Tag Archives: HBO

The Blogger Who Cried Sexism: A Cautionary Tale

I don’t usually directly respond to articles written by other women who write from a place of feminism. I don’t like a lot of the infighting that goes on amongst feminists, the ‘is she a good feminist‘ and ‘can she be feminist even if she says she isn’t‘ and ‘can she be a feminist and also sexy‘ etc etc blah blah blah.  I disagree very much with the article I am about to discuss, but this will not be an indictment of the writer. Instead I just wanna tell a sort of cautionary tale, in the hopes that we can continue to have thoughtful discussions that go deeper than a click bait headline.

That being said, the title of the article in question is:

Dave Grohl’s Sonic Highways Systematically Erases Women in Music

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Ok. So. That’s a lot. It’s a big claim. And our author tries hard to back it up. Reading it, however, gave me the distinct impression that she had a pretty big issue with Grohl to begin with (“Grohl has shown himself increasingly to be not much more than a rock and roll formalist, the type of man who is a dying breed”), and wanted to write about her dislike of both the series and the director in a way that seemed important. She claims, “Sonic Highways is meant to reflect Grohl’s own fandom and musical upbringing—but it also positions itself as a type of definitive oral history of each city’s music scene.” I object! Sonic Highways is Grohl’s pet project, an obviously self serving adventure that he wanted to take his band on, and film and sell to HBO. Each episode ends with a Foo Fighters music video, with the lyrics displayed on the screen. It’s not exactly Ken Burns, but I’ve found it pretty entertaining. I don’t think he makes any claims that it serves as a Definitive Oral History. It’s just him talking to people he thinks are cool, and allowing the places he visits to directly influence his new songs.

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But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that it is a history of sorts. I have only watched 3 of the 8 episodes, but I can remember women in each episode. The last episode I watched, set in Nashville, shows women ruling the day. He talks at length to Carrie Underwood, Emmylou Harris, and motha fuckin’ DOLLY PARTON herself. The 2nd episode in DC features Amy Pickering, and our author does acknowledge that: “Amy Pickering, who headed up punk band Fire Party and started the scene’s legendary “Revolution Summer” essentially in solidarity with apartheid protesters, gets a decent amount of airtime, but mostly about politics (and, at one point, the camera cuts in to her convo with Grohl for the sole purpose of showing her laugh at a joke Grohl makes).” Is it just me, or does that parenthetical aside just reek of disdain. That aside is also a pretty big assumption about a directorial choice, meant to undercut the presence of a woman when she claims there are none. She goes on to mention female bands, mostly from Seattle, that she feels Grohl was remiss in leaving out. But it’s his show, for his personal fun. He interviewed who he wanted. I mean, sure, he could have tried to pick a few more ladies, I guess. But not only are there enough that I myself didn’t notice any dearth (and I love finding and pointing out misogyny/gender issues/sexism, let me tell you, I basically live for it), but the project just isn’t about that and I don’t think it needs to be. She also says: “As Sonic Highways tells it, women’s involvement in American music has been cursory, at best, with a the amount of women musicians allowed to speak in any given episode topping out at around three, regardless of how prominent these women might be. Furthermore, no women of color have a chance to speak in any of the seven episodes that have aired (the eighth and final episode, set in New York City and at least touching on hip-hop, airs Sunday, and will hopefully remedy that).”  I do not concur. I do not feel he portrays the women he includes as cursory to the main story, and 3 in an episode may be enough if you know how many men there are by comparison and how the screen time divides (I don’t, but if you need to delve this deeply and use math to prove your point then the phrase ‘Systematically Erases’ doesn’t apply. Also Dolly Parton counts as like 10 women cause she is effing amazing so in that episode there are like, 13.) I do agree with her observation about racial diversity; the majority of the folks interviewed on screen are white. But not everything is going to be a bastion of diversity when someone has their own agenda. So yea, he is choosing these specific stories, because his experience has been informed by these folks. And again, since he isn’t making claims about this documentary being all encompassing, I think the observation ‘diversity is scarce’ is fair, but find the vitriol confusing.

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I don’t want to be an apologist for stories that lack diversity, and that is not my intent. Here is my issue: There are lots of super real and present issues that women continue to battle against on a daily basis. Sexual violence, the wage gap, reproductive rights and more are pressing and current and painful, and they are systematically supported by a culture that still doesn’t truly believe that sexism is real. And you know what, the erasure of women from history and culture is also real and painful, and in it’s own way a form of violence. I completely acknowledge that. And if Grohl had said ‘I am making a documentary about all the most important people in music organized geographically’, then the conversation would be different. But this is just some fan shit he’s doing. He wants to talk to people he thinks are cool. And some of those people, I would argue a fair amount, are women. I think we also have to remember that he grew up in a culture that downplayed women’s role in the culture, and downplayed their talents beyond beauty. So if his influences are mostly male, this is not entirely his fault because his experiences don’t happen in a vacuum. Neither do our own. And this article with it’s sensational title is NOT HELPING the cause.

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This headline, and her whole tone, I just feel they don’t create a productive piece. While sexism and misogyny continue to be pervasive and harmful, we must be mindful of the claims we make. It’s not fair, but it’s true. If we cry wolf, or get our facts wrong, then we leave ourselves open to criticism from folks who don’t want the world to change (Jon Stewart addressed this brilliantly last night, after he himself made an on-air mistake #worththewatch). If we blow our righteous anger load on stories that aren’t deserving of it, then our righteous anger becomes a joke. We become caricatures, the silly/emotional/hairy/angry feminazis they claim we are. The burden of proof is still, unfairly, on us. And this article doesn’t meet it.

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But this isn’t a trial, and if this author sincerely feels this way about Sonic Highways, then she has every right to express those feelings. I still think the headline is over the top, but maybe that’s the editor, and indeed that’s how the internet journalism game is played. In this case, I agree that we disagree. I urge you to check out the docu-series and judge for yourself. Are women given enough camera time? Does it matter in the context of this project? Are you inspired to create your own series dedicated to women in these places, in these historical spaces? Because I wish, rather than yell at Dave for being a “rockist-Dad”, that she’d just told us more about the bands she wished were chosen and why. Why be so antagonistic about a pet project that is not meant to cover the entire music history of each city it visits? Why not try to start a discussion instead of scold the front man of a band you so obviously find repulsive and dated? For example, lets talk about why there aren’t more documentaries directed by women or minorities, specifically telling stories that have been left out of the mainstream canon? I would love to see more women helmed projects about women in music, or more black directors telling stories about black music culture. If we diversify the people in charge, the resulting stories will be ever more unique and diverse, and more voices will be heard. Why isn’t this happening more? Is it happening at all? How can we help these story tellers to create and release their projects? Sometimes, I think it can be helpful to tone down the rage and just ask some questions.

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**Sometimes rage is completely the acceptable response, and women are completely capable of feeling and harnessing anger, and we should when it’s needed. I just want us to use all the tools we have, thoughtfully, with an eye towards education and inclusion.

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The Normal Heart: My Heartache for Humanity

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Last night I watched The Normal Heart. If you can get your hands on someone’s HBO GO password, I highly recommend watching it. Everyone’s performance was stellar. I kept thinking I knew who’d delivered the most heartbreaking monologue, and I kept being wrong. There might be spoilers ahead, but there aren’t any real twists in the movie. Just a steady flow of death, and the search for answers.

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The story of AIDS in the early 80’s, before the disease had a name, before they knew it was a virus that attacked one’s immune system, is a story of panic and indifference. Because the initial outbreak occurred in the gay community, the culture at large remained unconcerned at best, and hostile at worst, to the first patients. When the outbreak continued to spread, the now familiar signs of hate (literal picket signs) began to appear. It wasn’t until 4 years after the first reported case that President Reagan said the word AIDS out loud, acknowledging the disease as a public health risk and pledging research dollars to find a cure. By that time, thousands were already dead or infected.

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Watching a person you love, possibly more than any other person on earth, get sick and whither away, is an experience that I have been up close and personal with. The fear you carry around, a deep and murky river just below the surface, it never goes away. And most of us have never plunged down into it, and so we do not know how deep it goes. If one has cause to care for a loved one who is ill, it will likely be a defining experience of their life. It is the defining experience of my life. And as I watched this movie, I felt deeply connected to the characters who wanted to save the ones they loved. Who needed answers, and hope, and had none. I am decades removed from this particular crisis and do not personally know anyone with this disease, but the experience resonated with my own none the less.

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And so why, I wonder, why was the world so callous and uncaring? How can you see young men in the prime years of their life withering away and possibly think ‘they got what they deserve.’ I don’t understand how it is possible that, all too often, people look at others and see difference where there is mostly commonality. I don’t understand how we so easily accept that some of us are good and others not, when it’s so obvious that all of us contain both dark and light within us. I don’t understand why, when given the choice, people seem to believe that hate is the safer choice, over love.

Seeing the humanity is every face you encounter, treating everyone with respect and love, this to me is the most important and urgent message of feminism. All of the specific political issues are, of course, important, because they affect people’s lives in very real and tangible ways. But at the heart of the issues, the real question is: do you care about other people? Do you value their life, their lived experiences, as much as your own? That is the real question of those first political activists fighting for AIDS research and community support. Obviously they needed to know what the virus was and how to treat it. But asking for money and support, it was really a plea for empathy. A plea for compassion. It was one community, reaching out to their larger community, asking if anyone recognized their humanity enough to help save those that were dying.

In the wake of recent incredibly violent and well publicized rampages, I have nothing but disdain for anyone who treats other people as inferior, as other, as less than human. Frankly, if you have a gun and shoot girls because you feel entitled to their bodies and attention, or if you are just a person who quietly thinks mysoginistic thoughts that you never express, I see no difference. You are part of the problem, you are a blockade on the road to a better world. We are all so alike, deeply alike on a fucking atomic level. I want to see love, and unity, and togetherness. I want to see compassion. Without those, full equality will never be realized.

This Week in GoT Atrocities (but really I wanna talk about Mad Men)

This week in TV the biggest story hails not from AMC and the quiet brooding drama of Mad Men, but from the fantastical dragon and winter zombie filled world of Game of Thrones. I think it’s an excellent time to talk about why good writing is so important, particularly when dealing with sensitive subject matter.

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Alright so Jamie and Cersei are everyone’s favorite conniving incestuous lovers. She, in my opinion, is the worst of all of them. I think she is pure manipulation and hatred, and I find her completely despicable and beyond saving. Which is super awesome, because true female villains are few and far between. The disdain she inspires in me is refreshing, and I relish it. Jamie has been on a journey that is largely redemptive, and I think his devotion for her (despite how creepy it is) is endearing. Which is why the choice of the writers to film the love scene that takes place next to their dead son as a rape is truly mind boggling. You can read about how it’s different from the book here, but it’s not the change itself that is upsetting.

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I am not against portraying rape on TV or in movies. It’s a thing that happens in real life, and if it’s handled with care it can be important to see. The folks who filmed the scene between siblings seem to feel as though they shot a scene that started out as rape, but turned consensual. This is where I start to get itchy. First of all, that is not at all what happened, so there must have been some miscommunication. She is protesting throughout. But a blurred lines scene is really a tricky scene to attempt, and it already makes me nervous, because why? Why make the scene more complicated when it’s already a incestuous sex scene that takes place in the presence of their dead love child? The explanations from the directer feel lame (time line issues, rape turned consent) and feel alarmingly close to the kind of language that rapists and rape apologists use (I could tell she really wanted it, silence is consent.) I am baffled by the choice of the writers to make the change, and baffled at the execution. And then I thought, ‘what is the right way to do this?’ And as usual, I found my answer right where I expected.

In this scene, we watch a date rape occur when Joan’s fiancé visits her at work. The scene is important because we all learn just the exact kind of terrible person Greg is, but also because we see Joan’s inner struggle. Her whole arc is about coping with the loss of what she thought she wanted, and her life with Greg is the biggest piece of that debunked puzzle. The scene is violent without being big or obvious, it’s gut wrenching without having to hear her scream. We watch her try to flirt her way out of the situation, we watch her become frightened, and then we watch her escape the situation as a survival technique. It’s disturbing, but it feels very very real. The way the scene is shot allows us access to both characters, but most importantly to Joan, and we see each moment and her emotional response very clearly.

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Rape can of course be incredibly violent and brutal. It can also be quieter, and more confusing, because most sexual assailants are known to the victim. The scene between Jamie and Cersei felt heavy handed and wrong because those characters wouldn’t have that interaction. It doesn’t feel true to who they are. And we are missing both their faces, we can’t get at their motivations. And if Cersei does stop fighting and either get into it or escape the reality of the moment, we cannot see that the way we can in Joan’s scene. the GoT scene feels oddly flashy, and mostly as though it were meant to be somehow more entertaining (which, as folks have pointed out, is not dissimilar to the rape scene is Season 1 between Daenerys and Khal Drogo.) I think that actions have to feel authentic, and should also tell you something about the character. What this tells us about the sibling lovers is yet to be seen, but it will have different implications than the original scene and storyline. Which also begs the question: should rape be used as a way to develop a character? As an interesting plot twist? And do we now continue to root for Jamie and his redemption, and just over look the fact that he is also a rapist because maybe Cersei is a raging sociopathic bitch who wants her brother/lover to kill her other brother just because she hates him and thinks he poisoned her first born son/nephew?

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In conclusion: rape is never ok, even between sibling lovers or engaged persons. There is absolutely a way to write and film a scene about a reluctant sexual encounter, one that includes both protestations and then explicit consent. That is a real thing that happens to folks every day. But it didn’t happen in Westeros this week. And in the future, they should look to their retro TV drama peers to see what nuanced writing looks like, because Christina Hendricks journey in that office is flawless and complex, and I neither pity her nor hate him (although I grow to hate him later.) Complicated subjects deserve careful, thoughtful writing. I hope in the future GoT will think a little harder about the changes it’s making, and about how the changes will play out both in the fictional world and in the mind of it’s audience. Stories like these, pop culture and literature etc, are important because we all learn from them. Game of Thrones is cool, in my opinion, because it gives us a broad range of female characters to interact with, root for and despise. They aren’t all just victims or wives, they are strong and vulnerable in different ways, and I appreciate that. But if they don’t stay true to the characters they’ve drawn, these kinds of missteps send the wrong messages about the characters, and about rape and sex and love and all the messy things going on in that scene. They should remember to tread lightly, because like it or not the stories send a message, and folks are invested in the world of Westeros and all it’s power struggles. This scene sends weird messages about rape and rape culture, and it soured the whole episode for me and many others who were thrown. It’s ok to go there. You just gotta get there carefully and authentically.