Your Progressive Media Needs Criticism

I unfriended someone on Facebook the other day. That might not sound like such a big deal to some, but to others you might be going “oooooooooh” right now, because it takes a lot to get defriended from my Facebook. Something fairly monumental. And this wasn’t a stealth defriending either, a “I knew you in grade school but now you’ve become a Trump supporter so bye Felicia” kind of defriending. This was a digital face-to-face over a thread, telling the other person “It’s been fun, but goodbye.”

And it was over, of all things, Twin Peaks.

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“I’ll see you again in 25 years.”

Folks might not know, but I’m a huge fan of Twin Peaks. Been watching for years. I must have seen the original show three or four times over, plus read the books, and absorbed so much of the lore around the show I’ve got theories that have already proven true. I’m such a big fan, I’m planning a tattoo for the next time I get the chance saying “Fire Walk With Me.” I’m THAT big a fan.

But that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the criticisms I’ve got of the show, particularly about women characters on Twin Peaks. And while the show is meant in many ways as a parody of both itself and melodramatic television and 1950’s small town culture, therefore offering it a strange and unique space for characters to be archetypes rather than entirely characters all their own, there are issues with the treatment of women in my eyes and always have been. And I’m not the only one. Reviews and articles coming in about the new Twin Peaks have echoed a lot of my feelings, from The Wrap, Refinery29, Bustle and, of all places, Haaretz. They all say what I’ve been saying too: David Lynch has a woman problem in his work, and in Twin Peaks it is glaringly obvious and very, very sad.

So after one particularly egregious episode in Twin Peaks: The Return (Episode 10), I put up a single line text about how much I love the show, but how it had a serious sexism problem. And within a few minutes, I was under attack. Not a “I disagree with you” friendly debate. I love those. But a full knock-down gaslighting, insulting, mansplaining, nightmare, complete with “you just don’t understand the series” and “do you even watch the show?” nerd checking. The person in question was clearly agitated, posting rapidly and pointing out how Twin Peaks was full of archetypes (yes, it is), how it is part parody (yes, it is), and if you think that David Lynch is sexist, he can’t be, because he included one of the first trans characters (thank you, yes, not the point) and is asexual himself (um, okay, sure… what?).

It turned out over the course of this bizarre conversation that the truth came out: this show had deep sentimental value to this person, who felt because of that it needed defending. And when I pointed out that their attachment didn’t make it immune from criticism, the comments got nasty. So I said goodnight to a person I’d known for seven years, and unfriended them. Simply put, I don’t need that negativity in my life.

But it brought up an interesting series of thoughts from me, which culminated last night after seeing The Dark Tower. Because boy, do I have a lot of feelings about that movie.

(And here is where I post about a new film in a spoiler-free way. If you don’t want to read about The Dark Tower movie at all and want to see it cold, you might want to stop reading.)

There are few things I’m a bigger fan of than Twin Peaks. X-Men. American Gods. Buffy. The Dresden Files. And then, there’s The Dark Tower. I’ve read the entire book series three times, along with nearly every Stephen King book out there. I’ve seen almost every Stephen King TV show and movie, even the bad ones, multiple times. I’ve tracked the connections between King’s other works and The Dark Tower series and waxed on for HOURS about theories and possible other connections. I’m planning another tattoo, and yes, it’s of the Dark Tower and the words “There are Other Worlds Than These.” Every time someone would talk online about rumors that The Dark Tower was becoming a movie, I’d flip out and wait. And wait. It took years to get the series to film, so when they announced it, I bought tickets the day they went on sale. I was ready.

the-dark-tower_0I watched everyone flip about Idris Elba being cast as Roland because of the color of his skin and rolled my eyes. They made a great choice there, I thought, choosing a man of color for such a traditionally Clint Eastwood, square jaw white guy role. He would rip a hole in the scenery with Matthew McConaughey as The Man In Black. He would be the iconic man on his way to the Tower. He had the perfect gravitas. I would recite the Gunslinger Creed over my popcorn bucket and watch him do the reloading trick and be so happy. I got my friends together, those who were big fans and who weren’t, and I made a day of it. As I said to my friends, to a fan like me, it was like going to church.

And then. I went to the movie. And I walked out so mad. So. So mad.

The Dark Tower movie is bad, y’all. It’s really, really is.

I won’t go into specifics, but other than a few pieces of nerd-dom tossed in that made me satisfied, the film was a run of the mill, fun urban scifi-fantasy film that could have been original if it was anything but named The Dark Tower. It harkened back to the comic book adaptations of the 80’s and 90’s in its surface-level-only understanding of the material, a slick transmogrification of a complicated, gritty, compelling series into a shiny action film full of hackneyed dialogue and atonal characters. Idris Elba, the man who brought you such nuanced, intense performances as Luther was wasted on this movie, and scenes where he and the powerful McConaughey, seemingly ready to flex his muscles but tragically held back by the weak writing, fall positively flat. The two, along with the rest of the cast, are given no room to move in the too-quick, badly edited rush to cram a huge amount of material into a tragically short hour and a half film. An hour and a half for a seven book series ‘sequel’ which reads like a comic book spin-off one shot gone horribly wrong.

I walked out of the film, furious. I sat down with friends afterwards and listed the myriad ways the movie had failed not only Dark Tower fans, but folks in general. My friends who didn’t know the books said it came in as a solid ‘okay’ action movie without the context of the original material, which I suppose gives it some salvation. But for a fan like me, it was like watching someone piss away the opportunity to make a new Lord of the Rings. Give me a Peter Jackson three movie trilogy, each three hours long, where you have to race to the bathroom in between scenes because you’re sitting so long watching it. Give me the depth of Mid-World, the Tet Corporation, the Gunslingers of Eld. Give me the epic battle between titanic forces I’d been waiting for. Instead, I got a cartoon.

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She looks awesome and people were complaining about her hair. That’s some coded racist BS there folks.

I went online to put up a single lined comment on my Facebook: “This movie has forgotten the face of its father.” A lament to what could have been. And I got the most curious response to a friend in private messenger. It said I shouldn’t complain, because at least the movie cast a man of color as the lead. That made it important. To which I agreed yes, it did make it important. Actually, in the age of white washing roles, just days after the internet flipped its collective trolling shit over the awesome Zazie Beetz, a woman of color, being cast as the traditionally comic book pasty Domino in the upcoming Deadpool 2, seeing a man of color playing this iconically white as heck role was powerful. I mean, Roland Dechain is meant effectively to be the descendent of Arthur Eld, the King Arthur of his land. He carries guns made of Excalibur. He is THE iconic hero. Choosing a man of color for the role was a great, progressive move.

It didn’t save the film, however, from a) just being bad and b) from sucking in other ways regarding progressive representation. For example, towards women. It’s not like the original material was super amazing towards women to begin with. I’ll tell you there’s some shit about fridging women in it that could make your hair stand on end, and some sexual violence that’s way, way unnecessary in my eyes. The film flinches away from a lot of the worse stuff because of its shiny, not-too-violent-but-cartoon-violence veneer, but it fails the Bechdel Test and the Fridging Tests like a kid who didn’t study for finals. It found its way to progressiveness in one way, and flunked it so epically in others.

And you know what? That’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay that it failed. It’s not okay that the movie overall was a colossal disappointment.

It’s okay to look at a film like The Dark Tower and point out that while it was progressive in one way, it failed epically in others in terms of representation.

Because just because a piece of media is progressive does not make it immune to criticism. Even, and especially, if it’s your favorite.

I had my own run-in with what I call Favorite Bias when reviews for Wonder Woman came in. On the list of things I’m more of a fan of than Twin Peaks is Wonder Woman. I’ve read almost every Wonder Woman comic up until the New 52 run (which I forgoed because I felt it betrayed the character on pretty much every level). I was planning, you guessed it, a Wonder Woman tattoo (you see a pattern here). I have Wonder Woman t-shirts. I have every graphic novel I could get my hands on. I think I remember more about Wonder Woman comics than pieces of my childhood because, hey, that’s how the human mind works. So when the movie was announced, I was ready to be disappointed. I was nervous, ya’ll, that we’d have another Catwoman on our hands, another Elektra, and that movie execs would use its flop as an excuse to say “Women led comic book movies will fail!” even when women-led movies with kickass protagonists were doing work at the box office (say hey, Furiosa and Katniss).

And then Wonder Woman came out. And it was a joy.

Sure, it had its problems. Heck, I went over its problems in a long, long article. I laid out all the issues it had and why, in many ways, it had come short of true greatness. But all in all, I sat in the dark opening night with tons of my friends and bounced with joy when I saw Themyscira. Once again, take me to church, silver screen. I was home.

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They couldn’t give Artemis any lines? Really?

And then I got home, and started talking to other folks, looking at Facebook, reading reviews. And the one thing I noticed over and over were comments about the representation of people of color in the film. Specifically, how nearly all of the non-white Amazons had non-speaking or servile roles. The film, it seemed, had managed to pass the Bechdel test with some flying-ass colors while leaving its representation of POC way, way in the dirt. (And for more on this, check out Harper’s Bazaar’s piece as an example of the conversation out there). A lot of people were lauding the film while commentators, especially POC, were citing the problems the film had. And they were getting a lot of responses saying what I said about The Dark Tower: while the film achieved progressive aims in some ways by being a hella strong representation of a powerful woman on the big screen (and at the box office), it was a massive problem for its intersectional representation.

When I first heard those criticisms, something kicked in my stomach. A nagging rationalization crawled up out of me, saying, “But look! It’s Wonder Woman! It’s a hell of a progressive film! Look at Themyscira! Look at it! That’s woman paradise! The warriors, the culture, just look!” And then I did look. Harder. And I saw the way women of color were being represented. I listened to what people were saying, what women of color were saying. It wasn’t a woman’s paradise. Not for all women. Pretty much just for the white ones.

I shut up. I listened. And (I think) I got it.

These experiences echoed an old fight I had with a friend over Star Wars years ago on my birthday. Star Wars, to him, is his Take Me To Church, a deep abiding nerdy kind of love that nigh transcends understanding. So when I made the mistake of pointing out the shortage of women in the original Star Wars universe during my birthday party one year, I nearly ended a friendship. Because that was his Sacred Bunny, just like Twin Peaks had been my ex-friend’s Sacred Bunny, and Wonder Woman was mine. And though each one of these pieces of media expounded on some serious progressive ideals, it didn’t make it less regressive in other ways.

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We forget this was mind-controlled, y’all.

Did the original Star Trek‘s progressive moments, such as the famous interracial kiss between Uhura and Kirk, erase the fact that it happened on an episode where they were basically mind controlled into having the kiss, making it a product of unwanted sexual attention? Nope. Did the great trajectory of Mako Mori in the plot of Pacific Rim take away from the stereotyping she received as both a woman of Asian descent and as a woman in general? Nope. Did the great representation of queer characters on The 100 let us ignore the tragedy that was the destruction of its most stable queer relationship in the tradition of the Killing Queers trope, ala Buffy‘s Tara? Nope. Did the unbelievable awesomeness of the John Wick series ignore that the protagonist’s wife is (spoiler alert) Fridged for his story to have emotional trajectory (and y’all, it’s not all about the dog)? Nope. And don’t get me started on the Orthodox Jewish banker stereotype from John Wick 2, just don’t.

It is okay to like something and find it problematic. But moreover, it’s okay to recognize that a piece of media can be progressive in some ways and deeply problematic in others.

In fact, I’ll go one further. Progressive media should not and cannot be immune to criticism. By allowing ourselves to be caught up in a piece of media’s progressive moves in some areas, while blatantly ignoring or downplaying the places where it fails in intersectional representation, we let ourselves be lulled into the false ideology that progression can only occur slowly and that representation is a battle fought for in drips and drabs, as individual causes whose battlefronts often cannot intersect for fear of scaring the conservative whole.

We look at a film which supports a single minority group or underserved population and laud its achievements and sweep under the rug its failures, afraid to rip apart a one-step-forward kind of progression that has clawed our media representations to where they are now. “What, you want it to be everything?” we say, not realizing it echoes the snide comments by alt-right conservatives, who sneer about how the next big movie will replace their tried and true white male protagonist with a queer disabled woman of color just so it can be politically correct. (And yes, that’s some of the bullshit the conserva-trolls online say). We say things like, “We’ve got this far, what else do you want?”

I guess the answer is: more. I want more.

I don’t see why we can’t shoot for the moon, for a movie that not only excels in a single area but serves a better view of the world by being progressive in all intersectional ways. I want movies that have people of color in positions of power, forget just speaking rolls. I want queer representation presented as normalized, for trans characters to have visibility and recognition as part of the world as it is without qualifiers. I want women to have power and agency and representation and for disabled characters to comfortably exist. I want religious diversity and body diversity. Yeah, I want it all. Maybe that makes me a greedy liberal media nerd, but that’s what I want.

But when a piece of media fails us in those ways, when it only comes in second or third in its representation, when it soars to the moon and only lands among the stars, giving us one or two of those representations and lacks the others, I want us to be able to look at it and recognize that fact. I want us to say, “yes, but” rather than “yes, and let’s take what we can get.” It might be infuriating, and to conservatives outside it might look like liberals being divisive within their own camp. But if progressive action in media is not intersectional, just like in other forms of progressive action, then it has not truly achieved its aims. And we can only learn how to improve by recognizing those places where pieces of media, and indeed those places where we creators have failed in our own media, have fallen short of a better, more ideal form of representation.

Despite all this, I’m still going to be a giant nerd for Wonder Woman. I’ve come to embrace Star Wars as a huge part of my geek life thanks to better representation in the new era of films, books, and toys. I watch John Wick with my friends, and love the shit out of The Dark Tower books. I’ve lauded the movements of comic books and comic book films and television to be forward thinking on its representation, loving on my Kamala Khan and Captain Marvel and new, better Wonder Woman storylines while still criticizing the places where things fall through the cracks. I put forward my own work to others and take criticism too, because if I don’t practice what I preach as a creator of media, I’m just a hypocrite. I like my problematic favorites, like Game of Thrones and Walking Dead. I still turn on Twin Peaks every Sunday night, even though I groan into a pillow over some of the choices David Lynch makes.

I’m still a fan. But these days, I expect more. And I’ll keep saying so, until it’s not necessary anymore.

2 Comments

  1. Disabled woman. DJ, psychology masters dropout. I love it! especially about we can want quality films with self determined diverse cast. And it is sad it happened with Dark Tower. Did not read it yet, but kinda feel the same with not perfect Dune film. Btw, should I read the books, considering that I am a Dune and GoT fan?

    1. I’d say hell yeah, tho be prepared that the series has some SERIOUS questionable stuff in it. (Hint: sexual violence, super violence, horror).

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