ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Imperfect Male Artist: From Pablo Picasso to Kanye West, We’re Still Fascinated by Jerks

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Imperfect Male Artist: From Pablo Picasso to Kanye West

Soon after David Bowie’s death, many bloggers expressed unease at valorizing a man who slept with 15-year olds, pointing out that Bowie was yet another
“problematic fave,” the go-to internet term that can be used to describe
anything from a mild social gaffe to a history of sexual assault. Like
clockwork, Bowie defenders asserted that the 70s were a different time and place and that the “baby groupies” who Bowie slept with don’t express that what they experienced was rape at all.

Like most Internet Wars, the focus quickly became about the individual—whether we should herald Bowie for his tremendous legacy, or condemn him as a rapist. Both Erin Keane at Salon and Jia Tolentino at Jezebel stressed a more nuanced look at the complicated issue of separating art from artist, while in his essay, “Celebrity deaths and the ‘problematic fave’: Enough with the moral tug-of-war between “hero” and “villain” legacies,” Arthur Chu fell back on a stand-by argument about bad men who make good art:

“So yes, in a way I am saying that if you’re a fan of the awesome feminist triumph that is 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” then you owe something to the horrific abusive racist bigot Mel Gibson. You don’t have to like him or “forgive” him, but if he hadn’t been there–and I’m not just arguing in terms of acting talent but in terms of all his deep and wide-ranging flaws–then a great work of art might not exist.”

Chu’s argument, that bad behavior, though not exactly excusable, is often inextricably wed to the production of art is deeply embedded in our culture. The idea that artists in particular must be permitted to be “bad”—that the artist must, in some ways, be allowed to be overly dramatic or reckless, or self-injuring, or obsessed with alcohol or drugs or sex, in order to be a creative powerhouse, is a mainstay in popular discourse.

After all, many of the most challenging and talented artists we still today herald
are men who, in their personal lives, were outright jerks: from Pablo Picasso to
Kanye West, from Ernest Hemingway to Roman Polanski, we not only tolerate male “bad behavior,” we often see it as the necessary backdrop against which male artists create.

For all the talk of the current age of outrage culture—how it’s changing the face of online discourse or demanding that certain ideas should be censored—the reality is that we live in a culture that continues to praise macho artistic swagger. We tolerate Roman Polanski’s and Woody Allen’s sins, precisely because there seems to be a prevailing attitude that if they were different, better men, they might not be as actively creative. Likewise, we tacitly permit Kanye West’s wildly misogynistic tirades against his ex Amber Rose, as well as his odd ongoing feud with Taylor Swift, precisely because his brand of in-your-face bravado is seen as an element of his innovative albums.

Where do women fit into this culture? If in today’s world the male artist is still heralded for dangerous and destructive “risk-taking,” the female artist is generally heralded for being a role model. Artists like Beyoncé are required to not only produce work that is compelling and edgy, but to also appear effortlessly poised and perfect while doing it. If today’s female characters are allowed the latitude of being jerks like never before, the creators of series like “Transparent,” “Orange is the New Black,” and “Scandal” are also expected to be Hollywood’s moral compasses, ushering in a world of greater representation, better public policies, and feminist awakenings. The female artist who has “lifestyle problems” ranging from addiction (a la Britney Spears), to shoplifting (a la Winona Ryder) to violent behavior (a la Amy Winehouse) is seen in need of reformation, a “trainwreck” who must be saved. This is in stark contrast to Hollywood celebrities like Charlie Sheen and Bill Murray, whose colorful pasts, and even run-ins with the law, are seen as edgy and endearing, rather than deeply troubling.

The attitude where “male artists will be male artists” is an unsettling double
standard. In some cases, the tacit acceptance of male artists as likely to be a
bit rough around the edges is harmless, but in others, as is the case with
stars like Charlie Sheen and Woody Allen, the result is a long line of women
coming forward with claims of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Moreover, the conversations we are having online tend to focus on demonizing individual men, rather than discussing a culture in which an artist like David Bowie traveled in a world where bedding 14-year old groupies was considered normal, or a world in which R. Kelly is laughed about rather than looked at with true disdain.

I think one reason Bowie fans felt so exhausted by the discourse surrounding his relationship with young female fans, is that it felt like a “gotcha” moment,
rather than a serious discussion about the ways that our culture permits,
excuses, or even pressures artists to behave in certain ways. It’s not fair to
expect celebrities to be “perfect” but it’s equally strange to see predatory or
abusive behavior as arguably normal. While some who protest the double standard are eager for the day that women are given equal opportunity to engage in the same antics that many male artists do, without judgment, I think a more revolutionary change would be to live in a world where kindness is seen as cooler than cockiness, and a world where we can distinguish between behaviors which are quirky and offbeat and those that really do hurt others.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contestsShe is currently writing her first book.

On Louis C.K., ‘Horace and Pete,’ and the Meanness of Donald Trump

On Louis C.K., ‘Horace and Pete,’ and the Meanness of Donald Trump

I woke up late on Saturday morning to good news in my email inbox: a new episode of ‘Horace and Pete,’ Louis C.K.’s online series, had dropped. The first part of the email was fun and games as usual, but then there was a PS, during which C.K. delivered a lengthy and much-publicized rant against Donald Trump. As one might expect, C.K. had choice words for Trump, calling him a liar, a bigot, the equivalent of Hitler–all fair labels. Most saliently, though, C.K. called Trump out for a couple of things: he stated that he’s “not one of you. He is one of him,” urging readers not to be fooled by Trump’s promises. And he described, at length, Trump’s bullying, threatening tendencies, his pure meanness. Meanness should be distinguished from cruelty: meanness is inherent, deep, and yet also tacky; cruelty is slightly different, possibly situational. There’s a reason why C.K.’s words on the meanness and pretense of Trump should be taken seriously, and that his rant should not be dismissed as yet another self-serious celebrity’s conscious political statement. The reason is that C.K. is a student, practically a scholar, of both these qualities in humans. This knowledge is in glowing and wince-worthy evidence in Episode 6 of ‘Horace and Pete.’

Pretense and meanness are, in fact, what the series is all about. Horace (C.K.) and Pete (Steve Buscemi) are cousins who thought they were brothers until Uncle Pete (Alan Alda), their late uncle (to Horace)/father (to Pete), revealed otherwise, running a bar which seems like a solid establishment but is in fact losing money and serving watered-down drinks. Horace presents as affable but is in fact highly dishonest in his relationships, and, in some ways, mean-spirited, with a damaged, unhappy daughter and a son who doesn’t speak to him. Pete seems like a retiring sort, but is in fact heavily medicated—without his meds, he begins having visions. And then there’s the meanness. Throughout this brilliant series, characters say unabashedly mean things to each other, from Uncle Pete’s call to Horace to say hi to his “fat daughter” onwards. The drama’s characters regularly tell each other to go fuck themselves, believably, with full-throated anger. And they do mean things too; in one particularly harrowing and beautifully executed episode, we learn that Horace’s marriage ended because he slept with his wife’s sister. Repeatedly. And we learn this after Horace’s previous wife has announced that she’s cheating on her current partner with his father.

Episode 6 cranks this sort of ultra-meanness up a notch. It
begins benignly, as Pete springs around his bedroom, preparing for a blind
date. Then we cut to the date itself, as Pete and Jenny, played with great
honesty and forwardness by Hannah Dunne, muddle around a bit and then speak openly with each other about their attributes and shortcomings. Nothing mean yet, really, but in the next scene, which takes place after the two have become a couple, Pete and his new partner have dinner with Horace and Horace’s sister Sylvia (Edie Falco), a tightly wound, short of phrase, long of vindictiveness, cancer patient. The dinner starts awkward and gets worse as probing questions turn into snappish judgments (she’s 26, he’s 46). And then, finally, the kicker: Horace explains, explicitly and bluntly, Pete’s condition. Crushed, Jenny leaves, but not before telling Horace and his sister off, as Pete sits, head bowed, destroyed and ashamed. After Pete leaves, Horace and Sylvia go on eating dinner. So, the siblings have taken an unstable, lonely man, who was clearly enjoying a chance at happiness, decided that he wasn’t being forthright enough about his past, made a decision for him, crushed him, and then savored a plate of family-style spaghetti and meatballs. If you want a definition of meanness, look no farther. But simultaneously, if you want a definition of nakedness, the absence of pretense, the conclusion of this dinner gathering would be an apt illustration, as well. Nothing is hidden. Everything is revealed. Everything is ugly. Pass the parmesan.

What is the origin of nastiness? The sad reality is that its origins are often hard to place. One could hazard a number of explanations for why Horace spills Pete’s beans for him: he didn’t want a painful situation to develop later; he was doing his cousin a favor by not allowing him to become involved with a woman not mature enough to handle Pete’s reality; he was protecting Pete’s stability by stopping things before he got in over his head; he was bringing truth in where there had been none before. But none of these explanations are quite as strong as: he felt like it. And: humans are like that. So, the spectacle of Trump must be quite interesting to Louis C.K.: a man who says whatever he wants, and who promises to commit acts of great barbarism if elected President, for no other reason than impulse. Simultaneously, Trump is a pretender, someone who acts as if he has compassion for the downtrodden and yet has none, clearly. C.K. understands this man, because he’s watched this behavior in others, and he has allowed it to spark ‘Horace and Pete,’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘Louie.’ In C.K.’s dramas, the urge to be nasty or brutal or mean floats around like a life force, at times seeming like its own character. There are other impulses as well, but the injustice humans do to each other is often the catalyst behind each storyline. Dissembling is germane to C.K.’s work as well; C.K. plays himself, in a sense, in his dramas and in his stand-up–and yet who is this man? C.K. pretends to be a likable schlub, an everyman, a junk food addict, an ordinary guy–and yet, look: he’s assembled a remarkable cast for ‘Horace and Pete,’ with a theme song by one of the best songwriters of the past 50 years, a drama packed with incisive, acute analysis of American sadness. Not the work of a schlub! C.K. demonstrates by example that there are two kinds of dissembling. His is the good kind. Trump’s? Something else altogether.

KICKING TELEVISION: The Superhero Procedural

KICKING TELEVISION: The Superhero Procedural

Some people say that we’re in the golden age of TV, but those people also tell you the small screen is the new novel. The argument is an oversimplification that doesn’t recognize the evolution of the digital landscape, which sees TV as more than what’s available on your 50” plasma. Television, in actuality, is going through its microevolution, the speciation of the medium as we watch TV as we know it divide and isolate itself from its origins. And in its current phase of speciation, TV has developed superpowers.

Or, rather, developed endless superhero series.

There’s a lot to love about superheroes. Their narratives engage a variety of issues, often subversively, making excellent use of metaphor along the way. The characters are well-drawn and patiently constructed, crafted over decades. The villains, vices, and virtues in the universe of the superhero are analogous to real-life evils: big business, corrupt politicians, prejudice, substance abuse, and fighting for the common man. Superheroes can leap tall buildings in single bounds. Superman, as a character, makes sense to us because we can both admire and identify with the themes of love, loss, loneliness, otherness, and good versus evil writ large across his life.

The root of the appeal of the superhero series for networks and digital content providers is obvious: a built in audience that understands the malleability of the property and existing narratives from which to populate a series. Comics tend to have multiple universes, timelines, narratives, and writers, so their audience understands an adaptation may take licence to suit the needs of a new medium, and may have many voices contributing to its construction. Characters may be added or amalgamated, origin stories retold or rebooted, and narratives diverged from expectation or canon. 

None of this is new, either. From George Reeves’ Superman of the 1950s and the kitschy Adam West Batman to the questionable appeal of Lois and Clarkand Smallville to the before-its-time genius of The Tick, television has, with varying degrees of success, brought many a superhero universe to the small screen. But with the expansion of television—or what we call television—comes the need for more and more content. And there are only so many Kardashians.

A recent count by Den of Geek put the number of comic book television adaptations—for the most part super- or antiheroes—at no less than forty, adding to the dozen or so currently on TV. What I’ve found interesting is that for the most part they’re not compelling at all. I love superhero narratives. I love the popcorn excursion of a summer Marvel blockbuster. But for some reason, when they venture to TV, I lose interest.

Writer and producer Greg Berlanti has been responsible for bringing four DC Comics properties to TV. SupergirlArrowThe Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow were developed for the small screen by the erstwhile formerDawson’s CreekJack & Bobby, and Brothers & Sisters writer. And, frankly, all of those productions have the teen soap quality of his former endeavours. They’re dating arcs wrapped around saving-the-world narratives, romcoms with action sequences. Perhaps that’s what happens when big screen ambitions meet small screen realities, but I just can’t bring myself to invest in the series. I made it through two seasons of Arrow before Stephen Amell’s abs proved tiresome, two episodes of The Flash just to take solace in the fact that Tom Cavanagh was still alive and getting work, the pilot of Supergirl before groaning, and I don’t know what Legends of Tomorrow is.

The disappointing adaptations are not limited to Berlanti. Over at ABC, where good projects go to be Disneyfied, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter failed to yield products equal to their promise. Perhaps they should’ve let Shonda Rhimes produce. FOX is doing its best to kill any interest in Batman with Gotham, a show that answers the question no one asked: What was Gotham City like before it was interesting?

Admittedly, I’m being a little harsh. These adaptations aren’t awful. They’re not Dads. The problem is, we’ve simply got too many superheroes doing the same thing, much as we have too many medical and police procedurals, too many white men hosting late night shows, too many sitcoms that don’t make anyone laugh. The problem is that, as with many TV forms, those producing the programming are disinclined to push the limits of the medium. Superheroes are easy, and they’re ultimately forgettable. They’re taking up schedule space, but they lack the enduring longevity and inherent legacy of the literature that birthed them.

The only place where superheroes seem to thrive, at least in terms of presenting interesting and dare I say literary series, is on Netflix. Unrestricted by the network model, the properties they’ve invested in have shone.Daredevil is a gritted, violent twist on the procedural that is a tribute to its source material and rids us the memory of Ben Affleck in tights—until this summer, anyway. Jessica Jones is an intelligent, bold, and creative essay-like dissemination of consent, rape, PTSD, gender stereotypes, sexuality, and patriarchy. Jones uses the format of a noir thriller as a mode for the titular character to confront her, and our, issues.

The streaming service will add Luke CageIron Fist, and Marvel’s The Defenders to its superhero stable by year’s end, and one can only hope that they employ the same formula that made Jessica Jones compelling: ambitious adult television that engages in important contemporary issues that just happen to have characters who have superpowers. Jessica Jones addresses societal concerns that the rest of television either ignores or mocks. Hell, Jessica Jonesaddresses societal concerns that the rest of the western world either ignores or mocks. The series confronts more important issues in 13 episodes than the media can manage in a year.

The challenge content producers have is to keep the viewer from feeling the affects of a saturated market. The medium evolves quickly in a digital universe, and the ever-fickle viewer can only allow a few brief moments of interest before attaching to something new. Look how quickly the sitcom died. Superhero series could be primetime game shows before the calendar bleeds into 2017. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, TV has failed to adapt to its new realities as swiftly as the market has. So how does the superhero series remain a viable TV genre without simply over-producing existing properties?

Like any art form, the best way to adapt to evolution is to disseminate materials in a different way. Music has adapted to technology by introducing new techniques, new genres, and new ways of arranging old chords. Visual art has stumbled sideways into new media and interactive installations. Like any TV genre, the superhero series needs to find new ways to tell old stories. One such ambitious endeavour is NBC’s Powerless (sidenote: this is the first time since 1987 NBC has been referred to by anyone as ambitious), which Varietynotes is “a workplace comedy set at one of the worst insurance companies in America — with the twist being that it also takes place in the universe of DC Comics. The show is about the reality of working life for a normal, powerless person in a world of superheroes and villains.”

Genius. Exploring a universe from the periphery is exactly what the genre needs, not unlike Marvel One-Shots, short films set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe that explore less grand and hero-inclined narratives. In one of the shorts, a couple finds a Chitauri gun left over from the attack on New York seen in The Avengers, which the couple uses to go on a crime spree. It’s a fascinating look into what happens in the margins of the superhero universe. This is the route Gotham should have taken instead of desperately pandering to its source material by featuring villains before they were villains and heroes before origin. But Gotham is victim to a malady that has befallen many TV genres: becoming common, and blending into seemingly endless TV landscape.

With endless source material at the disposal of desperate programmers, the superhero series is now a genre, like comedy or drama or reality TV. Television, as an art form, is better off with its inclusion. It promotes a more diverse schedule. But in order to remain relevant as an art form, it needs to adapt and challenge itself to avoid the descent of the sitcom into recycled and tired concepts or the pandering simplicity of network dramas that refuse to break the tropes of their structure. Truthfully, it needs a hero.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of  Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

KICKING TELEVISION: Network TV Needs A New Model

KICKING TELEVISION: Network TV Needs A New Model

nullThis week my wife and I watched Channing Tatum and Beyoncé on Lip Sync Battle about 3.42 million times. We did not watch the episodes in their entirety, nor did we watch them during their scheduled broadcasts on a network called Spike, which I’m not sure if we even get with our cable package and whose sole purpose seems to be fixing bars and indulging in forensic criminology. There is no metric to account for our viewership, other than YouTube hits, but who knows if we were even watching Channing channel Bey on Spike’s actual YouTube channel as opposed to someone who posted the clip themselves. Afterwards, we wondered: When is Lip Sync Battle on Spike, and does anyone watch those broadcasts, and if so, why? How was that viewing experience skewed towards the viewer as consumer? What advertisements (read: revenue for somebody) were we exposed to that we absorbed subconsciously?

And why is television, as a medium and industry, so reluctant to evolve to this new mode of consumption?

I’ve had a handful of good ideas in my life. The neighborhood I grew up in had a small village at its center, removed from the chaos of the city’s urban core. It was lined with dated pubs and Mom n’ Pop stores. When I was in my late teens, I joked with some friends on our walk to school that we should dropout, buy up all the neighborhood’s dilapidated storefronts, and wait for the property values to soar. We made no such investment, and the village is now filled with million-dollar condos and kitty-cornered Starbucks, well beyond my means.

Sometime in the early aughts, a friend of mine was working for the post office, and in an inspired moment, I suggested that the USPS should offer free email addresses where people could move their traditional postal services to a digital platform as an established brand. They could be like Hotmail, I mused, but with all your bills and existing mail routed easily to your virtual inbox. My ideas were laughed at. I should’ve investigated further. Seems like a revenue stream the USPS could’ve used.

In 2010, when Conan O’Brien was unceremoniously removed as host of The Tonight Show, he began selling himself to other networks. I mused, to no one in particular, that O’Brien should just broadcast his show on, sell ads as he wished and cut out the nuisance of networks. That would’ve been a bad idea, since is Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard’s official message board, but O’Brien’s would’ve served the same purpose.

The red-headed stepchild of late night ultimately chose to bring his humor to TBS, where he now languishes around ninth place in the ratings behind Last Call with Carson Daly, which apparently did not go off the air in 2009, and something called Watch What Happenswhich, best I can tell, is a show about someone named Andy Cohen and the people who happen to be in his living room at any given time.

One of the challenges of the current TV landscape is that there is no adequate metric by which to measure viewership. The Nielsen ratings are an anachronism, still using a small section of viewers as representative of an increasingly complex and fickle national audience. Today’s TV consumer is not the 1940s viewer for whom the system was developed, white middle class families with one television and three stations. The Nielsen ratings fail to effectively account for PVRs, streaming options, partial content (clips on YouTube etc.), group viewing, and, yes, illegal downloads and streaming of content. While advertising executives are apparently still attached to the relic metrics, their blissfully ignorant patriarchy will soon be itself a relic and we may as well prepare ourselves for the evolution of the medium known as television.

Network TV is already adapting to the new realities of the digital generation—albeit slowly—mostly due to the aforementioned old white guys and their interest in metrics. All major networks offer some form of streaming service. CBS is launching a digital network and has content deals with Amazon and Netflix; ABC is owned by Disney, who is part-owner of Hulu, the streaming service that now offers some original programming; and FOX is also a part-owner of Hulu. NBC is owned by Comcast, so they still want you to buy cable and believeUndateable is funny. All of the networks’ streaming options have flaws such as delays or issues with availability. All are tied into antiquated notions of revenue streams and a failure to adapt to an audience vastly different from the one that made their industry rich.

Cable is a different animal, one much more difficult to analyze in terms of metrics. While cable networks require subscriptions in order to augment their revenues, their respect for the art of TV evident in their programming and their polarity in relation to networks suggests a much easier transition to usage by a digital generation. HBO and Showtime already offer over-the-top subscription video on demand, distributed as a standalone offering without cable, and OS apps provide additional avenues for viewership.

It has never made sense to me that networks don’t live stream their broadcasts. Why should stockholders and advertisers care about how an ad is absorbed, as long as it reaches an audience? Watching from a computer or mobile device adds avenues by which broadcasters may insert advertisements and sell their wares. Popups, sidebars, on-screen links, easily shareable and tweetable links. It seems like the obvious evolution. Instead, the viewers are able to watch illegal streams or PVR (so as to adapt viewing to their own schedules as opposed to an arbitrary network schedule) without ads or the opportunity for revenue growth.

Which brings me back to Conan O’Brien. When NBC returned Jay Leno and benign humor to The Tonight Show desk, why was there no enterprising executive whispering ambitious thoughts in O’Brien’s ear? He had a built-in audience and rabid fanbase who skewed younger and had already adapted to the conveniences of digital viewing. Could a show not be owned, produced, controlled, and broadcast by O’Brien’s Conaco production company? TBS issued a press release just this week that boasted Team Coco’s YouTube channel’s “2 billion video views, with fans clocking more than 6.2 billion minutes of viewing time. The channel, which features clips from current and past episodes of CONAN, along with online-exclusive music and comedy, has grown its fan base, as well, climbing to more than 3.5 million subscribers.” What role does TBS play in that success? Are syndicated reruns of 2 Broke Girls and The Big Bang Theory invaluable lead-ins? Conan’s live viewing popularity (albeit by an admittedly flawed metric) puts him in a conversation with Andy Cohen instead of Jimmy Fallon, suggesting TBS merely provides a venue for O’Brien to compete in a race he can’t possibly win, no matter the mode for quantification. The minute he signed with TBS, he relegated himself to last place. The network has neither the pedigree of NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX nor the unequivocal cool of Comedy Central or HBO.

Had O’Brien been convinced to broadcast Conan exclusively online, who knows where he and the medium would be now? An online platform would have allowed O’Brien freedom, both creatively and financially, from the tyranny of network executives. With a built-in audience, he could’ve easily attracted advertisers and unique revenue streams. He could’ve been a pioneer in an industry desperate for someone to colonize the new realities of a digitized medium. At the outset of satellite radio, Sirius decided that they’d need a property to build around, and that property was Howard Stern. While not a direct parallel, one can imagine O’Brien building a similar, if more tailored, empire around himself.

An established TV property like O’Brien isn’t currently available on the free agent market, and may never be again, unless the cast of Friends wants to reunite to continue the series or a Game of Thrones/The Walking Dead crossover can be realized. But there are options for enterprising artists who see the network/cable model as a slowly dying. If Zach Braff, with limited appeal or filmic acumen, can crowdsource $6 million for Wish I Was Here, imagine what a web-based TV enterprise with marketable talent could inspire. The supernatural ratings that The X-Files has managed with its continuation of the series some 15 years after it left TV perhaps lead to the argument that creator/showrunner Chris Carter should’ve brought Mulder and Scully somewhere other than FOX, who pre-empted the seminal series return for NFL post-game self-flagellation.

Network television is not exactly a place that naturally promotes ingenuity or progressive thinking. Networks make the Catholic church seem avant-garde. More appropriately, they make Chuck Lorre seem avant-garde. And much like my USPS and gentrified neighborhood moments of inspiration, I have no background in losing packages or fair trade coffee—I have no idea if this will work financially or technologically. But I’m part of the generation that has intimately experienced the shift from analog to digital, and I sit somewhere close to the 18-35 demographic that apparently dictates how many hours of Chicago-based drama we’re spoon-fed each week. And I know that as soon as this column is posted, I’m going to watch Channing and Yoncé 4211 more times. It seems to me now would be the time to invest in the inevitable transition away from an outdated model. I have no money to invest, myself, but I think I have Matthew Perry’s phone number somewhere, and I claim the rights to all intellectual property herein, which I will offer for 11% of revenues born of these concepts. 

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Women’s Bodies and the Outrage Machine

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Women’s Bodies and the Outrage Machine

nullIn 2007 I was working part time in a Borders bookstore while completing my MFA. It’s not uncommon in service jobs that customers will say completely strange, off-putting, or frustrating things, but one comment clearly stands out to me as most painful. Two men were standing at the register, chatting and looking at the magazines, one of which featured Jennifer Love Hewitt on its cover, wearing a black bikini and swimming in the ocean. She was smiling broadly and looked like she was having fun, even though all the recent articles about her pointed out that she had clearly gained a lot of weight.

The men laughed at how fat she looked, and then one looked at me. “Remember when she was young? She used to look like you. Nice and thin.”

The men were probably in their thirties or early forties and not in very good shape. One had a beer belly that very clearly hung over his jeans. I didn’t know what to say. In a world where the customer is always right, well-meaning managers will do anything to placate a difficult customer, rather than come to workers’ defense. And in this particular case, the boorish comment was even meant to have been softened with a supposed compliment. But underneath that compliment was also a very clear warning—that gaining weight or getting older was clearly a hilarious and utterly unacceptable thing for a woman to do.

I thought of this experience when reading about the hostile barbs and insults hurled at Carrie Fisher for recently daring to resume her role of Leia in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, even though her body had changed as she got older. The response was uncomfortable precisely because the later film was deliberately crafted in order to show Leia growing up, going from princess to general, changing her hairstyle, sharing a bittersweet moment with Han Solo, who had also aged, but who received no contempt from audiences when he did not remain a young heartthrob.

We tend to think of media as something we passively accept, rather than actively engage, even though the advent of social media has obviously changed that dynamic significantly. Our constant interaction with media images, from tweets, to blog posts, to internet think pieces, would, on the surface, seem to assume that we are more sophisticated media consumers than in the past. But I would argue our relationship to images has stayed relatively the same as always; only now we spend even more effort contorting ourselves into the same images we see on the screen, editing our faces, Photoshopping thigh gap. We torment each other more directly with the comforting shield of anonymity. Social media hasn’t humanized actors; it’s dehumanized the rest of us, turning us into easy targets and prey.

Issues of body image are not new. Every semester I have a new class of students, and every semester I have several young female students who want to write about body image. “There’s so much pressure today,” they say. “Being a teenage girl is the worst thing in the world.” They don’t think about whether women in their 20s and 30s and 40s and 50s worry about the same things. They seem confident that eventually this specific kind of pain is going to stop.

Every year reveals another ad campaign intended to supposedly make girls and women feel more confident, to make women feel less like failures. We get realistic Barbies, and dolls with less makeup, and then with more makeup. We get memes and hashtag campaigns. We get girl power anthems. We get Notorious RBG. We get Star Wars films with girl heroes and princesses who become generals. But the problem is still there.

The cycle of shaming women and then exalting them when they refuse to be reduced to exceptionally limited views of beauty is exhausting, and it’s not getting us anywhere. I feel terrible that I don’t feel liberated by Carrie Fisher’s response, because I do admire her tremendous resolve to not let other people bully her online. But I think the problem is bigger than Carrie Fisher, who was lauded when she was younger for dieting and working out to fit into that famous gold bikini, and was likewise encouraged to diet for her role in The Force Awakens. It’s bigger than Beyoncé telling us to “feel ourselves” and then also appear in an advertisement for her new vegan diet. It’s bigger than the exceptionally talented Jennifer Lawrence consistently getting roles to play women 10-15 years older than she actually is, at a time when women only a little older than Lawrence talk about struggling to find roles. It’s bigger than Oprah encouraging women to love their bodies and then expressing how ashamed she feels of her own.

Outrage culture makes some people feel empowered to effect social change through collective criticism, demands, and boycotting. But the reality is that cultural change takes time and, for issues related to women’s bodies in particular, things haven’t changed very much since the advent of the Mad Men era.  We still want to be beautiful and loved. We still want to be seen. We carefully craft our own image so that we can be Instagram-perfect, so that we can all be like movie stars in our own personal magazines.

For some bizarre reason, a few months ago I found that someone, somewhere, had signed me up for a subscription to Teen Vogue. I’ve been incredibly amused. I’ve been saving the magazines, curious to see what teen girls today are like, and I find it a bizarro version of what being a teen girl actually felt like. After all, in the magazine, everyone is beautiful and popular and pretty and has nice hair. Everyone looks like they are having the time of their lives.

Of course, being a teenager was often awful and none of us felt beautiful or cool, at least not all of the time. But riffling through Teen Vogue as an adult, I am struck with a strange sense of nostalgia for a teenage life I never really experienced—a world where youth is constructed as eternally beautiful and joyful. Often, these magazines sell feminism as much as they are selling makeup or fashion. The magazines’ editors seem to have incredibly short memories, forgetting that many of the fashions we are being sold as new have actually been around for years. After all, it’s the illusion of newness that sells articles. Perhaps that’s why when so many headlines have praised Fisher for her “revolutionary” statements, I remain relatively cynical. Until “body positivity” isn’t sold back to us as a new kind of consumer culture fantasy, nothing is actually going to change.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contestsShe is currently writing her first book.

KICKING TELEVISION: TV and the Death of the American Marriage

KICKING TELEVISION: TV and the Death of the American Marriage

nullThe first episode of season two of Transparent begins with a wedding. “Kina Hora” opens with a long, uninterrupted shot of the Pfefferman clan, draped in expensive, virginal white vestments, opulent garb against an epic California coastal backdrop. The series, which is the anti-thesis of tradition in society and on television, chose to invite the viewer into its sophomore effort by indulging in the very essence of tradition. Despite the immaculate aesthetic of the event, the wedding and its participants and guests were ugly, and in such a depiction Transparent stood with the traditions of its medium in presenting marriage as a deeply flawed and false institution.

Transparent explores the challenges of relationships. It beautifully examines how individuals construct, compromise, and conform in order to find happiness, or at least endure the journey. At the center of Transparent lie several marriages: the transitioned Maura and his ex Shelly; the newly betrothed Sarah and Tammy; Sarah and her ex Len; Josh and his partner Raquel; and all the bits and pieces, characters and relations who intersect and intertwine. It’s a look at marriage that introduces the contemporary evolution of our culture to the medium of television, a medium that tends to treat marriage with contempt. It’s also a medium that has evolved with the advent of streaming services like Amazon, which allows shows like Transparent the freedom to discuss an institution like marriage with less attachment to the traditions that permeate the network model. 

In “Kina Hora”, the defining moment—as the ugliness of the event meets the realities of the institution—finds Rabbi Raquel (the exceptional Kathryn Hahn) describing weddings as, “a ritual. It’s a pageant. It’s a very expensive play.” The same could be said about television itself. It’s part of our lives, an ongoing and unannotated play, in many parts, in many forms, with no end in sight. It’s a filter by which we quantify and qualify our own attempts at life. The streaming services have broadened the modes and conversations by which we apply that filter. And for the most part what we know as “television” seems to deplore marriage.

I got married this past summer, which was a surprise to many because I had never expressed any interest in marriage. This is not because I didn’t believe in love, which I did; or eternal happiness, which I aspired to; or gifts, which I rely on. I didn’t really want kids, but that became irrelevant, as marriage and kids ceased to be connected the way they once were. I think diamonds are a contrived industry, but I’m not wearing one. Ceremonies seemed opulent and gluttonous, but we eloped. Marriage, to me, had seemed simply a precursor to infidelity and divorce.

I’m not sure why I believed this. My parents have been together for more than 40 years and are very happy. My sister has been married for a dozen years or so, and my niece and nephew report no issue. Many of my high school friends are married and don’t complain about it much. But still, I had issues with the institution. And then, a few weeks ago, I was reading one of the many asinine and short-sighted op-eds that link television and movie violence to American gun culture, and I decided to blame what I believed to be the death of marriage on TV as well.

Television has killed the American marriage.

Unlike the facile arguments that blame media for gun violence, I decided to attempt to link my hypothesis to fact before asking my editors at Indiewire to publish it. Kind of like what Fox News does except the complete opposite. Is marriage, as television to me implies, dead—only worthy of farce, ridicule, and revile? Apparently, the meme that 50% of all marriages end in divorce is actually untrue. According to a New York Times study, “The divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since.” The piece also cites Fox, ABC, and Bravo references to the divorce rate myth as fact. The same media that both perpetuate and deride TV and film violence as contributing to a violent culture apparently do the same for the institution of marriage.

Violent shows bear ad revenue, as does programming of punditry that condemns them, as does the contemporary news model that treats myth as fact and viewers as sheep. Entertainment is an industry, and I like capitalism as much as the next guy with a paralyzing disinterest in nuptials. But I like facts and informed discourse too, which doesn’t explain why my own fears about marriage were tied to a straw man with commitment issues.

Interestingly, the Times piece begins with a reference to Chris Martin (a musician of some sort) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Blythe Danner’s daughter) ending their marriage. Of course it does. Even a respected outfit like the New York Times can’t make a concise argument in this day and age without tying it to B-list celebrities. It’s a trope of contemporary discourse that we filter issues through celebrity and media institutions. Television is a convenient barometer by which we tend to measure ourselves. It’s in our homes, a flawed mirror reflecting society and our notions of self. Am I as pretty as Rachel? Am I as funny as Chandler? Am I as successful as… well, none of the Friendswere particularly successful, but they had nice apartments and love and friendship and pet monkeys.

But beyond the aesthetic comparisons, there are institutional quantifications, which has lead me to believe that what has actually died is the representation of marriage on television. Once marriage was the aspiration of television, a narrative progression borrowed from Shakespeare. Boy meets girl, boy marries girl, and if it lasts more than four seasons everyone gets rich in syndication money. Weddings were sweeps staples, the ultimate achievement of television narratives: Luke and Laura, Jim and Pam, Ross and Emily. Weddings were beautiful, happy, defining moments that led to a lifetime of martial bliss, either on screen or in the world we imagined as completed series continued in our minds.

The current TV landscape sees marriage as either a cartoonish institution or one unworthy of reverence, perhaps as a result of the false meme or as a contributor to it. The sitcom revels in the former; a contrived wonderland where marriage is bliss, where flaws are adorable, and divorce is just a preamble to second chance happiness. Modern Family is a mockumentary meant to capture the contemporary American marriage, but instead it gives us animated generalizations. Phil the goofy loving father is married to Claire the overbearing mom, whose pratfalls bring us such joy. Jay is on his second marriage to the buxom Gloria, whose accent and ethnicity are a source of endless amusement. Cameron is married to Mitchell, and they’re both men, which is hilarious!

Two and a Half MenThe MiddleThe GoldbergsMindy: these shows all portray similar caricatures of marriage. Marriage is goofy. Men like football and synthetic cheese and drinking and they have penises, while women like shopping and makeup and Jon Hamm and they have vaginas. The dichotomy therein is a hoot.

In dramas marriage is a dismissed relic. The genre just doesn’t seem to like marriage very much. The modern day pulp of Shondaland savours infidelity common as oxygen and rarely attached to repercussion. The adulterous spouse can still be a president or a tenured prof or happy. Game of Thrones is filled with marriages of convenience and despair. Parenthood aspired to a more realistic depiction of marriage, but still filled its six seasons with adulterous leanings and desperate compromise. Maybe that’s what marriage is. Maybe mine is too new. Maybe I’m naïve. Maybe I should ask my wife.

These two representations perhaps help explain my media-driven fear of commitment. While marriage itself is a healthy and vital institution, television revels in its mockery. In actuality, marriage is a joyous union, an entry to a better life, not one of restriction or farce. I like being married, though I’m not very good at it yet. I’m heavier than I was when I was single, attentive but somewhat lazy with my affection, and not as responsible as a married man should be. But I’m trying. I aspire to better. I wish TV felt the same way.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

KICKING TELEVISION: Reboot, Reuse, Recycle

KICKING TELEVISION: Reboot, Reuse, Recycle

nullThe other night I was watching ABC’s The Muppets with my wife, who is a bit younger than me, and doesn’t have the memories of The Muppet Show and Muppet movies of the ‘80s that I do. She laughed when it was funny and rolled her eyes when silent groans were required. And I suppose I did too, and I’ve enjoyed the show, three episodes in. But there’s also something very sad about this reboot of the franchise. Not for the show, or its production, which cleverly takes us behind the scenes of the Muppet universe in faux documentary style. But rather, the sadness was mine, because somewhere five-year-old me was aghast at the adult version of a children’s classic. Kermit was drinking. Fozzie was dating. Ms. Piggy was…ok, totally unchanged. And in an entertainment era where no franchise can escape a reboot pitch, the revisiting of memories past has altered our once-static television mythologies. Now a series finale is meaningless, and where narratives used to have definitive beginnings and endings, the contemporary TV landscape has made its canon malleable.

TV reboots are not new for an industry rich in talent but handcuffed by corporate ideology. How else can you explain Chicago FireChicago PD, and this season’s addition, Chicago DMV? Series need to guarantee, or at least give the illusion of a guarantee, that they will be successful and profitable. Typically, the industry has leaned towards recycling. Medical, legal, and forensic science serials are churned out every pilot season. Sitcoms still have wacky neighbors and hetero coupling, even if the studio audience and ratings have all but disappeared. Late night is full of penises, mostly white men telling the same jokes about being white men. Recycling is born of fear, because in TV ‘new and revolutionary’ doesn’t come along all that often and when it does it’s either by mistake (Empire) or on HBO. But while the idea is not new, the employment of their methodology has changed.

We’re used to remakes, and enduring Matthew Perry cringing for a paycheck on The Odd Couple. But revisiting a past series, and continuing its narrative, is a new premise, at least on a large scale. In recent memory, we have seen or will see The X-FilesMelrose PlaceBeverly Hills 90210, The Muppet ShowBoy Meets WorldFull HouseArrested DevelopmentSex and the City, HeroesCoachWet Hot American SummerTwin PeaksXena: Princess Warrior, and Cop Rock rebooted. Well, not Cop Rock. Not yet. Not until someone can find Steven Bochco.

No TV property can escape the greed for easy ratings. Even Fear of the Walking Dead is a reboot of sorts, reimagining the early days of The Walking Dead universe. And while season one is a mixed bag at best, it certainly lacks the bold vision and ambition of its parent series. Why be ambitious when you can be simple-minded? Which begs the further question: If The X-Files or Xena are successful, what does TV reanimate next? Do we return to Lost and find out what the afterlife is like on another island, say Fiji? Is House, M.D. addicted to Adderall and working as an on-campus physician at UMass-Amherst? Was Tommy Westphall’s dream in St. Elsewhere actually part of another kid’s dream? Are Ross and Rachel divorced? Is Jerry dead? Is Tony Soprano?

The trend of sequels, prequels, and reboots is not unique to TV. We’re about to endure the return of the Star Wars franchise. Harper Lee’s publishers saw an aging icon and dollar signs and brought back the seminal characters from Too Kill a Mockingbird back to life in the unfortunate Go Set a Watchman. Meat Loaf revisits Bat Out of Hell whenever he needs an infusion of nostalgia-driven cash. But while I can understand nostalgia, the genius and gift of art is that it’s always there for us to revisit on our own schedule and accord.

I’ve read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Cat’s Cradle over and over so many times that I’ve worn out the pages. I’ve listened to the Silver Jews’ Bright Flight at least once a week for as long as I’ve owned the album. Once a year, I find a repertory cinema playing The Godfather or Pulp Fiction or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and revel in both the genius of the films and my memories of first watching them. And while revisiting television was once reserved for syndication—and then home video—digital technology has allowed me to rewatch my favourite series, like LostFriday Night Lights, or West Wing whenever I feel the need to immerse myself in their universes. To visit old friends. To be held safely in the nostalgic warmth of familiarity and television acumen. But to alter the anchored narratives of those series would mess with an already weary mind.

Unfortunately, TV doesn’t use the reboot trend to satiate the lingering the TV junkie’s appetite for series that died too soon. Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, Jason Segal, James Franco et al. will not suit up for Freaks and Geeks and Their Freak-Geek Kids. There will be no season two of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The surf is not up for more John from Cincinnati. Instead, TV tests the reboot waters with mid-range nostalgia like Boy Meets World and cult hits like The X-Files, before venturing into more seminal TV fare. Somewhere Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot are dusting off their "Dance of Joy" shoes. Somewhere, Jaleel White is hopeful. Make no mistake; the reboot is the new spin-off. And no TV series is safe. Except for Viva Laughlin. Probably. The spin-off had too many variables that could lead to failure. The reboot is a safer root, as it just offers what was previously successful with minor twists.

In the meantime, I won’t close myself off to these reboots. I’m as curious as anyone. Which is why networks will churn them out. Because even the most ardent fan of a series’ mythology can’t resist a dalliance with the unanswered, the unsaid, the unproduced. So I’ll watch The Muppets, even if it messes with my past, and answers questions no one asked like, What’s a Muppet prostitute look like? and Is Muppet-human sex bestiality? I’ll dig in. I’m a consumer. I’ll be the Statler to ABC’s Waldorf. But, in the meantime, I really have to know: Where the hell are “Pigs in Space”?

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author ofCheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013).Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

Watching Alex Ross Perry’s ‘Queen of Earth’ Follow Itself

Watching Alex Ross Perry’s ‘Queen of Earth’ Follow Itself

Queen of EarthIf you take enough writing classes, you will eventually hear the expression "following the poem." When used in relation to reading, it simply means tracing the visible path a writer has taken from the beginning to the end of a piece; when used in relation to writing, though, it means that the writer has followed the work’s inspiring impulse to its natural end, rather than trying to steer it, and that that following is recognizable in the structure of the poem. Alex Ross Perry’s most recent film, ‘Queen of Earth,’ can be said to "follow the film" as it makes an excellent portrait of a woman having a nervous breakdown that often tips into being a cross-section of a character’s mind, and does so in a way that seems effortless and seamless and wholly natural.

The reason the film might interest us and hold our attention from its outset is that its characters are, for lack of a better word, real: the rarified parts of their personalities are laid bare next to the less interesting aspects, with no narrative preference. Every trait is fair game for the filmmaker, and the story evolves from these traits, rather than from an overarching plot. Catherine has come to the country house of Virginia’s parents, following two traumatic events: her father’s suicide and breaking up with her boyfriend; while she stays in the house, she unravels. And that’s pretty much it. Watching is the sport here, and because virtually every actor in the film gives an equally strong performance, regardless of screen time, watching a natural course of events unfold is a pleasure. If I say Elizabeth Moss, as Catherine, is a "revelation," I might actually mean just that: her descent in the film, complete with snot, running make-up, some horrifyingly depressed facial turns, shows us, in a way entirely new, how far one might go into the self’s abyss. Moss’s typically straightforward delivery, each sentence announced as much as it is said, is perfect for a character in a film which seeks, eventually, to expose her. Moss seems open to us, the viewers, at first, and then only becomes more open. Katherine Waterston brings a familiar kind of negativity to her performance as Virginia; there’s a pout behind every statement she makes. It’s easy to see that she’s the more stable of the two friends, and yet her stability seems somewhat joyless. Perry includes several shots here of Waterston simply jogging, seemingly pointless but telling at the same time: she runs with the mood of someone determined to bring discipline into her life; somehow her downcast eyes tell us the exercise isn’t the point. Patrick Fugit has a brief but very memorable appearance here as Virginia’s semi-boyfriend. You’ve seen this person before. He’s the kind of gadabout male who enters a social milieu, takes advantage of it for a while, and then leaves–but not before telling Catherine off, calling her a "spoiled rich brat." His movements are sluggish, cool, and mildly creepy. We can’t be certain what his relationship to Virginia is, and this seems as if it might be because of an allergy to commitment. These characters are thrown together, and not; at times it seems as if Perry is playing alchemist here, tossing a collection of characters together in a beaker and seeing what new element arises from their combination.

Throughout the film, characters beat each other up, verbally, even in their offhand remarks. When one of Virginia’s neighbors meets Catherine near the house, he calls Virginia’s parents "terrible people." How often does such a plain statement of dislike occur in a film? During an intimate conversation, at a time when Catherine’s unraveling strands are plainly visible, Virginia remarks that this must have been what Catherine was really like, all along, even before her break-up or her father’s demise. The insensitivity is startling. And yet Perry doesn’t necessarily swing empathy in Catherine’s favor, or Virginia’s, or anyone else’s. These people’s relentless sniping at each other has an important function, or perhaps two functions. It entertains: few filmmakers do "mean" as well as Perry does. But it also stabilizes. The nastiness seems effortless, part of the film’s highly natural motion, its following of itself. This is only true to a certain extent, of course; the razor-sharp editing of the film–the close-ups, the cuts, the vaguely hallucinatory light refractions–is highly deliberate. Everything is deliberate: such a closely observed portrait of an individual, which in turn gives portraits-in-relief of other characters, must be worked out ever-so-carefully. But the driving impulse of the film is to work from within, to let lives fall where they may, with all their cruelties, sufferings, and deteriorations on full display.  

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: ‘Inside Out’ and Today’s Reductive Emotional Landscape

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: ‘Inside Out’ and Today’s Reductive Emotional Landscape

nullIn 1943, Walt Disney Studios released a cartoon called ‘Reason and Emotion‘ which depicted man’s inner life as a battlefield between sensible Reason, portrayed as an elegant little man with a suit, tie, and glasses, and wild man Emotion, portrayed as a small caveman. In the cartoon, Reason and Emotion battled for control inside a man’s head, seen in silhouette, with Reason confidently driving in front and Emotion dejectedly confined to the backseat. When Reason spies a beautiful young woman on the street he suggests being respectful, while Emotion attempts to take Reason’s place at the wheel by encouraging cat calls and whistles. When the camera zooms inside the young woman’s head, we see a similar scenario, with Reason portrayed as a prim and proper woman with glasses, while Emotion, with her loose hair and short skirt, tries to take control of the wheel, so that she can get dessert, ruining poor sensible Reason’s diet.

It’s clear that our cultural attitude about the role of emotion (as well as gender roles) has evolved significantly since 1943. Pixar’s latest film, ‘Inside Out,’ portrays a world where the emotions—Anger, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Joy—play equal and important roles in helping Riley, the film’s young heroine, navigate the world around her. The film starts with Joy taking the helm, but ends with the express argument that as 11-year old Riley grows up she will need to confront new situations, and that each emotion will play an important role in helping her to navigate this new landscape.

Critics have rightly gushed over ‘Inside Out’—at Slate, Amanda Marcotte notes how wonderfully universal the film’s themes are and also points out the strong feminist undercurrent about how girls shouldn’t be encouraged to mask their feelings and put on a happy face.  Many critics also note the sheer gorgeousness of the Pixar world inside Riley’s head. Anthony Lane at The New Yorker declares, “On the scale of inventiveness, ‘Inside Out’ will be hard to top this year. As so often with Pixar, you feel that you are visiting a laboratory crossed with a rainbow.”

If the world of ‘Reason and Emotion’ portrayed a landscape where emotion was seen as dangerous, the world of ‘Inside Out’ portrays a world where emotional lives are stunningly compartmentalized. Core memories, portrayed as brightly colored orbs, are located at the forefront of Riley’s mind, while older memories are either stowed or thrown away into a vast sea of memories that no longer seem to matter. Riley’s overall quality of life and personality is based on the health of each of her core “islands”—one is based on family, one on “goofball,” another one sports. These islands are surprisingly fragile, completely disintegrating when Riley encounters a situation that is hurtful, or frightening, or frustrating. When Riley’s core memories are threatened after she moves from Minnesota to California, feelings Joy and Sadness must begin an epic quest to place them where they rightfully belong.

Riley’s emotional world in ‘Inside Out’ is portrayed as inherently fragile; her “islands of personality” for example, are portrayed as actual physical islands made of real raw materials that crumble and break and disappear forever when Riley’s trust in those worlds is diminished. This physical representation of memory is shaped by our current cultural moment as much as Disney’s 1940s portrayal of reason and emotion was.  After all, Riley’s increasingly complex collection of memories looks a lot like the way we collect and store memories online today, with happy ones on proud visible display on our Facebook timelines and Instagram accounts, and sad ones minimized, covered up, or pushed to the side.

In ‘Inside Out,’ all of our emotional worlds seem dangerously close to extinction. Each of Riley’s personified emotions is reactive when encountering a new situation. Anger blows his top. Disgust turns up her nose. Fear flails around terrified. The film’s core message, that emotions, even Sadness, who at first seems quite useless, play key important roles in helping to maintain Riley’s emotional stability, seems in some ways to reject the notion of reason whatsoever. When entering the heads of Riley’s parents, for example, we see older, wiser “mom” and “dad” versions of these same five emotions, each of whom, often to comical effect, struggles with many of the same feelings that Riley does.

‘Inside Out’ illustrates how we live in a world that is on the surface much more open to the complexities of our emotional inner worlds than was the 1943 world of ‘Reason and Emotion.’ And yet, in many ways ‘Inside Out’ also reflects just how reductive today’s emotional landscape ultimately is. In today’s current cultural climate we are rarely given the latitude to express a complicated emotional response to something we read and see. The world of social media encourages knee jerk reactions—a like, or dislike, an outraged tweet. We’re allowed to feel the same five emotions that Riley experiences—joy, fear, disgust, sadness, and especially anger, but are rarely encouraged for sharing emotions that are too complex to boil down to a hashtag. We live in a world where emotions are plentiful, but they are also stock responses that don’t allow for very much in the way of nuance.

In the end of ‘Inside Out,’ Sadness saves the day, as Riley is able to express the complex emotions of nostalgia and grief, which are depicted as an intermingling of joy and sadness, and Riley’s core memories are allowed to shift hues from purely golden to shades of blue. But the final scene is a bit more unsettling, as Riley’s emotions consider a far more advanced motherboard, along with a large red button labeled, “puberty” that has yet to be pushed yet. While ‘Inside Out’ presents emotional growth as a natural transition from childhood to adulthood, it also presents a relatively modern cultural attitude that expressing emotion, even emotions that can be upsetting or unpleasant like fear, anger or sadness, can actually be a good thing. As a parable for coming-of-age in a digital world ‘Inside Out’ also suggests that we are still learning how to communicate our emotions to one another in ways that help us establish dialogues, as opposed to emotional battlefields where feelings are often wielded as weapons to protect ourselves or hurt the other person.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contestsShe is currently writing her first book.

METAMERICANA: What ‘Into the Woods’ Has to Do with David Foster Wallace

METAMERICANA: What ‘Into the Woods’ Has to Do with David Foster Wallace

Into the Woods, a film based on
the 1986 musical of the same name, offers its audience an interweaving
of well-worn material–select fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm–and
an original story by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim. The script
of the musical (and now its cinematic adaptation) mirrors its central
theme: throughout the story characters are heard to complain that the
life they want is one that combines a gritty realism of their own
authorship with a magic that’s beyond their understanding. As Anna
Kendrick’s Cinderella tells Chris Pine’s Prince Charming, "My father’s
house was a nightmare. Your house was a dream. Now I want something
in-between." If modernism urged us to shoot for the moon, and
postmodernism compelled us to take our blinders off, the metamodernism
of Lapine and Sondheim proposes that we do both things simultaneously.
This sentiment carries even greater resonance today than it did in the
mid-1980s, given the "both/and" ethos of our contemporary, fully
digitized American culture.

David Foster Wallace, widely
considered the first and still most important metamodern novelist, began
writing his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, the same year Sondheim and Pine’s Into the Woods
saw its first live performance. While in 1986 Wallace was still
developing the metamodern rhetorical framework that would come to
fruition with the publication of Infinite Jest in 1996, the late
novelist had for years been explicit with friends and the media about
deeming postmodernism an artistic dead-end. His reasoning: the
"either/or" ethos of the postmodern novel dictated that it be entirely
one thing or another–for instance, entirely self-serious or entirely
ironic–and for this reason it was doomed to remain "hellaciously
unfun." Wallace envisioned a literature in which novels could indulge
diametrically opposed principles simultaneously, and do so with an
earnestness of intent that would make of those opposed principles a
"single-entendre" ethos. In other words, Wallace-the-metamodernist
believed that one could simultaneously articulate opposing ideas with
such a studied sincerity that the usual tone taken by any artist setting
ideas against one another–irony–could be abolished entirely.
Wallace’s ideas were inspired by films and novels he’d been exposed to
in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It’s popular these days
to say that metamodernism was born of Internet culture, and that in
metamodern art the artist "oscillates" between opposing ideas rather
than stacking them atop one another the way Wallace proposed and then
performed in Infinite Jest. It’s popular, too, to reject the
notion that metamodernism flourished in the 1980s on the grounds that
irony also flourished during that same period–e.g., in Bret Easton
Ellis’ two late-80s novels. The problem with this reasoning is that when
one looks to historicize a movement or cultural paradigm, one really
looks first to the emergence of such ideas and commitments among the
geniuses of each generation. Wallace was a literary Great, whereas Ellis
was and is not; Wallace showed us the vitality of metamodernist
principles in the 1980s and 1990s, while Ellis merely aped an ironic
posture that was already the order of the day in mainstream American
culture by 1986.

The situation is much the same today in literature, and also in film. Writers whose work merely doubles down on the
apocalyptic cynicism of late postmodernism are received as cutting edge
not because they offer their readers anything new, but because they
crystallize things that have been in the water for many years now. In fact, what Generation Y is craving now is very much in line
with the vision Sondheim and Wallace offered us in the mid-1980s: a
world in which we can take things we find in our culture, combine them
seamlessly with materials or self-expressive instincts of our own, and
through this unholy alliance experience multiple realities at once. In Into the Woods,
the characters experience the magic of "the woods" alongside the
hardscrabble moral quandaries of their daily lives in "the village." In
America, we now conjoin the magic of "the Internet"–a place where
fantasy and reality lose all distinction–with the workaday exhaustion
of post-industrial America.

Postmodern artists fear that if
young creatives begin intermixing concocted fantasy and received
reality, or self-expressive imagination and plagiarized material from
online, the result will be an inability to distinguish between fact and
fiction and therefore political ennui. It’s a red herring that’s
admirably dealt with by the Baker’s wife (Emily Blunt) in Into the Woods, who says the following after she sings "Any Moment" with a (quite suddenly) adulterously amorous Prince Charming:

it all be either less or more? Either plain or grand? Is it always
‘or’? Is it never ‘and’? That’s what woods are for: for those moments in
the woods….[but] just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’, when you’re
back to ‘or’, makes the ‘or’ mean more than it did before. Now I
understand–and it’s time to leave the woods!"

It’s a
useful commentary on the easy misogyny of the 1980s that only moments
after her epiphany–only moments after the unfaithful baker’s wife
realizes the passing but not insignificant utility of infidelity–she is
violently killed. But the epiphany remains, and will make sense to any
adulterous spouse who’s read the latest conventional wisdom on whether
affairs must always end marriages (the CW says no), or to anyone who has
quit the Internet after ingesting near-fatal doses of its toxins (the
CW now says that doing so makes you appreciate daily living all the
more).  We may
not yet have reached the point, in the political/social spheres, at which pollsters give us
three options rather than two for their infamous "right track/wrong
track" question–that is, permit us to say that the nation is
simultaneously on the right and wrong tracks–but films like Into the Woods
demonstrate that this hybrid view of the human situation is alive and
well in art and in our hearts if still not in our discourse or our

Watching Into the Woods reminds us that for every website like Salon
whose cynical click-bait articles are rife with bitterness at the
injustices of the world–and are therefore rigged to fill our throats
with bile–there’s an filled to the gills with videos of
small kindnesses and grand romantic gestures. For every use of
technology to harm or invade, there’s a simultaneous use that
saves many lives. For every Ferguson, there’s a type of dialogue on race
and policing in America that tragedy and only tragedy makes possible.
For every Mr. Wolf (Johnny Depp) in Into the Woods, there’s a wolf-skin cape waiting to be made. For every unfathomable philosophical intricacy in Infinite Jest,
there’s a moment of such pure comedy in the novel that cannot be missed
or misread. And most importantly, all this good and bad is happening to
each of us at all times and simultaneously, a fact the Internet has
made clearer to us than ever did the offline but nevertheless carnal
consumer culture that typified the eighties. For many decades now–not
just since the turn of the century–our most energetically inventive
artists and thinkers have been urging us to turn aside from zero-sum
games to find strength and vitality in contemporary juxtapositions; the
question is, are we listening? Or must we wander in the woods forever?

Seth Abramson is the author of five poetry collections, including two, Metamericana and DATA,
forthcoming in 2015 and 2016. Currently a doctoral candidate at
University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is also Series Co-Editor for
Best American Experimental Writing, whose next edition will be published by Wesleyan University Press in 2015.