I was never a member of The Baby-Sitters Club

I’ve had The Baby-Sitters Club books on my mind recently. It might be because Roxane Gay wrote about the Sweet Valley High books in a few of the essays in her book Bad Feminist. I never got into Sweet Valley High, and I didn’t feel a strong need to identify with either twin (I probably would have picked Elizabeth), but for a few years, I really cared about which Baby-Sitters Club member I was.

I sometimes felt like Kristy, even though I didn’t play sports and I didn’t have a short temper and I don’t think I was bossy. I dressed kind of like her (although several of my classmates wore jeans, turtlenecks, and sweatshirts in grade three or whatever) and I sometimes felt more comfortable hanging out with boys than with other girls because boys weren’t socialized to tear each other apart.

I also sometimes felt like Mary Anne, because I had a lot invested in being well-behaved and I was kind of shy. But then I had a friend who I knew (or thought?) would always be better behaved than I was, and who was also very much into The Baby-Sitters Club, so I felt weird claiming the Mary Anne identity when it fit this other person so much better. But I guess we sometimes shared it.

I couldn’t be Claudia, because I was a good student and I got along well with my family and my fashion sense wasn’t as creative as hers. Or at least I thought it wasn’t. I actually did dress kind of weird.

I saw myself in Stacey a little bit. I was from a big city like she was, but that didn’t set me apart from anyone at school because we all lived in downtown Toronto. I wore a lot of black like she did, but I don’t think that ever made me look sophisticated, possibly because I was eight.

I definitely wasn’t California hippie tofu-loving Dawn, but maybe I’ve become more like her in recent years.

I didn’t think much about whether I would be a Jessi or a Mallory, and I wonder now if they were a bit low on personality. Their Wikipedia descriptions are on the short side. I think Jessi’s main traits were that fact that she was a ballerina (I danced too, but in Baby-Sitters Club land that meant you needed to always want to dance, which was not a thing in my world) and the fact that people were racist to her family (possibly to remind the reader that she was the black one). And Mallory just always seemed miserable with her huge family and not liking the way she looked, and that really wasn’t me at all.

And I stopped reading before I really got to know the other characters. But that’s probably enough about the characters (and me). My question now is, why do people need to do this? Why do we need to pick one character in a crowd to identify with? Because maybe some people don’t do this, but I know I’m not the only one who does, and I did it with other books and TV shows and movies, not just The Baby-Sitters Club. But it’s weird, because I’ve never met anyone whose personality actually matches up with a fictional character’s. And when someone in my life does remind me of a character it’s always in an unexpected and kind of weird way, not in a way that makes them an exact copy of that character. I mean, fictional characters are either too simple and archetypical to feel authentically like any real person, or so complex and rounded out that the likelihood of an actual person having their exact combination of personality traits and life experiences is way small.

I guess there’s something comforting about finding someone I can identify with and seeing how they interact with (and are loved and accepted by) people who are different from them, but since none of my friend groups ever really feels like the same mixture of people that I read about in The Baby-Sitters Club (or met in any other story), that identification often ends up feeling a bit hollow.

Also, I really wonder if it’s a coincidence that the two characters I identified with most were the two who had the same hair and eye colour as me. It probably isn’t, which just reinforces the fact that articles like this one (it says that the pendulum has now swung to far in the direction of diverse casts of television shows) are a load of crap. When I was a kid, I had enough white girl characters to pick from that I could sometimes narrow them down based on hair and eye colour, and maybe even height and body type, and still make choices based on personality. Diverse casts are important so that people can see characters that look like them AND act like them in multiple situations and at multiple stages in their lives, and it’s also important so that privileged white girls like me don’t think that the only characters that can really be like them are the ones who look like them.

(Also, Janet Mock and her Smart Ass Pop Culture Feminist Clique tore that article apart last week over here, and you should totally watch that video because her show is awesome.)


Review: The Five-Year Engagement

Spoilers ahead, but minor ones. Most of them are about my feelings.

Disclaimer: I don’t watch movies very often*, so any generalizations I make about Hollywood or movies in general are based on the small sample of movies I’ve seen, as well as things I’ve read or watched about movies I haven’t seen.

I finally saw The Five-Year Engagement, and maybe I can only provide a biased review, since Jason Segel won me over with Forgetting Sarah Marshall and just about everything else that I’ve seen him in, but I feel like I need to say: the guy writes good movies. I have a lot of problems with romantic comedies, but I really enjoyed this one. It went to a darker place than I thought it would, and about half way through I realized I had no idea what to expect, and I liked that, because that’s pretty much how life works. You have all these amazing plans, and sometimes they go well, and sometimes they go horribly wrong, and sometimes even when they go well they screw other things up, and you kind of just have to deal with it. And then you do deal with it, and sometimes you like the outcome, and sometimes the outcome sucks, and sometimes you realize that the outcome is actually just another temporary state, because life actually continues after the credits roll (thank God). I might be reading some of my own life lessons into this movie.

I hate stories that end with epilogues ten years later, showing who the main characters end up marrying (usually someone they knew ten years earlier) as though the story wouldn’t be complete without that piece of information. I hate them because they reinforce the idea that the end result is all that matters, when really it’s the in between moments that we should all focus on**. So I like that The Five-Year Engagement celebrated the in betweens, in love and in other parts of life, like work, friendship, family. It had a satisfying ending, and it left some serious ambiguity. Nothing in the movie is permanent or safe, which is scary, but also refreshing.

As usual, the movie certainly isn’t perfect. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, and it really should. Maybe I’m supposed to be impressed because it’s a romantic comedy that focusses mostly on a guy, but I don’t buy it. Guys’ stories get told often enough that telling them in a lady-dominated genre doesn’t count as subversive. We see Tom (Jason Segel) develop in a way that’s only tangentially related to his love life several times; we should get the same scenes about Violet (Emily Blunt). Instead, all of her important realizations have to do with who she wants to be with.

The movie probably does better than most Hollywood romantic comedies about white people in terms of representing people of colour, but that’s mostly because Hollywood usually does a super shitty job of that. There are a few non-white characters with names and personalities who actually contribute some to the story, and they only come off a little bit like stereotypes. But I’m not giving out any gold stars for that, even if it is a step in the right direction. All of the primary characters (and most of the secondary ones) are white, and that could have been changed very easily.

I did like all of the main characters, though. Suzie (Alison Brie) and Alex (Chris Pratt), who came off as an uptight, lonely cliché and a boring douchebro respectively at the beginning of the movie, very quickly turned into real human beings that I could both resent and have a soft spot for. Tom went, believably, to a really bad place, and I felt for him the entire time, but I also wanted to slap him and tell him to pull himself together and stop acting like an asshole. And I really liked Violet all through the movie, both when she tried as hard as she could to make things work with Tom and when she got fed up with his crap and put herself first. I think I saw Jason Segel say in some interview that when he writes women, he writes them as though he would play them, so that he ends up writing people, not girls. That’s probably a good philosophy to have, since movies about people are more interesting than movies about gender roles. And I actually believe it, at least for this movie and for Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Just like with Sarah Marshall, I think it would be really easy to write Violet as self-centred or high maintenance, always spoiling the fun of her well-meaning but sometimes clueless boyfriend with her need to have a job she likes, and for the moral of the story to be that she just needs to lighten up and let Tom just be himself. Instead, she’s a highly sympathetic character, and when she fights with Tom, you can see quite clearly how both of them have very valid points, but are also kind of in the wrong. One of the main problems I have with romantic comedies is that I frequently find myself taken out of the story because of the silly and unreasonable way that the main woman is written, and it was nice not to have that happen.

So, I’d recommend the movie. It’s funny and sweet and it challenges some of the problematic aspects of most romantic comedies. I think it’s helping to pave the way for other big budget movies to be better.

*The ratio of movies to other things on this blog does not at all reflect the ratio of movies to other things in my life.

**I especially hate young adult stories with those endings, because we should not feed those harmful messages to teenagers. (I’m glaring at Harry Potter and The Hunger Games right now.)

Racism still exists.

Little tiny Hunger Games spoilers in some of the pieces I’ve linked to.

Several months ago, I wrote a piece complaining about the whiteness of the cast of the Hunger Games movie. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’ve been paying attention to the response it’s gotten online, and this one thing has pissed me right off. Apparently some people really don’t like the fact that some sympathetic characters are black.

I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been stated. A part of me is actually really surprised. I guess I sort of thought that that kind of overt racism was generally understood to be Not Okay, and that even if people had thoughts like that, they would at least refrain from posting them on the public internet. Maybe it’s better that they’ve stated them outright, because at least that way people can respond to them. Tim Wise spoke on the Melissa Harris-Perry show last Sunday about overt and covert racism in the context of the Trayvon Martin’s case (starting at around the 10:40 mark). I guess it’s good to get a reminder that racism still exists and we need to keep working to get rid of it.

But it’s still gross.

Also, one little thing I do want to add: Many people have responded to these racist comments by pointing out that Suzanne Collins describes Rue and Thresh as having dark skin in the book. This is obviously true, and maybe a good way to trip up people who claim to be huge fans of the books but don’t want those characters to be black. But that really isn’t the point, and it actually helps to show just how insidious whitewashing is in Hollywood. If Collins hadn’t specified the colour of their skin, would those racist comments be more justified? Obviously not. But white people have grown accustomed to seeing the characters that they identify with onscreen also look like them, so, unless otherwise specified, they assume by default that the characters they identify with onscreen should look like them. And, even when it is otherwise specified, it seems like some of them still make that assumption.

Switching Gender in the Movies: 50/50

I’ll start this off by saying that I really enjoyed 50/50. It can’t be easy to write a comedy about cancer that also makes people cry, and this movie pulls it off really well. One of the only things I disliked about the movie, and it’s not even real dislike, was the fact that it made me think of how few similar movies exist about women. Actually, this movie may have been the one that inspired me to start writing about gender flipping in movies. (I’m not sure why I wrote As Good As It Gets first, but I did.) Like before, I’m not giving a plot summary but there will probably be some spoilers.

Very little in 50/50 would change if the gender identities of all the characters were flipped. The central plot, of two friends dealing with the fact that one of them has cancer, would stay exactly the same. The way the Adam and Kyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen’s characters) interact with each other wouldn’t need to change much, although the joke about shaving your head with your friend’s testicle trimmers might not work quite as well. I can think of several easy modifications, though, so I don’t see that as much of a problem. Adam’s mother is almost a stock character (although Angelica Houston does amazing things with it), but it might be fun to see how the overbearing parent trope plays out in a father-daughter relationship as opposed to mother-son. It would also be nice to see a man be overprotective of his daughter for something not related to sex.

I would really enjoy seeing Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, Rachael, played as a man. For some reason I think that a man cheating on his cancer-having girlfriend comes across as less bitchy and vindictive than Rachael character did in this movie. (I would like it even more if straight women could do shitty things to their romantic partners in movies without those shitty things being somehow connected to their womanhood, but this isn’t the time for that discussion.) Gender stereotypes are so strongly ingrained pop culture that it’s impossible to talk about straight romantic relationships without running into them. When Rachael cheats on Adam, she’s not just being an asshole to him, but she’s also failing in her womanly duties to care for him. Even if you (like me) absolutely do not believe that women have any kind of inherent nurturing tendencies, you might still find her behaviour jarring because it so strongly goes against the way women are portrayed. A man doing the same thing doesn’t buck any stereotypes, but it takes away that gendered dimension. Also, I really love the idea of a woman shouting Kyle’s line, “I’ve hated you for months, and now I have fuckin’ evidence that you suck as a person!” to her best friend’s boyfriend.

Adam’s interactions with the other chemo patients would show some really nice intergenerational conversations among women. Mitch and Alan’s skepticism about Rachael’s behaviour might be played as more meddlesome and nagging when expressed by women, but it would be quite refreshing to see three women talk about life and death and also get high.

Then, of course, we have Anna Kendrick as Katherine, Adam’s therapist. Her role and her relationship with Adam are written in such a way that neither character comes across as creepy or desperate, although giving a client your cell number is probably not a good idea for any therapist. The only thing that might not be as believable with the genders flipped is how bad Katherine is at her job. I feel like people are more accepting of an incompetent woman in a caregiving role than they are of an incompetent dude, maybe because we see more women than men in caregiving roles in general, and maybe because we see more women than men in movies screw up at their jobs because they’re emotional and don’t know how to handle the stress. Or something. In any case, I would be interested to see if a man in Katherine’s role could still come across as worth hanging out with.

I don’t watch a lot of movies, so it’s possible that something like 50/50 except starring women exists, but I feel like I probably would have heard about that on teh feminist blogz, so I highly doubt it. The closest ones I can think of are Now and Then, which came out in 1995, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, from 2005. I don’t remember much about the publicity for or public reaction to Now and Then, but I do remember that The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants was marketed to teenage girls and generally perceived as a movie for girls. I knew many people (mostly guys, I think) who didn’t see it because they thought it looked stupid, and a lot of them didn’t believe me when I told them that it was actually a really great movie. They had no interest in seeing a movie about girl problems. Maybe they thought it would be all about tampons and hair braiding?

People have made this point before, but it’s still true so I’m going to say it again: Movies about girls are always movies about girls, and movies about boys are usually movies about people. I would actually really like to see a movie almost identical to 50/50, but about women, not men. If I were in the movimaking business, I might try making it myself, but apparently I’d be told that no one would want to see it. It would be so refreshing, though, to see a friendship between two women explored with such depth and nuance in a serious, non satirical way.

Switching Gender in the Movies: As Good As It Gets

For the past week and a half, I’ve been on March Break, and this year, it means I’ve watched a bunch of movies. I frequently wonder how a movie would change if the gender identities of all of the characters were flipped, and I’ve recently started to think about this while watching movies. So I thought I’d explore that a bit in writing and see what happens. I know that in doing this I’m sort of buying into a gender dichotomy that I don’t actually think exists, and that bugs me a little. However, Hollywood movies tend to portray gender as fairly binary, and I think that one way to challenge that is to take apart the way that each gender is represented, so maybe this is at least a step toward getting rid of the dichotomy.

Anyway, that’s enough of an introduction. The first movie on my list is As Good As It Gets. I’m not giving a plot summary, so this might not make complete sense to someone who hasn’t seen the movie, but there will still be some spoilers.

I remember seeing trailers for As Good As It Gets years ago when it first came out, but I never actually saw it until I caught it on television last week. The friends I saw it with told me that a few scenes were missing, including an apparently iconic one where Jack Nicholson says he writes women convincingly by imagining a man and then taking away all reason and accountability. Or something like that. So this analysis might be a little incomplete, but I’ll go with what I have.

I see a few possible changes in the way Jack Nicholson’s character, Melvin Udall, would be played as a woman, and I don’t know if those changes would come from the depiction of the character or the audience’s reaction. Mental illness in women has different connotations from mental illness in men, in general popular culture, but maybe more so in fiction. I think that Melvin as a woman might be played as more timid. She might worry more about what people around her think. On the other hand, if she behaves as ostentatiously obnoxious as Melvin does, her behaviour might surprise the audience more, or at least come across stronger than his behaviour did. Women who go after what they want at the expense of others don’t usually fall into the role of the hero or anti-hero.

Helen Hunt’s character, Carol Connelly, as a man breaks a few stereotypes. I can’t think of too many single fathers waiting tables in the movies I’ve seen. Her relationship with Melvin also takes on a pretty cool slant if you switch their gender identities. A rich (older?) woman paying for her favourite server’s kid’s medical care to satisfy her compulsions has a satisfying feel somehow. I’d like to see more women characters do things for completely selfish motivations, and have the general reaction be more along the lines of, “What a weird person,” than “What a bitch!” At the same time, I wonder if a woman saying to a man, “You make me want to be a better woman,” comes across as pathetic and desperate rather than romantic. Actually, now that I think about it, her line would probably get changed to, “You make me want to be a better person.” When Melvin says “better man,” we all know he means a better person. When I hear “better woman,” I think of bigger breasts or more successful at finding an effective work/life balance. So that would be one change that comes almost entirely from the way audiences are trained to think of women. When Melvin says that, it softens him and makes him more sympathetic. If he were a woman, it would take away from the strength she gained from being selfish and obnoxious.

Simon Bishop, Greg Kinnear’s character, in some ways doesn’t change much if he switches gender identities. A wacky gay artist neighbour that the protagonist hates doesn’t necessarily have to be a guy. However, Melvin’s homophobic jokes don’t have the same power in my mind when they come from a woman and are directed toward a woman. Maybe it’s because I’ve heard and seen more homophobia directed at men, and because women showing affection toward each other doesn’t scare people quite as much as men showing each other affection does, but a woman saying the equivalent of Melvin’s offensive “I’m afraid he might pull the stiff one-eye on me” (does an equivalent even exist?) somehow sounds less believable. Just as offensive, though.

I like this movie with flipped gender identities. It would challenge some of the stereotypes regarding women and anger and women and mental illness, as well as some about single parenting and paternalism. It would also pass the Bechdel Test a little more easily.

Review: The Muppets

I saw the new Muppet movie for the second time last weekend. I’ll probably see it at least one more time before the new year. I loved it.

I wouldn’t call it a perfect movie. It has several problems that I’ll get into soon, but overall, I just had a ridiculous amount of fun watching it. It was a big mix of sweet adorable, hilarious, heartwarming, and inspirational. It was beautiful.

It has some great messages about inclusion, about working together, about trying your hardest and sometimes not succeeding at what you set out to do but still feeling proud of yourself. It’s a great kids’ movie. The muppets are genuinely nice people. They take care of each other, they like each other, they work together, they bring out the best in each other. They have some problems, and they generally recognize those problems, but they don’t dwell on them. They know that sometimes they need to put personal differences aside to get the job done. Fox News apparently had problems with the movie because it hates on big oil companies, and while I’d agree that it doesn’t present the most nuanced analysis of the benefits and drawbacks to drilling for oil, I do think it hits on something pretty important about the place of the arts in a society that sometimes favours industrialism over creativity. And the movie didn’t feel preachy. At no point did I feel like I was being taught a Very Valuable Lesson, even the few times when a lesson was explicitly stated. I just felt like I was having fun, watching an awesome movie. And I would love for it to have been even better.

The movie had the typical Hollywood problems with diversity. Muppets come in all shapes, sizes, colours, and species, and their differences make them a better group. But the human cast was (almost?) uniformly white. The message of inclusion gets a little lost when you have to pretend that humans only come in one colour.

The movie also had problems with its depiction of women (which I have way more to say about, probably because I think about it more; I need to work on that). I appreciate the effort of making Walter and Gary really good sewers while Mary teaches kids to fix a transmission and restores electricity to the theatre, but I don’t feel that quite makes up for the fact that the movie has about three women with speaking roles. And it doesn’t make up for the fact that, of those three women, two have very little to do other than be a love interest and provide an opportunity for growth on the part of the guys who love them. It’s a movie about growing up, about finding your place in the world, about trying your best and reaching for your dreams, but the only characters who really do that are men. They even created a new Muppet, Walter, to connect with the newer audience, and of course he’s also a guy.

I can’t blame all of these problems on this movie. They’re typical Hollywood movie problems, and almost every movie has them. And based on the women in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I’d guess that Jason Segel has at least some interest in making female characters actual people, not just vehicles for male character development. Like I said, I do appreciate the small attempts at subverting traditional gender assumptions. But most mainstream movie makers clearly don’t have the knowledge necessary to combat the systemic discrimination that erases stories of anyone who isn’t a straight white dude. Bitch Flicks suggests that Pixar should hire a consultant. I think the rest of Hollywood should do the same, because writers and directors and producers don’t need to be experts in anti-oppression or anti-discrimination work, but they do have a responsibility to not perpetuate harmful ideas.

And I think that’s especially true of people who make movies like The Muppets, which is, aside from this huge problem, a really awesome movie. Like I said, I loved it, and a big part of me wants to give it five stars out of five (or four out of four, or ten out of ten, or whatever). I just can’t ignore the huge Hollywood movie problems it has that keep it from being truly amazing.

Thoughts on privilege in “X-Men: First Class”

Spoilers coming up.

I heard mixed things about “X-Men: First Class” before I went to see it the other day, so I had no idea what I would think of it going in. While I certainly wouldn’t call it an amazing movie, I did enjoy myself. It had some great character development, some pretty sweet action sequences, some phenomenal acting (as well as some crappy acting) and an okay story. Amanda Marcotte wrote about some of the problems with the movie, mostly regarding how good it could have been but wasn’t (spoilers over there too), and I agree with a lot of what she said, so I won’t repeat it. However, I do want to talk about how fascinated I was with the way privilege was explored and depicted.

I think privilege is most apparent in the relationship between Xavier and Mystique. They care deeply about each other, and they’re both mutants, but they’re coming from such different places that they just can’t understand each other. Xavier has promised never to read her mind, but even if he did, I don’t think he would actually understand her.

Xavier has privilege. He fits in the world around him. His mutation is invisible so he doesn’t have to hide it, but he can use it to gain a strategic advantage, either in a fight or when he tries to pick up girls. On top of that, he’s a white guy, he has a Ph.D., and people rarely tell him he’s wrong. Mystique doesn’t have these advantages. Sure, she can make herself look however she wants, and when she uses that to her advantage it often works, but if she wants to fit in with everyone else, she has to hide what she looks like. And because Xavier thinks he’s always right, he tells her she’s being unreasonable when she calls him on his “Mutant and Proud” hypocrisy. It makes perfect sense for Mystique to team up with Magneto in the end. Not only does he share her experience of having his mutation be a problem, and therefore also see Xavier’s bullshit for the hypocrisy it is, but he shows her way more respect than Xavier does, and he likes her most when she’s being herself.

I also think that some of the ways people of colour are depicted has a lot to do with privilege. When Shaw is recruiting and the only characters who leave Xavier and Magneto’s team for him are racial minorities, it makes sense to me that his claim that people will fear them and persecute them is sort of lost on all of the white people. Of course, that’s immediately followed by an absolutely pointless example of the Black Dude Dies First trope, which is just stupid and maybe shows that the writers are a little less aware of their privilege than they would have us believe. However, I was less disturbed than some by the fact that most of the non-white characters end up joining the evil team. It’s problematic, since it can send the message that white people are less susceptible to corruption, and that’s definitely false, but I can believe that people who have been mostly successful at fitting in with the rest of the world (even if they’re always hiding, like Mystique and Beast) would be more likely to assume that the rest of the world will be able to see them for the wonderful people they are on the inside.

Finally, I thought the development of Magneto’s character made a lot of sense given his relationship with privilege. I liked that they made him a complex character, rather than an obvious villain. It would be easy to fall back on the (mistaken) idea that being tortured turns someone evil. Instead, he seems genuinely scared that if he doesn’t get rid of the threat that regular humans pose, he’ll end up killed. He has concrete evidence of this, both as a kid during the holocaust and within the plot of the movie, when everyone decides to turn their missiles on the mutants instead of each other. Of course, he’s spent so much time looking out for himself that he’s stopped thinking (or maybe just caring) about how many innocent people his actions are going to hurt. At the same time, he’s tired of always being the one who gets screwed over by innocent people just doing their jobs.

“First Class” is by no means a perfect movie. There were serious problems with pacing during the first half, and there were so many hints throughout the entire movie of how much potential it had to be even better. Looking back, I think I enjoyed it as much as I did because I was imagining how good it could have been, and anticipating it eventually getting that good. Right after watching it, I was still on that anticipatory high, but looking back, it’s a little disappointing. But I’m impressed by the subtle ways it portrays privilege. I think the movie also forces watcherss to check their own privilege a bit. Since Xavier’s team is canonically seen as the good guys, and Mystique and Magneto’s people are villains, we’re challenged to examine what structures in the world support some people, letting them follow the rules without putting their lives in danger, while disenfranchising others, forcing them to break all the rules in order to survive.