killer?'

sadly, however, the  1970s days of 'charlie's angels' and 'policewoman' are not gone, only modernized.  channel surf for an hour or two, and you will soon realize that the major qualification for any woman in any field of endeavor--from district attorney to space ship commander--is beauty.  thin beauty. [is there any other kind?] . glance at an evening's worth of TV, looking for the major networks,  Fox, ION, TNT and USA, and their shows. (obviously, even with those restrictions, there are too many shows to be all-encompassing, but  a few should show what I mean.) At the moment, I'm using the TV Guide for  Monday May14. {I had originally planned to do a week's worth, but it would be, alas, way too long.  Mind you, these aren't necessarily bad shows, or oppressive in any other way, and several are among my personal favorites.)

Bones--the hero is a woman, a brilliant young forensic anthropologist working for the FBI.  Her boss is also a woman, as are her best friend and colleague.  None of them is over 30, and all absolutely beautiful. All are comfortable climbing into gross hiding spots and picking over half-decayed corpses--always dressed in designer clothes and high heels.  {You may take that last line and apply it to almost all the characters I'll be mentioning.  Apparently they don't design flats for the active career woman.)

House--male hero played  by the brilliant Hugh Laurie.  Laurie is pleasant looking, but by no means "handsome." Yet he is played as a sexy man, pursued by beautiful women, including his boss and two young doctors on his staff. This is also important in general: TV dramas male heroes are almost all attractive, but they don't have to be gorgeous.

Cold Case--Recently cancelled after a long, successful run.  The hero is dedicated to solving cold-case murders. Slim, blond, breathtakingly beautiful, young.  Among her colleagues is a young, beautiful, light-skinned black woman. (Note here: black may be beautiful, but not for tv female characters, who are almost all very light skinned.  The aforementioned boss in 'Bones" is also light skinned)  Her other colleagues are male, and include a 60-ish heavy set and fairly dark-skinned black man and a younger, heavier-set white man.

Law and Order--recently cancelled, after nearly 20 years.  Divided between the cops who solve the crime and the DA's who bring them to trial. It's changed over the years, but essentially the cops are male; the chief is a black woman of perhaps 50, who is attractive but not stunning; not fat but certainly not thin. Sadly, she is more behind-the-scenes than the cops on the street.  The DA is a man and has been throughout; his assistant, since the early days, is always a beautiful-thin-young woman--a series of them.  The  frequent change makes dramatic sense: it would be a good job for an ambitious lawyer who wanted to work her way up the ladder.   But surely there must be some young, ambitious female lawyers in New York City who weigh more than 100 pounds, whose noses are snub or long or slightly bent.  His long nose and lack of classical handsomeness (or hunkiness) have never hampered the marvelous Sam Waterston in his nearly 20 years as the major DA.

NCIS--a team of investigators who solve crimes involving the US Navy or Marines.  For a time, the head honcho was a pretty, slim, 30th woman whose character was eventually killed off and replaced by a man. As with "Law and Order,'' this boss wasn't a really major figure.  The head of the unit we deal with is a 50ish man, played by handsome but aging Mark Harmon.  His colleagues are mostly male and of various ages, but two are women.  Both are beautiful, but Abby is played as an eccentric--part punk, part goth, multiply tattooed vegetarian--who is a brilliant forensic specialist.  It's a relief to have a female character who doesn't look as if she just walked off the cover of a fashion magazine.

This is one random evening's programs, and it doesn't even include TNT, whose schedules weren't announced in that week's TV Guide.  Both "Law and Order" and NCIS have had spinoffs: "Special Victims" stars a gorgeous woman, handsome man duo of mega-competent cops, and offers a light-skinned black female medical examiner who is, yes, thin and beautiful, as are the two women who have played the DA at different times. "NCIS Las Vegas" actually does offer us an absolutely non-glamorous boss, the amazing Linda Hunt.  Hunt is homely enough to be considered almost ugly, and she is one of America's best actors, and she is reason enough to watch the show. She is a very rare exception.  Even the show whose name gave us some hope--"Ugly Betty"--hired for the part a very pretty woman they homelied-up with braces, bad clothes and worse posture; indeed, by the show's final episode in 2010, betty had dumped the braces, stood up straight, and bought a new wardrobe, and the closing scene showed us the title with a giant X through the first word.  The fact is that in real life, homely (and betty was never more than homely, not ugly)  women don't turn gorgeous with a wardrobe change unless it's accompanied by some serious plastic surgery. ( The show was based on a wildly successful soap opera in Columbia; a friend who lived there at the time says the original Betty was ugly, though she too got prettied up in the last episode. )

The frustrating thing is that all the American-beauty characters are in every other way a huge step up from the old days. They don't take crap from men.  Some are married, some single; and with some we simply don't know because the focus is away from the characters' personal lives and on their work.  The cops all shoot perfectly and do so when required; if they kill a villain they become upset the way the male characters do at the fact of killing, but they don't get little-girl-mushy about it.  The doctors do life and death surgery; the coroners make wisecracks while digging maggots out of the eyes of rotting corpses. They are too often token females in a male world, but then that's probably still the case in most of their real-life equivalents.

The shows, predictably, vary in quality, and sometimes vary over time (I gave up on the once excellent 'Grey's Anatomy'' and even the admirable presence of a lesbian couple hasn't been enough to bring me back to what had become an increasingly maudlin and melodramatic show, but i should give them credit where due.  There is a lesbian couple, who actually got married, in white gowns, on one episode. And despite the focus on gorgeous female and male doc's, they have had one of the best and most realistic female characters on TV--Dr. Bailey, the surgeon in charge of residents.  Given the rest of the cast, it's always surprised me that they created, and kept, a short, squat, pretty enough but not at all gorgeous, black character who was an early version of the hero of "House."  Unlike House, Bailey mellowed a bit over the years, and her friendship with one of the young male interns allowed her loving core to emerge. She even created a briefly popular American buzz word: one episode had this intern, George, alone with her when her baby arrived prematurely, and delivered the baby as Bailey expressed physical pain and emotional horror at the idea that this man was seeing her 'va-gi-gi''.)  TNT and USA, the popular low-tier cable channels, have given us some wonderful female heroes in the past few years.   "The Closer," alas, is indeed closing, and the show could have used another female character or two, but who could not love the steel-magnolia-and-then-some portrayal of a 40-sh department head of an originally hostile male crew.  The very daring and spiritually challenging series "Saving Grace" starred Holly Hunter as a tough, earthy, hard-drinking, promiscuous cop who is confronted with her rambunctious guardian angel.  Though most of her colleagues (and her angel) are male, her closest friend and colleague is a woman, tough but deeply religious. It was possibly too multi-dimensional in its exploration of spiritual redemption and randy sexuality,  but in its brief season-and-a half was wonderful, though the last few episodes, written, i imagine, with the knowledge that the show was being canceled, were sloppy and silly.

Like several of the USA and TNT shows, "Saving Grace" was a summer replacement series, and helped save viewers from the land of rewrites.  These shows have often gone beyond what the major networks offer, but they're not always great, and one of them i find both boring and obnoxious. ''Rizzoli and Isles''  has been very popular, for good reasons--or, actually, for bad reasons.  They attempt to be the latest incarnation of ''Cagney and Lacy,'' while being much closer to "Charlie's Angels."  One is a cop, the other a medical examiner, and they are best friends, but oh-so opposite.  Except that they aren't.  Rizzoli is supposedly a grown-up  working class tomboy, though she wears stiletto heels and tight jeans all the time; Isles is supposedly more upscale and flirts while dissecting bodies.  Possibly better actors could pull it off, or possibly better scriptwriters,  directors, or producers could create more believable characters. As it is, we get a lot of sophomoric cutesiness and no depth.  Though both are presented as clearly heterosexual, there are constant jokes, by the two women themselves and other characters, about how they are "in bed together." the joke being that they are just sleeping. On occasion they will pretend to be lesbians to brush off would be suitors.  Using lesbianism as a way to titillate viewers is cheap and crass, and there is no suggestion that the show will take it any further than this.

However, let me end this on a positive note--''Harry's Law'' is ending its second season on prime time TV, and i'm crossing my fingers for a third and fourth.  Harry is played by the splendid Kathy Bates, who has managed a Hollywood career without being a sexpot, and who is now 60ish. Harry is not unattractive, but she has a real body and gray hair.  As her nickname suggests, she's a tough, no-nonsense defense attorney, and she takes on difficult cases because they are difficult.  She's conservative (presumably left over from the days of "compassionate conservatism,")  and she takes on controversial cases, offering jurors and viewers a chance to explore different and often competing moral parameters.  Sometimes the show slips into sloppy rhetoric, but not often.

Okay, since this is my blog and I can do what I want in it, I'll end on an irrelevant note about two of my current favorite shows: "Unforgettable" is about a ...beautiful/thin... cop with  hyperthymesia, a rare, real- life condition in which one remembers in exact detail everything they have ever experienced. (As of this writing, CBS has cancelled the show, but both TNT and USA are considering picking it up.)
The other is about two unlikely allies fighting to save lives via a computer program one of them has invented for the government, and then stolen from them when he realizes he can use it to prevent murders from happening.  He essentially blackmails the other man into working for him.  Part of its charm is that the men pretty much dislike each other, but not in the cutesy, wise-cracking way that rivals in tv shows often manifest, but because they are fundamentally different.  Through the season, they have come to have some grudging concern and respect for each other, and they share a moral value (easy enough, since few people approve of murder)  but their personalities are radically and unchangeably different.  The tension between them is real and, one imagines, permanent.  And while the muscle-man is hunky gorgeous and very good at knocking out groups of armed men single- and empty-handedly, the main hero is homely, nerdy, physically weak, and awkward.   As this is about women in media, I should point out that a major secondary character is a black policewoman who is ambivalently supportive of the two lawbreaking heroes.  In the last few episodes, they seem to be expanding her character.

And last but not least, the summer season will bring  us a return to another of my favorites, the quirky, often comic, ''Leverage," in which three differently gorgeous men and two differently gorgeous women comprise a robin-hoodish team with some of the improbable charm of the old "Avengers"  and much of the mechanical skills coordinated into hurried and mysterious multitasking  of  the old "Mission Impossible," minus that show's ponderous self-seriousness, One of the "Leverage" women is  hyper-thin, but she has a reason for her slimness--she's a brilliant cat burglar.  even i can't fault the very real advantage of  a slight frame  for that particular occupation...

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Plush Bunny

 to begin with, he is the woman’s best friend, and she doesn’t care who knows it. he goes wherever she goes, and people think she’s a nice old lady bringing presents to her grandchild.  she is not nice, though she is old, and she has no grandchild.  she has, in  fact,  no relatives, but she has a few friends.  her friends think she’s crazy, carrying her bunny around everywhere.   they tell her, he isn’t real, you know.  he has no soul.  she raises her eyebrows but says nothing.  they are wrong, of course.  what he has, is no body.   no skin, no flesh. no veins. if you prick him, he does not bleed. if you hold him to your ear even tightly, you will hear no heartbeat.  a tag attached to his back tells you he was made in japan.  on sewing machines.  by sullen, underpaid workers who will one day rise up against the factory owners and break the soulless machines that run their lives. she knows this, and it saddens her.  she would pay them worthily, for their work matters.  but what they make is not a body, only a casing to be filled, over time, with a soul. each bunny’s soul is different, crafted by the owners, their fears, their joys, their every moment’s life.  sometimes she sews things onto the plush bunny; embroideries, or patches of bright material. once, a button, though a small one, and inside the bunny’s ear: nothing to interfere with  the desperate or happy hugging that is the bunny’s due. the button had belonged to a long-dead friend, who lent some of his soul to the woman  for such purposes.  her friends think she is a sad old creature, but they love her laughter. and this is a good thing, for she laughs often, and especially at her friends, though that laughter they do not hear.  it belongs only to her,  and to the graying bunny,  wrapped in its polyester and other natural materials. it belongs to their souls.          

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Glorious Episode of ' The Mentalist'

every once in a while, television programming can be surprisingly brave. a run-of-the-mill sitcom or drama can embrace a social issue rarely touched on.  i don't mean shows engendered to be controversial--the historic MASH or the sly 'modern family,'  but a regular show with a comforting, predicable formula.  over the years, we've seen issues emerge in ordinary programs that are no longer startling: mixed race marriages; battered wives fighting back; gay parents.

the april 26 episode of 'the mentalist' has been the first of what i hope will be many to embrace in a serious way the world of drag queen entertainers.  we have seen such characters appear minorly in a few crime/procedural shows, but never to this extent and with this depth.

'the mentalist' is an averagely good procedural about a man whose eye for detail is so perfect that he goes from being a fake psychic to a police consultant--and solves pretty much every case by spotting some apparently insignificant detail none of the cops can notice. it's fun to watch, but rarely much more than that.

last week's episode was different, however.  without veering away from its common-plot basis--body found mysteriously dead,  confusion and frustration ensue until patrick figures it all out--it simply offered a change-of-usual venue.

a young man is found handcuffed inside his car, which has been set on fire.  the body is barely recognizable as human.  the nearest building is a male-drag cabaret called 'the pink noir.' when patrick and the cops arrive looking for witnesses,  the queens all express horror and sympathy at the crime; only one of them, glennda, admits to have seen anything.  during the previous night's show, she had stepped outside briefly for a breath of air, and saw the parked car and a man walking toward it.  no, she didn't see the man's face, or have any idea why he was approaching the car.  clearly the mother-figure among the queens, she looks challengingly at 'my girls' and asks if any of them have seen anything.  all vehemently deny any knowledge.  patrick and the cop he's with, teresa, are suspicious.  both are a bit taken aback at this unfamiliar world of casual, hyper-elegant queens, and teresa especially doesn't feel right about them.  when the identity of the victim is discovered, they decide another talk with the ladies is necessary: the young man was gay, and this may well be a hate crime.  as they delve deeper into the dead man's background, a history of brutality against him emerges.  the queens become less hostile to the investigation as they see that patrick and teresa are taking both them and the victim seriously.  they begin to identify with the victim--like them, a constant target for abuse. besides, one of them notes, an unsolved murder near their club is bad for business.

there are some wonderful scenes throughout.  glennda is called to the police department for questioning. she is a tall and muscular and in an offbeat way, stunning in her full drag regalia.     she remains in control of the scene:  we see her watching the reactions of the cops, her look half contemptuous, half amused--and not too far beneath the surface, pained and angry at the murder.  as she and one of the male detectives both approach the men's room at the same time, their hands almost meet on the doorknob and the cop pulls back quickly.  'ladies first,' smirks glennda almost seductively as she slithers in ahead of him.  later, after an interview with glennda, teresa is talking with patrick, who expresses surprise that she is wearing perfume.  'i'm not,' she snaps defensively, then smells her arm.  'oh, that's it.  i was interviewing glenda.  she goes in for a heavy strong scent.'  patrick smiles. 'you said 'she,'' he notes.  'earlier, it was  'he.''  'yeah, but talking to her, i got to know her a little...' teresa stammers, then shrugs. she has gone from despising the queens to experiencing their humanity.

later, back at the cabaret, patrick and teresa have more questions for the queens, and learn more about them.  each has suffered all her life because of the way she has been treated; each has a daytime job in which she must appear masculine.  one is a dentist; glennda herself is a cosmetician at a mortuary, prettying up  corpses for their funerals. patrick meets him there patrick is startled to find himself face to face, with a tall, handsome man, and it takes him a moment to recognize glennda.  it's a wonderful instant in which we, like patrick, are asked to understand the pain cross-dressers go through trying to 'pass' in a world barely ready to accept homosexuality, let alone flamboyant drag.

as the investigtion continues, we meet several suspects--the victim's father, his  ex-lover, and a co-worker, none of whom have alibis and all of whom have abused the young man.  all of the queens are also suspects; though all swear they were together getting ready for the show when the murder happened, they are all strongly bonded to each other and to the community glennda has made of them,  and would readily lie for each other. there is no apparent motive for any of them, but all would be vulnerable to blackmail if the victim had threatened it.

as a whodunit, the episode works beautifully, and like most good whodunits, it cleverly provides a few red herrings, and a few clues hard to pick up but easy to identify later.

most importantly, though, they have given us a glance at what lives 'in the closet' can do to people, what outcasts suffer  to keep secret, creating motive for crime when they are in danger of being outed, and creating hellishness in their lives that can be partially emeliorated by establishments like glennda's, which allow them to jjoyously be themselves. there is a wonderful scene toward the end when teresa keeps trying to get the queens to talk with her, while they have to get on stage. glennda grabs her wrist and pulls her onto the stage, as the others follow--and teresa findes herself part of the cast, exhuberantly dancing with people she would have dispised a few days earlier. and the viewer, like patrick in the audience, smiles with shared relief and sheer fun.

and in the end, they still solve the crime. the episode is so true to its genre that it almost doesn't seem like what it is: a different brand of morality play.  Cheers to producer-script writer Daniel Cerone and to CBS for taking this risk.