Sunday, November 8

Gender, Consent, Cartoons

Sometime last year I caught a mini-marathon of Steven Universe. I didn't exactly know what I was watching - why does this kid have a gem in his belly, who are these magical super women, what are these monsters they're fighting? - but I was intrigued. The show seemed to be playing with anime tropes (magical space girls (and Steven!), monsters of the day, even mechas what with the Gems' ability to fuse and...well we don't need to get into their biomechanics, but the long and short of it is that they're basically mechas) but anime tropes in a really fresh, American, cartoon way that made the show interesting to me, an adult, but still accessible and fun for a child.
I kept watching the show, piecing together what I had missed from earlier episodes and reading everything on the Steven Universe Wiki, and by the end of season 1 I was hooked; a fan officially and forever. In addition to being a fun show about magic space creatures, a saga thousands of years in the making that began with aliens colonizing earth, a rebellion, and the first and only birth of a half human/half Gem hybrid, the show is remarkably sophisticated. It's racially diverse, ambiguously inclusive, modern but palatable for kids, the way Nickelodeon was in the 90's. The characters are constantly skirting around and dealing with difficult, real life subject matter and it's basically just aching to be someone's dissertation.
I'm personally interested in how the show deals with loss and death, but in a really gentle way that's accessible for kids. Because all Gems are actually their gems, the stones that give them power, and because Steven is his mother's gem, she does not get to exist while he does. There is a lot of grief among the show's characters because of her absence, but none so poignant as Steven's. Let me just say that I'm pretty regularly crying when I'm watching this show. I'm crying right now actually, and if you've seen the tape Rose Quartz left for Steven then you know why.
The show also plays around with gender a lot. It is, for all intents and purposes, a magical girl series, but the magical girl in question is a little boy. All the tropes are there: a young person given a remarkable gift, learning to harness it, developing a sense of responsibility and proprietorship for the world they live in. This is Steven, a young boy growing up in the care of some space aliens, learning his place in the world. Steven is essentially Sailor Moon. His greatest power doesn't come from him being half an alien, but rather from being half human. His ability to love, to see the good in people, to be curious and joyful and openhearted, these things are what save the day much more often than not. This is not a typical little boy show - Steven gets to be who he is, a loving, caring person who also sometimes fights bad guys. It's interesting even to think about his weapons. While the other Gems fight with whips, a staff and giant boxing gloves, Steven's weapons are completely defensive. He has a big shield, healing powers, and can create a protective bubble around himself and others. He is essentially a feminine trope: protective, nurturing and kind. There's also a pretty cute episode where Steven puts on a dress and heels to help a friend. It's such a positive change to typical depictions of what a boy can or should be, and I think Steven as a role model for little boys couldn't be better.
The gender play doesn't stop at Steven, however, because the Gems are basically agendered. They're magic space rocks with the ability to project a physical form, but these forms often look very female. They're all voiced by women and look like women, but they just sort of aren't. Even still, if gender is performance and the gems are performing as women, they're all pretty kick ass and varied women. Steven's human friend, Connie is also an interesting female character. She starts off as an introverted bookworm and is currently a sword wielding baby badass reminiscent of Revolutionary Girl Utena. It's like nobody in the show plays the role they're supposed to, which makes sense because even the Crystal Gems refused to perform the way their homeplanet dictated, and instead rebelled to save Earth.
Perhaps the most interesting thing the show has done so far is to address issues with sex and consent. This is not an obvious or direct discussion, but it's a pretty clear comparison. Some background: Gems can create a bond called fusion. Fusion starts with a dance, and when the dance is complete the two gems will form one new one. This new gem is a completely different being with a mind of its own created from the stronger personality traits of the two original gems. Sometimes this turns out well or okay, and the fusion can get a job done or take down a bad guy, for instance when Garnet and Pearl fuse. Sometimes this turns out poorly, like when Garnet and Amethyst fuse and their fusion is a destructive psycho. Typically fusions are imperfect. They have multiple limbs and eyes or are unsustainable. Bad fusions, like the one between Lapis Lazuli (chaotic neutral) and Jasper (true evil), are super messed up and look more animal than human.
In one episode, Connie and Steven accidentally fuse while dancing and the fusion is perfect; there are no extra eyes or limbs. Together, they are a tall, pretty girl with Steven's hair and Connie's skin. In this episode everyone is very concerned with their fusion, except for Garnet, who is elated. We later find out that Garnet, who is perfect except for having an extra eye, is herself a fusion between Ruby and Sapphire, two gems who love each other so much they can't bear to be apart.
This is all just to say that the better the relationship between the members of a fusion, the happier the actual union. Ruby and Sapphire are different, but they balance each other out, and they love each other, so Garnet's existence is pretty close to perfect. We have yet to see it, and Steven and Connie are both pretty young, but it's a pretty safe bet that, based on their fusion, they're destined to be together. So, fusion is a fairly obvious proxy for sex. Good sex is built off of a good relationship, between people who love and care for one another, are willing to work with one another and listen to each other. The better the relationship, the more powerful the sex/fusion.
So, when, in a brief second season arc, Pearl is revealed to have tricked Garnet into several fusions, issues of consent come into play. Pearl apologizes to Garnet, but Garnet is so angry that she can't even stay fused, and Ruby and Sapphire split apart so that they can fight. Pearl's actions are foolish but also damn near taboo, as a fusion with reluctance is pretty uncouth, but a fusion without consent is cruel, ugly, offensive. The fallout hurts everyone in the group and takes weeks to dissipate. With this understanding of consent now in place in the series, a later arc has the Gems discover several mutations, forced fusions made from shards of broken (dead) gems. All of the Gems are horrified, but Garnet is so shocked, so disgusted that she can't even fight. If fusion is a proxy for sex, then forced fusion is a proxy for rape, and Garnet's horror in this episode is palpable.
I would argue that fusion in the show is a very conscious metaphor for love, sex, consent or a lack thereof. Without consent the fusions are ugly, inoperable, freakish, even horrific when they come from a place of force. We see that when it comes to closeness of this magnitude, to giving yourself to someone in such a personal way, that being tricked into it or even forced is akin to rape. This is a conversation I've not seen done this well in any other medium aside from actual, factual discussions based in reality. Comic books turn rape into a plot device meant to make male characters grow or to turn female characters into bad asses. Movies sexualize it. Steven Universe has taken the issue of consent and turned it into a central theme, something to be cherished when it's present, and horrified by when it's not. And that it manages to do this in a way that's still palatable and accessible to kids is incredible. While I know there aren't kids watching and thinking in this way, they are watching and thinking, "Wow. I want to have a friendship like Steven and Connie's. I want to be in a close, loving and trusting relationship like Ruby and Sapphire." I think healthy, happy role models in strong relationships are a positive step toward changing the way we think about sex and consent, especially when so much of what we see of love on TV is the drama and not the positivity and trust we ought to.
For this and many other reasons, I encourage you to check out Steven Universe. I say this all the time, but we are really living in a new golden age of American animation, and Rebecca Sugar's Steven Universe will be remembered as a cornerstone of this era. Every week I'm excited to see how the show will move forward, and I'm even more excited to see what the show will inspire in future cartoonists and animators.

Saturday, October 31

Halloween is Too Scary

Halloween kind of freaks me out because I'm a big huge wiener. I'm scared of ghosts and murderers and demons and aliens every single day of the year, so Halloween really compounds those fears. So, even though I really love dressing up, scary movies (when I have company and don't have to sleep alone) and anything that everyone gets festive about (I went to a gas station today and the cashier was giving candy to all her customers and wearing a costume - adorable!), I tend to get spooked on Halloween. I do like to stay on theme, though, and I want to celebrate the holiday, so if you're a gigantic wuss like me, here are some practical and fun Halloween things you can enjoy while maintaining your chill.

Over the Garden Wall is a 2014 Cartoon Network miniseries created by Patrick McHale who did work on Adventure Time and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. The series is a little spooky, but it's also one of the most lovely animated features I've ever seen. It follows two young brothers lost in a surreal forest called the Unknown. In order to get home they have to avoid a mysterious creature called The Beast and navigate their way around talking animals, literal ghosts, escaped gorillas, and other nonsense. It reminded me a lot of The Halloween Tree (another great, only sorta-spooky Halloween story), but what really stands out to me is the things the animation and writing tried to evoke. There is a lot of inspiration taken from classic American cartoons like Disney's Silly Symphonies and Warner Brothers' Merry Melodies. I also get very real Studio Ghibli vibes, but I'm not sure anyone in animation right now isn't riding on Hayao Miyazaki's coattails. Still, the series is incredibly American in the best way. It's river boats and Americana and pumpkins and small towns and the sort of thing Walt Whitman would be into. It's just lovely and perfect and an instant Halloween tradition that I will watch forever, and I hope you watch it because it's so, so well done. We are living in a very real cartoon renaissance so don't miss out!! WATCH CARTOONS.

When I was living in Colorado with my parents and didn't have any friends I spent a very lonely Halloween driving around and listening to this song on repeat. I don't think it's really about witches, but I associate it with the episode of The Simpsons when Lisa is a witch, which is a really heartwarming episode, so this memory of a lonely Halloween isn't actually that sad.

If you're not watching Practical Magic right this second, you're an idiot. This movie is literally on par with the brilliance that is The Witches of Eastwick (also highly recommended for on-theme Halloween viewing that won't give you night terrors but will give you Michelle Pfeiffer in a porkpie hat, Susan Sarandon having an orgasm while she plays a cello or something, and Cher in sweatpants). Sandra Bullock is a witch who runs, like, a witch Aveda which is amazing and I wish was real because I want to buy shampoo that's handcrafted by a witch. Her sister, the gloriously tall and beautiful Nicole Kidman, shows up all fucking crazy and they kill a scary guy. Their aunts, STOCKARD CHANNING and DIANNE FUCKING WIEST show up, they are ALSO WITCHES, and there is a very real, very legit drinking-margaritas-and-dancing-around-the-kitchen scene. WHY AREN'T YOU WATCHING THIS MOVIE? See also: Death Becomes Her, duh.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is a perfect Halloween read. It's sort of spooky, there's a murder, evil townspeople, magic, a fire, a weird old uncle, and a cat named Jonas. I guess you could also read The Haunting of Hill House, but that book is actually scary, and this one is really only creepy or even just eerie. It's also one of my favorite books and I've written about it here 100 times before.

You can watch zombie movies, which are scary, or you can listen to The Zombies, a 1960's pop rock band. Colin Blunstone's voice is just. Here is a cover of "The Look of Love" that can be described in a single word: sploosh.

Thursday, October 22

Things from Movies and TV I Think About A Lot

Like many other idiots, the films and musics and televisions that I've consumed throughout my life have come to form the person that I am. When I was a teenager that was like, AmélieAmélie was me. Whatever shitty Coheed and Cambria album I was listening to at the time, that was me. Chuck Palahniuk books, me. The thing is, I'm older now and that shit isn't and never was me; I loved these movies and records and stuff but they weren't a part of my being. I just liked them. When I think about the things that really are a part of my being, the things that I think about and replay over and over and the lines and scenes that my brain flicks to each and every day, the minutiae of film and music and story that have become several literally meaningless mantras that I chant to myself daily, this is the shit that's me. If there were a montage that defined me at the end of my life, this would be it: a 7 minute YouTube video of asinine dumbassery. I don't really know how to explain this, but I'm sure I'm not alone here. I give to you:

Scenes from Movies and TV I Think About A Lot

Remember when Comedy Central was rad? All they played was Jim Brewer and Richard Pryor stand up and cult movies. I was 8 years old watching John Waters, Cheech and Chong, and Mel Brooks movies and was as confused as I titillated. National Lampoon’s European Vacation was a movie that affected me deeply. The story is timeless (American knuckleheads haphazardly traipse through Europe, Dad is an asshole, Beverly D’Angelo is hot as hell) and yet it’s completely and utterly a relic of 1985. Young Rusty's dream sequence must have scarred me in some way. It was an early introduction to teenage sexuality but also a sexuality that could never make complete sense to me as it’s set in a disco to a Robert Palmer song. Accessible and yet so, so far away. An additional scene from this movie that lodged itself in my developing mind: the makeover montage. So much leather.

Another (much more appropriate) movie from my childhood that I think about a lot is the early Ben Stiller/Keenan Thompson vehicle Heavyweights. I haven’t seen this movie in a dog’s age so tell me if I’m mistaken, but wasn’t this movie super cool and body positive or am I misremembering it? These fat kids get sent to camp because their parents think them being fat sucks, and then Ben Stiller does too, but they steal the camp back and learn to be healthy and happy on their own terms and also being fat isn’t a bad thing, it doesn't define you, just don’t eat candy bars ALL the time! Anyway, there’s a scene where Ben Stiller commands his lackey, Lars, to kill this fun water balloon called the Blob. It’s 20 years later and I’m still telling people to “Do it to it, Lars!” all the time and I feel like nobody knows what the fuck I’m talking about?

I often hear Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club saying "When you grow up your heart dies," but especially when I'm like, in line at the DMV or at the pool and I notice I'm the only person over the age of 12 who's jumping off the diving board or when I'm waking up at 6 a.m. to go to a full-time benefited job that I have somehow? And then I imagine Ally Sheedy's character as an adult and it's me and I'm like, "Damn is my heart dead?" How do you know if your heart is dead? Asking for a friend.

Why was Kylie Minoque in Bio-Dome? Why don’t more movies feature hyphens in their titles? I miss Pauly Shore. RIP.

Submitted without comment.

Someone once told me I was a baby, as in an infant, because I eat a lot and I sleep a lot. These things are true. I love to eat a lot. It’s a good time, and if I skip meals I get very faint and antsy and a little crabby. I really love to sleep. My natural circadian rhythm prefers to have me get about 9 hours every day. 7 is way too little, and 8 is just barely enough. When I get 9 I am fresh and bright and vivid, like a well-rested baby. A very sexy baby.

Saturday, October 3

On the Fallacy of Adulthood


When I was 19 I thought Jenny Lewis was writing pop songs about teenage love through the more refined lens of an adult who knew better. It was the frothing, consuming, carnal sort of love that destroyed you while you lavished yourself in it. That spoke to me, a teenager, and Jenny Lewis, an adult, knew what she was talking about because she had lived it already and then, as she sang about it, had the wisdom and grace to discuss it as an adult would.
I'm an adult now and I know that the only kind of love that exists is teenage love, and the only true knowledge Jenny Lewis had, as an adult, was that she knew better but couldn't help it.
This is all just to say that I don't really believe in growing up. I don't believe that adulthood is a real thing. And I don't mean some "Child at Heart" bullshit about whimsy, about buying twee skirts or playing with babies. I mean adulthood is a fallacy. As adults, and often I am called one, we really are just walking around pretending we know what the fuck is going on, pretending we're going to make all the best choices and always do the right thing and that our thoughts and feelings and lives are as evenly balanced as our checkbooks.
The truth is we're still as idiotic as our teenage selves.We're still manic and ruled by our hearts, our whims, the moon, a good time, the nagging want to be a hero, a rock star, happy.
I've always equated true adulthood with "settling down" or chilling the fuck out. You stay home, you decorate, you have a kid, you pay a mortgage, you work at a steady job, you drink less, you don't even know where you would buy weed, and you definitely don't touch your lover's penis through his pants in an alley. You know, you chill the fuck out. You're respectable.
But it seems to me now that settling down just means you're tired. Too tired from work to leave your house, too tired from raising your kids to go out. But the minute you get that second or third or fiftieth wind, you catch your breath: and you're drunk on the same brand of Schnapps you used to steal from your dad, and you're taking off your Eddie Bauer cargo shorts because the kids have all gone to bed and you're naked and swimming in a lake with your wife, who is also naked, and six of your best friends, who are also naked, and this is hilarious, you're 42.
Or maybe that's not you. Maybe catching your breath is just copping a feel in a darkened movie theater, or making out while the sun comes up, or quitting your job in a blaze of glory that burns all of your professional bridges, or touching a dick in an alley. Either way, these are not things that adults do, but we do these things anyway because we're still the shitty kid we used to be and we're clawing and scratching and kicking at death.
One Independence Day while I swam in my clothes in a blow up pool that was purchased and inflated for my baby sister (I was a young teenager, and I felt awkward swimming, like I was "too old" to play in a pool - clawing, scratching, kicking) I saw my elderly grandfather pinch my grandmother's ass. I know. I've fucking seen it. I've seen what I thought were adults violently working against the inevitabilities of their lives. I've seen what real adulthood looks like, real death, and I've seen what it does to people who are finally catching a breath. My mother post-seizure waiting until my father left the room to ask me to help her escape the hospital. When I was 21 I made out with a man who was nearly 40 in a parking lot. We were drunk and he was terrified of me, but begged me to go home with him. I saw a grown up couple sneak behind a rock wall at a country club so the woman could blow the man. I know about clandestine Facebook messages and new leather jackets and how if this weren't how it was, if things were different, if it didn't take so much out of you to catch your breath, if you wouldn't be the scorn of your social circle, end up in jail, have to explain it to your kids, if you didn't have to maintain some semblance of stability, you'd fucking do it. Exactly the way you would have if you were 18.
When the wind is warm or the snow is fresh or someone's drawn a hopscotch on the sidewalk and you get to act like an idiot for one more minute before dying, but you wait until you're sure nobody's looking, that's adulthood. The rest of it is a myth.

Monday, September 28

Florida by Elizabeth Bishop

The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrave roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,
and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass.
The state full of long S-shaped birds, blue and white,
and unseen hysterical birds who rush up the scale
every time in a tantrum.
Tanagers embarrassed by their flashiness,
and pelicans whose delight it is to clown;
who coast for fun on the strong tidal currents
in and out among the mangrove islands
and stand on the sand-bars drying their damp gold wings
on sun-lit evenings.
Enormous turtles, helpless and mild,
die and leave their barnacled shells on the beaches,
and their large white skulls with round eye-sockets
twice the size of a man's.
The palm trees clatter in the stiff breeze
like the bills of the pelicans. The tropical rain comes down
to freshen the tide-looped strings of fading shells:
Job's Tear, the Chinese Alphabet, the scarce Junonia,
parti-colored pectins and Ladies' Ears,
arranged as on a gray rag of rotted calico,
the buried Indian Princess's skirt;
with these the monotonous, endless, sagging coast-line
is delicately ornamented.

Thirty or more buzzards are drifting down, down, down,
over something they have spotted in the swamp,
in circles like stirred-up flakes of sediment
sinking through water.
Smoke from woods-fires filters fine blue solvents.
On stumps and dead trees the charring is like black velvet.
The mosquitoes
go hunting to the tune of their ferocious obbligatos.
After dark, the fireflies map the heavens in the marsh
until the moon rises.
Cold white, not bright, the moonlight is coarse-meshed,
and the careless, corrupt state is all black specks
too far apart, and ugly whites; the poorest
post-card of itself.
After dark, the pools seem to have slipped away.
The alligator, who has five distinct calls:
friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning--
whimpers and speaks in the throat
of the Indian Princess.