In a deviation from the series’ preferred flavor of hopelessness, “USS Callister” offers us two experiences best served hand-in-hand: a delightful romp, and a deep, hard look at ourselves. (Content warning: Straight-up feminism.)
The wise and powerful Anita Sarkeesian, media critic and executive director of Feminist Frequency, often says that it’s important to be critical of the media that we love. It’s easy to dismiss serious flaws in a text that you deeply admire so that you can go on admiring it without shame, just as it’s easy to assume that people who criticize that text must hate it. But it is hard to engage critically and thoughtfully with the media you least want to criticize — and, when possible, to demand better from the people producing the work.
The difficulty of critiquing beloved media doesn’t just come from the uncomfortable tummy feelings it can give us — fans who are over-loyal to a work may reject, even attack, the people pointing out its flaws. And when these flaws are a product of misogyny, and when the people pointing them out are women… oh man, does it get heated.
Nowhere is the tendency to attack the feminist critic more hair-triggered than in nerd culture. Sarkeesian herself is the subject of constant global abuse because she is a human woman who has opinions about video games. Nerd fandom is at once inordinately loyal and deeply insecure: We tend to latch onto fantasy and sci-fi media from a young age, when we’re just as likely to over-invest ourselves in fictional characters as we are to be mocked for our interest in them.
So when women in particular begin to demand better of their favorite media, they can receive ugly combinations of reactionary nerd rage and blatant sexism. When you add this to the systemic shortcomings of literally all entertainment media, geek culture, despite being thought of as a bastion for the uncool, quickly becomes not so fun for the women who are part of it.
In Black Mirror’s Season 4 debut, “USS Callister” offers us not only an exploration of this toxicity, but also a richly textured and rewarding visual experience that critiques a beloved cultural franchise just as it pays homage to it — in short, is critical of the media it loves.
The only worthwhile part of the Girls finale was its first 100 seconds. In the opening shot, the camera tracks over a bed, and two pairs of legs entwined on top of it. We see, when the dolly comes to a stop, that Marnie (Allison Williams) is sleeping softly behind Hannah (Lena Dunham), who awakes with a start and asks how Marnie got into her home while she was sleeping.
It’s a perfect (though mirrored) replica of one of the very first scenes of the series. In the pilot, which aired over six years ago, the camera panned over the same nested bodies. But in that episode Hannah was the big spoon, and neither woman was surprised to find the other there when they woke up. Even the music playing through these bookend scenes was the same. It helped to highlight the fact that Marnie has been Hannah’s one constant throughout the series — a point that Marnie herself has no problem driving home in the finale. Continue reading
Sometimes, Buffy episodes are nonsensical dream sequences with repeat appearances from an unexplained Cheese Man. Sometimes they are thinly veiled metaphors for teen hormones wherein the spirit of a hyena demon infects a gang of high school boys, who proceed to eat their principal alive. Other times, though, the show does away with humor and absurdity altogether, and takes 45 minutes to talk about difficult, painful, important issues. “Seeing Red” is one of these episodes. Depression, toxic masculinity and gun violence are the main plot drivers. Victimhood, grief and recovery are their outcomes. Continue reading
I know I’m going to ruffle the feathers of a few Buffy snobs when I choose to write about an episode in Season 4 that is not “Hush,” but this series is called “My Favorite Patrols,” not “The Objectively Best Patrols,” so sit down.
This season is one of the best of the series. The transition from a high school setting to a college one doesn’t always work with a hitherto static cast of characters — especially in a show that relies so much on comedy — but in Buffy‘s case the Scoobies’ graduation probably saved the show from stagnation. The characters had long since outgrown the storytelling confines of primary education, and freeing them up to larger portions of the real world allowed them to grow and morph in delightful, disappointing, and even terrifying ways.
But what really sets this season apart, what makes it first in my affections, is a finale that makes absolutely no sense in context with pretty much the rest of the series. It marks a change from traditional season setups, where the finales are usually reserved for the height of action and drama. Instead, “Restless” serves as something of a debrief, space for the characters to relax from the last episode’s hijinks and for the writers to set up major themes to come in Season 5. (Game of Thrones has, notably, picked up on this format.) Continue reading
For the past week, the web has been awash in thinkpieces about Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, the series that debuted 20 years ago and changed the course of American television forever. That is not an exaggeration.
Buffy was one of the first shows to commit to season-long story arcs, with every episode containing its own adventure while being housed within a larger succession of chapters that led to stunning season finales. It was also a pioneer in its exploration of genre. Buffy Summers was a fabled fighter of dark, supernatural forces, but she was also a teenager. Her show was just as full of awkward romances and memorable witticisms as it was with stabby-stabby action sequences. And, of course, Buffy as a show was uniquely feminist, launching a tradition of badass warrior women that continues to dominate entertainment to this day.
Being a little before my time, Buffy didn’t really enter my cultural consciousness until my freshman year of college, when my best friend forced me to watch an episode with her. The following summer, I blazed through the entire series in a number of weeks, and have probably watched all seven seasons at least three times through. I am not proud, but I’m also not super ashamed, either.
So for the next week, to celebrate 20 years of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Critical Mess is going to join the worldwide party of Buffy appreciation. Plenty of people are talking about the episodes that boosted the show’s acclaim. The Season 2 finale “Becoming,” “Hush,” “Once More With Feeling” — these are all the best episodes, but they are not my favorite episodes. Every 42-minute segment is as deserving of critical attention as the popular ones (except for, perhaps, most of Season 1, when the show was still trying on a bunch of weird outfits). Continue reading
When I heard the buzz that there was, floating around the media ether, a new advertisement for a feminine hygiene product that showed real blood, I felt the same way my grandmother must have felt when the newspapers announced she could now buy luggage with wheels on it. This is great, but did no one really think of it before now?
That we have been forced to watch, for decades, various disembodied female hands wipe the most vomitous of ground-beef spills from nondescript surfaces with their preferred brand of paper towel, and yet have not witnessed a single pad or tampon come into contact with blood (or even blood-colored liquids), is just as laughable as the male squeamishness around most female bodily processes. And don’t let me begin to complain about the ratio of period blood to actual vomit on network television: of these things, only one is disgusting—is actually a common symbolic stand-in for the experience of disgust. But I digress.
Playing period-coy is a common theme in advertising, and has long been a source of frustration and derision from the feminist corners of the internet. And so it was with great hype that this fabled commercial surfed its way to my computer screen. But after a couple views, I remain palpably un-hyped. Continue reading
In the words of my wise friend Ellyse, “Whatever Game of Thrones lost after season 2, they got it the fuck back again.”
“On Wednesdays we throw shade.”
This weekend’s episode, cruelly and cuttingly entitled “The Door,” carried an emotional heft I did not know the creators of the show to be capable of until they crushed me beneath it. From beginning to end, from the wall to Vaes Dothrak, the minds behind Game of Thrones told a tale of uncompromising sorrow that was capable of moments, despite their horror, of startling beauty. Continue reading
Note: Before I begin, let us all knock wood. I mean it. Knock the wood.
Game of Thrones re-entered our lives last night, much to the rejoicing of nerds around the world. Social media blew up with branded content, message boards overflowed with theories and speculations, and some of my college friends even sat in an Iron Throne pitched up at an outdoor mall in Denver. Bastards.
But many fans approached this season with a skepticism uncharacteristic of premieres past. The writers and creators of the show were buried under a mountain of online flak last summer for their treatment of their female characters, especially re: Sansa Stark and sexual violence. Rape narratives were pulled from thin air (George R.R. Martin, author of the book series, is a little more into consensual zoinking), and badass women left and right disrobed for no apparent reason other than the ratings. Add this constant series of abuses to that Jon Snow shit, and some people just thought it wasn’t worth coming back to see the story through. Continue reading
Note: if you make it through the entire video (with SOUND ON, people) I will VenMo you a dollar. That’s a promise.
What do you get when you mix cultural appropriation with lyrics written by a 13-year-old? The answer is probably a lot of songs from contemporary pop, but most ridiculous among them is possibly “Slingshot,” by the Danish Boris Laursen. “Slingshot” was recommended for review by a close friend – how this friend came upon it is between him and his god. Continue reading
Note: Today’s review comes to you by request of a close friend who actually hates me. I could have gone my entire life without listening to “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” or even knowing it existed. But this is an objective critique, not a roast.* So with teeth clenched and a bottle of wine freshly uncorked, let’s get to work.
Keith Urban’s “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” (or as I’m going to call it herein, “John Cubed”), is the strangest self-aggrandizing and groupthinky piece of music I have heard since the North Korean national anthem. But while it is clearly intended as a celebration of the culture that accompanies country music, it falls short emotionally, instead exposing a commercial titan of the industry who still doesn’t fully understand the genre he attempts to dominate, much less the nation with which he wants to assimilate. Continue reading