Archive for the pop culture Category

Words, they have meaning

Posted in pop culture with tags on September 28, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

So I saw Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs yesterday.  I’m not bothering to review it here, since it’s not likely on the “must see” list of most of my target audience, unless, like me, you have a school-age child.  Whereas I tend to view most children’s movies as something to endure, I found Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs surprisingly enjoyable, silly yet with a clever streak that appeals to the adults in the audience, and a refreshing lack of both fart  jokes and preachiness, despite its anti-gluttony message.  Plus, it featured the voices of both Bruce Campbell and Mr. T, so how bad could it have been?

Sometimes I’ll wait until after I see a movie to read the reviews, mostly to see if my opinion of it meshes with those of critics I generally trust, such as Roger Ebert, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone and the crew at The A.V. Club.  While reading the user comments for the review of Cloudy at The A.V. Club (which was just as, if not even more positive than mine), I came across this…

This really does look like it rapes my childhood. The book is a wonderfully melancholy and beautifully illustrated story about a good thing going bad. The trailer for the movie looks Fun! and Wacky! And Ugly too.

The “it rapes my childhood” line would be offensive if not for the fact that it’s kind of hilarious.  It’s also become kind of a cliche at this point: any time plans are announced to adapt a well-beloved cartoon or children’s book into a movie, or worse, remake a “classic” film, particularly if those cartoons, books or movies were popular during the 70s and 80s, someone claims that their childhood has been raped.  To paraphrase The Princess Bride, a film that as of yet, remains free of remakes and sequels, you keep using that word, I don’t think it means what you think it means.  If you must resort to using hyperbole, I think the word you’re reaching for is “pillaged,” or perhaps “plundered.”  It’s still melodramatic, as it suggests that you held the rights to Alvin and the Chipmunks in a carefully hidden coffee can until a band of roving Hollywood producers burned your house down and stole it, but it’s slightly less over the top than applying the word “raped” to it.

The grumbling over Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is nothing compared to the outright gnashing and wailing over the upcoming, long-awaited adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, probably the single most beloved children’s book of the past forty-five years.  The complaints began from the moment the project was announced–it seemed the mere fact that the book was to be adapted as a movie was an insult to people, as if that hasn’t been happening since a week or so after moving pictures were invented, and as if virtually all children’s books aren’t made into movies or TV specials at some point, simply because they lend themselves to it.  They increased in volume when it was revealed that Spike Jonze was set to direct it, because Jonze, a favorite director of detached, ironic hipsters, has a reputation for making films that are visually interesting and unique, but somewhat lacking in heart and warmth, rendering him perhaps not the most suitable choice to film a children’s movie.  The fact that the script was a collaboration between Jonze and Dave Eggers, another patron saint of hipsters who is loathed by pretty much every other pop culture sub-group only snowballed the criticisms, particularly when it was realized that a 40-odd page book that consists mostly of pictures would have to be significantly padded in order to stretch it out for a feature length film.  After all, look how well that worked out for How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, where the Grinch was made into a sad sack who was the victim of childhood bullying by mean, avaricious Whos, and the Cat in the Hat was some sort of lecherous half-man/half-feline mutant.

After rumors that Jonze’s original cut was deemed by Warner Bros. to be too dark and scary for young audiences, the final cut is due to be released in a couple weeks, and I’m having a good laugh at how many people of my generation, meaning people in their thirties and even into their forties, are doing the equivalent of folding their arms, stomping their feet and declaring they won’t go see it, they won’t, they won’t, THEY WON’T! It’s one thing to refuse to see a movie just because you don’t want to see it–hell, 75% of the movies that come out these days look like utter shit to me, so I’m not going to see them.  However, much of the refusal to see Where the Wild Things Are seems to be based in some sort of weird, misplaced “principle,” of which the energy expended on it would be much more useful when directed towards, say, feeding the hungry.  They’re taking a stand, letting Hollywood know that they’re tired of having their most cherished memories of childhood snatched away and adapted, remade or repackaged for money! Everything we read, watched or listened to as kids now “belongs” to us somehow, and someone stepping in and doing something we don’t like with it is clearly just like rape.  Why, if Maurice Sendak was still alive, he would have never stood for this!

Except there’s just one thing: Maurice Sendak is still alive, and unlike Alan Moore, who disavows every film adaptation of his work only after the check has cleared, Where the Wild Things Are was made not only with his full approval, but with his input.  After decades of turning down other offers to purchase the rights to his book, Sendak hand-picked Spike Jonze for the honor.  So if you think Where the Wild Things Are looks “ugly,” or if it seems to be “marketed towards pretentious yuppies for their hipster kids,” or if just its mere existence offends you, don’t blame Warner Bros. or Spike Jonze.  Blame its author, the only person who really has a say in what’s done with his or her work in regards to who it’s sold to, or his or her family, if they’re not around anymore.  How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat were both dreadful movies, but let’s not forget that the rights to the stories were sold American by the widow Geisel.  It’s rather ludicrous to complain about something being taken away from us that never really belonged to us in the first place.

I probably wouldn’t find this minor controversy quite so irritating and amusing if not for the fact that I’m on the side of wanting to see it.  I think as far as children’s movies go it looks pretty good.  It doesn’t appear that they’re trying too hard to be twee and “indie,” Arcade Fire songs in the trailer notwithstanding.  It’s not CGI’ed to within an inch of its life.  Best of all, it doesn’t look as though it’s been updated to reflect supposed trends and what “the kids are into” today, such as, God forbid, having the wild things break into a hip hop dance sequence.  As far as product placement, idiot adults being bested by smart-ass kids, teen pop stars on the soundtrack and all the other trappings that make the majority of children’s movies all but unwatchable, that remains to be seen, but it seems to have a leg up on most of the competition so far.  If I’m wrong, believe me, I will say so here.  If you don’t want to see it, then don’t, but let’s cut the “it’s raping my childhood” shit.  No, it really isn’t.  It’s not raping your childhood, or kicking your dog to death, or stealing your grandmother’s heart pills.  It’s just someone making money, which is pretty much why every decision in the entertainment industry is made.  Do authors of our beloved childhood books, or their families, really, genuinely care about what you or I think when they sell the rights to their creations? Probably not.  It shouldn’t change how you feel about the stories themselves, or what impact they had on your childhood.  If it does, then maybe they didn’t mean all that much to you in the first place.

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As you walk on by

Posted in pop culture on August 7, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

“What do they do to you?”

“They ignore me.”

“Yeah…yeah.”

It’s interesting that just barely a week after I wrote a review of Nathan Rabin’s The Big Rewind, and how I felt Generation X had already been left behind in the great race to the next big thing in pop culture, John Hughes, one of the most important figures, a scion, if you will, in Gen X pop culture itself, passed away at the age of 59.  Okay, 2009, you can stop making me feel old now, seriously.

As I may have mentioned before, as much of a cliche as self-important navelgazing into what certain songs, movies, books or television shows “mean to you,” particularly those of your childhood or teenage years is, I find myself doing it quite often, even in just my own head.  John Hughes’ death shook me up, not just because celebrities seem to be dropping like flies recently, many of them far too young, but because I had almost forgotten how much of an impact Hughes’ movies, specifically those made from 1983 to 1988 or so, had on me in my youth.  I hadn’t watched many of them recently, and for the most part I classified them in the same category as The Cosby Show and the music of Rick Springfield, stuff that I liked as a kid, but had little use for as an adult.  Also, Hughes hadn’t been around much in the past fifteen years or so to remind me of his talent, choosing to lay low and write films, most of them mediocre at best flops like Drillbit Taylor and Maid in Manhattan under an assumed name.  According to this poignant tribute, Hughes apparently made the decision to keep a lower profile in Hollywood after the massive success of Home Alone, both for the sake of his sons and because he blamed the pressure of working too hard to honor contracts and keep studios happy for the premature death of friend John Candy.  He had the luxury of knowing when he could stop playing the game and being comfortable enough with his success to do so.

Nowadays, teenagers call the shots.  The majority of new music and films, not to mention a considerable portion of books is marketed specifically towards the age 12 to 18 bracket, with adults sheepishly buying Miley Cyrus albums and reading YA literature because, well, there’s just nothing else for us out there right now.  This is a far cry from 25 years ago, when teenagers had little to nothing, other than a few fan or fashion magazines, created and marketed especially for them.  Back in 1985, when Yr. Correspondent was a chunky, sullen middle schooler with a bad perm, teenagers, particularly as portrayed in movies, were little more than either slobbering pussyhounds, as evidenced in such films as Porky’s, or fresh meat for masked serial killers.  They were almost always unconvincingly portrayed by actors in their twenties and even thirties on occasion, and rarely acted as anything more than a sort of symbolic role in the teenage hierarchy–the slut, the nerd, the bad boy, etc.  Then The Breakfast Club came out, and it offered a shocking revelation: teenagers had feelings.  And when I say “feelings,” I don’t mean feeling tight in their pants when the new Swedish exchange student walked past them in the hallway, I meant they were sensitive, they were lonely, they felt lost and rejected.  It seems shocking to say now, but, at least for a very long period in the late 70s and 80s, the suggestion that teenagers may be unhappy and confused about who they are and where they stand in life was almost never touched upon in film, certainly not mainstream films that were created with a teenage audience in mind.  Movies where the main character was a teenage girl, unless that girl was being tormented by a crazed stalker wielding a machete or a meathook were virtually nonexistent, while those with teenage boys as the “hero” dealt primarily with the quest to get laid.  Watching any of these movies now, it’s a little startling how devoid of personality, of anything resembling real people the characters in them are.

Upon watching The Breakfast Club for the first time, I was immediately taken aback by how deeply sad all the characters seemed to be.  At age thirteen, I had already convinced myself that the popular kids had not a care in the world, that as long as you were rich and had all the right clothes and knew all the right people, your life was pretty much free of problems.  Now, of course, it seems a little obvious that being rich doesn’t save you from being insecure, or from having a fucked up relationship with your parents, or from feeling like a phony, but at the time it kind of blew my mind a little.  Not enough that I didn’t continue to think the popular kids still had it better than me, but still, it did humanize them a little more.  I was perhaps a little too cynical to believe that after spending that Saturday together baring their souls to each other, the five members of the Breakfast Club would continue to cross class and status boundaries and remain friends, but now, in retrospect, I don’t think you were supposed to.  I believe that the ending was more ambiguous than it originally seems, that Bender’s triumphant fist pump after kissing the prom queen was poignant not because he “won,” but because who really knew what would happen come Monday morning? Would he and Claire be able to walk proudly through the halls of Shermer High holding hands, symbolically saying “fuck you” to their peers and the class divisions that normally would drive them apart? I kind of doubted it, and I suspect that as much as it pained people to admit it, most everyone else did too.  We knew and still know what high school is like, after all.

When John Hughes wrote shit, like Dutch and Curly Sue, it was appalling, wretched shit.  He very well might have actually written it blindfolded, and that’s why the more richly dimensioned movies like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off stand out as modern classics, and I really try to avoid using the word “classic” lightly.  In the numerous times I’ve watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off over the years, I keep finding new and interesting sub-plots, beyond the standard “likeable wiseass teen goes on misadventure” main plot.  It’s also about Ed Rooney, a paper tiger of a principal who is genuinely shocked to discover that teenagers are capable of pulling one over on him.  It’s also about Ferris’s sister Jeanie, angry and cynical after clearly spending years overlooked by her parents in favor of the younger, cuter, more charming Ferris, acting out to get attention but flailing around helplessly when it leads to unexpected consequences.  And of course, it’s about Ferris’s best friend Cameron, the character from Hughes’ oeuvre to whom I’ve latched on the most closely.  I used to say that Cameron Frye, other than being filthy rich, was like me with different plumbing, neurotic, anxious, constricted, mostly left to his own devices by parents who are barely mentioned, let alone seen.  Cameron is a born follower, who’d likely go along with Ferris’s plan to drive off the end of the Navy Piers if it meant avoiding an argument.  When faced with a problem, he freezes in panic, then essentially throws a temper tantrum.  The tantrum seems to offer some temporary relief, and he claims that he is now ready to confront his father with various issues, brave and sure of himself, but again, like the ending of The Breakfast Club, it now seems more ambiguous than it once did.  Do we really believe that this is the beginning of a new, stronger Cameron? Is that glint in his eyes the sign that he’s finally growing some stones, or is it merely false hope? Such is the genius of John Hughes: upon second, third, fourth and subsequent looks at his best movies, you see that the loose ends are not tied up nearly as tightly as you once thought.

Now, of course, we’ve come full circle, back to where teenagers in movies are a little too sure of themselves, with the sensibilities, vocabularies and sex lives of thirty year-olds.  Even the “real” teenagers, such as the title character in Juno, seem awfully self-assured, quick with a quip rather than a snotty-nosed crying spell when faced with a pressing issue, such as an accidental pregnancy or family problems.  It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, but I’m inclined to believe that, in spite of the internet, “sexting” and everything else the media is claiming forces young people to grow up too fast, they really haven’t changed that much.  If there’s one thing positive that come out of John Hughes’ premature death, is that his movies won’t just be rewatched by his original audience, but by new members, those who are looking for movies about people who really are just like them.

Pop culture: it can save lives!

Posted in pop culture with tags on July 31, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

bigrewindThe Big Rewind: a Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture, by Nathan Rabin, Scribner, 2009

Pop culture as filtered through the eyes of Generation X can be a difficult subject to navigate, even if it’s the one thing, other than ourselves, we like to talk about more than anything else.  For one thing, other than the Baby Boomers, no other generation more than us has had a harder time admitting that we’re rapidly becoming irrelevant.  Hell, we barely got a chance to be relevant before the new Ice Age of the internet came, freezing out our Jurassic asses before we even left footprints behind.  The face of pop culture is changing so fast that stuff we enjoyed doing just twenty years ago, such as making mix tapes and going to the library to use an encyclopedia are now considered twee at best, but mostly archaic.  So when we of a certain age, that age being 30 to 40, talk about stuff we liked during our childhood and teenage years, it tends to be with a rather self-important reverence that is usually unwarranted, mainly because we’re trying desperately to prove that today’s young folks, with their sparkling vampires and their Miley Whateverhernameis, just don’t know what real entertainment is.

Because of this, I’ve heard, or at least read, people my age trying to argue the merits of such plagues upon society as Saved by the Bell, insisting that it was an underrated comic gem with a subversive anti-authority message.  I’ve heard Jem and the Holograms touted as feminist icons.  Howard the Duck has been described as “ahead of its time.”  I’m not sure if any of these people genuinely believed what they were saying, or just said it to get a rise out of someone.  As much as the 70s and 80s were a neon-lit, light rock FM, Jean Nate-scented wonderland for me, I hold no illusions about the TV programs and movies I watched and the music I listened to as a kid.  Most of it sucked.  The only ones that didn’t suck were those that were long ago established as being good: Star Wars, Jaws, Bugs Bunny, the Clash, Night Court, WKRP in Cincinnati, David Bowie, etc.  The rest of it? Crap, generally speaking.  In fact, much of it is worse than I remembered.  How did I sit through nearly ten years of Happy Days? What in my eight year-old pea brain convinced me that The Love Boat was something that I needed to watch every week without fail? I wouldn’t try to seriously convince someone that these programs were good anymore than I would try to convince someone that eating an entire pound of bacon in one sitting is a wise idea.  They weren’t good, they were dreck, but we’ve made ourselves believe they were good because we want our generation to be better than yours, goddamn whippersnappers.

But here I go, being all self-absorbed and Gen X-y again.  When I picked up Nathan Rabin’s The Big Rewind, a book in which he discusses notable songs, movies and books and how they relate to certain events in his past, I was somewhat more enthusiastic than I normally would be about such an endeavor.  This was mainly because Rabin is the head writer for A.V. Club, which to my perception appears to be the only major entertainment website that does not yet appear to be in the pocket of a film studio, although I say that and on the front page there are three ads for Judd Apatow’s latest Funny People, plus a review of the film itself, plus a separate discussion about it, plus interviews with Apatow and co-star Eric Bana.  All that aside, it’s still a website maintained by writers who aren’t afraid to criticize what another writer on the same site may be shilling, and I respect that (and if you need another writer, call me!).  I’m particularly a fan of Rabin’s column My Year of Flops, in which he watches such notorious stinkers as Bonfire of the Vanities and Cutthroat Island to determine if they really are that bad or if they’re merely underappreciated diamonds in the rough.  Enjoying what I like to think of as bad movie endurance tests myself, I’ve seen many of the movies Rabin discusses, and though he tends to be a bit more charitable than I am (as exhibited in the fact that he never once used the phrase “unforgivable crime against society” in his review of Speed Racer), I like to think we’re on the same page with a lot of things.  Still, part of me went into reading The Big Rewind convinced that it was going to be yet more “get off my lawn” flailing about how mp3s will never have the same sonic quality as a scratched up 45 of ‘Rock Me Amadeus,’ and how he stood outside of a theater for three hours to see Return of the Jedi, which pretty much, oh, everyone did back in 1983, because we didn’t have this computer ticketing nonsense, and it’s just not the same.

Let me say first that I was wrong.  The Big Rewind is not a typical “let me tell you, for the 745th time, how important Generation X was” memoir.  It’s an intelligent but unpretentious read, it’s surprisingly touching and it is probably one of the funniest damn books I’ve read in a long time.  And let me tell you, when I say that I’m on the same page as Nathan Rabin on a lot of things, I mean I’m on the same page.  I don’t often read books that mirror my thoughts and opinions on something so closely it was like I could have written it myself, but there were parts in The Big Rewind, particularly those dealing with Rabin’s complicated relationship with his mother, his experiences growing up poor and his thoughts on polyamory, that I had to stop and wonder if I wasn’t having some sort of Chuck Palahniuk moment, where I had just discovered that I was a construct in the imagination of a film critic named “Nathan Rabin.”  And perhaps only Chuck Palahniuk existed in my imagination, which means that Fight Club never existed, which means that pretentious hipsters wouldn’t sneer at someone anytime they talk about buying something at IKEA.  Or did I just blow your fucking mind?

But I digress.  I titled this review “Pop Culture: It Can Save Lives” because much of Rabin’s book, funny as it is, hinges on his miserable childhood, growing up motherless and poor, spending time in a psychiatric hospital and living out his teenage years at a group home for problem boys, being made just slightly more bearable by such things as reading The Catcher in the Rye and watching Reservoir Dogs.  It seems like such a simplified notion, that the mere act of listening to an album or watching a movie can make you feel better about your shitty existence, but the fact is that it’s true.  I listened to the Cure’s Disintegration every day my senior year of high school.  Every day without fail, on my way to school in the morning on that rattletrap bus, I’d put on my headphones and listen to Robert Smith groan his way through ‘Pictures of You,’ ‘Lovesong, ‘Lullaby’ and ‘Fascination Street’ until I knew that album forwards and backwards.  If you’re in the right (0r wrong) frame of mind that album will make you want to blow your fucking brains out, and yet it never failed to make me feel better somehow.  It drowned everything out for a little while, it made me feel removed from my unhappiness, absorbed in the swell and the drama of whatever it was that was bothering Robert Smith, which seemed to be everything.  A couple of hours of escape into a book or a movie theater or through a pair of headphones can sometimes make the difference between getting through another day and just giving up entirely.

Some of the chapters also deal not so much with how a certain nugget of pop culture helped Rabin through a hard time, but bore some relevance to his own life, such as discovering for himself after reading The Great Gatsby that it’s impossible to try to change who you are entirely without disastrous results.  Rabin’s great love for movies, books and music comes through on every page, and it’s not a distant, hipsterish, ironic love, which is refreshing.  Despite the hard knocks life has given him, and despite his profane, hilarious cynicism and self-denigration, there is still a bit of a charming idealist in Rabin, which must be difficult considering the sheer number of godawful movies he must see every year for his job.  I watched the remake of The Wicker Man once and I was ready to give it up and wander into the woods until I dropped dead of starvation, because clearly if such a movie was allowed to exist that meant there was nothing right and beautiful left in the world.  Having related so much to Rabin’s personal experiences, even despite having different plumbing, reading The Big Rewind made me glad I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of money on movies, books and music over the years, glad that I’m reluctant to get rid of most of it, glad that I’ve not yet given up on the idea that a lot of it might suck right now, both life and pop culture, but it will always get better.

With fans like these…

Posted in politics, pop culture on July 29, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

anniewilkesTed Casablanca of E! reports on just one of what must have surely been dozens of squicky, inappropriate moments at last week’s San Diego Comic-Con, this one during a panel for Twilight fan fiction writers.

So the head of a fanfic site was asked if she was bothered by stories posted that are violent or that border on sexual assault. The answer, offered loudly by a fan in the room?

“If it’s Rob, it’s OK.”

The crowd then erupted with laughter.

Um, that’s so not funny.

Now, the erotic-themed pieces are called deep genre, and one audience member asked about where to draw the line between harmless role playing and scary sexual stuff. One mom-author-fan responded that it’s all kosher when Rob is involved and emphasized that, “Twilight [fanfic] is a place where fans can speak freely.”

Somewhere, my high school creative writing teacher is weeping helplessly into his hands over the fact that people who are committing what only just twenty years ago was called plagiarism are now getting widespread acclaim, even their own panel at a convention where they’re interviewed like any other author.  I’m sorry, Mr. B., I don’t understand it either.  Now, I don’t usually use gossip sites as a source of reliable information, but I judged this story plausible enough to discuss, mainly because there is recorded footage of it available and also because I don’t put anything past Twilight fans.  I haven’t read any of the Twilight books, nor have I seen the first movie.  Romantic vampire sagas are not my cup of blood, and even if I did have some interest in giving the series a try, I wouldn’t now because it’s been tainted for me by its fandom.  You see, Twilight fans are fucking crazy, and the mere mention of them at this point makes me recoil in fear.  Every time I offer proof that its fans are cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, such as physically attacking not only critics of the series but each other over who’s the more devoted fan or, I don’t know, writing stories in which the characters are violently raped, someone pipes up that that’s not representative of typical fan behavior, they merely just draw attention to themselves.  You’ll pardon me if that’s not exactly reassuring.

Robert Pattinson, who of course plays romantic lead Edward Cullen in the movie version of the series, seems to be the unlucky recipient of most of the fan devotion.  Pattinson, who’s often criticized the quality of the books and clearly didn’t know what he was getting into when he signed his contract with Summit Entertainment, now seems alternately baffled, angry and terrified of the attention he gets from fans, even nearly getting hit by a car while trying to run away from a mob of them in New York City last month.  The majority of his more rabid fans, even the forty year-olds who should know better if only they weren’t powered by pure fucking insanity, seem incapable of separating him from his character in the movie, so he’s often approached by grown women asking him to turn them into vampires, stalked in airports and manhandled by those who consider him public domain and don’t know how to keep their hands to themselves.  Then, of course, there’s the fan fiction.

Fan fiction, if you have one of these things called a “life” and don’t spend much time on the internet, is when fans of a certain book series, movie or TV show, usually sci-fi, fantasy or horror, write their own stories involving characters from it.  More often than not the stories are pornographic, sometimes quite hardcore, and don’t always shy away from activities that are currently illegal, such as pedophilia and rape.  I know that fanfic isn’t a new concept; undoubtedly 25 years ago there were thousands of fevered masturbation fantasies starring Princess Leia in her slave costume written on notebook paper and then hidden under a mattress.  Now fanfic is a cottage industry, with many of its writers who don’t recognize the terms “copyright” and “intellectual property” developing fan bases of their own and even taking money for their work.  It’s not clear why fan fiction has been allowed to flourish to the point that some purveyors are profiting from it, my only guesses are that a.) it’s so widespread it’s impossible to monitor it, b.) most of the original creators of the work shrug it off as harmless fun for the fans or c.) when writers do complain about fan fiction they’re often met with a backlash, as though it’s a slap in the face to fans to ask them to stop stealing your shit.

Thanks to the internet, pretty much anything goes when it comes to fanfic, because everything is normal on the internet.  You could write a story about Severus Snape sodomizing Ron Weasley with a spiked dildo the size of a Hickory Farms summer sausage while applying jumper cables to his nipples, and for every person who tells you “Hey, that’s kind of messed up,” there’ll be an equal amount encouraging you to write more.  Such seems to be the case with Twilight fanfic, a disturbingly large amount of which appears to involve not just Edward Cullen, but Robert Pattinson specifically (though as mentioned previously many of his fans believe him to be one and the same) being violently raped.

Now, before I go on, let me say that I’m not judging anyone who’s into rape fantasy.  Whether you fancy yourself the assailant or the victim, as long as you know that it’s not an appropriate urge to act on in real life, that’s your business.  I also don’t believe in thoughtcrime, the notion that writing gruesome stories about violence and rape means that you’re going to act on any of it in real life.  My issue is the hypocrisy.  Let’s put it this way: what if it was a male audience member at the Comic-Con panel who made that “joke” about Kristen Stewart, who plays heroine Bella Swan in the Twilight movies? He would have gotten his ass handed to him, and rightfully so.  Women don’t get a pass on making rape jokes, and they definitely don’t get a pass on claiming that it’s “okay” to write stories involving an actual person being sexually assaulted, just because of who he is and because psycho fans believe they claim some sort of ownership on him.

Undoubtedly, most of the “real person fic” involving the rape of Robert Pattinson, particularly if the assailant is a woman, probably ends with his enjoying it, perhaps even falling for his victimizer, rendering the story not so bad in the eyes of the author.  However, isn’t that the most offensive stereotype of all when it comes to rape and sexual assault, that secretly the victim digs it? It is of course the basis for the relationship of Luke and Laura Spencer from General Hospital, probably the most popular couple in soap opera history, as well as a million trashy romance novels in which a virginal princess is kidnapped by a pirate or a sheik who tames her with his penis.  If it was a man writing this kind of garbage, he’d be labeled a misogynist and told to get his head examined.  Women, on the other hand, get to slide most of the time, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, especially if the rape scenes they envision involve a man being assaulted by a woman.  I can only guess it’s because the majority of society still believes that a man simply cannot be raped by a woman, so it’s less insidious.

I realize I’m making a big deal out of what was basically a joke made in poor taste by a member of a subgroup that probably isn’t nearly as prevalent as the internet makes it seem, but again, it’s the hypocrisy that bothers me.  Let’s be honest enough to admit that, despite the First Amendment allowing them to do so,  there’s something deeply twisted about writing fantasies in which real people are sexually assaulted, and it’s not any less twisted when it’s a woman writing them.  It’s not a fun, entertaining way to show your favorite actor how much you love him.  It’s just messed up, and for Robert Pattinson’s sake I hope he never crosses paths with any of these people.

Check out some other examples of “Rape is OK When It’s a Woman Doing It to a Man,” though be warned that once you enter the rabbit hole of TV Tropes, you may never return.

Joining the boys’ club

Posted in pop culture on July 24, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

Well, it’s Friday, which means it’s time for the release of another piece of shit comedy in the theaters.  This week’s offering is The Ugly Truth, yet another in the “can an uptight prude and a lovably boorish macho man find love?” genre, a genre that simply will not die no matter how many stakes film critics and denigrators such as myself try to drive into its heart.  As of this writing it’s rating a 13% at Rotten Tomatoes, which puts it in such esteemed company as Catwoman, The Pink Panther 2 and Britney Spears’ “acting” debut Crossroads.  The gimmick in The Ugly Truth is that, despite being marketed as a date movie, it’s rated R, which of course means lots of f-bombs and endless dick jokes, presumably because that’s what it takes to get men to agree to see it with their partners.  Another gimmick is that, despite it’s undeniably misogynistic message, it was written by women, three of them, to be exact.

Let me take a moment here for a brief aside.  I know I’m not the first person to make this observation, so I’ll merely reiterate it: the more screenwriters attached to a movie, the less watchable the movie will be.  Two seems to be about the limit, three or more will likely have you clawing at your own face in despair.  Case in point: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which had three credited writers, plus the invisible, evil hand of Michael Bay.  Other cases in point: Charlie’s Angels (three), Bride Wars (four), The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (four), Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (four) and the remake of The Shaggy Dog (an incredible five).  Mind you, these are just the writers who were credited for the final screenplay, often there are additional ghostwriters brought in to polish dialogue and other weak spots in the plot, which, in the case of the movies mentioned above, are usually the entire plots themselves.  It’s startling to realize that initially most of these scripts were likely deemed unfilmable in their original draft, and it was the job of the extra writers to somehow make them better.  That’s right, it took five writers to render The Shaggy Dog barely fit for human eyes.

But I digress, slightly.  It’s only a slight digression because it reiterates that there is just no reason why a movie with a plot as simple and derivative as The Ugly Truth needed three writers.  It can be easily written by one person, on a soiled cocktail napkin.  It would probably read “GUY & GIRL MEET, PRETEND TO HATE EACH OTHER, FALL IN LOVE AT THE END.”  Add some other important notations like “MAKEOVER SCENE?” and “DON’T FORGET GENERIC POP SONG ON SOUNDTRACK!!!” A flamboyant gay best friend is not a requirement, but certainly should be considered.  Cast a blandly attractive actress who at some point in her career has been described as “the next Julia Roberts” and, congratulations, you have a romantic comedy (for the record, The Ugly Truth boasts two generic pop songs on its soundtrack, Katy Perry’s ‘Hot ‘n’ Cold’ and Natasha Bedingfield’s ‘Pocketful of Sunshine’).  However, despite its almost defiantly unoriginal plot, the makers of The Ugly Truth want you to know that it’s no ordinary raunchy rom-com, because it was written by chicks.  According to this article in Variety, pretty much every up and coming screenwriter is emulating Judd Apatow these days, and that includes female writers, though it’s a tough field to compete in, as you really have to put an unusual spin on your gay panic jokes and endless pop culture references to stand out.  Now, I’m not saying that I dislike the films of Judd Apatow.  The 40 Year-Old Virgin is probably one of the funniest recent movies I’ve seen, but that’s pretty much the extent of my exposure to his work.  Superbad and Knocked Up have been sitting low on my Netflix queue for nearly two years now; given how slow I am to watch movies in my queue I figure I’ll get to them around 2014 or so.  I have no doubt that, inasmuch as gross-out dudebro comedies are concerned, his are pretty funny.  It’s the imitators, those who try going for the “more offensive” approach as opposed to “funnier” that bother me.

The Variety article interviews one of the writers of The Ugly Truth, Karen McCullah Lutz, who looked at the opportunity to write an R-rated script not as one where she could make a funny, mature film for adults, but where she could prove that she’s as capable of being as crass as the boys.

“When they told us to make it R, the heavens opened and the angels sang,” Lutz says. “We always pitch our dirty jokes to each other knowing we can’t use them. Suddenly, it was like, ‘Oh my God! We can write like we actually talk!’ “

It seems to me that if all Lutz wanted to do was write a bunch of dirty jokes, she should be writing for the Friars Club roasts, rather than trying to make movies.  The whole “It was written by girls! See, we girls like bathroom humor too!” thing is obviously pandering to a male audience, or at least, those who won’t normally see movies written by women, but also seems to be an easy way to deflect criticism.  Other women shouldn’t be offended that the plot of The Ugly Truth hinges on that stale old stereotype of “Men are shallow, superficial cretins who will never change, so it’s up to women to make ourselves over into what they want in order to find love,” because women wrote it.  Sure, most of the laughs seem to come at the expense of humiliating star Katherine Heigl’s character, such as by having her simulate fellatio on a hot dog or wear vibrating panties at a restaurant, in some vague quest to loosen up and become the type of woman men want to fuck date, but it’s supposed to get a pass because it’s other women who are putting her through the wringer.

Though I realize it’s a polarizing book with feminists, I have to fall back on Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs and say I’m not entirely impressed with women who believe themselves to be making bold feminist moves by emulating the worst aspects of men, such as going to strip clubs and bashing other women for being uptight.  You see, it’s empowering to think and act like a man, even if you’re only imitating the gross, piggy parts.  But it actually isn’t, it’s mostly dishonest, because in most cases women who pull the whole “I may look like a woman, but I’m like a man on the inside” shit are in it to attract men, under the impression that, really, men just want to date themselves.  Two of the writers of The Ugly Truth, the aforementioned Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, also wrote the surprise hit The House Bunny, a film with a core message that says “Forget all that book learning and learn to embrace your inner Playboy model.”  While Neil LaBute and Joe Eszterhas are still miles ahead of them, it would appear that Lutz and Smith actually kind of hate women, and I don’t know if that’s more depressing, or the idea that they’re cashing in on pretending that they do.

On that note, I’ll be taking this coming Monday off, because it are my birthday.  You want to give me a present? Don’t go see The Ugly Truth.

Comedy isn’t pretty

Posted in pop culture with tags on July 20, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

Forbes put out a list of the ten highest earning comedians in America, a list that inspires nothing if not a vague sense of despair, which often disguises itself as mild nausea or a nagging ache in the back of the head.

Here’s pretty much everything you need to know about who made it onto the list…

1. None of them are women.

2. Only one of them is actually funny.

3. Two are ventriloquists.

Two of them I’ve never even heard of, but that just says something about me, as you can have my George Carlin and Bill Hicks albums when you pry them from my cold, dead 18-fingered hands (did you get that Bill Hicks reference there?).  I’m not exactly hip to what’s new and now in comedy, though apparently it’s still ventriloquism, which is a disheartening surprise.  Number ten on the list is Russell Peters, who I initially confused with ludicrously coiffed man-whore Russell Brand, then realized I was mistaken.  Russell Peters is a Canadian comedian who apparently sells out shows at Madison Square Garden, though I’ll be damned if I can tell you who he is or anything he’s done.  The rest of the list, with the exception of Chris Rock, is a tired, disappointing list consisting of sitcom actors, the previously mentioned ventriloquists, game show hosts, members of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour and of course, the ubiquitous Dane Cook, who has long been proven as a one-trick pony who mostly lifts material from other comedians, yet continues to fill stadiums with the sons and nephews of the misogynistic frat boys who went to see Andrew Dice Clay perform in the 80s.

In the era of heir to King George’s throne Patton Oswalt, the absurdist humor of Jim Gaffigan and just the sheer fabulousness of Eddie Izzard, why do Americans still like our comedy so durn stoopid? I have my doubts that Jeff Foxworthy has even written a new joke in twenty years, let alone anything that diverts from the “you might be a redneck if…” shtick.  I remember being a kid and watching Howie Mandel do the pulling the rubber glove over his head shit, thinking it wasn’t all that hilarious then, and now he’s a comedy powerhouse?  No wonder shows like Comedy Central’s Stella and Michael and Michael Have Issues flounder in the ratings, they’re clearly not what the average American finds funny.  Dead terrorists and jokes about fucking your sister, that’s gold.  You know how they always find the black box intact after a plane crash? Why don’t they make the whole plane out of the black box? What is the deal with that? That was my Jerry Seinfeld impersonation, thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week.

Girly gamers

Posted in pop culture on July 17, 2009 by Gena Radcliffe

Tracey John at Wired writes about the disheartening state of video games aimed towards adolescent girls, offering as an example this year’s new releases, all but one of which are focused on fashion, shopping, boys, babies or becoming popular.

The weird thing is that you can view these “wholesome” games as being just as bad for girls as Grand Theft Auto’s random bloodshed and rampant criminality is for young, impressionable boys. And while GTA’s influence on boys has been dissected to death, what about the Nintendo DS’ upcoming avalanche of games for tween girls? What kinds of values do preteens learn from these titles? Valuable life lessons, or bad habits?

John provides descriptions of the new games, virtually all of which sound mind-blowingly bad, though two stand out amongst the pack.  One is The Clique: Diss and Make Up, based on a popular YA book series, in which the object of the game is to rise to the top of a middle school social ladder, by using your feminine wiles and dressing in a way that appeals to others (which apparently includes wearing pigtails and plaid skirts, useful if you were trying to appeal to a pedophile).  I haven’t read any of the Clique books, as it’s been roughly 75,737 years since I was the target audience, I didn’t realize that middle school socializing was such a hotbed of deception and intrigue.  The second is a tie between My Boyfriend and Princess in Love, the object of both games being finding just the right combination of clothing and dance moves to win the man of your dreams.  The other games mentioned, amongst them Dreamer Series: Top Model, Style Lab Makeover and Charm Girls Club: My Fashion Mall, all sound equally banal, but slightly less offensive, mainly because as opposed to the other games mentioned they don’t seem to suggest that finding love and friendship is not a matter of personality, but having the “right” clothes and the “right” moves.

The article touched a nerve with me, mostly because I have an eleven year-old daughter who has blossomed into quite the gamer geek.  Her favorite games right now are Super Smash Bros. Brawl, one of the Pokemon games (I don’t remember which one since there are about a dozen of them) and Pikmin.  Most of her friends play at least one of these games as well, which leads to the question: why is there a need for video games marketed directly to young girls, and why must they involve the most lamest of themes? Over a third of gamers identify themselves as female, clearly this is not a reluctant market desperately in need of tapping.  Are there really a few girls or women out there who are thinking to themselves “Gee, I’d really like to get into this video gaming trend, but there are so few games out there that appeal to what really interests me–clothes and makeup!” If that’s the case, please identify yourselves so that you may be actively avoided by the rest of polite society.

There is some debate over whether girls are purchasing these games, which still don’t sell as well as the standard fighting/shooting/adventure games long believed to be more appealing to males, whether because they really want them or because their parents have been conned into believing that they do.  That’s the thing: being that your average 12 year-old girl, unless it’s her birthday or just after the holidays, rarely has the $40 or so required to purchase a video game burning a hole in her pocket, it is the parents buying them.  So what’s the reason then? For the record, I don’t actually believe that playing a game like Princess in Love will make an impressionable middle schooler convinced that she’s nothing without a boyfriend–movies, TV and magazines will do that job quite efficiently enough.  I’m just genuinely baffled and frustrated that girls are perceived as either too delicate or simply not interested in the same video games as boys are, and need their own pink, baby powder scented versions, dedicated to being an imaginary wedding planner or designing baby clothes, when there is evidence against this right in my own home.

Did anyone involved in the designing of these games actually interview girls ages 10 to 14 to ask what kinds of games would interest them, or did they fall back on tired, lazy, largely inaccurate generalizations?  I can almost picture a bunch of forty year-old men in a conference room, looking at a whiteboard with the words WHAT DO GIRLS LIKE? written on it, as they shout out “Clothes!” “Boys!” “Kittens!” “Jewelry!” “Pink, lots of pink!” From those cliches, video games “just for you!” are born, and stereotypes continue to survive.