Blog PostsOn “Orange is the New Black,” Do Black Lives Matter?

[This post discusses events of season 4 of Orange in the New Black in detail.]

The women of Litchfield take a stand.

The women of Litchfield take a stand. (Photo courtesy of Netflix.)

I was late to this season of Orange is the New Black, but once I had the time to concentrate, I devoured the episodes in less than a week. Like the rest of the viewing audience, I was sickened and deeply saddened by the death of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), a beloved character (and my personal favorite on the show). Unlike some viewers, I was deeply conflicted about how I felt about the storytelling choices that lead to Poussey’s death and the storytelling choices that followed her death.

Some critics thought this season was by far the best one of the show. Others described it as black suffering trauma porn. A good piece by Ashley Ray-Harris, “Orange is the New Black Fails to Make a Black Life Matter” and the subsequent discussions in the comments section capture this debate nicely. (I recommend reading the comments section for thoughtful analysis and discussion. No, really.)

Reading different analyses of the season left me with many questions about the storytelling choices. Was the choice to present Bayley sympathetically an indictment of systemic racism and racist institutions, or was it a tone-deaf cop-out? Did Bayley’s flashbacks actually make him sympathetic, or did they portray him as a privileged mediocre white dude who coasted through life? Did the focus on her friends’ grief and anger show respect to the grief and anger felt by black people when a black person is murdered, or was that ruined with cheap comic scenes of Flaca/Maritza and Leanne/Angie goofing off and not taking the death seriously? Was the buildup to Poussey’s death after a season of happiness appropriately tragic, or was it just a little too pat, like she and Brook Soso were two days away from retirement and just bought a boat called the Live 4-Ever?

(Next season: Taystee and Soso team up to getMendoza!)

I could certainly have done without Flaca and Maritza’s stage-crying (even though I usually enjoy their scenes together), but the other questions weren’t as easy to answer, and they all lead to one larger, overarching question: did the show do justice to the issues important to Black Lives Matter while evoked real-life incidents of police killings of black people?

There’s no question that the writers intentionally referenced real-life incidents in their story. Poussey’s life was choked out of her and she couldn’t breathe, like Eric Garner, and her body was left on the ground for hours, like Michael Brown.

However, the events leading up to Poussey’s death were very different than the events preceding the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, or many other deaths of black people at the hands of the police.

While only racists and/or knee-jerking defenders of police could attempt to justify the actions of, say, Timothy Loehmann (the killer of Tamir Rice), even the most passionate Black Lives Matter supporters who watched the end of episode 12 would have to admit that Bayley killing Poussey was an accident. He only went to restrain Suzanne because Piscatella ordered him to (he was just following orders). He couldn’t restrain Suzanne without harming her and making the situation worse (he wasn’t properly trained). He held down Poussey when she grabbed him from behind while trying to help Suzanne (he couldn’t see who was attacking him). He held her to the ground and she slowly suffocated in the din of the chaos around him (it was a chaotic situation and everyone was confused and emotional).

In short, the show went out of its way to absolve Bayley of Poussey’s death even before he killed her.

The choice to make Bayley sympathetic isn’t necessarily a problem in of itself. Had Poussey’s killer been one of the meaner or more violent COs, it would be too easy for white viewers to disassociate themselves from that character. An overtly sadistic villain would be easier to tolerate than an entire dehumanizing system. In fact, in one of the smarter moves of the show, the company that owns the prison tries to make Bayley a one-dimensional villain in the media to make the death of a prisoner easier to swallow. An easy problem with an easy solution – get rid of that one violent guard and the violence problem is resolved!

The problem is that, while the show is clear on its position on violence, it is less clear on its position on systemic racist violence.

There’s no question that some of the other COs are completely terrible people. Humphrey is a sadist and Piscatella lacks empathy. They, more than Bayley, are at fault for Poussey’s death. If Humphrey had not terrorized Suzanne, Suzanne would not have had an episode, and if she didn’t have an episode, Piscatella wouldn’t have ordered Bayley to restrain “that animal.”

However, while they are terrible people, they are not necessarily racist terrible people.

Yes, Piscatella does give Maria Ruiz (a Dominican woman) an extra 3-5 years on her sentence, and Humphrey does hold a gun to Maritza (a Mexican woman) and forces her to eat a newborn mouse. But Piscatella also enjoys tormenting Red (a white Russian woman) and depriving her of sleep, and Humphrey enjoys pitting Sankey (a white woman) and Suzanne (a black woman) against each other in a fight. There’s little sense that either of them – or, in fact, any of the new COs – target women of color specifically. They’re mean, cruel, violent fucks, but they’re egalitarian, cruel, violent fucks. If Sankey yelled that “white lives matter,” Piscatella would cut her off to say, “Actually, NONE of your lives matter, criminals.”

The only indication that Piscatella is racist is his use of the term “animal” to describe an upset Suzanne, but given that the theme song of the show, “You’ve Got Time,” indirectly describes all of the prisoners as “animals,” it’s not clear that he used the term because she’s a black woman. He seems to share equal contempt for all of the prisoners (with the possible exception of Lolly, given that she was clearly delusional with a more obvious mental illness than even Suzanne. If he showed zero empathy to other prisoners, he showed maybe half a teaspoon of empathy for her.)

We did see plenty of overt racist comments come from other characters this season, but those characters were all other prisoners brought together by Piper “Oops I Created a Hate Group” Chapman, and none of them are meant to be taken seriously. They’re used as dark comic relief…until the violence from the COs becomes too much for them and they approach Taystee and Maria to join forces against a common enemy.

This brief detente is like a bizarre twist on the arguments you hear from white liberals when they ignore contributions from POC progressives – “Okay, we know racial relations and racism is a problem, but let’s put that aside and focus on the real issues here like corporate greed.”

Because the corporation of MCC, above all else, is portrayed as the real villain of the season. They’re the ones who wanted to hire untrained guards and cut corners. They’re the ones who immediately went to villainize Poussey and make a black woman responsible for her own death – but once they saw that the task was impossible due to her low-level crime, pretty face and smile, and respected military family, they changed course and decided to make Bayley the villain instead. They traded her photoshopped “thuggish” picture with his Halloween costume as Rambo.

In the eyes of MCC, a white straight man and a black lesbian woman were equally dispensable, both props in their corporate narrative.

But straight white men and black lesbian women are not viewed equally in our society. We cannot write off all of the ills in our society as the result of corporate greed. Male privilege, white privilege, and straight privilege are all challenged, but they still exist.

To make Bayley and Poussey equal victims of a colorblind classist system is egregious, but to make them equal victims in a storyline that obviously and explicitly refers to real-life events of police violence against black people is a different level of tone-deaf.

Ironically, the writers did seem aware of the differences in Bayley and Poussey’s privilege in the flashbacks that preceded Poussey’s death. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Bayley is shown getting a slap on the wrist for a low-level crime while Poussey gets 6 years in federal prison for a similar offense. But the events preceding and following her death indicate a different agenda – to place blame on systemic, corporate (but not necessarily race-based!) greed and show sensitivity to the feelings of white liberal viewers.

So – does Orange is the New Black do justice to Black Lives Matter?

In my estimation as an anti-racist white woman…Yes. And No.

I want to believe that the writers had a specifically anti-racist agenda, and I think they tried to implement it. I look at Caputo’s last action of the season, to reject the script MCC gave him and defend Bayley, and I believe that we’re meant to side with Taystee and the other inmates in anger and betrayal. I believe that, while Caputo had the best of intentions, he made the situation worse by erasing Poussey in his speech altogether, and we’re meant to empathize with but ultimately condemn this action.

But this is also a show that, a few episodes prior, had Linda From Purchasing hold a gun to Crystal Burset when she (Crystal) was defending her transgender wife. A white woman held a gun to a black woman’s face, and Caputo was turned on by this, and the scene was played for laughs.

This leads me to think that the writers believe that Black Lives Matter. They believe that  racism is bad…unless it can be played for comedy, and corporate greed is worse anyway.

Posted in Blog Posts | Leave a comment

Blog PostsTen Things White People Need to Quit Saying (And That This White Person Has Said)

Earlier today, the Huffington Post published a piece by Melody Moezzi called “Ten Things White People Need to Quit Saying.” Succinct and to the point, the article lists ten oft-repeated phrases by well-meaning (or at least not ill-intentioned) white people who don’t mean to be racist.

My friend posted this article on his timeline a few hours ago. As I read through the list, I cringed a few times because I have definitely participated in some of the behavior that Moezzi mentions – never with the intention of being racist or harmful, but out of ignorance and/or boneheadedness.

Let’s go through them one by one.

1. “Do not use the word ‘exotic’ to refer to humans who don’t look like you. We are not fruit, and it is not a compliment.”

I don’t think I’ve ever used this word to describe a person, but I did read it or hear it used in this context without seeing it as a problem. The first time I really thought about the meaning behind the word “exotic” was college, where one of my roommates related an anecdote about herself or someone she knew being described as “exotic.” She wasn’t very happy with the usage.

That’s when it first occurred to me that a word typically used to describe wild plants or animals could maybe be a bit insulting to people who have often been treated as less than human by people in power.

I did include “exotic” in my novel Fanged, where the protagonist describes one of his friends as “exotic-looking” and mentions that the friend is offended by that word “for some reason.” I intended for that passage to show the protagonist’s ignorance. Whether I succeeded in that goal or not is up to the reader to decide.

2. Do not use the word “ethnic” as though it were a distinct race or nationality.

I’m guilty of this one much more recently, probably a little over a year ago. I mentioned to someone that I wanted to get a variety of “ethnic” actors when we cast future projects for Second Star NYC.

What I really meant to say was that we wanted diverse casting. The intention was good, but I fumbled on the execution. That’s a lesson in connotation vs. denotation.

3. “Do not ask people where they’re from more than once.”

I learned this lesson back in 2008 when I started teaching in a middle school in Canarsie. The sixth grade social studies teacher on my floor had a strong accent that sounded Caribbean, but I couldn’t quite place it. During one conversation, I asked her, “Where are you from?” She curtly responded, “Brooklyn.”

That one word was all it took for me to understand exactly what was wrong with that question, and I never asked it again. Thankfully, she didn’t hold my mistake against me.

4. Avoid statements like, “Wouldn’t it be great to live during [insert any era during which the person you’re talking to couldn’t vote or own property]?”

I don’t understand how any woman asks this question. Almost any era where people of color weren’t allowed to vote or own property were the same eras where white women also had considerably fewer privileges than they do today.

You admire early 1960s fashion? Then go to a vintage store. We don’t need to travel back to that time. Unless it’s to stop the JFK assassination. (Why JFK in particular? Why isn’t 4/4/68 a Hulu series? I need to look into this.)

5. Resist the urge to ever say, “I have a lot of [fill in the blank with the racial, religious or ethnic group with which you are least familiar] friends.”

I’ve never used the “I have a lot of [fill in the blank] friends” as an excuse for a racist joke or express a racist attitude

But I have done the “ironic racist” bit, which is just as bad (or a little worse, or not quite as bad, depending on your point of view). I’d say a racist joke and then say, “I’m doing it ironically. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t really mean it. I’m making fun of the stereotype!”

I didn’t do that all the time, and I haven’t done that for maybe ten years, but I did it enough to make me cringe at that past behavior.

6. Remember that reverse racism isn’t a thing. Racism is about the abuse of power and privilege.

One day during my senior year of high school, I passed two girls of color in the hallway on the way to the bathroom. As soon as I was out of their line of vision, one of them exclaimed, “DAMN, that girl could glow in the dark, she’s so white!” The other girl said, “She can hear you!”

I related this anecdote every chance I could. Some people were appalled at the “racism” of these girls, making fun of me because I was white. Others didn’t bring race into it, but commented that it wasn’t very nice of them.

Me? I cracked up laughing.

See, I am very white. I’m not just culturally white. I am almost translucent.

I don't always make this face, though.

I don’t always make this face, though.

A lot of people teased me for being very pale. Most of the teasing came from boys, most of whom were also white. They called me Casper, they called me Snow White, they called me Flan (one of the more creative ones, I admit). They teased me about anything and everything. My whiteness was just one easy target to attack.

I didn’t conflate those girls’ reactions with the boys’ teasing. The first girl was just so shocked at my whiteness that she made a loud exclamation about it, and the other girl was appalled that I might have heard it, just struck me as so funny.

It never occurred to me to consider their behavior racist. How could they be racist against me if I’m white?

7. Unless you are one of “those people” making fun of other people calling you “those people,” then never say “those people.”

This reminds me of an episode of Community when Britta uses the “you people” mock outrage on Shirley, then gleefully says that she’s so glad she got to use the “you people” line, and Shirley is not impressed.

I have no deeper commentary on that. I miss Community.

8. Think before asking people to explain an entire race, religion, civilization or geographic region to you simply because they happen to identify with that background.

This is something that I think most of us have trouble navigating. We meet someone new from a different background. We don’t want to define this new person by his or her background, but our backgrounds have a profound influence on who we are, and what better way is there to get to know someone than by asking questions and showing interest?

If you can navigate this balance, please let me know.

9. Remember, we are not all from any one place. Pretending we are just makes you look delusional.

I totally relate to this! People should STOP asking me if I know this person they know from New Jersey because I used to live in New Jersey! It’s exactly the same as assuming all black people are from the same country!
(Note: this is absolutely nothing like assuming all black people are from the same country.)

10. Unless you have achromatopsia, never say “I don’t see color.”

But what if I’m a dog, huh? WHAT IF I’M A DOG?

In conclusion (or, why did you write this?)

I’m a white person who considers herself anti-racist, but that doesn’t mean I never make mistakes, and my past mistakes can’t all be chalked up to childhood or even adolescent ignorance.

I hope to lead by example to the other not-ill-intentioned white people who think they’ve never done anything racist.

Odds are, you have. Odds are, you probably will again. And if you care about being anti-racist, you should reflect on those mistakes and think about how you can do better next time.

Woof.

Posted in Blog Posts | 2 Comments

Blog PostsI Don’t Want to Write About Weight Loss, Part 2

I’m a feminist and I want to lose weight.

I wrote about this subject one month ago and received positive responses from friends and readers. A few people offered some good advice on how to approach weight loss. They told me that diets don’t work and looking at making a lifestyle change is the right way to go. They told me that it’s not anti-feminist to want to take care of my body and eat healthy food. They told me that they related to my story and appreciated my honesty, and that there are ways to adopt a healthier lifestyle and still treat myself to Shake Shack once a month.

I appreciated the comments, I responded to some of them, and I was grateful for the positive reactions, but I took every compliment with a grain of salt because none of them addressed a key part of my story.

Not that I blame anyone for that. They didn’t address a key part of my story because I didn’t talk about it in my original post.

I didn’t talk about my depression.

I was diagnosed with clinical depression in September 2014 after a mental and emotional breakdown. Since then, I have been in therapy and on medication to treat it. Since then, I have had many positive breakthroughs and made serious headway into becoming a happier, better me.

The biggest breakthrough I made was understanding that depression did not define me as a human being. It’s a part of me, and it’s something I will have to deal with for the rest of my life, but it’s not the most important thing about me.

But it’s still a beast lurking inside me, a dragon pacing in a den, ready to strike whenever it notices vulnerability. It breathes fire when it smells fear.

Sometimes that fear is panic about weight gain and a number on a scale – an admission that should surprise no one. Women are trained to be sensitive and obsessive about our weight from a early age, to the point where Reductress can publish “8 Adorable Swimsuits for Any Body Type But Yours” and it barely feels like satire.

It’s actually very good satire – no disrespect to the writer. But the humor is momentarily lost when you realize you’ve said almost those exact same things to yourself when trying on clothes or swimsuits in a store and seeing all the fat rolls and imperfections that you can only see in fluorescent lighting.

Body insecurity is not unusual for women, and depression makes it worse. Typical insecurities are magnified, enlarged, embiggened to the point where failing at your diet makes you feel entirely worthless and that gluttony is the deadliest of the 7 sins.

But there’s another aspect of my weight loss goals and my depression, and the intersection of the two, that has only recently become clear to me.

Depression is a mental illness that makes me feel hate myself. Liking myself, even for a small amount of time before the dragon wakes from her sleep and sends me into another cycle of crippling self-doubt, is a major accomplishment.

Why would I want to sabotage that accomplishment by thinking about my weight?

Thinking about my weight doesn’t make me happy. It doesn’t make me feel good about myself. It makes me feel frustrated and guilty when I don’t see the results I want in the time that I want them.

The depression exacerbates these feelings, and while the logical part of my brain tells me, “Well, you’ve eaten healthy food for a week and indulged in only small snacks, and you’re not supposed to lose more than a pound a week because it’s just water weight, so you’re on the right track! Just keep it up!” the depression drowns it out by shouting, “YOU HAVE NO WILLPOWER! YOU SUCK FOR SO MANY REASONS, AND THIS IS JUST ONE EXAMPLE OF HOW MUCH YOU SUCK!”

And sometimes I don’t want to deal with those feelings. I don’t want to go out of my way to eat extremely healthy foods when I know I’ll be tempted by something less nutritious later that day, and then feel guilty about indulging in a large serving of pasta. Instead, I’ll eat something that’s less healthy but not complete junk, something that won’t make me gain or lose much weight.

Exercising is easier for me than keeping to a healthy diet. I can move my body when I need to. I get more immediate satisfaction from exercising than from eating well. I feel the difference in my body. I feel stronger and faster and my muscles feel tighter. But I’ll still skip a session if I have the opportunity to spend time with friends or if I win tickets to Hamilton via the digital lottery (not yet, but keeping fingers crossed) because those things will bring me more instant happiness.

Immediate happiness and gratification is considered to be shallow and less meaningful than long-term happiness, but when I have a mental illness that makes happiness a challenge and self-loathing a default state, shouldn’t I grab every opportunity I can for any kind of happiness?

(Even now, I wonder if writing this blog post is the best use of my time, because I’ve had a solid week of feeling good about myself and I’m worried about sabotaging it by writing about my depression. At the same time, I promised that I would update my blog every week and it’s been a month since my last post, and if I delay writing any more, I know I will feel worse in the long run.)

So I put the weight loss goal in the back of my mind. I try to focus on eating until I’m full and not overeating just because food tastes good. I try to eat small portions and drink a lot of water. I try to exercise to make myself stronger and faster and more capable. And I enjoy a girls’ night out with close friends as we indulge in cocktails and nachos, saying we’re not that hungry and will just pick at the chips and cheese, but turning ourselves into liars and devouring the whole platter in five minutes.

And for a moment, I think about how weight management is overrated, and how, after years of feeling friendless, I wouldn’t trade this night of nacho and cocktail indulgence for anything in the world, much less a loss of 15 pounds.

And then I remember how some moments of our female bonding were inspired by the presence of the nachos – how we exclaimed that we weren’t that hungry, how we inhaled the cheese and chips and jalapenos, how we commented on how quickly we ate that cheese and chips and jalapenos, and how funny it was when we ate so much despite claiming not to be hungry.

Eating the food wasn’t enough. We had to comment on how we ate the food and how much we ate on a night of celebrating a friend’s birthday.

And the cycle begins again.

 

 

Posted in Blog Posts | Leave a comment

Blog PostsI Don’t Want to Write About Weight Loss

I’m a feminist and I want to lose weight.

That shouldn’t be a loaded statement. Those two concepts (being a feminist and having a weight loss goal) shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. But I feel conflicted, resentful, and a little dirty for typing those words.

Because feminism is supposed to be about “loving yourself” and “appreciating my body” and “rejecting beauty standards imposed on us by the media.” I’m supposed to be okay with the fact that my metabolism slows down after turning thirty, and take it in stride that I’m not going to weigh the same at thirty-one as I did at twenty-five, and that gaining five to ten or even fifteen pounds over six years is not gaining that much weight.

But then it became impossible to ignore the fact that, no matter the reason for gaining weight, I had a few pairs of perfectly good pants that didn’t fit me anymore.

And that’s when I decided that I needed to try to drop some of those pounds, because losing a little weight and making a few lifestyle changes in my dieting habits was more practical than buying black pants and pencil skirts one size larger.

So I became another woman trying to lose weight. Sort of.

What I basically look like. Never mind that this was taken at an event for women artists and I was reading from my novel – I’m focused on how I look in this picture.

I took the advice of a good friend and downloaded an app that would let me track my calories, and I made a promise to myself that I would continue to eat the foods I enjoyed most, just in moderation.

I was so proud of myself. Not just proud, but smug. I wasn’t going to be one of those people who went from scarfing down burgers and processed foods every day to munching on carrot sticks and dreaming about the junk food I really wanted to eat. I was smarter than that, and I never ate that much processed food to begin with. Making the transition to healthier eating would be a piece of cake – a small but satisfying piece of cake eaten in moderation while I filled the rest of my diet with more healthful options.

One of my strategies towards healthier eating worked quite well. I took the “5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day” recommendation to heart and planned my daily meals around plants. Then I worked backwards and made sure that I planned for enough protein and grains for the day. It was surprisingly easy to fit those daily recommended amounts into my diet. I found the fruits and vegetables I liked best and looked forward to my daily side dish of garlicky kale. (I live in Queens now, not Brooklyn, but I’m pretty sure I’m still allowed to like kale.)

The rest of my Plan for Healthy Living (I won’t call it a diet) has met with mixed success.

The app I use to track my caloric intake is a good one. It works, for the few days a week I choose to follow it. But it only takes a few days for me to feel angry and annoyed that I’m tracking my calories in the first place. I grew up with a father who cooks like an Italian grandma, and while he believed in healthy eating, he also emphasized that food is culture, food is life, and food is meant to be enjoyed.

Nothing sucks the joy out of eating like the numbers on a calorie-tracking app letting me know that even though you ate all your vegetables and had a high-fiber breakfast, 10% of your daily fat intake came from saturated fat when it should have been 7% or less, and maybe you should’ve had a third of a cup of ice cream instead of a half.

But then I think of those pants that no longer fit, that are juuuust too tight for me to wear comfortably, hanging in the closet unused when they go with every single top I own. I remember that the 7% saturated fat rule comes from the American Heart Association, and that cutting back fat is about long-term health, not vanity.

And then I start over again, thinking that this time, I’m really going to follow this weight loss plan until I’m at my goal. After a few days, I notice that I feel full and satiated after eating smaller portions of food more slowly, and I no longer have that bloated feeling I get when I eat to excess because it tastes good.

That lasts for another week. Then a co-worker buys Shake Shack for lunch, and then I can think about nothing but having my own Shake Shack meal for lunch, even though I have perfectly tasty, nutritious, homemade leftovers sitting in the fridge.

Then I feel guilty for “cheating” on my diet, like having a burger and fries with a milkshake for lunch one day is a moral failing, akin to cheating on an exam or a partner.

Then I either a) resolve to be extra “good” with my Plan for Healthy Eating the next week or b) give up completely and eat an entire pint of ice cream, because what does it matter, I’m going to fail anyway.

And then I take a minute to reflect on the ridiculousness of the situation that I’ve put myself in, where the simple act of eating food – something we all need to do to survive – is fraught with expectations, guilt, and a dichotomy of accomplishment vs. failure. I think about the number of people putting themselves through the same situation. I wonder how much more we could all accomplish, individually and collectively, if we stopped obsessing over weight.

But then I think about those perfectly good pants, how I want to cry when I squeeze into them and feel that they’re tighter than they were two years ago, how my sense of worth is momentarily stripped away because I can’t fit into them anymore. My character and accomplishments become meaningless because my pants don’t fit and my face is a little fuller than it used to be.

Then I tell myself that I’m really doing this for my heart. And I begin the cycle again.

Posted in Blog Posts | 1 Comment

Novels, Fiction & SillinessBear Me the Darkness

When I formed Second Star NYC with my friends and colleagues, we were primarily interested in comedy. We had come together after making as series of sketch comedy videos for The Dan & Matt Show, and we spent months writing our inaugural sitcom, Working Title. We hoped to spend our time developing our filmmaking skills through the lens of different comedic projects.

That changed when we started the 7-day film challenge and discovered that we had more stories to tell.

Our latest film, “Bear Me the Darkness,” is an examination of love, relationships, and depression. I am so proud of Knilo Solei for her wonderful script, Matthew Willings for his excellent direction, Dan de Jesus for his beautiful cinematography, the actors for their performances, and the rest of our team for making this come to life. I’m proud to have served as the production sound mixer for this film.

You can watch it at the link below:

https://vimeo.com/157849995

Posted in Novels, Fiction & Silliness | 1 Comment

Blog PostsWhen Financial Privilege Isn’t Everything: On Gwyneth Paltrow and Her Stalker

The issue of wealth inequality is a subject that has been on many minds recently, and for good reason. An article in The Guardian published in January reported that the richest 62 people own as much wealth as half of the world’s population. (HALF.) The wealth gap is widening, wages continue to stagnate, and the moneyed class yells “bootstraps” to the poorer classes and blames them when they can’t eat bootstraps for dinner.

There have always been engaged citizens and politicians talking about the wealth gap and how it manifests in different ways, but there are specific times in recent memory where a particularly engaged and active group shoves the conversation to the forefront and forces everyone to talk about it. I’m thinking specifically of the Occupy Wall Street movement beginning in 2011 and the Democratic primary with the surge and unexpected (to some people) success of Bernie Sanders.

I supported Occupy Wall Street from the minute that they set up camp at Zucotti Park, and I signed up for Bernie Sanders’s mailing list shortly after that. I was angry and frustrated by the callous indifference to the middle class, the people in my generation struggling with crushing debt, and most of all, to poor people. I was convinced that the gap between the rich and the poor was not only an issue, but THE issue, and if wealth could be redistributed, most of the world’s injustice would be solved.

Years later, I still know that the wealth gap is a huge problem and that the American Dream is a dangerous fantasy used to blame the poor for their inability to climb the social ladder. But there are many other prejudices and biases ingrained in our society that can set up people to fail even when they enjoy many other privileges.

Consider, for instance, Gwyneth Paltrow.

Gwyneth Paltrow is about as privileged as a person can get. She was born directly into the film industry to an actress and a writer/producer and had connections that many performers can only dream of having. She has an Oscar and many acclaimed film roles. She has her own very important (according to her) lifestyle blog called Wealthy White Woman Weekly (or something like that) and now spends most of her free time educating busy women on how to better their lives by adapting her privileged white rich lifestyle to theirs.

Some people are infuriated by her lack of awareness about her own privilege. Many of us (including me) just like to laugh at her because we find her hilariously clueless in thinking that poor women have access to delivery from their favorite fishmongers.

But I’m not laughing about the recent court decision to let her stalker go free.

This stalker was acquitted in the early 2000s, found not guilty by reason of insanity. He’s sent her “love” letters, sexually graphic material, and according to Paltrow, has said that he wanted to use a scalpel to “cut out her sin.”

He also committed himself to a mental institution in the past and tried to contact her since then, but said that his recent attempts at contact were to apologize for his previous behavior. He’s also said that he just wanted a “pen pal.” The jury acquitted him because they could not find sufficient evidence that he intended to hurt Paltrow, even though they said they understood why she felt threatened by him.

I’m not writing this post to question the decision of the judge and the jury from a legal perspective – I don’t know enough details of the case to determine that. I am questioning the cultural narratives and biases that may have come into play here.

Why is a man who claims insanity given the benefit of the doubt when he repeats his disturbing behavior even after taking steps to correct his actions? Why is he taken at his word when he said he only wanted a “pen pal?” (There are organizations that provide that service, after all.

Did the jury collectively decide that, you know what, the world has stigmatized mental illness for too long, and a man who sought help from an institution clearly mended his ways?

I somehow doubt it.

I suspect that, perhaps, members of the jury believed cultural narratives about stalking being romantic at best and pitiful and sad at worst, and let him off because he didn’t mean to be threatening.
So he gets acquitted, and Gwyneth Paltrow sleeps less easily at night knowing that her stalker has been given a pass.

All of the wealth and privilege that went along with being a daughter of Hollywood quasi-royalty, all of the wealth and privilege that came along with being a thin, conventionally pretty, cisgendered white woman didn’t stop a stalker from undermining Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal safety.

Sometimes I enjoy making fun of Gwyneth Paltrow’s wealth and cluelessness, but I’m not right now. Right now, I’m glad she makes a ridiculous amount of money so she can afford protection for herself and her family.

I’m also simultaneously sad for the victims of stalking who don’t have access to those same resources and whose lives could very easily come to a much sadder end.

This is just one example of how wealth and fame can’t always save people from those who want to do them harm. I haven’t even touched on poor Kesha.

The wealth gap needs to be addressed, but a fix in the economy isn’t a cure-all for the world’s problems. Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism, classism, all sorts of isms, are all separate issues that needed to be addressed on their own AND together as a whole – a difficult task, but not an impossible one.

Posted in Blog Posts | Leave a comment

Blog PostsBringing Back the Blog

It’s been a year to the date since my last blog post. What have I been up to since then?

Well.

- I co-founded Second Star NYC, an independent film production company established to produce projects highlighting artists from underrepresented demographics, particularly women and people of color.

- Since last February, we’ve produced 9 short films as part of our 7-day film challenge, where we take audience suggestions and turn them into films in 7 short days. In addition to producing these films, I’ve also served as production assistant on a few sets and run the boom mic to familiarize myself more with every aspect of production.

- I wrote one of the short films, “Pancakes,” and I’m proud of how it turned out. My first screenplay for Second Star NYC was a drama, and no one was more surprised than I was that I was inspired to write something that wasn’t a comedy. You can watch it here. (That’s also my brother Luke co-starring in the film!)

- We launched a successful Indiegogo campaign to raise money for our inaugural series, Working Title, (a series we all co-wrote), about six film rejects who are fired from the set of an independent film and band together to make their own movie.

- We filmed 2/3rds of the necessary footage for Working Title and got to view some of the rough cuts for the episodes.

And that’s just the work I’ve done with Second Star NYC.

I’ve also hosted trivia two nights a week, joined the team of trivia writers, held down a meaningful 9-5 (well, 8:30-4:30) job in a nonprofit organization for children with autism, written short stories and worked on a novel, and fallen in love.

Being busy with all of those different creative projects made it easy for me to let the blog slide. But I’ve missed it, and that’s why I’m reviving it a year after my last post.

Thank you to my email subscribers and followers on Twitter for commenting, liking, sharing, and reading what I’ve had to write in the past few years. I’ve been on hiatus, but I’m back. Expect a new post on a weekly basis.

Posted in Blog Posts | 3 Comments

ReviewsA Review of Hypokrit Theater Company’s “Romeo and Juliet”

People discovering Romeo and Juliet for the first time, whether reading the play in high school or watching one of the several popular film adaptations, are often the same age as the two main characters. Their innocence and ability to be swept up in love while their parents fight is the main reason for the play’s appeal, and anyone who has viewed multiple productions can predict that naivete to drive the tragedy.

The Romeo and Juliet in Hypokrit Theater Company’s Bollywood-inspired production (played by Brent White and Brinda Dixit in the second cast) lack this naivete that an audience would come to expect. Their leading tragic protagonists aren’t completely new to love and romance. When they first lay eyes on each other at the Capulet party, Juliet doesn’t blush and look away. When they meet each other and speak for the first time, they don’t sound like people who have never flirted before.

These star-crossed lovers are a little more mature and worldly than previous Romeos and Juliets, and this isn’t the only way in which Hypokrit Theater Company’s production differs from more traditional interpretations of the play. Juliet’s nurse (played by a very funny and winning Monique Sanchez in the second cast) is not only the comic highlight of the show, but portrayed as roughly the same age as Juliet, rather than the motherly figure who raised Juliet more than Lady Capulet did. (Lines about Juliet being the “prettiest babe e’er I nursed” are altered or removed accordingly.) The part of Benvolio is played by actress Nikita Chaudhry as a cute and tomboyish gal pal of Romeo and Mercutio, adding a new layer to a usually thankless role of “that other Montague who speaks exposition.”

All of these choices are made to fit a particular aesthetic and to adapt Shakespeare’s classic to a more modern Bollywood theme. The nurse is young because heroines in Bollywood films typically have confidantes in their age range. Benvolio is a woman because love triangles are a popular plot device in Bollywood films. And Romeo and Juliet have a touch of maturity even in the early scenes because innocence isn’t a concept in the Delhi portrayed in the play.

Putting a new spin on Shakespeare is a difficult task, but not an impossible one when the artistic team has a clear vision of the project, and Hypokrit Theater Company, led by artistic directors and co-founders Arpita Mukherjee and Shubra Prakash, has a very defined vision of adapting a classic tale for a particular genre. Some lines and important scenes are cut and rearranged to fit the Bollywood aesthetic, and while I missed some of those lines (I particularly mourned the loss of “she doth teach the torches to burn bright”), it was clear that none of them were cut without careful thought.

The result is a well-paced, entertaining Romeo and Juliet that captures the spirit of the play while providing a fresh take and exposing the New York theater scene to a diverse cast of talented actors. I look forward to seeing what classic play Hypokrit takes on next – I would love to see them apply the Bollywood sensibility to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Hypokrit Theater Company’s Romeo and Juliet is playing at the Access Theater at 380 Broadway from February 7 to February 22, with performances at 8 PM on Wednesdays through Sundays and 2 PM performances on Saturdays and Sundays.

Posted in Reviews | Leave a comment

Blog PostsNovels, Fiction & SillinessWhy I Chose to Self-Publish

I worked on my first novel, Fanged, for three and a half years. The story went through several revisions before it was ready to be published, not least because I had three planned sequels to consider, and each time I revised the first book, I had to keep the plots of the subsequent books in mind. But the time finally came when I was ready to get my novel out to the world, and I had a choice between pursuing the traditional route and self-publishing.

It took only a few agent rejections for me to research the self-publishing route and decide that this was the path for me.

The few rejections from agents I received didn’t make me doubt that my novel was good. All of my beta readers enjoyed it and gave me honest criticism, and I knew I had written an entertaining page-turner that also had substance. I had received positive feedback from fans of vampire novels and from vampire newbies – “I’m not really into vampires but I loved your book!”

Literary agents, however, aren’t only looking for books that are good, but books that they think will sell. And I, a first-time author who wrote a vampire book, wasn’t (in their minds) someone who was going to sell.

Knowing what stories will sell and which ones won’t is almost impossible to predict, especially when you’re a writer of genre fiction. Vampires come in and out of style all the time, and I was sending query letters for Fanged once the vampire fad had started to die out. There wasn’t room for me in a saturated market.

That’s why I decided to make my own market and self-publish my book.

I could have applied to agent after agent until I received an acceptance letter. Maybe that would have worked. I had only received 10 rejection letters, fewer than J.K. Rowling received for Harry Potter. I could have plugged away, and maybe I would have eventually been successful.

But I knew that I didn’t want to wait any longer to have a copy of my own book in my hands, to look at the cover and think, “I wrote this.”

Sometimes when I have writer’s block or feel discouraged about the writing process, I pick up a copy of my own book and remind myself, “I wrote a whole book.”

There are few feelings more satisfying than holding your own creation in your hands after years of hard work and dedication.

I might not try the self-publishing route every time I finish a creative project. I will definitely try the agent route again in the future. But I’m glad I self-published book #1.

Because when your father’s doctor’s aide looks at the patient chart, recognizes the last name, and asks him, “Are you the father of Theresa Basile, who wrote Fanged?” you know you’ve done something right.

Posted in Blog Posts, Novels, Fiction & Silliness | Tagged | Leave a comment

Blog PostsAre You Now, or Have You Ever Been, a Feminist?

2014 seemed to be the year of female celebrities saying that they weren’t feminists. From Shailene Woodley to Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, young actresses and singers have answered the question, “Are you a feminist?” with responses like this one:

“I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance. With myself, I’m very in touch with my masculine side. And I’m 50 percent feminine and 50 percent masculine, same as I think a lot of us are. And I think that is important to note. And also I think that if men went down and women rose to power, that wouldn’t work either. We have to have a fine balance.” – Shailene Woodley

“I’m very proud of being a woman, and as a woman, I don’t even like the word feminism because when I hear that word, I associate it with women trying to pretend to be men, and I’m not interested in trying to pretend to be a man. I don’t want to embrace manhood, I want to embrace my womanhood.” – Evangeline Lilly

These quotes indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of what feminism is. Even in 2014, women in the media still equated feminism with thinking women are superior to men, putting women in a dominant position over men, and thinking women should act more traditionally masculine.

I have no doubt that we will continue to hear female celebrities publicly misinterpret feminism in 2015. Online magazines and commenters will continue to criticize these women, and the cycle will go on.

What I’d like to know is when journalists plan on routinely asking male celebrities if they’re feminists.

Feminism at its core is about equality among the sexes. Yet for some reason, only female celebrities are regularly asked whether or not they’re feminists.

Should we not be equally concerned that men also believe in equality among the sexes?

Forgive the imperfect comparison, but it would be a little strange if only black celebrities were asked whether or not they believe in anti-black racism?

I’m reminded of the interesting decision by The Today Show to cancel their interview with Amy Adams because she allegedly didn’t want to talk about the information revealed in the Sony hack that she received less payment for American Hustle than her male co-stars. Meanwhile, they didn’t ask Bradley Cooper any questions about the Sony hack when they interviewed him a few days earlier.

There seems to be a pattern here of questioning women whether or not they believe in gender equality and how they fare in a world with male privilege, and not questioning men whether or not they believe in gender equality and how they feel about benefiting from male privilege.

And we wonder why there’s so much confusion about what feminism really means. How can we expect female celebrities to embrace gender quality when the very question about gender quality is only posed to women?

I’m sure the question is well-intentioned…sometimes.

Other times, I have the distinct feeling that journalists aren’t asking these questions because they really care about feminism. They’re asking because responses to that question always trend, and articles deconstructing those responses also trend.

From now on, I’m not going to judge female celebrities’ responses to the “Are you a feminist?” question until male celebrities are routinely asked the same question. When the question is only posed to female celebrities, the implication is that only women should care about gender equality – and that’s kind of the opposite of what feminism is supposed to mean.

 

Posted in Blog Posts | Leave a comment