Category Archives: gender issues

The hyper-real reality of Jane the Virgin

In case you haven’t gleaned from my previous posts, the CW is my favorite television network (and possibly the only one I regularly watch). True, I am probably a few years removed from its target demographic, but my love for its predecessor the WB, and the shows I watched at my most impressionable age — Buffy, Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls — endures. I’ve gotten older and the hair and makeup has gotten more polished, but the CW still serves up a consistently solid roster of shows that can be popcorn-fluffy yet poignant, completely far-fetched (two centenarian vampire brothers feuding over a high school girl) and surprisingly relatable (a high school girl struggles to understand what her path in life should be after a tragedy).

Lately a show that’s impressed me in this regard is Jane the Virgin, the telenovela adaptation that debuted in 2014 and is now in its second season. The show’s premise is admittedly, and proudly, wacko — a 23-year-old virgin is accidentally artificially inseminated with the sperm of a multimillionaire hottie hotel magnate/cancer patient, then decides to keep and raise the baby — but in some ways, it’s one of the more realistic shows on TV. Few shows bother to even nod in the direction of “blue-collar” lifestyles anymore, especially live-action shows, preferring instead to give their characters massive apartments and vaguely defined but apparently extremely high-paying jobs. Jane isn’t immune to this problem — its title character does have a TV star father and a filthy rich baby daddy, plus an apparently endless wardrobe of adorable day dresses and wedges — but its characters do worry about money, and the trio of women at its center live in a one-bathroom house that Alba, the matriarch, has been in for many years.

Also realistic (or at least more so than most series) is how the show deals with parenthood. In this show, pregnancy is not just fodder for either complete, unreserved joy or juicy scandal (though it is both of those at various times); it’s also rightly presented as a massive, life-altering event that carries with it huge implications for both present and future. Jane has to navigate all the ways her “life plan” is derailed by a pregnancy out of her control; Xiomara, her mother, a grandmother at 39, decides firmly that after raising a child to adulthood she’s ready, finally, to focus on herself. Neither woman is villainized or lionized; they’re two sides of the same coin, examples of the choices and trade-offs that all women have to weigh. Plus, there’s the messy, stinky, frustrating reality of parenthood itself: Jane the Virgin may have some of the shiniest hair on TV, but its characters change their fair share of diapers and talk about the physical reality of motherhood (leaking milk, peeing yourself) in ways that are uncommon for a primetime show.

Similarly, it’s a peek at a family dynamic you don’t see much of on TV. Families typically mean young children; shows centered on twenty- and thirtysomethings generally all revolve around groups of friends, with parents showing up for the occasional holiday episode or guest appearance. Jane the Virgin, on the other hand, is all about family — the one you’re born into and the one you decide, at some point, to create for yourself. And the Jane family is strongly, beautifully women-centered. Jane still lives with her mother and grandmother, and while they all usually get along, occasionally long-running tensions about choices and lifestyles boil over. Three generations and two countries of cultural differences are represented, and they form the base of all the women’s conflicts even as their deep love for one another cements their bond. Their polar opposite is Rafael, who feels his family has always been deficient; his love of Jane stems largely from his view of her as the one who can give him the picture-perfect nuclear family he feels he was denied. Women run the show on Jane the Virgin — literally (it has a woman showrunner) and within the various character permutations. Even Petra and her mother, who have been pseudo-villains for most of the show, have a dynamic that, while twisted, is also rooted in the kind of deep familiarity that only family members can share.

What’s interesting about all this is that Jane the Virgin otherwise operates in an extremely heightened world. The colors of the Miami scenery pop off the screen, the plot lines often detour into magical realism, and there’s even an omniscient (or nearly so) narrator who chats directly with the audience. On a lesser show this contrast could cause tonal whiplash, but Jane the Virgin somehow manages to balance its continuous telenovela hijinks and its more grounded reality while also occasionally having the characters comment on the wackiness of it all, without taking you out of the moment. It’s an impressive balancing act, with the bonds between the characters keeping everything from tipping over into total ridiculousness. For every highly choreographed Britney Spears cameo there’s a moment of realness in which a character expresses uncertainty about her choices or fear for the future. It all adds up to a show that’s highly entertaining while also insightful about the human condition — it’s merely a bonus that those humans just happen to be ridiculously attractive.

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Is it time to retire James Bond yet? (Yes. Yes, it is.)

Last night I went to a screening of Spectre, the latest James Bond movie starring lumpy Brit Daniel Craig and directed by Sam Mendes. I am not by any means what you’d call a Bond superfan; I missed the last two movies, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall (or saw them and promptly erased them from my brain). I also didn’t know much about Spectre except that it had some fab (and highly publicized) leading ladies in Léa Seydoux, Naomie Harris, and Monica Bellucci as (finally, praise the lord) an age-appropriate love interest for 007; and that, per the Sony leaks, it had a shitty ending.

So I wasn’t expecting to love it, but I figured it’d probably be entertaining. So I watched it. And I am unashamed to tell you that I thought. It. Sucked.

Spoilers ahoy — you’ve been warned.

WOW was this movie not my bag. First off, it was almost two and a half hours long, which is one of my least favorite movie trends (along with studios remaking movies as “lady movies” to double their cash). Second, those much-ballyhooed leading ladies? Naomie Harris as Moneypenny is just there to do men’s secretarial work. Léa Seydoux, though she gets a couple badass moments, is still there mostly to wear clingy dresses and fuck Bond once before professing her love for him after they’ve known each other for like two days. And Monica Bellucci? One of the only “Bond girls” in more than five decades to be anywhere close to Bond’s age (51 to Craig’s 47, versus Seydoux’s 30), who would be far too hot for him at any age? She appears for maybe eight minutes of screen time, three of which are spent making out with Bond’s face wearing the suit she buried her husband in while he pins her against a mirror. It’s like these movies have the mentality of a horny teenage boy who thinks any two people left in a room together for more than five minutes are bound to start screwing each other, because that’s just what adults do.

Also offensive? This film doesn’t even have the decency to have an original plot. As I watched it, all I could think about was how it felt like a retread of this summer’s miles-more-fun Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. A shadowy government agency is forced to shut down, as one maverick agent with superhuman capabilities stumbles on an evil multi-country plot to destroy the world and has to take it down with the help of his small band of loyal friends and a gorgeous woman. Even Spectre letting its female lead take down some baddies is something Mission: Impossible did already, and much, much better. I thought MI5’s decision not to have its leading lady go for a roll in the hay with Ethan Hunt was one of its best decisions; as I wrote after seeing the movie, “It’s a smart move by Cruise et al. to move his character away from dashing romantic lead toward more of a (no-less-dashing) mentor figure rather than having him stray into verging-on-creepy cradle-robber territory.” Sadly, the Bond franchise has most definitely not gotten the memo. (There’s also a villain who sounds like Woody Allen and a truly tiresome Bond backstory, about which the less said, the better.)

This is all bad, but it’s not even the worst part of the movie. No, the worst has to be how purely joyless, and airless, this ponderous thud of a blockbuster is. Things that should be exciting — Bond takes out three cars with a rapidly disintegrating plane! Bond uses his magic watch to escape his maniacal face-drilling sorta-stepbrother! Bond kills two goons while handcuffed and with a hood over his head! — instead feel rote and robbed of all their tension. Situations are introduced and resolved so quickly they barely have a second to let the audience feel the tension. Instead we’re merely left staring into the vacant blue of Craig’s eyes to contemplate how his expression barely flickers whether he’s contemplating yet another woman’s naked body or a man who’s just had his eyes gouged out of his head.

Spectre is no doubt intended to be a throwback to classic Bond movies; there are references galore, including a fluffy white cat that was my favorite part of the movie. But honestly, all they did was serve as a giant reminder of how outdated the whole idea of Bond is. This is, after all, a hero created in 1953. Hilariously, a big part of the plot of Spectre involves a character repeatedly pointing out that Bond — and the entire 00 program — is hopelessly outdated. This guy advocates for drone strikes and increased surveillance; granted, he’s in cahoots with an evil mastermind who wants to sow chaos and discord worldwide, but dude has a point. A drone doesn’t get tired. A drone doesn’t have to take a break to seduce a woman half its age before changing into another slightly-too-tight suit. A drone won’t steal your £3 million Aston Martin prototype.

So the question is: Why are we still making movies about this slick, womanizing, DGAF white guy when his fictional foes lampshade his obsolescence and the real-life star says he’d rather slash his wrists than make another one of these movies? He’s old-fashioned, but in the worst way, and all the modern technology in the world isn’t disguising it well. People have been making Bond movies since 1962. It’s time to shake things up. If the gadgets and the suit cuts can evolve, the gender politics sure as hell can. And when the same old mold is churning out duds such as Spectre, really, what is there to lose by trying something new?

Update: I wrote about how the Bond franchise by taking a few lessons from Mission: Impossible for Vox; you can read it here.

 

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