I recently watched the first installment of High School Musical for my media franchising class. I was somewhat familiar with the series. I evaluated a colleague’s term paper on it for a class I took on dance and film. I figured South Park nailed their musical parody, which I now believe they did. I also watched two supremely awesome little girls grow up next door to me for three years. A friend once used Ashley Tisdale’s name as her blogger handle. And I have some chores for a shirtless Zac “Lt. Dangle” Efron to do around my house.
Despite compelling arguments in favor of HSM‘s merits as a franchise or media text, as well as a firm belief that Daft Punk could do a sweet remix of “Bet On It“, I wouldn’t consider myself a fan. Overall, the cloying wholesomeness gets on my nerves. For me, the stakes are so low. Will Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens, who I recently saw in the so-problematic-it-must-be-blogged-about Sucker Punch) end up with Troy (Efron)? Of course they will–at least on screen. I think I would be a fan of a variety show hosted by Evans and his sister Sharpay (Tisdale). Glee very much tries to provide the archetypes it mines from High School Musical with depth and grit (Kurt Hummel is basically an out Ryan Evans).
I also don’t know what to do with colorblindness, conflict-free inclusivity, and the politics of positive representation, particularly with the girls of color on the show. On the one hand, I think it’s cool that Gabriella is a smart girl who excels in math and science and attends Stanford after graduation. On the other hand, I’m very troubled by how little the series seems invested in her academic pursuits or her ethnic identity. She and her friend Taylor (Monique Coleman) are both beautiful, brainy girls of color, but their presence often veers toward tokenism to me. I don’t want them to be defined by their racial or ethnic identity any more than they’d want to be thought of as nerds. But such attention toward respectability doesn’t give their characters much conflict. However, the white characters are also less-than-compelling for these reasons as well. Although I wish Glee wouldn’t relegate Mercedes to the role of the sassy black girl, at least there are instances within the show where she resists or defies such categorization.
Taylor is joined by another female character I wish was better incorporated into HSM‘s story world. Kelsi Nielsen (Olesya Rulin) is the shy, nerdy white girl at East High who provides piano accompaniment for the school’s musical productions. She also serves as the productions’ chief composer. Something tells me that if Nielsen wrote a musical that centralized Gabriella and Sharpay and brought in Taylor, it would be far more compelling. Maybe she could get all Max Fischer with it and cast them in a musical remake of Robert Altman’s 3 Women. She could follow it up with Věra Chytilová’s Daisies starring Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. Or she could come up with something original. I’m sure if she were really given the spotlight, she could share it with the other girls and create something better than a rehash of Romeo and Juliet without any actual romantic conflict.
Recently a grad school acquaintance referred to Showtime’s The L Word as the worst show that she followed in its entirety. I can almost relate. I watched all but the last two seasons, and just watched the fifth season. Soon I’ll finish the soap about ladies living and loving in Los Angeles, even though I know how it ends and that Showtime didn’t buy The Farm.
I watched the first season alongside the final season of HBO’s Sex and the City with a college feminist group I was starting to hang out with. The L Word promised to be a groundbreaking melodrama, the network’s attempt at applying the success of Queer as Folk to queer women. You’ll note that the original tag line for the series was “Same Sex, Different City.” Evidence of network rivalry. I missed the fifth season during it’s original run for thesis-related reasons, and gave up on the sixth season. As someone who went to watch parties for four seasons, I can break down any episode in three segments: 1) socially relevant drama, 2) wacky or glamorous group scenes, and 3) bat-shit craziness. This isn’t a 3 Glees situation either. It’s moment to moment, regardless of whether L Word creator Ilene Chaiken wrote the script or an episode was credited to someone else.
Along with many of the fans, I had five problems with the show.
1. It used cheating as a means of advancing story lines, which was really evidence of lazy writing that often resulted in interchangeable sexual encounters that ultimately lowered the stakes for most of the characters involved.
2. Actresses of Asian descent were often cast to play Latina characters, which I certainly don’t think had anything to do with a shortage of Latin American actresses in Los Angeles.
3. It was wildly inconsistent with characterization. Why does blogger/deejay Alice Pieszecki date a trans woman in the first season only to be totally awful to her Web admin Max Sweeney, a trans man, in the fifth season? British heiress Helena Peabody is drawn as a viper when she enters into orbit in season two but is a generous person to a fault from the third season on. Only three cast members stay on script throughout the show’s run: art aficionado Bette Porter is wonderfully alpha and conflicted, hack writer (and Chaiken avatar) Jenny Schecter gets progressively more unhinged, and Lothario hairdresser Shane McKutcheon slouches toward another doomed conquest. Many of the characters have little to do, most woefully Kit, Bette’s half-sister played by the incomparable Pam Grier. Sometimes if Chaiken didn’t know what to do with someone, she’d kill them off. Hence why the cast and fans still mourn the loss of Dana Fairbanks, who died of cancer in the third season. Lazy. And mean.
4. The show really missed an opportunity with Max. They could have created a complex, interesting FTM character who was fully integrated into the show’s principle ensemble. They could have handled his transition with sensitivity and kindness. Instead, they tended to other him and treat him like a freak. I wasn’t previously aware of his ripped-from-the-headlines arc in the sixth season, but Autostraddle already laid out how poorly it was handled in an open letter to Chaiken.
But uncharacteristic bouts of transphobia aside, Alice Pieszecki is the bisexual femme of my dreams. Leisha Hailey, you were perfection. If the writing rose to meet you, you might have had a lock on an Emmy nomination for season three. Jennifer Beals, you were pretty great as Bette too. You could have gotten a nod for season five.
As I alluded to in an earlier post, I loved how the show prioritized lesbian visibility and queer identification on a cable television show. The show dealt with major issues like transitioning, same-sex partnerships, and the closeted military. The show also employed directors like Lisa Cholodenko, Jamie Babbit, Allison Anders, Rose Troche, Karyn Kusama, and Angela Robinson. Folks like Ariel Schrag and Guinevere Turner wrote some of the episodes, but you shouldn’t hold that against them. I wonder if Alison Bechdel was ever offered to write for the show. Can you ask the creator of Dykes to Watch Out For to work on the Sapphic version of Melrose Place?
Often identification was done through music. Alice, Kit, and deejay Carmen de la Pica Morales engaged with it in their professional lives. Acts like Sleater-Kinney and The B-52s would perform at the Planet, a local hotspot the ensemble frequented and Kit owned. Toshi Reagon, the Ditty Bops, and Teagan and Sara made cameos. Each episode contained extradiegetic music from Gossip, Joan Armatrading, and Uh Huh Her and rarely featured a male voice.
But this wasn’t always a positive, which leads me to my fifth issue. The show was scored by Elizabeth Ziff (credited as ezgirl), who, as a member of BETTY, was also responsible for the show’s infamous theme song. It made it’s debut in the second season and was loathed by even the most die-hard fans. The production is slick. The vocals are shrill. The lyrics display no subtlety, especially during the bridge. “Fighting, fucking, crying, drinking”? More like “Kicking, screaming, cringing, heaving.”
But I think The L Word‘s title sequence is notable for a few reasons. For one, it actually does establish the show’s tone, cast, and sense of place. For another, title sequences have become something of an anomaly in both television and film, getting increasingly shorter with time. Many shows use pre-existent material while others, most notably Glee, dispense with a theme song altogether. Some shows try to elevate the title sequence to art. Network identification is important here, as many of these programs are on HBO and have hired design companies like a52 and Digital Kitchen. Showtime didn’t or couldn’t go that route with The L Word, which speaks to how gender and production values impact perceptual differences between quality programming and pop trash. Hate it or really hate it, The L Word title sequence and theme song are integral parts of the show.
If we lived in a just world, Jill Scott would be a superstar. She’s got presence, people. It was obvious to me she was a star when I saw the music video for “A Long Walk”. It was probably obvious to her friends who encouraged her to pursue acting in the early 2000s. This has culminated in several television and film roles, most notably in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? series and HBO’s 2008 series No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The camera loves her face, she’s got a great voice, her eyes draw you in, she’s got a movie star smile, and her easy gait suggests someone magnetically comfortable with who she is. Actually, that’s probably why she isn’t as famous as her star power seems to demand.
That said, I think there’s something to be said for celebrities who demonstrate mainstream crossover appeal while remaining somewhat under the radar. While I wish fringe appeal wasn’t all but guaranteed to a confidently fat black woman in our wrong-headed media culture, I think there’s something great about someone at once seeming true to themselves while radiating star power with eminent potential to permeate beyond a niche audience.
But you know what? I still call bullshit on Scott’s peripheral celebrity. Because her performance as Precious Ramotswe in HBO’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency could have catapulted her to stardom. It’s not a game-changing procedural. Often the dialogue, apparently lifted directly from the Alexander McCall Smith book series on which the show is based, is leaden and the characters are quite broad. But it has a lot to recommend and could appeal to a mainstream audience with little effort. Despite some shortcomings folks seem to have no trouble overlooking in other procedurals that aren’t as good as The Wire, I found the show to be pretty likable. Scott’s performance has much to do with that. However, you wouldn’t know it, because the series opened to positive reviews but ultimately got no love come awards season. So maybe I can convince you, or your mom, or that coworker who loves Burn Notice, or the book club you’re in that read the books to catch up with this seven-episode series. I’ll do this in list form. I’m swiping a bit from a friend’s personal blog, because the entry encouraged me to watch it. But see? It just goes to show you that I’m not alone in being taken with Jill Scott and wishing more people recognized her considerable talents.
1. No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency stars a confidently fat black woman playing a confidently fat African woman. Yes I’m repeating myself. I wish I didn’t have to. But that’s pretty remarkable. And unlike her character in the first installment of Why Did I Get Married?, at no point is Ramotswe apologetic about her size or shown eating as a means to pathologize her figure. She often sets people at ease by mentioning that her figure is “traditional” and conventionally attractive to older beauty standards within African culture, but I think she also just really enjoys her body. Yes, I wish she didn’t always have to remind people that fat women are super-sexy. I’d imagine Jill Scott feels that way too.
2. Ramotswe inherits land in Gaborone from her somewhat distant deceased father and decides to use it to help people (particularly women) in her surrounding community with legal problems and matters of the heart. Her reasoning is that women always know more about what’s really going on in their neighborhood than their male counterparts, who are usually in charge. She’s also dedicated to her job and really cares about providing a service to her community. She’s also a complicated woman with unresolved business with her ex-husband, a surreptitious attitude toward marriage, and the affections of a sweet car mechanic (JLB Matekoni, played by Lucian Msamati).
3. Ramotswe’s tightly-wound assistant Grace Makutsi is wonderfully played by Anika Noni Rose, perhaps best known for her work in Dreamgirls and The Princess and the Frog. Makutsi prides herself on superlative organizational and administrative skills, often noting that she scored 97% on her secreterial school exit exam. She also lost positions at more lucrative offices and law firms because she takes her job more seriously than some of her class mates, who view their work as stepping stones to becoming the boss’ mistress or next wife. Though the women encounter personality differences and struggle to keep the agency afloat, their professional relationship develops into a close friendship as the story develops. Also, if we’re looking for a black female nerd, I elect Makutsi for consideration. She’s also got a geek chic wardrobe that could give Glee‘s Emma Pilsbury a run for her wardrobe department’s money. If there’s a blog or a tumblr devoted to Makutsi’s style in the spirit of What Claudia Wore, I’ll gladly subscribe.
4. Yes, some of the supporting characters are rendered as flat and cartoonish. Makutsi suffers from this, as does BK (Desmond Dube), a gay hairdresser who runs a salon neighboring the agency. However, the actors beat the page and fill in their roles in surprising, poignant ways. Sometimes, the scripts meet them there too.
5. The series was filmed in Botswana. There is such a difference between location shooting and filming it at a studio (for a counterexample, hazard to watch five minutes of Outsourced, which fails at attempting to pass Studio City off as an Indian marketplace). Apart from employing local actors (which might allay anxiety about a predominantly white production staff), the city itself expands and deepens to create the show’s distinct sense of place. The women pursue their case work and go about their daily lives in it and in doing so, Botswana’s dimensions and complexities continue to reveal themselves. Charles Sturridge, Tim Fywell, and the late Anthony Mingella draw upon the cityscape’s distinct look and feel to create a larger universe in which these stories established themselves and unfold.
So seriously, there’s only seven episodes and Jill Scott’s delightful. What are you waiting for?
I returned from lunch and saw that Kristen at Dear Black Woman, posted the music video to Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair.” Ya’ll, it’s delightful. I’ve been into her look for a while and am happy that she’s making music. We can search for nefarious doings involving her family’s alleged relationship to the Hubbard cult, but I don’t have any problems with the Smiths. They seem like nice famous people who are trying to maintain their careers while raising their children and encouraging them into creative endeavors without buying them fame or foisting it upon them. Here’s what I like about the song and the clip.
1. The song’s catchy.
2. The video takes place in a school. Willow turns ten this month, so it’s where she and many in their peer group spend their time.
3. The school isn’t depicted as a sex dungeon or a sweaty club. Put it differently, I’m glad Willow isn’t hyper-sexualized. This seems like good parenting and image control, something the fathers of Jessica Simpson and Miley Cyrus might want to have worked on. Kudos to director Anthony Mandler, who is best known for his work with Rihanna, for being sensitive to this as well.
4. Her hair makes the environment change colors. How cool is that?
5. Importantly, her surroundings are white before she whips her hair around. As her hair is braided into long cornrows or styled in puffs for the video, I have to read race into this. The video and song are obvious celebrations of hair, but not a white lady’s sleek ponytail or wavy tresses. I could potentially read it as a reclamation of the whip from its treacherous Antebellum context. Regardless, bringing color into the setting is a charged act. It’s no coincidence that people are pairing this song with Sesame Street’s “I Love My Hair” segment. Here’s the original, which Snarky’s Machine clued me into.
And here’s a mash-up.
6. Whipping hair is something I always associate with headbangers. Even if video vixens, Beyoncé, and that regrettable episode of Glee make it acceptable, the subjects of Heavy Metal Parking Lot still come to mind. But Willow’s actions make me think of her mom Jada, who fronted metal band Wicked Wisdom. Not a lot of women of color are associated with metal, which makes Laina Dawes writing on the subject exceptional before one even takes the quality of her work into account. Thus the video and clip also destabilize how we relate women and girls of color to genre.
7. If items #5 and #6 sound heavy, they don’t play out that way in the video. This looks like such a fun shoot.
8. Can more videos please have babies break-dancing?
Good on you, Willow!
Sometimes, people roll their eyes when actresses pick up a camera and snarl the word “hyphenate” like an epithet. While I don’t want to overpraise these efforts and laud them as feminist acts, I don’t want to dismiss them out of hand either. So today, I thought I’d throw up a couple of noteworthy examples. Feel free to share yours as well.
First off, we’ve got Warpaint’s “Undertow,” which was directed by former drummer Shannyn Sossamon.
Next up, Glee‘s Dianna Agron put together the clip for Thao with the Get Down Stay Down “Body” and used the collaboration as a way to encourage support for OxFam. When the video first circulated in May of this year, Kristen at Act Your Age and I discussed how the couplings could be more inclusive toward queer folk and people of color. Hopefully we’ll get to see Agron’s talent develop behind the camera.
Finally, I thought it be worth recognizing Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, who received critical acclaim in 2007 for her debut feature Caramel, which she co-wrote, directed, and starred in. She’s also a well-renowned music video director, and has worked extensively with pop singer Nancy Ajram in a sustained collaborative pairing that makes my Amerocentric mind recall Beyoncé and Melina Matsoukas.
In my cursory view of Labaki’s work, I see a lot of conventional representations of glamorous pop star femininity. However, I’m coming at this from a decidedly American third-wave feminist perspective, so I don’t want to speak out of turn. Nonetheless, I think the representation of female celebrity in clip for “Ya Salam” is interesting and want to learn more.