Songs for the Struggling Artist


I’m Done Watching Nashville And It’s Probably Not Why You Think
April 17, 2017, 12:20 am
Filed under: Gender politics, music, TV | Tags: , , , ,

No one was more surprised than me when I became a fan of Nashville, the TV show about country music stars. It happened after I read an interview with Callie Khouri, the show’s creator, in which she explained how much her feminism was informing the show. In 2012, there weren’t many folks in show business talking about their feminist work, so I sought the show out immediately. And I loved it.

The show did so many things I’d not seen before on TV: multiple women at the center, women grappling with power, grappling with sexism in the music business. It seemed to have a female gaze, even when directed by men. There was a scene in the first season that was one of the sexiest I’d seen on broadcast TV. It was bold. And it didn’t let us forget that the nice man we all liked so much was once a violent alcoholic. It dealt with domestic violence in a harrowing and sensitive way. The show wasn’t perfect. It was soapy as hell and it lost its few characters of color pretty early on. But it was always an empowering blend of music, ambition and relationships. This year, after being dropped by CBS, it was picked up and given a 5th season by Country Music TV, a very logical choice. I was excited to see it return after such a long hiatus.

But from the beginning of this new season, I felt a strange lack of ease around watching it. The cast was still in place, the characters aligned with their histories, the music still at the center. But I noticed after a few episodes that I just didn’t feel like watching it anymore. Something was missing.

What I realize now was that Callie Khouri was missing. In her showrunner chair are now two men. (It takes two men to replace one bad ass feminist women apparently.) The show had earned my feminist trust so things that would normally be red flags for me didn’t flag at first.

At first, I was so glad to have some people of color back on the show, and for them to be acknowledging the existence of racial tension, however awkwardly.  I was so busy applauding the inclusion of a trans character, I missed what was happening to the other characters. But the show started to irrevocably turn for me when Scarlett, who has always been the emotional center of the show, was bullied and sexually exploited by a film director. Because the show had some feminist cred in the bank, I thought that might be handled deftly at some point, like the domestic violence plot in a previous season. I thought that Rayna (the woman at the center of the story and a woman with tremendous authority) was going to step in and realize that this video was degrading and horrible and that Scarlett was being gaslit and abused. But no – a young silicon valley dude bullied Rayna out of intervening.

And then. SOMEHOW…this film director bully convinces Scarlett that he’s shown her something amazing and true about herself by forcing her to wear a low cut dress and crawl like a cat on a dining room table and so in the last episode that I will ever watch of this show, she decides she has feelings for him and sleeps with him in his hotel.

I hate this plot so hard. And I tried to twist it. I tried to think the best of the show (due to aforementioned feminist cred.) I thought, “Oh, maybe it’s a long game. Maybe they’re going to have Scarlett work out that she’s been gaslit later in the season. Maybe they’re sending her on some path of a feminist awaking by pairing her with a gaslighting bully.”

But I don’t think so. I think that the new showrunners maybe think they’re giving her a sexual awakening brought on by a wise video director who knows what’s best for her. (They are, after all, such fellows themselves.) I think they think this video director seeing Scarlett as a man-eating dynamo prowling through a crowd is somehow empowering. It ain’t.

I was thinking, before I realized how much had changed in Nashville’s world, that this would eventually get sorted. Then I read a review, which exposed me to reviews of the subsequent episodes and discovered that…(SPOILER ALERT TIMES A LOT. IF YOU’RE GOING TO WATCH NASHVILLE AND DON’T WANT IT ENTIRELY SPOILED SKIP THE NEXT BIT… Spoiler: They’ve killed off Rayna James. Now, I understand that Connie Britton, who plays her, has bigger fish to fry and wanted to leave the show. So, I’m not so much mad that they’ve killed Rayna so much as sure there will be no extracting themselves from the sexist mess they’ve gotten themselves into now. The thing is – Rayna is the only woman with any real authority in the show. She is the only character who can right the wrongs when things go lopsided. She is not just the moral center, she is the only advocate for the younger women in the business. Without her, and without any peers like her, the show doesn’t stand a chance of reclaiming its feminist glory. SPOILERS COMPLETE.)

When this show started, it sparked articles like “Is Nashville the Most Feminist show on TV?” and “As an Urban Feminist, I was Surprised to Fall in Love with Nashville.

It’s clear to me that that period is over. Nashville has lost its feminist showrunner and so has lost its feminist sensibility. I’m not saying men can’t be feminists. They absolutely can be. But these particular men are doing a very bad job at feminist TV making. And this feminist can’t bear to watch it any more.

The Nashville Cast and Showrunner at Paley Fest 2013. This photo would have a lot more dudes in it this year.

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The Sherlock Fridging
January 10, 2017, 1:36 am
Filed under: Gender politics, TV | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I should have been crying. The music was telling me that’s what I ought to be doing. And I cry at commercials so it is not usually hard to push the tears button in an emotional moment on a TV show. But I was not crying. I was flailing my arms in fury. My boyfriend looked at me and asked, “What?”
I explained that I needed a minute to deal with my rage. It didn’t take him long to work out what had made me so mad. It was (WARNING: SPOILERS for Sherlock Season 4 Episode 1 ahead) not just that they’d killed off one of the only complex female characters in the show to forward the story of the two male leads (a trope that happens so often that it has a name. It’s apparently known as fridging.) It was that in her dying moments she said to her husband, John Watson, “You were my whole world. Being Mary Watson was the only life worth living.”

Which is gross enough in its sentiment but was magnified by a million by the fact that the character was a super bad-ass spy type genius. It’d be like if James Bond jumped in front of a bullet and then while he was dying proclaimed that all his years as 007 were meaningless and only the previous year when he became a house husband and a father were important. No one who gave a shit about James Bond would stand for that but because Mary took John Watson’s name and had his baby, suddenly anything she ever did before was meaningless. And most people probably watched this show and cried as the charming lady died, the one who was a mother, too, oh no….but really the most important thing is , what are those two boys going to do! That lady’s death has caused a rift between them!

Now – surely I’ve seen this sort of story before. And maybe I’ve even cried if they played the right music and made me care about the character enough – but THIS TIME… this time, I was done.

I mean, really, I’ve had actual women say similar things to me…things like, “Pursue your ambitions all you like but in the end, the most important thing you can do in life is to have children with a nice husband.” And sure, I get that having kids and a husband is really profound and meaningful to a lot of women. I’m glad that it is so fulfilling for so many. But when this is our only story, when we learn again and again that a woman’s only value is a) her looks and b) her reproduction, I get furious. Diminishing Mary’s ambition to just being Mrs. Watson is insulting to us all.

And listen, if the writers wanted to have her deliver a sweet goodbye to her husband that made him feel super special, great…it could have gone something like, “I did a lot of pretty kick-ass things in my life and had a lot of amazing adventures. This one, with you, has been the best so far. I’m sorry to miss our future adventures. It would have been exciting and fun solving more mysteries with you. Also our daughter is pretty great. I love you both. I’m off to the Great Spy Story in the Sky!”

Instead we get a Mrs. Watson whose sole ambition is being Mrs. Watson. And every young woman watching internalizes the idea that nothing matters but getting married and having babies.

The best part of the episode for women and an actually progressive moment, was when the whole Watson family, including the baby, went on a clue hunt with the bloodhound. For a moment, we had a mother pursuing her own interest and passion, with her husband and baby. It was a great “Take Your Daughter to Work” moment and not something we get to see very often. I’d love to watch a show wherein a woman finds a great way to balance her life with her kid. But of course, rather than continuing to show us a sharp working mother, they had to kill her and undercut everything she ever did before.

It felt like a slap in the face – particularly in a world where women have recently had so many losses. If we lived in a world where we saw more of another narrative for women – more Good Girls Revolt and more Hidden Figures and we got some of those genius movies people like so much but with a woman instead – like a female Beautiful Mind or a Lady Good Will Hunting or a Woman Theory of Everything – well, then I might be able to tolerate this sort of story as a nice change of pace. However, due to the fact that is 100% status quo and getting more quo-y all the time, I would like to politely suggest that the Sherlock writers go fridge themselves.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



The Selfless Teacher Story
May 6, 2016, 9:42 pm
Filed under: class, education, TV | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I watched a clip of the Ellen show in which they honored a kindergarten teacher for her dedication and generosity. On the surface, it was a touching story about a selfless dedicated classroom teacher, honored on TV and re-paid by a generous corporation. And maybe that’s all it was.

But it seemed to me that the real story was the systemic failures that we, as a country, are failing to address. The remarkable thing that this teacher does at the start of each school day is to make sure all her students have had breakfast and have clean clothes to wear – and if they don’t, she helps them get those things. That she does this on a teacher’s salary is even more remarkable. Target gave her 10K as a thank you for her service and 10k to her school. Which, I won’t deny, is very nice. But probably pales in comparison to what the school needs for its students.

Couldn’t we, as a society, pay our classroom teachers at least 10k more a year?

The salaries for teachers are vanishingly small and when they’re also supporting the impoverished students of their classrooms, it’s embarrassing for us as a first world nation.

Couldn’t we, as a society, give 10K more a year to schools that help develop the kinds of citizens we want to see in the world? Couldn’t we, as a society, give 10k more a year to fight poverty of the kind that sends millions of kids to school every day without breakfast?

I mean – it’s nice of Target to pony up 10k this one well-publicized time – and of course this teacher is remarkable and deserves to be honored – but it feels very much like a con game to me. It’s a snow job where we look at this generous woman and a generous corporation and feel good about ourselves for a bit instead of looking directly at the way we’ve structured our society. I don’t know my dystopian science fiction so well – but surely there’s a story wherein the culture sets up one person a year to help congratulate them and the whole culture rallies around them to celebrate – thereby dissipating the anger that might be brewing around the growing income disparity and poor children everywhere. Which story is that like?

Or maybe that’s just us.

children-334528_1280

I searched for images of children in poverty and every single one of them was a child of color in a far away land. No poverty to see here in America, no sir! (ahem.)

 

Normally, at this point on the blog, I’d ask you for to contribute money to my blog by becoming a patron on Patreon. This time, though, I’d encourage you to donate any spare dollars you have to help fight poverty in America. I mean, 1 in 5 American kids are living in poverty. So – – –

There are tons of organizations that work for economic and hunger relief. Here’s an option: Fight Poverty in the USA

But, of course, poverty relief is a bandaid. Total reform would be nice. Maybe the National Center for Law and Economic Justice might be a better place to send your dollars. 

Meanwhile – we rely on Target and the Ellen show. 

 

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Brave and Practical

At a friend’s suggestion, I started watching Jane the Virgin. I enjoyed the show a lot (refreshingly frank discussions about things like abortion, bold aesthetics, a complex intergenerational Latina family of women and some stellar performances) but I found myself questioning one of the show’s recurring themes.

One character asks the lead what she wants to do with her life. She reports that she wants to be a teacher if she’s being practical and a writer if she’s being brave. The show returns to this multiple times.

This Practical/Brave thing is set up as a very clear dichotomy and also has a distinct point of view. We all know it’s better to be brave in the cultural mythos. This is a classic American narrative that is sure that it’s better to be brave than practical. It’s always best to follow your dreams in movies and TV.

And I relate to it. Especially as a person who has followed her dreams, consistently, over and over. I think I watched this variety of story and deeply internalized it. I learned very early on that if I want to be the heroine of the story, I would have to follow my dreams.

And it occurs to me now that the people who write these narratives are, for the most part, people who followed their dreams and had great success with them. Their particular bravery paid off and the Be Brave narrative is personal for them. It also led to them being able to send their kids to college.

This is not true for everyone. And the Brave vs. Practical is a false dichotomy. Most of us have to be brave AND practical at some point. Most writers I know are also teachers. Even super successful ones. It’s not that easy, I know, to be practical and brave. Lord knows, I lean on Brave far too much and don’t give the Practical nearly the space that it requires/deserves.

As a struggling artist, I need stories that helps me choose the practical thing sometimes. I know so many stories about following the rainbow and I don’t need any more encouragement to chase it. I can’t STOP doing that. What I need is some powerful recurring stories to say – “Hey kid – you know you can be practical AND brave.”

Jane-the-Virgin-lead

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“Is this what it feels like to be a man?”

I recently finished watching Seasons 1 and 2 of Call the Midwife. My first thoughts, after watching an episode or two, were “Is this what it feels like to be a man? To see your gender entirely at the center of stories? To have a wide variety of characters and not just one pretty one to be the romantic interest for the lead?”

It has been remarkable to watch stories not just featuring women but about some of the most quintessentially female experiences you could have. Watching stories about pregnancy and childbirth, for one, but also abortion, domestic violence and motherhood.

That all feels pretty revolutionary to me.

But in addition to things like the thrill of having the main romantic story happening to the most awkward of the women, there is also the extraordinary effect of watching so many women in authority.

Every single midwife in the series finds herself in a position of authority at some point, so we watch the younger ones struggle with it and find their own voices and power. That, in itself, feels instructive as this is not a narrative we ever really get to see in the media. But the other part of it is the way authority sits on the older women in the show. They are in charge and there is no question about it. It occurs to me that I have spent most of my life watching media that models for men how to take on authority (or how not to) but leaves women to figure it out for ourselves.

To watch a community of women in full command of themselves and the world around them is something I don’t think I’ve ever had an opportunity to watch on screen before. I love Orange is the New Black and its community of women, too, but because it is set in prison, all authority rests in the hands of the state, so even though the show is fantastic, it doesn’t have the same empowering effect.

Call the Midwife isn’t perfect (It’s very white, it can be way sentimental and sometimes the plot twists make me roll my eyes) but it is thrilling to experience a TV show that offers so much female-ness.And given the way theatre tends to follow TV and film, it gives me hope for a future when we could also have this sort of thing can stage. More please. More of this.

*call the midwife

P.S.  On another note, I also love Masters of Sex. Set in almost the same time period, dealing with women’s health and created by women with a woman at the center. I am particularly thrilled to see a story that is so concerned with women’s sexuality and ambition in a way that we rarely see on TV. It doesn’t have Call the Midwife’s variety of bodies and ages or its authority – but it embraces some of the darkness and pleasure that Call the Midwife couldn’t possibly engage in. What would happen if these worlds could collide? I would definitely watch that show.




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