Friday, February 27, 2015

A little about Agent Carter and Homeland

I have a bad cold, so if this post is stupider, or smarter, than usual, that may be why. It's like drunk blogging with chest-wracking coughs.

If you're afraid of spoilers, don't be. I'm not giving away any major plot points.

The only reason I'm writing about these two shows in one post is I've been watching them lately, though if I were being pretentious, I'd say they're both propaganda for neoliberalism, but only one does that well.

One episode of Agent Carter is pretty much what the show should've been all along: that's the Howling Commandos ep, which you can probably watch out of context. The rest of the first season suffers from these things:

1. They don't burn story. They had enough material for five or six episodes, not eight.

2. They try too hard to be relevant by making the show explicitly about 1940s sexism. They could've done a fine first episode in which some of the men underestimated Carter, but the showrunners forgot that this is not a story about a young woman who has yet to prove herself. Peggy Carter has serious credentials. Given her past in the first Captain America movie, the men might treat her as an exceptional woman, but they would never treat her as an incompetent one.

As for the show's ties to neoliberalism, well, I'm stretching here, but I wanted a show about tracking down the last members of Hydra. I didn't want a show with commie villains. I dislike Stalinism as much as anyone, but Nazism is a much better ideology for the sorts of villains I want from a 1940s SHIELD show. Nazism gives you unabashed racists and sexists, while Stalinism gives you a society that for all its flaws was seen as a better alternative to the US by hundreds of black Americans (see In Russia, early African American migrants found the good life) and where women served in the military as snipers and bomber pilots.

3. Though the showrunners decided to make the show about sexism, they ignored racism. They must've been intending to get to that--there's undoubtedly a reason the agency is all white in this season--but see Point #1. Without a character like Gabriel Jones, Agent Carter feels less racially enlightened than Marvel's original 1960s' SHIELD comic.

As for Homeland, I watched the first few episodes when it debuted and thought it was heavy-handed propaganda. But a friend whose taste I respect loves it, so we gave it another try, and found the show gets a lot twistier fast. They burn story gleefully, so I rarely knew what was going to happen next. Mind you, I do think it's propaganda--they acknowledge a lot of flaws in the US approach to the Middle East, but ultimately, the head terrorist of the first two seasons isn't much more complex than the Red Skull. But it's nuanced propaganda with a nice attention to character, especially with its leads, so I'll be starting in on the third season soon, I suspect.

Fredrik deBoer on the diversification of inequality

it eats everything | Fredrik deBoer:
Perhaps no form of subtle social control better exemplifies privilege’s ability to dominate through soft power than the way in which privilege theory itself becomes a commodity, monetized and peddled to the privileged as easily as consumer electronics or expensive clothes.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I wish Adolph Reed Jr. had a movie column: "The Real Problem with Selma"

From The Real Problem with Selma |
...the specific sensibilities that carry the spate of slavery/Jim Crow-era costume dramas are those around which the contemporary black professional-managerial class (PMC) converges: reduction of politics to a narrative of racial triumph that projects “positive images” of black accomplishment, extols exemplary black individuals, stresses overcoming great adversity to attain success and recognition, and inscribes a monolithic and transhistorical racism as the fundamental obstacle confronting, and thus uniting, all black Americans. History is beside the point for this potted narrative, as is art incidentally, which the debate over the relative merits of Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained demonstrates. The only metric that could make comparing such radically different films seem plausible is the presence or prominence of a black hero or black “agency.”
As usual with Reed, read slowly; almost every sentence has an important insight. He moves from a brilliant account of Reconstruction to black politics today, noting:
An interpretive posture that posits an unproblematic “black community” or “black masses” as a normative standard cannot adequately conceptualize the relatively autonomous tendencies toward neoliberal legitimation in black politics; much less can it confront them politically. 
This may be a reason that, as Cedric Johnson and I have complained to each other about since 2006, anti-racist activists focused their political outrage and calls for national action, including mobilization for mass marches, on a racial incident in Jena, Louisiana that was little more than a high school fight yet were incapable of, if not uninterested in, mounting any systematic or coherent action to protest the ongoing travesty of forced displacement and criminal inaction affecting hundreds of thousands of people little more than a three-hour drive away in post-Katrina New Orleans. Jena fit comfortably into a historically familiar frame of stereotypically southern small town racism/antiracism; the political and interpretive tools available in antiracist discourse did not work so cleanly in New Orleans. 
In the tradition of great researchers, Reed's footnotes are well worth reading (that's where nonfiction writers get to keep the darlings that had to be cut). Here's #2:
Du Vernay’s vision of the local movement doesn’t extend much beyond King and his SCLC confederates at all. Glen Ford rightly criticizes Selma’s characterization of the SNCC radicals’ relation with King and SCLC. Du Vernay reduces the tension to an expression of some of the SNCC activists’ ultimately petty and juvenile turf-protectiveness. Political or strategic differences are beyond her purview. While license is what it is, and the SNCC/SCLC tension is arguably not crucial to the story she wants to tell, her choice to portray James Forman in particular as a young, narrow-minded hothead may be as revealing as it is gratuitous and inaccurate. Forman was one of the most systematically leftist voices in SNCC, a Korean War veteran, a former teacher and organizer before going to join SNCC and was actually a year older than King. Du Vernay’s film describes King as having “led the Civil Rights movement for thirteen years” until his assassination in 1968. That view is consistent with her trivialization of SNCC; it is also in no way correct. King, for example, was not even the principal force driving or the main attraction at the 1963 March on Washington, which was most of all the project of A. Philip Randolph and his Negro American Labor Council. See, for example, William P. Jones, “The Unknown Origins of the March on Washington: Civil Rights Politics and the Black Working Class,” Labor 7 (2010): 33-52 and The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014). In fact, I know several people who attended the march and left before King spoke because it was a long, hot day, and he was at that point in the minds of many activists just another preacher, albeit a courageous and progressive one.
I still want to see Selma someday, but I'm in no hurry.

Monday, February 23, 2015

If "not classically beautiful" is code for black, Marilyn Monroe and these women are black

I missed the twitterage under #notclassicallybeautiful after Alessandra Stanley wrote in Viola Davis Plays Shonda Rhimes’s Latest Tough Heroine:
As Annalise, Ms. Davis, 49, is sexual and even sexy, in a slightly menacing way, but the actress doesn’t look at all like the typical star of a network drama. Ignoring the narrow beauty standards some African-American women are held to, Ms. Rhimes chose a performer who is older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful than Ms. Washington, or for that matter Halle Berry, who played an astronaut on the summer mini-series “Extant.”
The assumption was that the comment's racist—see 26 Best Tweets in Response to Critic Who Called Viola Davis 'Less Classically Beautiful'—but a quick google shows these women are also "not classically beautiful":

The 100 Most Beautiful Actresses of All-Time...: "49) Marilyn Monroe - For all the hoopla and sexuality she was a lovely looking woman. Norma Jean was a determined young woman who made one of the most significant marks in 20th century pop culture. Certainly not classically beautiful, but one would be hard pressed to find a more memorable image on the silver screen. "

Pin by Robert Routh on Beautiful Ladies | Pinterest: "Jo Stafford-perhaps not classically beautiful but I find her alluring and I love her music!"

Pin by Ruth Waddell on exotic women | Pinterest: "how to describe a face like this without the typical cliches (eg not classically beautiful... ugh)"

Waddell points out the real problem with the phrase: it's a cliché that tells you nothing at all.

As for Marilyn Monroe, these black women were rated above her: Vanessa Williams (#11), Diahn Carroll (#17), Lena Horne (#32), Paula Patton (#36), Halle Berry (#44).

Bonus: Beauty and Indian actresses are discussed at The unsung beauties from the 50s | Indulging myself...: "Another beauty who was and I feel still is underrated was Nargis. Nargis was not classically beautiful, she had her flaws, but she made the flaws look so gorgeous that everyone wanted to copy the flaw."

ETA: Some of the people who claimed the writer was racist don't seem to understand how "and" works: the writer didn't claim skin color had anything to do with "classical beauty", which I'd guess began as a reference to Greco-Roman statuary. "Classical beauty" has to do with the structure of the face, favoring features that are found from Ethiopia to Scandinavia.