Against Relatability

I once had a friend question how I could possibly like Bon Iver’s debut album For Emma, Forever Ago when I’d never been through a breakup. (That isn’t strictly true, but I’ve been with the same person for my whole adult life, so it’s much of a muchness.) I can’t remember exactly how I responded, but it was something like: just because I haven’t been sad over a breakup doesn’t mean I can’t relate to being sad. He seemed sceptical but didn’t push the point.

Roughly six years later, I have a better answer.

Fuck relatability.

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The Recession, by Soderbergh

When I was thirteen years old, the world economy collapsed.

I feel like that’s worth stating baldly because it seems at times like people have forgotten, or at least misremembered. It wasn’t a little blip on the road to progress, or a tough couple years we all made it through relatively unscathed. The economy didn’t disappoint or underwhelm, it fucking imploded. The financial crisis became the Great Recession became the “recovery”. It wasn’t that long ago – and it arguably never ended – but its impact on popular culture seems absurdly slight for something that transformed the world. For something that killed so many people. So I feel like it’s worth stating baldly.

When I was thirteen years old, the world economy collapsed.

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The Rashomon Effect Effect

The “Rashomon effect” describes the tendency of witnesses to or participants in the same events to give mutually contradictory accounts of what happened due to the subjectivity and fallibility of human memory. It’s named after the 1950 film Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa, in which four witnesses to a murder give contradictory accounts of what happened. The term is bandied about a lot in pop psychology (and philosophy) articles, and one of its more recent applications is, of course, This Age of Trump, This Age of Brexit. In the aftermath of the two major political upsets of 2016, the mainstream media churned out hundreds of handwringing articles about the “post-truth world”, because it’s insufficient for cloistered political and media elites to have merely been wrong, their opinions and expertise are so important that if they were wrong, the only explanation was that the fundamental human ability to distinguish reality from fiction had completely disintegrated.

With its emphasis on an immutable failing of human nature – a fundamental inability to ever truly recall events accurately or, in effect, to know the world at all – it was inevitable that the Rashomon effect would be trotted out as a buzzy term to explain the new reality. Michael Wolff even mentions it in his insider account of the Trump administration, Fire and Fury. The appeal of the term is easy to understand: it describes a basic and insurmountable flaw, so it absolves everyone of responsibility to think about how and why falsehoods may have played a more decisive role in recent politics than in a supposed past era where people were more honest, or at least where the public was harder to hoodwink. I’m not saying they have done – I’m sceptical of the notion of a “post-truth world” – but if they did, I could think of reasons other than the Rashomon effect. Off the top of my head, it’s possible formerly authoritative news sources destroyed their credibility with the public by, among other things, helping the Bush administration manufacture the pretext for a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. I’m no expert, but I have to wonder if perhaps public trust in the media was damaged when literally no one lost their job over one of the most massive and systemic failures of journalism in recent times.

Of course, that’s just my interpretation, and here’s where I should be putting the obvious joke about how it’s just like in Rashomon, where everyone remembers things differently. But there’s a problem. Unlike most people who reference the Rashomon effect, I’ve seen Rashomon. And Rashomon isn’t about the subjectivity and fallibility of memory. It’s about lying.

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To Love Pure and Chaste From Afar: Queer Coding in The Mary Tyler Moore Show

“Queer coding” is one of the more interesting ideas in media analysis to be almost exclusively applied to the same thinkpiece about Disney villains over and over. It’s not a well-defined term but I’d describe it something like this: characters and relationships in art are queer-coded when they have traits that read as queer to at least some of the audience, but are not explicitly so. It’s slippery and subjective and can easily get muddled up with other ideas. It’s sometimes used interchangeably with ideas like queer subtext (when queer themes run under the surface of a piece of art otherwise not overtly queer) or queerbaiting (when writers tease that characters are queer and may form relationships to pander to LGBT fans, but never follow through). Queer subtext has a long history in literary studies, e.g. The Great Gatsby as a story of Nick Carraway’s unrequited love for Jay Gatsby, while queerbaiting is a very recent term, originating in fandom and mostly used in reference to serial formats, e.g. TV shows like Supernatural (with baited characters Dean and Castiel) or film series like Pitch Perfect (with baited characters Beca and Chloe).

Queer coding is different: it doesn’t need to hold up to scrutiny like an argument for subtext does, and it doesn’t have to be deliberate on the part of the artist like an accusation of queerbaiting does. It gets at something narrower and subtly distinct – queer coding often describes stereotypical traits (e.g. limp wrists) but it can also refer to ineffable qualities that aren’t burdened with connotations of queerness in larger society. Taking it back to Disney villains for a second, sometimes I totally see where people are coming from when they read them as queer. Jafar from Aladdin is unmarried, wears winged eyeliner and has a lisp, I get it. But then someone says Hades is like a sassy gay guy and it just doesn’t connect at all. We’re into something altogether more subtle and subjective, because there are lots of “sassy” or “snarky” character archetypes – black women and Jews spring to mind – and characters can even be those things without fitting into or referencing archetypes. That can just be their personality. Yet, even without anything in the story that implies it’s the case, there’s something that makes Hades read queer to some people and not to others. (He reads Jewish to me, for the record.) And while a lot of queer coding can be explained as a kind of glint of recognition in the eye of an LGBT audience, that’s not exclusively the case. Characters and relationships can come off as queer to straight people too.

I’ve been thinking about queer coding a lot ever since I watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

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The Redistribution of Art

If you read a lot of pop culture criticism, you’ll very quickly come across three words: vital, essential and necessary. Critics, especially film and TV critics in my experience, love to describe the very best art in the same way most people describe things like food, shelter and healthcare. The instinct might be to treat this as hyperbole, but I like to take people at their word, and besides, there’s no shortage of writing out there that makes explicit what’s merely suggested in most uses of “vital”, “essential” and “necessary”. Moreover, I agree completely: art is an essential part of life.

There are as many explanations for why art is vital, essential and necessary as there are thinkpieces explaining why. Art is how we understand each other when we can’t see inside each other’s skull prisons. Art has profound social value, capable of transforming how people see the world by forcing them to confront unfamiliar realities or new perspectives on age-old issues. Art and the appreciation of art is what makes life meaningful at all for lots of people. I don’t disagree with any of those points of view, but they’re all a bit piecemeal for my taste, failing to provide a universal justification for why art is necessary.

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Oliver in the High Castle: Nazis in Pop Culture

The fourth annual Arrowverse crossover event – bringing together characters from The CW’s Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl – was called “Crisis on Earth-X” and I…enjoyed it? I’ve written previously about my visceral hatred for superhero TV show crossovers, and “Crisis on Earth-X” certainly doesn’t avoid all the problems of the genre, but, as a self-contained story – as a TV movie, essentially – it’s certainly the most successful Arrowverse crossover yet.

It was about Nazis.

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The Anxious Christianity of Scott Derrickson

Scott Derrickson is a frustrating filmmaker. Since his 2005 breakthrough with The Exorcism of Emily Rose, he’s had a string of commercial successes, some of which were even good movies. There was his terrible remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, his excellent horror film Sinister and his addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange, which, like most Marvel movies, was good, but not particularly so.

On paper, there are a lot of directors like Scott Derrickson: variably good, but consistently profitable, making films that millions of people see, but almost none of those people know their name. Horror and comedy are full of these directors. Sure, tens of millions of people saw Annabelle: Creation and Central Intelligence, but who amongst us can really say we know who made them? Usually, I’m dimly aware of these financially-successful mid-tier directors and don’t super care about them. But I make an exception for Scott Derrickson. That’s partly because his best films are sincerely great, but mostly it’s because he’s one of the few successful and influential Christian directors working in mainstream cinema.

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Can You Believe It: Trump and Political Comedy

If you like comedy, but you’re tired of Trump jokes, the last couple of years have been frustrating. Your choices for political comedy on American television range from The Daily Show, which is pretty much all about Trump, to three different shows from Daily Show alumni – Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and The Opposition with Jordan Klepper – which are also pretty much all about Trump. John Oliver’s turn towards Trump is particularly irritating because his show made its reputation on in-depth examinations of underdiscussed issues, like patent trolling, public funding of stadiums and the exploitation of chicken farmers, and had made a point of largely ignoring Trump for months before gradually becoming yet another Show Against Trump.

Shows without an explicit political bent offer no escape: Saturday Night Live features Trump so frequently that Alec Baldwin will likely be eligible for the Supporting Actor Emmy again this year, even though he’s ostensibly a guest star. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert does so much Trump material it was able to spin-off a recurring animated segment called Our Cartoon President into its own TV show. Colbert was always going to be more political than the average late-night host, except he’s actually not that much more political than the rest anymore: Seth Meyers does a weekly politics segment on Late Night called “A Closer Look” which is, of course, mostly about Trump and Jimmy Kimmel is constantly taking cracks at him. Even that spineless hair-ruffling weasel Jimmy Fallon has started to do regular Trump jokes now, and he’s Jimmy Fallon, the most inoffensive man who’s ever existed.

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RuPaul’s Unreliable Editing Race

The first time I clocked a deceitful edit in RuPaul’s Drag Race was my second viewing of the show’s sixth season. During preparation for that season’s iteration of Snatch Game, a challenge in which the queens impersonate a celebrity, RuPaul cast doubt on competitor BenDeLaCreme’s plan to portray Dame Maggie Smith. Three shots follow: first, Ben looks at RuPaul while audio from one of Ben’s confessionals plays over it (“Ru does not seem into my idea.”); next, a shot of Ben’s wig on a foam head while the audio continues (“I’m shaken–my confidence is definitely shaken, but, I–”); finally, it cuts to the confessional itself where a puffy-eyed Ben is speechless, either just finished crying or just about to start.

Except that last part isn’t true, because, later in the episode, Ben talks about his adolescent struggles with body image and his mother’s death from cancer when he was thirteen. “I just–”, he begins to describe the loss in voiceover, and then it cuts to a much longer shot of Ben speechless in the same confessional from earlier. It’s clear in this longer shot that Ben is stumbling over his explanation of how he felt when his mother died, not Ru’s lack of enthusiasm for his Maggie Smith impression, especially since he actually won Snatch Game. The editors had blatantly cut footage of Ben crying as he recalled his grief and moved it earlier in the episode to make it look like Ru had shaken Ben to his core.

Ever since, I’ve been completely sceptical of the Drag Race edit.

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Art and the Artist

If you read a lot of pop criticism and entertainment journalism, you’ll be a familiar with a debate about “separating the art from the artist” or some similar turn of phrase. This is a very old debate, but it’s come to occupy ever more space in discussions about art, especially popular art, in recent years. The main driving force behind its increasing prominence has been the proliferation of online publications covering entertainment news and producing reviews and criticism over the last ten or so years. Such platforms are making more information and commentary on the entertainment industry and more opinions about art available to more people than ever before. Over the years, plenty of people who make art have been exposed for doing bad things, and so naturally the issue of how we should relate to art made by bad people has come up pretty regularly in these publications.

But that was before Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (for the New York Times) and Ronan Farrow (for the New Yorker) exposed Hollywood mega-producer Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual predator. I don’t know why this one was the tipping point, but in the months since, dozens of other sexual predators working in the entertainment industry, in news media and in sports have been similarly exposed. In fact, there’s been a seemingly endless wave of revelations about powerful public figures – almost exclusively men, to no great shock – who have abused their power in order to sexually harass and assault other people, including minors.

What used to be a largely seasonal phenomenon of finding out a celebrity was a bad person, getting bombarded with thinkpieces about it and then forgetting about it when something else came along to make you anxious about the world has now become an apparently permanent state of revelation.

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