Friday, 14 October 2016

The limits of subtext

I've been trying to broaden my movie-viewing experiences recently, but I'm still not averse to a good old-fashioned blockbuster. That's what I figured I was getting when I bought a ticket to The Magnificent Seven last week, and for the most part, my expectations were met: yes, the script was a Frankenstein's monster of multiple rewrites, yes the explosions were many and joyful, yes Chris Pratt was doing his standard Chris Pratt schtick ("hi, I'm Chris Pratt, and I'll be your off-brand Han Solo for the evening.") But amidst all the standard cliches, something caught my eye and held my attention even after the credits had rolled: was the film implying a romantic relationship between Goodnight (Ethan Hawke) and Billy (Lee Byung-hun?) According to at least one person on Twitter who worked on the film, that's exactly what the implication was- and it was toned down significantly from the first draft of the script:



Now, rewrites are standard practice for any creative product- it's a chance to smooth out bugs, plug in plotholes, and deepen the characters and themes. But in this case, I'm at a bit of a loss as to what was gained in translation. The final draft of  the script- the one that ended up in the movie- has Goodnight explaining their relationship by saying "I keep him employed, he keeps me on the level," and later insisting, "where I go, Billy goes." A relatively small difference- but vastly significant in what it implies. "Comfort" is something provided by a loved one; "on the level" is a business term. The rest of their relationship- what caught my attention when I watched the film- takes place in quiet moments in the background, little glimpses of what might be happening when the camera cuts away. Easy to notice, if you're looking for it; easy to miss if you aren't.

Ethan Hawke and Lee Byung-hun in The Magnificent Seven
The Magnificent Seven is far from the only film to employ this sort of peri-textual approach when it comes to queer relationships. Last year's Mad Max:Fury Road featured a cast of five "wives" fleeing their warlord "husband," and many viewers noticed that two of the wives- played by Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton- were awfully cuddly with each other, even for sister-wives. I'm willing to give Mad Max slightly more leeway in this regard, because the movie relied heavily on visual storytelling over dialogue- literally showing rather than telling. But at the same time, a male and female character (played by Riley Keough and Nicholas Hoult) were permitted to carry out an explicitly romantic relationship; no one watching the film would come away denying that the two were attracted to each other. So why the discrepancy?

Left to right: Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, and Zoe Kravitz in
Mad Max.
The short version seems to be "because studio interference." The looming spectre of "the studio" is far from unknown to filmmakers wishing to include LGBT characters; studio heads fearing reduced ticket sales have dictated the erasure of LGBT people since Hollywood began. The 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet (a must-watch for anyone interested in the history of queerness in cinema) details the timeline of gay, bisexual, and transgender characters on the big screen: first there were the coded "sissies," then the restrictive violence of the Hayes Code (which forbade "any inference of sex perversion" and warned against "sympathy for criminals") the punishing Puritanism of films like Cruising, and finally the softened, palatable gayness of films like Philadelphia and Fried Green Tomatoes: the gayness is there (explicitly named in Philadelphia, hinted at in Fried Green Tomatoes) but affection between the couples is kept to a clinical minimum, so as to avoid discomfiting homophobic audience members. Antonio Banderas and Tom Hanks- for all that they play a committed couple in Philadelphia- never kiss onscreen. Mary Stuart Masterton and Mary-Louise Parker, despite playing characters who were explicitly identified as lesbians in the source material, are relegated to "friends" in Fried Green Tomatoes. The movies I just mentioned were released in 1993 and 1991 respectively, but it seems we've made very little progress in the ensuing twenty-five years.

This squeamishness even affects the marketing of explicitly gay cinema: this year's Moonlight, a gay coming-of-age story about a young black man, shows no same-sex kisses in the trailer. Similarily, last year's Carol was promoted with trailers so devoid of romance that audiences could be forgiven for not realizing what the movie was about until an hour into their screening.




Still, at least Moonlight and Carol allowed their gay characters to exist: "mainstream" blockbusters (i.e. films that are not explicitly about the gay experience) still seem to balk at the possibility. Another release from this year, Ghostbusters, featured Kate McKinnon (who is gay herself) as Holtzmann, a character many audience members interpreted as a lesbian. When asked, director Paul Feig replied with a nod, clarifying “when you’re dealing with the studios ...” Likewise, the relationship between Sulu and his husband in Star Trek Beyond was limited to a friendly pat on the back, and the gay couple in Independence Day: Resurgence only got to hold hands. (Although given that Roland Emmerich also managed to make a bizarrely heterosexual movie about Stonewall, perhaps that last example shouldn't surprise anyone.)

Perhaps it would be easy to shrug all this off: after all, we've come a long way from the arid landscape of the 1930s, right? At least gay movies are getting made, and movies outside the "gay cinema" ghetto are at least hinting that their characters might not be entirely heterosexual. But the trouble with this is that gay characters are being left to languish in movies that only the dedicated film fanatic will seek out. (For example, when Carol was released, I had to drive to a theatre an hour away to see it; it wasn't playing any closer.) And in the meantime, heterosexual viewers are offered a comfortable way out: if they don't want to see these characters as gay, they don't have to. If they want to avoid the implication that one can be a gay sharpshooter, or a gay post-apocalyptic action hero, or a gay Ghostbuster- that gayness does not limit someone to endless navel-gazing about their identity, that a gay person can engage in all sorts of adventures before returning home to their partner at the end of the day- they are entirely free to do so. I'm not content with that. I don't like trickle-down representation. Gay people deserve to be in mainstream releases just as much as they deserve to be in artsy independent films, and as long as that doesn't happen, it's just another roadblock on the path to actual equality.

Monday, 25 May 2015

I saw a film today, oh boy

Adam Sandler is clearly some sort of Max Bialystock-level genius. I don't know how he's pulled it off, but somehow his current (very successful) career consists of:
  • writing a movie script while putting in the least possible amount of effort
  • flying out to exotic locales (the Caribbean, the Sahara) on his production company's dime in order to vacation while he films his movie
  • casting his friends in these movies so that they can all pal around in their vacation spots while occasionally taking breaks to do actual work, and
  • somehow, no matter how badly his movies flop, continuing on in this vein with no sign of professional or financial collapse.
Like I said: genius.

Sandler doesn't come up in the news very often- at this point, even professional critics are tired of flogging this dead horse- and when he does it's usually related in some way to his movies pissing people off. Sure enough, the latest news story is exactly what you'd expect from Sandler at this point: First Nations actors have walked off the set of his latest movie, "The Ridiculous Six," citing the script as being offensive towards their people and culture. Sandler and co have responded to these accusations with "it's a COMEDY, tcha," the tried and true refuge for everyone who's ever told a shitty joke and had to stare down a stone-faced audience in the aftermath. The movie will undoubtedly go on, as will Sandler's career- at this point, I don't think anything short of a massive fire at Happy Madison Studios is going to stop him. But some of the responses to this news story gave me pause- specifically, the cries of "our culture is too PC!" and- intriguingly- "censorship!"

Censorship? Really?

Here's the thing: the definition of the word "censorship" has gotten so warped in the past few years, very few people understand what it actually means. It's an especially egregious misuse in this case because no one is even trying to shut Sandler down; publicly calling his movie offensive is not the same as trying to halt production. One private citizen has every right to decide that he doesn't want to participate in another private citizen's business venture- which is, at the end of the day, what Sandler's movies are. Moviemaking is a business. No one is required to work at a business whose ethics they disagree with, or whose scheduling they don't like, or whose uniforms they think are ugly. That concept, "private citizen" is key to the entire censorship debate: it marks the difference between what censorship is and what it isn't.

Most of the time, cries of "censorship!" are accompanied by references to the First Amendment of the American Constitution. Let me quote it in full here, since it's not that long:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (x)

I bolded that first bit on purpose. Censorship happens when a government stops its citizens from the free distribution of thoughts and ideas. A government. Hollywood is not a government, and the actors who walked off the set of "The Ridiculous Six" are not senators. If the United States Congress passed a law saying that they as a legislative body found Sandler's work juvenile and offensive and that he was therefore prohibited from releasing it in the United States, that would be censorship. This is, in fact,t he opposite of censorship- these actors are exercising their right to free speech in order to criticize what they see as a film which harms the public perception of their culture. They have that right, just as Sandler is within his rights to make the film anyway, and put it on Netflix. Freedom from censorship is not the same as freedom from criticism, especially when that criticism is coming from one private citizen to another.

Another case frequently cited as censorship is the imbroglio that happened over "The Interview" this past winter. To wit, if you missed it: Seth Rogen and James Franco made a movie in which their characters assassinate the prime minister of North Korea. North Korea took umbrage to this, and threatened to attack theatres in which the film was shown. Sony, the company the film was made under, responded by pulling it from circulation, eventually compromising by releasing it to Netflix and video on demand services. Honestly, I'm more than a little tempted to think that they cooked up the whole ploy themselves: it turned the latest bro-stoner comedy into a cause célèbre, with people lining up to prove that Kim Jong-Un couldn't tell them what movies to watch, dammit! (And lining Sony's pockets as a result, naturally. The greatest trick capitalism ever played is convincing people that spending money was equivalent to taking political action.) Now, if North Korea truly was behind these threats, that's horrible. But is it censorship?

Here's the thing: no, it's not. Because North Korea is not the American government. North Korea has no sovereignty over American citizens, and its only recourse in deciding what Americans read and watch comes by way of terrorist threats. The threats may have influenced the decision to pull the movie, but the decision itself was Sony's- and Sony, as a private company (I know, I keep beating this drum) is well within its rights to choose not to release a film. Film companies pulling films from release is not actually a new thing; they do it whenever they think that the film's release will hurt the company more than help it. It's just that this particular release was accompanied by such a media firestorm, it became- as I said- a cause rather than a mediocre movie being pulled from rotation. (I have to ask, did anyone feel that their lives were truly enriched by watching The Interview? Were the jokes about Rogen and Franco's bromance really vital to your understanding of the human condition?)

The interesting thing is, there is actually a history of Hollywood colluding with the American government to censor movies- and it hasn't been done with the intent of appeasing pissy liberals. Throughout the 1920s, various state and municipal governments came up with laws to keep movies that they disliked off the screens: in response, Hollywood scrabbled to find some way of appeasing them, and came up with the Motion Picture Production Code. Rather than having to make cuts after sending the film prints out, the reasoning went, they would make all the necessary changes before
Hi I'm Joseph Breen, and I'm here to ruin your day.
anyone outside the studios ever saw the films. The Code was originally overseen by Will Hayes (hence the common nickname "Hays Code") who had resigned from his position as the head of the Republican National Committee days before taking on the job at what would become known as the Production Code Administration. He was later replaced by Walter Breen, a Roman Catholic layperson who once charmingly referred to Hollywood's Jewish directors as "the scum of the earth." Breen's anti-Semitism probably contributed to Hollywood's extreme reluctance to release any films criticising Nazi Germany: while filmmakers attempted to make movies that criticized the Nazi concentration camps, they were shut down by the PCA, and only permitted to move forward after it was discovered in 1938 that Nazi spies had infiltrated the American government. Here are the "don'ts" of the Hays Code- the things Hollywood films were absolutely not allowed to portray:

  1. Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words "God," "Lord," "Jesus," "Christ" (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), "hell," "damn," "Gawd," and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
  2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
  3. The illegal traffic in drugs;
  4. Any inference of sex perversion [homosexuality]; 
  5. White slavery [prostitution];
  6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
  7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
  8. Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
  9. Children's sex organs;
  10. Ridicule of the clergy;
  11. Willful offense to any nation, race or creed

So PC. Much liberal.

Directors either complied with the Code or found ways to skirt it (kissing scenes of longer than three seconds were forbidden, so Alfred Hitchcock got around it by having the actors come up for air every three seconds during a two-minute makeout scene in Notorious) and it remained in place until 1966, when the Hays Office closed. This happened for a variety of reasons; America was beginning to shift away from the rigid religious morality that had governed the Code, and the lack of an MPPC certificate was no longer a barrier to a film's financial success. Most significantly, a 1952 Supreme Court case, Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, handed down the verdict that films were protected under the First Amendment (a freedom that had not previously existed, as per the Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio decision of 1915) which means that state boards could no longer control what content was and was not acceptable in their movie theatres. The government could no longer control what movies the public watched.

So that's when film censorship ended, right?

Well, Kind of.

You may have seen "This Film is Not Yet Rated," the 2006 documentary detailing the inner workings of the Motion Picture Association of America- the ratings board that replaced the Hays Code. The director of that film, Kirby Dick, found that members of the MPAA were generally laypeople when it came to child development and psychology, that their appeals process provided no clarity to directors who wanted to know why their film had received the rating it did, and that a disparity existed between films with heterosexual content and homosexual content. But most pertinent to the current discussion is the fact that Hollywood frequently works alongside and in cooperation with none other than the Pentagon- aka, a branch of the American government. The Pentagon provides military vehicles, weapons, and expertise to filmmakers, but can and will yank their support if the film portrays the military in a way that they disapprove of. Here is a partial list of films produced with Pentagon assistance (the full list can be found at the link):
  • Iron Man
  • Transformers
  • True Lies
  • Star Trek IV
  • Silence of the Lambs
  • Battleship
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • Captain Phillips
So, does the Pentagon's involvement in Hollywood constitute censorship? Not under the First Amendment, no. The Pentagon isn't Congress, and the First Amendment specifies that Congress cannot interfere with the freedom of speech. However, the Pentagon's relationship with Hollywood- and Will Hays' quick job turnover from the RNC to the Production Code Administration- comes closer to government interference in filmmaking than anything else under discussion. It is perhaps worth noting that the First Nations actors criticising Adam Sandler do not work for the Pentagon- and the American government does not have a history of either cooperating with or uplifting its First Nations constituents. So unless Obama comes out with a presidential decree shutting down Happy Madison Studios, it might behoove Adam Sandler's fans to consider the fact that he operates and has always operated with impunity as far as censorship is concerned.

After all, he's not inferring "sex perversion."

Friday, 27 March 2015

I wanna be a starship ranger

The future is now, so I don't see how the time isn't right for me . . .

Being a woman who likes genre fiction is one of the most exhausting experiences on earth.

At the moment, I'd say there are two broad categories of genre fiction: the "gritty" stuff, like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, and the more "fluffy" ones like the Marvel movies. I've said before that I don't have a whole lot of time for gritty shows; the main reason is that I find surrounding myself with that kind of negativity tiring, but there's another aspect. The thing is, "gritty" seems to translate- in the minds of showrunners, anyway- into "bad shit happens to women." The bad shit isn't
Pictured: what women can expect from "gritty" drama.
always limited to the female characters, obviously, but there's a specific dimension to the way women are hurt in these shows. It's always to do with their bodies. They're groped, raped, tortured, suffer miscarriages, die in childbirth- it always seems to be some variation of either a woman being made vulnerable by her body or a woman being betrayed by her body. The female vessel is treated as an essentially weak, fragile, corrupt piece of meat in a way that mens' bodies just aren't. Men get hurt; men die; but men die heroically in battle, men take a bullet for their friends, men make heroic last stands. Maybe a single tear runs down their face while they do it. Often their death concludes with a brief glimpse of them in the afterlife, being greeted by the women whose bodies paved their way to heroism.

In some ways, this hurts men as much as it does women; it perpetuates a myth of male superheroism
that leaves no room for men to be weak or emotional or hurt. But the visceral disdain for the bodies of women- that cuts deep. And it cuts into male and female viewers alike. We all learn, hearing these stories, that this is what women should expect: from men, from other women, from themselves. Is it any wonder, then, that violence against women is endemic? We've created an endless cycle of regurtiating misogyny into our pop culture and then playing out the scenarios we see onscreen. And with "gritty" stories becoming increasingly popular, I only see this trend on the rise.

So what about the other side of the coin?

Remember girls, this is what you're good for.
In a way, gritty and fluffy genre shows create a one-two punch of female disempowerment. Gritty shows tell women that their bodies are weak and disposable. In a lot of respect, fluffy shows do that as well: how many superhero movies has the girlfriend/mother character died in? There's a whole trope named after it. And it's not just death; it's disrespect. This past summer, Guardians of the Galaxy opened with Peter Quill's mother on her deathbed, and shows the sole woman on the team being called a "green whore" as a joke. In The Avengers, the sole female superhero is taunted by the villain, who calls her a "mewling quim" (an antiquated slang term for "vagina;" in modern parlance, a "whiny cunt.") Buffy the Vampire Slayer, often held up as a paragon of feminist TV, had its heroine inadverdantly turn her boyfriend into a monster by having sex with him. But I think the trends of fluffy TV, when it comes to women, are deeper and more insiduous than just hurting them physically. That's an aspect, yes. But what these shows really say- beyond "you're gonna get hurt-" is "you can't be a hero."

I don't think I've posted about BBC's The Musketeers here before, but I was absolutely crazy about the first season. It wasn't perfect when it came to women (oh look, more dead girlfriends and attempted rapes) but the most prominent female character, Constance, got to her her own miniature hero's journey. She wanted to learn how to fight, and she did. At one point, she and one of the men find themselves backed into a corner by a bad guy. Constance grabs a sword. "Have you got this?" her companion asks her. She bares her teeth. "Absolutely." And then she kicks the bad guy's ass.

How great is that? Finally, a heroine is being given the same strengths as a hero: she wants to learn to be strong, and she does. She gets to quip at the bad guys before proving she's stronger than they are. This is what we want: women who get to kick ass, who get to be funny, who get to be the same kind of wish fulfillment as the male characters. Escapist fantasy is, after all, a form of wish fulfillment: we want to be Peter Quill, or Robin Hood, or one of the Three Musketeers. When you were a kid, did you ever play games based on whatever TV or movies you watched? I did. Power Rangers was a popular choice, and so was Pokemon. I notice, however, that the older boys and girls get- once they reach school age or so- their forms of fantasy diverge. My female friends and I increasingly made up our own stories, independent of what we saw when we got home from school and turned on the TV. Our male classmates were still playing at Star Wars and Indiana Jones, squabbling over who got to be Indy or Han Solo or Luke Skywalker. When girls joined in those games, we often made up new characters to play (my character's name when we played Indiana Jones was "Sarah.") After all, it's not like heroines were thick on the ground; Star Wars fans got to be Leia (and to be reminded by geek culture that their value still boiled down to how they looked in a gold bikini) and if you were into Indiana Jones, there was Marion Ravenwood. (There were two other prominent women in the movies- the screeching Willie Scott, or Elsa the Nazi seductress. Neither held much appeal for would-be adventurers.) Meanwhile if you were a boy, you could be Luke Skywalker or Han Solo or Indiana Jones or Indiana's father Henry or Lando Calrissian, or Chewbacca, or . . .

You get my point.

You thought you boyfriend would respect you and your choices?
That's adorable.
So tying this back around to The Musketeers: Constance's arc wasn't perfect, and her primary narrative function was to be a love interest for d'Artagnan, but she still had her own stuff going on. Then season two happened, and it all went to complete shit. Constance, trapped in an abusive
marriage, was berated by her husband on one side and her would-be lover on the other, being called a "coward" for being afraid of being branded an adulteress and/or being hurt by her husband. She didn't get to pick up any more swords. Instead, chastised, she admitted that she was in the wrong for wanting to dictate the course of her own life, and for being constrained by the endless restrictions applied to women's lives. "Hypocrite" was the specific word she used. And then, having been thoroughly humbled by a man who knew what she wanted better than she did, she married him, and they're going to live happily ever after!

What . . .  the . . . fuck.

Where did my Constance go? Where was the heroine I'd wanted so badly as a child? Where was the woman who kicked ass and took names and stood up for her friends- and more importantly, stood up for herself? Why were her thoughts and needs and desires being treated as subordinate to her boyfriend's feelings? Where was the woman who, if I'd been fifteen years younger, I would have been playing with my friends at recess? Doesn't that little girl- all the little girls now who watch the show- get a heroine too?

And it wasn't just Constance: it seemed like this season was an endless parade of women being abused, murdered, tossed aside, and forgotten. The most egregious example is probably the nameless sex worker murdered by the season big bad (even in the end credits, she was only credited as "Prostitute") but she certainly wasn't an anomaly. There was Marguerite, seduced by one of the leads, subsequently abandoned and then blackmailed, and finally succumbing to despair and taking her own life. Marguerite was never her own character; she was an object to move the story along, someone to provide angst for her lover (when he remembered that she existed) and plot fodder when the villain needed a way to move forward. Then there was Queen Anne, a secondary player in her own story: having birthed a secretly illegitimate child, her role was to be threatened with exposure and sexually assaulted by the villain. The villain, by the way, made a habit of that; scarcely an episode went by when he wasn't choking a woman, or forcing her to undress for him, or creeping into Anne's personal space while she was powerless to turn him away. And there were the countless female guest stars- Samara and Emilie this season, Adele and Isabelle and Flea and Agnes last season- who vanished entirely from the show after providing one of the four main men with whatever information or emotion they needed for their own character arcs. Women in this show don't get to be heroes anymore; they get to make heroes of men, often being hurt or dying horribly in the process.

I don't mean to pick on this show specifically- well okay, yes I do, because I loved season one and it was crushing to see how far the second season fell. But it's far from the only culprit. On another BBC show, Robin Hood, the female lead was brutally stabbed to death by a spurned lover stalker. On the CW's The Flash, Barry Allen's mother was murdered before the show even started, spurring him to seek out her murderer and accidentally become a superhero in the process, all while lying to and gaslighting his love interest, Iris. The Evil Dead franchise- which saw a revival in 2013, and has plans for a new TV show- valorized Ash Williams, while the leading lady of the series is best remembered for being raped by a tree. Twice. (I can accept that Sam Raimi, being young and immature in 1981 when the first film was made, didn't consider the implications; I have a harder time swallowing the fact that when remaking the movie over twenty years later, he chose to do it again.) Incidentally, Evil Dead has also been made into a musical- featuring a grand finale entitled "Blew The Bitch Away." I don't think that the men responsible for all these creative decisions actively hate women, and are doing this to spite us: I think it's worse. They write this way because it's never occurred to them to do otherwise.

We write what we know. The people (men) who write genre shows are aping the conventions they saw in shows growing up- Star Trek, Lost In Space, The Lone Ranger. They write their heroes being complex and cool and badass because it's what they were raised to identify with. They want this generation of boys to grow up idolizing the characters they've created. But, in a failure of empathy on a massive scale, it doesn't seem to have occured to them to do the same for women. Boys get to play at being Will Robinson or Captain Kirk; girls get to be green alien space babes. On one level, it's a repetition of sexist attitudes that flourished in the media when they were growing up. On another, it's simply that they don't think that women want heroes too. They don't think women want to wink and blow smoke off a gun after blasting the bad guy away. They don't think women want to be dashing romantics who sweep their partners off their feet. (That's the men's job, after all. And the idea that heroes could romance men, and heroines women? Doesn't even enter their minds.) They don't think women want to see heroines they can look up to, who exemplify all the things we want to be. I don't think they realize that we want anything.

The real world is hard, and unfair. It's true for everyone, and even more so for people of marginalized identities. Battles aren't won with grand sweeping gestures, but with endless grinding work that only advances us a few inches at the time. Even when the grand gestures are made, there's no guarantee that they'll stick: I remember being glued to the livestream of Wendy Davis's 2013 filibuster, tears pouring down my face as the women in the gallery screamed down the male senators trying to force Davis into silence. In that case, the gesture worked; she won. Except she didn't, because a few months later, the bill she was filibustering against passed anyway. The erosion of your humanity, little by little, will kill you in the end. So don't we deserve something better to aspire to? Don't we deserve to see our heroines succeed, not just because the heroes get to as well, but because we need that sense of hope to keep ourselves going? If we can't expect women in a fantasy world to triumph, how can we ever raise our spirits enough to get up and keep fighting?

And why the fuck is everyone obsessed with Leia in that bikini?

Friday, 6 March 2015

The CBC and diversity

I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a fan of Strange Empire, which is why I was distressed earlier this week to hear that it had been cancelled after a single season. The CBC has given no direct reason for this decision, but cited the fact that it was a "difficult" choice and insisted that ratings were not at issue. The CBC representative interviewed also mentioned a desire to make room for new programming, which I admit to finding a bit puzzling. Of their returning shows, two (Heartland and Murdoch Mysteries) are in their eighth season, another (Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays) is in its fifth and yet another (Mr. D) in its fourth. If the network wants to make space for new scripted programming, why not retire shows that have already had a long run rather than cancelling those that have only aired thirteen episodes?  They also re-affirmed their committment to diversity, as the network intends to air a miniseries based on Ines Choi's play Kim's Convenience in the 2015-2016 season, and recently wrapped up The Book of Negroes earlier this year. While I'm happy to hear it, I remain unconvinced that a miniseries demonstrates a long-lasting committment to anything, because it is simply that- a miniseries. It will last only a few weeks, and when it is finished, it will have made no permanent change to the diversity of the CBC landscape. 

With that in mind, I decided to comb through the casting lineups of the CBC's original scripted programming, in order to see how diversely populated these casts actually are. I did this by looking up each show on IMDB, and counting through every actor with a significant enough role to appear on the show's homepage. These shows make up about half of scripted programming on the network: six other new shows have been announced, but their cast list has not yet been released to the public. This breakdown also only includes gender and race, as I have not watched all of these shows and cannot verify the dis/ability or sexual orientation status of the characters. This is what I found:




White male 
5 (Chris Potter, Graham Wardle, Shaun Johnston, Kerry James, Gabriel Hogan)
White female
2 (Amber Marshall, Jessica Amlee)
Nonwhite male
1 (Nathaniel Arcand, Cree First Nations)
Nonwhite female
1 (Michelle Morgan, Chilean-Canadian)

Murdoch Mysteries


White male
4 (Yannick Bisson, Thomas Craig, Jonny Harris, Lachlan Murdoch)
White female
2 (Helene Joy, Georgina Riley)


White male
8 (Jack Laskey, Warren Brown, Connor Price, Hugh Dillon, Dustin Milligan, Torben Liebrecht, Adrian Lukis, Julian Michael Deuster)
White female
3 (Evelyne Brochu, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Lili Bordan)


White male 
4 (Bob Martin, Matt Watts, Edward Asner, Dan Demarbre)
White female
3 (Tommie-Amber Pirie, Martha Burns, Jennifer Irwin)
Nonwhite male
2 (Al Karim, Middle Eastern; Pablo Silveira, Latino)

Schitt's Creek


White male
5 (Eugene Levy, Dan Levy, John Hemphill, Tim Rozon, Chris Elliot)
White female
5 (Catherine O'Hara, Annie Murphy, Jennifer Robertson, Emily Hampshire, Sarah Levy)
Nonwhite female 
1 (Karen Robinson, Afro-Canadian)



White male
9 (Gerry Dee, Jonathan Torrens, Booth Savage, Darrin Rose, Mark Forward, Mark Little, Liam Cyr, Hans Pettersen, Matt Tolton)
White female
4 Lauren Hammersley, Bette MacDonald, Naomi Snieckus, Kassidy Mattera)
Nonwhite male
2 (Wes Williams, Afro-Canadian; Suresh John, Asian-Canadian)
Nonwhite female
1 (Isabelle Beaupre, not specified)

In total:

White male: 35
White female: 19
Nonwhite male: 5
Nonwhite female: 3

Further reading:

Thursday, 20 November 2014

"I am different too:" on Strange Empire and being lovable

To call media representation of autistic people a "mixed bag" is overstating the case slightly. We have occasionally been granted representations of autistic people shown in a positive light- though they're usually tinged with the narrative of tragic disability, a la Rain Man- but more often, we hear stories of how difficult autistic people are to deal with, how hard we are to love. On ABC's (late, lamented) "Selfie," John Cho's Henry scolds his co-worker for not dedicating herself to "solving the world's problems . . . like autism." The biggest news story currently concerning autistic people is of a mother who threw her six-year-old child off a bridge. She was described as "patient and loving" in dealing with her son. This is considered an anomaly. Autistic children learn quickly and often that we are not easy to love.

When the CBC's Strange Empire was announced, I immediately planned to watch it. It combined a multitude of fictional aspects that I'm drawn to- history, women and the ties between them, the building of communities, and the ways in which we view our own past. But what I didn't know until after I'd watched the pilot was that one of the three main characters- Rebecca Blithely, the medical protege- was actually written and played as an autistic woman. Once I'd been told, I couldn't believe that I hadn't seen it sooner. Rebecca's mannerisms, speech patterns, and general demeanour are all aspects of a life I am intimately familier with- my own. In the supplementary website The Curiosities of Rebecca Blithely, she describes feeling overwhelmed by the weight and texture of a necklace given to her by her husband; I have many memories of breaking down in tears because something in the texture of what I was wearing overwhelmed me. (At one point in my childhood, I recall having a meltdown because one of my boots felt tighter than the other; when asked what was wrong, all I could do was wail "it's uncomfortable!") When Rebecca speaks, she stops and starts, sometimes struggling for the correct words, often hushed by the husband who claims to love her by being told that she is being inappropriate. This is a bitterly familiar experience for people on the autism spectrum; being told we are too loud, too impassioned, too annoying. She wrestles with finding the right words, and with gauging the correct level of discourse for any given situation; again, something I am intimately familiar with. Rebecca Blithely and I share a story: of moving through a world not built for us, attempting to master a language that seems rife with traps and potholes that can easily be fallen into for the unwary.

Rebecca is brilliant, impassioned, and yet unhappily stifled. She is recently married to a fellow doctor, a man who doubles as her adoptive father- a dynamic that the show has not shied away from (although happily, they have refrained from introducing sexuality into the relationship.) She desires knowledge, endless knowledge, and finding herself suddenly stranded in a shanty town outside the constrictions of Victorian society, she is finally given the opportunity to explore. Up until this point, she explains in the pilot, her ability to practice medicine has been limited to papers published under her husband's name ("of course," she says; the suggestion that she be allowed to take credit for her own genius does not appear to have been posed to her) and a series of scientific conventions in which her husband/father put her on display as an abnormal prodigy. "They tell me my abilities derive from my head, which is too small, and my brain, which is overlarge and presses acutely against my skull," she explains. This zooification of an living human being may seem barbaric to viewers now, but it hasn't been so long since the mentally ill or otherwise neurodivergent were locked up in asylums and gawked at by spectators. And this legacy is part of Rebecca's story too: she began life being committed to Bedlam, where she spent her childhod prior to being adopted by Thomas Blithely and his wife. Rebecca's backstory puts on display all the ways in which the different have been dehumanized, denied autonomy, and treated as "less than." But her entrance into the world of Strange Empire means that a change is coming for her. There are no asylums on the frontier. There are no doctors anxious to measure her skull or poke and prod her to see how she'll react. Freed from the society she was born to, Rebecca is finally being given the opportunity to thrive.

And thrive she does- in Janestown, Rebecca comes into her own. She performs a ceasarian section, saving the life of both mother and child. She begins to explore the possibilities of electricity. She is frustrated when she cannot save a patient, but continually offered new opportunities to improve. But in some ways, Rebecca;s intellectual blossoming takes backseat- for me- to what happens to her socially. Rebecca Blithely, a lifelong outcast and freak show, is treated for the first time with unconditional love. In the pilot, when she talks to Kat Loving (a fascinating character in her own right, and due an essay of her own) she sometimes stumbles over her words and rambles without knowing when to cut herself off, but Kat never does it for her: she smiles, congratulates Rebecca on her accomplishments, and generally offers her respect and kindness. Later, in the third episode- after her husband has slapped and berated her for trying to save a patient- she confesses to Kat that she longs to learn more about the human body, and that she disdains the religion she was raised with. All through this scene, Rebecca's posture is tense, her voice clipped; undoubtedly she is expecting another slap, or at least a cold shoulder. But she recieves neither. Instead, Kat smiles at her, and asks her to go for a walk with her. Rebecca, neurodivergent and noticeably different as she is, is accepted unconditionally into Kat's family. And the example Kat sets is followed by others: in the scene after this, Kat's daughter Robin impulsively grabs Rebecca's hand and smiles at her. The step Kat has taken- without doubts, without fear- has started the ball rolling for everyone in Rebecca's social circle to treat her exactly as she should be treated: as a valuable member of the community, who deserves love and respect without reservation.

Rebecca's discovery of a loving home for herself is reflected all throughout the show: we are being presented with a narrative about social outcasts and misfits finding their place. This is made explicit in episode four, where the main storyline is largely concerned with racism against First Nations people. When Rebecca's husband gawks at a Native woman, suggesting that she does not feel pain as white people do- that she is somehow "different-" Rebecca quietly retorts, "I am different too." Seeing the way this woman, Nuttah, is treated, she draws the connection between the two- both have been classified as less than by the likes of Thomas Blithely, and both are worth more than the categorization he offers. Later, when Kat announces her intention to leave her adoptive white children behind for their own good, Rebecca insists that she not do it: "They will see your value," she pleads. The intrinsic value of women like Kat and Rebecca has not been recognized by the world they live in, but here- in Janestown, surrounded by other outcasts and misfits, they are being offered for the first time a chance for untempered acceptance. In the world we live in now- where the different are still treated with hostility and suspicion- is it important beyond the telling of it that we are able to turn on our televisions every Monday and see these women, hearing the statement the narrative is making loud and clear: they are different. And they are valuable.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Accuracy; or, why I'd never make it as a historian

When I was first trying to sell Sherwood Forest- back when it was in teleplay form- I got a response from one agent who apologetically explained to me that it's virtually impossible to sell period drama in the Canadian television market unless it's set in Canada; it's a byproduct of CanCon laws that require Canadian networks to either produce or re-broadcast content that reflects our national character. I can certainly understand the logic of this- we are, as a group, fiercely proud of ourselves and also fiercely opposed to becoming any more Americanized than we already are*. Just look at how we commemorate the War of 1812. And I would certainly love to see more Canadian period dramas on the air- why not a miniseries about the Winnipeg General Strike, or an anthology show about various landmark Canadian court cases? But I also can't help but feel like holding CanCon as the highest standard to which Canadian broadcasting can aspire to leaves us open to letting total crap stay on the air for far longer than it has any right to. See also: why Murdoch Mysteries has lasted for eight godforsaken seasons.

But there is value to be found in writing historical fiction that's set close to home, and that value is simple: if you're writing about your hometown circa 1799, you have all the primary materials you could ever need right at your fingertips. If I were writing a show about the occupants of Dundurn Castle, all I'd have to do is hop in the car and take a fifteen-minute drive to downtown Hamilton, where the tour guides at the castle could tell me absolutely everything I need to know. Furthermore, I could roam the halls (insofar as I'd be allowed to without a pass from the owners) getting a solid feel for everything my characters would have seen, touched, smelled, and tasted when the castle was first built back in 1835. There's a certain solidity in being able to experience this sort of thing firsthand- a knowledge that when you describe Sophia McNab's porcelain doll with its lacy dress, you know exactly what it looks like, because you held it in your hands not twenty-four hours ago. Not living in Nottingham- or, for that matter, in England- I can't claim the same sort of firsthand knowledge when writing Sherwood Forest.

To a certain extent, I think, it doesn't matter. Sherwood Forest is fiction, and simply by virtue of its premise- that someone named Robin of Locksley was married to a woman named Marian, ruled Nottingham in the 1180s, and left on the Third Crusade only to be quickly usurped by the Sheriff- it's alternate universe fiction. Someone named Robin may have ruled in Nottingham around that general time period, but if he did, I have no record of it. I don't really mind this. My general attitude towards historical fiction is that you can't reconstruct every minute detail, and attempting to do so detracts from the point of the whole endeavour, which is telling a good story. That's not to say that some historical fiction doesn't irritate me due to the liberties it takes (ask me about Phillipa Gregory sometime) but in general, storytelling takes precedent for me over whether or not the office of "sheriff" existed in 1193. (It did, but they were generally called "reeves," and they were elected by the peasants. In other words, if the real people of Nottingham had hated their sheriff, they could have thrown him out with impunity.)

That's not to say, however, that I've dispersed with accuracy entirely- aspects of the series are taken straight from the Medieval Sourcebook. Shaima, for example, was inspired in part by the "Saracen sidekick" who's been appearing in Robin Hood adaptations since the eighties, but the factual basis for her comes from this bill of sale for a girl named "Aissa" (or at least, that's what her captors called her) in thirteenth-century France.&nbspMarseilles in 1248 is obviously a fair distance, geographically and liminally, from Nottingham in 1193, but that's where the "what if?" aspect of storytelling kicks in. What if the practice of bringing Saracen slaves back from the war started as early as the Third Crusade, if not earlier? What if one of these slaves was brought to England by someone who had been compelled in some way to do so against his moral judgement? And how would the slave- Shaima, Aissa, Nasir, Azeem, Djaq- feel about the whole deal?  I gave it some thought, and the answer I came up with was "rip-roaringly pissed off."

Unless they decided to express their feelings via impromptu narrative rap, I guess.

All that said, I'm not entirely lacking in first-hand experience when it comes to the setting of these stories. When I was eighteen, my parents- who'd been discussing a vacation to Britain for years- decided that visiting England would be my combined birthday/high school graduation present. We spent one week in London, and then took the train to Edinburgh, where my dad's extended family still lives. And of course, being in the midst of researching a Robin Hood story, I couldn't pass through the north of England without stopping at the epicentre of the whole legend.

The Trip to Jerusalem Inn (or as it's now called "Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem Inn") where Bess and her father live and work, is a real place. And if you believe the stories, it really did exist in 1193, having been built four years earlier in 1189. It gained its name because- so the story goes- Crusaders, including one Richard the Lionheart*, stopped there overnight on their way to Jerusalem. And it still stands today. Here's me standing in front of it:


And here's a side view that lets you see the whole building:


The building currently calling itself Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem does not date from 1189, unfortunately- historians estimate that it's only about three hundred years old. But the inn is still proud of its heritage, as you can see when you go inside:


I also got to visit Nottingham Castle, where of course I took several dozen pictures:


Despite what you may think, that isn't the view from the ramparts. It's from the courtyard. Nottingham Castle sits on the top of a hill, so if you assume that the castle Marian, Cecily, Guy, and the Sheriff live in is the same as the one that still stands in Nottingham today, Marian could concievably stand in the courtyard and look down at whatever was happening in town that day. 

All that said- and illustrated- the Trip to Jerusalem Inn that appears in Sherwood Forest does not actually resemble the Ye Olde Trip that you see in the photos above. No, I based Bess and Thomas' Trip in a source closer to home. In the summer of 2011, I worked at Westfield Pioneer Village, which includes- among other things- the D'Aubigny Inn, built around 1820. It looks like this:


And the fictional Trip looks pretty similar. It has the same layout, too: when you come in, there's a set of stairs leading to the bedrooms and a door that leads into the main room, where you'd be served. From the main room, there's a small hallway that leads to the kitchen. That way, the main action of scenes set in the inn can take place in the main room, where the customers are, or the characters can duck back into the kitchen if they need to speak privately. Upstairs, there's one big room for guests (private rooms at inns and hotels are a relatively modern concept- back then everybody snoozed in a communal room) and two smaller ones, belonging to Bess and Thomas. Anyone feeling especially fussy about privacy- unlikely, but possible- can ask for a curtain to be drawn around their bed. And, if you're close friends with the owners (as we'll see in an upcoming installment) you might get to share their room. (If you're really, REALLY wealthy and want a more private room, I imagine you could offer Thomas a financial incentive to give up his room to you for the night. But who in Nottingham has that kind of money?)

So there you have it: a glimpse into my creative process, when it comes to historical accuracy. I've talked before about my approach to history and fiction- namely that, while it's good for authors to not propogate damaging myths about the past (COUGH COUGH PHILLIPA) I don't think slavish adherence to detail is necessary to speak greater truths about who your characters are and what they represent. As a historical fiction series, Sherwood Forest does deal with the realities of England in the twelfth century. If it didn't, there'd be no point in setting it there. But while I may stick closely to events and attitudes, I don't think a whole lot is lost by fudging the layout of the Trip to Jerusalem or muddying the chain of command as it existed in Nottingham at the time. If I didn't, there wouldn't be a story- and that would suck, wouldn't it?

(Don't answer that.)

*Unless you're Stephen Harper
*Richard the Lionheart actually sucked. Like, on a deep fundamental level as a human being, he was AWFUL. I saw a statue of him outside Westminster Abbey, and I took great pride in flipping him the bird*.
*I did the same thing to Oliver Cromwell. Britain, why do you keep building statues of these guys?

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Ed. note: I maintain that the rituals we go through after someone dies is for our benetfit, not theirs'. They've already passed on; maybe there is an afterlife and maybe there isn't, but death rituals are designed to comfort and support those who are left to carry on. I'm not naive enough to imagine that posting about my experiences with mental illness are going to right any cosmic balance in the world. I'm not even naive enough to imagine that the current conversation taking place about mental health and suicide is going to mark a shift in the way we deal with those who deal with mental illness; the story will fade away in the next news cycle, and the next time a high-profile person kills themselves, everyone will exclaim that they could never have seen it coming. So I'm not writing this because I think it's going to make a difference. I'm writing this for me.

Have you ever seen someone in really extreme pain?

I don't mean a skinned knee or a bumped funny bone- those hurt, but they're temporary. I mean broken bone, gutshot wound, got-mauled-by-a-bear pain. You know how they can't do anything but scream? Even if
they need to do something to help themself, even if there's another person in pain who's lying five feet away from them, there is nothing they can do but scream because the pain they're in is so massive and overwhelming that it overrides everything else going on in their brain. It's selfishness, but it's an understandable kind of selfishness: when what's happening to you is so all-encompassing and keeps you from doing anything to help yourself, you can't really be expected to help anyone else. It's not within your ability.

Mental illness is a lot like that.

Only when you're mentally ill, it's not socially acceptable to scream constantly because unless you can show someone your gaping head wound or broken limb, they're inclined to disbelieve that anything's wrong in the first place. Best-case scenario is usually: well okay, something's wrong, but you can walk it off! Eat better! Go out and enjoy yourself! Which is about as helpful as telling someone with a broken bone to get up and walk until their body knits itself back together. Ever heard of a bone that managed to repair itself while its owner was hopping around putting pressure on it? No! Because that's not how biology works! But somehow people expect to apply the same logic to a broken brain and get a magic "ta-da! fixed everything!" result. Because the real kicker is, we know how to fix a broken bone or gunshot wound or bear-mauling: stitch it up, slap some tape and plaster on it, wait a few months, and you're golden. We can't apply the same principle to the brain, because we just plain don't know that much about how the brain works. I toss back a Celexa pill every night because the contents are meant to make up for the seratonin my brain isn't producing that in turn somehow fills my mind with images that make me want to jump off a bridge. Why does decreased seratonin production do that? What causes the decreased production in the first place? We don't know! Nobody knows! But I keep taking those pills, because I'd rather not jump off a bridge.