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.)
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.)
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.
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.
I probably shouldn’t be surprised, since I sometimes watch movies and tv shows, and since I frequently read things on the internet that talk about how frustrating and annoying it is that movies and tv shows star mostly white people, but for some reason, I expected something different from Hunger Games.
I came across a link to a search for the main cast of the Hunger Games movie. Most of the cast are people I haven’t heard of (either because they aren’t very famous or I haven’t been paying attention; probably a combination of the two) and I have no opinion on how well any of the cast will play the characters. But I’m annoyed that I clicked through twelve of the eighteen main actors before coming across someone who isn’t white.
Apparently Suzanne Collins is on board with at least the actor playing Katniss, so I guess she fits the idea that Collins has in her head of what that character should look like, but that actually doesn’t matter much to me. It bugs me a bit that Katniss describes herself as being sort of dark and is being played by a pretty fair blonde woman, but I think I could deal with that if there was a little more diversity in the cast. The main problem that I have is that this movie takes place in North America at some unspecified point in the future (probably not too far away but not too close either), and does not at all represent the diversity that is already very present in North America today. It might make some sense if most of the people in the Capitol were white, since the society is already oppressive and it isn’t much of a stretch to think they might discriminate along racial lines. But that’s not even the case. Cinna, Katniss’s stylist, is played by Lenny Kravitz.
Like I said, I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but seeing the Hunger Games cast be a group of mostly white people bugged me more than seeing other mostly white casts. I think there are two main reasons for this. The first is that depicting a futuristic North America as a mostly white country implies that white North Americans are the only North Americans that really belong here. Sure, we may live on an ethnically diverse continent right now, but in this dystopian future, it’s plausible that the Hunger Game tributes from all but one of the districts will be white. I’m not sure where all the people of colour will go, but I guess they’ll leave before the Capitol starts holding the Hunger Games, since they’ll have a pretty tough time leaving after.
The second reason it bugs me more than other mostly white casts has to do with the oppression that is such an important part of the story. It’s not that I can’t fathom white people ever being oppressed. I know that white women and white gay people and white trans people and white poor people and white people with disabilities and many other white people are oppressed all over the continent, often by other white people, for being women or gay or trans or poor or having a disability. However, making a story about oppression into a story about mostly white people who are oppressed seems to erase the many many many nonwhite people who are oppressed regularly for not being white. There’s something that doesn’t sit well with me about an oppression narrative being appropriated by a group that often benefits from the oppression of so many other people.
So, once again, this shouldn’t be surprise me, and it actually doesn’t, really. But, as I read through the Hunger Games series, I was hoping that, when the movies of these books were inevitably made, they would show a little more diversity than most Hollywood movies. And it’s always a little disappointing when your hopes don’t come true.