Thursday, February 27, 2014

"Come Back Down"- Be a Mouse, Not a Fox

In the past, I've used songs to talk about myself, but I keep hearing this "Come Back Down" by Greg Laswell, featuring Sarah Bareillis, at work... and it's an upsetting song to hear. If  you haven't heard it, here's a video:

Catchy, yeah, but listen to those lyrics. They're like the poster child for stigmatization of depression and mental health issues. 

Come on now, your good friends are here waiting this one out
You've gotta come back down (2x)
Look around you, you're the only one dragging this out
You've gotta come back down (2x)

All of your wallowing is unbecoming (2x)

You've gotta take it on your own from here
It's getting pathetic and I'm almost done here
(Repeat previous two lines)

What you set out to kill off has been gone some time now
You've gotta come back down (2x)
Head out any further and you just might forget how
You've gotta come back down (2x)

You've gotta take it on your own from here
It's getting pathetic and I'm almost done here
You've gotta take it on your own from here
It's getting pathetic and I'm almost done here


I mean okay, this song really only  has eight individual lines, half of which are repeated so many times they make up all but four lines sung in total... So it's not all that, um, creative or lyrically complex. But the message it sends is pretty terrible.

On its own, the song seems to be about a person that can't seem to be positive enough to satisfy the singer. We'll call her Nancy, and the singer, she  can be Pam. Pam is telling Nancy that she's so tired of Nancy being depressed, she's pretty much done being her friend. Pam goes so far as to drag their other friends into it, too, by saying they're "all waiting this one out." The implication is that everybody else is doing  just fine, so unless Nancy picks herself up from her bootstraps and gets her shit together, she (Nancy) will have nobody left. There's an insinuation about a rabbit hole of sorts ("Head out any further and you might just forget how"), as if to say that if Nancy isn't careful, this cycle of "wallowing" and  "unbecoming" state will be all she knows.

More broadly speaking, this relates directly to what I said before about mental health stigmatization in the US. An example, straight out of the pop charts. The whole song blames the person it's directed toward for what they're going through, rather than trying to understand, let alone be supportive. It's accusatory, not nurturing. Everything this person  "says" in this song is the opposite of what you should say if someone you care about (or at least profess to care about) is experiencing mental and/or emotional health difficulties.

Instead of focusing on the capitalistic dogma embedded here, I'm instead going to go at this from the "what to do" angle. And this starts with understanding and perspective. I think that even if we have our own bits of depression, anxiety, etc., it's still nigh impossible for us to fathom it when someone else has it in severe amounts. The dehabilitating nature of mental health difficulties is just... foreign to most people that haven't experienced them  personally. A picture went around Facebook a while back that I think does a lovely job demonstrating this, and I'll embed it next (and yeah, I got it from here): 

I was considering making it one of my little footnotes, but no, I actually think there's something worth discussing in detail about this picture. Originally, I said, "Pedantic arguments over the species of the animals involved aside," but the truth is, I think those arguments are just as demonstrative of the problem as the way  the fox treats the owl in the first place. See, in every. Single. Place. I saw this image, the fact that an owl would be able to fly over the wall because, well, it's an owl, came up in the comments. The picture would "make more sense" or "have more credibility" if the species were reversed or at least if both were flightless. And I think this is important because it shows how most people are so quick to tear apart and delegitemize any explanation from a person with depression or anxiety when what they're dealing with becomes big enough to enter into their interpersonal relationships. There  isn't even an attempt to understand, but instead just harping on what's subjectively problematic about it in order to dismiss the whole thing, and undertones of accusation and blame, irresponsibility and selfishness. "It shouldn't be an owl," is the  equivalent of, "I didn't run into any walls on my way over here," and not much better than, "Excuses, excuses, excuses."

And I actually think having an owl unable to get over a wall is more powerful than if the owl was a fox or a squirrel or another fleet-footed fuzzy*. Because that's what anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions can do to a person. There are days when a person just cannot get out of bed, and it literally takes something happening around them to get them to move; or other days, knowing staying put would affect someone else great enough is what it takes. And I know people reading this blog have felt that way before. I've felt that way before. When it gets bad enough, sometimes it's hard to move, even if you want to. Even if you want to get up so badly it hurts, you just can't. And explaining it is hard because it's what you've lived with and felt, and it's like explaining to someone that has never tasted any sort of dairy product what eating Gorgonzola is like, taste- and texture-wise. 

So no, the owl shouldn't be a different species. 

The graphic may be about anxiety specifically, but the way that whole thing plays out is exactly what it's like for people with any sort of emotional or mental health difficulties. I'd say the fox is the more common person to encounter, and the mouse is that one rare friend or family member that doesn't judge and doesn't even ask a lot of questions... but just is there, for and in whatever capacity the owl (i.e. the person having trouble) needs.

Here's the thing: I just said explaining the pain is hard, nigh impossible a lot of times. So then trying to force the person to talk to you, even if all you're trying to do is help, very well could make things worse. I've talked before about comforting someone that's sad or going through a rough patch. When you know the friend/lover/family member in need sometimes has debilitating episodes of depression or anxiety, even more gentility is required, though. I really like how the mouse in the image says just enough to demonstrate they know what's going on but doesn't push for details- details aren't and shouldn't be  necessary for comforting someone. Pushing for details is likely to just cause more stress and upset for them, because you've never had a glass of milk and would have no idea what the fuck cheese is like, and trying to find the words to describe it to you would exhaust the person more than they're already exhausted.

Because depression is exhausting. 

And the mouse apologizes, not because they had a hand in putting that wall there, but, as a dear friend of mine says to me about my life when yet another thing goes wrong, "I'm sorry. That's the apology the universe refuses to give to you." You can be sorry without being guilty, and without pity, feeling sorry for them in a degrading way. It's called empathy. Showing empathy is the best thing you can possibly do. I wish more people could practice empathy without sounding like they feel sorry for the person. I don't know if it can be taught once you're past a certain age, and I honestly don't know how much of my copious amounts of it are nature versus nurture. I wish I could create a five-ish step process on learning to be an  empath like me, but at best, all I can come up with is it's something you learn by experience. But regardless, it's empathy that helps someone that's depressed, not pity, and certainly not judgment. 

The tricky thing is knowing the person you're with. Like with any situation where someone may need comforting, you need to understand that person, sometimes better than they  understand theirself. You may need to know them well enough to be aware that even if they say they don't need a hug, they do. That even if they say one thing, what they really need is another. You have to be strong enough for them to tell them what they  need to hear, not just what they want to hear- and that requires knowing, and a delicate dance on a tight wire. The whole interaction is that, really.

And when I use that analogy, understand I'm not saying anything poorly about a person with depression. Rather, I'm saying (as they themselves know), the whole situation is pretty gorram shitty, and their vulnerability could lead to misunderstandings on either end, and even a person trying not to be  a fox may still come across as at least somewhat canine.

That's why the mouse is perfect. It doesn't even really need to ask what happened, it knows the owl well enough to know what's going on. It doesn't pass any judgment, just says enough matter-of-fact like to demonstrate everything to the owl. The simple act of being there is what matters. And, speaking from experience, from being on both ends, having a mouse in your life is sometimes one of the few things worth fighting for, even when you're ready to give up on yourself. 

And don't believe people when they say depression, anxiety- or even suicide is "selfish." When you're in that much pain, it's not about overtly putting yourself over others, it's about, well, being in pain, damnit. You can't solve math equations while having your fingernails pulled out, unless you're, like, Jason Bourne or something. If you you had an artery squirting all over the place, you wouldn't be begrudged for taking a towel someone  else was using to clean up the blood and instead pressing  it against the wound- better to stop the blood from gushing, even if the carpet gets a little stained.

Frankly, I think it's selfish to accuse people that are depressed of being selfish. Because that says you're more concerned about how their pain will affect you than how it's affecting them. Sure, it's okay for you to be sad or upset you don't see them or whatever, but accusing  them of being selfish implies they've ignored you, either deliberately or because they're self-centered or narcissistic. And that's hogwash. It's not narcissistic to want to stop being in pain. It's human nature. 

I'm not saying avoid people that are depressed. A lot of the time, being with people is the best medicine. What I am saying, though, is that if their depression starts to become prohibitive for them, don't act like they're doing it on purpose. Don't act like they have any choice in the matter. Just be there for them. Remind them they can ask anything of you, and provide it when they do.

I'm going to end  with  another image from that Boggle site. Boggle the  owl is doing the talking, here, so it's not the mouse anymore, but the caption here is perfect for the sorts of things a body should say  if they really want to help someone. 

*And  if you look at other graphics on the site, you see the owl's ability to fly being more directly addressed, such as the image of the owl saying it prefers stairs to flying up into its tree.

Friday, February 14, 2014

On Love and Toilet Paper

In January, I got some new neighbors upstairs. I haven't actually talked to them, but it was apparent they're a heterosexual couple because I saw them kiss while the woman was holding a box she was about to bring inside on their move-in day. The first twoish weeks they were here, I didn't think much else of them, except that one of their cars was in the disabled space from that first day until I finally left that note (and I'm happy to report, they still haven't parked there since, huzzah!).

Some afternoon very close to that day, I was home with River (my dog, for those unfamiliar) and reading with some music playing softly in the background. She lifted her head from my lap and looked up at the ceiling with that well-known dog-head-turn thing, so I asked  her  what was wrong. She then stood, still on the couch (and me, ugh), and pointed her nose, grunting a little at the ceiling. I paused the music and listened. And there was a weird sound coming from the general up-and-over direction that leads towards our balcony. It was kind of like an, "Oooorgh, oooorgh," and not entirely to a rhythm or beat, so I scratched River's head and said, "Honey, that's just pigeons." Because we do get  a lot of them outside sometimes (the floor of the balcony gets covered in poop when there's no snow, ew), and it did sound pretty much like pigeon cooing.

I didn't turn the music back up, so when the sound got louder and more rhythmic, it was also clearer. And  instead of sounding like cooing pigeons, it was... well... a woman moaning in pleasure. Add to it the fact that every now and then, a louder, somewhat surprised and still female human sound  was coupled with the sound of a bed/mattress being pressed hard...

And it occurred  to me that this  was not the first time I'd heard it around that time of day. I thought back, and realized that every afternoon I had been home with River between 2 and 4pm, I had heard those same sounds and mistook them for pigeons because I was usually watching Netflix, and with the sound of the TV, the woman's moans of satisfaction were muffled, just as they  had been while I was reading with the music on in the background.

So then it sort of became a game for me- if I was home, I'd keep the TV or music soft enough to tell when they started, and then I'd turn it up once I took mental note of the time; I soon extended the window of Happy Time from 2-5 instead as a result. But there's definitely no mistaking it now, especially given how I've since also heard the man grunting along with her and saying some rather... mature... things about her taking  what he has and how good her p***y feels. Ahem. I can usually ignore it and not give a damn, but sometimes they get, like, way loud, and there's slamming and it sounds  like something is about to break (whether it's the woman or their bed or even both), and at that point, River usually starts to get anxious- she paces and whines, and, well, then I'm kinda like...

... so I do something like take River outside and/or  turn  up the TV or laptop. She still sometimes looks up at the ceiling, cocking (hah)  her head in curiosity, but she usually does okay when they aren't talking dirty (or at least when the words are indistinguishable). But it's obvious she hears it still. And it's the weirdest when she looks at me for an explanation. And this raises a fundamental question:

How does one explain sex to their dog?

But  seriously, I bring this up because recall that the first and main impression I had of this couple was them kissing until I realized they're also the Sex Champs. So it seems like, damn, they're adorable, have lots of sex... they must have a pretty good relationship, right?*

Well, on Thursday night last week, I got home from teaching, and before taking my coat off, I took River outside to do her stuff. When we were coming back in the building, I could hear shouting. Two voices, man and woman.

Ruh roh, some people are fighting, River, it's okay.

As we went up the stairs, I realized it was coming from... this Sex Champs.

And it's not like I think people that have lots of sex don't fight, but it just surprised me- I've heard the family downstairs fighting  before, so to have it come from somewhere else, and from this particular couple threw me off-guard.

And  the fighting was, not surprisingly, much louder than the sex, even when they get hot-and-heavy enough for me to need to distract myself and River. And while I was changing clothes and trying to set myself up for the  night, I didn't have any TV or music in the background, so I could hear them very clearly.

And they were fighting about money. 
It didn't surprise me in the least, but it was upsetting. 

And you know what? I was sad at first, and  then angry. Angry because while I'm not naive enough to think all this couple ever fights about is money, it pissed me off that the first time I'm aware they've done anything but fuck each others' brains out, they were instead screaming their heads off over their finances. 

Stupid gorram money.

And to add to the mix, I went to the grocery store Wednesday afternoon, and there was a couple arguing in the parking lot right outside my door. About money. 

Happy Valentine's day, America. THIS, is  the true meaning  of Valentine's Day, consumerism and a strangling capitalist structure: 

If you look at studies or help websites, dating sites  or news outletsdemographic-targeted and even finance websites, looking to figure out what people in relationships fight over, money is always in the top 10. And this isn't to say it's the only source of the problems the couple may be having, nor that if their money problems went away, all other ones would, too.

But speaking from experience, growing up in a low-income household, I can say this, being short on money makes other problems more intense, exacerbates them. And disputes over what to do with what money is there leak their way  into all sorts of stuff.    

"Money doesn't buy happiness."

Not  entirely. But I think it's bullshit if you don't at least admit it makes happiness easier. Or if not happiness, contentment. In relationships, with oneself, in life in general. It's Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, people. Visual aid, in case you're unfamiliar:

From the Wiki article, hyperlinked above.

I'm going to push a pseudo-anthropological argument,  here. I think we get so worked up over money because the capitalist setup creates a need for products to survive. We've evolved with the basic instinct to fulfill these needs, and there are certain things needed  in order to do that- but those things have been commoditized and turned into products. We must be able to purchase the necessities- we cannot go and get them ourselves. Even the basics of food, water, and shelter are commoditized. So financial troubles hit at what is basically the carnal need to survive, because we know, and probably not all that deep within our brains, that nothing in this world is free.

Hell, even our poops have a price on them- I've known people that don't conserve flushes out of environmentally conscious practices, but because every flush not flushed meant a few less pennies on the water bill. 

Or, still on the toilets, are you in a relationship? If so, has there ever been a dispute over how fancy the TP needs to be? I've overheard friends in heterosexual relationships get into arguments about this, and I would usually end up buying fancy TP for my mom and siblings when I visited the family before my parents got a divorce. Why? Because the woman  in the relationship wants nicer and thus more expensive toilet paper, and the man doesn't think it's a necessary expenditure. I myself yelled at my dad once that I wasn't sorry for "undermining" him by buying toilet paper that "wouldn't get stuck up my vagina."** 

Dark comedy, but it's for real. I, as a woman that has a hoo-hah to wipe, must spend more than a man would want to on what, yes, I completely  understand, is a first-world "luxury." But excuse me uber-hippies, I can't help it that I was born into a society that wipes and flushes. That's my personal baseline. I'm not ungrateful for that, but my point is that in order to take care of the primal need to take a gorram piss, I have to consider the cost.

So what do I do? I buy fancy TP and get cheap paper towels. Paper towels, those go on counters and mirrors. Toilet paper? It goes where only I go (which is why it's Valentine's Day and I'm writing about someone else's sex life and what goes on in my bathroom, and 
why  I've never experienced this fight whilst in my own relationship). 

I'm not saying all men use the kind of garbage you find in stadium restrooms. But what I= am saying is that the root over the Great Toilet Paper Debate isn't really the quality, it's the cost. The dude wants the cheaper one, not because he prefers to wipe his ass and the tip of his dick with a copper scrubber, nor because he wants to passive-aggressively mess with his significant other, but because since stadium-"quality" is cheaper, and maybe his ass-wiping technique is good enough, he doesn't think it's necessary to spend the extra money on something more like this, my TP of Choice:

And now you know far more
about my hoo-hah than anyone else,
save my OBGYN.

I probably seem off-point, but this is an example. 

Fights about toilet paper aren't about toilet paper. They're about finances. The roots of a lot of "issues" couples face are made of money.

I'm not trying to say I think I'd be doing more than sitting on my couch with my dog on Vanentine's Day if I were richer. But I do know for a fact I'd be less stressed if I either had more money, or if money didn't control everything I did, from what I ate to how I take a shit.

I have a friend (one of my dearest, closest friends) in a long-distance-relationship, and he told me yesterday that he was sad because he won't be able to do as many fun/romantic things with his girlfriend this weekend as he would like. His girlfriend he's spending like $100 in gas alone to visit. So it's prolly obvious: He can't do more because he doesn't have the money to do so. And he feels bad for this, as if it's something he has control over (he really doesn't- dude has two jobs, for fuck's sake).

Or my roommate, she spent her first Valentine's Day as a married woman away from her husband. Because they couldn't afford for him to take  the time off and fly out to visit, or vice-versa. They cooked the same meal and watched something together over Skype, but I was so upset for her over that. God, just remembering it now makes my eyes get hot and watery. 

Also, I lost count of how many friends in relationships that asked  me what to get for their S.O.s last year. Ones  that didn't follow my advice went  in a different direction because they couldn't afford what I suggested, and all of those people expressed to me regret that they couldn't afford more. With the others, I was extra-careful to try to think  of something cheap for them, and a few of them even asked for "something  cheap" when consulting me. 

If I ever did (or finally do) have someone special in my life on Valentine's Day, just seeing the stress and upset all of the buying or being unable to buy has caused my friends over the years, I'd insist he only spend time with me- a cuddle-or-more session would be plenty. 

Because there shouldn't be a price tag on love. But there pretty much is in modern society, and it pisses me off. The times I was dumb enough to think a dude was into me, I was a cheap date. It doesn't take much to impress me, just kindness, respect, and attention/affection. Because I don't think what you buy someone is a good measure of how much you love them. What matters is effort, sincerity, loyalty, gentility, patience. 

And I hope that, again, if it happens, my guy and I will be able to get past the money problems by being as responsible as possible, not taking financial things we can't control out on one another, and being open about any worries we have before they turn into fights. I think it's possible for love to beat out the Money Monster, but it's probably really fucking hard to do.


That couple above me? Totally having sex. Right the fuck now. They're FUCKING out the Money  Monster...

*I have a friend that suggested it's because one is  cheating. That totally poops on the entire point  of this post, but I'm acknowledging that thesis because it's a legit one that I hadn't thought of before because I'm a romantic and want to assume it's a couple in love having lots of amazing sex. 

**When I visited Mom for the first time since the divorce, I commented positively on the quality of the toilet tissue in the bathroom. She said, "Well, your Dad isn't around to buy sandpaper anymore." "It's the little things," I said back. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Final Frontier, Episode 2: 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan'

As I said last time I watched one of these, I'm a Star Trek fan that has never seen the movies from the original series all the way through. So forewarning, SPOILERS, duh. But if you didn't know this one, well, yeesh. 

And that leads me to something I'll admit now, as I get this ready (the menu screen is on right now). I'm nervous about this one. This is the only movie from TOS I've ever heard of people (that aren't rabid fans with no ability to criticize their fandom) genuinely liking and wanting to watch over and over again. I basically know what's going to happen already, because most people do- I don't remember a time where I didn't know Spock gets offed by Khan somehow, and I know this Khan is unnerving to watch because he's so manipulative- not scary or intimidating, but his presence is (supposedly) unsettling. And what's more, I'm also living in a post-J.J. Abrams world. Meaning I've seen Sher-khan and know some of the switcheroos Abrams  did. 

I'll do my best not to let all of that influence me in my viewing, but I'm only human, so we'll see. 

(LOL, it's PG, eh?)

General, not-so-in-depth thoughts: It  didn't feel nearly as long as the first one, and I was actually interested in what was going on a lot more this time,  too. 

Also, I think I need to add Ricardo Mantalban to my "Sexy Old Guy" list:

I had the overwhelming urge to purr  a few times
when he was onscreen. And it wasn't in the
cutsie way, either. Ahem.

OKay, so it took me a while (and it was really hard not to cheat and read the Wiki article) to come up with some ideas on what to say. But I was able to pick up on some themes, and I think it's useful to do some comparison to the first film, too. 

Once again, we have the seasoned members of the Enterprise crew being contrasted with the new up-and-comings in Starfleet, but it plays out differently here. In the first film, the old crew had been off the Enterprise and was unfamiliar with the upgrades and updates, so there was tension when the younger generation was trying to point that out. This time, the older generation is on the ship with a bunch of newbies in the form of teacher-student: They get on the ship at the beginning of the film to do a training excursion with some new cadets, with Spock as the intended captain and Kirk sort of overseeing things, as he's been promoted to admiral by now. Spock hands over the captainship to Kirk because Plot, but once he takes the chair, he's infinitely more genial and understanding with Kirstie Alley's character, Liutenant Saavik. It's obvious Spock likes her/thinks she has promise, and I think Kirk picks up on that and thus seems to want to mentor her more than give her crap like he did Decker in the first movie.

For starters, the movie opens with Saavik as "captain" during the Kobayashi Maru simulation (also shown in Abrams's movies), the unwinnable scenario that Kirk is the only cadet to have actually won because he messed with the programming. I think watching her frustration when it's over leads to Kirk seeing himself in her, because her reaction to the simulation is pretty much his feeling in general: She admits she doesn't like no-win situations, and she thinks it's bullshit that they'd have a test with no possible success. He gives her some words of wisdom about how the way we face death is as important as how we face life and that she needs to keep in mind that as a captain, she may face situations where there really isn't a good choice, just a less-bad one. And not too long later, there's a role-reversal between movies when at first, she tries to remind Kirk of regulations and Spock basically tells her to shut up, but Kirk ends up telling her to keep on quoting regulation with a pretty big smirk after they encounter Khan (because if he had done what regulation said and as she had tried to remind him, they may not have been hit by Khan's commandeered Starfleet vessel). In the last movie, Spock would defend the youngsters and Kirk would puff  his chest and keep attacking them (mainly Decker); this time, not so much.

I also had no idea this was her first role.
So this movie gives us some insight into the growth and, well, aging of Kirk. He gets reading glasses as a gift from Bones, and he says more  than once that he's feeling old. Especially when it comes to his son, David, that he (I think, anyway) meets for the first time during this movie. He's aged not just in years but in experiences- more than one character references how long ago the first encounter with Khan was, but Kirk bemoans how he could have had a completely different life with Carol Marcus, David's mother, and David, and he basically ends it with, "But I'm an old man now." And there's a great moment where he and Spock are talking, and the latter says it was a mistake for Kirk to accept the admiralship, since its nature is more sedentary than being a captain.

But his willingness to try to teach Saavik speaks volumes to how he's grown up- instead of petulantly insisting he's right, he responds with life lessons and even accepting when he's wrong, and, further, indicating he acknowledges how she is the one that was right. And the way he embraces his son at the end also says  to me he's accepted his age. Petulant Kirk would have tried to push  him away, but Wiser Kirk realizes he made a mistake in not being a part of David's life, and he wants to make up for that (or, at least, that's what it looks like to me). 

And there's the theme of Narcissism v. Sacrifice, made pretty clear through the two books featured. Kirk keeps hauling around a huge-ass copy of A Tale of Two Cities (he even shoves it in Uhura's hands at one point, "Here, woman, hold this for me," ugh), while Khan has a bunch of books in his little shack, but Moby Dick is the center of the shot. Both men end up quoting their respective books at the end. I had to look it up (because I thought it was Shakespeare), but Khan  quotes captain Ahab as he's dying, repeating the last lines Ahab  says  as he goes after the whale. Ahab was willing to let his entire crew die in his blind pursuit of the whale. Similarly, when Khan's own crew member  reminds him they have a ship and can go anywhere, Khan insists they go after Kirk. And in the end, everybody with Khan dies, including  Khan himself. 

But here's the foil: It's not really Kirk being contrasted with Khan, it's Spock, at least up to the very end. Spock says earlier in the movie and then as he's dying that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." And that death is one of sacrifice- just like the dude Kirk ends up quoting, Sydney Carter in A Tale of Two Cities and that famous, "It is a far, far better thing that I do now..." speech. Kirk quotes that as a sendoff to Spock, his friend that sacrificed himself for the sake of the ship, after also saying, "Of all the souls I've encountered in my travels, his was the most human." And the last shot of the movie  is of Spock's coffin. I think that's a biiiig deal! I think the point of all that is to show how Kirk learned so much from Spock. And yeah, this relates to the age thing- Kirk is growing up and takes the lesson learned from Spock to heart. Because Kirk realizes how shitty reality is: That it takes the death of his dearest friend for him to realize he's been an arrogant prat over and over again in the past, and that Spock's "humanity" kept him grounded; Kir's inability to keep that utilitarian perspective in the forefront got them into trouble before. And while no, his own narcissism isn't what killed Spock, it was the kind he himself could develop if he isn't careful. 

It takes my bff dying for me to actually "get it."
So in the end, it is a contrast between Khan and Kirk, because Kirk realizes he could become that. And he knows he can't let that happen. His sendoff to Spock is also a promise to adopt Spock's utilitarian outlook. And I think that's an amazing character development- one of the most annoying things about TOS is Kirk- his arrogance  gets so fucking grating. It's sucky that it takes Spock's death for there to be genuine hope for that to change, but I anticipate Kirk will be a better person in the next movies, and I'm looking forward to watching  them.

I'm also going to push a different contrast between Khan and Kirk, and it's that of familial loyalty. Khan seems dangerously calm most of the time, but he gets scariest when he recalls how his wife died on the planet he'd been marooned on. He brings her up more than once, and every time he does it, there's so much pain and anger, and he makes it clear he blames Kirk for her death. So it wasn't the marooning that made him want to "hurt" Kirk, as that wasn't what really "hurt" Khan- his worst pain comes from the death of his wife. His love and devotion to her turns into a quest for vengeance against the person he blames for her death.

Kirk, meanwhile, gets presented with one of the like bazillion women he had an affair with, Carol, and even the son that came out of that relationship. And he had abandoned them. What's weird is there's no reference to David being his son except for that one conversation with Carol- Kirk never says anything about wanting to save his family, and while  he seems ashamed of having ditched Carol, his concern for her and David is entirely professional: He's the admiral that has to go rescue some researchers; the fact that those researchers are the mother of his child and that very same child... ain't no thang.

And when I think about that in conjunction with Khan... I feel for Khan. A lot. I'd say  that gives Khan a pretty "human soul," too, and Kirk's is kind of disturbingly cold. If he even has one- he's like Sam when  he comes back from Hell (Supernatural reference). Kirk chose to abandon Carol and David, and the realization he has after Spock dies, I hope, means he'll try to be a father to David. Not necessarily that he'd marry Carol, too, but that he'll at least become a part of his own son's life. THAT would really demonstrate some growth and growing up on Kirk's part. We'll see. 

Was anybody surprised Kirk was an absent father, though?
I sure as Hell wasn't.
This relates to my final note. I have a friend that's a fellow nerd, but pretty much the only thing we agree on in Nerddom is that Batman is the best comic character. One thing he said ages ago and repeated recently is this: That Abrams didn't need to use Khan in Into Darkness, and the movie would likely have been better if he had just let Benedict Cumberbatch play an original villain. After seeing this movie, I think I can add that assessment as the second thing this friend and I agree on when it comes to pop culture. The personal vendetta Khan has against Kirk in STII somewhat more meaningful than the motivation of Abrams's version, or it at least sets things up in a more sinister way- in the original, Khan wants Kirk; in the remake, Khan is using Kirk/ has to go through him/deal with him to destroy Starfleet. There's a huge difference, and it changes the stakes. I think Abrams tries to compensate for that by having his Khan protecting his family, as in all the frozen bodies. And while that does make his Khan exceptionally sympathetic, the lack of personal connection between him and Kirk in that version doesn't make it as powerful. And it removes a means of comparison between the two, even though I feel like my favorite villain-hero dynamics usually involve parallels and contrasts. 

I'll say this, I do feel like I did this wrong. I should have watched the Khan stuff from the series. They did a good job filling the audience in, but it probably  would have been even better if I had known the details. I liked this one much more than  the first, though. Keep your eyes out for the next installation.

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Tale of Two Brothers (and Two Main Problems)

I'm not sure how much there will be, but potential spoilers for Supernatural up to half-way through Season 5; it'll also operate on the assumption you've seen it, because I don't
feel like  going through and explaining every minute detail- there will
be enough to cue you to the right episode, character, etc., but if you need 
more, go to one of the millions upon millions of fan pages.

Sam and Dean Winchester,
two brothers, one mission; sort of
I finally started watching Supernatural a while ago, and I've got to say, it's definitely quite addicting. I can tick off a few things I think it has going well for itself.

1) Good long-term plot devices. While its monster-of-the-week stuff can sometimes get a little cliché and typical (not to mention predictable), the overall story arcs are very well conceived and executed- I often am surprised and deeply moved by some of the Big Stuff that happens. For example, the stuff about "Yellow-Eyes," or Azazel, from the first two seasons was all very compelling and  well-done. 
Persuasive mo-fo- he prolly has a bonus of,
like, 8 to his Diplomacy checks.
2) Self-awareness. From the very first season, the show acknowledges how weird and unrealistic all of this is through the voices of the "regular" people the brothers encounter every time. Hell, even the brothers, the ones that grew up around  this shit, sometimes are like, "For real?" about whatever they have to go after. And it goes to some really hilarious meta-arenas later on, like when the brothers Winchester discover there are books  about them and even end up at a Supernatural (name of the book series) convention with a bunch of Sam and Dean LARPers. Not only does it comment on the genre, but on itself  as such a big phenomena within said genre. 
I honest-to-Bob can see this in
an actual episode FAR too easily.
3) The pop culture references. They were also around from the very beginning, albeit somewhat subtler- the aliases the brothers used were classic rocker names, and  every now and then one of them (usually Dean) name-dropped something relevant ("Take that, twilight!" when going after a vampire, no doubt a reference to those fabulous books and  movies). It has grown a bit more overt (and sometimes takes up more lines of dialogue than one or two), and especially happens simultaneously within the über-meta episodes (like  the one where the trickster puts them into spoofs of a few different TV shows, including Grey's Anatomy, C.S.I., and, yes, even Supernatural itself).

(NOTE: You could also argue it does this with its episode titles, but that's kind of common, to name things after pop culture references; I do it for papers, for my blog post titles, and lots of other shows I've watched do it without actually showing specific references during the episode to the thing in the title.)

4) Backstory. Any episode with flashbacks or backstory for the brothers is always. Just. So. Good. The brothers as kids; their parents as teenagers; stuff about when Sam decides to go off to school/ when Dean and their dad were a duo. It's not trite or pointless, and is fit in with the rest of the show very nicely. There's an episode in Season 1 where the boys go to where the house they grew up in used to stand because Sam has a premonition about it, only to find the house now there is being haunted. And they discover that their mother's own ghost has been protecting the family living there from a malignant spirit trying to kill the children. And she sacrifices herself to get rid of that malignant spirit. It had me crying like a baby. 
Mary Winchester: The Woman on Fire

Or one where the ghost is a former bully at one of the schools they went to for a few weeks... Sigh. Point, any backstory or flashback is done tastefully and woven in seamlessly, rather than feeling shoe-horned or forced like so many other shows (or movies, for that matter). 

5) Death. This show isn't afraid to kill off people. That can sometimes be a weakness (see below), but other times, it's really good and profound. The reason is, the brothers sometimes fail in saving the person or people they're trying to save. And that actually helps me get into it more- I'd get really sick of it if everybody gets saved every time, I really would. Sometimes, true to genre, they go out one-by-one, but other times, there's a huge struggle and they still end up dying. One of my favorite examples is an episode from Season 4 where the guys are after a "Rugaroo," a creature that eats human flesh, but can avoid it by basically pulling a Louis from Interview with the Vampire by avoiding the first bite of human meat by eating other meats raw. Long story short, the Rugaroo takes that step in order to protect his wife (and the child she's carrying). The guy is literally crying  as he's eating his victim, and while that sounds ridiculous, it also had me crying.  

6) Love. And starting with the relationship between Sam and Dean. It's complex (damn, I feel like that word is so abused)- they love each other, oh sure, but they also hate each other sometimes, and it's refreshing to see two dudes love each other so openly without having to do some sort of audience-wink-no-homo thing (which runs contra to one of my min critiques, sorta, but whatever, hang in there with me). I think it's a lot more common to see sisterly than brotherly love on TV/film/etc., let alone the brothers involved be so outward about it. And what's great is the dudes acknowledge it, too. The emphasis on loyalty and love throughout the series shows up in the guys, to be sure, but in other hunters, in people they're trying to save... a lot of the humans they meet are in over their heads because of love, or love is a big driving force in their story (like the kid whose ghost sticks around with his mom, or the Rugaroo I mentioned above). Bobby is an interesting specimen, especially since Dean vocalizes what  we, as an audience, knew about him ourselves long before he says it, that Bobby is the "closest thing [the Brothers Winchester] have to a father" after their dad bites it. And Bobby reciprocates that affection and loyalty by putting himself  in danger for them and not giving up on them when they're ready to give up on themselves. 

In the words of Chris Farley: "Brothers don't shake,
brothers gotta huuuuug!"
So... I can't hold it in any longer. While Supernatural is fun and has a lot going for it, it seriously lacks in two main ways. And if you have a problem with this, I ask you to please 1) read the whole bloody thing before chewing me out, and 2) understand that I'm writing this from mid-Season 5 and am fully aware of that fact, so I'll admit some of this stuff may get better. Anyway, here goes: 

1) Diversity. You're lucky to see a POC every five-ish episodes. I'm on Season 5 as of this writing, and there has yet to be a major, non-antagonistic character that isn't white.  I realize it takes place mostly in the Midwest, but it's not like there aren't any minorities living there. Hell, I'm in Indiana and I see more Black or Hispanic people during one trip to the grocery store than I've seen in an entire season of this friggin' show. Any speaking POC have either ended up going rogue/bad and trying to hurt, if not kill, the Winchesters, been bad from the start, or has died. Granted, death makes it more "real" and whatnot (as said above), but killing off any good POCs is just... it's not okay. The following is a list of the people of color I can think of there were so far, in roughly this order (and  all are Black):
  • Dean's ex-girlfriend. She's in one episode.
  • The FBI agent  that catches them a few times before getting blown up. He does show up in one more episode as an apparition thing, but he serves as a thorn in the guys' sides at first, then, well,  after maybe four or five appearances, he's fucking dead.
  • A fellow hunter that decides he needs to hunt Sam when he realizes Sam has premonitions. He's in like three or four episodes, until he gets turned into a vampire and then, well, Sam slices his head off with barbed wire. Ew.
  • A British couple, Isaac and Tamara, and hunters to boot, showed up for AN episode. The husband drinks liquid plumber to try and save his wife. She lives, but I haven't seen her again.
  • Some random Black man, also a hunter, that finds Sam when he's trying not to be a hunter anymore, again, one episode. Sam refuses to help him and the other (white) hunters he's with, and he and one other dude come back to try and kill Sam because everybody else died in the fight. Also haven't seen him since (although that was from Season 5, the season I'm on, so maybe  he'll show up again... but I doubt it). 
I'm going to be a pretty interesting character for a few episodes.
Then just as I start to get REALLY cool and you think
my character is going to make a really big move or change...
...I'm going to die. In a really annoying way, too. You're welcome.

And that's it.  That's seriously  it.  I guess maybe the woman  that ended up being  a werewolf may have been of some Mediterranean ethnicity, since her skin was rather olive-colored and her eyes didn't look entirely Anglican. But, well, she was still basically just a hot white chick- and she ends up dying in the episode. Which leads to the second main problem (which, yeah, has a lot of sub-parts). 

EDIT (written the day after the post first went live): For the sake of openness/fairness, I should add that I forgot the angel, Uriel. He's in a few episodes, gets killed, then is back in another flashback episode. Hoo-ra. NOT. 

2) Hegemonic masculinity. The show is driven by the hypermasculine caricatures of Sam and Dean. and is constantly hammering down (with about as much subtlety as Thor) traditional notions of what a "real man" is and the like. 

For starters, Sam's "the sensitive one," but come on. The show masks what's really just more thought and less grunting with a false pretense of being "sensitive." Dean shoots first, asks questions later, sure, but Sam asks questions... then shoots. It's really not much different, honestly. And his pseudo-sensitivity is constantly bashed, either by other characters through dialogue alone, or through baddies actually using it against him. Sure, we like that Sam keeps his heart (mostly) in the face of evil, but when there are good characters also giving him shit about it, you know there's something fishy- and the overall message being sent is, sensitive men are weak men and aren't really men at all.

And  then there's Dean. Aaaaah, Dean. There are episodes to make us believe Dean is really a stereotypical Jerk with a Heart of Gold, of course, but all those do is further the myth that a man actually dealing with his emotions is somehow broken  or messed up- even if the writers are trying to make it seem like Dean's broken for acting emotionally constipated, they do a piss-poor job. Because his disconnected nature never really causes him problems. If anything, it gets him further ahead than Sam in a lot of instances. He sees things more clearly than Sam, gets shit done with more swift precision (despite the easy image of a gorilla barreling into the room, beating its chest). I think we're supposed to get the sense that they balance each other out, but so far, it seems more like Dean is subtly being labeled as "better," so to speak. 

That isn't to say Sam is actually a wuss, either- his guts are just as solid as Dean's, and he kills a lot of shit, too. He's still an incredibly huge badass, despite the comparison to his brother, and a "masculine icon," for lack of a better way to put it- he's attractive, heterosexual, dominant, and kills things. So basically, these two strut around with their chests all puffed up- and it's not done ironically or with  a wink and a nod to the audience like a lot of their lore surrounding the creatures and demons. No, they're Men in earnest, and it's sometimes distracting in a very bad way- while not ever being presented as problematic or even being remotely deconstructed in any meaningful sort of way by the writers- yet, anyway.

And then there's the homophobia. Homosexuality is always either a punchline or an insult. I have yet to see a single positive (without being meant as a joke) portrayal of homosexuality. Dean calls something- be it something Sam is doing, something he sees, something someone else says or does- "gay" as an insult a few times every season. I should have tallied it, but it happens every handful of episodes. Whenever confronted with homosexuality, Dean gets uncomfortable- and it's meant  to be funny, sure, but so is the way he's confronted with it, which means we're supposed to laugh not at Dean for being ignorant, closed-minded, or whatever, but at the scenario as a whole.

Also, it seems to ruin some of the coolest meta-episodes. For example, one of the most delightfully meta episodes, the "Ghostfacers" one, was entirely tarnished for me by the stuff with the dead male intern's crush on one of the other dudes being what saved them- not only in how that in itself was portrayed, but then how the dudes were "reflecting" on it later. It was insulting, and I'm not even queer. I haven't dared to check, but I'm SURE there was Internet rage over that. The point  is, though, the intern being gay was all one long-running joke for the last quarter  of the episode, and that's upsetting. And, frankly, disappointing. 

I in no way found this funny, but I
was totally supposed to. What the fuck?
Or the "convention" episode, it ends with the two main Sam and Dean LARPers telling Dean they're a couple, grabbing hands, and leaning on each other. The dudes move and speak with comedic delivery, and it's just amplified by Dean's nervous, "Oh..." and wide eyes. It's meant to be ridiculous to us and not just Dean. They're gay for laughs, not for equal representation or even just because.  

I'm not remotely sorry to say that queerness isn't a punchline. No, I'm not queer, but Goddamnit, it shouldn't take a Master's in political science to think maybe that's the truth. It's basic human decency. People are not punchlines. This is actually a problem I have with a lot of comedians- if your whole schtick is just making fun of other people, laughing at them, I won't like your routine. So when homosexuality is there for the purpose of being laughed at the way it always is in this  show, it makes me uncomfortable at least, and angry and disgusted at most. 

And then there are the women. This is problematic on two fronts. First, in how they're shown. Dean's a horny sum-bitch, and he's constantly chasing tail. Which is totally on-par with traditional norms of masculinity and gender- he's a man, he needs to spread his seed, and that's understandable, because man. Ugh. He's always giving eyes or nodding suggestively at women, and while it's sometimes (not nearly anywhere close to "frequently") made fun of by Sam or someone else, the fact is, I can't think of more than two times where he wasn't received positively by the woman/women he's oggling- they pretty much always wink or smirk back, sometimes leaning over and pushing their boobs together to produce even more cleavage than they were already showing. And these women, they make up the vast majority of the women on the show. They're objects, present souly for the purpose of demonstrating how manly and attractive Dean is. Nine times out of ten, they don't even speak. And  if they  do, it's some hypersexualized innuendo that basically translates to, "Let me suck your dick." God, even that ex-girlfriend of Dean's? They do a pretty  good job making it apparent that their relationship was more physical than emotional (including via some witty banter after inevitably doing the horizontal tango).

I swear, this face gets old. It was cute/hot/whatever the first
And it's  a source of competition for Dean, too- hypermasculine postulating takes the stage whenever a woman shows interest in Sam, Heaven forbid! Dean gets all petulant and pouty, even telling Sam directly (and this is a direct quote, not a self-censorship thing) that Sam "c-blocked" him. I mean, really? Sam usually doesn't do much with the advances he receives, as of yet, or at least not nearly as much as Dean- he "sealed the deal" (as Dean would so poetically say) twice so far. Dean? I would have lost count  by Season 2 if I had tried, but I never even bothered. 

Every  now and then, you get a smart woman as a side-character for the episode, but she's usually in need of being  rescued because the demon/monster/whatever for that episode is in her household somehow. And in the end, she gets caught by said demon and a man (not always one of the brothers- it's important to note that regular Joe Schmoes sometimes save their wives and kids by at least hitting the thing, but women never do this, as far as I can remember) swoops in and saves her from it. The women in the show rarely, if ever, save  themselves. 

Unless they're one of the few female hunters shown- they do sometimes save themselves. Sort of. Ish. Tamara, mentioned above, needs rescued from the other male hunters around her, but she does do some butt-kicking in the lone episode in which she's featured. Ellen doesn't really get rescued the one time she's actually shown doing any fighting (it's hard to tell- it seemed more like she shoved off what she thought was a demon and ran away with the other dudes), while her daughter, Jo, does every time; but the two end up sacrificing themselves after having been in less than ten episodes. 

And in sheer numbers, well, recurring female characters end up being evil and/or killed off (Bela, Ruby, Ellen and  Jo) or exceptionally aloof/only around every so often (Anna, the angel), and/or have extremely stereotypical roles (again, Ellen (mama bear) and Jo (rebellious and naive little girl with daddy issues)). And any woman that isn't being  possessed or whatever and has  a speaking  role ends up never showing up again or dying (like Tamara, the hunter mentioned above). Not a single recurring female character has stayed alive except that angel, Anna, but  she's only been in three episodes at most... AND... She and Sam bone in her first episode. Ugh. Bela, one of the coolest characters in the whole series, imo, tries to have the guys save her from some Hellhounds (those pesky deals with devils...), but it didn't work, so she dies after being  in just a smattering of episodes, and, like with Hendrickson (the FBI  guy), right when it seems like she may actually end up changing her M.O. in some way that'd make her more regular and more awesome. 
Before aiming guns at zombies, I was aiming them
at demons and the Brothers Winchester.  You prolly don't
remember that, though, because I didn't even
last a whole season.
So then the killing thing the show isn't afraid to do starts to hurt it. Because if all the women that seem to be able to hold their own as characters get killed off, you're writing a show where women are constantly victims (whether they start out as the person needing rescued in the monster-of-the-week format or are a hunter or something that ends up getting offed) and villains (or, at best, entirely self-sacrificial Goodies) (and in rather trite ways- the way Ellen and Jo blew themselves up had me genuinely confused, because I could think  of a half dozen other things they could have done*). And it relates to the POC thing, too- when all your POC end up dying, what's left except white people? The show's lack of restraint in killing characters means all that's left is a bunch of white men.

And let me point something out, and this may be a more, "Um... what?" thing...

Bobby. Dude got stabbed pretty badly. Bad enough for the demon in him to bolt. And he lives. How come the dude lives, when all the women die? Sure, he's paralyzed, but if you so much as start thinking, "Better off dead than disabled," (which is totally what he does at first- which is its own post), fuck you. I'm just going to say it. Fuck you for thinking that. IRL, it's better to be alive than dead. In a show, it should be, too. 

"Better off dead" is one of the most dangerous,
pervasive stereotypes of ableism out there. Period.
I'm getting off-point.

My reason for bringing up Bobby is it demonstrates the fundamental difference in how the women versus the men that get caught in these dangerous situations are treated by the writers. Think of the brothers, too- they're shot, stabbed, bitten, clawed... The only time one seemed to have any lasting  injuries was when Sam had a cast on his wrist for a few episodes. Yet the women die from... hitting their heads and getting thrown across rooms... It's just... I think it's really symbolic, is what I'm getting at, here. And toss the POC in there with the women, too (except don't kill them, 'natch). Women and people of color are essentially disposable in this show thus far. And it bothers me. A lot.

Granted, two things. 

1) I can, indeed, "turn it off" and have a good time watching  the show. This prolly comes from my own privilege, which does make me feel a little bad. But as Aneeta Sarkeesian has to constantly point out, it's entirely possible to love something while still critiquing it. Blind patriotism is bad, right? So shouldn't blind fangirling, too? I could ramble for hours about the problems in other franchises I like and would go to cons to engulf myself within, so I'm no "less" of a fan of Supernatural for pointing out some of its issues. 

2) I've also heard from friends I was expressing this to (HI YOU TWO!) that it gets a little better for the ladies, at least, because a few cool (white) females show up and stick around and are awesome, and that I need to hold out for them to change writers, too, because the first dude was pretty bad at all of the above stuff (they didn't disagree that the first half of the series had all those problems I mentioned). And apparently the next writers are better with women and queers. I'm open to that, and hope they're right, frankly. Like I said before, I'm only about halfway through the fifth season, so I'll wait and see, and maybe I'll update this at some point to talk about the contrast in writers and tell y'all whether I think the improvement is really improvement or just superficial dribble and hat-tipping. 

These same friends also said that as far as CW shoes goes, it's pretty decent with respect to diversity. I'm hoping they meant the latter half of the series, oh my goodness... And. Well. If that's the trend for the CW, I must say, that's pretty shitty. The only other CW shows I'm familiar with are Arrow and Reign. The former is based off a DC character's mythos, so, well, good luck with the diversity, there, kids- although already, in only season 2, there has been a portrayal of two women in love that was done very, very well (especially how one of their dads was basically like, "So?" when she says they were "together" to him- I literally fist-pumped). And Reign, well, it's historical fiction, about Mary, Queen of Scots, in France. I wouldn't expect anyone to try any historical revisionism in the name of diversity on a sexxy  teen drama (not that I don't find it disappointing, of course- but we can't even have fictional period pieces with inclusiveness, or even movies with diverse actors based on entirely fictitious books that are explicit about the myriad of races for its characters (::coughHUNGERGAMES::cough::JLAWISWHITE::cough::RUE::cough::). I guess it just bothers me with Supernatural because it has such a ginormous following and rabid fandom. And maybe that's why it "gets better" later- the show now, finally, has enough staying power to be more inclusive and progressive in how it portrays POC and queers, and the writers themselves are progressive enough to write women positively. 

Here's hoping. If it really does get better (and, well, to my picky satisfaction...), I'll be surprised.

Me, if it really does meaningfully change.

*Okay, maybe not that many, but at least a few.