How to enjoy Terminator Genisys in 5 spoiler-free steps

Taking a break from atheism, insanity and the joke of a postracial America, let’s discuss the new Terminator film, which I finished watching an hour ago.

Some months back at the Daily Dot, I wrote that I think reboots are over: that fresh starts for meandering franchises like Bond and Batman had their day in the mid-to-late 2000s, and that retcons and new timelines – see Star Trek XI and X-Men: Days of Future Past are the new thing. In the same piece, I looked forward to Terminator Genisys – and in the intervening months, I kept the faith. What do I think about it, then?

Straight up, it isn’t all it might have been, but had I actually paid to see it, I don’t think I would feel shortchanged: as it goes, there’s a solid chance I’ll now pay to see it again on a proper size screen. Should you be thinking of doing the same, it strikes me the best way to rate the film is to explain how (after the postcredits scene) you can leave similarly satisfied. [Read more…]

Who is the seven kingdoms’ worst fanatic? Religion and atheism in Game of Thrones

If like the Internet you’re a Game of Thrones fan, last week’s episode may be weighing on you. (I’m about to discuss it with spoilers. If you’re not up to date, stop reading now.) About two thirds of the way in, Stannis Baratheon, now with an evil beard, makes a burnt offering of daughter Shireen, desperate to improve his army’s odds somehow. Elsewhere during the hour, Myrcella Lannister avoids being killed and Arya Stark comes close to a man who preys on the underage. Juxtaposed with these plots, Shireen’s death proves one character to have been right last year: everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.

000With Stannis all but silent throughout, it’s noticeable how, amid his faceless mob of troops, the sequence shows religious cruelty from three female viewpoints: the girl Shireen’s, ambushed by the reality of martyrdom; mistress Melisandre’s, lighting the pyre with strange lyricism, and wife Selyse’s, caught between the two. As Shireen’s mother, until now more of a believer than her husband, comes to her senses all too late, emitting a low, guttural scream, her character appears partly redeemed, delusion vapourised in contact with a flame. It is she more than poor, deceived Shireen who undergoes a baptism of fire – and, indeed, blood.

The scene, a deviation from the source novels, feels lifted from the Book of Judges, where Jephthah, also a would-be ruler, trades in his daughter’s life for victory. (We can but guess whether she, like Shireen, changes her mind on the way to the stake.) Game of Thrones’ fifth season has scrutinised religion more than any before, and the princess’s death puts me in mind of how the series treats belief. Before acting, Stannis gets rid of Ser Davos Seaworth, who thinks ‘mothers and fathers made up the gods because they wanted their children to sleep through the night’ – a tactic that seems to have backfired in at least one case.

Seaworth’s philosophy is the unbelief of an everyman: when Stannis sends him from the camp refusing to argue, he banishes a voice likely to erode the belief that proves both cause and consolation for infanticide. Beside Ser Davos, I can think of just one character to claim atheism outright. In season three, Petyr Baelish memorably declares the gods an illusion, rubbishing all ideas of a natural order. A classic Machiavellian, he is the mirror image of Davos – both are well worn atheist tropes, and while Littlefinger is the more negative cliché, I have a lot of time for him, as I did for the nymphomaniac bisexual Oberyn Martell.

The real secular viewpoint in Westeros is George R. R. Martin’s. Asked his religious stance, the author calls himself an atheist or agnostic, and like his Catholic past, it shows. None of the series’ many believers, even the worst, are cardboard characters – there is a kind of social realism in how Martin shows religion, as there is in his choice (unlike Tolkien) to show it at all. At the same time, none of this world’s many faiths appears truer than the rest. Competing religions seem equally able to perform miracles, perhaps implying some shared power source in the natural world, and each is shown as a product of its society more than vice versa. [Read more…]

Caitlyn Jenner is a mathlete at prom

When Lindsay Lohan is declared homecoming queen in Tina Fey’s Mean Girls – a film about how beauty standards, inter alia, tear women down – she uses her speech to tell all her classmates they look nice. Jessica Lopez, who uses a wheelchair, has an amazing dress; plus-size Emma Gerber must have spent hours on her hair; Regina George, queen bee before a bus hit her, is wearing her neck brace like a rock star.

If complimenting women’s looks on dressed-up occasions is sexism, a patronising well done for being acceptable, Fey suggests it can also be a gesture of solidarity, acknowledging the girls’ efforts to navigate beauty-policing’s impossible demands. (The ‘plastics’, it turns out, are more afraid than anyone.) When Lohan tells her peers they all look like royalty, breaking her tiara and dividing the pieces equally, it’s a statement of affirmation and sorority. I see you, big girls, butch girls, girls on meds. I see the best-and-worst-dressed culture and the pressure and the fear and how you’ve handled them. Here’s to us all for surviving.

000Not unlike Lohan’s character, Caitlyn Jenner is a mathlete at prom, negotiating for the first time the fraught terrain of acceptable public femaleness. Prior to her profile in Vanity Fair, featuring Annie Leibovitz’s photographs, Jenner was called an unconvincing imitation of womanhood. Post-bustier, having presumably sped through the goldilocks region of femininity sometime during hair and makeup, she will almost certainly be called an offensive parody of it. And so my guess would be that when someone at Jezebel wrote ‘You look great, Caitlyn! Can’t wait to see more,’ this – not the adequacy of her attractiveness – was the context.

With all the surgery, beauty treatments and airbrushing her millions can buy, Jenner certainly meets standards of gendered beauty few trans women can; it’s also true that lauding her for being pretty rather than brave displays a wide array of bigotries, and that trans activists may just have better goals than inroads with the GOP. Meeting an expectation, though, doesn’t make it less smothering. If feminist media is complimenting Jenner, my guess is that the aim might be to put someone agonisingly self-aware at ease, letting the anxious nerd at the spring fling know she looks nice when she arrives: not ‘You look great’ as in ‘Well done’, but as in ‘Don’t let them say otherwise.’ [Read more…]

Mad Max: Fury Road – a masterpiece of male feminism?

Prompted by male tears, I saw Mad Max like any dutiful gender traitor. Overall it’s a blast, and George Miller remains one of the best action directors in the game. (The chase scenes in Mad Max 2, from 1981, feel like Christopher Nolan before his time.) I didn’t love it quite as much as I expected to – the sets, setpieces and effects are more spectacular than previous films’, but correspondingly less effortless. That said, there’s a lot to admire, from Tom Holkenborg’s score to Miller’s frame rate manipulation. It’s when it came to the feminist angle I wasn’t sure what to think.

Because full-time misogynists demanded a boycott, Fury Road prompted unexpected discussions about women in film. It’s since won praise for all kinds of reasons, many of which seem compelling. As Donna Dickens notes, this is a Bechdel-acing film with a focus on female characters – some of whom, like one-armed Imperator Furiosa and the grey-haired, gun-toting Vulvalini, are excellent – which deconstructs the lone male hero of action cinema. (In Max’s case, writes Dickens, ‘[this] status just about gets him killed’.) Unlike The Hunger Games or Divergent, Sasha James argues, it does this as ‘an action film that is not targeted specifically toward women – if anything, it’s marketed to men’ – and shows female characters, including rape and abuse victims, using the fact of their gender with agency. Writes James:

Untrained in the art of war, the Wives use their womanhood as tools [sic] for their own survival, weaponizing the stereotypes that would be conventionally used against them in a standard action film. For example, in [a] moment of bravery, Splendid transforms her body – the physical vessel for Immortan Joe’s son – into a shield for Max, Furiosa, and the Wives, recognizing her traditional role as a mother and actively using this to her benefit. . . . As an audience well versed in the often-misogynistic tropes inherent in action films, we expect Splendid to be a ‘damsel in distress’. Miller, however, inverses our expectation, transforming her into an empowered survivor.

The moment succeeds because it taps into something real, capturing the complexity of how people at the bottom of power structures negotiate them – something Hollywood’s tryhard attempts at feminism often miss.

And yet – and yet. [Read more…]

What happened when I wrote about the rape scene in Russell T Davies’ gay drama Cucumber

In the first episode of Russell T Davies’ new drama Cucumber, middle aged Lance finds a much younger man in a nightclub who has no money and nowhere to spend the night. ‘You can stay at ours if you want to fuck,’ Lance tells him. ‘No hassle. Just sex with the both of us. And then you can stay the night.’

‘Yeah,’ the younger man replies, ‘that’s cool’ – but it’s clear, including to Lance’s uncomfortable partner Henry, that he’s ‘off his head’ on some substance or other, wide-eyed and slurring out fantastic images of kings and cowboy-men and nodding in and out of consciousness during their taxi ride. At their house, he appears not to register most of what Lance and Henry say; he walks off-balance and seems to have trouble standing up, sitting down at the first opportunity and collapsing half-asleep minutes later onto Lance’s bed. By the time Lance performs out-of-shot what looks and sounds like oral sex, he can no longer speak coherently. Five to ten onscreen minutes later, presumably once Lance has had anal sex with him as he says he means to (‘[He’s] gonna fuck my arse’), Henry brings police officers to the scene. The younger man, now fully naked and seemingly unaware of it, is no more lucid when they confront him, gripped in a haze of drug-induced visions with no idea what’s going on.

The above scenes, if anyone contests this description, can be viewed here.

There are two ways to argue what they show isn’t (at minimum attempted) rape. The first is to say the man Lance has sex with is lucid enough to consent to it – in which case, you’ve the narrative above to explain. The second is to say consent doesn’t require lucidity – in which case, the Sexual Offences Act disagrees, deeming consent impossible if ‘by reason of drink, drugs, sleep, age or mental disability [someone is] unaware of what [is] occurring’. The Crown Prosecution Service further acknowledges meaningful consent to ‘evaporate well before [someone] becomes unconscious‘ if mind-altering substances make them incapable. [Read more…]

Cucumber’s “radical approach to sexuality”, and its normalisation of rape and relationship abuse

I hoped Cucumber and its partner shows would be as good as Queer as Folk. I feared they’d be nothing like as good. As it turns out, Cucumber is a show you need to watch – at least, that is, if you thought Looking‘s characters were unlikeable, Vicious was the nadir of queer TV or having your molars slowly drilled without anaesthesia was excruciating.

For its entire 45-minute running time, I cringed. Episode one of Cucumber was so non-stop wince-inducing that by the time its credits rolled, I found myself feeling the weight of my own face. I knew there and then that I’d pay a considerable sum never to see another episode – yet also that I’d rewatch it this morning, cataloguing every last thing I hated about it.

Because Cucumber isn’t merely crap. It’s a well written, well-produced, well-executed show that achieves its apparent aims. The trouble is, its aims are fucking regressive – at times even outright dangerous. [Read more…]

What NBC’s Constantine got wrong on Romanies and religion

Legend has it that before Christ was crucified, his executioners found a blacksmith to forge the nails. There are two accounts of what happened next, the first telling how God cursed the blacksmith and his kin the Romanies to wander the earth, forever denied shelter. The second – the one I was told as a child – says that the blacksmith forged four nails but only gave the Romans three, absconding with the one meant for the heart. For sparing his son that pain, the story goes, God blessed the Romanies, permitting them to steal from those who persecuted them trying to reclaim the lost nail.

Which version you tell reveals your views about people known to their enemies as gypsies. Which one is a revision of the other I don’t know, but the two competing myths offer a clue about my ancestors’ relationship with Christianity – in some ways a historical yardstick of their status in Europe.

A couple of weeks ago – on Hallowe’en, no less – Constantine‘s second episode aired. The series, despite its comic book source, feels like a far less inspired crossbreed of Doctor Who and Apparitions (Google it), and its race issues are doing it no favours: this episode in particular featured (spoilers ahead) a greedy, dishonest, sexually aggressive Romany woman as its villain, whose husband’s violence toward her seemed not to make her killing him by supernatural means any more morally complex. At one point the series lead, a white exorcist fighting demons through Catholic prayer, even remarked disgustedly: ‘There’s nothing blacker than gypsy magic.’

Pale skinned Christianity, virtuous and pure, versus Romany witchcraft’s exotic evil – this is an opposition I know well. [Read more…]

Some more of Aslan’s greatest mistakes

After last week’s post, a friend of a friend commented on the bit in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when supposedly beneficent Aslan intimidates a twelve year old girl.

Adding in a child’s perspective here (as told to me by my own child): Aslan is a lion. Not a cute, cuddly kitty. A full-grown, giant lion. And he doesn’t just frown. He growls. My daughter was more frightened of Aslan than she was of Jadis. I don’t think she’s the only child who would have felt that way.

It raises one problem I have with Aslan’s behaviour that isn’t directly to do with him being allegorical. Of all the ways he could stop the Witch (with or without being killed by her), why does he choose the plan that rests on putting four children in mortal danger whose ages range between 8 and 13 – one of whom, aged 10, is intimidated, imprisoned, starved, physically abused, threatened with execution twice and later stabbed to almost-death?

Come to that: why does Aslan continuously threaten prepubescent children’s lives throughout the series, summoning them from a parallel dimension specifically to place them in mortal danger? Why does this, too, go totally unremarked upon? Either his followers are as recklessly dim as he is or they’re too frightened of him to bring it up, and there’s textual support for both.

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“Death in Heaven”: when Steven Moffat listened to his critics

Spoilers follow.

About a week ago I said Doctor Who‘s Missy was another Moffat clone: a femme fatale adventuress totally indistinct on paper from River Song, Irene Adler and many of his other women. That post’s done well – embarrassingly well in fact, because this is the one where I eat my words.

Alright, not where I eat my words: my criticisms of her past appearances stand, as do my general comments on Steven Moffat, but having now seen ‘Death in Heaven’, Saturday’s follow-up to ‘Dark Water’, I’m won over. As of two days ago, Missy is in every way the Master… on top of which, this was NuWho’s best finale yet, one of Moffat’s best episodes and – just possibly – the one where he listened to viewers like me. [Read more…]

Narnia’s Aslan isn’t good. He’s a pious, tyrannical bully

Based on a Facebook status.

There’s a scene in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Jadis (the Witch) explains to Aslan and three of the Pevensies why, according to ancient, mysterious laws laid down by Aslan’s father, she’s entitled to murder their ten-year-old brother Edmund, as well as anyone in Narnia who commits an act of betrayal. ‘Tell us of this Deep Magic’, Aslan says.

‘Tell you?’ Jadis replies. ‘Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the firestones on the Secret Hill? Tell you what is engraved on the sceptre of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.’

‘You were the Emperor’s hangman’ responds Mr Beaver, one of the talking animals, which goes entirely uncontradicted.

Twelve-year-old Susan, the older Pevensie girl who by later books is ‘no longer a friend of Narnia’ because she’s ‘interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations’, asks Aslan, quite reasonably and especially so under the circumstances, ‘Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?’ Here, from the book, is what happens next.

‘Work against the Emperor’s Magic?’ said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.

I haven’t seen much discussion of this scene in criticism of the Narnia books, but allegory aside, several things it shows about Aslan strike me as disturbing.

[Read more…]