Thursday, 30 October 2014

On Using #GoneGirl As An Excuse For Misogynistic "Fear"

Recently I decided to break my standing rule about going to see movie adaptations blind, and went to see the Gone Girl move without having read the book. I had a vague idea of the plot from the book's reputation, but for the most part, I didn't know the story going in. Ever since then, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the way that people in my circles (both online and off) have been reacting to it. It struck me as telling that nearly all the men I know have come away from the movie with a conclusion somewhere in the range of "ZOMG BITCHES BE CRAZY." And yes, Amy is "crazy" and manipulative and narcissistic and pathological, but it occurred to me that she is also just the inverse of all the men that women fear in real life.

In the movie, after discovering that Nick is cheating on her, Amy frames Nick for her murder. But on a deeper level, Amy sets him up for failing. For not living up to her expectations for him. For no longer being the bright young guy that she agreed to marry. She punishes him for being a disappointment and for daring not to meet her at her level. In real life, women actually get murdered for much less. And to me, that's what makes Amy's fabricated story so believable to the people around her. The situation is not just totally plausible, but likely, because we hear about the repercussions of stories like the one that Amy concocted every day.

On the face of it, Gone Girl is a misogynist's wet dream. It validates every bullshit MRA fear that women are out to destroy men. After all, Amy frames ex-boyfriends for rape as a matter of course, meticulously frames her husband for murder, murders a different ex-boyfriend during sex, for the crime of helping her escape her "abusive husband" and being a little too possessive, and then traps her husband in their loveless marriage by stealing his sperm to become pregnant. It is a literal laundry list of things that convince men that feminism at its core is simply a "misandrist revenge fantasy."

But in truth, Amy simply took her frustrations to the same "logical" conclusion that men get to every day in the real world. Instead of just leaving Nick, she transposes all her frustrations onto him and then punishes him for them. But how is that any different from the men who beat their wives because they're frustrated with their own unemployment? Or hide their assets so they can run off with the new girlfriend and leave their wife destitute? Or the ones who kill their wives for cheating, or God forbid, "dressing too sexy" or even looking at another man? In Gone Girl, Amy and Nick's positions are simply reversed from the traditional roles of aggressor and victim.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Count On My Love: Tessanne Chin's Major Label Debut Showcases Her Winning Voice

Unless you’d been paying close attention to her various social media channels, you might never know that Jamaican songstress Tessanne Chin, winner of season 5 of NBC’s The Voice, released her major label debut Count On My Love all the way back in July. Yup, July. Limited promotional support from her label translated to the lowest post-Voice sales ever, with just a measly 7,000 units sold in the first week. And it’s a shame, because with Count On My Love, Tessanne shows us just why she deserved to be recognized for her powerhouse voice.

Now, this was never an album that would storm the charts. (Count On My Love debuted at #41 on the Billboard 200.) The songs were clearly chosen with an interest in showing off Tessanne’s vocal range, as opposed to ensuring commercial success. But the music is lilting and easy; Chin’s sound is noticeably more mature than her 2010 independent release, In Between Words.

The single choices are baffling however. Tumbling Down, Tessanne’s “coronation song”; written by Ryan Tedder of One Republic fame, and performed the night she was announced as the season’s winner; is a middling number. It’s a mid-temp, slightly pop-y ballad that doesn’t adequately let Tessanne shine, and should never have been chosen as the album’s lead single. The second single Everything Reminds Me Of You does nothing to improve on the tepid impact of the first.

A much better choice would have been the album’s incredibly radio friendly title track, Count On My Love; a delightfully breezy pop song with a distinct “island vibe.” It’s a great song, and by far the stand out track. The song could easily have been the sequel to her 2010 duet with local star Kees Dieffenthaller, Loving You. This fact brings to light another issue with the record: it is entirely a solo effort, with no collaborations. While Tessanne most definitely holds her own, proving her mettle from track to track, the lack of other voices is conspicuous, considering the number of high profile musicians she has worked with in the past.

The entire album has a consistent rock steady vibe, but this is both a blessing and curse. Many of the songs blend together, indistinguishable except by their hooks, and punctuated by Tessanne’s breathtaking voice. But the positives largely outweigh the negatives on this ten-track record. The tunes are very catchy, and they’re exactly the kind of songs you want to sing along to in your car. The melodies are fun and they show off Chin’s extraordinary vocals without lapsing into the oversinging that plagues many popular artists (*cough* Christina Aguilera *cough*) Chin’s voice easily reaches notes most wouldn’t dare attempt and her intermittent lapses into Jamaica patois are endearing, and a clever stylistic choice.

The one track that feels misplaced is the closing number, One Step Closer. While not a bad song, the track seems to be the one attempt to produce something radio ready. But the heavy bass and dubstep influences battle for attention with Tessane's voice, and it's a testament to her skills that they never quite overpower her. After nine tracks of breezy melodies, One Step Closer stands in stark contrast.

In the end, I give the album a B+. It’s a solid body of work that deserves far more recognition that it got. Tessanne’s skills don’t disappoint for a second, and the music shows how talented she really is.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Pop Culture, Racism And Values Dissonance: Dr. Algernon Edwards On Cinemax's #TheKnick

If there's any show you need to catch up on this summer, Cinemax's The Knick is it. Set at the titular Knickerbocker Hospital in 1900's New York, the show centers on a group of surgeons working at the turn of the century, using the era's boom in technological advancements to refine and improve their craft, and attempting to drive down obscenely high mortality rates.

So far, I've been thoroughly engrossed in watching the show unfold, but I've had a deep discomfort about the experience as well. As you may likely have deduced, 1900's New York was not.... a progressive time in the history of the United States, and much of the storyline revolves around the racism that Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), the first black doctor at the hospital, must face not just from his colleagues, but also from the patients he treats and the world at large. The Knick does nothing to sugarcoat the prevalent racial attitudes of the time, nor does it make the show's protagonist Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) suspiciously enlightened for his time. Rather, the show goes to great lengths to reinforce that pretty much everyone is racist, and it refuses to let you forget it.

There's an element of respectability to Edwards' story too, that I didn't pick up on until I started writing this. Algernon Edwards is the best of the best. Having studied surgery all over Europe under the patronage of the family that owns the hospital (his mother is their longtime maid), Edwards is far and away the most qualified doctor at the Knick. He has co-authored and published papers in well-respected medical journals, and innovated surgical techniques and tools. His skills are unmatched by his fellow surgeons and yet, they refuse to work with him; Dr Everett Gallenger (Eric Johnson) is openly hostile to him within the surgical theatre and without, harboring perhaps understandable resentment that Edwards was appointed Deputy Chief of Surgery over him.

Edwards is reduced to running an illicit clinic for African-Americans in the subterranean office that was assigned to him in disdain in order to actually treat patients. Even under these conditions he is able to devise a  new technique for hernia repair, and create a new tool for suctioning excess blood during surgery (using a modified vacuum cleaner). The Knick goes almost above and beyond to show us that he does not deserve this; this being the racism directed at him from all corners. But what I think the shows misses is an understanding that it's his inherent human dignity that should shield him from racism, and not his surgical qualifications.

That said, this show traffics in values dissonance in a very heavy-handed way that I personally have found to be quite triggering at times. Last Friday's episode featured a mob attacking random black people in street in retribution for the death of a police officer at that hands of a black man. Never mind of course that said (corrupt) police officer had first propositioned the man's wife and offered her a place at a brothel because "it's always good to have some dark ones around" and pulled a weapon first. The mob scenes were understandably violent, but framed against the backdrop of real life police violence being done to black people in 2014, from Eric Garner to Mike Brown, there was almost something obscene about the way the show used faceless and nameless black bodies as the stage upon which it made its point about racial discrimination. 

And while I'm definitely happy that The Knick confronts the race relations of the time rather than trying to side step it the way Mad Men does, or mention it in hushed tones the way Masters of Sex does, it's unsettling to see that depictions of black suffering are the only ways in which it could think to do that. And that isn't to negate that these things happened. After all, lynching is a particularly dark stain on our collective histories. But in a contemporary context, I'm disappointed that there wasn't a more elegant way to allude to those events without subjecting the viewing audience to such intensely triggering imagery. One scene has a unknown black woman shoved against a metal gate and beaten across the face with a brick. And though the point was certainly made, I can't get the image out of my head; another person who looks like me, mercilessly beaten for the crime of having been born with skin darker than society deemed acceptable. More than anything, watching this show has reminded me that not enough has changed, and ripples of these archaic and bigoted attitudes are still being felt today.

But don't misunderstand me. I really do enjoy this show. It's brilliantly acted, the music is fascinatingly appropriate and it is masterfully filmed. The sense of time and place is exquisite. I really like seeing medicine in the historic context of the 1900's: from chopping off limbs in barber shops, to using cocaine as a painkiller, to prescribing turpentine(!) for stomach ailments. It makes me wonder if 100 years from now the surgeons of 2114 will look back at our medical techniques and remark at how primitive they were. One of the storylines centered on sanitation and the spread of disease. (Apparently people didn't yet know to wash their hands in 1900.) Another deals with a nun who performs illegal abortions for the desperate women who come to her. But the heavy handed treatment of race in The Knick transitions too quickly from poor sanitation to punching the black doctor in the face, and eliciting derisive laughter from his colleagues. The mood whiplash is so severe sometimes that it takes me out of the show. 

For all my misgivings however, I'd still recommend the show. It is a brutal look at the social mores of the times, but perhaps a necessary one, given Hollywood's inclination to whitewash things of this nature. Just once though, I wish we could have a period drama that didn't evolve around a white protagonist.

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