Saturday, February 28, 2009

"Do You Wanna Go Count Our Gold?"

This, in my humble opinion, may be the funniest Sarah Haskins video, ever. Even better than the one about vampires - or yogurt!

I gasped too when they cut to Angelina Jolie during Jennifer Aniston's presentation, but it wasn't for the "OHMYGOD" emotional fireworks of it so much as it was that I just thought it was (a) completely unnecessary and (b) diminished these two accomplished and, I suspect, three-dimensional women - one presenting an Oscar and one who had already won an Oscar and was nominated for another - to one lone characteristic, that being two women in a perpetual Cold War over a guy. And yes, that guy is Brad Pitt, but really now. It has been I don't know how many years, but at least a couple; I would think the story over these two would die down. But then, I guess I'm ignoring the impulse to think of women in relation to men, and both Jolie and Aniston seem to always be connected due to their relationship with one man in particular.

I find this particularly odd because nothing ever extremely exciting has ever truly gone down. I mean, if Jennifer Aniston went insane one day early on and tried to take out Angelina Jolie, I could see everyone waiting with bated breath for the continued bloodbath. But aside from the somewhat sensationalist way Jolie's relationship with Brad began, there is seemingly no "there" there. Of course, maybe I'm ignoring the main component of this whole thing, that being that this particular strain of media really and truly can't imagine 3 adults actually not having Jerry Springeresque moments when they are *gasp* in the same room. After all, these are people who have regularly seen celebrities assault paparazzi with fists and canned food. Maybe the reason why there is still so much blasted attention on this whole nonissue is the fact that Aniston never went after Pitt or Jolie with a steak knife, and Jolie never drop kicked Aniston into a wall. Perhaps what the Access Hollywoods and the Entertainment Tonights are waiting for is a release from what they see as an unbearable tension. The fact that Aniston and Jolie may actually not really give that much of a damn about it all anymore, or at the very least actually having other aspects of their lives that are more important, doesn't even seem to cross any of these people's minds. Which is why it is important that we have people like Sarah Haskins to highlight the truly ridiculousness of it all.

Saturday Sesame Street

This is my mother's favorite Sesame Street clip, ever. Even higher on her list than The 39 Stairs, or "ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ". She wants it for her phone's ringtone, and I'm hoping someday soon we'll be able to get it for her. I love it a lot too, partially because I have fond memories of my mother being so happy when it came on randomly in the middle of my show, partially because it is a really fun song, partially because the ladybugs are really cute with their bonnets, and partially because now that I'm older I actually get what some of the lyrics are referring to, like "They talked about the high price of furniture and rugs, and fire insurance for lady bugs". So, this goes down as yet another example of Sesame Street being great for kids, and adults too! And so, "Lady Bug Picnic":

Apparently the animation and singing was done by Pixar's Bud Luckey! He was an animator on Toy Story, and wrote and composed and directed and narrated my mother's favorite Pixar short, Boundin'!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Chris Hayes Is A Dork

I love the guy, and look forward to his editorials in The Nation with glee, but he is also totally a dork:
I actually think his dorkatude works to his advantage. It may just be that he fails to use contractions when he says, "I am obviously being sarcastic". It may have been more annoying had he'd said "I'm obviously being sarcastic", but the combination of that statement when it was indeed obvious and the lack of contraction really makes it.

Now, onto more important things; I'm starting to believe that what Chris Hayes says is correct, that many of the Republicans who have reached the upper echelons of their party's leadership have decided that the best way to win back some power in America would be to stymie Democratic attempts to fix America. If they obstruct many pieces of legislation, or, you know, the sitting of a senator, then they are playing on the hopes that it fails and that they can point out its failure in 2010 or 2012 without mentioning the part their obstruction could have potentially played in that failure. I have no doubt that Norm Coleman really wants to be Minnesota's senator. But really, at a certain point in time it is more than appropriate to throw in the old towel; and this, along with Republicans voting against the stimulus bill and then bragging about all the goodies they got in it, along with continued Republican lies about organizations like ACORN and what was actually in that stimulus bill, makes me a might bit suspicious.

The game many Republicans are now playing seems directly related to the game they play in regard to national security. I live in a blue state - not a blue dog state, just a true blue one. Our Republicans are for things like gun control laws and abortion rights (not that we have any more on the national scene), that's how blue we are. And even I have heard and seen plenty of talk about how Bush kept us safe for 8 years, because after 9/11 there hadn't been another terrorist attack. The problem with that is two-fold; it is trying to prove a negative in that it is trying to create a correlation between the policies that have ostensibly proven to create more terrorists with the fact that we have not had a terrorist attack, and it is playing the numbers game. There is no way to keep America perfectly safe, especially now that we've (we've) destabilized a nation in an already tumultuous region and tortured people; we can keep America fairly safe, even very safe. But what the Bush administration and those who have fixed upon their talking points have done is to ensure a climate where any hint of terrorism under Obama equals a fail for him, even if those engaged in terrorism had turned to terrorism because of Bush era policies. And that is as intellectually disingenuous as it is politically savvy. 

A less politically savvy aspect of this "My country when it thinks I'm right, but I hope it fails when it thinks I'm wrong" are things like Sean Hannity's poll asking what kind of rebellion his followers would prefer against the country, and Rush Limbaugh hoping out loud and often that President Obama fails; but the presence of such ideas in the overall dialogue lends credence to the thought that the other obstructionist stuff may be less based on principles and more on politics. It doesn't prove anything, but it sure does leave a bad taste in my mouth.

But back to Chris Hayes. Chris makes a point that "the town remains wired for Republicans. It still listens to Republican talking points. We saw this in the stimulus and when you had all these Republicans on the cable networks talking all the time about, you know, their objection to this part of the stimulus. That still permeates the institutional structure of elite consensus opinion in Washington despite the massive change in public opinion about how people feel about conservative ideas and the Republican party. The smaller, kind of insular, beltway establishment still is far more willing to cut Republicans slack than actual voters at large are." This is an echo, though less tinfoil hat extreme, of someone I thought was just insane on Bill Moyers' The Journal on February 6th. Says Glenn Greenwald:
I think it raises an interesting dilemma. Which is, if you look at what the media were saying about Obama favorably, both around the time of his election and subsequent as well, they kept insisting that he could continue Bush's counterterrorism policies that were so controversial.

They were praising him for leaving in place all sorts of Bush officials that the media wants to see is continuity, that he's not threatening to their way of life and to their establishment, for the reason that we talked about before. That's how he wins praise from them, is by showing that he isn't going to change things fundamentally, and therefore, isn't a threat to their system.

At the same time, as Jay said, what he needs to do more than anything to fulfill the commitments that he made, is demonstrate that he's a true change agent. And I think these objectives are very much in conflict, because the more he threatens the Washington system, I think the more hostility the press will feel towards him, and therefore, project to the public about him. And that, too, can undermine his political popularity.
And while Nancy Pelosi may have schooled Rachel Maddow about how effective the Republicans dominating the talking points during the stimulus debate was, I think at some point the dominance will affect American perception of the presidency and the legitimacy of the Democratic rule and liberalism in general. Liberal is already a damned dirty word, and I would like that to change. But as long as the Republicans can play keep away without being seriously called on it, that isn't likely to.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Moment in Basketball

I think LeBron James is a cutie and always have, though I will admit that I had thought Carmelo Anthony was going to be the breakout star when both joined the NBA in 2003; I mean, Carmelo had that awesome Syracuse championship game and LeBron didn't even have one year of college hoops under his belt. Obviously, I was wrong about that one. Anyway, LeBron is one of the people I actually unmute television commercials for. All of this leads up to this spectacular shot:

I've seen a lot of basketball in my life; I've been to a lot of games, and in following UConn basketball (both men's and women's, though mainly women's) I've seen some pretty outstanding shots - buzzer shots, shots that looked like they should never even get anywhere near the basket. But that one? Blows them all away. The only thing that would possibly make it better would be if he had made that shot actually during a game.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Gendered Sinning

Last week, Feministe had a post about a report by the Vatican saying that men and women sin in different ways, with the most prevalent sin for men being lust, followed by gluttony, sloth, angry, pride, envy and greed, and the most prevalent for women being pride - followed by envy, anger, lust, and then sloth. I rolled my eyes and moved on. Yes, it is horribly gendered, and it reinforces gender norms and beliefs about the differences among the sexes. But, as Cara wrote, "the answer should surprise none of us". I would have been floored had the Vatican actually offered a different explanation for the differences in what men and women confessed than the trite idea that men and women must just sin differently. But then I was actually knocked off of my feet.

Some background. NPR have little programs that focus on a particular topic combine several of the stories they have done on their various programs throughout the week that fall under the umbrella of that topic. I don't know how many there are; I generally listen to the Political Rewind, NPR: Music, and NPR: Religion. On one of the programs making up the NPR: Religion podcast (normally they're news shows like All Things Considered or Morning Edition or Weekend Edition), Jesuit priest Father James Martin first commented on what the survey actually measured, saying, "You read the survey, and you could also interpret it as those are the sins they confess more. Which may not mean that they're actually sinning in that way, but those are the sins they confess most often to confessors". That is an important distinction; I remember talking to some of my friends who actually went to confession after their confirmations and made up some plausible sins because they couldn't remember any of their real ones. Measuring what people confess could be just a measure of what they generally feel expected to confess and not what they actually feel like they've done.

Father Martin also brings up the sociological aspect of who sees what as sinful, remarking, "Women may be more encouraged when they're young not to be proud and be more self-effacing. They actually may be more attentive to the sin of pride than men would be. But that may not mean that they are any more proud than men are but that they may confess it more." That was what almost laid me flat, because it acknowledged societal gender roles as playing a part in how people interpret their actions and how what may be different is not the type of sinning but what men and women consider to be sinful. "That's very similar to my thinking. I wondered if what women would identify as the sin of pride men would identify as just, you know, a bit of swaggering self confidence," agreed host Scott Simon.

Something not really addressed in the conversation but that occurred to me was the philosophical question of sin. I wondered, while listening to the podcast, whether or not men and women may not truly sin differently simply by virtue of experiencing sin differently. Or, are women, by acknowledging their pride, actually sinning where men experiencing the exact same emotions or going through the exact same actions are not, simply because they don't perceive what they're doing as sinful? Not being religious, I can't really see sin as being something existing independently of those sinning. But at the same time, I would imagine for the religious it is. Otherwise, it would simply come down to perception - and if sin is just about perception then the person who inhales a carton of ice cream could not be gluttonous and the person who had that extra piece of bread could be. And if sin is simply about the sinner's perception of sin, then men and women would sin differently - and the question would then become why a particular action or emotional response would be a sin when attributed to women but not when attributed to men. But I don't really think that's how the Vatican and the 94 year old who documented these confessions are approaching the gendered sin question; I think they really just stop short of really getting what this report could actually be saying to them. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Post in Which I Review Dollhouse's "The Target"

I kind of thought that the review of "The Ghost", along with my haphazard posting about Whedon and his various themes in his works, would be the end of my need to write about individual Dollhouse episodes. Themes, sure; but I thought that what could be found within taking the episodes as individual entities would get a bit repetitious. And who knows, maybe it will. Maybe it already has. But (a) I was kind of impressed (read: very impressed) with "The Target", and I've been very not in a writing mood, along with generally just tired and apathetic lately. So, I figured I might as well write about something I'm actually interested in writing about; and for right now, that is Dollhouse.

I am slowly coming around to Eliza Dushku. I still don't think she's all that great, but I'm recognizing the potential truth in what mzbitca wrote, that "in the long run it may help Dushku that, even when she's playing other characters, she's always slightly similar". Those similar personalities through various people may even be enough to understand how one Active could be more requested than another, something Adelle DeWitt claimed Echo is.

Overall, I am impressed with Steven DeKnight's writing; he wrote one of my favorite Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes (that being season 5's Blood Ties), and so he already had a bit of good grace built up but I was amazed at some of the skill "The Target" encompassed. There have always been stories - mostly stemming from Jane Espenson - that no script that reached the screen was without Joss Whedon's finger prints being all over it (she is quick to remark that the whole last half of BtVS' season four episode "Pangs" was almost completely reworked by Whedon), and I'm sure that's true. But the overall structure of the episode, with lines that reflected other lines, scenes that reflected other scenes, and lines and scenes that foreshadowed the action of the episode, was just cool. And I'm willing to give at least some of that to Steven DeKnight. When Richard Connell, the episode's baddie, remarked, "I thought everything was good with the background check", it wasn't played deviously enough to ring any alarms or even go noticed until my second watching. And yet we learn at the end that Richard Connell's entire background, including his name, was a fabrication; and so the line and its very innocuousness within the scene becomes, for me, a cool little treat. As was this:
TOPHER: What's the magic word?

BOYD: Please?

TOPHER: I was actually looking for 'abracadabra', but that'll do.
with a flashback revealing:
BOYD: ...Just an empty hat. Till you stuff a rabbit in it.

TOPHER: Abracadabra.
That's just the little stuff, though. The word play is great, but it is the thematic workings that are truly of interest. I loved the juxtaposition between Boyd and Echo, with Boyd asking during the handler imprinting "Do you trust me?" and Echo's programed response of "With my life" and Echo's Jenny asking Boyd, "Do you trust me?" and Boyd's voluntary, considered answer of "With my life". It demonstrated the entire episode was working toward, and that was Boyd's own progression of thought.

Boyd begins the current assignment in the woods, asking Topher about Echo's state, asking specifically, "What about her adrenaline?" and when Topher offers the evaluation that it is "within engagement parameters", questions him further by asking, "Are you sure? She's elevating toward redline". Now, aside from giving Topher the set up for an excellent next line ("I've been reading the squigglies long enough to 'cern the dif between excitement and 'Sweet mother, I'm gonna die'"), it also reinforces the notion that Boyd actually cares for and about Echo, whoever she may be imprinted with and whatever she may be imprinted to do. However, the episode in its entirety is meant to show how far Boyd has come; unlike Buffy and Giles, we are dropped into this odd relationship already in progress, so these flashbacks are probably the best way to show us Boyd's transition from seeing Echo as an object to be used by others and looked after in a professional manner to seeing Echo as a person. By the time we meet him, Boyd has come a long way from saying things like, "She's not a girl. She's not even a person". He's come a long way from the disengaged man who cared not about the girl who excitedly got out of the van, who reacted as if he were merely in the presence of a robot. It seems clear by the end, when he takes Echo's hand after she's been wiped, that Echo has become more to him than simply his assigned Active, even if she does not have a consistency in who she is. She is, by way of being human, of value. And Boyd seems to be coming along to that conclusion - or has already reached it. Also, I stand by my original assessment of the Boyd-Echo relationship. Echo doesn't have to develop a true and independent personality any time soon for me to remain engaged in the show; Boyd's interest in her as a person is enough for me right now. His emotional connection allows me to forge my own with the girl assumed to be a blank slate.

What I also found interesting was the man who called himself Richard Connell; we don't know who hired him or why he wanted to kill Echo. We don't know who falsified his records. Obviously, it was someone who knows something of the Dollhouse operation. I can't quite believe that it was Alpha, because there would be easier ways and there would be no real reason to send Ballard Caroline's photograph. That being said, I think there are some interesting things about Richard Connell and what he and his guy in the woods represent. One practical matter is that Richard Connell squelched the run of nice guys hiring Actives; some of the complaints last week that I heard were about that very fact. But perhaps even more interesting is the idea that a person should have to fight to survive, that a person alone isn't deserving of life, that the person has to 'prove' that right somehow. That sort of thinking seems to justify the whole of Dollhouse; if people had intrinsic worth and being a person alone freed one from the threat of violation, there would be no Dollhouse - and no Actives. Only when a society (even a secret organizational one) believes otherwise and commodifies humanity does this become possible. The psychopathic Connell is only a couple of steps removed from those like Adelle DeWitt; after all, Connell would have been erasing Jenny (and Echo) from existence by killing her; DeWitt erases Jenny in an almost more insidious fashion. And treating humanity as nothing more or less than a commodity is what allows people like the man who came after Boyd to do what they are paid to do; there can be a price at which it is morally okay to kill people only if humans are not invaluable in and of themselves. When the hired killer tells Boyd "Hey, it's business. Don't take it personal, dude", he is summing up the whole of Dollhouse's operation. It is a business, and the Actives are not to take what happens to them personally. And that works well, because the organization ensures they cannot.

I am also both enamored with and repulsed by the dual meanings of conversations that fly right over the Current-Echo-Occupying-Persona's head. Last week, there was "Yesterday you weren't a nurse or a clown in the circus." This week, there was, "You know how much trouble I'd be in if you went splat?" Jenny thinking it was merely a reference to her brothers made it disturbing and sad, because the audience had not-Connell's previous interaction with Adelle - complete with "Make sure you return her safe and sound. Otherwise, there will be additional costs" - to draw upon. That along with "Prove you're not just an echo" is part of why I'm trusting Joss Whedon knows what he's doing. Because those are lines highlighting and emphasizing Echo's lack of control and lack of autonomy and lack of consent. Even if the C-E-O-P (shorthand for Current-Echo-Occupying-Persona) is a fully autonomous being who has free thought and free will and who has just been created to be compatible with the person paying for her company, she is still at a distinct disadvantage because she doesn't have all of the information. She meets the men under false pretenses; she is programed with a personality amenable to things like whitewater rafting and tent sex. And even if we should examine whether or not the CEOP has full body autonomy even though she occupies someone else's body, any action taken by the CEOP is still a coerced action due to the very nature of her unusual creation.

That being said, there were a few aspects of "The Target" I wasn't completely cool with. Ellie in apartment 205 left a lot to be desired. Maybe she's going to be a good character, but at the moment she's sitting passively in her apartment waiting for Ballard to get home so she can offer him a bit of home-made food. And while I liked the indication that Echo is keeping more within her than anyone (aside from now Boyd) recognizes, that there is, in point of fact, someone in there, the shoulder-to-the-wheel movement there was just awkward. Some of the moments were a bit jumpy; but overall, I'm feeling like my optimism and belief in Whedon is still well placed.

Overall Grade: B+/A-

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Life as an Atheist Bones Viewer

I'm an avid viewer of Bones. I really, really like it, even when it isn't good and even when it doesn't make sense. I didn't get into it when it first premiered because although I like David Boreanaz from his days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I've never really felt the need to follow actors from project to project (the lone exception to this rule is Shia LaBeouf, for no actual quantifiable reason). I'm more of a writer girl; I follow my favorite writers and creators from show to show. I always say that I'll watch the shows that actors I've seen before and enjoyed are on, but I rarely end up following through on that promise. Hence, no Brothers & Sisters for me, even though it has Rob Lowe. No How I Met Your Mother, even though it has Alyson Hannigan and Neil Patrick Harris. No Heroes, even though it has Milo Ventimiglia - though I have to admit that I did try on that last one. It just didn't take. I am the kind of viewer responsible for things like "The Seinfeld Curse". But Bones, I could get into. Emily Deschanel is so incredibly engaging, and David Boreanaz has developed some actual skill since "Welcome to the Hellmouth". And everything was going fairly okay between me and my viewing of Bones. Yes, I think the first season was the best; yes, I was upset by the betrayal of Zack Addy, and thought Zack's actions had very little basis in the character; yes, I saw a more slapstick sense going down. But overall, the show was still one on my "must watch" list, a list occupied this season only by Chuck, the now defunct Pushing Daises, and now Dollhouse. But I didn't watch this week, and I'm trying to work up the enthusiasm to watch via Hulu. Why? Well, because in "The Hero in the Hold", one of the things I love best about the series - that being the way the two main characters' different religious beliefs (one being Catholic and one having none) is placed on equal footing as equally valid and plausible - was shot to shit.

I'm well-accustomed to seeing atheists not being presented well in fiction. If there is an atheist on a crime drama, there's 10 to 1 odds that atheist is your man, responsible for the death or mayhem that has occurred. For example, Law & Order: Criminal Intent had an episode that I had hoped would show an actually ethical and intelligent atheist, but instead it turned out he killed the preacher's wife because she outed him as having mentally disabled son. So, not only was he responsible for death, he was also responsible for not being able to love or care for his kid because he thought the boy defective. Even House (whom I love dearly and whose reason for being an atheist mirrors my own), probably the best known atheist on television, isn't really the best in terms of ingratiating atheists with the community at large. And so, one of the joys of Bones was watching a character - in this case a woman - who had a firm moral code, who had friends, who was considered not only a good guy but one of the best of the good guys and who was also an atheist. I even loved her conversations with Booth regarding his Catholicism and her atheism. I loved her reading of certain scripture, like her interpretation of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac and being stopped by God's messenger when she said, "when it comes to your children, your love has to be absolute. The messenger represents goodness, what you know to be right. Ergo, you have to remain open to what you know is true". I liked that Brennan's atheism was absolute, and that she didn't look foolish or wrong for not believing. I liked that Booth's Catholicism was never put into question either, that he never looked foolish or wrong for believing.

But in "Hero in the Hold", the dynamic in the handling of religion changed. Sure, there had been other unsavory examples. "The Man in the Morgue" had an assertion that Brennan really had been under the power of some voodoo; "The Skull in the Desert" had Angela experiencing some kind of vision that led the team to a missing woman in the desert, and Booth and Angela gently mocked Brennan's belief that Angela subconsciously sifted through the logistics and processed "the most likely scenario". However, never before did I feel like the show was showing that Brennan was just out and out wrong in her atheism. Those other times, it was the characters believing in something more and disbelieving that the explanation could be of the mundane. In "Hero in the Hold", though, Brennan comes face to face with a spirit, and doesn't recognize him as such. In "Hero in the Hold", the spirit is actually able to help Booth escape a deadly situation. "Hero in the Hold" validated the belief in some form of afterlife and invalidated the belief that there was none. And what was almost worse than that was the fact that having the mystical and spiritual an actual part of the show made the show over all less. This was a show about science, even when the actual science was somewhat questionable. It was a show about logic, and how science and logic - along with the more slippery elements of human interaction and good old fashioned FBI work, could make cases and solve murders and mysteries. Add in some helpful spirits, and the actual spirit of the show takes a bit of a hiatus.

Take "Aliens in a Spaceship", where Hodgins and Brennan escape from the same serial killer that captures Booth in "Hero in the Hold". They don't have a ghost; they have their knowledge and a bit of luck. They escape because they are the premiere minds in their fields, and have working back at the lab a team that was heads and shoulders above the rest. They created electrical currents to send a short text message to their colleagues, they popped the spare tire, they made oxygen out of lithium scraped from batteries and soda ash, and they used the explosives contained in the air bags to blast their way to freedom - freedom they obtained partially because the people on the other end were able to put together what their text message and were able to narrow down their possible locations from it. Science, and faith in themselves, each other, and their friends pulled them through it. That episode was brilliant because it contained the best of what Bones could offer. It had both the science and the interpersonal relationships; it had both character growth and a meaty mystery. It was a classic. "Hero in the Hold" didn't, and it was the weaker for it. It would have probably been weaker no matter what, because "Aliens in the Spaceship" is one of the best episodes the series has to offer; but contrasting an episode that utilizes Brennan's intellect and skill with one that makes a mockery of one of the core tenets of the show, and that second episode is bound to be at the bottom of the pack. Plus, it had the added benefit of making me feel just a little bit alienated from the show as a whole. And so even though I'm going to watch Thursday's episode via Hulu and I'm going to try to not be sensitive over this gaffe and just throw it into the pile containing that whole Zack-Gormogon plot, at some point that pile is going to be larger than my enjoyment of the show. And that will be too bad.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

February's Charity

When my maternal grandmother was 14, she contracted the polio virus. One day, she was winning hopscotch tournaments and being the one of the best jump ropers (specifically double dutch) in her area, and the next, she was bed-ridden. She was taken to the hospital like all of the other sufferers of polio, and because my mother's side of the family were and are mostly poor, rural folks, the March of Dimes stepped in and paid the bill. The March of Dimes also paid for my great-grandparents to travel to the hospital and see their daughter. Eventually, my grandmother got well enough to go home, go to work, get married to a man who had lost his left arm at birth, and have two children, but never well enough to walk again, or play hopscotch or double dutch. 

The March of Dimes has an odd story; founded by Franklin Roosevelt to find a cure for polio, it was headed by his legal advisor Basil O'Connor, who agreed to be its treasurer not because he had any pressing wish to cure polio but because he was so loyal to Roosevelt. It became the March of Dimes during the depression years by asking the general population to send in a dime to the charity; the thinking was that even during hard economic times, everyone could spare a dime (which was also probably the thinking behind the song, "Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime"). And the people did, partially because most could find a way to spare a dime and partially because the specter of polio loomed so large nearly everyone feared getting it and nearly everyone wanted to find a way to ensure not to. It was a rousing success, and it led to - along with Jonas Salk's vision and Basil O'Connor's impatience - a vaccine. From that point forward, March of Dimes shifted from being about curing polio to preventing premature birth, birth defects, and infant mortality.

Today is my grandmother's birthday; her favorite charity is the March of Dimes, for obvious reasons. And even though we bought her earrings and some cupcakes and we brought her balloons and flowers, I thought that her favorite charity and the one she has been giving to her entire life could be this month's charity for me as well, as my way of continuing to fulfill #5 on my New Year's Resolution list.

Saturday Sesame Street

This right here is my favorite Monsterpiece Theatre. The Taming of the Shoe is also a good one, but The 39 Stairs is my fav. The line, "There had better be something exciting at the top, I shall tell you!", which I sometimes randomly say to the consternation of those around me, is one of those reasons:

Grover in general is one of the others. I personally love how he almost loses his footing, and his reaction to the brick wall. And I absolutely adore the end exchange:

COOKIE MONSTER: Are you okay?

GROVER: I don't know.

COOKIE MONSTER: Stay there. We still on camera.

GROVER: Hurry.

How could adults and kids alike not love that?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Michele Bachmann Is Why We Need To Elect More Republicans

No, seriously; that title isn't MST3000 material. I think Michele Bachmann is why we need more Republicans in Congress. Just listen to her crazy ramblings:

A good democracy has more than one party, and at the moment the Republicans left - especially in the House - are tending toward the unhinged side with Michele Bachmann being the head of them all. And while that leads to fun Chris Hayes, I really think that bipartisan efforts and better legislation in general could come about if there were more moderate Republicans in the mix. I can't help but feel like maybe we (collective we, because I don't live there) shouldn't have voted Chris Shays out of representing Connecticut's 4th district.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Few (Somewhat) Random Thoughts

My commute to and from work is north to south in the morning (and thus south to north in the evening) and, on a good day, about forty-five minutes. Some days it is closer to fifty-five, and on iffy days it is closer to an hour. Given that, I spend a lot of time on Connecticut roadways. And what I can tell you, having spent that time on the roads, is this: 

People in southern Connecticut need to learn how to drive in inclement weather. People in northerner Connecticut need to learn how to drive more cautiously in inclement weather.

Why? Well, today's afternoon forecast was a wintery mix. In southern Connecticut, where I work, that meant flurries in the sky that dissolved before hitting the ground. It was in the upper 30s and the sun was still out, meaning there was nothing but the barest hint of wetness on the ground. There wasn't even any slush. And yet... the top speed until I hit the line of accumulation demarcation was about 20 miles per hour. It was like these drivers had never seen snow flakes before, like they were terrified that somehow the snowflakes, if hit too fast, would severely damage their cars. It was, in a word, hell. Meanwhile, after I passed that lovely line of demarcation, after the sun had set because it took an hour to get there when it normally takes 20 minutes, the slowest the cars around me were willing to go was 60 mph. And because snow started gathering before it did in the south, there was actual snow and ice on the ground and the wintery conditions were actually fairly dangerous. That was clearly the time meant for speeding.

Along the way, though, I learned a few things.

One of those was that I love the duet of "As Long As The Grass Shall Grow" sung by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. This is a reworking of the song written and performed to protest the treatment of the Native Americans, and it takes almost nothing from the original except the melody and a bit of the chorus. According to a guy who was not Bob Boilen on All Songs Considered (I think it may have been Stephen Thompson), Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash recorded this version of the song about a year before they both died. It is absolutely beautiful, a truly wonderful love song. This may be because it fits right into the musical styling I love, but I also think there is something to the lyrics. This is a song that deftly fits the Cashs' history; and unlike many love songs that highlight the beginnings of love, this one celebrates a robust and aged love - a love that is still strong even though its participants are nearing their twilight and the love shared between them has spanned the decades. I highly recommend listening to it; it's the third one down in the list of songs featured on the Lesser Known Love Songs list.

Fourth on the Lesser Known Love Songs list is one by Betty Davis. Not the actress Betty Davis, the one whose eyes were immortalized in the Kim Carnes song. This one:
Called "Anti Love Song", Carrie Brownstein on All Songs sums it up when she says, "The lyrics represent a total reluctance and resistance, but the way Betty Davis sings it conveys this undeniability and an understanding that she's going to give in to this very, very soon... ...It's slightly libidinous." 

It is very, very hot. And while there is a bit of that "I don't want to give in and yet I will, what is also there is this power, this recognition that as much as she is going to give in to this love and this libidinous experience, so will he. Because she's that good. And there's about 5 different ways that's awesome.

Then there was a revelation on Bill Moyers' program The Journal. Like many of the programs I wish I actually watched, I generally catch Bill via podcast and so sometimes it is a while before I get around to listening to him. In honor of Lincoln's birthday, Lincoln was the topic. And the guy who wrote one of my history texts for my college Civil War class, Eric Foner, was one of the guests. His postulation, that progressives of the early 20th century
"saw Lincoln as, you might say to go back another couple of generations, a combination of Jefferson and Hamilton at the same time. In other words, Lincoln is a man who believes in Jeffersonian ideals and equality, of democracy, of the government by the people. He's not an elitist in the way of Hamilton, who wanted a monarchy basically. On the other hand, he believes in a powerful government, like Hamilton did and Jefferson did not. He believes the government can be an agent of social change and social reform and improvement."
Lincoln, a combination of two of my favorite revolutionary/post-revolutionary figures!

The last thought is that there are some truly gifted poets out there, and Bill Moyers presented me with one I have not heard before. Nikki Giovanni seems like one of the coolest people to have ever lived. Just listening to her speak on The Journal was like listening to a free form poem. She was entrancing and funny and witty and brilliant. One of my favorite moments was when she said,
"I've always been amazed that you can break up with somebody, and somebody will say to you, 'Well, if you leave me I'm going to kill you.' Now, logic says, if I'm dead, you still don't get me."
I also loved when she said,
"girls are always sitting around listening to stupid things that boys say. And girls, you know, half the games girls play, Little Sally Walker, what is she doing? She's rising to the east, looking for the one she loves the best. What did - what's her name? - Snow White. And she's going to go to sleep until "one day my prince will come". You get sick of that. You got a girl who can spin flax into gold, and her father, "The Miller's Tale", which became "Rumpelstitskin", her father then takes her up to the prince to say, "You should marry my daughter. She can spin flax into gold." What does she need with him? If I can spin flax into gold I would - I mean, she didn't need the prince."
My favorite line, though, was this:
"life is a good idea."
And to end this, the first poem I heard by her on The Journal:

Midnight poems are bicycles
Taking us on safer journeys
Than jets
Quicker journeys
Than walking
But never as beautiful
A journey
As my back
Touching you under the quilt

Midnight poems
Sing a sweet song
Saying everything
Is all right

Here for us
I reach out
To catch the laughter

The dog thinks
I need a kiss

Bicycles move

With the flow
Of the earth
Like a cloud
So quiet
In the October sky
Like licking ice cream
From a cone
Like knowing you
Will always
Be there

All day long I wait
For the sunset

The first star
The moon rise

I move
To a midnight
The dangers

Monday, February 16, 2009

Women Don't Need Real Food - We're Good With Gum

I hate this commercial, and I'm pretty sure everyone else in the world should as well. Why? Well, watch it.

Let's see; it has a skinny woman who can't have that white chocolate macadamia nut cookie because she "caved" on eating that brownie yesterday. Her internal battle is between that bad craving, and her "good" self that really doesn't want to do anything that might jeopardize her skinniness. So what does she do? Well, she does what any smart woman who wants to be good does: she eats a piece of gum instead. Right, that isn't at all problematic.

The fact is, women should not feel like they've been bad for eating a brownie, or like they can't eat that cookie even though they've done some cardio. The fact is, self-denial in pursuit of bodily perfection does us no good. The fact is, this form of food-consumptive shaming has been going on for too long. We should not be congratulating the woman in the video for resisting her wish for a cookie. The woman in the video should not consider it a battle won that she not consume that cookie. This should not be held up as a triumph. It should not be held up as triumph because eating one cookie (or even 3) is not the end of the world or a negative action. Eating a sweet is not a bad thing, and it is continually depressing that women are taught and told to believe that it is. A while ago on Feministing, this very thing was highlighted by Courtney on her Ten Things I Could Do Without list; clocking in at number 5 was:
"Hearing my otherwise enlightened girl friends say they're "bad" because they just ate dessert."
Samhita responded with Ten Things Samhita Can Do Without. At number 3?
"Having my weight scrutinized by friends and family on a regular basis even though I am a grown ass woman and it is none of your business."
And it is present in the story told by Darla on We Are The Wave, when her mother gladly bought her diet microwave dinners to eat and took pride in her daughter's weight loss.

Weight loss or gain is only morally good or bad if we find something deficient in those who actually want to do that crazy thing called eating. Sure, there are people who overeat. But too often, we feel ashamed that we have these cravings at all, that we truly want that piece of chocolate or that brownie or that cookie. And that shame and that denial is not healthy. It does not lend to a healthy relationship with the food we eat, or the shape our bodies take. We shouldn't have to work out as penance for doing so, as though those extra fifteen minutes on a treadmill "make up" for that deviation the night before.

I eat. I personally don't eat a hell of a lot; and because of my hypoglycemia I have to be careful of my intake of sugar, lest I pass out and freak out those around me. I do eat what I want and generally when I want, though again the hypoglycemia leads to a somewhat more structured meal routine if I want to remain upright and cognizant. If I want a cookie, I have a cookie. I just make sure it's close enough to bed time so when I start getting dizzy I'm already laying down. I learned long ago that denying myself something I wanted - be it sweets or books or CDs - just meant that I would later binge on that very thing; which, by the way, is how I end up with things like Scott Weiland's solo CD. That still doesn't stop my some of coworkers from commenting about "how much" I eat and what I eat and how one day my metabolism will stop working for me and I'll have to be "good" like most of them. But I don't want to be. I want to be active; but I want to be active for the sake of being active, and not as a kind of Hail Mary when I do something like eat a piece of cake. And I want my cake, sans guilt. I want to not see commercials on my television set informing me that good girls and women chew gum after agonizing for dozens of seconds about whether or not they could rationalize actually eating something. I want a world in which women are considered good for actual acts of goodness, instead of self-denial. I want a world in which weight is no longer a measure of a person's moral worth. And I want a world in which people chew gum because they honestly want to, and not as a substitute for something else.

A Series of Questions, And Answers

I'm stealing this idea from Fourth Wave, because I liked it. Like Aviva, I answered the questions on the website itself, but my answers were ridiculously long so I brought them here. The first set of numbered questions come from Jaclyn from Bitch Ph.D., and the second set of lettered questions come from Aviva of Fourth Wave. The questions from the Jaclyn are italicized, and the ones from Aviva are bolded, just to make things that much more complicated.

1) Did you watch? What did you think?
I liked it; I have hope that the good/great parts will continue, and that what I see as the philosophical thread carrying over from his previous works continue to be, well, carried over. The pilot gave me a lot of hope and a lot of food for thought.

2) Were you as psyched as I was to see that Mutant Enemy tag at the end?
Hells yeah.

3) How did you feel about Eliza D as Faith in Buffy? How have you felt about everything she's done since Buffy? What did you think about her performance as Echo?
I hated the character of Faith. Madeline Kahn in Clue, "flames on the sides of my face" hate. Plus, I've never seen the range or talent. Which may be partially because I don't see the infamous chemistry with everything and everyone.

ADDED FOR HERE (cuz there's stuff I forget to say): I haven't actually seen Eliza in anything post-Buffy except for Bring It On (don't judge - too harshly), and there I wasn't impressed. I also wasn't highly impressed with Echo, but am hoping that changes.

4) Why the hell did Joss agree to work with Fox again? Or ever?
(Because I'm a Whedonite): Joss wrote the show to highlight Eliza Dushku's (questionable, for me) acting talents and range. Because Eliza is contracted to work for Fox, Fox is where he would have to go to make the show. And he sort of compromised in the whole "oh, it's run by different people now", and that may be why he agreed to work with Fox again. But the reason I've heard as the catalyst for why Fox is to work with Eliza.

5) Um... are there still no people of color who want good roles in Hollywood? It's a real problem, isn't it? How on earth can we fix it, so that all the producers and directors aren't forced to only cast white people all the time? (Yes, there's Harry Lennix as Echo's handler, but a) that just makes him the token and b) Driving Miss Daisy, anyone?)
I have no idea. I think this is a definite area where Whedon falls down on the job, and then down some stairs.

ADDED FOR HERE (cuz, again, I forget stuff): Although there are still a dominance of white actors on the show, I do think Whedon did slightly better this time around by casting Dichen Lachman, a woman of Tibetan-Australian descent, as one of the other Actives to be highlighted and Tahmoh Penikett, who is part Native-Canadian (or rather, part of the White River First Nation) as the FBI agent. Not great, but better.

6) Ditto fat people, people with physical disabilities, people who aren't freakishly pretty, etc.?
Same as 5, minus the stuff about Tahmoh and Dichen.

7) Did they really have to start with the girl-is-broken-due-to-sex-abuse-and-requires-the-intervention-of-a-kind-man-to-seek-redemption plotline? Why is that never the secret weak spot for male action stars, huh?
While I would love it if a woman could be strong and capable and want to achieve something without having been scarred in the past making it logical or acceptable in a way men never need, the plot didn't bother me personally in this instance - partially because I saw it as a continuation of the idea of using people as objects. The man who called himself a "ghost" was treating the young girls as objects, the guy who was trying to get his daughter back was content to use Echo-as-Eleanor as an object, and while the person who made up Eleanor was destroyed by it because she "couldn't get away from him", Echo/Eleanor are destroyed because everything is taken away from them. I expect that this theme will become stronger (or at least, I hope it does) based on the fact that it was a key component of BtVS and River's story (and the crew's) in Firefly/Serenity. All that being said, I think there had to be a better way of going about it, because just because its Whedon and it fits the theme doesn't mean that it doesn't still fit a larger problematic narrative that women can't be successful and can't be driven unless they have been in some way broken or damaged. I don't know whether or not to give Whedon half a pass because he prefers to have all of his characters in some way broken or damaged.

8) If Person A is desperate and out of options, and is coerced into fully giving up her agency and identity, and if, after making that one decision, Person A no longer has any meaningful ability to consent to anything, nor does she have the ability to withdraw her consent from the original agreement -- under those circumstances, if Person C pays Person B money to have sex with Person A, is that really prostitution, as Joss and Eliza have said it is? Or is that sexual slavery?
Slavery. My thing is that the slavery on Dollhouse is not just sexual. Eleanor didn't do anything sexual with Gabriel, and still her part in the whole operation was not on the up and up and Echo/Caroline are still enslaved. Same thing if she has to break in somewhere. The persona embodying Echo may think that this was her idea, but it still is (theoretically) not something Echo/Caroline would do, and the owners of the Dollhouse are still using her body for their own purposes. I find that horrific, whether it is sexual or not.

9) Can someone tell me that Joss is going somewhere good with this? I want to believe...
I think so. I think he is converging on a couple of different themes here, including his ever present (or at least, to me ever present) idea that the greater good cannot be achieved through nefarious means; that a world or a government is not of greater worth than its individual citizens, and that as soon as you begin disregarding the sanctity of human autonomy and human life, you lose. He did it with Angel in season 2, he did it with the Operative in Serenity, he did it with Dr. Horrible in that work, and he did it (kind of backwards, in that Buffy rejected that premise outright) in BtVS' season 5 finale The Gift.

I also think, in conjunction to that, he is examining his theme of "women treated as objects". It fits into the above, but it is a subset theme of that with a feminist bent where he seems to show how society devalues women and uses them - or allows them to be used - and then has those women claim their autonomy back. The Slayer was considered nothing more than an object to be used for the greater good in BtVS, and River was considered an object to be used for the greater good in Firefly/Serenity, and Echo and Sierra seem to embody that same space. And I think through that creation, Whedon is both commenting how women are more likely, given our culture, to be treated as objects and highlighting how wrong that is. At least, that is where I think he's going with this.

And now for Aviva's:

a) Can a disturbing premise be mitigated by the subjugated character developing agency and control over her oppressors? If so, to what degree? Does she need to escape? Seek retribution? Take over?
I think a disturbing premise can be mitigated if it means to be disturbing, and means to address that which makes it disturbing. By that I mean a misogynistic work is different than a work that examines misogyny in our culture. I think that Dollhouse is of the latter category rather than the former, especially since they were (heavy handedly) discussing 'regular' human trafficking as well as being an evil that needs to be stopped. I think the show already wants its viewers to equate the two.

That being said, I think one of the ways Dollhouse will explore that disturbing premise is by having Echo fight for and achieve agency, much in the way other characters of Whedon's have done. I don't know if she should gain control over her oppressors. Rather, I think that would just create a second inverted power system - and I think that may be where they're going with that creepy guy at the end, the one who was mailing a picture of Caroline to Paul Ballard. Taking over will still basically be working within the system. What I think needs to happen is for the system to be dismantled, and for those who were working toward the 'greater good' by violated the autonomy of those involved to be punished.

And I do think she needs to escape. She needs to not be rescued by Paul or a conscience-plagued Boyd. She needs to do it, herself, for herself. She needs to take back her own control.

b) How long can a show like Dollhouse continue on with this same "she can be anything you want her to be" shtick before something has to give?
I'm going to go with a while. ...I don't need to fall in love with Echo; I can root for her without her developing a personality, because I believe that what happened to her was a violation and because I believe her lacking any distinctive personality does not mitigate the awfulness of what her situation is. Also, I think that as long as the other characters - good and evil and amoral - become more developed, Echo's development can be slower. If they give me something meaty with Boyd and Paul and Adelle and Topher and Claire, I should be okay. I especially think Boyd is important here, though, because his concern for Echo's welfare - even if it is only within the confines of the established Handler-Active relationship 'allowed' within The Dollhouse - allows the audience emotional access to a character that basically has none - until she begins to develop one.

c) Is it possible to maintain narrative interest if Echo escapes or if Dollhouse (the place, not the show) is shut down? If so, how? If not, then doesn't the continued need for the Dollhouse as an element of narrative interest necessitate the continued exploitation of the "actives" for our viewing pleasure?
I think if Echo escapes, the narrative interest could remain in her trying to figure out who she was and if she can get back to that person - and if she even wants to. I doubt Dollhouse will truly be shut down until the ending season (whether or not Joss Whedon gets a full run is a toss up, and I'm going with a big "no"), but even if it does, I think Whedon can take the show in the direction of where the Actives can go, who they are, and exploring the Dollhouse from the perspective of its consequences on its Actives and what the void it left is filled with.

If The Dollhouse is not shut down until the end, then I think continued exploitation for the dolls on the inside will be necessary for maintaining its evilness - and I think the show has to exist on a razor's edge to maintain that feeling of "this isn't alright" and moving the recognition of that forward while utilizing the flexibility of the wiped for stories. I'm not a writer, so I don't know if that is truly possible. But then again, maybe there won't be on-screen exploitation. Maybe after a certain point, the emphasis will be on who Echo is outside The Dollhouse and her efforts to shut it down. This is the one that I honestly on which I waffle the most.

An Exploitive Show Vs. A Show Examining Exploitation

"I've had a relationship with the group Equality Now since its inception; and I was visiting the New York offices, which I hadn't been in, right after I had pitched the show. So I decided, just off the cuff, to sit everybody down and tell them what I was going to do, because I figured I would never have a tougher room than that. And I think the reactions were mixed. Some people thought there's a discussion going on there, and it's interesting and it's worthy. And some people thought it sounds just like glorifying human trafficking, which is something they particularly fight against. And so, you know, it was sort of a harbinger of what was to come, which is that this show is going to get some very mixed reactions, and I think it is going to make some people who are fans of my political stance probably angry; some others not, I think. But the idea was to open a discussion, and I think now there may be some shouting during it."
-Joss Whedon, on NPR's Fresh Air.

There's this thing floating around about Dollhouse, that it is somehow incongruent with Whedon's feminism, that it somehow detracts from his feminist cred card. It is there when Jacki Lyden, of NPR's All Things Considered, says, "I have to say looking at it, it looks to me and feels to me like the ultimate misogynistic male fantasy". I don't think that is entirely correct. If the show turns out to only be about the ultimate misogynistic male fantasy, if it is titillation and little else, then I think it would be a valid critique. However, just the first episode reflected some of the themes Whedon has penned before. When Paul says, "If the only way to imprint a human being with a new personality... to remove their own, completely, we're talking about people walking around who may as well have been murdered. Which, to me, sounds pretty bad", it mirrors Simon telling the crew about what the government had done to River, and when he discovered they stripped her amygdala. When Topher tells Echo that Sierra is undergoing a treatment and that they are making her better, it conjures Mal's soliloquy about how the ruling body will "swing back to the belief that they can make people... Better. And I do not hold to that". When the allusion is made to human trafficking when discussing The Dollhouse operation, the misogynistic male fantasy side of the equation drops down a bit, I believe.

What seems to be overlooked in this particular criticism of Dollhouse is that there is a key difference between an exploitive show and a show examining exploitation. There is a key difference between a misogynistic show, and a show that examines misogyny.

The world Dollhouse inhabits may have misogynistic themes and tendencies; it may be a sexist world. But so is our own. The Dollhouse and the Actives that are housed within it may merely be exaggerations of this life we live. And by doing that, by exaggerating and making more prominent these parts of society that Whedon is disgusted by or intrigued by, and watching how he attempts to reconcile Echo's eventual reclaiming of her life and her autonomy, Whedon may further his feminist message. When Lyden asks, "She's not in any sense in control of her own life, so why present that type of main female character?" she is doing Dollhouse wrong. Because the show isn't about a Buffy character (who, incidentally, was trapped in the same basic premise as Echo is, being used by an organization larger than she who believed her to be a worthy object but not an actual autonomous being); Whedon has already given us a Buffy - and a Zoe, and a River, and a Willow, and a Kaylee, and a Cordelia and the list goes on and on. He has already purposefully created a feminist icon; several, in point of fact. But the question becomes who am I most like? Who are most women like? What do most women have to deal with? I'm not really a Buffy no matter how much I want to be, even though part of my philosophy is made up by the phrase "What Would Buffy Do?" to the point where I had it on a key chain in a town where the prevalent thought was "What Would Jesus Do?" I'm more of a Willow (circa seasons 1 through 3) than probably any other Whedon character. I have to be vigilant when alone; I am not a force the demons fear; I cannot take back the night on my own. But there is a part of Buffy in me; at least, I hope there is. And in Echo, we have the opposite of Buffy, because all of us are, in some way, Echo. All of us are - in some way and some more than others and some less, some all in some ways and some all in others - marginalized, voiceless, objectified, used, weak, powerless; just like all of us are - in some way and some more than others and some less, some all in some ways and some in others - strong, powerful, commanding, charismatic, self-assured, self-centered, autonomous, righteous, wonderful, capable, kind, in control. When Joss Whedon says about River that "She is the monster. She is the damsel. She is the action hero", he is describing all of us. And Buffy represents one track of who we are and what kind of life we can live. As a feminist icon, Buffy kicks ass. But while she is also "the monster" and "the damsel" and "the action hero", she is least often the damsel. Echo is for those of us who are often, even when we don't want to be, the damsel, taken to the extreme partially so she can fight back and become more fully actualized and partially to demonstrate how damaging this particular track actually is and what it does to every one of us.

This particular show isn't about giving us a heroine from the onset to root for and who is immediately awe-worthy. It is about us, and how we feel and what makes us sick. And while Whedon's focus of the show is on a woman, and while that may allow him to examine themes he finds most interesting and may bring to life what parts of the general culture he feels are most dangerous to women, the show as a whole seems to be about not just how society treats women but how we treat each other. Whedon apparently wants to examine "what we want from each other sexually, how much power we wanna have over each other". His primary focus is going to be a woman, possibly because tangentially, based on their position in society, women get hit with this sort of thing more often than men do (and also, Whedon seems drawn to exploring the lives and the trials and triumphs of women). But the overall theme of identity and how morally or ethically bad or good or indifferent an organization like The Dollhouse is goes beyond misogynistic fantasy and into how we interact and see other human beings - if we recognize, as Paul does, each human being's right to autonomy, or if we fall into the trap of using them as objects to fulfill our own pleasure without a care about them or their own.

That isn't to say that there isn't some valid criticisms of the way the show is going about portraying its eventual message about feminism or human trafficking or identity or autonomy or human worth. Aviva at Fourth Wave and Jaclyn at Bitch, Ph.D. asked some of those questions, and David BM Cooley on NPR's Fresh Air did as well; the most compelling question for me came from Aviva, when she asked,
"...doesn't the continued need for the Dollhouse as an element of narrative interest necessitate the continued exploitation of the "actives" for our viewing pleasure?"
That is, for my money, a great question. At what point does watching the exploitation of the Actives in the series become too much like the torture porn of the movie Captivity that Whedon himself railed against? At what point is there no intellectual value in watching the main premise of "these people are wiped and have to be a whole bunch of other people"? I don't have an answer for it. But I do have answers for some of the others, and those will be coming in a separate post on the subject.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Ridiculousness in Bridal Mags

I have not been good at posting clips of my favorite people. I missed a whole bunch of Chris Hayes on Countdown (which I'll probably be posting later, because even though they're kind of outdated I still like 'em), I haven't been demonstrating my love for Jay Smooth quite as much as I would like, and to top it off, I totally missed Jessica Valenti's new 12 Second Musing. I feel less bad about that one, because she hasn't updated in a while, and I was getting bored of going and checking and not seeing anything new. But she did make a new one on February 9th, and so for your viewing pleasure:

There's no face here that reminds me of my favorite philosophy professor as there have been in the past; but I find her observation, especially near Valentine's Day, to deserve highlighting anyway. I'm nowhere near getting engaged or married, even as several feminists I follow are (and congrats!), and possibly as a consequence I'm pretty much wholly uninterested in the wedding hoopla. But this is still ridiculous.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Post In Which I Review "Ghost", and Dollhouse

Dollhouse has the worst theme. Ever. Well, possibly not ever. The theme for 7th Heaven wasn't exactly winner material. But it is pretty damn bad. Out of my Whedon themes, it comes in dead last, so far down that it hasn't even managed to cross the line yet (my theme list, in case you're interested, goes Buffy, Firefly, and then Angel; there used to be more of a gap between Firefly and Angel, but Dollhouse has made the Angel theme all the more endearing to me). This really has little to do with the actual show, but it is a weakness.

Overall, I thought that the first episode Dollhouse was good. "Ghost" suffers from many of the same problems that plague other pilots in that it did not feel as though it had completely gelled yet. It also didn't feel like classic Whedon writing, but there was enough signature lines and enough of the Whedon humor that I was unbothered. After all, Firefly has a whole different vernacular and verbal style than Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and although I like BtVS' verbosity better for day to day quotage and it can consistently give me a writing high (it also highly influenced my own vocab, sadly enough), Firefly's distinctive style was seamless in terms of what it was representing in-show. And with lines like:

"Stroke of midnight."
"End of the ball."
"Dude, it- it's like, 5."


"Something fell on me."
"I bet it was something great."


"Make sure the ladies at my table have everything they need, huh? The champagne never stops flowing - the good stuff. (pause) The first few bottles, the good stuff. After that, the house is fine."


"Find out who's connected to the Dollhouse, the Borodin family won't be touched, and you'll never see me again."
"I haven't seen you yet."

I'm not worried about the writing having its very own style that fits with Whedon's overall idiosyncratic personality.

Likewise, I'm not worried that the characters we have been introduced to did not, as a whole, have glaringly obvious and distinctive personalities and reasons as of yet. This is a new show, and part of its purpose is an examination of identity. I'm not surprised that we don't know Topher or Boyd or Adelle or Paul as well as we knew Buffy and Willow and Xander and Mal and Inara and Kaylee yet. What we have been shown is intriguing.

That being said, there are some weak points to the show, and unfortunately, one of them is Eliza Dushku. There was too much Faith in her opening characterization, when she looked bedraggled and was being consigned into Dollhouse service. There was too much Faith in her first motorcycle-riding, fun-dancing, sexy-rope-using persona. There was too little oomph in some of her other scenes. Part of my problem stems from the fact that I've never been all that impressed with Eliza Dushku's acting, and although I've been told many times that she could create chemistry with a log I've never been one to see it. I have to hope she gets slightly better at speaking zombie post-wipe Echo lines, because right now it is slightly painful for me. There were also some poor plot points. I had to wonder, during Sierra's initial wipe, why Topher or Adelle (or anyone, for that matter) would house that particular room in that particular location, where the ensuing light show would be (and was) more than visible to anyone down below. And if they had decided that location was the best for that room for X,Y or Z reasons, why no one would think it important to lock the door. Echo wandering in (along with the cringe-worthy "She hurts") was something that induced heavy eye-rolling. Another blinking red light moment for me was during Eleanor Penn's 'treatment'. There was no real reason given for why Topher decided to not wipe her, unless I missed it completely.

And yet, the list of things right with this show far outweighs those two points right now - and given that the show focuses on Eliza, that is saying something. Every other actor is phenomenal. Fran Kranz makes Topher human, unlike Adam Busch's evil Warren and Tom Lenk's amoral Andrew (he is too unlike Jayne at the moment for those two amoralities to be adequately compared). Kranz's reactions to Echo and Boyd, his thoughtful articulations of what Dollhouse is and what a person is made up of, is incredibly engaging. He is amoral, and I suspect he is crafted to be seen as amoral; but even with that knowledge, Whedon has taken the trick he employed most effectively in Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog and made Topher someone the audience can connect with even as they are (potentially) disturbed by that bit of enjoyment and understanding. Harry Lennix as Boyd is another perfect fit. One of the complaints I've read about the show is that if Echo is almost wholly without her own personality, the audience is left unable to connect to her. Lennix's Boyd provides the easy answer; we are connected to Echo's story because Boyd is connected to and concerned about Echo. Even if we cannot fully recognize who Echo is due to Echo herself not being privy to that information, we can connect to Boyd's empathy for her, and his own attachment to her. Olivia Williams is yet another bit of inspired casting. I want to know what makes her tick, why she believes Dollhouse is a force of good.

The parts of the show itself that are good are fantastic; the entire premise of the Actives on engagement creates a strange sense of vertigo; Eleanor Penn (the persona we spend the most time with in "Ghost", the persona whose narrative is responsible for the title of the very episode) is not, conventionally, real. The experiences she draws upon to form her opinions and her own idea of who she is and how she has come to be are not, technically, her own. The years that she has spent studying psychology and forensic science, profiling from former instructors at Quantico, being licensed for seven years, handling 12 negotiations, the very things she offers up as reasons to trust her never truly happened to this one person. And yet, for her, they have and they did. That disconnect between what we normally experience as reality and Eleanor Penn's vision of reality is what creates friction between this woman who is innocently unaware of the underlying tension and the man who paid for an Active from Dollhouse. When this scene goes down:
ELEANOR PENN: You have to trust that I've done this many, many times.

GABRIEL: I have to trust that, right. Yesterday you weren't a nurse or a clown in the circus.


GABRIEL: You're the best. The best one they could send. Why is that? What makes you so good at this?

ELEANOR PENN: I don't have any hobbies.

GABRIEL: No, no, no. You have to do better than that. You have to make me believe. Believe like you believe.
the tension inherent in the scenario where one person knows about a game being played the other is completely in the dark about creates a dynamic scene. Because Gabriel is describing the world of Dollhouse, and Eleanor isn't an Active. She doesn't know what Adelle and Topher have done to make her the best, because for her, she wasn't made. She just is. And so when Gabriel demands that she has to make him believe, like she believes, she is automatically at a loss. Because she doesn't just believe it; she has memory of living it. She knows it. And that is part of what makes the very set up of the show tragic, what we witness first hand in Eleanor Penn. She (and every other Persona) is at an immediate disadvantage, partially because she is the paid for in any of these situations, but also because she is lacking the fundamental knowledge necessary to properly interact with the people in question. And yet, she (and every other Persona) cannot have that fundamental knowledge if the house of cards is to remain standing.

What stems from that is the question of the authentic experience. One of the people who made up Eleanor Penn was sexually abused by the man Eleanor comes into contact with while trying to ensure the safe release of Gabriel's daughter. Her reactions are of someone who was truly abused; but she - at least in this way - had not been. That history never existed. Unfortunately for Eleanor, she never spoke a truer word than when she told the man that he couldn't hurt her, that you can't fight a ghost. Because that is essentially what Eleanor is, someone who lived on the world for a while, but never in it. Someone who could remember people who had never met her, or abused her. In the end, Eleanor gets the girl back, but she still doesn't win. And neither does Echo. They are both erased, used by a larger organization that cares very little about them and their authentic lives.

The show also managed to explain the functionality of the premise well. The expositiony dialogue was less jarring and boring because it was tangled up in the philosophical thoughts of Topher. When Boyd questions making Echo nearsighted, Topher manages to explain why the personas are never going to truly be Superman, and yet also manages to heighten the intrigue into his very own character. In a truly captivating bit, Topher explains the process of creating an identity as
"You see someone running incredibly fast, the first thing you gotta ask is are they running to something or are they running away from something. The answer is always both. These personality imprints, they come from scans of real people. I can create amalgams of the personalities, pieces from her or there; but it's not a greatest hits. It's a whole person. Achievement is balanced by fault, by a lack. Can't have one without the other. Everyone who excels at something is overcompensating. Running from something. Hiding from something."
Since Topher himself excels at something, and since he seems to have universalized his own experience, the question immediately becomes what is Topher running from? And yet, now we know more about the Actives themselves. The thing that separates Joss Whedon's sci-fi/fantasy writing from so many others is that the exposition is oftentimes just as much about the immediate story and the characters as it is about granting those of us in the viewing audience access to the necessary road maps. It very rarely actually feels as though Whedon is pointing to a Yellow Brick Road and telling us where he wants us to go and what he wants us to know. It is just a natural evolution of the 'verse itself.

Saturday Sesame Street

I want a gimmick, a gimmick I can keep up with and that is strangely alliterative and that makes me incandescently happy. This is that gimmick. Saturday Sesame Street:

I love how you can see the early stages of Herry Monster here, and how it's Jim Henson doing the voice instead of Jerry Nelson - and how it is one more example of how well Jim Henson and Frank Oz play off of one another. Plus, this is one of my favorite songs off of my (very well-worn) Sesame Street Gang record.

"Am I Real? Am I Anything?"

In the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the title character gains, rather suddenly, a 14 year old sister. That sister presumes she has lived all of her 14 years with Buffy and her mother, and Buffy and her mother and her friends presume that she has as well. The reason why everyone acts as if Dawn not only belongs in Sunnydale, in the Summers' residence, but also like they all have established relationships with her is because they remember her being there. Monks, in an effort to thwart an angry hell goddess from her goal of returning to her hellish dimension and killing all other worlds in the process, not only made Dawn into a 14 year old girl but also created memories and familial ties to go along with it. Dawn's creation and her forced inclusion in the lives of Buffy, her mother, and her friends is a violation of their autonomy and the sanctity of their memories. And Buffy feels that violation when she is confronted with the truth:
MONK: For centuries, it had no form at all. My brethren, its only keepers. Then the abomination found us. We had to hide the Key, gave it form, molded it flesh. Made it human, and sent it to you.

BUFFY: Dawn.

MONK: She's the Key.

BUFFY: You put that in my house?

MONK: We knew the Slayer would protect.

BUFFY: My memories... my mom's?

MONK: We built them.

BUFFY: Then unbuild them! This is my life you're -

MONK: You cannot abandon.

BUFFY: I didn't ask for this! I don't even know... What is she?

MONK: Human. Now human. And helpless. Please. She's an innocent in this. She needs you.

BUFFY: She's not my sister.

MONK: She doesn't know that.
What becomes clear is that Dawn herself is also a victim, perhaps even moreso, because she is the thing constructed.

In Dawn, there is a wrong being perpetrated against the other characters. Because of Dawn, there are no easy or right answers for how to handle that wrong. The characters have to live with that violation and within the 'verse and memories that violation has constructed. Anything less would be to willingly abandon an innocent 14 year old who had done nothing to instigate her creation. When Dawn discovers this, she begins a season-long downward spiral, and mixes that liberally with an existential crisis. And although there had been questions of identity before in Whedon's work, how we become who we are, what forms us, and what informs us, Dawn is really the first radical examination of how identity is constructed and what memory means. Dawn is the first character built on illusion, whose backstory - the very thing that informs her make up - is false. What the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer validates is Dawn's place in the world; the end of the season culminates with the idea that even though Dawn is unusually constructed, she is still human, she is still a person of worth, and she is still worth fighting for and dying for. What came before does not erase what is present in the moment; and when Buffy chooses to sacrifice her own life for the sister she hadn't had 9 months previous, what is emphasized is Dawn's own right to life.

What will be interesting about Dollhouse is that Echo and Echo's predicament is in essence an inversion of Dawn's situation. Dawn was constructed, her memories were constructed, and so who she is and what she does is built upon what many would consider a fabrication. Echo has the opposite problem. Echo will have real experiences she will not remember; Echo will have real thoughts she won't be able to recall; and Echo will have real learning experiences that at the end of the day will be stripped from her. And even though the pilot did not have that moment of forced revulsion Buffy's moment with discovering the truth about Dawn articulated for the audience, I think the premise of Echo's life is meant to cull up a feeling of disgust. From the opening moments where we see Caroline's somewhat coerced volunteering, to watching her memory wiped from her and the remnant token of the night's activities slip through her fingers, to watching Echo's Miss Penn dealing with the memory of an assault she never experienced, the creep-factor is there - and we are meant to recognize Echo's wiped existence as being a fundamental violation of her personhood, of her own self, as well as noting the strangely false authenticity that her different personas embody. What is perhaps all the odder is that it is not just Caroline we see erased, but every single persona Echo is implanted with as well. Eleanor Penn may have been an amalgam of different people, but for the time she existed within Echo, she was a person - she had experiences; she had faults; she had a backstory. Miss Penn died once Echo was erased, just like the motorcycle girl we never truly met died once the engagement is over. Every episode of Dollhouse will be a funeral procession of sorts - which is oddly perfect for Whedon, a man who never seems fully satisfied unless several of his characters are dead.

The very question of identity and what is an authentic and meaningful one is already in full swing in Dollhouse due to those factors. The question regarding Miss Penn's existence, if she was truly "a person, actual and whole" or if the inauthenticity of her memories made her okay to wipe in a way Caroline was not, is already out there, written into the very DNA of the show. Especially considering who came before her in the Whedon canon of characters. Because if Eleanor Penn's wiping creates no ethical quandaries or moral ambiguities, then what we learned from Dawn's existence is placed back in peril. If Eleanor is prime for being scrubbed out because the basis of her existence was not in the strictest sense true - if that contributes to her not equalling a full and adequate human being, then some of Dawn's own personhood becomes chipped away as well. But I'm inclined to believe that Whedon recognizes the inherent unfairness of the Dollhouse system for not only Caroline and Echo and Sierra, but also Eleanor Penn and the myriad of other people who are created and then erased from existence. Although it is more subtly hinted than the works before, there is the sense that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. And although I fully expect issues of agency and feminism and the nature of the greater good versus the rights of the individual will play a full and robust role here in Dollhouse (if the show progresses that far), I also believe that this question of what makes someone a person is the prevalent theme for the series. It just also nicely ties into the other issues present.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Why I'm Not Going To Be Around

I'm totally reneging on my "I'm going to post about Whedon every day", but I have a valid excuse. First, it is my sisters' birthday today, and second, my Uncle Jerry died. Between the two, things have been a little hectic. My Uncle Jerry was best known for three things, those being looking vaguely like Waylon Jennings:

<--------(Uncle Jerry)   (Waylon Jennings) ----->

Witnessing his older brother (my grandfather - who looked vaguely like Willie Nelson) getting jumped by some neighborhood kids, running home to get his metal roller skates, and then beating those kids with the skates at the age of six; and for subjecting my family to one of the worst family reunions ever.

He'd been working as a handyman at an Irish resort in upstate New York, and decided that since the bar was well-stocked and he had a trailer all to himself that he would organize for the rest of the clan to come. And we did come. And the first afternoon, it was alright. Sure, each individual family changed rooms around three times before succumbing to the realization that the rooms weren't going to get any cleaner - or look any less like they'd been decorated in the mid-70s at the height of the orange and brown revival. But the place also had an Olympic sized pool and as much dangerous playground equipment as any family could ever possibly want (which was a lot). And the bar was well stocked, so that was something. But then a rain storm rolled in and refused to roll out, the power went out, and the only emergency generator was hooked up to the bar. Which is where a majority of my family stayed. For four days. The other place we all gathered was the cleanest room, which happened to be my family's. It had several perks: it was closest to the bar, it was on the ground floor (which was convenient for when people were stumbling back from the bar), and it had a trash can. The trash can was important because we had to manually flush the toilet, and pouring water into the back of the tank was the preferred method. This was also the summer several of the younger members of my family were being potty trained, and they were horrified and confused at the lack of flushability the toilets offered. We finally all abandoned the reunion when the from Ireland parents of one of my cousin's husbands called him in a panic, ranting about the "shanty Irish" and to get the whole family out of there. Since the rain hadn't let up and the bar money was running low, most of us took their advice and got out. For those too young to drink (like me) the whole long weekend is burned into memory. For those who were old enough to drink, most of the long weekend seems to be a blur. What we learned, though, is that about forty of us can live in one room for four days without fighting; many of us felt closer after the weekend, and some of my family members feel like Uncle Jerry just proved how well we are all able to get along. I learned that you can make a quick buck walking by a drunk relative with someone else's kid, because that drunk relative (especially if it is my Uncle Eddie) will help himself to someone else's bar money to pay for babysitting - much to the bewilderment of the person the bar money originally belonged to, especially if the kid in question wasn't his or her own. So, all in all, what Uncle Jerry gave us all were stories, and a lot of them. And in my family, that is the greatest achievement.