What if Dexter is Killer Feminism? A Review of Showtime’s Dexter, Season Five

Dexter’s eye for an eye vigilantism came to a gripping season finale this week with Jordan Chase, serial rapist and murderer, brought to a bloody end by Lumen. (If you are not familiar with the show, go here and here for two good feminist overviews of the series or see this series of posts here.)

Season five had much to offer feminist viewers.

For example, Dexter’s single dad status led to one episode with a mommy and me play date that revealed the ruthless world of toddler/parent interaction. As the lone dad, Dexter was the outcast amongst a sea of women – many who viewed him with extreme suspicion. The episode avoided demonizing the moms though, and instead suggested just how gendered the parenting realm is and how dads, when they walk amongst this “female world,” are outsiders in many regards.

And, the rape revenge fantasy at the heart of the season involving Dexter and Lumen allowed for a insightful exploration of sexual assault and violence against women. Lumen (played by Julia Stiles), one of two survivors of a murderous gang that raped, tortured, and murdered 12 women, joins forces with Dexter to bring the male perpetrators to justice. That justice in Lumen’s and Dexter’s book is vigilante murder may not seem in keeping with feminist aims for a less violent world.

So, why was this season good viewing for feminists? Yes, the violence is visceral and the blood excessive. The administered justice is very harsh – with murder on the agenda for those serial killer Dexter decides “don’t deserve to live.” But, underneath its brutal exterior, the show also presents us with deeper moral questions about a legal system that consistently fails to catch or punish serial killers, rapists, and child abusers – and, deeper still, about what type of society breeds such violence and, if indeed our legal system creates just as many criminals as it attempts to apprehend.

The depiction of Lumen  – a female raped, tortured and nearly murdered who realizes that the violence done to her cannot be denied and will forever change her view of the world and her place in it – was extremely powerful and expertly played by Stiles. As noted at Feminists For Choice, “the show does an above-average job of accurately depicting the agony of rape trauma syndrome and PTSD.” Moreover, by suggesting the boy-gang formed at summer camp that ultimately became a group of male serial killers is related to the equating of masculinity with violence (and particularly violent sexuality), the show functions as a scathing critique of guyland and its codes.

Ironically Dexter, the serial killer at the show’s center, is one of the best models of masculinity in the series – he is a good father, partner, and brother struggling in a world that often rewards the wrong people. Jordan Chase, leader of the murderous gang is a prime example of this – as a successful self-help celebrity, he is rewarded with admiration and wealth. Yet, beneath his shiny exterior, he is the mastermind behind the torture and rape of at least 14 women.

Men such as Jordan impel Dexter’s “dark passenger” to dole out punishment in order to partially make up for the brutal murder of his mother, which he witnessed as a young child. Yet Dexter suffers with his compulsion, feeling more monster than human. Here too, the show grapples with the complexity of morality and justice, showing that, as Deb reiterated again and again in this season’s finale, things are never simple. This message was also emphasized in the recent episode when Aster, Dexter’s tween daughter, showed up drunk. At first viewers were encouraged to see her as selfish and immature, to view her drinking and shoplifting as sign of a girl gone wrong. Yet, along with Dexter, viewers slowly realize Aster’s behavior was spurred by her attempts to help her friend, who was being abused by her stepfather. Such storylines reveal that often the “crime” committed (in this case, tween drinking and stealing) has much deeper roots than an individual’s “badness.” Indeed, the show turns the entire “a few bad apples” idea, where society is harmed by a handful of “evil people,” on its head. Instead, we see that our society is pervaded with rot – from tip to top – and that this rot is intricately linked to the violence done to girls and women by males raised on an excessively violent code of masculinity.

The show also explores how the competitive model of dog-eat-dog individualism leads to workplace backstabbing, especially among the few women who have had to claw and fight their way to the top.

This was exemplified this season via the storyline in which Lt. Laguerta (Lauren Velez) betrays Deb (Jennifer Carpenter). For me, this was the most problematic narrative arc – not only because it smacked of the “see what happens when you give women power” meme, but also because of its racialized undertones with a lying Latina throwing a wrench in the career of white female detective. However, given the racial diversity of the cast, the series avoids demonizing any one racial group, just as it avoids suggesting only men are violent or only women are victims. To the contrary, the show reveals that no one is safe from the violence that pervades our world and this viewer, like the Feminist Spectator, “can’t help celebrating Dexter’s queer victories, and looking forward to more”  – not only because the show transgresses boundaries and challenges a social system organized around a decidedly unfair system of power and privilege, but more simply because, as foul-mouthed Deb would say, I fucking love it.

What if Twilight’s Representation of Inigenous People Matters?

The following post  is an abridged version of a talk I delivered at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Denver on November 12, 2010. The title comes from Judith Butler’s use of the word “matters” (from her book Bodies that Matter). In her theorizing, Butler emphasizes that we need to analyze what and who is constructed as “mattering” and that the issue of who “matters” is shaped by dominant ideologies and norms. At NWSA, some participants felt that the following analysis didn’t “matter” and that analysis of Twilight and the surrounding cultural phenomenon is not worthy of feminist attention. To those who disagree and see the importance of such analysis, thank you. To those who wish to police the boundaries of feminism and women’s studies, I encourage reflection on how such a move goes against the very tenets of the discipline and the movement.

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Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga romanticizes white privilege and the continuing rule of whites over “the Other” – which, in Twilight’s case, is the Quileute. Further, while the series has been complimented for depicting Native Americans in the modern day rather than in some mythic past, the saga nevertheless ignores present realities and injustices

Read as a racial allegory, a white, working class woman chooses between an ultra-white, ultra-privileged vampire and a far less privileged wolf of color.
The franchising of the phenomenon has capitalized on the Native American angle in a way that is culturally and morally dubious, much like the way we might question Meyer’s inclusion of Quileute legend for her own purposes – an inclusion that was done without extensive research or scholarly inquiry, let alone (it seems) with permission from the Quileute people.

We can thus read the story of Twilight as grounded in older tales of conquest and imperialism – and in the tradition of white authors appropriating native stories and voices – though instead of the whites and Native Americans that populated the Western films that re-enacted this conquest, we now have vampires and werewolves vying over land as well as women.

Yet, if we examine Twilight in relation to the decimation of indigenous people, and with an awareness of how Christianity generally and Mormonism more specifically are related to larger colonial and missionary projects, it is no stretch to see that to ignore race in the saga is a glaring omission.

This history cannot be ignored if one is to offer a full analysis of Twilight and the cultural work it is doing. Literature historically played a huge role in the framing of Native Americans as uncivilized and savage. Meyer’s texts carry on this project.

The saga’s failure to re-work damaging representations of indigenous peoples places it within a long line of white-penned narratives that variously appropriate and/or misrepresent Native culture and legend.

As noted in the introduction to Ward Churchill’s Fantasies of the Master Race, “Literature crafted by a dominating culture can be an insidious political force, disinforming people who might otherwise develop a clearer understanding of the struggles for survival faced by an indigenous population.”

The texts indeed “disinform” people about the Quileute, leading them to believe on the one hand that their legends include werewolves and, on the other, rendering the indigenous struggle for survival invisible.

Twilight produces a modern myth that equates whiteness with goodness and frames indigenous people as less evolved beasts. It thus allies with Ward Churchill’s claim that “literature in America is and always has been part and parcel of the colonial process”.

While Meyer explains her inclusion of the Quileute as coming about due to her visit to Forks and discovery of their legends, it cannot be denied that representing a real indigenous people as wolves is in accordance with a colonialist viewpoint.

Meyer readily admits that she had concerns about her depiction of the Quileute. When asked by a fan if she had “any negative recourse for the fictional portrayal of their tribal members as werewolves?”, Meyer answered:

I was pretty worried about this myself. However, to this point I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from Native Americans, both Quileute and otherwise. I actually got a letter on MySpace from a girl who is the daughter of one of the council members… and she loved the werewolf thing.

Here, Meyer’s comments reveal that she had some sense she was taking liberty with another culture’s legends and history.

Further, by obliquely referring to positive feedback about her focus on ethnicity, she averts the question of portraying tribal members AS werewolves.

In another question and answer session, when asked why she chose certain settings, Meyer shared “I was nervous about what the real life citizens of Forks would think, and more especially what the real life people of La Push would think—I’d taken some rather big liberties with their fictional history, and I wasn’t sure if they would find it amusing or irritating.”

Again, Meyer reveals an awareness that her “liberties” might be taken as an affront. What she does not seem aware of though, is how said liberties build upon a history of appropriation in the name of white, colonial interests.

Whether or not Meyer is intentionally writing from such a colonial view is not the point, – more pertinent is that her socio-historical positioning cannot help but shape her depiction of Native culture.

Or, as Sherman Alexie argues, “when non-Indians write about us, it’s colonial literature. And unless it’s seen that way, there’s a problem.”

As far as my research reveals, Meyer did not correspond with any Quileute peoples nor seek out the Tribal Council to enquire whether it was okay to depict their legends in the series, let alone to determine whether her Google research was correct.

In contrast, she did reach out to the owners of Bella Italia restaurant in Port Angeles to find out if it was okay for her to feature the restaurant in a scene. So, she got permission to write about mushroom ravioli but not an entire people (as revealed in the Twilight in Forks DVD).

Instead, Meyer read about the Quileute on the internet, just as Bella does in the series. Meyer freely admits this when discussing how she decided on the Forks setting and the inclusion of the Quileute, noting “I turned to Google, as I do for all my research needs.”

A modern James Fenimore Cooper, Meyer carries on a long tradition of white authors who know little to nothing of indigenous peoples but nevertheless feel entitled to write about their cultures.

Further, Meyer carries on the tradition of using indigenous characters for “backdrop” and  “color” and raises no real criticisms of the colonial project or current racial inequalities.

Like Westerns, which rarely show the real diversity of Native Americans, Twilight presents the Quileute people as “russet-colored” outsiders who are romanticized as noble, exotic, and mysterious on the one hand, and dehumanized as beastly, childlike, and sexually violent on the other.

Historically, this construction resulted in native peoples being viewed quite literally as animals. In an example documented by Andrea Smith,  a California newspaper reported in 1853, “We can never rest in security until the redskins are treated like the other wild beasts of the forest.”
This line could fit quite well within Twilight with the white privileged vampires unable to rest until the “russet colored” wolves, and Jacob in particular, are “civilized.”

In the final book of the series, this colonization of the wolf is promoted when the Cullens introduce “culture” to Jacob. Sleeping and eating outside at first, in various states of undress, J is gradually “civilized” and moves inside the Cullen house, or into the white world.

While Meyer’s texts themselves largely ally with the white construction of “the Indian,” the casting choice of Lautner also falls in line with a long history of non-native actors being cast to play indigenous parts.

However, after the ruckus over Lautner’s casting, Native actors were cast to play various roles for the second film, though none of them are Quileute. Alex Meraz, who plays Paul, was mindful of the weightiness of his casting, sharing

In essence, even though we’re taking some of their mythology, their creation story and it’s mixed in a fantasy, still we’re taking from the culture. Being Native, we needed to be conscious of that and ask permission to the people of the past, present and of the future … Native Americans…have a right to be protective of their stories.

Putting a rather positive spin on the saga’s depiction of the Quileute, Meraz further explains:

I think it’s time for us to kind of rewrite what Hollywood’s take on Native Americans was, which was long hair blowing, noble kind of people, leather and feather period pieces. So now you see something in a contemporary setting, and you see us to be humans. It’s great.

While it’s true the saga avoids the usual tendency to depict Natives as only living in (or stuck in) the past, Meraz’s claim that the saga shows them as humans glosses over the fact that the texts (and the film adaptations) focus on the wolf identity of the Quileute – on their animality more than their humanity.

Moreover, not only does Twilight frame America as the new frontier for vampires (with Forks being the Western resting place of these good pioneers), it constructs La Push (and non-white society) as “outside,” Other, and poverty-stricken.

Meyer’s depiction of a “treaty” between the Cullen vampires and the Quileute wolves also problematically echoes earlier historical treaties between Native Americans and the Federal Government.  However, Meyer’s fictional treaty differs dramatically from the real life Treaty of Olympia, signed between the Quileute nation and the US in 1856. While the historical treaty resulted in the loss of Quileute land and sovereignty, the treaty in Twilight offers a relatively peaceful means of co-existence.

Meanwhile, for the real Quileute people of La Push, land issues remain a concern and boundary disputes with Washington State continue.  For them, the “treaty line” signs that have been put up on the road that leads from Forks to La Push likely have a much different significance than for the fans who regularly pose by the signs, taking home photo shots that celebrate the fictionalization of a real people and once again render indigenous culture tourism fodder.

To conclude, though the stereotypical depiction of Quileute as noble-savages morphed into werewolves can be brushed off via the claim this the series is meant to be a fantasy, we cannot pretend that such depictions do not contribute to dominant notions of race shaping US culture.

The fact that the series depicts a real group of indigenous people, one that, like most indigenous groups, has been decimated by colonization, torn apart by practices such as Indian Boarding Schools, and forced to assimilate into white culture and belief systems, is problematic. The series does not touch on such history let alone address the lasting legacy of colonialism.

What if Vampires Suck doesn’t totally suck?

(This piece was originally posted at the Ms. blog here.)

It may not be brimming with hard-edged analysis, but the new parody of the Twilight series, Vampires Suck, is certainly more satirical than sucky. This parody, written and directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, has its share of what I would call “Twi-crit-light,” a nod towards serious social criticism that separates this film from the majority of parodies that are aimed primarily at making people laugh (and, thus, are more comedic than satiric).

Therefore, I was surprised at the almost entirely scathing reviews Vampires Suck received–considering that I, one who has been accused of being a “that’s-not-funny feminist,” actually found the film quite humorous. It’s true that it traded in the typical “violence is so funny” meme and was sprinkled liberally with visual puns and pop cultural references (for example, in Edward’s early semi-nude scene, his genitals are covered by a glittering disco ball). But I found most of these images to be humorous and satirical rather than inane and stale (as this round-up of various reviews suggests). Moreover, the film highlights the saga’s hypocritical obsession with pro-abstinence: Edward Sullen (a spoof version of Edward Cullen) appears as a sparkly chastity knight and Becca Crane (the parody of Bella Swan) is decked out in fishnets, a light-up bra and underwear with arrows pointing towards her genital area. As in the saga, one minute we viewers are told to keep the purity rings firmly in place, while the next moment we are encouraged to get all hot and bothered over extended petting.

The film opens with a Team Edward/Team Jacob brawl, with one girl whacking another in the head with a shovel. Mocking the team devotion of Twilighters in this and other scenes, the film trades in the obsessive fangirl stereotype in a way that is fun rather than derisive. In contrast, the mainstream media has been far more damning of Twi-hards, as documented by University of Missouri assistant professor Melissa Click in her article “Rabid”, “obsessed”, and “frenzied”: Understanding Twilight Fangirls and the Gendered Politics of Fandom.”

In Vampires Suck, Jenn Proske, the actress playing Becca, does a fine job of mimicking Bella actress Kristen Stewart’s lip biting, intensive blank stares and teen angstiness. Becca’s interactions with her father are particularly comic, highlighting the way he (and other males) treat her like a baby. In an early scene, Bella’s father carries her out to her truck in a baby carrier. Considering that Edward babies Bella throughout Twilight in a similar fashion, the satirical infantilization of her character could have become a running gag but is unfortunately dropped after the opening scenes with her father.

Mocking the saga’s pro-abstinence message, Becca is presented as sexually voracious; after first kissing Edward she demands, “Let’s go all the way.” When he brandishes his purity ring to avert her, she bites it off his finger and swallows it. In order to stop her advances, he hits her over the head with a lamp. Shortly thereafter, he says that he will never hurt her. Then he launches her through the ceiling and she lands back in the bedroom with bricks raining down on her. In this scene, Edward’s claim to be her uber-protector is shown for what it is: hypocrisy. Nice boyfriends don’t “protect” you by sabotaging your truck (as Edward does in Eclipse)–abusive ones do (as noted in Carmen Siering’s review).

The film also makes fun of Bella’s obsession with aging. She complains to Edward, “I’m 18 now. I am practically a cougar.” Making similarly humorous nods to Jacob’s shirtlessness and the latent homoeroticism of the Twilight saga, the film does not sugarcoat sexuality in the way that Stephenie Meyer’s original series does. And, at least the parody version is less heteronormative. Becca refers to Jacob as “my little gay brother;” the wolfpack gyrates flamboyantly to The Weather Girls’ hit “It’s Raining Men.” Yes, the parody uses homosexuality for comic effect, but at least this seems a step beyond the original series’ portrayal that only heterosexuals exist, a element highlighted by blogger Natalie Wilson.

The film similarly pokes fun at racial stereotypes, as when Becca tells Jacob that it “must be fun to drink and gamble all day” because he goes to school on a reservation. By mocking this tired stereotype, the movie at least nods to the fact that “life on the res” is likely something Bella (and saga author Stephenie Meyer) probably know very little about. It would have been nice if the film played up this component more; instead, it focuses on Jacob as a teen werewolf type who can’t keep his shirt on. But this is a parody, and the fact that it nods to the excessive whiteness and heteronormativity of the saga seemed to me a step in the right direction. It may not be up to par with the brilliant Edward/Buffy mash- up, but it manages to poke fun at some of the more preposterous aspects of the series–namely, that Bella is treated as an over-sexed petulant child, Edward elevated to vampire God and Jacob relegated to animalistic sidekick.

Published in: on August 27, 2010 at 4:12 pm  Comments (1)  

What if Female Fans Matter? Taking a Bite of Out of Twilight Backlash

(Cross posted at In Media Res)

With Eclipse due to premiere in theatres this evening, this past week has been brimming with Twilight -related events. Last week, for example, a so-called “tent-city” brimmed with fans camping out in anticipation for the Friday night Los Angeles early-release premiere. Then, on Saturday evening, the night of the lunar eclipse, Summit Entertainment hosted “Twilight Night” events around the country that included celebrity appearances, live music, and back to back screening of the first two film adaptations.

A review of San Diego’s “Twilight Night” for Blast by Conception Allen reports such events reveal Twilight “fanaticism” continues to “cause hysterics.” Describing fans’ “ardent screams” and noting those turned away once the venue had reached capacity “threw tantrums,” the piece represents fans as temperamental toddlers.

Such a tone is typical in mainstream depictions of Twilighters that rather uniformly depict fans as childish and/or hyperfeminine. Words such as hysteria, fever, obsession, and mania are often deployed – words that the recent text Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media, and the Vampire Franchise aptly describe as “Victorian era gendered words.” This rendering of the fandom in terms that simultaneously infantilize and feminize it reflects the historical repudiation of females and femininity generally and the derision targeted at female fandoms more specifically.

Scholars such as Angela McRobbie and Milly Williamson document this enduring contempt for female fans, examining how cultural studies has tended to position male fans as resisting or subverting mainstream culture while female fans are either not considered at all or framed as dupes, uber-consumers, or, most often, as silly girls. This framing is particularly apparent with regards to the Twilight fandom, with fans depicted as crazy, frenzied hordes that shriek and gasp over “anything possessing a penis.”

This gendered backlash dismisses the productive and engaged nature of Twilight fandom, allowing for widespread ridicule that is not only about not liking Twilight but also participates in the historical tendency to mock that which females enjoy (such as romance novels, soap operas, teen idols, etc).

There are, however, exceptions. For example, the Vampire-Con Film Festival (which took place June 24 through June 26 in Los Angeles) distanced itself from the Twilight phenomenon via its promotional clip. Featuring an Edward-looking vampire enjoying the viewing pleasure of fellow cinema goers by “sparkling” in the theatre, this “All bite, No Sparkle” parody distances “real” vampire fans from Twilighters in a way that is humorous rather than derisive, clever rather than mocking. Similar to the “Vampires Protest Z Day” clip that promoted Vamp-Con 2009, this year’s video relies on parody rather than attacking the Twilight fandom directly or framing fans as “silly girls.” As such, the clip proves that differing fandoms can be critical of one another or disagree about what cultural products are deserving of fans without resorting to misogynistic laced disdain.

As argued by Melissa Click, the Twilight fandom “presents an opportunity to disrupt the persistent stereotypes about girls, the media they enjoy, and their cultural activities.” As she insists, cultural studies scholars must not “let the gendered mockery of Twilight fans continue unchallenged.” I agree entirely – Twilight may sparkle, but the critique of it need not bite…

What if Female Toys Got Equal Play? A Review of Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 opens on a female-empowerment high, with Mrs. Potato-Head displaying mad train-robbing skills and Jessie skillfully steering Bullseye in the ensuing chase. From there though, the bottom drops out of the film’s female quotient.

Out of seven new toy characters, only one is female – the purple octopus whose scant dialogue is voiced by Whoopi Goldberg. This is far worse than the one female to every three males ratio documented in children’s media by The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media.

The film revolves around now 17-year-old Andy leaving for college. His mom (who has yet to be given a name) insists (in rather nagging fashion) he store or get rid of all his “junk.” The bag of toys containing Woody et al mistakenly ends up in the trash, resulting in the toys landing in a prison-like daycare (way to turn the knife on working parent guilt, that one).

In typical Pixar fashion, male characters dominate the film. Though the film ends with young Bonnie as the happy new owner of the toys, making way for more sequels, Woody would have to become Wanda and Buzz become Betty in future films in order for the series to break Pixar’s male-only protagonist tradition (as in Wall-E, A Bug’s Life, Cars, Monster, Inc, The Incredibles, How to Train Your Dragon…).

Bo Peep is inexplicably missing in this third installment, leaving even fewer females. Barbie has a larger role this time around though, as an overly emotional, often crying girlie-girl. She is also a traitor of sorts, breaking away from the gang to go live with Ken in his dream house.

As for Ken, he is depicted as a closeted gay fashionista with a fondness for writing in sparkly purple ink with curly-Q flourishes. Played for adult in-jokes, Ken huffily insists “I am not a girl toy, I am not!” when an uber-masculine robot–type toy suggests as much during a heated poker match. In the typical way homophobia is paired with misogyny, the jokes about Ken suggest that the worst things a male can be are a female or a homosexual.

Admittedly, Barbie ultimately rejects Ken and is instrumental in Woody and Co’s escape, but her hyper-feminine presentation coupled with Ken’s not-yet-out-of-the-toy-cupboard homophobia make this yet another family movie that perpetuates damaging gender and sexuality norms.

While the girls in the audience are given the funny and adventurous Jessie, they are also taught women are coy and  talk too much (as with the flirty Mrs. Potato-Head, who, according to the new character Lotso needs her mouth taken off), that when they say something smart it’s so rare as to be funny (as when Barbie says “authority should derive from the consent of the governed”), and that even when they are smart and adventurous, what they REALLY care about is nabbing themselves a macho toy to love (as when Jessie falls for the Latino version of Buzz – a storyline, that, yes, plays on the “Latin machismo lover” stereotype).

As for non-heterosexual audience members, they learn that being gay is so funny, that the best thing to do is hide one’s sexuality by playing heterosexual, and that it’s quite normal (and humorous) when others mock homosexuality and/or non-normative masculinity.

Yes, the film is funny and clever. Yes, it was enjoyable and fresh. Yes, it contained the typical blend of witty dialogue coupled with a virtual feast for the eyes. But, no, Pixar has not left its male-hetero-centric scripts behind. Nor has it moved beyond the ‘everyone is white and middle class’ suburban view of the world. As such, it’s associations with Disney, the mega-animated-instiller of gender and other norms (as so well documented in Mickey Mouse Monopoly) indicates that animated films from Pixar will not be giving us a “whole new world” anytime soon…

What if you’re in the market for a vampire daddy this father’s day?

If you have been following pop culture over the past 5 years, you probably know the genesis of vampire fathers: He’s the vampire who turns you into a vampire via toothsome bite or venom injection. The most popular contemporary vampire series, Twilight and True Blood, don’t feature any vampire mothers. But they do present us with a number of good, even godly, vampire fathers. Twilight’s Carlisle Cullen is a perfect undead dad to permanently teenage vampire Edward. And when Bill Compton, the hunky undead leading man of HBO’s True Blood, becomes a reluctant father to vampire Jessica, he steps up quite well.

It’s clear Twilight author Stephanie Meyer would put Carlisle up for the prize for best vampire dad. He literally MAKES his vampire Brady-Bunch family, by, yes, turning people into vampires. How preferable to having to reside in one of those icky woman-wombs for nine months! And, in a saga that so values the sex-free life, he is a surprisingly good matchmaker, turning first the seductive Rosalie into a vampire to provide his century-long-virgin-son Edward an opportunity for bumping uglies, then, when that doesn’t fly, voting to make Bella undead. (Imagine if he sought sex partners for DAUGHTERS–now that would likely cause quite the stir, no?)

Even the non-vampire dads in these series compete for best dad status. In Twilight, Charlie is a benevolent dad to heroine Bella Swan, giving her the space and independence most teens desire and even supplying her with cool wheels. Billy Black is touchingly protective of both his werewolf son Jacob and Bella, and Sam is the dedicated, if overly authoritarian, muscle-daddy of the werewolf pack. True Blood is full of touchingly queer fathering arrangements: queer cook Lafayette serves as a quasi-father to his cousin Tara, shapeshifter Sam acts as dad to waitress Arlene’s kids when she is on a bender induced by an evil manead (don’t ask!), and the town yokel Hoyt plays the role of compassionate, forgiving father-figure to his unlikeable mother.

But, if I were in the market for a vampire daddy to call my own, I would pick the surprisingly progressive Bill of True Blood. Despite his reluctance to vamparent, he is patient with his new vampire daughter, Jessica, helping her to find a synthetic blood she can tolerate and carefully teaching her the rules of vampire life. And, with heroine Sookie’s help, he recognizes Jessica is a sexual being and does not go all Edward-in-Twilight-crazy with talk of her “virtue” or how sex will damn her soul. The final episode of Season Two included a particularly touching scene where Bill and Jessica are each dressed to the nines for impending dates. Bill tells Jessica “you look quite the vision.” She worries this is a nice comment to soften his coming complaints about her dating a mortal (the goodhearted-but-hapless Hoyt). Instead, Bill admits “times have changed” and tells her “I hope you and Hoyt have a nice time.” What a nice trade from dad as quasi-virginity warrior (a concept Jessica Valenti explores in her book The Purity Myth). I would much prefer this kind but not-overbearing Bill to Carlisle’s creepy matchmaker habits!

The uber-pale good vampire daddies in Twilight and True Blood certainly outclass the bad vampire dads of older texts. Such narratives represent vampire dads as crazy, violent and racist (as in the 1987 film Near Dark), as creep-fest, power-hungry patriarchs (1987’s The Lost Boys), or as tooth-happy ghouls who turn innocent girls into wanton, lustful beasts (as in Stoker’s paradigmatic Dracula). In contrast, the human daddies are the bomb. In Near Dark, for example, protagonist Caleb is turned back into a human by his kindly father. Daddy even saves Caleb’s vampire love Meg, who turned Caleb into a vampire in the first place. How sweet.

While these dad-saviors that populate vampire narratives are appealing–they allow us to envision fathers who approve of our chosen mates (as Bill and Carlisle do) –they fail to have equally satisfying mother figures. They reveal the sad fact that our culture still assumes that fathers, even when vampires, werewolves, or shape shifters, know best.

Twilight takes “father-knows-best” to an extra level of creepiness with the notion (one fostered by Freud and certainly held by many Mormon polygamists) that females are seeking daddies via their romantic relationships. In a horribly irksome piece originally posted at Save the Males (who knew they needed saving!), writer Henry Makow argues that men “ought to be more ‘father-like’ in their approach to women;” they “should seek younger women who ‘look up’ to them.” Meyer seems to agree with this notion, providing Bella with a man who has 100 years on her and matching up baby Renesmee and toddler Claire with much older wolves via the imprinting meme (were the wolves “imprint” on a mate – a sort of love at first sight which involves male wolves imprinting on much younger female humans). Such May/December romance is only natural, according to Makow:

Many men want a daughter-figure, someone who will demonstrate the loyalty, trust and devotion that a girl feels for her father. A man wants to be affirmed in his authority as husband and father, not mothered like a child.

So there you have it people: If you are a hetero woman, go find yourselves an older daddy-man to look up to! If you’re not hetero, you can read more (PLEASE DON’T!) from Makow on how homosexuality is destroying capitalism, the family and the world.

To close, here’s hoping that you, dear readers, have a good father or father-figure in your life to celebrate this Sunday. And, nope, I don’t mind at all if that figure happens to be a vampire, werewolf or even a woman! Seems to me we should celebrate parenting in general rather than gendering the phenomenon…

(cross-posted at Ms. blog here)

What if Peace was Profitable? (A review of Iron Man)

I am re-posting this review from last year as I anxiously prepare to view Iron Man 2. I have not watched ANY previews or read any hype so as to go in without (too m)any preconceptions of the sequel. I will be posting a review at the Ms. blog (and will cross-post here). Until then, let’s revisit my take on the first Iron Man:

The film starts with Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) in full-on cool mode, swilling whiskey on the rocks and quipping “no gang signs” when a soldier holds up a peace sign. A bit later, this womanizing head of a mega-weapons corporation notes that there is no profit in peace – that it would, in effect, put him (and many others) out of work. Yet, Stark has a change of heart (quite literally) after being almost fatally wounded in a secret snuff attack by his partner and nemeses, Obidiah (played with tycoon nastiness by Jeff Bridges). With the help of Yinsen, another captor, Stark is saved and has a new heart in place – literally, a technological heart that keeps him alive, but also, more significantly, a heartfelt awakening to the realities of war and weaponry.

However, as Sarah Seltzer at RH reality check writes, “the movie seems to imply that his moral doubts kick into gear mostly because the dark-skinned baddies got their hands on his stockpile.” Or, in other words, Stark isn’t too concerned about militarization and arms dealing until the arms are in the hands of the ‘evil terrorists.’ Unfortunately, the film does nothing to trouble the ‘you’re either with us or your against us’ dichotomy. According the logic of the film, the Afghan baddies are ‘against us’ (except for Yinsen, the doctor who saves Stark and is, of course, conveniently nixed before the film is in full throttle). Moreover, as the side character from SHIELD (the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division) plays a considerable role in saving Pepper Potts and Iron Man while also making the annihilation of Obidiah possible, the film suggests that the real enemies are ‘over there’ and what we really need are bigger ‘shields’ to protect us – a message with which the current administration would certainly approve. And, even though the baddie is a corporate white guy, he is not framed as bad because he makes weapons or loves wealth and power, but because he trades with the wrong people (the Middle Easterners that the film stereotypically casts as terrorist cave dwellers). This representation of ‘baddies’ using U.S. weapons for evil purposes is furthered when Khan finds the remnants of the first Iron Man suit in the desert in order to retool them for his own use. Here, good U.S. weapons (the Iron Man suit) are stolen by bad terrorists (Khan). Thus, the message is not so much anti-weapon as anti-weapons for (middle-eastern) Others.

Once back in the good ole U.S.of A. (yet another dichotomy the film fails to unpack: US good, Middle East bad) Stark, the head of a corporation at the heart of the military industrial complex, announces at a press conference that his company will no longer make weapons. Heads start spinning and stocks start dropping – just as they would in the real world if Lockheed Martin or General Electric decided to disavow making weapons. Weapons are big business – one of the biggest – and, as the film in its techno-glam super-hero style vaguely reveals, this business requires perpetual war (as well as selling weapons to as many buyers as possible- whether ‘friend’ or ‘foe’).

While its nice to think some of the pro-peace, anti-military industrial subtext will travel home with theatre goers, when I asked one of the boys that joined my kids and I at the movies what he thought the movie was trying to say about war, his enthusiastic reply was “Weapons Rule!” Unfortunately, I think this is the message that many will ultimately take away from the film – that technology rules and what we really need is “better weapons” which could rule the world in an ultra-cool way – via Iron Men! Seems like this type of weapon would in fact be Bush’s wet dream – wasn’t that the sort of look he was aiming for when he donned the flack suit and announced “Mission Accomplished”? Can’t you just see Bush all rigged up in that neato red and gold Iron Man suit, quipping “I ain’t only gonna smoke you outta your caves, I’m gonna fire blast you out!” Of course, Stark plays a much different Iron Man than Bush would – he has a heart and a brain, and really does seem to have turned against the idea that weapons are the answer – only problem is, the audience may not be able to make that turn with him when the movie makes it look so damn much like “Weapons Rule!”

*As an aside, is there any reason Pepper Potts has to wear heels so high she can barely walk? And, why the hell didn’t she ever get to gear up in a Iron Woman suit? I suggest purple and silver, with no heels.

**For great analysis of this film, see WOC PhD and Feminist Underground.

Published in: on May 6, 2010 at 2:44 pm  Comments (9)  
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What if the id within is feminist? A review of Nurse Jackie

(Cross-posted here at Ms. Blog)

In this week’s second-season premiere of the Showtime series Nurse Jackie, a feminist id was on full display. According to Mr. Penis Envy, Sigmund Freud, who published The Ego and the Id in 1923, the id acts according to the “pleasure principle,” seeking to avoid pain and experience pleasure with no thought to consequence.

While Jackie (Edie Falco), a hospital emergency-room nurse, does seem aware of consequences (she hides her drug addiction), she in large part functions according to id impulses. According to Freud, the id is ruled by libido, sexual and otherwise, cannot take “no” for an answer and is represented as infantile. It wants what it wants when it wants it. All of which is true of Jackie Peyton.

But, what makes Jackie’s id feminist? While it might seem contradictory to claim that the unthinking part of the self can have feminist tendencies, Jackie’s pleasure-seeking self can be read as a reaction to the confines of the patriarchal world. As a nurse (and a woman), she is supposed to be selfless and outward-directed, nurturing and caring. Who cares about her chronic pain and 24-hour work/life demands? Her feminist id responds “F you” to the nurturing/suffering paradigm, and she ingests drugs to numb the pain of daily life.

In this week’s episode, Jackie’s feminist id refuses to bend over backwards to ameliorate her rather annoying daughter, Grace, while the family is on a beach excursion. She rejects the “super-mom” role, instead rolling her eyes and voicing frustration. Then, when two young men partake in sexist “I’d tap that” banter, she shoves one of them down and storms off. Her husband warns them “Don’t fuck with her,” voicing the “don’t mess with me” aura Jackie exudes most of the time. That’s an aura that women are not supposed to have but, as the scene indicates, her husband can literally voice.

Jackie’s id also ignores her lover Eddie’s texts–why should she have to placate him just because he can’t get over his jealous response to discovering she is married? The show’s representation of him as seeking vengeance because “his woman” is “taken” can be read as a feminist critique of the ownership model of love. If he were angry at the betrayal, that would be one thing, but he is angry that she is not his alone–to which feminist-id Jackie says “F you, dude.”

Her shenanigans with Coop, the doctor who’s enamored with her, also have a feminist pleasure principle at their core. How fun is it that she takes down this ego-inflated ninny and yet he remains hopelessly infatuated? Our super-ego might feel her teasing kisses and sharp barbs are cruel, but our own ids cheer as Jackie skewers Coop’s self-important bravado.

Even the flourish that closes the episode, her delivery of cake for a family dinner, can be read as a feminist id response. Not only is she saying no to all the rules about what and how one should eat, she is again refusing to live up to wife/mother ideals. Perhaps this is a veiled response to husband Kevin’s recent declaration that she is such a great wife because she cooks him breakfast even when she is exhausted.

More generally, id-Jackie reveals that sexual desire is overly regulated and refuses to buy into “you can only love and have sex with one person at a time” paradigm. She proves that the “just say no” response is unrealistic, that our drugs–be they cake, sex or morphine–sometimes are the only things allowing us a tenuous grip on our capacity to be functional beings.

I agree with The Feminist Spectator, that this series is “smart and morally, emotionally and ethically complicated.” We may not be able to fully embrace Jackie’s id behavior, but we can certainly recognize what drives it. And, as Michelle Dean notes at Bitch, “All of the female characters on the show spend considerable time satisfying the Bechdel test–women, speaking to women, about subjects other than men.” These characters offer subtle and provocative critiques of the privilege/oppression matrix, revealing that, given the regulatory practices of society, it’s surprising we are not all popping pills like candy.

I hope that during the rest of this season, Jackie, a wonderful feminist id, will have her cake and eat it too.

Published in: on March 25, 2010 at 11:19 am  Comments (2)  
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What if you are no more than a walking womb?

My recent post at Womanist Musings ruminated about the plethora of monstrous mothers that grace our screens and pages.  From Beowulf right up to Precious and Coraline, the monstrous mommy has threatened us with her sMother love.

This bad mommy meme was evident as well on last night’s episode of Lost, which depicted Claire as going knife-happy on Kate due to her mommy induced craziness. The episode even hints that bad Locke is bad cuz his mommy was a nutter. Sheesh!

The emphasis on woman AS mothers that Lost perpetuates (as I write about here) is in keeping with a cultural notion of females as not much more than walking wombs.

The female as most important in relation to reproductive capacity is also evident in the never-ending reproductive rights battle writ large most recently in the healthcare debate.

If, when, and how a woman becomes a mother is still a defining component of that elusive mantle of ‘womanhood.’ Then, once one finally achieves this supposedly crowning glory of femininity, one can do no right but will be depicted as crazy mom (Lost) or abusive mom (Coraline). The only way to be championed for this role it seems is to be perfect mom – or white, heterosexual, money-privileged, and good-looking AND willing to mother not only your own children, but the entire world (The Blind Side).

Will, this womb has got walk now, I have mothering to do…

What if this season men-of-color get to rule the island? (Hypermasculinity and its ‘Others’ on Lost)

Lost provides particularly fertile ground for an analysis of desirable masculinity through both its ‘hypermasculine’ traditionally attractive male characters  (Jack and Sawyer) and the many ‘others’ that the show, via various means, codifies as ‘hot.’

Sawyer is often cited as the “guy we’d like to be stuck on a deserted island with,” (as here), but other males get there share of love too, as with Feministe’s fondness for Sayid.

While Jack and Sawyer, the two traditional male hotties of the show, represent white, macho, hetero-masculinity, the show offers us a number of other ‘male beauties’ notable for their diverse skin color, body size, age, race, ethnicity, etc.

Moreover, by ‘de-masculinizing’ many characters and showing them as vulnerable, emotional, dependent, etc, the show also subverts normative gender expectations.

By often placing beauties ‘others’ at the center of viewer identification and aesthetic fondness, the show in effect allows viewers a ‘post-colonial’ gaze that promotes appreciation and identification with those historically designated as Other (through characters such as Jin, Sayid, Miles, Michael, Walt). As the show relies on the ‘stranded island motif’ utilized by Defoe and others, post-colonialism readings seem particularly apt.  While it initially seemed as if the ‘white male studs’ would rule the island and be the ‘heroes,’ Lost undercuts this tradition sometimes and, if the two-hour premiere was any indication, this just may be the season where men-of-color drive the narrative .

By expanding desirable masculinity beyond the Jack and Sawyer types to include Locke, Hurley, Jin, Sayid, etc. the show (partially) breaks with a long tradition of elevating the white man to a god, and demeaning all others to villains or servants.  Alas, as the premiere revealed, it seems the white man is both god (blonde haired-blue eyed Jacob) and devil (the ‘new’ Locke). But, might Sayid be the ultimate island hero? Or is he, as hour three suggested, “infected”?

Especially via characters like Kate and Juliet, the show also includes power/leadership/deity status in female form. However, I doubt island power will be revealed as matriarchal in this final season.

Lost may(partially) capture a cultural call for a diversifying of beauty, gender, sexuality, and power, but it is hardly the new feminist frontier. But, hey, we did get to see Sawyer crying this week.

Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  
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