Friday, 16 November 2012

Telly I watched instead of talking to you

This entry has spoilers for Downton Abbey Season 3! Frances should not read it!

Long time no see (or, as we say in actual Chinese, 好久不见), comrades! Things all got a bit stressful over the last couple of weeks and unfortunately when you’ve got seventeen presentations and a debate to prepare and hundreds more characters to learn before your Chinese assessment and true Beijing winter has descended in all its smoggy, windy, painfully dry* glory, it’s the 2000-words-a-week feminist blog that is the first thing to fall by the wayside**. Thankfully, the presentations are over now, and whilst it’s still going to be an uphill struggle to the end of this wintry semester, I should at least be able to get there with some more feminism to keep me warm and you entertained every week.

Many things have happened, or not happened, in the world of feminism whilst I’ve been labouring away on non-gendered real life things. Both the US and China had political shake-ups with markedly different results for female representation- Washington DC is now looking more female than ever, thanks solely to an increasingly less white-man-dominated Democratic contingent (although perspective is key), whereas in China a new Standing Committee was appointed whose biggest cosmetic change is going from 9 middle aged Han Chinese men to 7 middle aged Han Chinese men, whilst female representation in the Central Committee decreased from 13/204 to 10/205, despite assertions from important people and some of my professors that China is totally interested in getting women into politics Adrienne, stop suggesting that the lack of women in leadership problems might indicate wider societal discrimination! So that’s a thing.

At least their ties are different colours? Image via Xinhua
Meanwhile, in the world of women in British politics- well actually the less said about Nadine Dorries the better, moving swiftly on. Elsewhere, Ireland’s legal system just killed a woman thanks to religious “respect” for the sanctity of life, which is also something I don’t want to talk about until there is some good news to put on the table. The rest of the world probably kept on turning as well, with most of its happenings shamefully off my radar as I buried myself in radicals (the linguistic construct, not the fun kind of people) and 19th century liberal political thought and the fan-shaped development of Hefei.

When real life comes knocking hard, there’s only one thing that I, rather counterintuitively, manage to keep doing, and that’s watching the telly. Not the actual telly in my room, which is just full of bland uninspiring permutations of CCTV- the CC here being China Central rather than Closed-Circuit, although the fact that Chinese state TV shares its name with a form of surveillance is an irony that doesn’t escape me. Instead I try to keep up with an eclectic mix of British and American TV shows through means I don’t care to discuss here. Being as I am incapable of giving my concentration to one activity at once, particularly when that activity is learning 1,200 Chinese characters, having a constant stream of relatively unimportant audiovisual information intended to be understood by people half my IQ works to keep me away from more self-sabotaging methods of semi-distraction, like hours refreshing Facebook or Tumblr or starting a game of X-COM: UFO Defence only to discover I’ve sunk 6 hours into trying to capture a psychic alien without losing half of my fragile pixelated comrades in the process.

Important studies for a student of development. Source
There’s two side-effects to this. One is that I’ve become infamous in numerous circles over the years for an appalling lack of knowledge and experience with the cinematic canon, and I’m not much better where TV shows are concerned- if you want to talk about Avatar: the Last Airbender or Doctor Who I’m all over it, and the same goes for The Room or Studio Ghibili films, but I’ve only ever seen one James Bond film and got bored after two episodes of the Sopranos. Part of it is the aforementioned attention span- honestly, movies are just too long for me to sit and watch unattended unless they’re really fun, and I couldn’t keep track of all the generic New Jersey accented men in the Sopranos and write characters at the same time. I also have a growing scepticism for most media aimed solely at adults, which is most prevalent in my reading choices*** but definitely also spills over into my viewing decisions as well. Clever, well-written stories for children and young adults or “families” manage to skip so much of the “edgy”, self-conscious blustering of a lot of grown-up stuff gets mired in.

But a lot of it is also due to a wider malady suffered by many of us feminists, and illustrated beautifully by the incredible Kara Passey: I’m addicted to feminist media criticism.

Or, not quite. As I’ve covered before, feminism isn’t something I turn on and off when I decide I want to think about vaginas more or annoy people or start arguments with defensive femi-muggles. So I don’t think that being irritated by female representation in a lot of what I nevertheless avidly consume is an “addiction”, as such, because that implies that it’s a shortcoming in me rather than a problem with mainstream cultural thought. Unfortunately, having my feminist power switch permanently stuck in the “on” position even when I’m supposed to be enjoying entertainment leads to a lot of unintended and unhelpful side-effects- mostly rage, to be honest- when things on the screen don’t fit in with the way I’d like them to. And as a former English Literature student and one of comparatively few people in the world who has been able to write “playwright” on the job section of a US immigration form and get away with it, I’ve unfortunately got both the academic background and the delusional self-confidence to pretentiously analyse the shit out of the things I do spot.

Take, for example, the only decent thing to come out of ITV in the last decade: Downton Abbey. I love Downton Abbey. I want to get a civil union with Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey is full of interesting female characters with character flaws, one of whom is mired in a two season long unfulfilled romance that has been so successful at skipping my conscious thought processes and wooing my ovaries that I inexplicably find this man attractive and want to write stories about the two of them kissing.

(I was going to take screenshots to go with this but instead I'm just going to shamelessly thieve the hard work of one of my absolute favourite Tumblrs in the world, Telegrams from Downton. Seriously if you haven't seen it or its parent, Texts from Last Night, leave here now and read them in full. They're not desperately empowering but they are desperately amazing.)

Unfortunately, Downton Abbey also has the plotline of Sybil Crawley. The youngest, radicalest sister who joins the suffrage movement and wears trousers! She is also completely not class-conscious, despite being the daughter of an Earl, and helps the ginger maid from season one to get a sweet typist’s job and thus Social Mobility. How amazing for feminists have a character to relate to, in a time period where a significant number of people today seem to think we belong. Said character has a really fascinating relationship with a moderately attractive radical Irish chauffeur, and that’s where the feminist in me- the feminist that is me- starts to get a bit annoyed.

Exactly how it goes down in the real thing.
Radical Irish chauffeur is an interesting character, and the way he gets to demonstrate being an interesting character is by taking over the storyline of youngest radicalest sister. This starts in the first season- when, for example, she goes to a political rally despite being a weak upper-class woman, she of course gets injured and goes unconscious and he has to meaningfully carry her away- and is sort of an undercurrent in the second, although it’s subordinate to the several years of Sybil going to Branson’s garage and going “I can’t marry you yet I’m a posh nurse”. But by the third, Sybil turns into literally nothing but the pregnant wife of her more narratively prominent husband. Watch Tom be hilariously out of sync with upper class dress codes, and his wife be quietly conflicted! Watch him escape the country for being involved in separatist escapades, and then her follow him without having done anything interesting of her own (except be pregnant!). Then, for the grand finale, watch the previously really important feminist suffragette character die in childbirth because of the incompetence of a well-to-do male doctor and the snobbiness of her dad, and then watch the rest of the storyline be entirely about the Irish radical and his scandalous Catholicism (and also he watched whilst they burned down somebody’s house one time and he doesn’t know how to play cricket, what’s with that.)

Curse you, Julian Fellowes, for not only killing off everybody’s favourite character but also for doing it in a way that sends my feminism into paroxysms of endless amateur analysis. I was just trying to watch people with awesome hairdos make googly eyes at each other, why do you have to go and ruin it? Especially when other parts of the show and its creators impress me- Edith’s development has been a highlight for me, allowing to her find a place for herself in an in-character way that isn’t just about “OMG HUSBANDS”- and although it’s something that they should have fixed already, the fact that Fellowes’ response to being called out on a lack of racial diversity was “you’re right, we should include X and Y historically accurate but diversifying categories of people”- better than some “feminists”, isn’t that right LenaDurham. Perhaps my terrible lack of cinematic experience means that I just haven’t found the right thing to compare this to, but I can’t think of a gender reversed corollary where a pivotal male character gets shoved to the sidelines in favour of the woman who was originally a prop for his development.

Of course, the problem with getting mired in media criticism is that you can’t actually make a factual case for any of this. The actual circumstances that led to Downton Abbey sidelining and then killing off Jessica Findlay Brown’s character are probably super complicated and spread across both the real and fictional world, and much the same as my particular feminist reading leads to a strong dislike of the storyline, I’m sure there are probably decent interpretation, both feminist and patriarchal, which see the situation very differently. With this in mind, perhaps it is my fault that I can’t just sit down and weep over Lady Sybil like a good media consumer without breaking down the universal implications for female empowerment?

I’ve got other problems too. I can’t decide whether Chasing Amy (which I watched for the first time two weeks ago, I told you I was behind the times) is a fantastic subversion of lots of tired societal tropes about women and lesbians or whether that one scene in which Alicia’s lesbian friends universally deride her because Man Hating instead of being able to enjoy her self-professed happiness negates all the positive aspects. Merlin’s female representation has always been poor but since the knights became the prominent secondary cast I feel like it’s got even worse, and the loss of Morgause and the fact that none of the few female characters are allowed to exist without displaying gravity defying cleavage at all times really bothers me, especially as this slide is going on whilst the show as a whole is getting better. I enjoy How I Met Your Mother but I have no idea why- similarly, watching Spy on Sky 1 almost solely because of the beautiful majesty of Mat Baynton doesn’t really negate the fact that it’s two notable adult women are depressingly stereotypical (in fact, it makes it worse. I’m literally just watching it because it contains the fittest man ever to grace a children’s historical sketch comedy show. Also it is quite funny, in a patriarchal sort of way). And the less said about Doctor Who and Amy Pond, the better. I am very apprehensive about soufflé girl. You have no idea.

On that note, I hereby declare that this blog is ending on a cliffhanger- as befits my first entry about things I watch on telly. I’ve got more to say on representation, depth and also about something that’s it’s not possible for me to complain about (I know, right!), but even I can’t go on much longer in a single entry. Tune in next week!

Sentiments are not those of the author!

*except during the freezing rain

**The second is my participation in National Novel Writing Month, which is definitely also a sore spot. Although there’s still time! I theoretically can write 3,333 words a day. It’s just unlikely.

*** Related: I’m almost to the end of the latest not-just-Percy Jackson book and oh my goodness I’m so worried how are they going to escape the nymphs aaah! Just had to get that off my chest.