The Problem with Passengers is Everything, but Mostly its Lack of Lesbians

Yesterday I willingly yielded an hour of my life to watch everything I dreaded about the film Passengers come true; I wished desperately for these tropes and clichés to be put back to sleep in pods, and lie dormant for another 90 years. But alas, just like the perfect white people in the film, these tired narratives were doomed to live once again on the screen.

Thankfully, it at least proved a lens through which to tropes about male entitlement, hero narratives, feminine objectification, and the heterosexual nuclear family unit. Passengers is a story about a white man taking a woman’s future and bodily autonomy away because she’s pretty, and subsequently gaslighting her by traumatic circumstance into completely and unequivocally forgiving him and rewarding him for his violations.

Even though the movie allows her to get some shots in on him, her pain specifically gives him the opportunity to risk his life and act heroically. It’s disgusting: guilt-ridden lovesick Chris Pratt dramatically tells JLaw that he has to die in order to save the ship, thus presenting her with the possibility of ultimate hell – being non-consensually been woken up from hibernation only to have to spend the next 80 years in solitary confinement, waiting for death to alleviate her agony, never to hear another person’s voice or be touched by a living being again.

Through this device, JLaw is forced to consider living with him a viable alternative to going back to sleep. Their subsequent rekindled romance, and her rejection of his offer to put her back to sleep, amount to nothing less than Stockholm Syndrome. This, coupled with her repeated refrain of “took you long enough to ask”, form a sinister message: women are just waiting for you to ask! Just because she’s in cryogenic hibernation doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the plunge!

And it’s extremely salient that JLaw and Chris P are both white – they get to be “everman” and his beautiful prize, free from foolish concerns like the rendition of human difference. Chris Pratt becomes generalized masculine desire, and Jennifer Lawrence becomes the abstract “female” object of his consumption and gaze.

If you make Chris Pratt’s burly mechanic into a woman, change approximately 2 lines, and tell the actress to not repeatedly stand in front of her costar or make self-centred heroic faces into the distance to emphasize her moral virtue, the story becomes about actual people. Exploring the relationship between two women (or two men, or people of colour, or literally anything other than tropes personified) who come to love one another under conditions of extreme stress and loneliness, and of their brave forgiveness following deep betrayal, would be a story about actual people. Passengers certainly wasn’t.

If anything, Passengers highlights something very important about heterosexuality – that it takes an incredible amount of narrative contortion to make possible a relationship predicated on fantasies about objectification, gaslighting, and coercion. PUAs take note.

And the film only uses Laurence Fishburne as scaffolding to patch up the monstrous relationship between the two white characters. If that’s not criminal, I don’t know what is.

The Walking Dead review you didn’t ask for (replete with spoilers)

There are so many problems with this idiot show. For the record, I don’t even watch the Walking Dead; I sat in on the occasional episode while my parents and sister binge-watched all the previous 6 seasons. And despite this, like the asshole I am, I obviously know everything I need to know about the show to write a pretentious and cynical review of Season 7 Episode 1.

I left to write this review after Negan lined everybody up with menacing intent for like the third time, partly because it was deeply affecting (and let’s not lie, it really was), but also because I was fed up. And the review I read ensured I didn’t miss anything that would contravene my hypothesis, and didn’t really need to see the end of the episode at all.

The elements of this episode lined up before the crosshairs of my article like the main characters stumbling into Negan’s mind-numbingly excessive, unrealistic and overpowered traps. What we consuming this week is the pure distilled misery of characters that we’ve grown connected to through the character-driven labour of seasons past, suffering utterly unmoored from trivialities like, you know, story. Because the character of Negan makes no fucking sense.

What the fuck kind of apocalypse-scarcity humanity-extinction operation is he running? The kind where you can afford to tire out your potential manpower on hysterically unnecessary metaphorical jaunts? The kind where killing people left right and centre in the most horrifying and brutal way possible not only convinces them to team up with you, but also leaves them even a tiny bit emotionally stable enough to effectively labour for you? Or like, doesn’t take 10 years off their lives with the stress you’re putting them through?

The kind of operation where the work environment isn’t so violent and toxic there would likely be daily violence amongst your own men? The kind where you would somehow have enough resources to waste fuel left right and centre, but also feed your whole crew while your haul is only half the resources from individuals who have the darndest time finding their own dwindling supplies in a world of constant scarcity? The kind where you, o uber-cruel evil leader, are so mary-sue that you cannot be hurt despite being moronically reckless on an hourly basis?

I could go on, but won’t. If this show was ever good, it is no longer. In a way it’s beautiful, the way what used to be a gritty and psychologically realistic drama became the purest form of metaphor. The cumulative 30+ minutes where everyone has to stare at traumatizing things being done to the body of another character they love is a microcosm for everything the show has become–a shambling, undead, grotesque version of its former self.

 

‘Beneficial Violation’: Professors on Education

Part 1/90000 of a series of frustrated aphorisms on free speech in academia, the rights and entitlement of students vs. professors, etc.

There’s a common theme to the opinions expressed by actual professors on the subject of trigger warnings. It’s the notion that job of education is to provide a kind of beneficial violation, one that will shake up the student from their old modes of thinking, break down their preconceptions, and reforge them into a smarter, more open individual.  The converse is that universities are failing in their duty if they protect students from this beneficial violation, and that students can’t learn properly without being forced into contact with viewpoints they disagree with–or literally any viewpoint, without exception.

There is a kind of violence inherent in presenting your views to students, of imposing your framework on others, that underlies all acts of education. But what I find most interesting about this view of education is that it seems to be predicated on traces of what American universities were like before the days of Black people, POCs and women being admitted to their ranks.

When a Yale administrator sent this email to students voicing her personal opinion about the inappropriateness of official guidelines for culturally appropriative/offensive halloween costumes, she said one thing I found extremely interesting:

Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience…

Universities are and have been a site of both violation and safety, and are struggling with that double-edged legacy now. The assumption Christakis makes is that experimentations with transgression are a part of growth and learning, that they are harmless expressions of youthful defiance and experimentation.

Universities were like this in the past, places where students would do and say whatever they wanted about anybody. That’s why professors are so attached to the violation of teaching; it’s because, for the homogenous communities on campuses past, every campus was automatically one of the safe spaces they so deplore today, so safe and insulated that the professors had a moral imperative to expose their students to debate.

In the higher-ed institutions of history, entitled, rich, young white men were the ones in need of breaking down. After they indulged in the hideous free-play of racial, gender, and class stereotypes Christakis mourns, they would listen to professors’ maverick howling about how their generation was entitled garbage. Perhaps they would eventually go into the business of trying to break down and reforge subsequent generations of young, rich, white men. They did this because they knew first-hand that students needed reforging because they themselves are and had been rich, entitled, white men. And they knew this reforging would be beneficial because it took place in a space made for and conscious of the needs and experiences of upper-class white men.

“Experimentation” is harmless when it takes place in a homogenous environment, and so is the intellectual violation that professors so insist on, when your peers are all very similar to you. But it means something entirely different to continue to insist on the inherent violation of education, sans caveat, when universities today are a disgusting cesspool of racial stereotypes, sexism, classism, and other grossness–the difference being that higher-education institutions now contain the very students that are the butt of the “experimentation” upperclass white men are used to being entitled to.

Professors are upset because attempts are being made to modify the way and methods used in the reforging work of education. There is a violence inherent in any discourse, in presenting your views as fact in any discipline or situation; but when professors are proud of having the power to violate all students regardless of their situation or place in life, they give the lie to the very openness they claim to espouse.

Some musings on gun control

It’s been awhile since the last mass shooting in the U.S.–hey it’s actually been a month! neat–which means that the issue has faded from the forefront of a lot of minds. How sickening that a month free of mass shoo–

–oops, that’s the list of SCHOOL shootings. There have already been 5 mass-shootings in September, and we’re like one week in. (If you want to really hate the U.S. look at how fucking long it takes to scroll through the list of school shootings).

Anyhow, I chanced across this interview with the musician Kesha wherein she discusses her gun control activism, and this quote in particular stuck out to me:

“I understand that the right to own a gun is a constitutional issue, but our first right as humans is to live. By not putting some sort of boundaries on gun ownership, the right to simply live is taken away from some people for no reason.”

Examples abound of countries that have tightened their gun regulation and whose  incidences of mass-shootings have decreased as a result. So what might a proponent of gun rights say to these foreign case studies?

I think the likely response would be that we don’t want the safety those countries have because it would mean we can’t have something we want. And the subtext is, we prefer a place where we have the power to kill over a place where our children are demonstrably safer.

What does it mean to support the right to have or do whatever you want? It means that you’re deeply, unconscionably selfish.

And just for fun here’s a story about a gun rights activist shooting her own children in a fit of rage.

Ghostbusters and the fight to watch women get shit done

The Ghostbusters movie came out with all the fanfare and crapola you could expect from a movie with more than one woman in a post-GamerGate digital landscape. Literally: the troll supreme and hateful asshat who principally mobilized GamerGaters (surprisingly) received a penalty for encouraging the twitter harassment of Leslie Jones, one of the film’s stars (and the film’s only nonwhite cast member). It’s been an organized campaign of hatred designed to bring down a film seen as revisionist for featuring a cast of women at best, and a bad film because of its female characters at worst.

So is the film good, or is it bad? If the film is actually good, then the online outcry is motivated by misogyny and reactionary bigotry, rendering criticisms baseless. If the film is actually bad, then everyone excited by it is motivated by an overzealous feminist agenda and the film’s sheer existence can be chocked up to affirmative-action-type policies.

So what happens when a movie is just so-so, as seems to be the case with Ghostbusters? Reviews are mixed, and it is difficult to sort out the bigoted trolls from the earnest, honest reviewers. It’s interesting to not that on Rotten Tomatoes, the film  Eileen Jones of Jacobin has some choice words. To her, Ghostbusters is ugly, tacky, boring, and unfunny. Fair. She also decries the insidious capitalism of using “puling fanboy misogyny” to market their films to righteously indignant feminist audiences. She outlined this by making reference to the controversy surrounding Feig’s earlier film, Bridesmaids:

According to the Bridesmaids ballyhoo, if we didn’t all go see it as an act of feminist solidarity, no Hollywood movie would ever again feature several women in lead roles. Women would virtually disappear from our screens, and soon every American film would be a reprehensible sausage fest, nothing but remakes of The Lusty Men, The Lost Boys, Young Guns, The Expendables, and The Dirty Dozen.

Jones may be right about the film at hand, and is definitely onto something about the convenient capitalism of marketing a mainstream film with feminism. But she’s dead wrong to claim that there is nothing urgent–or feminist–about getting behind an all-woman, mainstream blockbuster. The fact is that without very vocal outcry from consumers, mediocre films featuring the stories and characters of women are actually used as justification for not putting stories about women on the screen.

Superhero films are a good illustration of this point. Like action movies, superhero films have historically been the home of masculine characters, narratives, and consumers. And when there have been superhero films made about women, their failures have been ascribed to the gender of their protagonist and been used to justify further exclusion of female characters.

But when films headlined by men are shitty, suddenly executives don’t mind. Jones can joke about the explodey man movies that would proliferate if we didn’t do our feminist job and genuflect to any movie containing women, but it’s hypocritical as fuck. Man of Steel, the foundation for their new franchise, was garbagey. Its successor, Batman v. Superman, was somehow even garbagier. They built their franchise layering critical failures and box-office flops, with no one laying blame on the generic hyper-masculine narratives themselves. In fact, these awful films continue to be produced. But a shitty movie with female characters? That’s eagerly taken as grounds to bury this feminine shingbingle for good.

It’s also important to look at what women characters DO in the movie itself, and not just count their numbers. How many action or superhero films feature more than one woman character who isn’t an eye candy sex object, much less a full team? How often are women permitted to JUST GET SHIT DONE ALREADY on-screen without having to justify their presence with sex appeal or romance for the consumption of men? In a mainstream media landscape where women have very little chance to see themselves move the plot with brains and brawn, it is inextricably political for a film to fly in the face of narrative gendered norms for the action and comedic genres. The last actiony film to do this was Mad Max: Fury Road, and look how that turned out. Funny how this happens with every film where women are just trying to do their awesome jobs, and don’t actually outline a specific feminist ideology.

Feminists shouldn’t have to give a shit about a mediocre action-movie whose first joke is about a queef. But we, along with the makers and marketers of Ghostbusters, find ourselves in an environment where trigger-happy executives look for any excuse not to make a movie about women, and the work of proving we need movies about and for us rests disproportionately on the shoulders of twitter hashtags, bloggers, and online petitions. That’s definitely not to say that supporting the film is a feminist obligation. I probably won’t like this movie. I won’t be lauding it just for the bare fact of containing 4 women, and I think it’s deplorable that one of the only ways to gain representation is constructing feminism as a new and enticing crop of consumers ripe for the picking.

But I’m glad that somebody is doing that, since it might mean a slightly higher chance of getting to enjoy the same levels of cinematic mediocrity enjoyed by men everywhere, everyday.

‘Cisgender’ is not oppressive

What is gender? Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, political philosopher at the University of Warwick, certainly has some strong feelings about it in her article Gender is Not a Spectrum. Her article presents a learning opportunity for anyone uncomfortable with the ever-changing landscape of gender identity, and anyone–women in particular–who feels hurt by the descriptor “cisgender” and troubled by the complicated axes of intersectional oppression.

Reilly-Cooper does a fine job setting the scene for feminist theories of gender: she writes that “while sex referred to what is biological… gender refers to the externally imposed set of norms that prescribe and proscribe desirable behaviour to individuals in accordance with morally arbitrary characteristics.”

While this view may not account for all gender difference as biological factors complicate the mix, there is substantial evidence that this theory is useful. Schoolyard bullying and harassment punishes deviation from heterosexual gender norms, parents instruct and enforce gendered clothes and behaviours, schools and teachers enforce sexist dress codes. Children are taught gender difference, and these early lessons about gender also form the basis for the kind of workplace, public, and interpersonal sexism faced by women in our society.

Furthermore, they serve to stifle gender difference that people experience in the world. An increasing number of people are seeking refuge from the male-female gender binary in alternative, non-binary identities to which the author alludes.

It is this point at which the set up ends and the vague, ornery fallacies commence.

Reilly-Cooper meticulously lists non-binary gender identities, communicating clear derision for what she considers a redundant and indulgent fad. Then this needless bit of linguistic acrobatics:

“If gender really is a spectrum, doesn’t this mean that every individual alive is non-binary, by definition? If so, then the label ‘non-binary’ to describe a specific gender identity would become redundant, as it would fail to pick out a special category of people.”

She extends this argument to the word “Transgender”, claiming that because gender is inculcated in all people “every single one of us is cisgender”. Therefore “everyone is trans. Or… there are no trans people.”

Well.

First, the language in this article is a hot mess, with liberal conflation of ‘non-binary’, Transgender, transsexual, and various other identities, weird pronouncements like “the queer view of gender”, and a lot of other nutty unpacked assumptions and language. For the purposes of this response, I’m going to use “non-normative” to invoke any non-binary or non-normative gender designations unless otherwise specified.

For the record, I can’t believe I’m going to engage rationally with these claims.

The phrase ‘gender is a spectrum’ doesn’t demand total, dogmatic adherence. No one is fucking married to the phrase. It serves one very clear function, which is to illustrate that there’s various different ways to exist beyond the historically-obligatory “men” and “women” when it comes to gender. It’s useful for dealing with adherents to the naturalistic model of gender Reilly-Cooper herself describes, for those who believe gender to be intrinsically connected to biological sex.

It is not, in fact, contradictory for the word ‘non-binary’ and the term ‘gender spectrum’ to coexist, because despite the vast scope of human diversity implied by ‘spectrum’ we are still assigned one of two binary genders at birth. The binary is kept alive in our society, in systems which re-enforce that reductive and oppressive view of humanity and deny the spectrum of human diversity. ‘Non-binary’ could refer to anyone who identifies anywhere outside of that social binary which still exists in our language and our institutions–yeah, that’s right, non-binary people didn’t make the boxes. And while we’re on it, what is the political power of LGBT+ and non-binary people such that their identities are “politically troubling”? In the U.S., Transgender people can’t even use the bathroom. The existence of agender and other non-binary people is widely unrecognized. Doesn’t look like undue political influence to me.

Reilly-Cooper wants to play language games rather than engage with the lived experiences and stories of people who identify as non-binary. Implicitly, ‘non-binary’ and other non-normative genders also refer to those whose assigned gender felt so uncomfortable and incongruent with their identity that they needed another word to feel happy, sane, and to tell their truth. Their life may even have depended on it.

If this sounds improbable to you, it may be because it is not something cisgender people experience. The difference is that while cisgender people may not like the way people of their gender are treated, they don’t mind the identity itself. If you’re comfortable living with the gender identity you were assigned, you already don’t understand how it would feel to be so uncomfortable with that gender designation that people like you are depressed, dysphoric, and commit suicide at alarmingly high rates.

Apparently knowing none of these things, Reilly goes on to mock various kinds of gender, mostly with the fact that language makes use of oppositions and so no one can claim to be ‘non-binary’. I’m not convinced that this quality of language means those with non-normative genders are oppressing her.

She also makes fun of various genders she made up, like “pizza” and “the sea”. If you dig here, there’s a valid discussion beneath her slippery slope fallacy. Some terms might just seem too improbable or fantastical to be taken seriously by all people, so what does that mean for those with non-normative genders?

For Reilly-Cooper it means you can be condescending, telling them to “have some fun” with gender after spending multiple paragraphs implying that having fun with gender is ridiculous.

Let people call themselves what they want–I promise the gender binary will still be alive and kicking even if someone chooses the gender “pillow”. And there is a pretty big difference between that person and someone who identifies as agender.

But Reilly-Cooper thinks they’re essentially the same, because she doesn’t believe in all this alternative gender claptrap like the existence of agender people. To her, the possibility of “frog gender” existing means they must all be thrown out. She claims adopting a term like agender is to “slip through the bars of the cage while leaving the rest of the cage intact” (Somehow, the cage means sexism). The only solution is abolishing gender, and she doesn’t seem to realize that there’s most probably no way we will ever abolish gender, or that there might be steps in between then and now, like establishing alternative genders.

The existence of alternative genders actually helps destabilize the proverbial cage. And if calling themselves agender works to make someone feel good, why shouldn’t someone do it? Because it leaves her behind, that’s why. And the existence of non-binary and non-normative gender identities is about her.

Reilly-Cooper is painfully wrong about what being Transgender means. She allows Transgender people to exist because they allow her to preserve the binary, and she projects her own gender oppression onto the notion of transition. She claims people transition because they “find the gender roles associated with their sex so oppressive and limiting that they cannot tolerably live under them.” No, people transition because they identify with a gender other than their assigned gender. And Transgender means many different things to different people.

Ms. Reilly-Cooper, you are not “a two-dimensional gender stereotype”. Neither am I. And non-binary people aren’t interested in enforcing your cisgendered-ness. They’re not the ones thinking of your uterus when evaluating your suitability for the workplace. They’re not the ones catcalling you, or writing your gender on your passport, or forcing you to use pronouns that don’t communicate the depth of your personality, or coordinating a vast system of gendered oppression. That system hurts them too. They have enough to deal with. If anything’s proof of non-normative gender identities, it is the fact that people continue to adopt them despite constant ongoing violence visited upon them. That’s how important it is for them. And that is not our reality, which makes it easy for us to trivialize and deride the needs of those who choose to name their own gender.

The question that has to be asked is this: Ms. Reilly-Cooper, what is your point? The argument is incoherent. Its most honest moment is the claim that non-binary people are perpetuating and permitting the misogyny she experiences. Ouch.

What kind of delusion could inspire someone to think that those people seeking refuge from a punitive, restrictive, reductive binary system of gender are responsible for the gendered oppression you face as a woman? How is the mere existence of the chosen identities of some of the most marginalized and victimized people on the earth the cause? No logic to be found here. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to the normalization of the label “cisgender”, which she perceives to be as oppressive as a two-pole binary gender hierarchy.

“Gender is not a Spectrum” consists of revelling in tiny, invented technical incongruities, as well as combining condescension and mean-spirited incredulousness directed at those with different experiences with a terrific lack of interest in learning from people who actually have these identities. But here’s the real spirit behind the article: Reilly laments that “a handful of individuals are apparently permitted to opt out of the spectrum altogether” (emphasis mine). Reilly-Cooper’s article is permeated by a sense of righteous anger that those with non-normative genders are cheating to escape the routine oppression and violations they are “due” as a member of the gender binary. And that’s fucked up.