Thor: Hela Hath No Fury Like Cate Blanchett Scorned

When I was little I was always rooting for the baddies – Scar was just so much more fun than moralistic Mufasa and his arrogant son; Jafar was fab, even his facial expressions were more interesting than anything cocksure Aladdin did, and Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent is fab. In hindsight, I think it’s because these characters oozed rebellion and camp, giving two murderous fingers to all those endless cis, straight men who ruled their worlds awfully but called themselves Gods, Kings and heroes while they were at it. Twenty odd years later and nothing has changed – boy, did I want Cate Blanchett’s Hela, Goddess of Death, to skewer Thor, God of cisgendered, heteronormative patriarchy and smash his home planet of Asgard into smithereens (spoilers). And she almost succeeded.

I went to the cinema for dramatic and colourful escapism and I got it – there were more rainbows in Thor: Ragnarok than in a well-lit museum of prisms and we got a fair few shots of Chris Hemsworth’s buff chest. Cate Blanchett’s arrival was epic – she crushed Thor’s hammer-penis-ego-extension thing with one hand. There was some funny bromance between Thor and the Hulk (tbh, Chris Hemsworth is really funny), Tom Hiddlestone grinned his way through one of Marvel’s only memorable villains – Loki, and Tessa Thompson’s character, Valkyrie, was an alcoholic, gambling warrioress who kicked butt on her own terms and answered to no man (until she suddenly changes her mind and acknowledges Thor as King at movie’s end). Of course, this is Hollywood and all the usual failings are there – why is there only one well-rounded female character in the group of male heroes, why not two or three (or y’know, the whole fucking group), and any trans or nonbinary heroes…nope. Why is the Grand Master of the bizarre planet of Sakaar a man, albeit a hilarious, exceptionally camp Jeff Goldblum? Why is Hela’s assistant a man? Why was the one scene that would confirm Valkyrie’s bisexuality cut? Why was Korg’s (a male warrior made from rocks) first love not mentioned, a first love who was a man? Why was Loki’s gender fluidity and probable pansexuality unmentioned? Of course, we know why and it’s going to be years before diversity triumphs over patriarchy.

But something I did enjoy was Cate Blanchett’s unashamed villainy. She is Thor and Loki’s elder sister and firstborn of idiot patriarch Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins). She reveals the sordid truth behind Asgard’s glory – that all the gold and treasure was gained through bloodshed and annihilation, with her being her father’s executioner (maybe an allusion to the US and its legacy of slavery and militaristic imperialism often papered over by photographable presidents…until Trump, who is just plain awful and too stupid to be considered a super villain). Yup, Odin trained his own daughter to be a psychopathic mass-murderer then banished her when her power grew more than his. So, whilst it’s hard to root for her genocidal intent I did get where she was coming from and struggled to see her out-witted by a group of men and a token Valkyrie (who doesn’t get an actual name beyond her race). But at least when Hela gets destroyed, Asgard, planet of sociopathic, patriarchal monarchy, goes with her. Unfortunately, the film still ends with Thor taking the throne because Hollywood isn’t ready to give up on white men running everything. But times are changing, incredibly slowly, and Raganarok – the death of the Gods in Norse mythology – isn’t over yet. The heroes of colour are amassing as are the female heroes and the queer ones – soon, cis, straight, white men will be the disposable, comedy sidekicks and we’ll get the rainbow warriors we deserve. Now here’s Jafar owning Genie, because even though that movie went straight to video it was still one of my favourites (although this was before I learned about post-colonialism and cultural appropriation).


Wonderful Woman

There’s something about watching demi-goddesses beat the living crap out of each other and not even get a scratch that is really quite exciting (btw, spoilers!). Yup, the first twenty odd minutes of the new Wonder Woman film are dedicated to the all-female clan of Amazon warrioresses created by the gods of Mount Olympus to protect humankind. Needless to say humankind swiftly became mankind, which quick got to relentlessly killing itself and so the Amazonians retreated to the hidden island of Themyscria where the eponymous heroine of the film is born. Unfortunately for Wonder Woman, aka Diana (played by Gal Gadot), WW1 blasts its violent way into her peaceful life. She chooses not to take things lying down and teams up with US spy Captain Steve Trevor to go and put an end to the war. Cue trenches, machine guns, mustard gas and a host of nefarious villains.

There are so many things to praise about this film. It passes the Bechdel test without being a film that tries to pass the Bechdel test because it is inherently a film about women (well, one woman to be precise). It also features a Native American smuggler, a marksman with PTSD and a Moroccan spy who are all given enough wiggle room to express characterhood without being reduced to stereotypes. A few hurdles it falls down at are lazily equating facial scars with villainy as Isabel Maru, a chief villain who loves gassing people to death, wears a mask over part of her face and doesn’t get to do much other than be a ‘deformed’ psychopath. It also completely buys into conventional representations of ‘beauty’ with a ‘golden couple’ at the heart of the film. Also, given that lady-on-lady romances would abound on Themyscria why not just come out and say it? And, even if Hollywood is desperate to have a man-on-woman romance, why not make Diana proudly bisexual?

One area in which I think the film excels is in the portrayal of Diana’s relentless optimism. Her chief goal in the film is to find Ares, god of war, and slay him, believing that in killing him the war will end as will mankind’s belligerence. At first she’s a bit naive about this, assuming that human’s are inherently good, but as the plot progresses she comes to realise that humans are neither inherently good nor bad but that they have the ability to choose how to behave and can be encouraged to choose good. I like the nuance and I like the shots of troops from the Allies and Central Powers shaking hands once Ares has been slain (fyi, Ares turns out to be a British politician and not the nasty German general proving that all countries were complicit in the atrocities of WW1). And this links to a fascinating bit of history that during 1918/9 there were an abundance of strikes and revolutions in Europe (including Britain!) as soldiers and civilians alike got so fed up of fighting the establishment’s war. These strikes often failed or ended with another bunch of bastards taking political control but they prove the moral shades of grey at the heart of the ‘war to end all wars’ and that the capitalist elite’s exploitation of workers transcends national borders. Imagine a sequel that goes from here rather than just introduces a new super baddy and rehashes the same plot, maybe in WW2. In summary, there’s so much to like when it comes to Wonder Woman not least its breaking of boundaries and box offices. Of course, what is not to like are Gal Gadot’s seemingly naive views on the Israeli Defence League and the huge number of civilian deaths in Gaza (giving more than enough reason for many people to boycott this film). Diana constantly reminds her fellow characters that war is wrong and not inherent to human nature, now let’s apply that logic to the real world.

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.

Meaningless Millenials: Clique & Search Party

Life can seem quite meaningless for millennials these days as we’re forced to jump through the increasingly outdated hoops of school all for the sake of one day getting an adult job. However, much debt later and those dream jobs tend to be unpaid internships or going the way of automisation. Meanwhile, Trump, Brexit, climate change etc etc…what do we do!? It’s no surprise then that this nihilistic turn ends up influencing popular culture. Two examples include recent mystery based dramas with Gen Y protagonists, Search Party (TBS) and Clique (BBC). For the former think Nancy Drew meets mid-twenties millennial malaise with a side of Gone Girl and the latter is a less funny Mean Girls meets The Secret History with Scottish accents. Both have meaninglessness at their hearts but for two very different reasons. Oh, and head’s up, there will be spoilers.

Search Party tells the story of Dory, not the forgetful fish, but a 20s something woman living in New York who lacks direction and purpose in life. Naturally, she goes looking for this by going looking for Chantal – an old college acquaintance who is now a missing person. Cue hunting for clues, curious suspects, intriguing red herrings and a whole cast of amazing characters – from her endlessly self-absorbed rich friends to a cult-load of ‘wellness-seeking’ weirdos. Dory’s 21st century world is exceptionally bleak but also very, very funny. Clique takes itself a little more seriously as young students and lifelong friends, Holly and Georgie, fall out over getting in with the in-crowd: four conventionally beautiful young women who have looks and banking internships to die for (literally in the case of one of them who kills herself in episode one). The characters here are familiar clichés: the charismatic lecturer who lures the impressionable young women in with her force of character (and questionable brand of feminism) and the attractive people who do glamorous things (e.g. take drugs, jump into swimming pools with their clothes on, have chauffeurs etc) but aren’t actually that interesting. However, what’s great about Clique is that it’s going all out to fail the Mechdel test – the male equivalent of the Bechdel test – as the guys are left to be annoying, peripheral characters and the occasional bare butt shot.

So both shows are full of selfish and sometimes vacuous characters, however, I’d say Search Party is knowingly presenting them as such in order to skewer them in parody. It takes a mirror to Gen Y’s obsession with selfies, celebrity and self-promotion, and reminds us that it’s all paper-thin (whilst also mistressfully weaving this trope into the denouement). Meanwhile, I feel Clique is being a little more earnest in its vacuity and trying to convince us that, like Holly and Georgie, we really should want to join the clique of coke-snorting, unpaid yet highly attractive interns who don’t say much of interest and are forced to work for/with complete chauvinists. But that’s the thing with cliques – cool from a distance but kinda disappointing once you’re inside. Although I’m not convinced Holly is all that convinced of the clique either so, with three episodes to go, there’s still plenty of time for biting, poignant cultural critique a la Search Party.

Interestingly, one thing lacking in both these tales of millennial woe are significant adult figures. Search Party has the odd wellness guru and disinterested, rich parent, whilst Clique has got the over-zealous lecturer and her weird brother but I feel both series are missing a trick because without adults who can the Gen Yers blame for all our problems? Let’s face it without the baby boomers we millennials wouldn’t be here. Without their inventions, businesses, advertising agencies and super-charged model of consumer capitalism where on earth would we go to struggle to find meaning and purpose? I mean if they’d invested in sustainable energy, steady-state economic models and put community before profit then Dory and Holly probably would have already found themselves and wouldn’t need to go on dangerous mystery adventures. Likewise, their friends would probably spend more time looking out for one another and not wasting so much time setting up faux-charitable initiatives to boost their fragile self-esteems or chasing the next high-functioning sociopath with a six-pack. And nor would everyone be stone broke and forced to pay too much rent because we’d have caps on renting or, who knows, maybe all housing would be social housing. And freaky wellness cults run by overly charismatic yet dubious people who wear too much expensive jewellery wouldn’t need to be invented because we’d all probably be quite happy sharing stuff and looking out for one another. Who’d need an exclusive clique when we’d all have community. Anyways, just a thought. Now quick, back to Instagram!

Matilda The Musical And Why We’re Never Growing Up

I was very lucky to be able to watch Matilda The Musical the other day. Not only did it get me in the festive mood but I also thought it was a brilliant production. Lots of dedicated kids and adults singing their hearts out and weaving a fantastic and rather timeless story. It’s based on the Roald Dahl book, which was made into an ace movie, and now it’s on in the West End. A few spoilers on the way but I am guessing you probably already know the story: Matilda, a young girl, is bullied by her horrible parents who try and stifle her blossoming genius by threatening to ban reading. Then off to school where she is bullied by the awful (but brilliant) headmistress Miss Trunchbull who has a habit of putting naughty children in Chokey – a small and spiky cage (yup, Roald Dahl was dark). However, Matilda meets Miss Honey, a passionate teacher who is very shy and timid, and very scared of Miss Trunchbull. Miss Honey spots Matilda’s genius and tries to help foster it as any good teacher should. The rest involves giant chocolate cakes, telekinesis and floating chalk. Like many stories about children this one is about growing up and there’s a great song that is all about doing just that (see video below, starts around 42 seconds in) but there’s one bit in particular that is just spot on.

The woman in the pink cardigan is Miss Honey and it’s funny that an adult should be singing about growing up. Her words are these: “When I grow up, I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed each night to be a grown up.” And it takes a super-genius, telekinetic girl with an immense capacity for bravery to help Miss Honey grow up and fight the creatures that have been plaguing her often lonely and frightened life. Yet, it’s us adults who have a habit of telling children to just grow up whilst simultaneously telling them that things will be better once they have grown up. But I reckon us adults have an awful lot of growing up to do as well and really we’re using ‘adulthood’ as a facade to exercise undue authority. Yes, adults can be frightened, lonely, scared, mean and nasty too but until we can be honest about our vulnerability we’ll keep on missing those chances to grow up, chances that come from all directions, including (and maybe espeically) from those younger than us. Only then can the world we promise our children really come true.

Matilda also has another great point to make, which is that to make a difference you don’t have to do huge things, the little things you’re capable of can also make a huge difference. Whether it’s offering a helping hand or a listening ear or even just a smile, the little things do add up and they do have an impact. Matilda is also big on challenging authority and fighting injustice, and thanks to her ‘little’ actions, which are huge for others, so much change happens. So yes, 2016 has been quite a year and 2017 has an awful lot of work to do but I reckon it’ll be a much better year if, like Matilda, we do the little things we can and, together, help each other grow up.

The Trouble With The Gilmore Girls

Only a couple more weeks until the Gilmore Girls return in four brand new episodes on Netflix. But who are the Gilmore Girls, I hear you ask. Well, it’s a popular American dramedy (drama-comedy, yup, that’s a thing) that ran from 2000 to 2007 and now they’re coming back. The ‘girls’ themselves are Lorelai and Rory Gilmore. Lorelai is a single Mum who was shunned by her rich parents when she became pregnant. Rory is her daughter. They live in the kooky town of Stars Hollow where all manner of daily adventures take place. It sounds like a recipe for success – not one but two female protagonists and a supporting cast of likeable, if kooky, characters. Indeed, it was a success, a huge success, and people all over the world enjoyed watching Lorelai and Rory talk at an incredibly fast pace and remain in great health despite diets of takeaway food.

However, scratch beneath the surface and the kookiness takes on a darker hue. For starters, the supporting cast is one of stereotypes – there’s Manuel (correction, his name is Michel, I was mistaking him for the stereotyped waiter in Fawlty Towers and compounding the stereotype – sorry), the one black and homosexual character who is a smörgåsbord of tokenisms; there’s Sookie, Lorelai’s co-worker and the token ‘larger’ character whilst nearly all other characters are slim and conventionally good-looking (she’s also played by the epic Melissa McCarthy who was tragically underused). There’s Kirk the ‘oddball’ character who is frequently mocked for finding it difficult to socialise. There’s Lane, Rory’s nice Asian friend, but never going to be the star of the show. And there’s Lane’s Mum who is all sorts of offensive cultural generalisations. And don’t forget Paris, the ambitious and intelligent one who regularly gets mocked for being ambitious and intelligent, unlike Rory whose achievements come naturally and without fuss. Meanwhile, if you wish to find other diverse characters, e.g. bisexual, lesbian, transgender, ethnicities besides black and asian, non-Christian, this is not the show for you. But this isn’t new, shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother also fall foul of these tropes.

However, I think the biggest problem is that the Gilmore Girls are presented as normal – Rory and Lorelai are presented as the great bastions of normality around whom all other characters are presented as weird offshoots. Yet these ‘girls’ are not normal. For one Lorelai gets to have her cake and eat it with regards her wealthy background – she simultaneously accepts handouts from her parents whilst decrying said privilege. She hands these views down to Rory who we witness in one episode paying a guy $20 so she can sit under the tree he’s sitting by. There are other trees! Rory also never learns how to do her own laundry, a useful plot device to see her relentlessly driving from Harvard to Stars Hollow to hang out and talk fast with her Mom. The ‘girls’ also enjoy mocking their fellow townspeople, making offhand jokes about genocide and ebola, and generally belittling the lives of others. Yet these ‘girls’ are the moral core of the programme and I think that’s a little problematic.

Other problems include the replacement of plot with endless talking – Rory talks to her current boyfriend, Rory talks to Lorelai about talking to her current boyfriend, Lorelai talks to Sookie about talking with Rory about her talking with her current boyfriend. Of course, what would be interesting if Sookie then talked to the current boyfriend and we discovered they were having an affair together – but that would constitute plot rather than talking. Then there’s the soundtrack, composed of a singer chanting monosyllables like ‘la’ and ‘da’ over and over again as the scenes change. However, the saving grace of the Gilmore Girls is Emily, Lorelai’s mother. She is a rich, snobbish, conservative bigot and regularly complains about other people, who she treats largely  as means to satisfying her various ends. But she is consistent in her views. At least we know where we stand with Emily (ideally, far away), she’ll be rude to her staff and she’ll complain vociferously at restaurants whereas Lorelai and Rory are too busy trying to present as ‘women of the people’ when really they’re more like Emily than they care to acknowledge (I guess Emily would unashamedly vote Trump whilst Rory and Lorelia would vote for Hillary but not necessarily campaign against the structural injustices of neoliberal capitalism).

Now, I realise I might as well stop blogging given that I’ve just criticised one of America’s national treasures but there is something I must admit to – I kinda love the show. I have watched an awful lot of episodes (although not all, which is my disclaimer for this post containing any factual inaccuracise) and seen Rory and Lorelai eat far too many pancakes at Luke’s cafe, go to lots of kooky town events and bicker with various partners. Like erosion, their incessant waves of chatter have gradually worn away at my coastal defenses and for some unknown reason I actually find myself caring about the people of Stars Hollow. So, yeah, I will definitely watch the new episodes and shudder every time a character is tokenised but also cheer when Rory and Lorelai achieve great things. I love those Gilmore Girls…or should that be Gilmore Women?

Bake Off: Why Women Aren’t Good Enough (Spoilers)

There’s always a lesson to learn during the final episode of the Great British Bake Off and this one came right at the end. The camera is focussed on a tearful, victorious Candice who just won herself gold with some tasty little pig sausage roles, moist chocolate cake and custard tarts. She’s got a bouquet of flowers in one hand and the random, glass medal thing in the other (oh, it’s a cake plate) and this is what she says: “I did it, I am good, I’m good enough.” And it’s funny because when I watched Candice ace it through each round of the final I never doubted whether or not she was good enough, for me, she was always more than good enough. But this isn’t the first time I’ve heard a woman doubt her self belief and I wonder if something’s going on?

The two female finalists got a lot of flack over the past few weeks. Candice was disliked for her varying shades of lipstick and her pout. She was disliked for her accent and her choice of clothes. Meanwhile, Jane was disliked for being old (she’s only 61!), for her hair and for her supposed headmistress sternness. All of these things are, of course, bullshit and we should have been cheering both them on for being such star bakers. Yet patriarchy is as patriarchy does and in a world where women are constantly made to feel inferior to men they have far more work to do to get to the top. But get to the top they did without a soggy bottom in sight.

Now, I don’t want to be accused of too many generalisations but it saddens me when people don’t think they’re good enough because often that attitude is the product of a misdirected over-ambition and an inability to see the good in oneself. Can’t we all just give ourselves a break and allow ourselves to be good enough? However, as our history is one of so much misogyny it’s often women who have even less self-belief. Anecdotally, I have never heard a successful man say he suffers from the imposter syndrome (i.e. the belief that you shouldn’t be where you are professionally and you’re just a sham waiting to be uncovered) but I have heard many successful women say it. Goddammit. Success is for all of us and we should be free to enjoy it without guilt (providing it’s the right sort of success, i.e. baking great cakes, not earning loads whilst crashing national economies).

So I hope winning the Bake Off helps Candice realise just what a blooming brilliant baker and person she is but I hope she knows she’s these things anyway, even if she hadn’t won. For me, the final showed that woman absolutely rock as lovely, earnest Andrew was forced to cash in on his male privilege and step aside. And what’s even better is that Candice and Jane, who shared a great rivalry throughout the show (for which they got much online flack), are now off on a baking road trip together. There are a lot of stereotypes out there that suggest women can’t be friends because they’re always bitching about each other and competing for men (or star baker) but, once again, the women of Bake Off showed us what a load of unbaked, bullshit that is. And here’s a funny penis cake.