Saturday, 19 November 2011

Misfits: Series 3 Episode 2

Female Characters: 4 (Alisha/Kelly/Melissa/Emma)
Male Characters:  6 (Simon/Curtis/Rudy/Sean/Seth/Jay)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Yes.

This episode gives us a much needed insight into Curtis, who has perhaps been a little neglected in previously, and hasn’t made as much of an impact as the other characters. Having given up his previous power to rewind time to an elderly Jewish man who wants to kill Hitler, Curtis is now endowed with a new power; the ability to change sex. He can morph (at will, it would seem, which makes a change from the sporadic nature of his previous ability) into a female alter-ego named Melissa. As a woman there are few new things Curtis has to get to grips with (undergoing a drugs test where he is required to pee into a small container proves especially difficult) but the overwhelming amount of unwanted public attention and scrutiny directed towards his new female body proves to be the most problematic. I read one review which referred to this episode as a ‘preachy tale about women's rights and men's inability to empathise with the opposite sex’. A particularly unfair analysis in my opinion, as I felt that the episode was in no way preachy, but actually managed to pursue a fairly radical (for mainstream television at least) and responsible exploration of complex issues such as sexual harassment and rape, whilst still remaining true to the overall ethos of the show. 

Despite this programme being about a group of outcasts gaining super powers via a lightning storm, I felt that the topic of rape was dealt with in a fairly sensitive and realistic way. According to statistics, ‘Women are more likelyto be sexually attacked by men they know in some way, most often partners (32%)or acquaintances (22%), and ‘most rapes are carried out by men known to the woman. Around 54% of rapes are carried out by partners/former partners. Only12% are by strangers.’ Despite this, when rape is portrayed in film and television, it is generally at the hands of a deranged sociopath who is a stranger to the victim. Presumably this somehow makes the topic of rape a bit more palatable for mainstream audiences. In Melissa’s case it is her athletics coach, someone who is in a position of trust and power, and someone who she knows, who spikes her drink and attempts to rape her. At first he seems like a nice, normal guy who is genuinely interested in her athletic abilities and helping her reach her potential, but as the episode progresses we see her becoming more and more uncomfortable with the attention he gives her. However, one thing I found disappointing and extremely incongruous about this episode is that it begins with that most puzzling and oxymoronic of things; the rape ‘joke’. Of course it is Rudy who delivers the line, ‘I feel like I’m being raped here and not in a good way’ and I can see how it might somehow be defended with the excuse that this simply reflects his character. He is obnoxious, crude and generally scummy therefore we’re not supposed to relate to him and we’re not supposed to laugh with him, but at him. Whilst to a certain extent this may have been the case when it came to Nathan, I don’t think it holds up with Rudy. We’ve only just been introduced to this character, and given what was covered in episode one, I think it’s clear that despite his faults we’re supposed to sympathise and relate to Rudy on some level. To be honest, I don’t really buy into the excuse in any case and I don’t think rape ‘jokes’ are ever funny. But it completely astounds me that the writers could include a line like this in an episode which shows two scenes of attempted rape. There has been a recent rise in the acceptability of rape jokes, and other similarly inappropriate topics which are generally lumped together under the vague heading of ‘un-PC’ humour. I find it difficult to get my head around why people find this brand of comedy funny. In addition to the obvious shock factor, one reason I can think of to explain it is that people generally conceptualise these ideas in a sort of unethical vacuum. If they really stopped to consider how just horrific topics like rape or paedophilia are there is no way they could laugh at them. In this particular case, given that an inappropriate joke is made about the very topic the episode deals with, I don’t see how anyone could find it humorous. Rudy is later made an example of for taking advantage of a drugged Melissa, with Curtis warning him, ‘The next time you find a girl unconscious you don’t touch her.’ I appreciate the attempt made here to address some of the ambiguities that often surround issues of rape and sexual assault, and whilst I do think this should be commended, the point is somewhat undermined by the inclusion of a rape joke at the beginning of the episode. 

Sexual harassment is also addressed throughout the episode. Curtis experiences completely different treatment as Melissa than he does as a man. Simon (whilst generally quite awkward anyway) is especially awkward around Melissa. And from Sean he gets lingering sleazy stares and unwanted sexual attention. Rudy is the only exception and remains his usual disgusting, shameless self when caught pissing in the sink. Entering a bar proves to be a particularly uncomfortable experience as he receives sleazy stares from several men and we can see that he feels self-conscious. He is pursued almost predatorily by Sean throughout the episode despite clearly articulating that he is not interested and wants to be left alone. In one scene Sean grabs Melissa’s arse, and when he told to back off he mutters ‘lesbian’ under his breath. For me this highlighted the common perception that women are perpetually playing hard to get, and for some men the idea that a woman genuinely isn’t interested in their advances is unthinkable and will be met with hostility. Negative attention doesn’t just come from men though. Melissa faces just as much scrutiny from the female characters in this episode. Unaware that Melissa is really Curtis, Kelly suspects that Simon is cheating on Alisha with her. They both gang up on Melissa and Alisha calls her a slut. 

I found this scene particularly interesting because it shows just how critical women can be of each other. It also shows the impact of sexual harassment and constant public scrutiny and how it can affect someone, with Curtis snapping under the pressure:

 ‘I’ve got an attitude? You can’t even talk to me without staring at my tits! You had your hands all over my arse… [To Rudy] And you ask before you touch!  -  all the groping and staring and sleazy chat-up lines – you have no idea what it’s like to be a woman!’

I think the fact that it is a man experiencing this, and communicating just how degrading and infuriating this sort of treatment is, makse it particularly effective. The sexual harassment of women, whether in the workplace or on the street, is often undermined by arguments that it is just harmless flirting or that it should be regarded as flattering. For example one journalist, and I use the term extremely loosely because it’s The Daily Mirror, wrote an article in response to the amazing website Hollaback! with the headline, ‘When the wolf whistles stop it’ll be time to die.’ What I think this episode highlights well is that it is not harmless and for many women it makes up a relentless and extremely tedious part of their daily life. Annoyingly, this scene is interrupted by Melissa’s period and I’m not really sure what that was supposed to achieve. Perhaps it was supposed to signal a bad ending to a particularly bad day? The episode does seem to focus almost solely on negative aspects of being woman, with a few clich├ęd references to multiple orgasms included in attempt to balance it out. 

I did, however, really enjoy this episode overall, and there were many other positive aspects. For example, the episode begins with Curtis having his ego taken down a notch when he learns that he is not as good in bed as he thought. He is shown pulling at Emma’s clothes, pushing her head down so that she will give him head, and generally being selfish and inattentive. Given the growing ‘pornification’ of mainstream culture from music videos to advertising, and how these forms of media promote hyper-sexualised images of women who are used and abused by men for their own pleasure, I especially liked that it was highlighted that the reasons for Emma’s bad sexual experience were Curtis’s selfish, forceful actions and his general lack of respect for her. Another great moment was Simon’s inability to get his head around Melissa sleeping with Emma, prompting him to ask Curtis if that makes him a lesbian. For me this scene really highlighted the stupidity of our society’s obsession with restrictive labelling when it comes to sexuality and gender, and I loved Curtis’s reply, ‘I don’t think there’s an official term for this shit'. The next episode focuses on Simon so I'm looking forward to more baffling but brilliant time travel weirdness!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Misfits: Series 3 Episode 1

Female Characters: 4 (Alisha/Kelly/Charlie/Tanya)
Male Characters: 5 (Simon/Curtis/Rudy/Sean/Seth)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Yes.

(Given that it is one of the most innovative and entertaining programmes that British television currently has to offer, I felt compelled to begin writing about the new series of Misfits. My intentions are to go back and write a little piece on series one and two, but for now I’m just going to catch up on the first few episodes of series three and follow it weekly. WARNING: Heavily spoilerific!)

After the departure of fan favourite Nathan I guess the writers were a little worried about who would provide the necessary dick, shit and jizz jokes. Enter new character Rudy who is every inch as obnoxious and puerile as his predecessor, (if not more so given this episode’s continuous references to all things anal). However, in contrast to Nathan, Rudy’s power means that he literally has a more vulnerable, sensitive side. His cocky bravado and obnoxious posturing is a front to make himself appear more confident and hide the insecurities that literally split apart from him in the form of a duplicate. Through this alter-ego we learn about Rudy’s confusion about his sexuality, his guilt over a sinister childhood prank and his heartbreak and depression when he was rejected by Alisha. Provided that we get to see more of this other side of Rudy in future episodes, he will most probably prove to be a little easier to stomach than Nathan ... maybe.

The other eagerly anticipated plot point in the new series concerned the new powers each character would choose. One of the most interesting aspects of Misfits is that each individual character has a power that is not just arbitrarily assigned, but specifically chosen depending
on their personality and situation. The ironic twist given to each power provided an element of dark humour, and was for me one of the programme's major strengths in that it instantly gave each character more depth. I was keen to see whether their new powers would be equally apt, but found myself disappointed as I struggled to see connections as clearly as I did with the original powers. First of all there is: 

Simon, a socially awkward loner who often feels invisible, originally developed the ability to literally become invisible. His confidence grows throughout the series and it is revealed that he is the time-travelling masked hero who has been looking out for the gang throughout the series. Unsurprisingly, his new power really only relates to his personality in so far that it enables him to fulfil his role as Superhoodie in training. However, I am interested to find out how being able to glimpse a few seconds into the future will develop into the ability to travel back and forth through time. It does mean that Simon has gone from being invisible to being the hero, suggesting that maybe these new powers symbolise each character moving in a more positive direction.

Curtis, a promising young athlete who finds his prospects limited after  being caught with drugs, can rewind time. However, he is unable to control his power, making it impossible for him to rectify his past mistake. His new power enables him to become a woman, who we see briefly in this episode and is later revealed to be named Melissa. This ability gives him the opportunity to compete in athletics again, and also makes way for a very interesting episode exploring gender roles in episode two. 

Kelly is concerned with that others think about her and resents being labelled as a ‘chav’. Her powers enable her to hear other people’s thoughts, which often reinforce her insecurities about herself. Her new power is played mainly for laughs, with Kelly exclaiming several times throughout the episode, ‘I’m a fucking rocket scientist.’ Hopefully her power will explored more fully later on in the series, because the only way I can see it becoming positive, and as a contrast to her previous power, is if she proves people wrong and makes them reconsider their initial prejudiced reactions to her.

Nathan, who is to all extents and purposes a cocky little shite, lucks out by gaining the power of immortality, confirming that life is not fair. In the online webisode used to explain his departure, Nathan is seen in Las Vegas, using his new reality-warping powers to cheat the casinos.  Again, he has landed a choice power that appeals to the exhibitionist in him.  However, karmic justice ultimately prevails and he is caught and left to languish in a Vegas slammer*.

Finally, there is Alisha’s power which is a trickier point to tackle and has been a sore spot among some feminist bloggers.  She finds herself unable to  touch anyone without inflicting them with an overwhelming urge to have sex with her, which often results in violence towards her. Yes, basically she has the ‘power’ to inflict rape upon herself so it’s hardly surprising that this plot point rang alarm bells for some.  I was reluctant to read Alisha’s power as being a punishment for her promiscuity. Given that all the characters have an ironic twist to their powers that seem to play upon their deepest insecurities and regrets, I read Alisha’s powers as an exaggeration of her feelings that she was only judged by her looks and her insecurities about being labelled a ‘slut’. However, let me digress for a moment to explain why this episode’s harsh treatment of Alisha made me reconsider my initial analysis. 

It surfaces that Alisha knew Rudy at college, and that they had slept together. Rudy was deeply in love with her and had lost his virginity to her, so when she ignores him afterwards it affects him majorly and results in him attempting to commit suicide. I couldn't help but think that Alisha’s reply, ‘It’s not my fault that you’re so messed up you tried to kill yourself, fuck you and your sad little fantasies’ was fairy justified. Especially considering the judgmental reaction she gets from everyone around her, including her current boyfriend, when Rudy talks about her ‘going with all them other boys’ and how she was nicknamed the ‘cock monster’. The inclusion of a scene like this makes it hard to ignore the general ‘slut-shaming’ tone of the programme in relation to Alisha. After this scene she has a talk with Simon and explains how she is ‘not that person anymore’. Given that she is now aware that she caused some real hurt to Rudy, this revelation would be fine if it just mean that she now felt she was a more considerate person, and one who would not mess with another person’s emotions as she had previously. However, this is not the case as the conversation focuses more on her past reputation and it seems that by saying she is ‘not that person anymore’ she really means that she is no longer the kind of person who sleeps around. 

There is an extremely negative attitude towards female sexuality when it comes to Alisha’s character, and the only attitude that can possibly be comprehended when it comes to her past is one of shame and regret. In one scene Simon tries to comfort her by making a joke about how he used to be known as the ‘pussymeister’. This is funny mainly because it is so un-Simon, but it also inadvertently highlights the double standard that exists surrounding this issue. It is a socially acceptable idea to consider guys who sleep around, but when it comes to girls it is shameful. This post demonstrates this as I’m finding myself unable to write about Alisha without using negative terminology such as ‘slut’ and phrases like ‘sleeps around’. Men have womaniser, player, ladies’ man and stud but there are no positive equivalents, as far as I’m aware, that pertain to women. Her new power provides even more problems. She describes it as the ability to put herself in other people’s shoes and see what they see through their eyes. Again, I feel that this is too harsh and places a lot of blame on her. For me it suggests that we’re supposed to think that she should learn a lesson and become more empathetic and less self-involved. I’m hoping that there will eventually be more development of her character and more light shed on why she has this particular power. However, I fear that she may wind up being simply relegated to the role of  Simon’s girlfriend, with all subsequent attention being focused on her relationship with him. 

*Given that the photograph of Simon and Alisha in Vegas is yet to be taken (right?) does that mean that there will be a brief return from Nathan at some point later on? Simon mentioned in this episode that they were all invited to Nathan and Marnie's wedding in Vegas, but how will this pan out if he's trapped in jail. 

Boots - For All Your Gender Stereotyping Needs.

Not sure if anyone caught this, but there was a Boots advert on TV up until fairly recently which blatantly ripped off a scene from the film What Women Want (2000). I can’t find it online anywhere, but the gist of it is that a woman doesn’t feel like having sex and tells her partner she has a headache, to  which he quickly (almost preemptively) whips out a box of paracetamol. Hooray for Boots and their ready supply of cheap painkillers, and also for their lazy advertising that not only rips of a mediocre film*, but is also supposed to be aimed at women yet presents them as liars and stereotypes!  

Honestly, I was more surprised at the nerve of their probably overpaid advertising team for presenting an idea that wasn’t their own. I was also mildly annoyed that no one else seemed to have noticed, or if they did they simply didn’t care or see a problem with it. It’s harmless right? Well, considering the stink that was caused by several men’s health websites over this 2010 Boots advert, I find it frustrating that no one recognises the same lazy, stereotypical advertising at work:

The advert was referred to as, ‘typical misandric crap’, ‘very sexist and stereotypical ‘, ‘breath-taking hypocrisy’, ‘lazy humour’, ‘disconnected from reality’ and ‘part of an increasing trend in the negative portrayal of men’. I can actually get on board with some of these views. This is most definitely an example of terrible  advertising which uses gender stereotypes for a cheap laugh. However, for women, this is nothing new and when you consider some of the advertising that is supposedly geared towards women (and most of the advertising aimed at men) there are negative representations and stereotypical portrayals as far as the eye can see. Take, for example, this current advert for a ladies shoe retailer:

Not all women are obsessed with shoes. And those that claim to be are not literally obsessed, they are probably just mildly preoccupied with them. Now, the idea here might just be that the man is concerned because his partner seems to be experiencing some sort of serious trauma when confronted with a delivery of shoes. However, I can’t be the only one who picks up a different message from this man’s panicked expression- ‘Oh god no, I have to pay for these.’ Surely we’re past the assumption that when a woman spends money the husband automatically covers the expense? Especially when it comes to personal expenses such as shoes. Didn't anyone listen to Destiny’s Child when they told you – the shoes on their feet, THEY bought them!! This advert  is also a rip-off (is there no originality in advertising anymore?!) of another advert. This time it is for beer and, whilst also exploiting this strange ‘women + shoes = manic bliss’ myth, it evens the score by including the similar ‘men + beer = manic bliss’ hypothesis. We can all laugh at harmless stereotypes so long as it’s tit for tat in my book, and this one is far funnier so it gets away with it:

*It should be noted that in said shitty movie (and it really is shitty) the idea is dismissed as terrible and offensive. But I guess the Boots advertising team stopped watching at this point, but who can blame them really.

For more information on the negative portrayals of women in advertising, and the impact this has on society, you can't do much better than Jean Kilbourne's series of talks Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women. The third installment is available here. (This may or may not be legal, but I didn't upload it so don't sue me.) 

British Airways - To Fly. To Serve. Provided You're a Man.

I hate to rain all over BA's 'weren't they the good ol' days when women knew their place at home with the kids and men ruled the skies' nostalgia-fest - but there are female pilots too these days.

Just look, here are TWO of them in your Pilot Recruitment video - why not give them a mention in your national advertising?