In Defense of Academic Writing

Academic writing has taken quite a bashing since, well, forever, and that’s not entirely undeserved. Academic writing can be pedantic, jargon-y, solipsistic and self-important. There are endless think pieces, editorials and New Yorker cartoons about the impenetrability of academese. In one of those said pieces, “Why Academics Can’t Write,” Michael Billig explains:

Throughout the social sciences, we can find academics parading their big nouns and their noun-stuffed noun-phrases. By giving something an official name, especially a multi-noun name which can be shortened to an acronym, you can present yourself as having discovered something real—something to impress the inspectors from the Research Excellence Framework.

Yes, the implication here is that academics are always trying to make things — a movie, a poem, themselves and their writing — appear more important than they actually are. These pieces also argue that academics dress simple concepts up in big words in order to exclude those who have not had access to the same educational expertise. In “On Writing Well,” Stephen M. Walt argues:

jargon is a way for professional academics to remind ordinary people that they are part of a guild with specialized knowledge that outsiders lack…

This is how we control the perimeters, our critics charge; this is how we guard ourselves from interlopers. But, this explanation seems odd. After all, the point of scholarship — of all those long hours of reading and studying and writing and editing — is to uncover truths, backed by research, and then to educate others. Sometimes we do that in the classroom for our students, of course, but even more significantly, we are supposed to be educating the world with our ideas. That’s especially true of academics (like me) employed by public universities, funded by tax payer dollars. That money, supporting higher education, is to (ideally) allow us to contribute to the world’s knowledge about our specific fields of study.

Cartoon by Edwin Ouellette http://ougaz.wordpress.com/about/

Cartoon by Edwin Ouellette
http://ougaz.wordpress.com/about/

So if knowledge-sharing is the mission of the scholar, why would so many of us consciously want to create an environment of exclusion around our writing? As Steven Pinker asks in “Why Academics Stink at Writing”

Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?

Contrary to popular belief, academics don’t *just* write for other academics (that’s what conference presentations are for!). We write believing that what we’re writing has a point and purpose, that it will educate and edify. I’ve never met an academic who has asked for help with making her essay “more difficult to understand.” Now, of course, some academics do use jargon as subterfuge. Walt continues:

But if your prose is muddy and obscure or your arguments are hedged in every conceivable direction, then readers may not be able to figure out what you’re really saying and you can always dodge criticism by claiming to have been misunderstood…Bad writing thus becomes a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.

Walt, Billig, Pinker and everyone else who has, at one time or another, complained that a passage of academese was needlessly difficult to understand are right to be frustrated. I’ve made the same complaints myself. However, this generalized dismissal of “academese,” of dense, often-jargony prose that is nuanced, reflexive and even self-effacing , is, I’m afraid, just another bullet in the arsenal for those who believe that higher education is populated with up-tight, boring, useless pedants who just talk and write out of some masturbatory infatuation with their own intelligence. The inherent distrust of scholarly language is, at its heart, a dismissal of academia itself.

Now I’ll be the first to agree that higher education is currently crippled by a series of interrelated and devastating problems — the adjunctification and devaluation of teachers, the overproduction of PhDs, tuition hikes, endless assessment bullshit, the inflation of middle-management (aka, the rise of the “ass deans”), MOOCs, racism, sexism, homophobia, ablism, ageism, it’s ALL there people — but academese is the least egregious of these problems, don’t you think? Academese — that slow nuanced ponderous way of seeing the world —  we are told, is a symptom of academia’s pretensions. But I think it’s one of our only saving graces.

The work I do is nuanced and specific. It requires hours of reading and thinking before a single word is typed. This work is boring at times — at times even dreadful — but it’s necessary for quality scholarship and sound arguments. Because once you start to research an idea — and I mean really research, beyond the first page of Google search results — you find that the ideas you had, those wonderful, catchy epiphanies that might make for a great headline or tweet, are not nearly as sound as you assumed. And so you go back, armed with the new knowledge you just gleaned, and adjust your original claim. Then you think some more and revise. It is slow work, but it’s necessary work. The fastest work I do is the writing for this blog, which as I see as a space of discovery and intellectual growth. I try not to make grand claims for this blog, mostly for that reason.

The problem then, with academic writing, is that its core — the creation of careful, accurate ideas about the world — are born of research and revision and, most important of all, time. Time is needed. But our world is increasingly regulated by the ethic of the instant. We are losing our patience. We need content that comes quickly and often, content that can be read during a short morning commute or a long dump (sorry for the vulagrity, Ma), content that can be tweeted and retweeted and Tumblred and bit-lyed. And that content is great. It’s filled with interesting and dynamic ideas. But this content cannot replace the deep structures of thought that come from research and revision and time.

Let me show you what I mean by way of example:

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 4.09.39 PM

Stanley has already taken quite a drubbing for this piece (and deservedly so) so I won’t add to the pile on. But I do want to point out that had this profile been written by someone with a background in race and gender studies, not to mention the history of racial and gendered representation in television, this profile would have turned out very differently. I’m not saying that Stanley needed a PhD to properly write this piece, what I’m saying is: the woman needed to do her research. As Tressie McMillan Cottom explains:

Here’s the thing with using a stereotype to analyze counter hegemonic discourses. If you use the trope to critique race instead of critiquing racism, no matter what you say next the story is about the stereotype. That’s the entire purpose of stereotypes. They are convenient, if lazy, vehicles of communication. The “angry black woman” traffics in a specific history of oppression, violence and erasure just like the “spicy Latina” and “smart Asian”. They are effective because they work. They conjure immediate maps of cognitive interpretation. When you’re pressed for space or time or simply disinclined to engage complexities, stereotypes are hard to resist. They deliver the sensory perception of understanding while obfuscating. That’s their power and, when the stereotype is about you, their peril.

Wanna guess why Cottom’s perspective on this is so nuanced and careful? Because she studies this shit. Imagine that: knowing what you’re talking about before you hit “publish.”

Or how about this recent piece on the “rise” of black British actors in America?

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Carter’s profile of black British actors in Hollywood does a great job of repeating everything said by her interview subjects but is completely lacking in an analysis of the complicated and fraught history of black American actors in Hollywood. And that perspective is very, very necessary for an essay claiming to be about “The Rise of the Black British Actor in America.” So what is someone like Carter to do? Well, she could start by changing the title of her essay to “Black British Actors Discuss Working in Hollywood.” Don’t make claims that you can’t fulfill. Because you see, in academia, “The Rise of the Black British Actor in America” would actually be a book-length project. It would require months, if not years, of careful research, writing, and revision. One simply cannot write about hard-working black British actors in Hollywood without mentioning the ridiculous dearth of good Hollywood roles for people of color. As Tambay A. Obsenson rightly points out in his response to the piece:

Unless there’s a genuine collective will to get underneath the surface of it all, instead of just bulletin board-style engagement. There’s so much to unpack here, and if a conversation about the so-called “rise in black British actors in America” is to be had, a rather one-sided, short-sighted Buzzfeed piece doesn’t do much to inspire. It only further progresses previous theories that ultimately cause division within the diaspora.

But the internet has created the scholarship of the pastless present, where a subject’s history can be summed up in the last thinkpiece that was published about it, which was last week. And last week is, of course, ancient history. Quick and dirty analyses of entire decades, entire industries, entire races and genders, are generally easy and even enjoyable to read (simplicity is bliss!), and they often contain (some) good information. But many of them make claims they can’t support. They write checks their asses can’t cash. But you know who CAN cash those checks? Academics. In fact, those are some of the only checks we ever get to cash.

Academese can answer those broad questions, with actual facts and research and entire knowledge trajectories. As Obsensen adds:

But the Buzzfeed piece is so bereft of essential data, that it’s tough to take it entirely seriously. If the attempt is to have a conversation about the central matter that the article seems to want to inform its readers on, it fails. There’s a far more comprehensive discussion to be had here.

A far more comprehensive discussion is exactly what academics have been trained to do. We’re good at it! Indeed, Obsensen has yet to write a full response to the Buzzfeed piece because, wait for it, he has to do his research first: “But a black British invasion, there is not. I will take a look at this further, using actual data, after I complete my research of all roles given to black actors in American productions, over the last 5 years.” Now, look, I’m not shitting all over Carter or anyone else who has ever had to publish on a deadline in order to collect a paycheck. I understand that this is how online publishing often works. And Carter did a great job interviewing her subjects. Its a thorough piece that will certainly influence Buzzfeed readers to go see Selma (2015, Ava DuVernay). But it is not about the rise of the black British actor in America. It is an ad for Selma.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling for an end to short, pithy, generalized articles on the internet. I love those spurts of knowledge, bite-sized bits of knowledge. I may be well-versed in film and media (and really then, only my own small corner of it) but the rest of my understanding of what’s happening in the world of war and vaccines and space travel and Kim Kardashian comes from what I can read in 5 minute intervals while waiting for the pharmacist to fill my prescription. My working mom brain, frankly, can’t handle too much more than that. And that is how it should be; none among us can be experts in everything, or even a few things.

But here’s what I’m saying: we need to recognize that there is a difference between a 100,000 word academic book and a 1500 word thinkpiece. They have different purposes and functions and audiences. We need to understand the conditions under which claims can be made and what facts are necessary before assertions can be made. That’s why articles are peer-reviewed and book monographs are carefully vetted before publication. Writers who are not experts can pick up these documents and read them and then…cite them! In academia we call this “scholarship.” 

No, academic articles rarely yield snappy titles. They’re hard to summarize. Seriously, the next time you see an academic, corner them and ask them to summarize their latest research project in 140 characters — I dare you. But trust me, people — you don’t want to call for an end to academese. Because without detailed, nuanced, reflexive, overly-cited, and yes, even hedging writing, there can be no progress in thought. There can be no true thinkpieces. Without academese, everything is what the author says it is, an opinion tethered to air, a viral simulacrum of knowledge.

Notes on a Riot

Police presence in Ferguson on August 11th 2014 image source: PBS news hour

Police presence in Ferguson on August 11th 2014
image source: PBS news hour

Like many professors, I live on the same campus where I work. As a result, I’ve watched drunk East Carolina University students urinate and puke on my lawn and toss empty red solo cups into the shrubbery around my home. But one evening I had a more troubling run-in with a college student. It began when I woke to the sound of my dog barking. It took me a minute to orient myself and understand that my dog was barking because someone was knocking on the front door. It was 2 am and my husband was out of town, but I opened the front door anyway. On the stoop was a college-aged woman dressed in a Halloween costume that consisted of a halter top, small tight shorts, and sky-high heels. The woman was sobbing and  shivering in the late October air and her thick eye make up was running down her face. She was incoherent and hysterical– I could smell the tequila on her breath — so it took me a while to figure out what she wanted .

She told me that she was visiting a friend for the night and that she had lost her friend…and her cell phone. She had no idea where she was or where to go. I think she came to my door because my porch light has motion detectors and she must have thought it was a sign. As she rambled on and on I could hear my baby crying upstairs. I told the woman to wait on my stoop, that I had to go get my baby and my phone, and that I would call the police to see if they could drive her somewhere. “Nooooooo,” she wailed, “don’t call the police!” I urged her to wait a minute so I could go get my baby and soothe him, but when I returned a few minutes later with my cell phone in hand, she was gone.

Renisha McBride image source:  http://www.nydailynews.com/

Renisha McBride
image source: http://www.nydailynews.com/

I felt many emotions that night: annoyance at being woken up, panic over how to best get help for the young woman, and later, guilt over my inability to help her. But one emotion that I did not feel that night was fear. I was never threatened by this young woman’s presence on my stoop and I never felt the need to “protect” my property. Why would I? She was a young woman, no more than 19 or 20, and though she was drunk and hysterical, she needed my help. I was reminded of this incident when I heard that Renisha McBride, a young woman of no more than 19 or 20, was shot dead last fall after knocking on Theodore Wafer’s door in the middle of the night while drunk and in need of help. Wafer was recently convicted of second-degree murder and manslaughter (which is a miracle), but that didn’t stop the Associated Press from describing the Wafer verdict thusly:

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McBride, the victim, a young girl needlessly shot down by a paranoid homeowner, is described as a nameless drunk, even a court ruling establishing her victimhood beyond a shadow of a doubt. Now, just a few days later in Ferguson, Missouri, citizens are actively protesting the death/murder of Michael Brown, another unarmed African American youth shot down for seemingly no reason. If you haven’t heard of Brown yet, here are the basic facts:

1. On Saturday evening Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, was fatally shot by a police officer on a sidewalk in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.

2. There are 2 very different accounts of why and how Brown was shot. The police claim that Brown got into their police car and attempted to take an officer’s gun, leading to the chain of events that resulted in Brown fleeing the vehicle and being shot. By contract, witnesses on the scene claim that Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, were walking in the middle of the street when the police car pulled up, told the boys to “Get the f*** on the sidewalk” and then hit them with their car door. This then led to a physical altercation that sent both boys running down the sidewalk with the police shooting after them.

3. As a result of Brown’s death/murder the citizens of Ferguson took to the streets, demanding answers, investigations, and the name of the officer who pulled the trigger. Most of these citizens engaged in peaceful protests while others have engaged in “looting” (setting fires, stealing from local businesses, and damaging property).

image source: http://blogs.riverfronttimes.com/

Michael Brown at 16 image source:
http://blogs.riverfronttimes.com/

Now America is trying to make sense of the riots/uprisings that have taken hold of Ferguson the last two days and whether the town’s reaction is or is not “justified.” Was Brown a thug who foolishly tried to grab an officer’s gun? Or, was he yet another case of an African American shot because his skin color made him into a threat? 

I suppose both theories are plausible, but given how many unarmed, brown-skinned Americans have been killed in *just* the last 2 years — Trayvon Martin (2012), Ramarley Graham (2012), Renisha McBride (2013), Jonathan Ferrell (2013), John Crawford (2014), Eric Garner (2014), Ezell Ford (2 days ago) — my God, I’m not even scratching the surface, there are too many to list  — I’m willing to bet that Michael Brown didn’t do anything to *deserve* his death. He was a teenage boy out for a walk with his friend on a Saturday night and his skin color made him into a police target. He was a threat merely by existing.

Given the amount of bodies that are piling up — young, innocent, unarmed bodies — it shouldn’t be surprising that people in Ferguson have taken to the streets demanding justice. And yes, in addition to the peaceful protests and fliers with clearly delineated demands, there has been destruction to property and looting. But there is always destruction in a war zone. War makes people act in uncharacteristic ways. And make no mistake: Ferguson is now a war zone. The media has been blocked from entering the city, the FAA has declared the air space over Ferguson a “no fly zone” for a week “to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities,” and the police are shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at civilians.

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But no matter. The images of masses of brown faces in the streets of Ferguson can and will be brushed aside as “looters” and “f*cking animals.” Michael Brown’s death is already another statistic, another body on the pile of Americans who had the audacity to believe that they would be safe walking down the street or knocking on a door for help.

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What is especially soul-crushing is knowing that these events happen over and over and over again in America — the Red Summer of 1919, Watts in 1964, Los Angeles in 1992 — and again and again we look away. We laud the protests of the Arab Spring, awed by the fortitude and bravery of people who risk bodily harm and even death in their demands for a just government, but we have trouble seeing our own protests that way. Justice is a right, not a privilege. Justice is something we are all supposed to be entitled to in this county.

***

When the uprisings in Los Angeles were televised in 1992 I was a freshman in high school. All I knew about Los Angeles is what I had learned from movies like Pretty Woman  and Boyz N the Hood –there were rich white people, poor black people with guns, and Julia Roberts pretending to be a prostitute.  On my television these “rioters and looters” looked positively crazy, out of control. And when I saw army tanks moving through the streets of Compton I felt a sense of relief. 

Sides-LA-Riots-6_525

That’s because a lifetime of American media consumption — mostly in the form of film, television, and nightly newscasts — had conditioned my eyes and my brain to read images of angry African Americans, not as allies in the struggle for a just country, but as threats to my country’s safety. I could pull any number of examples of how and why my brain and eyes were conditioned in this way. I could cite, for example, how every hero and romantic lead in everything I watched was almost always played by a white actor. I could cite how every criminal, rapist, and threat to my white womanhood was almost always played by a black actor. And those army tanks driving through the outskirts of Los Angeles didn’t look like an infringement on freedom to me at the time (and as they do now). They looked like safety because I came of age during the Gulf War, when images of tanks moving through wartorn streets in regions of the world where people who don’t look like me live come to stand for “justice” and “peacemaking.” Images get twisted and flipped and distorted.

image source: bossip.com

image source:
bossip.com

The #IfTheyShotMe hashtag, started by Tyler Atkins, illuminates how easily images  — particular the cache of selfies uploaded to a Facebook page or Instagram account — can be molded to support whatever narrative you want to spin about someone. The hashtag features two images which could tell two very different stories about an unarmed man after he is shot — a troublemaker or a scholar? a womanizer or a war vet? The hashtag illuminates how those who wish to believe that Michael Brown’s death was simply a tragic consequence of not following rules and provoking the police can easily find images of him flashing “gang signs” or looking tough in a photo, and thus “deserving” his fate. Those who believe he was wrongfully shot down because he, like most African American male teens, looks “suspicious,” can proffer images of Brown in his graduation robes.

Of course, as so many smart folks have already pointed out, it doesn’t really matter that Brown was supposed to go off to college this week, just as it doesn’t matter what a woman was wearing when she was raped. It doesn’t matter whether an unarmed man is a thug or a scholar when he is shot down in the street like a dog. But I like this hashtag because at the very least it is forcing us all to think about the way we’re all (mis)reading the images around us, to our peril.

The original images used in Tyler Atkins' #IfTheyShotMe hashtag

The original images used in Tyler Atkins’ #IfTheyShotMe hashtag

The same day that the people of Ferguson took to the streets to stand up for Michael Brown and for every other unarmed person killed for being black, comedian and actor Robin Williams died. I was sad to hear this news and even sadder to hear that Williams took his own life, so I went to social media to engage in some good, old fashioned public mourning, the Twitter wake. In addition to the usual sharing of memorable quotes and clips from the actor’s past, people in my feed were also sharing suicide prevention hotline numbers and urging friends to “stay here,” reminding them that they are loved and needed by their friends and families. People asked for greater understanding of mental illness and depression. And some people simply asked that we all try to be kind to each other, that we remember that we’re all human, that we all hurt, and that we are all, ultimately, the same. Folks, now it’s time to send some of that kind energy to the people of Ferguson and to the family and friends of Michael Brown. They’re hurting and they need it.

The Postfeminist Gift of Gwen Stacy, or Gwen Stacy is SOME PIG!

When my 4-year-old son asked me if I would take him to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb) on Memorial Day, I’ll admit that I wasn’t even aware the sequel (to the reboot) had been released. I was also unaware that X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer) or Captain America: Winter Soldier (Joe Russo) were playing in the same theater. I guess I’ve lost my taste for super hero films. I used to love them. In fact, when I was 13-years-old I became obsessed with Batman (1989, Tim Burton). I had posters and collected trading cards and listened obsessively to the soundtrack:

My interest in films like Tim Burton’s Batman and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) was due less to their super hero antics (the amazing weapons, the acrobatic fight scenes, the spectacle of urban destruction) and far more to do with the idea of normal people who feel an obligation to act on the behalf of others. Because I loved these dark, brooding, almost-noirish heroes, I forgave these films for their lifeless female characters. Or rather, I never thought much about them. I never once identified with Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) or Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). I didn’t want to be rescued by Batman (Michael Keaton) or Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), I wanted to be Batman and Spider-Man and rescue folks myself. Now, it’s no secret that super hero movies have a major gender (and race and ethnicity and sexuality problem). Almost all of the major stars of the super hero franchises are white, heterosexual, cis men. And after a while, the white male fantasies of control and power over a chaotic and inherently evil world were no longer interesting to me. I stopped going to see super hero movies.

Though I did not see the first film in the franchise reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), I wasn’t expecting to see anything other than 142 (!!!) minutes of CGI fight scenes, smashed cars, franchise-building, and pretty girls who need rescuing — and that’s exactly what I got. Now I don’t want to shit on Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). She’s adorable. Her outfits are amazing (amazing!).  She’s the valedictorian of her graduating class. Her hair curls in all the right places. She snagged a sweet job (internship?) at Oscorp Industries immediately upon graduating. She wrinkles her little nose when she laughs. She even got into Oxford to study sciency stuff. She also uses her knowledge of high school science to help Spider-Man magnetize his web shooters, a key trick allowing Spider-Man to wrangle with Electro (Jamie Foxx).

All of these character traits and plot points appear, on the surface, to elevate Gwen above the usual superhero girlfriend role. Indeed, when Gwen finally decides to leave New York for England (Oxford! Science stuff!) Spider-Man cribs a move from Charlotte’s Web, by writing the words “I Love You” in giant web-letters. He then tells Gwen that he will follow her to Oxford. He will follow Gwen anywhere. He will be her trailing, Spidey-spouse, doing fixed term work across the Pond. OMG, swoonsville, right ladies?

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Image source: http://i.dailymail.co.uk/

Gwen Stacy is SOME PIG.     Image source:
http://i.dailymail.co.uk/

But even as someone who knows nothing about the Spider-Man I  know that shit is not going to happen. Spider-Man cannot give up his gift, his “great responsibility,” for the love of a woman. He can’t be secondary because he’s primary. He’s the protagonist. And Electro is totally sucking up all of New York City’s power so Spidey basically says “Now I’m gonna tie your ass this police car with some of my webs. Bye.”

This enrages Gwen, who is all “Fuck off, Spider-Man,” because she is a modern postfeminist woman (with GIRL POWER!) and she makes her own choices, and no one, not even fucking Spider-Man, is going to tell her what to do. She yells something to this effect and it is adorable but pointless because as we all know, this is not Gwen’s movie. Still, Gwen pulls out some scissors or a Swiss Army knife or something and hacks away at those sticky webs and then shows up at the big show down between her boyfriend and Electro at some magical place in New York City where all the electricity is kept. Gwen uses her vast knowledge of New York City’s power grid (what?), to help Spider-Man destroy Electro and save New York City from a black out, which is a super dire situation because then planes crash.

Despite Gwen’s key contribution to this epic CGI-battle, the whole scene felt a lot like the scene at the very end of the film (SPOILER ALERT!) when a little boy, dressed up in a Spider-Man costume, attempts to face off against an Oscorp-generated villain, Rhino (Paul Giamatti). It’s admirable and it’s adorable (his costume is too big for him!), but ultimately, we take a deep sigh of relief when Spider-Man finally appears on the scene, thanks the little boy for his bravery, pats him on the head, then delivers him into the arms of his weeping mama. Gwen is like that little boy: we admire her, she’s adorable and brave, but ultimately, she needs to move aside so the real heroes can do their work. Superheroing is a (white) man’s game. It is not for women and children. It’s not for poor, lonely, invisible Electro either.

This became most apparent in the final battle of the film between Spider-Man and the newly villainized Harry/Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan, looking like a cracked out, lost member of One Direction). Because although Gwen reminded Spidey about how magnets work and knew how to access New York City’s power grid (again, I must ask, how does an 18-year-old who jut started working at Oscorp know this?), she is, at the end of the day, just a woman. And a woman’s main value in cinema, especially a summer blockbuster reboot of a successful comic book franchise, is in her to-be-looked-at-ness. That is, Gwen’s purpose is to be an object of the Gaze: Spidey’s gaze, Green Goblin’s gaze, and the audience’s gaze. Her greatest value and power in the film lies in what she means to Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Gwen’s photograph appears all over Peter’s bedroom. She is an image to be adored. She is Peter’s everything. She is his crime-fighting muse. After they break up, Spider-Man sits atop New York City buildings, stalking watching Gwen going about her day. We watch her too. Her outfits are amazing.

Gwen exists to be looked at and she exists as an object of exchange. Harry/Green Goblin values her only because Peter values her. That is, Gwen’s worth is determined by the men around her. As Gayle Rubin argues in her seminal essay, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” (1975):

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If Harry possesses Gwen, he can exchange her for something he values, in this case, the blood of Spider-Man (which Harry believes will save his life). Gwen gains nothing in this exchange of her body (other than, she hopes, the opportunity to remain alive) because she is the object, the gift, that the powerful white men toss back and forth like a beautiful little rag doll. In the film’s (almost) final battle scene, Harry, now in full Green Goblin mode, scoops up little Miss Gwen and carries her off to a Dangerous Place. Spider-Man, predictably, chases after his love, intent on both saving her life and stopping Green Goblin.

And so, near the end of Spider-Man 2 we find ourselves in a familiar situation: our beautiful damsel, our muse, the gift/ransom exchanged between two men (one selfless, the other selfish), is literally dangling by a string. Here Gwen becomes more valuable than ever because she is now the audience’s gift. Because we identify with Spider-Man, the protagonist, Gwen’s peril is intended to fill us with the worst kind of dread. If she dies, how will Spider-Man feel? I mean, it’s gonna really fuck him up, right? Gwen’s life is the film’s climax.

And when that thin cord of webbing snaps and Gwen begins her freefall through one of the many dangerous old warehouses that seem to lurk around every corner in super hero movies, we are meant to feel the weight of her loss. She is falling away from Peter Parker, our proxy, and his loss is our loss. We see the terror in Gwen’s eyes (good acting, Emma Stone, seriously) and we know those eyes will haunt poor Spider-Man for months or even years. So much good brooding is head! And when Spider-Man cradles Gwen’s lifeless body in his arms, seconds after it hit the ground with a sickening crunch, we can only wonder about the impact of this death on our hero.
Here the film offers us a series of flashbacks of Peter’s time with Gwen, happy times when they were eating frozen yogurt and standing atop bridges and going to interviews at Oxford in very, very tiny skirts. Each of these flashbacks are shown from Peter’s point of view. We see Gwen through his eyes: as he watches her or goes in for an embrace. Because even in her death montage, Gwen has no subjectivity. Her loss can only be registered as Peter’s loss. She is forever the object of his longing gazes. We see Peter go to the graveyard season after season, all to the detriment of his important super hero duties. Here again, Gwen’s value is only in relation to how she impacts Spider-Man’s ability to be Spider-Man.

Look, I get it. The movie’s title is The Amazing Spider-Man 2, not Gwen Remembers How Magnets Work or Gwen Goes to Oxford. Of course every supporting character’s role is there to do just that — to support the story of the Amazing Spider-Man. But I suppose it’s Gwen’s postfeminist accoutrement that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I almost wish Gwen were more helpless and passive, stupider and more frightened. But it’s the fact that Gwen is so damn capable: she’s pretty and smart and plucky and brave and has the love of a good man. She is living the postfeminist dream (until she dies, that is!) and for that, she gives the film an appearance of some kind of gender equality. “Look, she helps Spidey! Look, she’s pursuing a career!” At the end of the day, these stories belong to the same white men they’ve always belonged to.

This is how summer blockbusters work. They are not for me. They are for white, heterosexual teenage boys. The rest of us are just there for the ride. We, like poor Gwen, are hanging by that slender thread of webbing, hoping Spider-Man can hold on to us just a few minutes longer before we’re dropped to the ground.

 

My Mom’s 2014 Oscar Picks

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Most bloggers publish their Oscar picks hours, or at the latest, days, after the nominations are announced. Because that’s when most people are interested in hearing about Oscar picks — before the Oscars. But Nana and I aren’t “most bloggers.” Sure, we’ll give you our Oscar picks, but we’re going to publish them just hours before the actual ceremony. That’s because Nana and I like to throw caution to the wind. We’re free-thinkers. We’re iconoclasts. We’re rebels. But mostly? We’ve both been really, really busy the last few months and didn’t have the time to sit down and discuss our Oscar picks today, the day of the big O.

Amanda: Okay, Nana, so we don’t have a lot of time because we sort of waited until the last minute — we were both trying to see as many of the 2013 films as we could. So before we begin our conversation, in the interest of full disclosure, I think we need to tell our readers what movies we haven’t seen. I’ll start with mine: The Wolf of Wallstreet (Martin Scorsese), Nebraska (Alexander Payne), Philomena (Stephen Frears), Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass). So there are quite a few holes in my ballot, I’m afraid. What about you?

Nana: Wow. Well, you’re going to have to see those.

I know, Nana, I know.

The movie Her (Spike Jonze) is the one Best Picture nominee that I have not seen.

That’s the only one?

Yep.

Wow. Good job, Nana. 

Thanks.

What are your picks for best actress in a leading role?

Blue-Jasmine-2013-Movie

Frankly, all five of them were very, very good. I enjoyed all of their performances. But, by far — and it will be an absolute crime if she does not win — the best performance was by Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen). Her role was so interesting: it was a woman who had experienced great wealth and then lost it suddenly, and it really affected her mentally. To watch her try to cope with life from one extreme to another was fascinating. She’s just absolutely gorgeous and she’s  such a wonderful actress. At the end you almost just had to cry with her.

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Almost! Well my pick is definitely Sandra Bullock in Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron). Now I did enjoy Amy Adams in American Hustle (David O. Russell) and it was a hard role because she was playing alongside Jennifer Lawrence, who clearly had the showier role. But I think she made her character matter in that film, and she made me care about her. But still, I have to stick with Sandra here because it’s very difficult to carry a performance by yourself, when you have no humans to interact with, to play off of. Her costars were the films’ special effects. I thought she pulled off the complexity of emotion you need in a controlled role like that. She made me care about the human element in a film which is otherwise about how insignificant humanity is.

Oh I enjoyed that movie, though I did find it almost silly in areas.

What do you mean?

I mean the whole thought of a person being alone in space and what she was going through. A quarter of the way through I almost turned it off.

Wow.

I also watched it on OnDemand at home, so that may have something to do with it.

Ha, yes. What are your picks for best actor in a leading role?

Again, all five were superb (except for Christian Bale, I disliked American Hustle tremendously, I thought it was a stupid movie). As you know, I am such a fan of Leonardo, and I was pulling for him to win up until last night, when I finally watched Dallas Buyer’s Club (Jean-Marc Vallee). But now I think, without question, Matthew McConaughey* must win. He was phenomenal.

TORONTO

Because he lost a ton of weight?

Oh goodness, no. It was the role: this pathetic man who tried desperately to secure a life for himself and had nothing but his weekly paycheck, which always went towards gambling and women. And then the one thing he prided himself on was his sex drive, and how frequently he has sex with women, and then it turns out he has HIV.  And then, of course, his friends turn against him. Then, he tries to desperately to bring these drugs into the country, which have been banned by the FDA. Just a fascinating story.

*Note: Nana keeps calling him “Matthew McConnelly”

Chiwetel-Ejiofor--12-Years-a-Slave

Well, Nana, as you know, my pick has been, and remains, Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen). In some ways, it’s a similar role to the one played by McConaughey in Dallas Buyer’s Club: a man who finds himself in a horrible situation, a life or death situation, and how does he negotiate that, how does he keep himself alive? For me, I thought it was a very subtle performance — Michael Fassbender had the showy role in this movie — but this actor was expressive and restrained at the same time.

For example, there’s one scene, about halfway through the movie, where Solomon attends the funeral of an older man who has died from heat exhaustion or malnutrition — the result of his status as an enslaved worker. At first, Solomon remains silent as the other slaves sing a funeral dirge. His mouth is tight and his eyes are distant. The director uses a long take here that focuses on Solomon’s face and these subtle degrees of change — the camera stays with him through the entire song, it never cuts, never looks away. But over the course of the song his face makes these micro adjustments. He begins to sing along, half heartedly. Then he begins to sing in earnest. For me, this was the moment when Solomon decided he was going to continue to commune with his own humanity. He was going to mourn this man’s death and recognize that  death matters, even though he is in a seemingly hopeless situation. He could have gone two ways — go numb or continue to feel. He chooses to continue to feel here, which is arguably the tougher choice. To convey that with no dialogue? That’s an Oscar, Nana.

Oh, I agree, he did a great job.

What are your picks for best supporting actress in a leading role?

June Squibb, in Nebrasksa, was one of my favorites. At eighty-four years old, she’s just incredible. But she won’t win. My pick — and I don’t know if she’ll win because she’s so hot right now — and that’s Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle. The only saving grace in that film is Jennifer Lawrence.

Oh I agree with you on that point…

I don’t really think she should have won last year (for Silver Linings Playbook). But for this role? If she doesn’t win, I think it’s because she’s so pretty. People don’t want to like her.

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This is a tough one. I can’t pick between Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o. The reason why I’m on the fence is because I think these roles — in a lot of ways — are serving the same function. There are a lot of parallels between Rosalyn and Patsy: they’re both women who have little to no control over their own lives. Their actions and their livelihoods are controlled by men. And the outcomes of their lives are both very much tied to their bodies. Rosalyn’s only power is in her sexuality — in her sloppy up do, her ample cleavage, and her nails that smell like flowers and garbage — and she uses that to get what she wants. But for Patsy, her sexuality is a liability. It’s the reason she is repeatedly raped and why she becomes a target for the jealous wife of her rapist. I think that illustrates, ironically, the way white privilege functions in the cinema: female sexuality  is empowering for powerless white woman and destructive for the powerless black woman.

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What are your picks for best supporting actor in a leading role?

Ohhh. Absolutely Jared Leto. The way he talked, the way he walked. There was such love in him. And everybody loved him, except his family. Not only was he very sick with AIDS but he was so addicted to cocaine and heroine and whatever else he was taking…And then the scene where he had to put on a men’s suit to meet with his father?

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Yes, that was one of the more poignant scenes in the film. When we see him that suit — with no make up, no color — he just looks so despondent, like it’s killing him to be dressed that way. 

When you see the relationship between Rayon and his father you can see why he turned to drugs — his family didn’t accept him. And then when he knows he’s about to die and he’s looking in the mirror and he says “When I go to heaven, I want to be pretty.” Oh God.

Yeah, I think he’s my pick, too, Nana. So let’s wrap it up: what is your pick for best picture?

I am still in favor of The Wolf of Wall Street.

WHAAAAAAT?

Yes.

You’re blinded by your boyfriend [Leonard DiCaprio].

[Here Nana precedes to trash other Best Picture nominees and we argue a lot]

The Wolf of Wall Street had everything: it had incredible acting, it had — if they want the sex thing and naked bodies — it had that, it had humor, it had a fascinating story. It was just extremely well done. I’m going with The Wolf of Wall Street. 

theres-a-free-screening-of-the-wolf-of-wall-street-near-goldman-sachs-tomorrow-night

Okay, so you know I haven’t all of the Best Picture nominees, but I am going to stick with my original pick in this category, 12 Years a Slave. My reason for that — and we’ve discussed this before — is that my criteria for Best Picture is that the whole be greater than the sum of its parts. So a Best Picture winner has to have great performances, beautiful cinematography, a strong script, etc. But then, the picture itself has to be more than that. For me, this movie has been long overdue. I know there have been movies about slavery made in the past, but no other film, in my experience, has delved into the subtle and ongoing damage that the institution of slavery has created in this country like this film has. We see how slavery impacts the relationships between African American men and women — how they are both suffering but in such very different ways (for example, getting rape versus watching helplessly as someone gets raped, those are two very different kinds of horrors). We also see how it impacted the relationships between the male and female slaveowners — how the white mistress was powerless, except when it came to the slaves, the one arena in which she could flex her muscles and exert power. We see that in the scene where Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) throws a crystal vase at Patsy’s head. I found those scenes to be so much more devastating than the more overtly violent moments. I think America desperately needed this movie to be made.
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Okay, so my final question for you is this: are there any movies or performances that weren’t nominated that you feel should have been nominated?

Hmmm, you know the one film I was surprised didn’t get anything is The Butler (Lee Daniels). I was surprised it didn’t get more. Did Oprah get anything for this?

Nope.

Oh wow. Well the lead, Forest Whitaker, was superb. The role he played — from when he was a little boy and his father was shot in the fields and his mother was raped — and he goes on to get a job in the White House. I really thought that film was wonderful, Not sure why it was snubbed. Also, All is Lost  (J.C. Chandor). Poor Robert Redford.

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For me this year’s big snub was Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine). Spring Breakers failed to find it’s audience because on the surface it looked like a fun teenpic about “good girls gone bad” on Spring Break — this misconception about the film was encourage by the foregrounding of its Disney princess stars — Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens — and the images of neon-bikini clad revelers that accompanied advertisements for the film. The folks who were drawn in by the ad campaign got a very different picture: a borderline-experimental meditation on capitalism, whiteness, femininity, and the affectless violence and sexuality of contemporary visual culture. So, in other words, not a light film in the least. In fact, I just taught this film in my course, Women and Identity in American Cinema, and one thing my students mentioned is that they didn’t believe that the film’s young stars — particularly Selena Gomez — were even aware of the kind of film they were starring in. Instead, the women acted as they always do — as the beneficiaries of white privilege, immune to critique, physical harm (except for a single gunshot wound), or laws. One of my students explained it this way on our class blog: 

While the girls do little, they are rewarded nonetheless, whether their efforts were good or bad. This allows the “white privilege” of the girls to be seen more like armor because they act as though nothing can touch them, they are invincible– immortal. They’ve been taught and proven right many times (robbing a restaurant, etc.) that there are no consequences for them…That is the role whiteness plays in this film, the illusion of immortality and security.

Beyond it’s cunning commentary on race, Spring Breakers offers up one of the best performances of the year with James Franco’s turn as Alien, a cornrow-and-diamond-grill-wearing drug dealer/wannabe-rapper. My students all agreed that Franco definitely knew what kind of movie he was acting in (one student noted “I mean, he has a PhD”). Yeah, that’s the kind of movie this is — the kind of movie that may require one of its actors to have a PhD in order to fully understand the meaning of his own character.

As Jeffrey Sconce notes, Alien is a tragic figure in this movie. While the pretty white girls he brings under his wing are just “playing” at being gangstas and “bad bitches,” this world is his life. When he delivers his “Look at my shit!” speech he means it. He loves his shit and he believes his shit makes him important. But it was the acquisition of so much shit (specifically, the deadly duo of Candy and Britt) that leads to his ultimate demise.

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Other snubs? I loved Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach), and really, I feel that film deserved more recognition overall. Also, Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), which was a visceral counterpoint to the more philosophically-inclined Her on the subject of online intimacy. 

Mickey Sumner and Greta Gerwig in Franes Ha

Well, Nana, thanks for talking with me again. Your fans thank you.

Me, Nana, and my daughter celebrating Nana's birthday in NYC last month.

Me, Nana, and my daughter celebrating Nana’s birthday in NYC last month.

Race, Feminism and Intersectionality

Baby, you know I love you. I do. I think about you all the time, even when I’m too busy to spend time with you.

But, baby, sometimes Mama likes to write for other blogs. Now that doesn’t mean that I don’t love you anymore — I will always love you best. It’s just that sometimes Mama needs to do some talking with other people on the internet, people who may not follow this blog.

But I don’t want you, my small but wonderful readership, to feel left out, so I’m posting that piece here. It’s a conversation that I had with Dr. Kristen Warner about the intersections of race and feminism in light of many recent examples of the disconnect between white women and the black bodies they appropriate for their art. Kristen’s suggested title was “Intersectional Solidarity or Knowing when to Tell Folks to Take a Seat” but alas, The Blot changed it. Can’t win ‘em all, baby.

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You can read that one here.

And please, baby, go on over there and comment and get this conversation started. Don’t be mad at Mama, now. She loves you.

GHOSTBUSTERS as Neoliberal AltAc Fantasy

Normally, I’m not a big fan of rewatching films I’ve already seen. I have to do so much rewatching for my classes and for my research that in my free time my goal is to see new stuff. Nevertheless, over the last few months I’ve been rewatching some favorite films from my childhood, like Home Alone (1990 Chris Columbus), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993, Chris Columbus), Teen Wolf (1985, Rod Daniel), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986, John Hughes), Karate Kid (1994, John G. Alvidsen), and Footloose (1984, Herbert Ross), with my own children and I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve (mis)remembered those films. When I rewatched Mrs. Doubtfire, for example, I was shocked by how my memories of that film were so conditioned by its theatrical trailer. The scenes that I found myself remembering before they happened — Robin Williams asking Harvey Fierstein to make him a woman, Robin Williams throwing a piece of fruit at Pierce Brosnan’s head, Robin Williams’ rubber breasts on fire — were the scenes that were featured in the film’s trailer:

As a child of the 1980s, I grew up with commercials, with flow, and I watched these commercials over and over, even when I didn’t actively watch them (because I was fighting with my brother or gabbing on my sweet cordless phone). These scenes travelled through my brain repeatedly, wearing a groove, making themselves at home. Robin Williams’ burning rubber breasts are a permanent part of my memories.

But it wasn’t just frequent exposure to trailers that shaped my memories of these films — my memories have also been shaped by the way I watched movies as a child, that is, by my child-self’s attention span. A few weeks ago we decided to screen Footloose for our kids, reasoning that its numerous dance scenes would make up for its snoozer of a plot about an uptight preacher (John Lithgow) who won’t just let those kids dance! But my husband and I misremembered the film — there aren’t that many dance scenes in the film. And when those kids aren’t dancing? Well, the film is pretty boring. Our kids (and our neighbor’s kid) were antsy throughout, only pepping up when a dance number came on. Then they would leap off the couch and dance furiously until the narrative started up again. So perhaps they, too, will misremember the film when they’re old like me, filing away the “good stuff,” the dancing and the Kevin Bacon, and forgetting the boring stuff.

What I’d like to talk about in this blog post, though, is my experience of rewatching a beloved film from my childhood and realizing that the film my child’s brain watched is very different from the one I watched as an adult. I’m talking about Ghostbusters (1984, Ivan Reitman). I remember being 8-years-old and actively anticipating the release of Ghostbusters, a movie which was most certainly a must-see for the elementary school set. Like most kids my age, I was obsessed: I watched the sequel and the Saturday morning cartoon, ate my Slimer candy, and of course I drank my fair share of Ecto Cooler .

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This past Saturday we rented Ghostbusters, made some popcorn, and invited another couple and their son to watch it with us (at this point my child-free readers might be asking themselves: is this what Saturday night looks like when you have young children? Yes it does, child-free friends, so please, practice safe sex). As we all sat down to watch the movie, the first thing I remembered about the film, or rather what I had forgotten about the film, is that before they become “Ghostbusters,” saviors of New York City (and by extension, the entire world), Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) are actually professors at Columbia University, studying the paranormal.

Pointless brain research. Image source: ghostbusters.wikia.com

Pointless research.
Image source:
ghostbusters.wikia.com

I had completely forgotten this but the moment the film cuts from a frightened librarian to the interior of a Columbia lab where Bill Murray flirts with a student participanting in his ESP tests, I turned to my children and declared “The heroes of this movie are professors, kids, just like Mommy!” The friends who were over are also professors, in Biology and Geology, so they were also excited for their son to see professors doing cool shit in a movie (this rarely happens, as you all know). After we watched the scene in which the professors are informed that their grant has been terminated, my daughter was confused “What just happened?” she asked. I explained, “It would be like if Beth’s boss took away her corn fields or if Eric’s boss took away his rocks.” Then my husband piped in “Or if someone said Mommy couldn’t watch movies.” Rocks and corn are not ghost busting, but they’re more tangible than the study of film. Nevertheless, this answer satisfied my daughter.

As I watched Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler pack up their offices and their life’s work and leave Columbia’s grand campus, I thought about the current state of academia and then, I began to watch Ghostbusters in a different way. Instead of watching the fun, comedy-horror-blockbuster of my youth, I found I was watching a vision of the future of academia, a fantasy of the Alternative-Academic career, one based wholly on the market value of the university professor’s research, rather than the broader, and somewhat less market-driven value of the professor’s ability to instruct students in that research and to engage the public in those findings.

Hello Professors! Image source: www.clearancebinreview.com/

Hello Professors!
Image source:
http://www.clearancebinreview.com/

When the professors leave academia they are not ghost busters. They’re just unemployed PhDs, which, as we all know, are a dime a dozen. What transforms these useless, unemployed academics into Ghostbusters? An ancient Sumerian god named Gozer the Gozerian, who wants to destroy New York City! These professors are literally the only people in the city who can do this job. They actually have ghost busting equipment: proton packs (for wrangling ghosts), ghost traps, and an Ecto containment unit on hand. I mean if there’s something strange in your neighborhood who are you gonna call? I don’t need the 1984 Ray Parker Jr. hit to answer that question, because the answer is, naturally: GHOSTBUSTERS! The university may not value these men, but the good people of New York certainly do. Their research will save the world! Does your research save the world? Mine sure doesn’t!

So you see, these professors have a real value. As soon as their first commercial airs, glimpsed (fortuitously) by beautiful Dana Stevens (Sigourney Weaver) just before she finds a demon in her fridge, the phone at Ghostbusters central never stops ringing. In fact, the Ghostbusters have so much business, they must hire a fourth ghost buster, Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson). My childhood memories of this film have Hudson’s character, aka the “black Ghostbuster,” playing a much larger role, perhaps because he gets more screen time in the sequel? But during this viewing at least, I was surprised by how little screen time he gets. His character truly feels like an afterthought, like a producer said “You better get a black guy in there somewhere” and so they threw him in at the last minute. But I digress. All of this is just to say that business is booming at Ghostbusters and the men are finally getting the chance to prove the value — the real, incontrovertible value — of their life’s work. The market says so.

In this neoliberal (a term I use here to reference the broader trends toward the privatization of higher education) fantasy of higher education, academia within the walls of the academy is stifled and limited. But once professors are freed from the constraints of the Ivory Tower, with its navel-gazing and its pretentiousness, and are placed at the mercy of the market (aka, “the real world”), they can demonstrate the true value of their research and their pedagogy. Professors should be training our college graduates for real jobs in the real world. After all, isn’t the whole point of a university education to create future workers, future entrepreneurs, future moneymakers? Sure it is.

But what happens next? What interrupts our fairytale of flourishing academics? It’s the goddamn Environmental Protection Agency, that’s who! Walter Peck (William Atherton), the EPA representative, is the film’s heavy. I remember hating this character when I was a kid. “Why won’t he just let the Ghostbusters do their jobs? Doesn’t he realize the fate of the city is at stake? Regulation is the worst!” Peck wants to investigate the environmental impact of the Ecto containment unit, which, I have to admit, looks super shady. I wouldn’t want to live downstream from the Ecto containment unit, but if I had to choose between living with Gozer and living with Ecto in my water? Bring on the Ecto cooler! Screw the EPA! Regulation, boo, hiss!

In the final scene of Ghostbusters, all four men (yes, even Winston), are cheered by New York City residents who are grateful that they’ve been saved from the wrath of Gozer. I told my kids “Look, they’re cheering for the professors!” And then the four adults in the room laughed for a long time.

My kids laughed too. They were delighted by the film, just as I had been as a kid. But this time around, Ghostbusters gave me pause. The narrative hit a little too close to home because I am acutely aware of the market value of my degree and my profession. My Governor tells me my work is useless and elitist. So I’m waiting for the day when this dystopian future is upon us, when the key master finds the gate keeper, and we’re all packing up our offices,  just waiting for a chance to prove our true worth.

I Sat Through all of the 1D Documentary and All I Got was this Lousy Blog Post

Image credit: Zap2it

Image credit: Zap2it

7-year-olds are cultural omnivores, taking in everything around them. It’s only later that they sort through what they’ve accumulated to figure out what they like and don’t like. Right now, my 7-year-old has been soaking up a lot of music, trying to figure out what she likes and what she doesn’t. She wavers between two basic categories of pop music — what we call “love songs” and “heartbreak songs.”

So, for example, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”? That’s a love song, of course:

And Adele’s “Someone Like You”?:

So much heartbreak.

I explained to my daughter that sometimes the distinction between “love song” and “heartbreak song” is difficult to discern. The other day I introduced her to one of my all-time favorite “heartbreak songs,” the Bob Dylan classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” But before I played her the original, I played her this cover (which I love):

After a few bars she looked confused, “This doesn’t sound like a heartbreak song,” she told me. “I know,” I said, “but you have to listen to the words.” So I played her Joan Baez’s cover and we both closed our eyes (really, we did) and listened:

“So long honey, baby
Where I’m bound, I can’t tell
Goodbye’s too good a word, babe
So I’ll just say fare thee well

I ain’t saying you treated me unkind
You coulda done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right.”

We talked about the meaning of that last line — “But don’t think twice, it’s all right” — and whether the singer really meant it or not. Was it really “all right?” My 7-year-old thought not. She asked to hear the original:

“That was so much sadder,” she told me, and then added “I like this one the best.”

My daughter’s into love songs and heartbreak songs but she also inherited her mother’s love for kitsch. So it follows that the 7-year-old is really into Toto. We have a boom box/I-Pod combo in our kitchen and on most days my daughter can be found scrolling through song titles, searching out her favorites, and singing along. She’s been singing “Rosanna” so often lately, in fact, that she’s taught it to her best friend during their shared 20 minute commute to school. I feel a little bad about this — like I’m passing my kitsch-love on to my child who is then passing it on to her friends. But Toto has taught my daughter a valuable lesson and it is this: don’t judge a book by it’s cover, or “Oh My God, is this what Toto looks like?”

Like this:

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and this:

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and this:

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Isn’t that a great lesson? But then I told her: though you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,  a pretty face doesn’t hurt things either. That brings us to the main topic of today’s blog post: One Direction.

You were getting worried, weren’t you, that I pulled a bait-and-switch and that this blog post was actually a think piece about listening to love songs and heartbreak songs with my kid and not a review of the new 3-D hit, One Direction: This is Us ?

Relax. I got this.

My daughter has been marginally interested in One Direction for about a year now. We first discovered “What Makes You Beautiful” in the summer of 2012 and the song soon made it’s way onto the holy I-Pod. From there it was a slippery slope to kitchen floor dance parties during which we loudly sang the chorus:

“Baby you light up my world like nobody else,
The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed,
But when you smile at the ground it ain’t hard to tell,
You don’t know,
Oh, oh,
You don’t know you’re beautiful”

We all sang along and we loved it. We had no choice: completely ignoring “What Makes You Beautiful”‘s lyrics, which validate the persistent popularity of “Who me? Pretty?” female characters like Twilight‘s Bella Swan, the feeling of the song is infectious. I mean, as a love song it’s pretty fantastic. But that’s not why I took my daughter to see One Direction: This is Us on Labor Day. The decision was made, rather impulsively, last week, when One Direction went on the America’s Got Talent results show in order to promote the film and perform the single “Best Song Ever”:

When the One Direction boys — Harry, Niall, Liam, Louis, and Zayn — walked on stage my daughter was immediately enchanted even though I was sure that she had never heard “Best Song Ever,” the song they performed (which incidentally, is not the best song ever — it’s merely “okay”). She’s not a 1D fan (and neither am I) but she was mesmerized. We both were. We were entertained.

As soon as the performance ended there was SO. MUCH. SCREAMING and then a trailer for the 1D movie. I turned to my 7-year-old daughter, because, really, we had no choice in the matter. There is no reordering of events that would conclude with us not seeing One Direction: This is Us. “We’ll go Monday,” I say.

***

New Direction, pictured with Simon Cowell on The X Factor Image credit: zimbio.com

New Direction, pictured with Simon Cowell on The X Factor
Image credit: zimbio.com

One Direction: This is Us is not, technically speaking, very good. We hear the boilerplate narrative — a story of five ordinary boys who tried out for The X-Factor, lost, then found themselves with a recording contract and 10 million records sold. We learn that the boys “can’t believe!” they’re famous. They lean over balconies to control the volume of their swooning fans’ screams like orchestra conductors. This happens multiple times and it’s meant to show us that One Direction is REALLY FAMOUS. In many countries. Can you believe it? The boys — who genuinely seem to like each other — even have an earnest chat around a campfire about their fame and what life will be like when the fame is gone. It’s like having a chat with One Direction’s publicist. And no, I wasn’t expecting more than that. Because why would One Direction want to derail this train? I’m onboard — toot! toot!

There are a few moments, of course, that disrupted this master narrative, and I’d like to think that Morgan Spurlock (he of the brilliant, important Supersize Me) temporarily awoke from the lobotomy that must be responsible for the rest of the movie and decided to do something interesting. For example, in many scenes we see the boys playing the role of merry pranksters (and how we all do love the antics of young white males!): running away from body guards who then have to chase them (because it’s their job) and toss them over their shoulders, and plant them back in safe territory. The bodyguards tell the camera that boys will be boys, and that this is life on tour, but I detected weariness in their eyes. Those eyes are saying “Enough already.”

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And in at least one scene I’m pretty sure Harry Styles is very drunk — which is the only whiff of alcohol in the film. These boys sleep, call their mums, get mobbed by fans, and fret over who they can trust to really like them for who they are and not because they’re celebrities. But they don’t drink and they don’t have girlfriends (only exes). Fiances certainly never appear. There’s also a touching scene in which the boys’ mothers look over the merchandise on sale at a concert venue. One of the mothers purchases a cardboard cut-out of her son, Liam (I think? It’s so hard for me to keep the names straight), because she explains (with tears brimming in her eyes!), she never gets to see him in person. Later in the film, Liam (or maybe Louis?) goes home for a visit and is surprised to find himself already there. I enjoyed these moments, because they felt real to me, and I need that realness in a documentary.

Image credit: EW.com

Image credit: EW.com

There was also this scene in which Simon Cowell is explaining how One Direction’s popularity was due in part to British girls and social media. We then see footage of different excited fans bragging about how many tweets they wrote about the band. They are so very excited and earnest about their role in 1D’s success. They’re certain of it. And, for a moment, I feel their power. In the next shot Cowell says he can’t explain the band’s appeal among girls because: “I’m not a neuroscientist.” Spurlock then cuts to a white-coated doctor holding a model of the human brain. The nueroscientist points out how certain kinds of music cause the brain to release dopamine. “They’re not crazy,” he says, “just happy.” In other words, One Direction: This is Us is validating this particular kind of fan love — a love that is so often invalidated.

Dina Gachman chronicles her experience watching the film over at The Hairpin and describes the fans this way:

“I should stop being so judgmental.

Their fans are insane.

These fans really love them.

Pre-teen girl lust is the most powerful force in the universe.

I hope they’re saving their money.”

Yes, they are powerful. In One Direction: This is Us we meet a girl who says “They sing our feelings.” It was around this time that I started to think maybe all this movie needed for me to enjoy it was to remember that word: happy. It was also around this time that my daughter leaned in to me and whispered “I don’t really see how this is a movie.”

What I think she meant is, One Direction: This is Us has no real story, and what it does tell us, we already knew. But that doesn’t matter. When, towards the end of the film, Harry finished singing a love song (does it matter which one?) and looked out at his audience of screaming fans and also at me and my daughter, and he told us all: “I want to kiss every one of you!”  I believed him. Not because I want to actually kiss a child who is, seriously, young enough to be my son. No, not that. What I mean is: I believed the dream of the love song and the heartbreak song and of someone singing your feelings.