ArticlesReview: the Beautiful Intensity of Female Friendships in “Let’s Get Ready Together”

Photo credit: Ashley Garrett

(This review was originally published on Manhattan with a Twist on June 5, 2018.)

Let’s Get Ready Togetherwritten by Lizzie Stern and directed by Lily Riopelle, is a story about the friendship between three young women navigating their first semester of college. It is a story about daughters separated from their mothers for the first time, and the young women’s need for continued closeness with their mothers, conflicting with their desire for independence. It is a story about the way women talk with one another and past each other, and how the need to be heard can clash with the responsibility to listen.

It is an ambitious play, exploring multiple layers of different relationships in only ninety minutes’ time, capturing essential elements of the college experience in a way that leaves the audience feeling as though they’ve been transported back to their own dorm room.

An early scene depicts the three main characters (Ella, Nina, and Clara) taking part in an RA-mandated “getting to know you” game: Two Truths and a Lie. Within minutes, the young women (played by Rachel B. Joyce, Marieta Carrero, and Arielle Goldman) lay out some of their deepest insecurities and fears with buoyant energy. They come from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, but their relief in sharing their secrets creates an instant bond between them.

This bond carries them through the social challenges universal for college freshmen – navigating parties, fretting about Parents’ Day, negotiating new romantic and sexual experiences, creating the perfect BFF selfie – until a hate crime on campus upends their relationship. Nina, suddenly, can no longer focus on the day-to-day college experience or even her declared major (she’s the only one of her friends who has one), because an ethnic slur carved in a dining hall table has shaken her to her core. She can’t find comfort in her new best friends, who care deeply about her but can’t understand the depth of her pain. The differences between the characters, once a complementary force in their friendship, are thrown into focus and become a source of interpersonal and internal conflict.

Most of the drama takes place in the middle of a dorm room in the center of the small stage. The room sometimes belongs to Ella, sometimes to Nina, and sometimes to Clara. The fluid way in which the room becomes one character’s room, and then another’s, highlights the universal experience of being a confused first-year student, while simultaneously giving their individual struggles room to grow. Ella is secure in her sexual identity but uncomfortable with exploring sexual pleasure. Nina, in addition to finding her place as a first-generation Latina student on a white-dominated New England campus, tries to balance her excitement of pursuing her lifelong dream and her homesickness for her mother. Clara struggles to manage her social anxiety and explore the confusing identity of being a Jewish woman in America (declaring once, innocently and a bit defensively, “I’m Jewish – I’m not that white!”).

The last scene between Nina and her mother (Ruth Aguilar) feels a bit abrupt, as though the play doesn’t quite know how to end. Perhaps this is intentional to show how little of life can be resolved after two months of college. Or maybe the play is just reluctant to say goodbye to these complex, beautifully crafted characters portrayed by a universally strong cast. I was left wanting more time with Ella, Nina, Clara, and the other women in their lives. I wanted to see the people they would become at the end of their first semester. Anyone who goes to The Tank for the run of Let’s Get Ready Together is likely to feel the same way.

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ArticlesReview: Collaborative Energy Shines in “Martyrs”

Photo by Theo Cote

(This review was originally published on Manhattan with a Twist on May 8, 2018.)

Martyrs, a new play at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club written by Romana Soutus, raises a question regarding plurals. The press release and website advertise the play as “a convent slumber party turned upside down as tensions rise and relationships erupt. Cats and Kittens let you in on midnight whispers between sisters.”

The play itself has three actresses (Lindsay Rico, Kayla Jackmon, Madison Fae) as the Cats, the leaders of the group of women gathered in a space that looks like a comfortable room in the midst of an underground bunker surrounded by barbed wire. Six actresses play their respective Kittens, younger women who look to their Cats for wisdom, affection, and nourishment of the mind and soul.

In the program, the characters are listed as “Cat 1, Cat 2, and Cat 3,” and the same format is used for the six Kittens. Yet the play leaves a question in the audience’s mind that is never answered – are there nine women in this bunker, or two? Are the Cats three separate women or three sides of the same person?

When a Kitten slaps one Cat in the face in an act of anger and defiance, all three Cats react to the pain. If a Cat asks a Kitten a question, more than one might answer. But every Cat and Kitten uses the word “I,” not “we,” when referring to herself, and when Cat 2 tells the story of Creation, one Kitten eagerly adopts the role of the Serpent, three other Kittens listen with varying levels of interest, and two turn their heads and fall asleep during the performance.

The three Cats also have clearly defined personalities. Rico’s Cat 1 is a fierce general, the clear leader of the three, managing to be both cold and passionate at the same time. Jackmon’s Cat 2 is the most maternal and warm, inviting her brood of Kittens to share her experience. Fae’s Cat 3 seems least prepared for the responsibilities of leading a group of younger women, easily flustered and frustrated, as though she were a big sister thrust into the role of a mom. Yet all three Cats react in sync when the Kittens disobey them, and they all have the same desire: to be “lifted,” and achieve enlightenment.

In another play, this ambiguity could lead to frustration and confusion on the part of an audience member. The question of the characters’ identities lingers throughout Martyrs, and while it is occasionally distracting, the ambiguity is largely a feature of the production rather than a bug. Whether each Cat or Kitten represents multiple women or one woman each, the play still works as a rich, emotional portrayal of the relationships women have with one another, with themselves, and with their bodies.

The strength of the play lies in the collaborative nature of the production. Martyrs was written by Romana Soutus and developed with and directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh, and imagining the conversations between playwright and director to develop the story is worthy of its own play. The actresses have a natural, effortless chemistry, encompassing all of the intense emotions inherent in relationships between women.

The most surprising part of Martyrs is the twist on the mentor/student dynamic. The Kittens alternate between disobeying the Cats and begging for their approval, but they also worry about the Cats more than their older counterparts worry about them. The daughters are encouraging their mothers to eat when the mothers refuse food; the little sisters reassure their big sisters that they are “good enough” and worthy of love. Living in a world where women are socialized to be hard on themselves, I wondered if Martyrs was a hopeful statement about the power of the younger generation – how today’s teenage girls and young women will grow up to be more accepting of their bodies and less hard on themselves for failing to achieve perfection.

There were moments during Marytrs where I wished the script was less vague in its purpose and in its dialogue. I wanted the play to be more direct about why these women were having this slumber party and what they hoped to achieve from it. I wanted to know more about their relationships before they entered this bunker. I wanted less time with karaoke machines and looking for double meanings behind Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” and more time focusing on the uncomfortable parallels between the language of a devout, fasting nun and a teenage girl with an eating disorder.

Mostly, however, I wish I had taken a friend to see the show so we could have spent the train ride home talking about it. There would have been a lot to say.

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Articles‘The Simpsons’ Helps My Family Connect with My Autistic Brother

(image courtesy Fox)

(This article was originally published on Vice on November 2, 2017.)

By Theresa Basile

Some siblings show their love with a high five, an inside joke, or a punch in the shoulder. My brother Daniel, an adult on the autism spectrum, has his own way of showing his affection: letting me choose the episode of The Simpsons to watch half an hour before dinner.

“You already watched ‘Kamp Krusty’ this morning,” I remind him. “Can I pick this episode?” “Yes,” he says, a hint of mistrust in his voice, though his face relaxes slightly when I choose a disc from the same season. Including mandatorySimpsons breaks in a daily routine sounds like every fan’s dream, but in our house, it’s a necessity. If there’s one rule we live by, it’s doing whatever we can to make Daniel’s life easier, which includes scheduling his day around the misadventures of our favorite family.

Like many autistic people, Daniel has limited verbal and communication skills. Most of our interactions with him involve a lot of echolalia, as he repeats our words back to us to demonstrate comprehension (“Did you have a good day?” “Have a good day. Yes.”). He also has many anxieties that he can’t express through words, though we can see it in the way he carries his body: when he fidgets his fingers, or darts his nervous eyes around the room.

His anxiety is eased whenever there is regular order in his schedule: going to work, taking a bath, eating dinner with family. Weekends are more difficult—longer days with less structured time—and we fill them with long walks, swimming at the YMCA, and church, with its blessed foundation of routine, prayers, and songs.

My mother was the one who encouraged regular church attendance for Daniel, and coincidentally, was also the one to cement the role of The Simpsons in our lives. She first watched the show to prove to nine-year-old me that she was rightto ban it because of Bart’s bad influence. After watching “A Streetcar Named Marge,” she became a fan instead, and waiting for new episodes every Sunday became as much of a family tradition as church.

Mom and Dad watched the show for its literary and 1970s cultural references, while my brother Luke and I enjoyed the absurdity and rapid-fire jokes. I’m not sure what about The Simpsons specifically appeals to Daniel, as he lacks the language to tell us. It could be the bright colors and the animation. It might be the broad physical humor and silly sound effects—I still remember him giggling for a minute straight while watching Homer twiddle his thumbs and sing to himself.

Image courtesy Fox

Whatever makes him a fan, he doesn’t go a day without watching at least one episode. As my father Michael puts it, “The Simpsons provides some measure of order for Daniel. Surely the producers of the long-running show could not have predicted that an autistic young man would use their 22-minute episodes to know when dinner is to be served. ‘One more Simpsons’ is a common statement in our house.”

The show has become such a necessity that we ordered a second copy of season four to be delivered, rush shipping, to our annual vacation spot in upstate New York when we realized we left it back at our house. Daniel would need the comforting familiarity of “Kamp Krusty” and the other episodes on disc one to ease his anxiety over our vacation’s breaks in his routine. But far more than a schedule-filler, The Simpsons is a way for us to connect with him.

Daniel knows the words to every original song on the show, including all of the clothing items listed in “See My Vest,” and we can trust him to fill in the blanks when we sing it together on our Sunday walks. When Luke and I engage in lengthy quote-offs at the dinner table, Daniel will pop in with a quiet “Lisa needs braces” in response to a call of “Dental plan!” We know we can get a sly grin out of him when we imitate Homer; he’s not even afraid to give his own “D’oh!” every once in a while. 

I wonder if the show speaks to him because it’s a story about a family: five weirdos who have silly arguments, get into ridiculous situations, and at the end of the day still love each other. Maybe he sees us in these strange animated creatures, art reflecting life and life reflecting art. Daniel is the middle child. If we were Simpsons characters, he’d be the Lisa in terms of birth order. But he’s really the Maggie of our clan: He’s the smallest of the group, he says very little, and there’s a lot going on behind those watchful eyes, including love for his family.

So when we let him watch an extra Simpsons before dinner, it’s not just so we can enjoy the show ourselves—we do it for him.

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Blog PostsAdvice for White Women From a White Woman

Photo by Kevin Banatte

Photo by Kevin Banatte

There’s something very specific about being a white woman in the United States. We have a privileged status because of our skin color, but experience disadvantages due to our gender. That intersection of whiteness and womanhood makes us convenient objects for the white supremacist movement, as those deplorable leaders will uphold the image of the pure white woman as victims of men of color who want to “prey” upon us, while also treating us as vessels to reproduce and maintain the white race.

Take the tragic death of Heather Heyer, a white anti-racist activist who died when a Nazi plowed into her with his car. The editor of The Daily Stormer called her a “fat, childless slut” who had failed to do her only duty in life, which was to have white babies.

It would be ignorant, however, to pretend that white supremacy is only upheld by white men, and white women are simply tools in their master plan, having no agency of their own. In the 1920s, white women were active participants in the Ku Klux Klan and in some ways more successful than their male counterparts (yay feminism?) Almost 100 years later, white women continue to participate in white supremacy: women like Lana Lokteff (who resembles an evil Kristen Bell) run their own “alt-right” media companies and spread propaganda maintaining the superiority of the white race.

And 53% of white women who voted in the 2016 election voted for Donald Trump.

Like many Americans, I was almost paralyzed with shock and dismay on November 9, 2016. The previous day had started on a note of energy and celebration and quickly devolved into despair and fear. I couldn’t believe that this was my country, and I especially couldn’t believe that a slim majority of white women voters would choose a misogynist sexual assaulter over an immensely qualified woman.

I was shocked, but people of color were not. My Twitter feed was filled with people of color expressing their dismay but complete lack of surprise that white women would betray their gender. One that struck me in particular: “Black women have been trying to tell us for YEARS that white women will choose their race over their gender, every time. And here we are.”

Here we are, indeed.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I first started to realize that many people of color don’t see white women as any more trustworthy than white men. I naively, and selfishly, thought that the systemic sexism we faced put us closer to our friends of color than white men. I wasn’t ignorant of racism among white women, but like the #notallmen crowd, believed deep down that the racist white women were the outliers.

Perhaps they are. Perhaps most white individually are not personally, hatefully racist. But we are ALL complicit in systemic racism and white supremacy, even if we find racism and white supremacy repugnant.

Realizing that white women en masse are no better than white men on the subject of race was an uncomfortable epiphany.

I have some advice for other white women experiencing a similar epiphany: don’t ignore that discomfort.

Sit with it. Ruminate on it. Think about how you can do better. Resist the temptation to say #notallwhitewomen; reflect on how similar that is to #notallmen and how much we dislike it when men try to disown their complicity in inaction.

Listen to black people. Listen to black women in particular when they talk about their complicated feelings about the feminist movement.

Quash the impulse to make your discomfort all about you and your white guilt. Take that discomfort and turn it into righteous anger to fight against racial injustice.

It’s not easy to come to terms with your culpability in an oppressive system when you’ve tried to be a good person in your life. But as Albus Dumbledore said, we all have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy.

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Blog PostsWhat Counts as a Strong Female Character, Anyway?

Photo by Chuck Zlotnick - © 2017 CTMG, Inc.

Photo by Chuck Zlotnick – © 2017 CTMG, Inc.

Yesterday, I saw Spider-Man Homecoming during a matinee at the Alamo Drafthouse. My boyfriend and I laughed and applauded for almost two hours straight through mouthfuls of truffle butter Parmesan popcorn, enjoying, finally, a Spider-man movie that truly embraced the humor in Peter Parker and his Spidey alter-ego.

Today, I looked at reviews of the film and one in particular caught my eye – The Mary Sue’s Spider-Man Homecoming and the Bechdel Test. On The Mary Sue’s Facebook page, the line above the link reads, “The new Spider-Man has strong female characters, but…” and most of the article points out how none of the women in the film have scenes with each other.

They’re not wrong with that observation, but I’m still distracted by that line on the Facebook page. The new movie has strong female characters? Really?

There are three women in the film who are important in some way to Peter Parker – his aunt May and two of his classmates and co-members of the academic decathlon team, one of whom he has a crush on. (I’m avoiding using their names for a reason.) All three of them are well-played by the respective actresses (Marisa Tomei, Laura Harrier, and Zendaya). They all have distinct personalities. Zendaya in particular has some of the funniest laugh lines of the script in the most unexpected moments, and it was refreshing to see an Aunt May with a playful sense of humor who does more than grieve for her husband and worry over Peter.

But does that make them strong?

After watching and enjoying almost every moment of both Guardians of the Galaxy movies but being very disappointed that Gamora is the only team member who never gets to be funny, the wit and energy that came from Aunt May and Peter’s classmates was a delightful change of pace.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that Spider-Man Homecoming is a male-driven story, and all of the interesting backstories and clearest character motivations are reserved for the male characters. Peter Parker wants to help people while also having adventures and find meaning in his life. The Vulture wants to provide for his family and will do anything to reach that goal, including criminal activities. Tony Stark wants to mentor Peter and mold him into a better superhero than Iron Man is. And Ned wants to be “the guy in the chair” and live vicariously through his super cool friend.

What do the women want? Well…I guess his classmates want to do well in the academic decathlon. And have fun in high school. And Aunt May wants Peter to be safe. Oh, and Zendaya wants to fit in some “light protesting” before the decathlon begins.

Their motivations, if they’re clear at all, aren’t related to the story of the film. They take no part in the main action.

I don’t even mean this as a criticism; I’m just stating it as fact. There are a lot of things to like about the women in this movie. As I said, they’re given witty dialogue, and they’re victimized a lot less than most women in superhero movies that aren’t Wonder Women. I suspect that Aunt May and one of the other classmates will be fleshed out in the second movie in this franchise, so I’m not annoyed that they didn’t have much to do in the first installment. I also loved that both of Peter’s classmates are women of color – in fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a diverse supporting cast in a superhero movie, and I was thrilled that a movie set in New York City actually looks like the population of New York City.

Still. Let’s not go calling female characters “strong” just because they’re better than the average sexy window dressing we have to settle for in most action movies. The women in Spider-Man Homecoming have potential for more growth in the sequel, and I’m optimistic for that possibility. As of now, the girls are all right.

 

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Blog PostsBaby-sitters Club: Welcome to Hogwarts

1,_Kristy's_Great_Idea

Welcome, girls from Stoneybrook Middle School. I have reviewed your permanent records and determined that you are all eligible to attend the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Five of you are two years behind the typical schedule for a Hogwarts student, but you can catch up in our accelerated summer program. Before you begin your journey, you will be sorted into your appropriate houses where you will spend the next seven years of your lives.

“KISHI, CLAUDIA!”
House: Hufflepuff
You demonstrate loyalty to your friends and a willingness to share your snacks, even though getting those sweet treats into your room under your parents’ nose was a near-impossible feat. The cunning you demonstrate with that act shows signs of a Slytherin, but ultimately, your easygoing nature makes you an ideal Hufflepuff.

“MCGILL, STACEY!”
House: Ravenclaw
You show a strong aptitude for mathematics, and we trust that this aptitude extends to other academic subjects. Even if it doesn’t, you’re the only one of your cohorts who shows any particular strength in any particular academic area, so you get to be in Ravenclaw by default. Congratulations.

“PIKE, MALLORY!”
House: Hufflepuff
The amount of time you spend writing indicates that you really want to be in Ravenclaw. However, most of your stories consist of poor caricatures of your younger siblings where you make them even more annoying than they are in real life. You’re not ready for the academic rigor of Ravenclaw, so Hufflepuff it is.

“RAMSEY, JESSICA!”
House: Hufflepuff
I’ll be honest – the sorting hat doesn’t know where to put you. Athletic ability is almost an afterthought in the magical world. Witches and wizards hardly need to be strong when they use spells to get whatever they want. Even the best Quidditch players come from each house. Anyway, you’re a great dancer and you seem nice – into Hufflepuff you go.

“SCHAFER, DAWN!”
House: Gryffindor
Yes, we put you in Gryffindor – you can put your hand down now. Between the relentless pursuit of your different causes du jour, there’s no way you’d end up anywhere else. In the end, your passion for fighting for the little guy outweighs your arrogance about it, and that’s admirable. Just stop talking to me for the next month or so.

“SPIER, MARY ANNE!”
House: Gryffindor
Don’t be scared. See that Neville Longbottom over there? You’re basically him, in female form, and probably better in school (sorry, Neville). You think you’re a mouse, but you’re really a lion. It’ll just take a little while for that lion to roar, and this is the house to nurture that courage. Now please try to stop crying.

“THOMAS, KRISTY!”
House: Slytherin
The Sorting Hat screamed the Slytherin name as soon as it touched your head. You believe in rules and making others follow them, but will break them when it suits your own interests. Your need to be in charge of every situation even if it means alienating your closest friends. Salazar would be proud of you.

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ReviewsThe Public’s Julius Caesar: Uneven but Fascinating

 

Photo by Joan Marcus - ©The Public Theater

Photo by Joan Marcus – ©The Public Theater


During the first half of
The Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar, two banners of past presidents hang from the rafters on the set. On one of them looms the portrait of George Washington, a man who removed his name from consideration for reelection when his popularity could have made him president for life – a man who handed over his power to preserve our young democracy.

A few feet away from that banner struts Julius Caesar, the spitting image of Donald Trump, the greatest threat to our democracy since its inception. Gregg Henry walks like Trump, sounds like Trump, and embodies the swaggering, bullying persona of Trump – but is Shakespeare’s Caesar Trump-like?

The text is ambiguous on that front. Cassius, Brutus, and the other assassins fear that Caesar will become a true dictator, but their fear is based on the idea of absolute power belonging to any one man. We don’t spend enough time with Caesar to see if he’s the power-hungry would-be tyrant the conspirators say he is.

In that sense, this production of Julius Caesar is, ironically, a gift to the Trump supporters disrupting performances and making angry phone calls to the wrong Shakespeare theaters. Caesar’s motivations remain unclear, while Trump’s desire for tyranny to feed his ego couldn’t be more transparent. This Caesar who resembles Trump has his Melania sound-alike/Ivanka look-alike wife beg him to avoid the Senate for his safety, his best friend weep for his body, and his killers die with their mission failing and their legacies ruined. Casting Trump as Caesar doesn’t just caution the audience about using violence to preserve democracy; it asks us to wonder if the bully in the White House isn’t so bad after all.

I doubt that Oskar Eustis intended to soften Trump, but aside from a ham-fisted line about Caesar shooting people on Fifth Avenue, the worst thing he does in the play is greet his visiting Senators while nude. That makes him rude and sick with self-love, but not a dictator.

While the comparisons to Trump himself are questionably accurate and have the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the production’s other parallels to modern-day America are more complex and interesting. It’s notable that Brutus (a great Corey Stoll) is the only white man among the conspirators. When Cassius (an excellent John Douglas Thompson) and the other Senators try to rally him to their cause, they recognize the need to have a white male voice legitimize their mission if they have any hope of reaching the public. And when the conspirators (all people of color and women) stab Caesar, he turns to his old friend expecting, despite evidence to the contrary, for Brutus to save him. When he says the famous, “E tu, Brute?” before his death, he’s wondering how someone in his base could turn against him.

Also interesting is the choice to cast Mark Antony as a woman. Elizabeth Marvel’s costumes change from a tracksuit to a pantsuit to military gear, leaving me puzzled over which modern-day political figure she was meant to represent (Ivanka? Kellyanne Conway? Sarah Palin? Nikki Haley?) But while her image and her Southern accent are both uneven, her passion and oratory are mesmerizing. We can’t take our eyes off of her when she gives her “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, and it’s impossible to tell when her genuine grief for her friend morphs into the famous incitement to violence. I’m left with two burning questions: was Antony the bigger threat to democracy all along? And is a Southern conservative woman the only kind of American woman who could rally an entire divided country to her side?

In that sense, this production is a threat to Trump, but not for the reason his supporters would have you believe. The Public’s Julius Caesar is a threat because it asks its audience to think, to self-examine, to question. It cautions against falling into mob mentality and making rash decisions based on emotion – all of which led to Trump’s election. Critical thinking is the biggest danger to the success of his administration and his chances for reelection.

Whether we have enough critical thinkers left in this country to make a difference at the ballot box is still up for debate. When my friend and I left the theater, we saw a man holding a large American flag that read “Trump 2020.” Other audience members asked him if he was serious. The man replied, “Trump forever. Barron 2050!”

I still don’t know if that man was joking. The other man with a Trump sign a few yards away was definitely not. Behind a line of police officers, this man shouted epithets against Kathy Griffin, Madonna, and Snoop Dogg, condemned America’s war on white male heterosexuals, and praised Trump and Putin.

When I first read Julius Caesar, I thought the crowd’s immediate shifts in opinion were too exaggerated for dramatic effect. I understood Shakespeare’s point but didn’t believe that the people would be that easily led.

After listening to this man chant about the CIA murdering John F. Kennedy and Trump wanting peace with China and Russia, I now wonder if Shakespeare was too kind. 

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Blog PostsWonder Woman’s Display of the Powerful Female Body

I saw Wonder Woman on opening night in New York. We went with a large group of friends, our seats scattered through the sold-out theater. The excitement in the room was palpable, with women, men, and children eager to see the most famous female superhero of all time finally brought to the big screen.

I felt almost a collective moment of breath-holding in the midst of all this excitement. We knew the reviews were positive and the word of mouth was strong, but we were still anxious. We didn’t just want the movie to be good. We needed it to be good.

Our prayers were answered within the first few minutes of the movie. Seeing little Diana in all of her fierce, determined glory in the paradise of Themiscyra surrounded by powerful women was the first of many incredible scenes that stuck with me long after the film ended. Watching her come into her own as a hero in No Man’s Land, her powerful bonds with her aunt and mother, her sweet friendship and romance with Steve Trevor, and her love of ice cream was a delight, an affirmation, and an inspiration. And Gal Gadot gave an even better performance than Stewie Griffin as Darth Vader.

Imagine my surprise (and by “surprise,” I mean “not actual surprise at all, because this is the world we live in”) when CNN published an opinion piece with the actual headline “Wonder Woman: Feminist Icon or Bodacious Fantasy Figure?”

But this pseudo-news site isn’t the only location where people have questioned Wonder Woman’s feminist credentials because of her costume. I’ve seen comments from other men and a few women who want to deduct feminist points from the film because Diana wears a costume where we can see a fair amount of her body.

The discussion of objectification indicates to me that we are so used to being inundated with images of female body being objectified that we’re trained to see ANY display of the female body AS objectification.

This is the same argument we see from people appalled and shocked by public breastfeeding, after all. They find something obscene about a breast being exposed while a baby’s having their lunch.

Wonder Woman’s outfit shows skin. All the Amazon warrior outfits show skin. They also give the women a lot of mobility while fighting. The first few more modest outfits Etta Candy gives Diana to assimilate into society do NOT give her mobility – she rips the skirt when doing a kick.

It’s notable that Diana doesn’t think twice about walking around in her Amazon warrior garb because objectification of female bodies doesn’t exist in her culture. Steve Trevor has to tell her to cover up because he knows others will objectify her. And in fact, every man she comes across does wants to reduce her to a pretty face no matter HOW modestly she is dressed – before she quickly puts them in their place by displaying her physical, mental, or linguistic prowess.

The women show skin, but the camera doesn’t linger on their bodies except to show their power and skill in fighting – no gratuitous T and A shots. The closest we get to an objectifying a body in a sexual way is when Steve Trevor takes a bath.

If we see Diana fighting enemies, saving innocents, and becoming Wonder Woman in the thrilling No Man’s Land scene and the first thing we think is the fact that she’s showing a fair amount of skin, that says more about us and our ingrained sexism than it does about the film.

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Blog PostsDispatches from the Women’s March

On Saturday, I went to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. I took a car with my mom, one of my aunts, one of my cousins, and one of my best friends, and my cousin drove us for about three hours until we reached the New Carrollton train station.

We took a bathroom break at a rest top along the way, noticing as we walked in that the parking lot was filled with buses. The plan was to go in, use the restroom, grab coffees and a hot breakfast sandwich, and head back out.

The bathroom break was the only part of the plan that took place. Lines to both restrooms were so long, filled with mostly women and some men wearing pink hats. The lines to the breakfast places were even longer, to the point where we nixed the idea of hot food altogether and ate granola bars in the car.

As it turned out, it wasn’t the only place where we would run into long lines.

We got to the New Carrollton station and waited in line for an hour and a half just to purchase train tickets. Every few minutes, another bus or car pulled up with another group of people, decked out in pink hats or other radical outfits, carrying signs, and trying to find where the line to buy tickets began.

After ninety minutes, we made it to the platform and one of the transit workers welcomed our presence and used a megaphone to congratulate us on attending the Women’s March in DC. We cheered back and we felt a swell of collective hope that the people working that day were supporting us.

And the feeling of collective good will continued throughout the day with an assortment of little moments, little sights and sounds that added up to the wonderful spirit:

– In the train station, a few women made an attempt to run up the down escalator to get to the top faster (since the stairs were packed to the gills). Watching these women valiantly struggle to get to the top despite the odds was incredible, since every one of them did eventually make it, and other women and men cheered them on the entire way. A fitting visual metaphor for the seemingly insurmountable obstacles we have to face, and how wonderful it feels when we finally succeed.

– A man wearing a Syrian flag as a cape and holding up this sign:

IMG_3629A woman in the crowd shouted, “Welcome, Syria!” and everyone cheered for the man and clapped for him. He nodded his head and smiled in thanks. Several people said a second time, “You are welcome here!”

– I wore a sign that read “Dumbledore’s Army: Resistance. Education. Peace. Hope. And Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans,” with a small #imstillwithher scrawled in the corner. A little girl told me my sign was her favorite and we took a picture together.

– We waited in even more lines for the bathroom when we finally emerged from the train station. A security guard held the men’s room open and allowed a woman to use it every few minutes once stalls were available. Someone thanked him for doing it, and he said that he had to do the same thing the day before for the inauguration. My mom asked, “What are the crowds like today compared to yesterday?” He said, “Oh, today has so many more people. It’s not even close.”

– During the march itself, people came up with different chants and calls and responses. “Black Lives Matter” was one of them, and no one tried to interrupt with an “All Lives Matter.” The chant that had the longest staying power was “Tell me what democracy looks like!”/”THIS is what democracy looks like!”

The person leading that chant in our part of the crowd was a short-haired, thin, young white woman with a surprisingly powerful voice, and she kept the chant going even as her voice became hoarser and hoarser. When it became harder to hear her, a tall man with a loud, booming voice, took over the lead for the chant.

It’s rare that a man taking over for a woman is a sign of allyship, but it was in this case, and it was beautiful. He was giving her a break and carrying on the message so she could rest her vocal chords.

– At one point, a small group of us started singing at the top of our lungs, “We’re not gonna take it! NO, we’re not gonna take it anymore!”

– Near the White House lawn, a small parade was led by little girl on her father’s shoulders. She couldn’t have been more than eight, and she was holding and banging a small drum and chanting at the top of her tiny lungs, “MY BODY, MY CHOICE!” and the crowd shouted back, “HER BODY, HER CHOICE!”

– The woman who dressed as the “Shame!” nun from Game of Thrones ringing her bell, and the guy in a Trump mask walking in front of her on his own walk of humiliation…bless you both.

I’ll never forget the size of the crowds that day, the sight of the streets, White House lawn, the Washington Monument filled with people. But the small moments, the small actions of allyship and bravery from individuals, will stay with me even more.

“My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

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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.

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