Archive for the ‘ Media & Internet ’ Category

“The Fifth Element” Was Ahead of Its Time — And Ours

Fifth_element_poster_(1997)Man, what even happened to movies since the 90s?

I know, I know, aging Millennial bitching about not being the cool young kid anymore. But I went back and watched The Fifth Element the other night (for those of you that weren’t around back then, it was a 1997 cheesy sci-fi blockbuster, and let me just say how terrifying it is to me that you’re old enough to read and understand these words), and man was it good.

Not like, A Good Movie good. The Fifth Element will never be A Good Movie. But it was a good movie, you know? And it had everything that you don’t see on-screen in blockbusters now.

Seriously. In no particular order: female orgasm (via tactfully offscreen cunnilingus). Realistically bad cops and military — not Dr. Strangelove caricatures; just a bunch of blunt instruments who only know how to do one thing, and keep doing it over and over again regardless of whether it’s what the situation calls for or not. More people of color than I’ve seen in a movie not specifically about minority culture or history for literally decades now, doing everything from being the President to being baggage handlers (just like in, you know, the real world, but not the world we see in movies most of the time).

That fantastic “Sleeping Beauty” moment where Bruce Willis kisses the sleeping Milla Jovovich, who wakes up, puts a gun to his head, and tells him “never without my permission.” We believe his abject apology, too — he feels sincere when he says “You’re right, you’re right. I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have done that. It was wrong to kiss you.” And not just because of the gun, although it’s pretty awesome that she doesn’t put it down or appear particularly forgiving even after he apologizes.

And don’t let’s forget Chris Tucker’s character Ruby Rhod, who was basically the walking definition of genderqueer: we don’t know what they’re identifying or presenting as; they’re just doing their thing and being sexy. Sometimes in a dress! Sometimes not! The clothes aren’t the point or the problem. It’s awesome.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect movie, either in terms of cinematography or representation. It’s a classic Bechdel test failure, with a classic Strong Female Protagonist (TM), who we’re told is a godlike alien “perfect being” but who needs a couple of old white men to plan her every move in saving the universe. She barely even speaks, has trouble walking for half the film, and needs Bruce Willis to come save her from a guy with a gun despite having martial arts directly programmed into her brain (this two years before Keanu Reeves knew kung fu in The Matrix, mind you). And yes, the perfect being decides to manifest itself as a young, skinny white woman, despite coming from what appears to be a race of intergalactic steampunk hedgehogs.

But it’s still a blockbuster that wasn’t just ahead of its time in the racial and sexual diversity of the world we see on-screen. It’s ahead of our time, now, seventeen years later, and that’s a thought so depressing it might just take another underrated 90s classic to cure. Cookie’s Fortune, anyone?

Let’s Get Mad About Inadequate Infrastructure, Not Backpacks and Wide Stances

MTATwitter and Tumblr have been full of self-righteous commuter nannies for years, but according to BuzzFeed, a New York MTA spokesperson is now promising an official campaign against that perennial transit scourge: people who take up too much space on the train or bus.

Pause to think about that one for a moment. Overcrowding on public transit is clearly a problem, at least on some lines and at some hours of the day. Faced with that problem, the MTA is spending taxpayer money…to chastise taxpayers about how they’re sitting.

Not to run more busses, or build more train lines, or improve the seats themselves, mind you. To tell you, the commuter, how you’re Doing It Wrong.

If you’re lauding this as a good thing, congratulations: you’re blaming individuals for an institutional failing! The name of the game is Divide and Conquer, and you’re losing.

Are there assholes who take up space they don’t need to on public transit? Sure. (There are also very large people, people with bad joints, homeless people who carry all the property they own in this world wherever they go, and lots of other people who can’t help taking up space.)

Would a campaign to get the assholes to scrunch in a bit make a measurable difference in rush hour overcrowding, even if it achieved 100% Asshole Penetration? No. (Although if Asshole Penetration is a thing you’re into I can recommend some good stores.)

And would any of that matter if cities ran enough public transit to actually meet public demand, with — dare we say it — spare seats built into even peak hour estimates? Again, no.

The reality is that on any given bus or train car, you might be losing — upper end estimate here — as many as three or four viable seats to jerks taking up more space than they need to. That sucks, but changing it will not make crowded cars less crowded. Occasional, individual space-wasters are not the root cause of overcrowded busses and trains.

The problem is an underfunded infrastructure that can’t possibly meet demand, and that has been built from the ground up to prioritize personal cars over mass transportation. You could lock every public transit commuter’s body into a precisely measured sheath for the ride, and it still wouldn’t turn “not enough busses” into “enough busses.”

It’s no surprise that the MTA wants a campaign against leg-spreaders and backpacks, because that actively encourages you, the taxpayer, to be pissed at someone that isn’t the MTA. But you’re a sucker if you fall for it, and you’re a sucker who’s choosing to blame someone who can’t solve the problem instead of someone who can.

Solving it costs money, of course. Self-righteousness, as always, is free.

“Warcraft” Character to Lose Metal Bikini; Keep Slave Rape Backstory

Th-th-th-that’s feminism, folks!

Actually it’s not even as progressive as the headline implies. There’s nothing official to suggest that the popular MMORPG World of Warcraft will be replacing any metal-bikini armor models any time soon. But their lead story designer, Chris Metzen, did say in pimping (word choice deliberate) the gender-balanced character selection of Blizzard’s new game Overwatch:

“We’ve heard our female employees. My daughter tools me out about it. She saw a World of Warcraft cinematic of the Dragon Aspects, and my daughter was like, ‘Why are they all in swimsuits?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know anymore.'”

So bravo, cheers, clapping and champagne all around! Blizzard has Admitted That It Has a Problem. Kind of hard to deny, when this is one of the most powerful characters in the fictional universe, and in fact what pretty much all the major female characters look like, give or take some color variations in armor and skin tone:


That is, of course, one of those bikini-wearing girls Metzen’s daughter objected to: Alexstraza the Life-Binder, an ancient shapeshifting dragon who apparently likes to appear as a nearly-naked redhead, and whose backstory in the Warcraft universe includes being imprisoned, raped, and forcibly bred so that one of the factions could have evil dragon monsters in their army. That’s been part of the Warcraft story since Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness way back in 1995:

Mighty chains of adamantine steel bind the most powerful creature in all of Azeroth – Alexstrasza the Dragon Queen. Captured and ensorcelled by magiks contrived by the Dragonmaw clan, the great Dragon is kept in a constant state of weakness and pain. As the unwilling slave of the Horde, the Queen is closely watched as she lays her precious eggs. The Dragonmaw clan then raises her young to fight for the Horde – slaying the whelps when they become too powerful to be properly controlled. Constant efforts are made to break Alexstrasza’s will in an attempt to master the control of more mature dragons.

Of course, back then no one had explicitly stated that Warcraft dragons were sentient creatures with human-level or better intelligence (although it seems pretty heavily implied), and the whole “Aspects of Blahdeblah” concept that Alexstraza eventually became part of wasn’t even a glimmer in an underpaid fantasy writer’s eye. That came about much later, under the auspices of Metzen himself, who re-wrote a lot of Warcraft’s draconic history but apparently liked the forced breeding part enough to keep it.

(Fun fact: you can still play as a member of the same “Horde” faction that enslaved Alexstraza, and her current in-game incarnation will give you quests and cheer you when you do a good job like any other NPC. What’s a few decades of continual rape between friends?)

No word from Metzen yet on how his daughter feels about daddy’s slave-rape storyline, or the general lack of female lore characters in the upcoming expansion, but it’s nice to know he’s working on the bikini thing. Or at least thinks someone should be working on the bikini thing, maybe, someday.

Here, everything is awful and depressing, but cheer yourselves up with this photoshop of one of Warcraft’s male heroes in the default female armor style:

varian-in-female-armor-warcraftHe seems ready for battle, doesn’t he?


Meet the New Gridlock, Same as the Old Gridlock

gridlockMuch beating of breasts and wailing this morning, no? (Or crowing, depending on your partisan flavor — the beating of breasts works either way, though.)

Unfortunately for both sides, the serious problems causing harm to real Americans these days are, for the most part, structural rather than discrete. With a few exceptions, a single policy or piece of legislation is not going to make much substantial change in any individual person’s life.

The people building the larger structures of policy-making are still bought and sold on both sides of the aisle. The system of getting them there is still inaccessible to you and me. And now that they’re there, the seats that flipped from Democrat to Republican will go right on doing what they were doing already: spending your money on blowing people up in countries you will never visit, and reflexively opposing anything domestic because writing laws is hard and sometimes it makes people angry enough to vote (no matter how difficult you make it for them).

If you’re worried about what’s coming next from the Republican-controlled Congress, don’t be.

Obamacare repeal? Almost certain to go through the House, for something like the 40th time. Then it dies to a Senate filibuster, or, if Republicans in the Senate finally do away with the filibuster (unlikely, with the 2016 Senate race geography favoring Democrats in much the same way this year’s favored Republicans), Obama’s veto. And that’s the end of that, since there’s not much else Republicans can do, short of presenting an alternative so functional it pulls in enough Democrats to make up a two-thirds majority.

Impeachment? The lunatic caucus will probably force articles past a weepy, reluctant John Boehner. That’s bad news for Republicans in the Senate, since they would have to put Obama on public trial for real, provable crimes, and the only ones he’s actually committed are related to torture, spying, and assassinations, which Republicans support. Trying him for those would basically undo the consequence-free war machine that they depend on to keep the military industry dollars flowing in their home states; trying him for anything else would be a humiliating public failure without even the comedic appeal of talking about blowjobs this time around.

Gun control? They could hardly make federal regulations weaker. Nothing to lose there, and Democrats weren’t able to make any changes when they held the majority anyway.

Abortion? Still thankfully protected by Roe v. Wade, not that that’ll stop the Jaybus Caucus from splooging a few blatantly unconstitutional bills out there onto the House floor. Once the Senate and Obama’s veto power wipe up the stains, all that’s left are fundraising letters for Democrats in 2016.

Military action? We should be so lucky as to have a Congress that actually votes on sending our military into battle. The lives and treasure get spent either way. And as you may recall, the last time Congress voted to authorize military force, a wave of anti-war Democrats promptly swept their way into the majority.

So long story short: nothing’s gonna change. Any proactive policies are still going to come through executive action, because flawed though some of his ideas are, President Obama is still one of the few people in Washington who believes in trying things, rather than opposing things. The Republican party can’t govern at the federal level, but that’s been true for the last four years, and a Senate majority doesn’t add much to their obstructionary powers.

It does add to their governing powers, if they choose to use them. A Republican Congress could, in theory, craft laws that appeal to a minority of conservative Democrats and a broad enough spectrum of American voters to make a veto unappealing. But they won’t.

So meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Gaming’s Self-Appointed Guardians Upgrade from Assault to Terrorism

If you don’t read “gaming news,” no one could blame you. Like any entertainment-focused journalistic niche (sports journalism, Hollywood journalism, etc.), it barely deserves the label “news.” But also like those other niche industries, the niche periodically spits out a story that matters to everyone else.

“Gamergate” is that story, and it’s a story of intimidation, assault, and, most recently, terrorism.

If you want the long-form summary, Gawker Media’s Deadspin has it here, and it’s worth the lengthy read. If you can’t be arsed, the short version is this: a ferment against “social justice” in video games, meaning essentially any content that isn’t violent and centered around male protagonists, has been bubbling for a long time on gaming-related message boards, social networks, etc. Recently, that ferment exploded into a campaign of targeted harassment against gaming industry figures.

Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic who put out a series of videos on the presentation of women in video games as compared to the presentation of men (unequal, dismissive, and often downright abusive, in case you were wondering), began receiving death threats and online harassment as soon as she announced the video series on Kickstarter. Zoe Quinn, who designed a video game based around struggling with depression, was doxxed, threatened, and hounded out of her home after a disgruntled ex-boyfriend alleged that she had slept with gaming journalists in exchange for favorable reviews. (The allegations, not that they would have justified her treatment in any way, were false.) And Brianna Wu, a developer who has written about the harassment of women in the gaming industry, was threatened in stomach-churningly vivid detail by someone who simultaneously revealed her home address on Twitter:


The language directed at all of these women on a regular basis is, by any sane definition, assault: a clearly-stated intent to do unlawful violence within the capabilities of the threatener. (You can’t meet that standard much more closely than by posting someone’s home address while stating that you are going to rape them and kill them.) And if we had a sane law enforcement system, it could be treated as such, but harassment that involves a computer almost inevitably gets kicked down the road to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, where all but the most extreme cases (or those with connections to crimes the FBI deems higher-priority, because protecting women’s safety isn’t as exciting as drug busts, natch) promptly vanish.

But maybe this one will finally get the Bureau’s attention, and inspire other law enforcement groups to start treating online threats like actual crimes, instead of the internet equivalent of playful roughhouse:

“Canadian-American author, blogger and feminist Anita Sarkeesian has canceled her scheduled Wednesday speech at Utah State University after learning the school would allow concealed firearms at the event despite an anonymous terror threat promising “the deadliest school shooting in American history.” 

Utah State confirmed Sarkeesian’s decision to cancel in a tweet sent out shortly after 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. 

University officials originally decided to move forward with Sarkeesian’s speech after several staff members received an anonymous email terror threat on Tuesday morning from someone claiming to be a student proposing “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if it didn’t cancel the Wednesday lecture.

The school later reversed their announcement after a discussion with Sarkeesian over whether firearms would be allowed at the event.”

Lest anyone consider this an overreaction on Sarkeesian’s part, it’s worth reprinting the threat the school received in its entirety:


This is terrorism, plain and simple. And it had its desired effect, which will only encourage more, similar attempts in the future.

Nor is Sarkeesian’s event cancellation the first win for gamer-terrorists — Intel, a multibillion dollar corporation, was bullied into withdrawing its advertising from a gaming news site that criticized the “Gamergate” harassers by an organized “operation” to spam the company’s public emails during peak business hours. The attack was little more than a poor man’s DDoS, clogging up Intel inboxes with thousands and thousands of e-mails criticizing the offending website, but the company pulled back rather than wade into the fray.

Don’t believe anyone who tells you that threats and harassment are part of a friendly “smack-talk” gamer culture that outsiders just don’t get. These are crimes, pure and simple, and they’re crimes that fall most heavily and most predictably on women.

Independent Candidate Senate Wins Would Benefit Everybody

Seal_of_the_United_States_Senate.svgWhat was supposed to be a shoo-in year for a Republican Senate takeover is shaping up to be a surprisingly close contest.

In Kansas, with the Democratic candidate officially out of the race, independent candidate Greg Orman is looking increasingly comfortable to win over lackluster Republican incumbent Pat Roberts, whose political survival now depends on getting the tinfoil-tricorn fringe of the party that voted for his opponent in the primaries to turn out for him.

Over in South Dakota, Republican candidate Mike Rounds is polling somewhat better, holding onto a measurable lead over his opponents (in part because, unlike in Kansas, the Democratic candidate remains an active and viable campaigner), but a persistent scandal is dogging his heels and dragging his numbers downward, and his independent opponent, Larry Pressler, is a former Republican with a good shot at wooing away the party’s saner, more centrist voters.

Unlikely as the event remains, a win for both independent candidates in the midterms could be one of the healthiest things to happen to American democracy in a long time.

There are already two independents in the Senate (Bernie Sanders and Angus King), but neither one has ever won election at a time when control of the chamber could be tipped by an independent’s vote. If Pressler and Orman both win in 2014, depending on what happens with other elections, we could conceivably see both major parties with under 50 seats.

For practical purposes, some of the independents would be spoken for, of course — Bernie Sanders is unlikely to cross the aisle and start voting Republican on major issues any time soon. And the GOP in particular seems determined to burn bridges with the independent candidates before election day; RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has already called the possibility of Orman caucusing with Republicans “impossible” and “ridiculous.”

But in theory, independent wins could put both major parties in the position of having to actually work for their Senate majority on votes of substance. That would be unprecedented — and it would be a vital step back toward a functioning democracy, where policy is crafted based on compromises that can win approval from a wide range of diverse interests, rather than by bare-minimum marginal victories along polarized party lines.

Could that, in turn, shift incumbent legislators’ attention away from political grandstanding aimed at winning a party majority in the next election cycle, and back toward actually legislating? Don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves — but it would be a hopeful step, and a badly needed jolt to both major parties’ institutionalized complacency.

Jennifer Lawrence Decries Leaked Nudes (in Nude “Vanity Fair” Appearance)

Coming soon in the pages of Vanity Fair: cognitive dissonance that’ll make your head spin like a sulphur-crested cockatoo’s, courtesy of social media omnipresence Jennifer Lawrence. She’s furious that people looked at naked pictures of her without her permission — rightfully so — and she’s going to tell the world what a violation it was, in print, right next to the full-page shots of her naked body.


It’s a hell of a hat trick (er, necklace trick?). The two nudities, of course, are not comparable: there’s a unsubtle difference between having stolen, private pictures published without your permission and making a consenting, contractual agreement with a magazine photographer and publisher. One set of shots may also be more revealing than the other — I haven’t looked at the leaked photographs, and can’t speak to their exact content.

The people who hacked and released her photos were bad people, in other words, committing both a crime and a serious violation of another person’s privacy and physical safety. J-Law and the folks at Vanity Fair, in putting together their shoot, were not. More power to Ms. Lawrence for continuing to put her body out there in ways that she feels comfortable with.

But still, it’s hard to get away from that lovely, water-lapped bosom juxtaposed with Lawrence’s strong sentiment that “Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it…It’s so beyond me.”

Sexually displayed for a profit, on the other hand, is more like business as usual in the world of celebrity glam mags, and clearly not beyond J-Law’s imagination (or participation) at all. Famously, and for decades, Vanity Fair has been in the business of selling sexy pictures of attractive actresses, many of whom also happen to be talented and have interesting things to say — in small letters, down below their airbrushed cleavage. It’s a one-two punch of titillation and “I read it for the articles” legitimacy that’s served the modern reincarnation of Vanity Fair well.

But so long as J-Law gets a cut of the action and editorial control over how bare to bare, it’s neither exploitation nor violation. It will even be enthusiastically cheered as empowering. Everything is fine, and you can ogle to your heart’s content. With her permission!

Ain’t capitalism grand?


A NOTE FOR CLARIFICATION: As a number of people have complained that the above post equates to “slut-shaming,” let me be explicitly clear: no one should feel ashamed for getting as naked as they like, with whomever they like, for whatever reasons they like. Jennifer Lawrence hardly needs my approval to take her clothes off for any sort of photo shoot, or for any other reason, but she certainly has it, as does everyone else. Neither her Vanity Fair appearance nor her nude selfies demand any explanation (although, since she offered one for the selfies, I wish it had been a slightly more empowering message than “It was long distance, and either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you”).

That said, I think it requires substantial self-deception to pretend that the grindingly repetitive media presentation of female celebrities as bosoms first and opinions second is completely unrelated to a culture that thinks itself entitled to those same celebrities’ private photographs. There’s a limit to how much we can cheer actresses as “taking control of their own bodies” by taking their clothes off for popular magazines (as if that’s the best or only way to prove agency) and still be horrified when unethical people, looking for something to steal or profit off, immediately think of those same actresses’ naked flesh.

J-Law called the shot (pun intended) and chose to appear unclothed for Vanity Fair; don’t let’s try to take that agency from her. But don’t let’s pretend that VF would still exist if it couldn’t find someone’s tits to grace the front page every other month or so, either, or that it gives a platform to feminism that doesn’t come with a great rack.

And do let’s question that sales and survival strategy, and everyone — consumers and producers — that participates in it.


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