These stories are all heavily watched, which means they're entertaining: The 2019 film Bombshell (about the predations of Roger Ailes), Apple TV's The Morning Show (about a disgraced anchor), and Netflix's Unbelievable (about reporting rape) and 13 Reasons Why (about teen suicide resulting from sexual assault). But what's "entertaining" about sexual assault and harassment? What makes for a sensitive as opposed to a sensationalized portrayal?
Erica, Mark, and Brian consider which stories work and why. How much divergence from true events is allowable in Bombshell or Confirmation (about Anita Hill)? By having characters interpret their situations (Erica gives an example from the show Sex Education), are writers essentially telling audiences how to feel about their own experiences? Should certain depictions be ruled out as potentially triggering, or is it good to "bring to light" whatever terrible things actually happen in the world? Should shows delve into the psychology of the perpetrator (maybe even treating him as a protagonist), or must the message be wholly and unambiguously about the victim?
Art is about risk-taking and capturing difficult ambiguities; this doesn't sound much like a public service message. So what responsibility to do show creators have to consult professionals about how to present difficult topics like this?
We drew on some articles to help us look at these questions:
How does clothing mesh with set design, cinematography, sound design, etc. to create the mood in a film? Whitney designed for and dressed leads and crowds on The Great Gatsby, the Happy Death Day films and several indie flicks. She joins Erica, Mark and Brian to discuss how clothes on screen relate to clothes in life, designing vs. curating, historic vs. modern vs. genre, when costumes get distracting, her current TV and film picks for notable costuming, and how an interest in (or total obliviousness to) clothes affects the watching experience.
Read a few interviews with Whitney about her process:
Why has a children's toy become a brand attached to virtually every media type, partnering with the most ubiquitous franchises, and serving as a pastime for many adult hobbyists who will gut you if you call LEGO a "children's toy."
Brian Hirt (our resident AFOL, i.e. adult fan of LEGO) talks with co-hosts Erica Spyres and Mark Linsenmayer about creative play vs. following the printed directions, building purists vs. anthropomorphizers, LEGO qua corporate overlord, the LEGO films and competitive building TV show, and more.
Do you play video games for the plot? Given that most people don't actually finish most games, it would be unexpected if storytelling were the most important element. On this episode of Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast, your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt are joined by former video game professional (and current TV development executive) Donald E. Marshall to talk through types of plots (linear, "string-of-pearls," and branching), ways of weaving story into a game, balancing gameplay and narrative, and more.
The comic and the tragic are well-established modes within entertainment, but what about the puzzling? Riddles may have been a chief pastime in days of yore (well, they're featured in Oedipus and The Hobbit, anyway), but does this way of being entertained have a place in today's age of mass media?
Improviser and podcaster Adal Rifai joins Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to discuss his love of escape rooms, riddles, and other opportunities for puzzlement. We discuss lateral vs. algorithmic thinking, group dynamics, comparisons to improvisation and trivia, riddle types, video games, and more. Some puzzle-relevant films we touch on include Escape Room, Cube, The Game, and Midnight Madness.
Every Pretty Much Pop episode includes bonus, post-episode discussion, and this time Adal stayed around for a little more on escape rooms (can they engage all five senses?) and quite a bit more on podcasting, including the parasocial relationships that listeners may have with podcast hosts. This was sufficiently fun that we'd like to share it with all of you, in hopes that you might then want to hear this for all our our episodes by supporting us at patreon.com/prettymuchpop.
This week's guest Vi Burlew has arisen, a shining figure clad in mail, carrying aloft a shimmering broadsword to bring your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt this topic about the hero's journey.
This general plot structure dating back to ancient myth was detailed by Joseph Campbell and famously and deliberately plundered to create the plot of the original Star Wars. So how has this evolved with the increasing introduction of female heroes in recent, largely Disney-owned blockbusters? We talk Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, anticipate Black Widow and the new Mulan, but also bring in Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Wizard of Oz, Little Women, Jane Eyre, Working Girl, and of course Road House.
What complicates this issue is that a distinct "heroine's journey" had already been plotted in response to Campbell by feminist thinkers at least back to Maureen Murdock in 1990. The key difference is that while the hero achieves the goal and comes home in triumph, the heroine then realizes that there was something self-betraying about the triumph and requires an additional step of reconciliation with her origins. This is like if Luke realized after destroying the Death Star that he was a moisture farmer all along and had to come to terms with that. (Maybe he could actually grieve for his dead aunt and uncle and his best friend Biggs!)
It's been argued that Harry Potter's journey more closely resembles that heroine's journey, whereas, say, Eowyn from Lord of the Rings ("I am no man!") is a more traditional hero. Action films of today may feature female heroes, but when this is done thoughtfully (not just by taking an action hero and swapping the gender without further alteration), then filmmakers may tweak the structure of the myth to include some gender-specific elements and perhaps blend the two types of journey. These new variants that may or may not resonate in the way that caused the original Star Wars/Campbell formula to become so popular.
Two articles we specifically cite in our discussion are:
Butler has been a tremendously influential (and controversial) figure in ongoing intellectual debates about gender and sexuality. Her 1990 book Gender Trouble argues that gender is a "performance," i.e. a habitual group of behaviors that reflect and reinforce social gender norms. Practices such as dressing in drag satirize this performance, showing how even in "normal" situations, "acting feminine" is not a reflection of one's inner essence but is a matter of putting on a display of culturally expected mannerisms. The drag performer (on Butler's analysis) may convey an absurdity that deconstructs the expected accord of biological sex, sexual preference, and gender identity: "I'm dressing like a woman but am really a man; also, in my everyday life, I dress like a man but am really (in the way I actually feel about myself) am a woman." Most controversially, as a post-structuralist, Butler argues that it's not the case that there is an uncontroversial biological fact of sex that then culture connects gender behaviors to. Instead, all of our understanding of the so-called biological fact comes through the cultural lens of gender; we literally can't understand any such raw, biological fact apart from its cultural associations. In other words, it's not just gender that's a social construction, but biological sex itself.
This position has been attacked both from the position of naive, common-sense scientism (of course biological differences resulting in babies isn't just a matter of what concepts a particular society has happened to develop) and as a moral hazard and existential threat: In 2017 while at a conference in Brazil, far-right Christian groups protested her presence and even burned her in effigy.
It should also be noted that Butler's take on gender departs from current, intuitive explanations of the phenomena of transgenderism, i.e. that one might feel their "true gender" to be different from what society has assigned them. For Butler, there is no inner gender essence that may or may not be displayed authentically. Instead, the "inner" is a cultural construction, itself built out of our external performances and the dynamics of our psychic life, which she discusses within the psychoanalytic tradition.
This use of psychoanalysis to explain our cultural life persists in newly released book, The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind. Though the theory of nonviolent political protest may seem a far-flung topic from gender studies, both involve the process of defining an identity. In the case of gender, one defines oneself as a particular gender or as being of a particular sexual orientation (as opposed to leaving these attributes ambiguous and fluid) by grasping onto a strict social division between the available sexual options and declaring that one of them is "not me." In Butler's discussion of nonviolence, she instead focuses on what counts as "self" in the usually excused exception to nonviolence, self-defense. She's criticizing a position where most of us claim to be nonviolent (and claim that our government is nonviolent) because we are not the aggressors: We will fight only when we are attacked or threatened.
It's not that Butler is categorically against using violence to defend oneself, one's loved ones, one's country, or anyone else who is in danger of being seriously harmed. She is, however, arguing for an ethic of nonviolence that clearly understands our interrelatedness with everyone else in the world, even and especially those that we might think outside our circle of concern. It's too easy for us to define "self" as "people like us," which then leaves out the rest of the populace (and the non-human population, and the environment more generally) from inclusion in our "self-defense" calculations of when violence might be justified. Butler analyzes the fear of immigrants, for instance, as a "phantasmatic transmutation" that projects the potential for violence that always exists within our immediate social relations (and even our own rage against ourselves) onto an invading Other. As in the case of gender, she wants us instead to understand the dynamics of these self-and-other attributions, to behave more rationally and humanely, and to channel our unavoidable rage constructively into forceful non-violence, or what Gandhi calls Satyagraha, "polite insistence on the truth." The goal of this type of political action is conversion, not coercion, and it's communication and respecting even a hated other as a grievable equal that provides a real contrast to violence. She wants us to recognize the potential for violence within each relationship, at each moment, and to choose otherwise.
Get the best cultural and educational resources on the web curated for you in a daily email. We never spam. Unsubscribe at any time.
FOLLOW ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Open Culture scours the web for the best educational media. We find the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & educational videos you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between.