Radical Empathy and the Prison-Industrial Complex

Spoilers through to the end of season 5 of Orange Is the New Black.


Orange Is the New Black has become a cautionary tale of the streaming era of television. When it first debuted in 2013, it quickly became hugely popular, one of Netflix’s most watched and acclaimed original series. It was at the forefront of that brief moment when “Netflix original series” meant something: ground-breaking television, exploding our very conception of what television could be. With its sprawling, diverse ensemble cast, binge-friendly structure and mixture of comedy and drama, Orange Is the New Black was the kind of show that was regularly preceded by a “I can’t believe you haven’t seen” and followed by an exclamation mark.

But not anymore. The show’s fourth season was polarising, but its fifth was widely disliked, to the extent it made any impact at all. It’s become just another show in Netflix’s bloated catalogue, just another past-its-prime show that you’ve forgotten is still on the air.

Orange is the New Black seems destined to remain in a sort of TV purgatory,” The Guardian writes, “It has more than enough fans to sustain itself on Netflix and the streaming site is keen to back it considering it’s still one of its most-loved originals. But does it feel as vital as it did when it was first released?”

The answer is supposed to be no, so obviously that it doesn’t need to be said. But here’s the thing: in its latter years, Orange Is the New Black has become something more important and much more radical. I tend to rag on Peak TV quite a bit – if I say something “could only exist in the streaming era” I usually mean that it’s bloated, incoherent and insufficiently concerned with making individual episodes high-quality or enjoyable. The second season of Jessica Jones could only exist in the streaming era, and it fucking sucks. But Orange Is the New Black, too, could only exist in the streaming era: a beacon of light guiding the way to all that streaming television has the possibilities to be.

At what other point in history could a TV series get made – and become hugely popular – that argues, full-throated, for the abolition of prisons?

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It’s a Little Childish and Stupid, But Then, So Is High School

Here’s a brief cultural history of “the villain is actually right” hot takes, as I understand it. People were like “What if Claudius is the real hero of Hamlet? Makes you think” and it didn’t really stick. Then a couple of hundred years passed and someone pointed out Walter Peck from Ghostbusters was obviously correct to not let the Ghostbusters run a nuclear reactor without permission, and it got clicks, so people were like “I wonder if I can do that with other eighties movies” – haven’t you ever noticed it’s always eighties movies? – and now we live in a world where three people in the comments of an already terrible article about why some eighties bad guys were the secret heroes of their movies suggested Mr Vernon from The Breakfast Club be added.

Just in case you’ve forgotten, this is a man who threatens a teenager with assault before leaving him locked unsupervised in a closet. I understand why unscrupulous click-hungry hucksters publish this rubbish, but the traction it gets online is baffling and a little scary, to be honest. I know that people disregard and even hate teenagers, consistently treating their problems as if they didn’t matter and then acting shocked – SHOCKED, I tell you – when they kill themselves at higher and higher numbers. I know this, I’ve written about it before, I’ll probably write about it again. But, I have to admit, I don’t understand why. I don’t see what anyone gets out of shitting on teenagers except, I guess, the grim, bloodthirsty satisfaction of kicking someone while they’re down. People do like to just hate and hurt other people for its own sake, though they also tend to come up with ad-hoc rationalisations for it, so they don’t have to acknowledge their own sadism. Maybe the reason so many people get older and suddenly start yammering about how the antagonistic authority figures of teen movies were actually the heroes all along is because it lets them tell themselves they’re still the heroes of their own lives, now that they’ve become the villains of their adolescence.

Ed Rooney is not the secret hero of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

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Fleabag, Can’t Cope Won’t Cope and The Case for Self-Denial

Here’s a terrible advertisement for Diet Coke:

There are so many things I hate about this ad. That it contains the term “ath-leisure.” The background music. That it’s painfully obviously a line-for-line recreation of an American ad, because no English person would use the phrase “yurt it up” (the American version, for the record, was directed by my old nemesis, Paul Feig, for some reason).

But the thing I hate the most about it is “If you want a Diet Coke, have a Diet Coke.” Life is short, is the ad’s premise, so do more things you want to do: live in a yurt (whatever that is), run a marathon (though it backhandedly suggests you probably shouldn’t bother), drink a Diet Coke. But drinking a Diet Coke isn’t like living in a yurt or running a marathon, because Diet Coke is bad for you. The actress in the ad says that it makes her feel good, which it might for a moment. And according to the ad, that doesn’t just mean it’s okay and you shouldn’t feel bad about it, but that you actively should drink Diet Coke, whenever the thought occurs to you.

The thing I hate the most is that the ad treats all wants as basically the same. That pursuing all those wants amounts to making the most of life, or being true to yourself.

But, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, that thought has a brother: that if you do not pursue all your undifferentiated wants, you aren’t making the most of life, and you are not your authentic self.

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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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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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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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Because I Choose To: The Horror and Hope of Free Will

The final battle between good and evil at the end of The Matrix Revolutions is the best part of a very flawed movie. Whatever else the Matrix sequels did wrong – and they did a fair bit – the last fight between Neo and Agent Smith is basically perfect. It’s not just a punching contest, it’s a distillation of every moral value at stake in their conflict. I know that’s a controversial statement because I’ve seen so many people make fun of the best part of the scene:

Agent Smith: “Why, Mr. Anderson? Why, why, why? Why do you do it? Why? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson, vagaries of perception! Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now! You can’t win! It’s pointless to keep fighting! Why, Mr. Anderson?! Why?! WHY DO YOU PERSIST?!”

Neo: “Because I choose to.”

I worry about what it means that such a beautiful and simple encapsulation of what it means to be a human being is so routinely mocked for its alleged meaninglessness: “Because I choose to”. There is something in our language, always present, but more and more prevalent as we sink deeper into the grey muck of modernity: we don’t know how to talk about freedom. We don’t know how to speak about each other as beings with free will. We speak of people driven by rage, rather than people who choose the path of rage. We speak of people who can’t help but be who they are and do what they do, rather than people who consistently choose to continue in their habits. We speak of people as if they’re machines, rather than people.

Some of it is well-intentioned, I’m sure. There are legitimate critiques of theories of freedom that ignore the ways we are prevented from exercising our free will. But we’re at risk of sprinting towards the other extreme. We’re at risk of denying that free will exists at all.

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Goodness or the Choice of Goodness: Vice Principals, Empathy and Deserving

I spend a lot of time thinking about empathy and compassion. I believe in those things, as deep down as I believe in anything. I always thought this was relatively universal, at least outside of right-wing fringe groups, but I don’t really think that anymore. Not just because a Yale professor wrote a book literally called Against Empathy (in a video for The Atlantic he explains that empathy for victims is used to justify the Iraq War, but conveniently doesn’t mention if empathy can and does motivate anti-war activism), but mostly because of how often I find myself recoiling in horror from political discourse. I can’t cheer an elderly man getting brain cancer, no matter what he’s done. I don’t think that someone who punches a Nazi is suddenly as bad as a Nazi, but I can’t comprehend the ease with which people advocate the punching. I oppose violence in all its forms – structural or personal – and I don’t think that any person deserves to be killed, by the state or anyone else. I don’t think “deserve” comes into it. I don’t have the stomach to be a revolutionary.

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