Thursday, 24 July 2014

Race, Racism and Mental Health: A Look At #OITNB's Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren

I'm pretty convinced Suzanne Warren's mother is racist. Unintentionally so, but to detrimental effect.

As you know, I was very excited for the Season Two premiere of Netflix's Orange Is The New Black. I stayed up for hours and watched three straight episodes before my body gave in to fatigue and I went to bed. I spent the rest of the weekend inhaling the new stories that these women had to tell us, and I was grateful to be able to immerse myself in their lives once more. 

There were more than a few surprises when it came to the backstories that were explored this season most notably Morello, Poussey and Miss Rosa, in my opinion. But the backstory that stood out to me most was Suzanne's. In the second season's third episode, Hugs Can Be Deceiving, we get a glimpse into the difficulties Suzanne faced growing up as an adopted black child in a white family, who while clearly loving and protective of her, remained stubbornly blind to her mental health needs. 

So why do I think Suzanne's mother is racist? It's a bit difficult for me to articulate, so I'll defer to this completely out of context quote from Bitch Flicks about a young black female character on the Disney channel show Jessie:
"The worst part about her character to me is not just the stereotypes, but the fact that she is exhibiting urban Black stereotypes despite never having been a part of urban Black society. She lives in an Upper East Side penthouse and was born in Uganda. It is reminiscent of early 20th century ideas: things like social darwinism. These characteristics of Zuri exist in her genetics just because of the color of her skin."
Emphasis mine. Just let that percolate for a bit while I get into this next bit.

We the audience have had two seasons to get to know Suzanne, but even from the very beginning when she doggedly pursued Piper and nicknamed her Dandelion, it was clear that she suffered from some form of mental disorder. While demonstrably very intelligent (can you quote Shakespeare from memory?) Suzanne is inappropriately sexually aggressive, lacks social boundaries, and demonstrates difficulty understanding interpersonal cues. That she is "different" is plainly obvious to the casual observer.

And yet. 

In Hugs Can Deceiving we see Suzanne's mother self-righteously accuse another mother of racism for not wanting Suzanne to attend her child's sleepover in a flashback scene. The sleepover is for her 6-year-old. Suzanne is 10. The scene rubbed the wrong way for a lot of reasons. 

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Rereading Harry Potter: 10 Questions I Have About The Magical World

Because I'm a dirty cheater, I'm rereading the Harry Potter series in order to meet my Goodreads Reading Challenge goal for this year. (Too lazy to hit the library for new books!) I reread the novels every year, but this is the first time I've really been reading with a critical eye. I sped through both Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets but I as a Muggle fan of this amazing work of fiction, I still have questions about the mechanics of this universe. Here is a greatly condensed version of my running tally of enquiries for the first two novels:

Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone

1. Why don't we don't hear about Sirius Black until book three? In this novel, we see Harry be introduced to his magical roots, and Hagrid has to hastily give him the story of what made him famous. He gets the Sparknotes version: Lord Voldemort, the greatest dark wizard of all time, killed his parents and tried to kill him when he was only an infant, and inexplicably, he could not. Dirty old Voldy was reduced to a shell of his former self, and Harry was left with his scar. This is Harry's origin story. But, shouldn't the fact that his parent's very best friend betrayed them factor into that some how? Doesn't that little bit of information have a profound effect on the mythology of this story?

2. What happens to wizards who get expelled? We know that Hagrid was expelled in his third year, and that Dumbledore allowed him to stay on as Gamekeeper, but how does a situation like this play out for other expelled wizards? Hagrid's wand is snapped and he is forbidden to perform magic. Does that include other forms of magic like potion making or divination? Since getting expelled is essentially like flunking out of school, are there adult remedial classes for wizards who never finished school? Or are they forbidden from magic forever and encouraged to join the muggle world like squibs?

3. How is there is no faster magical way to find information than the library? Throughout the novel, we see Hermione sprinting to the library to research information. I understand that the magical world has largely shunned technology, but there must be a magical shortcut that works as the equivalent to a search engine. Not even an "Accio books about Nicholas Flamel" spell? That seems strangely archaic. I just feel like "because magic" should be a reasonable explanation. Why isn't it?

4. How do muggles get to Diagon Alley? Do muggle-borns' parents get an extra letter with instructions on how to get access the wizarding world so they can buy their newly minted magical child's school supplies? How does that affect the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy? Are they allowed to roam Diagon Alley during the term? Do their minds get wiped each year so that they can't go blabbing about their witch and wizard children?

5. How does this moving between portraits business work exactly? Is it limited to portraits in the same building? Or is it any portrait of the same person regardless of location? Since we find out later that the portraits can be used to deliver information, does that mean that all portraits of a particular person have all the knowledge of every other incarnation of that person? What happens when a new portrait is made? Can different portraits of the same person interact or does that rip a hole in the space-time continuum?

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Tropes vs Women: "Ruby Sparks" As The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

You may have heard that Nathan Rabin, the writer who coined the term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" and named the trope apologized last week for doing so, saying:
"The trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a fundamentally sexist one, since it makes women seem less like autonomous, independent entities than appealing props to help mopey, sad white men self-actualize. Within that context, the phrase was useful precisely because, while still fairly flexible, it also benefited from a certain specificity."
Despite the fact that the piece itself comes across as being disingenuously self-aggrandizing, I actually both agree and disagree with Rabin's apology. While he's right that the term has been wrongfully expanded to encompass characters that only vaguely fit the bill, the term itself is perfectly suited to the purpose for which it was coined: to identify female characters who exist solely for the purpose of helping a male protagonist self-actualize. 

Rabin cites Zoe Kazan's (writer and star of the film Ruby Sparkscriticisms of the term as one of the reasons he is apologizing, but I don't agree with her take on the situation either. While she's spot on that writers rely on cultural props to signify personality rather than doing the work to flesh out their female characters, this is the very practice that the manic pixie dream girl trope is meant to critique. The term itself isn't meant to be shorthand for "quirky and cute." Though I see how it has morphed into that through usage, the term is meant to be an identifier, not an accusation. To me, Ruby Sparks is a movie about exposing the lie of the manic pixie dream girl. The film centers on a protagonist who literally manifests a woman in order to serve his ego,  and then gets bent out of shape when she dares to have an inner life of her own. The term "manic pixie dream girl" is a condemnation of the trope as a literary crutch, not the personalities that often get associated with the term.
I actually loved Ruby Sparks. It's a great movie that you should check out if you haven't seen it, but the message that I got from it (which, I guess wasn't want Kazan was trying to convey apparently...?) was that the movie was a direct dissection of the trope. Ruby is initially presented to the audience as a one-dimensional paper-thin character who gradually reveals herself to be a whole lot more, much to the chagrin of her writer boyfriend/creator who only wanted an MPDG to serve his emotional whims. When he realizes that she is beginning to develop a unique personality, he intentionally fucks with her to try to keep her from self actualization because he's afraid (and rightly so, the little shit) that she'll want more or better than him as she allows herself to become a whole person who exists outside his personal desires. 
The movie is actually pretty brilliant. But I saw the film as a way to pinpoint the fact that no matter how reductively you to try to frame them, women are more than backgrounds upon which men can work through their personal demons, and to highlight the specific kind of hipster/artist fantasy that leads to the creation of one dimensional female characters of this sort in the first place; essentially, to undermine the MPDG trope. I thought that came through loud and clear. To me, Ruby is  a manic pixie dream girl, but the wit of the film comes from demonstrating all the problems that would arise if women really were just the aimless supporting characters in the lives of their men.
At the end of it, I think "manic pixie dream girl" is a useful and instructive term that describes a sexist phenomenon, and excising it from our cultural lexicon is pointless. I do think that we need to be more nuanced about our application of the trope instead of simply using it to signify any character who happens to approach Zooey Deschanel's orbit.