The Replacement: Worst Maternity Cover EVER (spoilers)

Women regularly have it tough in the workplace. Sexual harassment, lower pay, the glass ceiling, general misogyny and the tricky fact that many women can get pregnant. Yup, even the miracle of childbirth can be used against women to deny them jobs, get them replaced and ensure they don’t return to work. Naturally, the BBC thought it was high time to sensitively delve into this issue and what we got was The Replacement. Ellie is a successful architect (cue the odd reference to ‘sight lines’ and sky lights) working on a fancy, new library when she becomes pregnant with her first child. Her employees are more or less thrilled and help Ellie find her replacement. Enter Paula. She’s nice. So nice. Like, really nice. All pearly, white smiles and over zealous efficiency. She does work ahead of schedule, makes friends with everyone in the office super quickly and is just so darn friendly. Naturally, everyone thinks Ellie’s a little mad when she suggests that maybe Paula is out to replace her for good. That is until Paula kidnaps Ellie and tries to get her to kill herself so she can take her baby to replace the daughter she tragically lost in a car accident even though she was pretending her daughter was still alive. Who knew maternity leave could be so dangerous!?

Now, don’t get me wrong this was really well acted and it had me compulsively clicking ‘watch next episode’ until it ended (ok, I was recovering from a virus, that’s my excuse) but I couldn’t help but feel we’ve been here before. Two women go head to head in mortal combat to prove who is a better mother and colleague. Sure, they’re being defined by their motherhood and ability to function as a decent capitalist worker but I feel the show knows that. It must be aware of the constant hum of sexism throughout the episodes given that the men in this show are just awful: Ellie’s husband turns on her, tries to take the baby away and nearly ends up with Paula. Ellie’s boss, also wooed by Paula, reveals that on the night his wife, Kay, supposedly committed suicide she’d accused him of having an affair with Ellie which he didn’t deny (even though it wasn’t true) but he did tell Kay that if he’d been with Ellie at least he might have had a child. Good news is that this didn’t actually lead to Kay taking her own life because it turns out Paula killed her because Kay wouldn’t stop going on about the fact that Paula’s daughter wasn’t actually alive anymore.

If this all sounds quite farfetched and just a little silly that’s because it was (and don’t get me started on what the library ended up looking like..there weren’t even that many books in it and it was super kid unfriendly, or the bit with the baby basket being left on a window ledge, or the bit when Paula clearly hasn’t researched her effective poisons etc). Yet this steady patter of sexism was never really commented upon because what we ultimately saw was two women coerced and conditioned by patriarchal capitalism forced to fight each other to the death. It proved entertaining(ish) but I did feel the team behind it may have just thought “Girl On A Train in an office” just like those behind Apple Tree Yard probably thought “middle-aged Gone Girl“. So whilst the programme does showcase some epic acting from Vicky McClure and Morven Christie and passes the Bechdel with flying colours this doesn’t classify it as novel or even offering something verging on feminist critique. It doesn’t need to (I hear the defenders of the status quo cry) but just because Thelma and Louise drove off a cliff and the 9-5 crew got their happy endings doesn’t mean more women can’t take on the patriarchy in style. There was scope here to see something interesting done with the genre and have Ellie actually try to team up with Paula (ok, minus the whole Paula-murdering-Kay bit, which really didn’t make sense given Paula ends up telling loads of people her secret anyway) and have them transcend the patriarchal binds of the work place. But instead they were forced to endure the limited plot devices that their hackneyed characters had to offer. So whilst The Replacement could, at a push, be critiquing our culture’s obsession with defining women by the children they may or may not have I feel it’s just cashing in on this trope and maybe even making matters worse especially as just after Ellie’s shut the door in her dire husband’s face her boss appears in the background implying that maybe, just maybe, they’ll get together because heaven forfend Ellie be a single Mum.

Advertisements

Game of Thrones: One Penis Doesn’t Make Equality

They say one swallow doesn’t make a summer and the same has to be said for Game of Thrones‘ latest attempt at bridging the gender nudity gap. You might not have heard of GoT but it’s a TV show about monarchs, back stabbing, walls, climatic extremes and sex (contemporary politics basically but with dragons). Something that also features prominently is nudity. Naked women abound in the show, sometimes they’re just hanging out topless at their window, sometimes they’re being stripped in front of the other characters, sometimes they’re stripping, sometimes they’re emerging from flames with no clothes on…you get the gist. However, what is often lacking are naked men…until now (a few spoilers ensue, one involves a penis).

https://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/s--Z1r3ddW0--/c_scale,fl_progressive,q_80,w_800/xb0mdu4e8ovvyi205adx.png

Yup, in a surprise turn of events that has delighted many fans (and infuriated others) we have been shown a close up of a man’s penis (see above but imagine it without the emoji). A few willies have been wangled before on the show (even if one of them was a prosthetic) but this one was up close and personal. The character played by actor Rob Callender is an actor playing another character (it’s all quite boring really) and he gets his dong out to check for genital warts. Turns out he has them. And so GoT did it, it unleashed the penis and we got a face full. The glass ceiling of male nudity has been broken…or has it.

Unfortunately, one penis doesn’t make equality and whilst the odd cock shot does redress the balance it’s about more than just exposure. It’s about a whole culture in which it is normal to regularly see women naked, often objectified and reduced to their genitalia. It is about a culture in which men write the books, direct the shows and get their penises out only once in a while and rarely as sex objects. If we really want “total equality” as actor Emilia Clarke is calling for we’re going to have to do more. But that equality doesn’t have to mean routinely objectifying men as often as women are, in fact, I’d suggest we veer away from routine objectification entirely (you can use google if you really want that). A show like GoT provides interesting characters and their nudity should form part of their role and not be a needless adjunct to please a subset of audience members. Just as Clarke was happy to have her character emerge naked from a fire to show her strength (she has flame resistant skin), let’s have naked men appearing from battle as well and not just checking their members for warts (as important an act as this is). So, yes, a battle has been won, but the war is still waging. Despite winter’s arrival we must call for more men to remove their battle garments whilst encouraging writers and directors to ensure female nudity earns its place on-screen and doesn’t just exacerbate the denigrating and objectifying culture of nakedness within patriarchy. We can reclaim nudity. Equality is coming.

X-Men: Apocalypse – Does What It Says On The Tin

Found my seat in the dark, cracked open my gluten-free snacks and prepared myself for two hours of explosive, crass and unsubtle storytelling. Yup, X-Men: Apocalypse, part 3 in the latest outing of the mutant franchise. A few genetic alterations and people are freezing time, firing lightning bolts and flying. I shan’t bore you with the plot as it’s basically X-Men 2 (2003) all over again but rebooted for the current generation of teens. Onto the highs and lows. Spoilers.

Highs: En Sabah Nur (the main baddy). Marvel is not renowned for doing interesting baddies. Asides Loki, The Avengers series has been plagued by an underwhelming line of talking robots, aliens and cardboard cut-out evil human stereotypes. However, the latest X-Men series can boast Kevin Bacon and Tyrion Lannister as some half-decent snarling villains. But when X-Men: Apocalypse begins in ancient Egypt at a huge ceremony for the all-powerful mutant En Sabah Nur you know things are going to be epic. He’s betrayed by some of his worshippers and trapped underground for a couple thousand of years until he’s reawakened in the 80s, and boy, are his motivations simple: power and destruction. He pursues these with ruthlessness and sure, whilst there isn’t much more depth to him, I felt his power was genuinely menacing. Unlike Bacon and Lannister I genuinely thought he might beat the X-Men. Of course, I knew he wouldn’t because I understand how these films work but he put up a damn good fight. Hats off to En Sabah Nur. Although one problem: when it came to dressing his henchmen in cool, new body armour he did have a habit for covering the guys up but keeping the women largely exposed. So nothing like the below…

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BxVcDvFIQAAGXOw.jpg
If superheroes were dressed like superheroines

Low: Character Development. Ok, so the main baddy is just a really powerful psychopath hellbent on world destruction/domination and it doesn’t fare much better for the other characters. Since the last movie Magneto has retired from evil-doing to go live in the woods with his wife and daughter. Yup, as soon as we see those two innocent, female clichés we know they’re going to die. And they do. Cue Magneto’s motivation to turn bad again and join En Sabah Nur. Xavier is still irritatingly smug and morally righteous. Meanwhile, Alexandra Shipp plays Storm (the weather controlling one) and starts life as an Egyptian street orphan living with a gang of thieves getting chased by Egyptian male stereotypes. Yup, non-American cultures don’t come off too well in this movie and just when I thought there was going to be a female Muslim character she rips off her veil to reveal she’s actually Moira MacTaggart, the white, CIA agent. And she’s also the one that accidentally causes En Sabah Nur to wake up. Yup, just like in the last movie we have a woman to blame for all the world’s problems.

High: Quicksilver. Let’s face it, the five minutes of Quicksilver larking about listening to ace music whilst the rest of the world moves in slow motion are some of the highlights of these movies (see below). This one doesn’t disappoint as he rescues all the mutant kids from Xavier’s school as it blows up – serves Xavier right for allowing a highly explosive war plane to be built-in his basement. What I also like about Quicksilver is that because he hasn’t studied at Xavier’s school yet he hasn’t become a self-righteous, entitled doofus. Sure, he’s one of the good guys but he gets the job done without fuss and no pompous speeches. And he lives at home with his Mom and likes playing video games yet is happy to stand up to world-destroying megalomaniacs. He’s also great at saving people rather than killing them. A true hero.

Low: Mass Destruction. Sometimes all it takes is a shadow on a floor to create suspense and other times real drama can come from such seemingly mundane events like a row over breakfast or being late for a meeting. Of course, none of this applies when the word Apocalypse is in your movie title. We have crazed demi-gods building pyramids out of modern-day Egypt, we’ve got Magneto tearing Auschwitz to pieces (I really don’t think unsubtle superhero movies should tread into sensitive terrain like this, mainly because they don’t tread, they stampede) and we’ve got Magneto basically destroying the entire world by ripping up all its metal. The sheer number of people killed in all this would be astronomical. Yet come the end of the film Magneto casually goes home and Storm, who also assisted En Sabah Nur in trashing loads of stuff, just joins Xavier’s school as if she’s not a mass murderer. I know we want to watch cool graphics and special effects but bigger really doesn’t always equal better, especially when the actual amount of damage caused, not to mention the death toll, would take decades to mend. Maybe just a tiny bit of realism please in and amongst the flying and mind control.

So, providing you can turn off your feminism, racial-sensitivity, snobby-Charles-Xavier-hating and general-common-decency filters then you’ll love this. Lots of things blowing up, Quicksilver doing his hypersonic speed thing and even the odd joke. One pack of gluten-free chocolate biscuits later and I was suitably entertained.

It’s Called X-Men For A Reason

Can’t wait for X-Men Apocalypse? I can. And the reason’s in the name. Sure, X-People or X-Humans might not have the same ring to it but we’d get used to it after a while. So, in anticipation of the next Latif and Bechdel test failing reboot of this endless franchise I thought I’d re-cap why the previous two films were such let downs.

X-Men: First Class pretty much starts as it means to go on with Rose Byrne’s character, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert, stripping off to some black lingerie to join a throng of female strippers as they ululate for various men in suits. Was this film made by teenage boy stereotypes? January Jones plays Emma Frost who can turn into diamond, a fairly typical result of minor DNA mutation and also a great excuse to have her in underwear and virtually naked most of the time. And if that wasn’t enough female semi-nudity Jennifer Lawrence plays Mystique, who spends most of her time being naked and blue. So, yup, this is one of those superhero movies for the “lads” – the sort of lads who choke if they eat their popcorn too quickly and fantasise about being Magneto. Talking of whom, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy seem to enjoy getting all the best lines but also playing two right twerps – seriously, young Xavier is such a sleezeball who seems to fail to understand when ‘no means no’ even though he can read minds (a skill he uses to hit on women with, which is just wrong).

The younger mutants don’t fare too well either. There’s a whole bunch of them but they’re mainly white and hetero. The one black mutant, Darwin, played by Edi Gathegi, has a life span of around five minutes before Kevin Bacon’s villian fills him with strange, red energy causing him to implode and shatter into many pieces as his mate Havoc watches through white crocodile tears. Of course, this happens after the only other mutant of colour, Angel, decides to defect and join the baddies’ team (she survives this film but dies off-screen before the next one). So what’s the moral here? That the goodies are white and heteronormative and if you deviate from this trope you’ll end up dead one way or the other.

It’s a similar story for Days of Future Past – McAvoy and Fassender hog all the screen time as they fight over Mystique whose DNA, it turns out, was used to build giant, mutant-killing robots called Sentinels. Yup, a woman is to blame for why all the mutants face extinction. Ellen Page appears but spends most of her time holding onto Wolverine’s head as he gets to do all the fighting. Although you do see his bum for a few seconds in a half-hearted attempt to get some objectification of the male body in the film. It doesn’t last long because all those “lads” are probably too busy snorting on their fizzy drinks and trying desperately to affirm their heterosexuality. The only good thing this film does is to eradicate X-Men: The Last Stand – yup, history literally gets rewritten and one of the worst X-Men movies vanishes. And this means the brilliant Jean Grey is back and no doubt she’ll leave Xavier’s ridiculous school for mutant brats to join a team of awesome queer, female and diversely coloured mutants. So maybe things are looking up for Apocalypse especially with Mystique asking us to “forget everything you think you know.” Does this include the white, cisgendered, heteronormative patriarchy?

The X-Files Are Back…Yawn

Just when you thought the American government couldn’t conspire to hide the alien-based truth any longer it turns out you were wrong and there are still a load more extraterrestrial twists to be uncovered. And so, over a decade after it ended The X-Files has been rebooted for six new episodes. A friend of mine was so excited about this that they rewatched the old episodes (all 200 of them) last year in order to prepare themselves for the new season. I can safely say they completely wasted their time. Spoilers, but no aliens, ensue.

And that was one of the biggest problems – there weren’t any aliens. Ok, so there were multiple flying saucers and we even saw a little grey man get shot but it turns out all that stuff that went on in those previous 200 odd episodes was just a cover up: a well-orchestrated government conspiracy to hide the advancement of the military-industrial complex (that has been using super, fuel-efficient alien technology for over fifty years) behind a smokescreen of alien invasion. Yup, all that stuff about aliens invading earth was just a cover-up to let rich, businessmen get away with making loads of money (it even turns out that the aliens came to earth to try and help us solve our problems but the nasty government men just shot and experimented on them instead). Hence, my friend not needing to rewatch all the old series as they were basically all invalidated. “I couldn’t call,” explains Mulder, “because this is going to sound crazy.” But I don’t think crazy is the right word, I think perhaps boring or cliché. Admittedly, it was a valiant effort by series creator Chris Carter to try to summarise the entirety of globalised, militarised, consumer capitalism in a few pithy sentences involving alien conspiracies but this could also be seen as a desperate attempt to make an old series appear modern and relevant.

But it wasn’t modern and relevant because the new episode was just like the old ones. Mulder, being the guy, takes the lead and does all the actiony stuff whilst Scully stands around looking like a harried, female stereotype. “I’m just the messenger,” she says at one point, admitting to her own nature as a convenient plot device for yet another white, male’s hero’s quest, except this time he’s middle-aged and a bit wrinklier (although, mysteriously, Gillian Anderson has appeared to reverse-aged – now that’s a real conspiracy). Meanwhile, Mulder and Scully spend a lot of time looking almost-meaningfully at one another but they’ve been doing this for so long that they’re dead behind the eyes now. As for the other characters, basically just bland cardboard cut-outs that occasionally spouted some relevant exposition.

I also ended up watching a bit of a later episode about some lizard person that shoots blood out of its eyes and can morph into a human. It was as the token, hackneyed trans sex worker spoke her few lines that I realised this series really is stuck in the 90s (a white, cis, male 90s that is). If The X-Files wants to get with the 21st century it could do with killing off its leads and introducing an interesting array of new characters who don’t plod around making the same mistakes and revealing the same prejudices that they did for the last 200 episodes. Oh, and as my friend rightly asked, why does Scully not have a desk? She works just as hard as Mulder, probably for half the pay (indeed Anderson was frequently paid less than Duchovny for her acting abilities), yet he’s the one that gets to sit on a fancy swivel chair at a desk with enough room for two. I think she might want to go find her truth elsewhere.

Love (Is) Actually (For Rich White Men)

I sat down to watch Love Actually last night, one of my favourite Christmas movies – y’know, the one where Hugh Grant plays the bumbly prime minister, Colin Firth plays some bumbly writer, Keira Knightley smiles a lot and a whole host of other famous British actors don’t deviate from their usual type-castings. All wholesome, British fun. At least that’s what I used to think but since then I’ve read Judith Butler and generally become more aware of the gross inequality in this country and the many problems of patriarchy. So, this year, I saw Love Actually a little differently and came to realise that it’s basically about rich, white men getting what they want. Spoilers ensue.

For starters, three of the central relationships are about middle-aged men with power (i.e. with important jobs – Alan Rickman (aka Snape) plays the CEO of a charity, Hugh Grant the PM and Colin Firth a wealthy writer) who attract much younger, women of ‘lower status’ – Snape’s secretary, the PM’s Cockney, ‘salt-of-the-earth’ type maid (played by Martine McCutcheon) and Firth’s Portuguese cleaner. The women go out of their way to attract the men whilst the guys just bumble around getting what they want without even trying. As for woman of power in the film…well, there aren’t m/any. Sure, there are plenty of female secretaries, there’s a put-upon wife (played magnificently by Emma Thompson), there’s a dead wife, there’s a nasty, younger wife who cheats on her husband (boo, we’re not supposed to like her), and a blushing bride (Knightley) but there aren’t many inspiring roles for women in this film. Add to that the often abysmal script that many brilliant female actors are forced to speak – Snape’s secretary tempts him to cheat on his wife with her saying cringe-worthy things about “dark corners” as she spreads her legs. She’s also forced to wear devil horns to the office party as women are literally demonised in this film. At least Emma Thompson gets to speak up for herself at the end after a bit of Oscar-worthy acting to the tunes of Joni Mitchell (see below) but I still feel Snape’s apology isn’t sincere enough.

Then there are the people of colour in the film, or lack of them. We’ve got a black DJ (who’s a joke), a not particularly nice black secretary (who is also forced to serve Grant’s PM), a black best friend (who gets the odd token line and manages to defy the laws of physics by being in two places at once) and a black husband (who plays second fiddle to Keira Knightley and that random, white guy from Teachers who is secretly in love with her, cue that awful scene in which it takes Knightley’s character far too long to figure out the Teachers guy is some weirdo who fantasises about her a little too much). But is any substantial role given to a person of colour…no. As for trans and queer characters – well, Emma Thompson makes a joke about a Barbie doll that looks like a transvestite and a few people are asked if they’re gay but then quickly and vehemently deny it. So zero points on the queer front.

And then there’s Colin Frissell – a young, bumbly white guy who never has much luck with the ladies. Perhaps because he calls women he doesn’t know beautiful and is generally inappropriate in the way he talks with women. We’re supposed to like him and his goofy antics but really his attitudes and behaviour are dire. But then he flies off to America and ends up with not one but three (maybe even four) busty American women who, thanks to the stellar script, are complete idiots. So, if at first you don’t succeed lads, just keep going until women relent. Oh, and there’s that plot line about Bilbo Baggins doing nude scenes with Tracey of Gavin & Tracey fame and naturally we get to see her breasts a lot but do we get to see his penis as a bit of nudity parity…nope. I’ve always wondered what a hobbit penis would look like.

As for the other plot lines, there’s one about a father (Liam Neeson) and son which would have been better if Neeson got to shoot some people; a nice enough bromance between an aging, male rock star and his male manager; and quite a sad office romance between an American woman and some French male model. And after all that what’s the moral of this heartwarming Yuletide story – if you want to live in London and fall in love you basically have to be rich, white and male. Happy Christmas.

My favourite scene…Emma Thompson capturing the MAMMOTH emotional repression and inability to communicate of the upper middle classes perfectly. She thought he was going to get her a necklace but he gave that to the nasty, devil secretary instead. Just watch as she tries to hold back those tears and maintain a stiff upper lip in front of the kids!

Suffragettes, Lipstick & High Speed Internet

Seat found, popcorn in hand, fizzy drink in the other. I was ready to enjoy Suffragette, the new movie about the women’s rights movement in the early 20th century, when Emmeline Pankhurst was rallying thousands to the cause, when Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse, and when bricks were being thrown through windows and wires were being cut because women did not have the vote. I couldn’t wait. I love feminism, I think it’s awesome, and a whole movie about it is a right treat. But before the film, the adverts…

First there was the make-up one. John Legend takes a seat at a piano and starts singing La Vie En Rose. Then in comes Julianne Moore followed closely by Naomi Watts, Blake Lively, Leila Bekhti, Eva Longoria and a whole host of famous women. They gather around the piano in their pink dresses and friendly smiles. The camera lingers briefly on their lips, hair, chins and breasts. Legend carries on singing and sometimes the women offer a word or two, you get the impression they don’t really know the lyrics. And it’s all for Color Riche Collection Exclusive, a new line of pink lipsticks from L’Oreal. The advert ends with Moore telling us “we’re worth it” and the impression I was left with is that everyone involved with the advert (hopefully) got paid a lot of money. Ok, famous women using their celebrity status to help promote a product and a brand, it’s hardly new. I mean, it’s not quite on a par with what the Suffragettes did but it’s great that these brilliant women have made it…made it onto the set of a L’Oreal advert. It’s fine, I won’t think too much about it, can’t wait for the movie.

Then it’s Heineken and Daniel Craig. James Bond nicks a speed boat to escape some bad guys except a female water skier is attached to it. Dragged along by the boat she deftly navigates waves, rocks, a wedding, a bar (she even has time to grab a tray of beers) and one of the enemy speedboats. Jumping aboard the boat she throws a top hat at the baddy currently attacking Bond. It doesn’t do much. Bond then prompts her to tie the bad guy up to a parachute who then gets dragged away. Bond then asks her if she’d like to join him for a boozy lunch. Ok, quite funny, yes the woman is unnamed and wearing a swimming costume the whole time whereas we all know Bond’s name and the men are all wearing suits but it’s a beer advert, what can you except? Maybe a little more, maybe? Anyway, nearly time for the film!

And just before it begins a truly inspiring advert, finally! A mum and her young daughter are watching clips of great women doing great things, people like Emmeline Pankhurst, Paloma Faith, Billie Holiday, Steph Houghton, and they’re all winking at the young girl inspiring her to join the movement and become awesome. And what an inspiring way to advertise…Vivid, the new high-speed internet connection service from Virgin. Right, because that’s how we celebrate feminism throughout the years by truncating the narrative and shoehorning it into an ad for broadband. And lipstick. And beer (although I doubt Heineken has even thought about co-opting feminism into their beer-selling cause).

So there was I, excited for the movie, but a little perplexed. As I watched these adverts I couldn’t help but feel like I was at the receiving end of an agenda – an agenda that appropriates amazing moments in our history/present to inspire us, not to try and replicate these events or even celebrate them, but to buy stuff. Consumer capitalism is really rather brilliant at reducing everything to an act of consumption. It also objectifies the female body and uses it as a vehicle for selling make-up and alcohol. None of this is new but it is exceedingly boring especially when it’s juxtaposed with the ensuing film, namely one about women who risked their lives and died so women could have greater equality. And the advertising agenda wasn’t even subtle. I mean lip stick and a feminist themed broadband. It’s clear these brands did some lazy ‘market research’ before crassly targeting their presumed captive audience with the ‘appropriate’ products. But the minutes before a film like Suffragette make for prime time virtual estate. So as I finished my popcorn long before the film started I couldn’t help but feel that despite all the amazing gains that have been made there is still a very long way to go. Time to smash some beer bottles, stamp on some lipsticks and cut some fibre optics.