Why I No Longer Eat Watermelon, or How a Racist Email Caused Me to Leave Graduate School

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Names have been changed to protect myself from these very silly and possibly litigious white people.

I received a racist email in 2011, when I had just started the English PhD program at Rutgers University. This email has come to define so much of who I am, in ways both good and bad. I think about it every day. I get lost in it. Sometimes a stray thought or an offhand comment can catch me off guard, bringing this email and everything it represents rushing to the surface. It’s an awful cycle, and a destructive one that I want to break. The purpose of this post is to attempt to do exactly that. I want to exorcize these memories to the best of my ability, to drag them out. So here we are.

Some context. As I said, I was a first-year student in the English PhD program. I got this email in the third week of the semester, in my “Post-Bellum/Pre-Harlem” literature class. The professor, Bill, had shown parts of Song of the South to the general amusement of the white students in the class, and it’s this amusement that prompted a desire to see the film in its entirety. And that’s what brought upon the email itself, which I’ll quote here. It’s dated September 28, 2011, and it’s titled “My fellow non-racist racists.” We’ll call this white student “Junie.”

SO.

There seems to be an understandable demand for some hardcore Song of the Southing and preferably whiskey-based cocktails to accompany.  My house is small, but my sound system is mighty, and I suggest that for those of you who’d rather not go on an awkward date with Bill to see The Help tomorrow come join me for some rollicking Disneyfied Ole Darkeyism. Lyle, your friend can come, too.  Laura, so can your Alan.   But I might yell racist things at the TV.

RSVP ASAP YA’LL.

If you do come, hooch is most welcome, as are straw hats and other Darkeyisms.  I might even buy a watermillyum if I get enough interest.

One thing worth noting. The email was sent to only the white (or white-appearing) students in the class, and some white people outside of the class. This is despite the class itself boasting, what might be conservatively called, “all the god damn black people in the program.” I got the email, presumably, because I’m light-skinned and racially ambiguous, depending on the person doing the interpreting.

Some other things of note. The language of the email traffics in the same kind of racial ignorance as the blackface parties that are so ubiquitous on college campuses. We might call this a blackface party without the shoe polish. One of the defining elements of those parties is the focus on things that might denote blackness, and we have some of them here! Look: hooch, watermillyums, straw hats, and other Darkeyisms. Another feature of these parties: unabashed racism! The student tells us that she might yell racist things at the TV (later, when questioned, she will say she didn’t know what she meant by this. Reminder, she’s an English PhD student in a prestigious program. If you don’t know what you’re writing, what are you doing here?)

But we’re not done. Before I’d figured out how to respond, a student from the class responded for me:

I am all in favor of this shindig.  However… I
unfortunately already RSVPd to Bill’s thing because I am a sucker for movies.  (I guess am also a sucker for Bill, awkward as the evening might indeed turn out…)  If y’all don’t want to move your Song of the South screening, I can try to come after The Help gets out.

The original email writer is disappointed in the lack of interest:

Wow, so only Laura is interested?

I guess I am the only ragtime/minstrel-loving fool in the bunch :(

Another student appears:

What? Did my inattention contribute to this NOT happening? I’m actually more offended with myself for that than I could be by anything a 1940s Disney celebration of all things grotesquely racist is likely to muster.

Well, fine. Keep me in the loop if it happens anyway. If I’m still in New Brunswick (and haven’t caved and RSVP’d at a rudely late point for The Help), I’m in.

Junie replies two more times. She just can’t help herself.

I’ll give everyone until noonish tomorrow to make their choice between Bill and me. But the obvious choice is me.
I’m still going to watch it tomorrow at 8ish with my straw hat on head and my Jack Daniels in hand, but I won’t call it a party anymore so much as what?  An experience? A communion with my shamefully preferred era of Disney? An excuse for alcoholism?

Okay: apparently Bill wins…. This time. He might make a fun and harmless imaginary nemesis come to think of it.

Anyway, no party. Just me and the movie and the watermelon.

Enjoy your respective days!

The original email itself is bad, but these replies pile it on. Look at the enthusiasm. Look at the pride: “I’m actually more offended with myself for that than I could be by anything a 1940s Disney celebration of all things grotesquely racist is likely to muster.” Not only do these students see nothing wrong with the email, they’re excited to go. They’re scared it might not happen!

What’s possibly more alarming is the silence from the three other people who were invited. I can only speculate on the reasons for their silence; some of those reasons I understand, and some of them, to this day, break my heart.

The party doesn’t happen. That’s worth making clear. There’s not enough interest. People are otherwise occupied. I sometimes fantasize about having gone to the party myself, straw hat on my head and hooch in hand. What would I have seen? I suspect it would’ve just been sad.

Some people might be heartened by the fact that the party never took place. Goodness won out, right? This student was, at least in some way, shown that her stupid, stupid racism wasn’t actually funny or interesting. I sort of get that. But we also have the two students who responded enthusiastically. More than that, though, I’m deeply disturbed by the academic environment that could produce an email such as this one. What is rotten in Denmark? What must this program be like, that a student could write an email like this, and think it was ok?

I fretted over what to do with it for about 24 hours. You name a cliché, I felt it. I was speechless. My jaw hung open. My eyes popped out, cartoon-style. I flirted with the idea of saying nothing at all, letting it slip away completely. But doing that would’ve been such a betrayal. It would’ve meant going back on everything I’d said, on the work that I’d done to get myself into the PhD program in the first place. What sealed it was showing the email to my then-girlfriend, who looked at me straight-on and said, “You’re going to do something about this, right?” And that was it. I was off.

I had no idea what to do.

After a talk with my friend Dan, I decided to email the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS). I’m embarrassed, now, that I didn’t think to go to the black professors. Later, I would be scolded for that decision. But at that point I barely knew them. I was also scolded, somewhat, for not going directly to the professor in charge of the class. Look, I’m not going to try to disguise my naiveté in this situation. I could’ve handled this with a lot more finesse. One thing I know for sure, though: no matter what I’d done, the department would’ve tried its best to keep this quiet and make it go away.

And that’s exactly what happened. I won’t quote the emails between the DGS and myself here, because they’re ultimately uninteresting. I was shamefully deferential (I was scared of getting anyone in trouble. It was only my third week), and she said I’d done the right thing. She wanted to address the matter with the student directly, and with Bill. I agreed to let her share the emails with him. She met with the student privately, and the student was directed to apologize to me and to the class as a whole.

I fear that this is the point where I might lose a lot of folks. They will ask, “Why wasn’t this enough?” That seems like a fair question, and it’s one that I often entertain. But that question only works if you view this issue entirely as an interpersonal squabble between two students. One student said something mean and the other was offended by it. But being offended by something is cheap. Being “offended” doesn’t express the depth and breadth of what we’re dealing with here. From the beginning, I’d always seen the email as a problem for two reasons:

1) It was casually dismissive and derisive of black people and black experience
2) It was indicative of a larger callousness toward race in the department

And all of my experiences henceforth bore these assumptions out. I spent weeks feeling like I was crazy, lost. I’d wandered into some situation for which I’d had little-to-no preparation. In class, after the student’s non-apology (pretty much, “I’m sorry you were offended by my racism.”), I tried to explain the problem. I’d tried to, I thought, delicately and sincerely explain the volatility of the language the student used. I suggested that maybe using this material for “comedy” or “irony” was best left to black folks. This was later interpreted, and used against me, as “only black people can talk about racism.” But I don’t believe that at all. Plenty of white people talk about racism. Some do it well. That’s irrelevant to the point. You’ve read the email. I trust you to understand that this student was no Louis CK. This student had nothing funny or interesting to say about race. This student was just being a racist jerk. For god’s sakes, she flat-out says she’s going to yell racist things at the TV.

Everything at Rutgers felt upside-down, off. In a meeting with the black faculty, they offered two suggestions: forget it, or throw a party where the black students would invite the white students and stage a race dialogue. Just, like, over a few beers, say, “Hey, do you know what you did was racist? What do you think about that?” A beer summit. That was the suggestion. Grad school is apparently supposed to be isolating, but in that moment, I felt well and truly alone.

And it’s impossible for me, really, to describe the space of that loneliness, to map out its contours. I felt a lot of abject fear— fear that I was already known as the sensitive/hostile black person, a dichotomy that would follow me for the rest of my time at Rutgers. I deeply feared the other white students in the program. Not one of them, even those in the class who had received the email, or knew of it through the apology, approached me to say something like, “Hey, that was pretty messed up. What’s going on?” Outside of the class, narratives of “blown out of proportion,” “too sensitive,” “doesn’t like white people,” etc. had already begun to reach me. As a result, I felt more alone, and thoroughly unwelcome. At this point I assumed it would all fade away, that the white student’s non-apology would be the last word on the subject.

Dan and I came into contact with another first-year student. She became the first to express, upfront, any sort of real discomfort and anger at the email and how it’d been handled. One of the big problems here is how hard the DGS tried to keep this thing contained; in doing so, she created a hostile environment that allowed skewed narratives to spread. She left the new black students feeling awkward and left out. Junie was a second-year. She already had a foothold in the program. She was vice president of the Graduate English Student Association (GESA). In a lot of ways, she and her friends were able to drive the opinion of how this email was regarded.

All of this eventually led to the idea that we should organize a forum to address what had happened. It would come to be known as the “Civility Forum,” though its official name would be “Facing Race in the Academy.” During conversation with the DGS, the event turned toward the topic of “professionalism,” which was the departmental buzzword at the time, but also emblematic of the clumsy kind of abstraction white folks are capable of when it comes to race.

From the beginning, it was all sort of doomed. Most conversations about race in America are always already doomed. White people tend to want to name the terms of these conversations, and that’s exactly what happened here. We were forbidden from speaking about the email itself. This, we were told, would not be a reckoning with the event that had led to the forum in the first place. We were instead supposed to sort of blandly address how one navigates race in academia. The idea that the email was racist, or in some way represented racism, was simply anathema. We weren’t allowed the touch it. We weren’t allowed to call the thing what it was. Students from other departments weren’t allowed to be invited. Faculty would later be disinvited, and then invited again, despite the fact that the students who organized the forum had always expressed the desire for faculty to attend.

The emails that were sent about this forum have taken on a kind of legendary status among my friends. They are phenomenally, powerfully awful. We have entire folders for them in our personal Gmail accounts. As organizers of the forum, my friends and I sought out the cooperation and support of GESA and the Graduate Executive Committee student reps (GEC). In our first meeting about the forum, one of the the GEC reps, Clara (close friend of Junie) flat-out demanded that we send a message to Junie indicating that we were not dissatisfied with her apology, and that the forum itself was not a personal attack. Never mind that this had already been assured by the limits put on the forum itself. She would later reiterate this demand in an email:

Perhaps you guys have already done this and it’s a moot point now, but I wanted to stress the importance of having someone besides Mike or I contact Junie directly and attempt to include her in the conversation in some capacity and (attempt to) convey the degree to which this is not meant to indicate dissatisfaction with her apology and is in no way intended as a personal attack. I am, as I indicated in the meeting yesterday, concerned that this has/had not yet happened, and, to be perfectly frank (and I hope you accept this as sincere concern, not only for my friend but also for a general sense of fairness and for the success of this project) I will not feel comfortable participating further in this project until such a gesture has been made.

This all seemed patently unfair at the time, and strangely corrupt for a small intradepartmental student organization. Now the memory of it pierces even more. Rightly, what role should the student who composed the racist email take in guiding a conversation about race? Moreover, in what universe should we be expected to console and, in so many words, apologize to the student who’d done something wrong, who’d made people so uncomfortable? In the meeting, the DGS looked at me, and said I’d be the natural person to write this apology. My voice curled up and died in my throat.

Later I was able to find the words to express just how much this sucked in an email to my co-organizers. Clara eventually backed off. This resulted in a follow-up email from her, accusing me of being dishonest and lying to her face. Strictly speaking, I guess that’s true. I was in the middle of processing all of it. It took some time for me to get it together. Ironically, after all of this, we still sent the email to Junie. So even when we won something, we really ended up losing, which is as close as I can get to the basic point of this story.

The forum happened on December 7th, around three months after the email. I decided not to speak, but to sit on the panel anyway. There were five of us, myself included. This is the point where I demonstrate my gratitude for two groups of people. First, to my co-panelists and organizers, whose graciousness was infinite, professional, and completely undeserved. Secondly, to the white and black students from other departments who made a show of support at the forum. My friends and I were able to tell people where and when the forum was, and they showed up. These students prevented the forum from being a one-sided bloodbath; instead, it was just a simple curb-stomping.

You can probably sense from my tone that the forum was bad. It was a disaster, a truly awful experience. But it needed to happen. I believe it was scheduled to be something like an hour, or an hour and a half, but it went on for three. It was miserable. I can only remember snippets of it. A black female student talking about what it felt like to be black on campus. A white English PhD student yelling, sarcastically, “What books?” when it was suggested that they educate themselves on racism. Another English PhD student attempted to mount a defense of the racist email using the idea of queer irony (essentially, a complex and academic way of saying, “It was just a joke.”) There was only one white student from the English department who stood up to speak out against racism, at length. There was a lot of crying. I cried. A bunch of white students cried, some out of genuine sympathy, and some because they were forced to contend with their own racism for the first time. Above all, I’ll never forget what it felt like to sit in front of all of the white students in that department. There was such a sense of defensiveness, of open anger and hostility toward the very idea of the forum itself.

All of the hurt feelings that the forum brought out forced the department to take the email seriously for the first time. A meeting was scheduled with the Chair, the DGS, a black professor, and the organizers of the forum. In retrospect, it felt like a formality, like a real, you know, “hush hush, children” kind of thing. I suspect what really ended up forcing their hand was a piece that got published in the The Daily Targum, the campus newspaper, a few days after the forum:

http://www.dailytargum.com/article/2011/12/english-department-fails-to-address-racism

This letter sets off a chain reaction that leads to a number of other stories:

http://jezebel.com/5867708/rutgers-student-stages-whites-only-screening-of-racist-movie

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/14/song-of-the-south-showing_n_1149395.html

http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2011/12/16/9500346-racist-email-for-whites-only-movie-viewing-riles-rutgers-students-staff

It was legitimately a thing for a couple of days. What ended up killing it was, I think, how much Jezebel got wrong in its initial reporting. I mean, they got so many things wrong. Part of it is that the Targum letter is easy to misread, but the details in the Targum letter are on point. I know, because I edited and fact-checked it for the students that wrote it. But Jezebel fumbles the story kind of hard, and so when the Chair responds, it shuts things down quickly.

However, the Chair’s response was duplicitous and inaccurate. She writes that the department organized the forum. That’s not true. As I’ve demonstrated, the students affected and disturbed by the email organized the forum. The department, in fact, attempted to contain the email and to control the forum as much as possible. She also claims that the department publicly responded to the email, but they only did so when they were forced to by the events of the forum and the Targum letter, nearly three months later. It must be made clear: they would have done nothing had the forum never taken place. In fact, the DGS only told the faculty about the email *moments before the forum itself,* framing it as an email that “contained some dialect,” which is like saying Irreversible “contains some violence.”

From here, a couple of things happened. The department set up a kind of diversity training, which was my idea. I wanted people to at least be introduced to some basic ideas about race to just head off any more of this darkie watermillyums stuff in the future. This ended up being a terrible idea. Once again, the department attempted to avoid the problem altogether. Can you guess the first thing the DGS said at the start of the session? If you guessed, “you can’t talk about the email here,” you’d be correct. Though I can see how constantly replaying the event (even though it never got replayed in any real, substantive way) might be unhelpful, the department went a step further by making the event about how we, as TAs, should deal with racism when it’s spoken or done by our students. My head felt like it was spinning. I couldn’t understand how they were still getting things so completely, utterly wrong. I couldn’t understand the obstinance, the willful ignorance. To top it all off, during the training Clara, the GEC rep, referred to students as “colored.” We’re talking next-level, Twilight Zone-type racism and stupidity here.

At the end of the event, when I’d summoned the fortitude to speak, I said that we were avoiding the problem. I said the problem wasn’t with our students, but with us. In response, one of the Deans leading the event said that he used to have a student who would “wait until the end of class, drop a bomb, and then take the bus.” Let me interpret this for you: by waiting until the end to speak, I was avoiding taking responsibility for my words. In return, I pointed out that I reported the email in the first place, and that his comment was insensitive. I actually used the word “insensitive,” which I thought was one of the calmest things I could have possibly said.  This moment would later prompt the DGS to call me “hostile” and “ungrateful” to a professor who asked her how the diversity training had gone.

The narrative tops out here. There was a student-organized gathering, but that was still mostly white defensive posturing. Even at that point, most of the white students who claimed to be allies were unwilling to speak out publicly and definitively against the email. There are lots of small, funny things that I’ve left out, such as the student who claimed she couldn’t be racist because she loved Langston Hughes. Or the professor who, when describing her own subconscious racism, talked about being surprised by seeing black people at Whole Foods because they only eat potato chips. P.S.: They sell potato chips at Whole Foods.

One best friend left the program due to the racism, but I remained for two more years, struggling against the anxiety and depression caused by that first year. Aside from a core group of friends, I kept my distance. Stopped talking in class. I mostly fell out of engaging with coursework. I gave the department more or less everything it needed to make pushing me out possible. When I received an Incomplete, I was told, in so many words, that if I had been any other student I would have been asked to leave. They wanted to give me a “chance,” but pushed back my exams and revoked my fourth-year fellowship. I decided to leave at the end of my third year, which was its own ball of drama. The sense of discord between the department and myself was, and is, readily apparent.

The feeling I recall most intensely from those following years was that of feeling unwanted and unwelcome, like I’d crashed a party. I was a nagging infection that just wouldn’t go away. And that’s often how it feels to be a person of color in white spaces who has anything to say about race. You become the introducer of bad feelings, though in reality those feelings are already there, silent and unchallenged, but present. Junie never faced any discipline, because of course she didn’t. She couldn’t even be forced out of her position on GESA. As far as I know, she’s still in the program, along with all of the other white students who helped perpetrate this mess. That’s the other lesson here, though black folks have known it for centuries, on scales both large and small: white people do the racism, and black people deal with the consequences. How screwed are we if we can’t even get it together on an email?

I don’t know what I expect to get out of writing this, other than some brief, fleeting relief. I finally got to tell my side, four years later. At the beginning, I said I wanted to break the awful cycle of remembering that these years represent in my life. They’ve left me feeling empty, used up.  In truth, I don’t know if it’s possible to break the cycle yet, if it is at all. I hope it is. I look forward to a time when I won’t, on some normal day, in the middle of some unrelated thought, be seized by these memories, reliving them over and over for hours at a time. I look forward to the day when I don’t blame myself for everything that happened. I left Rutgers, but in lots of ways I’ve only begun to wrest my soul free of the place. I’m still stuck there, alone.

It Follows: Gorgeous, thought-provoking horror

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Rarely does a slasher film manage to so defiantly throw off the trappings and constraints of the genre in order to actually be about something other than the machinations of its own plot. Scream came close; some might argue, convincingly, that it even succeeded. It did so by being a slasher film about slasher films. For arguably the first time, the characters and the audience had the shared experience of having seen the same films. Together, they anticipated how the narrative would develop, and the movie commented on that anticipation. It brought every bit of subtext, every cliché and trope, to the fore.

It Follows is not that kind of movie, or if it is, it only seems to be in the visual sense (as in, “hey, this scene looks exactly like a scene from a different movie!). In It Follows, the film casts it central monster as a villain that seems to unambiguously serve as metaphor. If you know anything about the film at all, you’ve probably heard people say, “it’s about STDs!” a thousand times. This might be true in some sense, but to let it stand in for actual thought is glib and unsatisfying. It’s an excellent pitch line, but it’s not analysis.

That said, as an explanation it seems to work at first. Jay, our heroine, has sex with a new guy she’s seeing, only to be chloroformed and taken to some desolate area where he explains the rules to her*. To wit: there’s now a monster following her; it can look like anyone; the only way to pass it on is through (apparently exclusively hetero) sexual intercourse; and if it kills her, it will immediately go back to the person who gave it to her, and so on down the line. It lingers always, somehow, for anyone who has had it. I guess this makes it a kind of mishmash of herpes/AIDS in the slasher world.

This is compelling, though not exactly novel. Sex = death has been part of slasher subtext from perhaps the genre’s very beginnings. If we agree that Scream brought that subtext to the fore, and thereby into the popular consciousness, then all It Follows really does is make the subtext into text. Again, it’s a great pitch line, but it sells the film so, so short.

It Follows feels as if it has quite a bit on its mind. I’d argue that part of the joy of the film is in tracking, at any given moment, what the monster is meant to represent, what it’s bringing out in the characters, and what it illuminates about their surroundings. All of these things seem to shift and morph as the film goes on.

While the film gets quite a bit of mileage out of the conceit of the sexually transmitted curse, the movie plants the seeds of its larger concerns early on. In a monologue before she’s chloroformed, Jay remembers some thoughts she’d had when she was younger, when she imagined what it’d be like to be older, to have a car and some freedom. Now that she has these things, she wonders where she’s actually supposed to go. In a scene before that, her date thinks about being a kid again, about having his whole life ahead of him.

What seems operative here is not a fear of sexually transmitted diseases or monsters, but a basic grappling with adulthood and mortality. In this way, sex acts as a sort of coming-of-age mechanism where the monster itself marks them as having come into adulthood. And being an adult, the film seems to say, is having an acute sense of the certainty of your own death. Jay sinks to all sorts of lows to get rid of her mark, but it never works. She runs away from the monster, but it always finds her. Indeed, by the film’s penultimate scene, a recitation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot that is literally about the certainty of death, the movie has solidly moved past the idea of STDs**.

But the movie lays out other possibilities elsewhere. It Follows is a film set and shot in Detroit, full of gorgeous, dreamlike imagery. A lot of the action happens in the suburbs. In the context of all of this imagery falls these also-beautiful shots of the city proper, rundown and deserted. In one scene, the buildings seem to become monstrous themselves, looming imposingly on either side of the characters. One character remembers how they almost weren’t able to go to the state fair because it was on the bad side of town, and how the idea that there’s a bad side, a side they should stay out of, seemed so wrong to them. Earlier, we learn that Jay’s suitor rented a place in the “bad” part as a kind of base of operations, presumably a place he lived while trying to pass on his curse.

Later in the movie, one of the characters goes to the city to attempt to pass on the curse to some prostitutes. It’s here that the two scenes I’ve just mentioned appear to come into sharp focus. The moment feels like a devastating critique of both the kids’ actions and the larger system of white privilege and liberalism in which they operate. They’re conscious enough to recognize a sense of inequality, but they’re also more than willing to prey on that inequality, to wield it to their own ends. In these moments the movie seems to acknowledge that there’s a parasitic relationship here — that, in some way, the apparent flourishing of the suburbs relies on, and even necessitates, the inequality that happens elsewhere.

None of this is to say that It Follows is a perfect movie. It has some serious pacing and structural issues. At some point, the film devolves into a bunch of near-misses and clumsily staged set pieces. The monster doesn’t come close to landing a hand on Jay until what feels like halfway through the film. The scene is briefly terrifying, but overall the film lacks a lot of scariness — part of it is just that being very slowly chased down by random, sometimes normal-looking people doesn’t feel all that scary. But the headiness of what the film accomplishes alleviates a lot of these concerns. To put a twist on one of the best moments of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, It Follows seems to suggest that the scariest thing about this world is simply living in it.

*The way this movie deals with what is, essentially, a kind of sexual assault, is a little weird. There’s a scene where Jay talks to the police and acknowledges that the sex was consensual, but it also exists in that grey area where the sex only happened through deceit. There’s a lot going on here that I’m not quite able to unpack.

**Gotta say, I love the horror trope of literature as stand-in for explication of the film’s ideas. It Follows has THREE of these scenes, and one is an almost direct recreation of a similar scene from Halloween. Everything about it makes me happy.

The Specter Returns: Gone Girl and the Critics

benrosasmund

My tiny blog is currently experiencing something like an 800% increase in traffic due to “Gone Girl and the Specter of Feminism,” which has been linked to on a number of sites, including the msmagazine.com blog and The Guardian. I’m extremely proud of that piece, so it’s quite gratifying that so many other people have found it useful. I hope that continues to be the case.

That said, “Gone Girl and the Specter of Feminism” was pretty much the only serious feminist critique of Gone Girl for at least a year, and has consistently gotten the most hits/comments on my dumb little blog. What I’m saying is: Hey media outlets, Gawker, etc. My name is Robert Palmer. I’m totally available to write feminist stuff for you. Call me. Please.

Anyway, it seemed only natural to supplement the initial novel review with a review of the film that was released this past Friday. If you’ve read the novel, my initial review, and you’ve seen the movie, you’ll notice that there’s not much that’s different. I stand by that review, and I think the critiques apply equally well to the film. Everything that was so troubling about the novel (the multiple false rape accusations, the pregnancy-as-trap plotline) is still there and still draws from grossly misogynistic stereotypes.

One thing that intrigued me is that the script has been scrubbed of references to feminism. There are no jabs at “post-feminist” men, and Amy doesn’t sarcastically label her parents as feminist while describing how they exploited her childhood. I know Flynn has been besieged by feminist critique, so I wonder if she opted to leave out the word altogether, or if it was something that just didn’t make the cut.

I think Gone Girl is a spectacular film, probably one of the best of the year. This shouldn’t be surprising, because despite all of my problems with the novel, I really enjoyed parts of it, which I pointed out in the original review. I say this only to highlight that it’s important to understand that folks are capable of being deeply critical of a thing, while also really enjoying or even loving that thing. It’s a simple point, but it’s one that a lot of folks miss.

Over at Jezebel, Jessica Coen argues that “Movie Amy pales in comparison,” and this fact “does make the film feel a lot more misogynistic than the novel.” I think there is something to this — Book Amy is sometimes inscrutable and often full of contradictions; those moments are (predictably) somewhat lost in translation. This makes some of Amy’s decisions feel more bizarre in the movie (though I’m not sure how much more). If Coen’s problem is that Amy feels like a “crazy fucking bitch” in the movie, I think 99% of that is coming right from the novel, honestly.

Overall, I’d actually argue that the movie improves on Amy. This improvement has a lot to do with the difference between the mediums. In film, you’re interpreting through a lot of layers, including the script, actors’ performances, and the direction, among other things. This is basically my way of saying that Rosamund Pike’s performance is magnificent, and it totally elevates Amy to another level. One of the things that struck me most about Pike’s performance was the voice she chose; it feels, at times, utterly ethereal, going a long way to support the idea that Amy lives on some other fucked up plane of existence. At the same time, that otherworldliness is backed up by a kind of sternness, the whisper of a threat. In my review of the novel, I said that Amy wasn’t “an interesting or compelling villain,” but Pike’s performance brings so much life to Amy that she finally becomes that great villain.

But Pike is doing great work in a movie filled with exceptional performances. Affleck hasn’t been allowed to be this interesting in a while, though I was never a detractor. He has to do some complicated bits of acting here — working through several emotions at once, or displaying emotion even as he’s trying to suppress it. Affleck’s best moments are when he gets to reveal how awful Nick actually is; his sleazy smile at the initial press conference is a highlight. Carrie Coons makes Margo feel absolutely essential in a way the character didn’t feel at all in the novel, while Tyler Perry gives a great turn as sleazy smart attorney, Tanner Bolt. And finally, Kim Dickens delivers a charming and smart performance as the film’s lead detective.

As I said, the film and the novel are not all that different. This is a remarkably faithful adaptation — something that doesn’t always work, but it works perfectly here. I don’t have a lot negative to say about it. The bits that were gross in the novel are still gross here, softened a bit by my distance from the novel and by the general strength of the filmmaking.

Most of the negative things I have to say concern the response the film has received from various critics. There’s been a real rush to label the movie as “trash” or “trashy” (in a complimentary way), or to note that it’s pulpy, or that it’s an adaptation of a “beach read.” I’ve really been trying to make sense of this over the last few days. What is so trashy about Gone Girl that we can end up with a headline like this?

I’m being serious here. Would we ever get a headline like that about other films, like The Avengers, or Guardians of the Galaxy, or Captain America: The Winter Soldier? I’m zeroing in on Marvel, because their movies are pretty much at the height of pop cultural relevance, but despite the fact that they’re often silly, meaningless, and relatively hollow, no one ever really acknowledges that, and no one really ever calls them trash.

But I think they are trash, especially if we’re taking “trash” to mean “silly or excessive spectacle/genre material done exceptionally well.” The Marvel movies might be the height of pop culture trash. They follow the same factory-line formula, and despite some compelling performances and strong character interactions, they’re often really empty experiences that are just building to bigger spectacles. What do they have to say about anything, other than, like, selflessness is important? In fact, they often studiously avoid saying anything at all, like in The Winter Soldier*. It might seem like I’m being a bit hyperbolic and unfair here, and I am, but no more so than the folks who rushed to dump this label on Gone Girl.

I think this reaction is tainted by a kind of privilege, particularly because most of these critics are men. The impulse to, for example, call Gone Girl a “trash masterpiece,” while completely avoiding terms like that for almost every other pop culture experience, has to stem from a kind of sexism. All of these male-centered properties get a pass, but the “beach read,” the book and movie that have a large female audience, have to be immediately qualified. Our enjoyment of them has to be explained and rationalized.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. I will say it again: Despite its gross misogyny, Gone Girl is exceedingly well-written and has insightful things to say about marriage and relationships. They may not be original observations, but “original” is a pretty high bar to clear. What matters to me is that those observations are thoughtful and the manner in which they are presented is compelling. You might think that the misogyny, or the increasingly silly second half of the novel, detracts from all of that. And that’s fine. So do I, to some extent. But not enough to ignore the parts that really work.

And they do really work. Much of what is substantive in the film — the insights into how people hurt each other, the critique of the media, the idea that things become true if you just say them well enough and at the right time— all of that is in the novel. I love Fincher’s work, but I imagine the strength of Flynn’s novel, as well as her screenwriting credit, are what prevented this movie from being another blue-grey, emotionally cold disaster like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Gone Girl is really the perfect post-feminist novel. It uses and restates feminism, only to devour it and vomit it back up as some kind of gross distortion of itself. In that way, the novel only underlines how important feminist critique is. It seems like the critical reaction to the film also underlines that importance. While there have been pieces on the film’s misogyny (as if the book isn’t really popular and also 2+ years old), still other pieces have ignored gender altogether, or have been uncritically condescending. In these moments, it seems as if strong, thoughtful feminist critique is as important as ever.

*The Winter Soldier builds a critique of surveillance and extrajudicial government powers only to end with “Fantasy Nazis did it.”

*Another bothersome thing about some of the reactions to the film: the bizarre laughing at Tyler Perry, divorced from any actual critique of him. Look, we all know Tyler Perry is gross, and his films play uncomfortably on racist and sexist stereotypes, but it doesn’t feel like that’s what people are laughing at. It feels like they (white critics) are laughing at the silly black guy who makes movies with black people that they don’t understand.

Veronica Mars makes the case against fan-financed filmmaking

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I don’t know, guys. This movie seems kind of… bad?

I’ve been a big Veronica Mars fan since the first season. The series had many of the things that I prize in pop culture: a compelling female protagonist, a commitment to diversity, witty dialogue, and some clever race/gender/class analysis. The show, despite its weak third season, is way up there in quality. It demands to be experienced.

But the movie is a different beast altogether. While it retains a lot of the Veronica Mars charm, particularly in Rob Thomas’s tight, funny dialogue, it may ultimately be the perfect example for why shows shouldn’t try to make the jump to film. Even more surprisingly, it may make a compelling case against fan-financed filmmaking. Both of these faults are so densely intertwined that it’s difficult to separate them.

This is a movie that never feels like a movie. On a basic level, the direction and the cinematography are strikingly uninspired. This is a straight up ugly film — flat, boring, and horribly lit. You have to wonder where those millions of dollars went. I just rewatched You’re Next, a film that was made for under a million dollars, and it’s gorgeous in comparison. There’s just no cinematic vision here. If the look and feel of the film doesn’t make that clear enough, then the script really hammers it home.

I’m not sure what people wanted from their Veronica Mars film. If this movie is any indication, they wanted: a roll call of every major and minor character from the series, an overwhelming number of references to that series, and the rekindling of the Veronica/Logan romance. Those things are fine, I suppose. But as a movie, this really needed to separate itself from the series, and to move boldly forward in a more interesting direction. It needed a bigger scope.

One of the things I always loved about the show was its ability to lay out a twisty, compelling mystery. It’s a basic part of the show’s appeal. But the movie fails at even that. The mystery that “drives” the film (and I put drive in scare quotes because I really think it’s the Veronica/Logan romance that is the film’s center) feels like a sad after-thought. Logan is implicated in the murder, but ultimately comes out unscathed. The mystery revolves around relatively minor characters, and the murderer and victims themselves are entirely new characters. When the truth comes to the surface, it’s hard to avoid some questions, like: Who cares? What are the stakes here? How does this change anything? How does it further the characters at all, other than to return Veronica to a comfortable status quo? Is this just an excuse to get Veronica and Logan back together?

The movie is so close to that larger scope, too. There’s an interesting B-plot revolving around Veronica’s father, Keith, and the growing class tensions/corruption in Neptune. This is something that seems to have actual stakes, something that gets at a major theme that was developed in the show. But Veronica is on the periphery of it. Bizarrely, it’s mostly resolved by the end of the film by discrediting the Sheriff, and implying that Keith will return to the position. Again, it’s the restoration of the status quo. Colantoni’s performance is wonderful and subtle–his sadness, his disappointment with seeing Veronica return to Neptune and the mess it represents is one of the best parts of the film. But it’s all pretty much wasted.

Look, I’m not saying that I wanted Veronica to marry Piz and return to New York to be a corporate lawyer. God no. That would’ve been terrible. It would’ve been a betrayal of the series and of Veronica as a character. But the movie needed a little more self-awareness. The way Veronica casts off Piz is heartless, and the movie seems to miss that. It’s in such a rush to get Veronica and Logan back together that even Keith is rooting for them by the end, more or less. And it’s worth noting that throughout the film Veronica often questions herself. Why is she doing this? Why is she considering getting back with Logan? That introspection and conflict is compelling, and it’s real. It’s just too bad that the movie ultimately brushes it aside.

Again, I’m not sure what people wanted out of their Veronica Mars movie. Judging by many other fan responses, this is exactly what they wanted. And that’s fine. Thomas clearly felt a need to give those fans what they wanted, and he definitely succeeded. However, I think the outcome shows that this is no way to make a movie. And if it’s the case that this really is just a love-letter to fans, then I think it’s fair to say this isn’t a movie. At best, it’s an extended episode. A bad one, at that. It isn’t even as good as a minor-great episode of the show, like “Ain’t No Magic Mountain High Enough.” At worst, it’s a pandering mess. I wanted Veronica to move forward, but, like her fans, she seems stuck in the past.

The Best Films of 2013

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10. The Spectacular Now

This is a great little movie that cements Shailene Woodley’s star status. It’s like a less successful The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but that’s not a dig. It just lacks some of Perks’s emotional intensely while being fairly effective on its own. Part of what these films are able to do so well is to tackle the emotionally turbulent lives of teenagers without drowning them in sentimental schlock.

Favorite scene: Sutter’s boss confronts him about being drunk at work.

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09. Spring Breakers

Proves that James Franco is both a joke and a genius. One of the boldest, weirdest films this year. With all of the talk of cultural appropriation in 2013, it’s strange that Spring Breakers’s sustained examination of that concept wasn’t at the center of more conversations.

Favorite scene: Any scene in which James Franco says, “Spring break…. Spring brrreaaakk.”

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08. Iron Man 3

They gave Tony Stark an anxiety disorder, you guys. An anxiety disorder. And it completely works. Pepper Potts gets to destroy the villain. There’s a really rad riff on the Mandarin. Stark’s attack on the Mandarin’s compound with makeshift gadgets is one of the year’s most thrilling action sequences. There’s so much to love here.

Favorite scene: Pepper Potts gets to be the most powerful woman in the Marvel universe for 30 seconds.

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07. Captain Phillips

I feel like Wesley Morris said it all over at Grantland.

Favorite scene: It has to be Tom Hanks’s career-best performance, culminating in an emotionally devastating breakdown after all of the action has ended.

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06. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Look, I don’t know how these people are doing it, but they’ve managed two perfect adaptations in a row. Suzanne Collins’s books are excellent, but seeing them realized on screen with such care and thoughtfulness has been a special experience. Catching Fire takes everything that made the first film great, and ratchets it up to 11. Every performance is wonderful, the action is well-shot and propulsive, and the movie really begins to dig into the themes that make the books hit so hard. If they nail Mockingjay, we’re going to be looking at one of the best sci-fi film series of all time.

Favorite scene: District 12’s three victors find out they can’t escape the cruelty of the Capital.

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05. The Wolf of Wall Street

It’s crazy that Martin Scorsese is still such a vital filmmaker at this late stage in his career. Even Spielberg hasn’t been able to keep up, really.

Favorite scene: Obviously it’s DiCaprio’s stunning physical comedy as he tries to get to his car while high as fuuuuuck.

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04. 12 Years a Slave

This is great, essential cinema. I might never watch it again. Absurd performances by white people. Get your shit together, white people.

Favorite scene: “I apologize for my appearance, but I have had a difficult time these past several years.”

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03. Before Midnight

There’s a stark and uncomfortable honesty in how this film interrogates its central relationship. Long-term relationships sometimes simmer with unavoidable issues and resentments. This film brings all of that to the fore, and then forces the characters to grapple with it through extended conversations. But really, Jesse is kind of an asshole. Delpy and Hawke are doing the kind of naturalistic work here that’s more or less unparalleled.

Favorite scene: The argument that starts in the hotel suite could be a scene from my life.

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02. Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón is simply one of the best filmmakers working today. Gravity is an intense thrill ride, a technical marvel that manages emotional resonance even though its script often falls on its face. Thank Sandra Bullock for that.

Favorite scene: Bullock struggles to her feet on the shore of a beach.

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01. Her

The reasons Her works for me are very similar to why I think Before Midnight is such an excellent film. It forces us to grapple with our own shortcomings as both friends and lovers. Painfully, it reminds us that the people in our lives change and grow in ways that we can’t possibly foresee. It challenges us to accept that the people in our lives, as much as we might love them, are ultimately beyond our ability to control. That’s beautiful, and it’s important. This movie reminds me of my favorite line from Life as a House: “Love is not enough.” Even at 14 I knew that was some profound shit.

Manuel Betancourt has a lovely description of why this film works so well.

Favorite scene: Theodore sets up his OS.

Honorable mentions: Inside Llewyn DavisThe Butler

True Detective and the Changing Same

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Like many of the internet’s most beloved shows, True Detective is about the straight white male’s fascination with himself.

This is an argument many consider simplistic and passé. Due to the proliferation of blogs that center their critiques on race, gender, and sexuality, white men have, over the last few years, been forced to contend with their dominance in almost every aspect of American life, particularly popular media. The response has been predictable and harsh. It has also been absolutely characteristic of a group of people who are frightened of losing the privilege of seeing themselves carefully and thoroughly depicted in the media that they consume. The reaction to Anita Sarkeesian’s video game analysis is practically defined by this fear.

Believe me: As tired as white men are of hearing this argument, everyone else is tired of having to make it. But it must be made, repeatedly. As simplistic as it might be (and we can argue about the varied readings of a word like “simplistic,” which seems to be used to brush aside cultural concerns to focus specifically on the formal qualities of the object at hand), it is incisive and accurate. To draw on Sarkeesian’s work again, there’s nothing particularly special or compelling about her analysis. It is ground floor, Feminism 101 stuff.

But it questions the paradigm in a field where it has gone unquestioned for so long. While it’s not the same case for film and television, for example, it remains valid and important. It’s more common that folks in film and television criticism will entertain this idea, but they will go on, weekly, to praise shows like Mad Men, Hannibal, Breaking Bad, and True Detective, with little to no thought to how they are watching and exalting the same stories with slight variances.

Accomodationist that I am, I’m totally ready to admit that True Detective is very well done. The performances are spectacular. Matthew McConaughey, in the middle of a career renaissance if ever there was such a thing, is probably the best bit about the show. Gaunt and sinewy, possessing an unwieldy yet striking intelligence, McConaughey’s Rust is the picture of a certain kind of idealized masculinity. On the other hand, Woody Harrelson gets to be a gross, falsely masculine blowhard — and absolutely revels in it. When she’s able to, Michelle Monaghan absolutely owns the screen. On top of the amazing performances, it’s generally well written and has a stunning aesthetic. It’s a strong show.

The fact that Monaghan is only sometimes able to act in the show is part of one of its major problems. True Detective is a show that fits neatly within the storied tradition of posing and graphically detailing women’s dead bodies. When women aren’t dead, they’re rarely shown or involved with the action of the show. Michelle Monaghan’s Maggie, the most fully-realized female character on the show, is still a thinly written archetype.

In the latest episode, Monaghan is finally allowed her moment. Pushed to the breaking point by Marty’s (Harrison) infidelity, Maggie seethes when she finds naked pictures on his phone; her anger and disdain practically leap out of the screen. Her final confrontation with Harrelson’s Marty is electrifying, but it’s the scene with little dialogue — blocked wonderfully by the director —that seals the deal. Maggie’s body language says it all: half-contemptuous and half-amused, Maggie silently observes Marty from the background, channeling a righteous anger and making Marty look like the smallest, saddest man imaginable. She gets to be the betrayed and vengeful wife, and she’s very good at it.

And yet it’s really not enough when the writers could be doing so much more with Maggie and with other characters. It’s not enough when, out of the three significant female characters on the show (and we’re really stretching the meaning of “significant” here), all three have to get their tits out and sleep with one of the main protagonists at some point. I want to make it clear that I’m not confusing the presentation of women as sexual objects or of sexism in general as approval. I think, at times, that True Detective is actually an interesting critique of sexism and patriarchy.

That said, there is simply no way to avoid the context in which True Detective has situated itself. Its reliance on women’s sexuality, its fetishization of their dead bodies, its rather listless presentation of them altogether, actually marks True Detective as being really unremarkable. It’s absolutely of-a-piece with other shows that can’t really conjure nuanced female characters. Often, when those shows do conjure female characters, they are put-upon wives who merely stand in the way of all of the cool things that our more interesting, more fully-realized male protagonists are doing. While Skylar White becomes a truly stunning character, this would be a totally accurate description of her. Same goes for Betty Draper.

It’s also difficult to avoid that the show, for the majority of its running time, is 100% invested in and in love with a lot of the masculinity that it presents. As Emily Nussbaum writes in The New Yorker:

 A sinewy weirdo with a tragic past, Rust delivers arias of philosophy, a mash-up of Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and the nihilist horror writer Thomas Ligotti. At first, this buddy pairing seems like a funky dialectic: when Rust rants, Marty rolls his eyes. But, six episodes in, I’ve come to suspect that the show is dead serious about this dude. Rust is a heretic with a heart of gold. He’s our fetish object—the cop who keeps digging when everyone ignores the truth, the action hero who rescues children in the midst of violent chaos, the outsider with painful secrets and harsh truths and nice arms. McConaughey gives an exciting performance (in Grantland, Andy Greenwald aptly called him “a rubber band wrapped tight around a razor blade”), but his rap is premium baloney.

The conclusions here are troubling. Rust is, as Nussbaum notes, a freakin’ weirdo, an intellectual macho fantasy, but it seems that the show hasn’t quite grasped that, and neither has the audience, for a large part. We have, in the mold of Don Draper, and Walter White before him, a self-insert straight white male power fantasy. It’s frustrating and utterly redundant.

And it’s that redundancy that is so striking at times. We have seen this over and over again. Part of the frustration here is the way in which these tropes, this fascination with white men, gets replayed over and over again, yet heralded as new and sophisticated each time. There’s nothing really new about Rust Cohle. He is the next in line in our obsession with charismatic white male anti-heroes, and that’s more or less it. Nussbaum’s frustration in her article is palpable, buoyed as it is by all of the other shows that do women well, but aren’t drowned in the same kind of praise.

I worry that the way we talk about these shows elides other issues that are equally worth our attention. I worry that the breathless praise for True Detective, deserving though it may sometimes be, ultimately masks the more insidious traditions to which it contributes. People might be tired of hearing about women and people of color, but a lot of us are tired of seeing these recycled masculine stereotypes. Nussbaum, quoting Neitzsche, asks: “Is life not a hundred times too short for us—to bore ourselves?” But I want to ask: when will enough finally be enough?

Some short, additional thoughts about Gone Home

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Even as a person of color and an intersectional* thinker, I still find that sometimes I can have a very one-track mind, particularly when it comes to gender. This is my way of saying that I kind of fumbled by not bringing up race at all in my initial thoughts on Gone Home.

And that’s hard to admit, right? It points to a kind of privilege. Though I think of myself as a Black person, I’m also very light-skinned. I could pass the Brown Paper Bag Test, easily.  While I might be still identifiably other in a lot of senses, what’s clear is that I’m not obviously white or obviously black. With all of this in mind, sometimes my responses to things like Gone Home can trouble me upon later reflection. Why did I feel like I could get away with not bringing up race at all? Was part of it the content and the focus of the blog post itself? Surely. It’s an unqualified rave and I was trying very hard to communicate certain feelings and ideas, particularly my enthusiasm about what the game had done so well.

But in my darker, more private thoughts, I think: Was I just being really opportunistic? While I’ve spent my life around Black people, I’ve always been a sort of in-between person. Partly, I’m sure this is just the predicament of mixed-race people in America. Even now, I have some friends who are people of color, but it feels like those I’m closest to are white. Sometimes I just don’t want to talk about race because it’s too difficult or depressing, or because it seems so fucking obvious. Well of course this game is about white people. Every game is. This is all to say that, sometimes, there’s this subconscious part of me that feels as if I can discard race as a primary concern. Oh, I don’t have to talk about that right now. It’s not really that important here.

But it is really, really important. And the thought, subconscious or not, that I don’t have to think about race is a privileged one. An extremely privileged and misguided one. Could the people of color that can’t pass, that live their lives every day in skin that gets them harassed, , stalked and murdered – could they play Gone Home and not immediately come away thinking about race, about how this game is white as hell?

I’ve been reading a lot of reviews and reactions to Gone Home, but this one has stuck with me: http://kukkurovaca.tumblr.com/post/58452502084/gone-home-finally-a-story-about-an 

You know what? I agree with this. Absolutely. This game does cater to an overserved audience. Though sexuality is present and important, it’s decidedly white, and that’s sad but expected because LGBT people of color always seem to disappear in popular media. And yes, there is definitely something problematic and wrong about the way reviewers have reacted to this game. As this writer points out, all of the claims of universality and of seeing yourself in the game are a little troubling. I tried to stay away from those claims, because the stuff depicted in this game is resolutely not a part of my experience. I didn’t have a teenage romance. I haven’t been persecuted or scared because of my sexuality. My family is poor. I responded to the game the way I did based on basic empathy, and on the sheer strength of the game’s accomplishments. I can’t help but wonder, though: would these writers extend the same courtesy to a game where some of these variables (class, race, sexuality, etc.) were different? Would that game have even been made? This game has triggered a kind of nostalgia and reflexivity that is deeply informed by race and class, at the very least.

Gone Home is a wonderful game. You should play it. I don’t take back any of the things I said about it; I just wish I had said more.

*Ugh, I both love and loathe this word.

Is Gone Home our first feminist game?

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But, like, what does that even mean, man? You know? What does it mean to call a piece of media “feminist”?

Gone Home is a first-person exploration game. You play Katie Greenbriar. It is June 6th, 1995, and you’ve returned home from a trip around Europe only to find your family gone. There’s also a note stuck to the door from your younger sister, Sam, informing you that she’s gone, as well as imploring you not to try to figure out where she’s gone. Of course, you immediately ignore this.  Your goal now is to explore the house, picking up and examining everything you can to attempt to piece together what has happened here. There are no enemies. There’s no fighting. There’s just you, and a vast gap between the family you left, and the family you’ve found upon returning.

This is compelling material for a game. It’s also remarkably simple. To put it another way, Gone Home is so simple that in the process of playing it you might be struck by how thoroughly unremarkable it is. I mean that as a compliment. Though the experience of playing the game is undoubtedly special, this is ultimately a simple, personal story that is told extremely well. It’s grand in the sense that what has happened in this family is momentous and emotional, but on a decidedly small scale. Many, I’m sure, will argue that it’s fairly predictable. I would agree. You can put the broad strokes of the story together in the first 10 minutes of the game, but the experience of the whole is not to be missed. More important, though, is the fact that this just isn’t a game about sudden revelations or story twists.

Let’s back up slightly to the question that we began with: Is Gone Home a feminist game, and what does that mean? My answer to both questions is that I’m not really sure. I’ve written about this before; I’ve even given some criteria. Ultimately, I guess my ideas about what constitutes feminist art are multitudinous and fluid. That said, here are some things that Gone Home brings to mind: a focus on women’s experiences, playable and/or fully realized women characters, and relationships between women, among other things.

It’s not that there aren’t games that have had some or all of these qualities, but I’ve always felt like those games needed to be qualified. Well, you know, you can choose to be a woman in Mass Effect, but Shepard as a character is sort of dull and non-descript. Despite the tremendous voice work by Jennifer Hale, I always felt like I put so much more into Shepard than I necessarily got back. Or, yeah, sure, Ellie from The Last of Us and Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite are certainly compelling, and in Ellie’s case, she probably exceeds the idea of “fully realized.” However, they’re not exactly playable (or always playable), and their primary relationships are with the older men who have been tasked with protecting and/or escorting them. These games are also really violent.

I think it’s the lack of violence in Gone Home, combined with some of these other details, that makes me want to stand up and yell, “Yes! Feminist! Videogames!!” My feminism isn’t anti-violence, per se. Though I do think it’s important to acknowledge that games, even the great ones, are overwhelmingly violent. That violence is often tied explicitly to masculinity and power. So when I think of “feminism” in the context of videogames, I often think of something that is set in opposition to this dominant dynamic. And that’s Gone Home. Which is not to say that Gone Home isn’t tense, scary, or engaging. It is all of these things. What’s more, it’s very clever in how it is these things. Though there’s no danger (to you) in the house, the game perfectly evokes the feeling of being alone at home at night, that sometimes-unavoidable sense of dread that creeps into the corners of your consciousness, even though you’re perfectly safe.

It does this through masterful manipulation of the environment, and through the careful setting of tone and atmosphere.  There might be a voice coming from a room down the hall. The thunderstorm constantly going on outside seems synced to your actions. You’ll walk through dark corridors and rooms in search of light sources. All of this combines to produce a feeling that is sort of like fear, a kind of unease, but it’s really just in your head, as it (usually) is in real life.

But there’s another feeling at work in Gone Home, something that is nearly ineffable. I think I touched on it earlier when I briefly mentioned the family you thought you knew vs. the family as it exists now, in reality. There’s a kind of hurt, a longing for something that has just moved quietly out of reach; there’s an understanding that things aren’t always quite as they seem, that underneath the surface people contain so much. So much.

Suffice to say, if you have the time and money to play Gone Home, you probably should. At the very least, if you’re interested in games as an interactive narrative medium, you should check out the walkthroughs that are soon to be piling up on YouTube. I finished the game in under two hours, but that’s not exactly an accomplishment. It’s a short, but dense, experience.

So, is Gone Home a feminist game? I’m not sure. It probably is, by a lot of metrics. I don’t think it particularly matters other than to people like myself who think too much about these things. It is important, though. That may ultimately be a heavier label than “feminist.” It is important because we need games like Gone Home to show us that this medium has more to offer than extreme violence and grizzled male heroes, more than choose your own adventure tales where you click red for the evil choice.  Gone Home isn’t going to change the world, or the industry, but it makes you feel something, and it lights a way forward.  And sometimes, in its quietness and its beauty and its simplicity, it’s absolutely transcendent.

The Conjuring is really scary and really regressive

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For the first half of its running time, The Conjuring is a smart and impressively crafted haunted house film. There seems to be little room at this point to deny that James Wan is an exceptional horror filmmaker, at least in this particular area of expertise. It’s not hard to understand why audiences have responded so enthusiastically to Insidious and The Conjuring. In contrast to garbage like Saw and the now-laughable Paranormal Activity(1), which feel like empty Halloween-time cash-ins, Wan’s most recent films seem to be legit. There’s a real artistry in these pop culture experiences.

You see this most clearly in Wan’s wonderful shot composition. He has an ability to put things just out of frame, or out of sight, so that they seem to suddenly appear, though they’ve been there all along. There’s also a boldness to how these scenes are often set. The best example would probably be the daytime scenes in Insidious, but The Conjuring has its moments as well. You also see Wan’s artistry in his clear joy at the setup and the pay off. In this sense, his films can sometimes feel like screenwriting marvels. The Conjuring in particular spends quite a bit of time establishing geography, introducing objects and story details, only to make those things scarier later. Together, these components make Wan’s films feel like they have a level of consideration and attention to detail that are currently absent from the genre.

So it’s surprising that one of Wan’s greatest strengths, his love of setups and payoffs, is also what appears to tear his films apart in their second halves. While I think Insidious remains considerably scary throughout, there’s no avoiding the oh brother-inducing introduction of The Further. The Conjuring has a similar problem in its conception: though it’s fairly scary for a while, the eventual “payoff,” the “why” of everything, feels tragically dull and underdeveloped. The film opens with a somewhat silly but ultimately creepy digression about a possessed doll (2). Our main characters, played by Vera Farmiga (wonderful, as always) and Patrick Wilson (definitely Patrick Wilson, as always), keep the cursed doll in a room in their home with all of the other cursed objects they’ve collected over the years (3). So you spend the rest of the film wondering when this doll is going to show up, but it only briefly appears to sort-of-but-not-really terrorize their daughter. And then, when the details of the film’s major haunting come together, you’re left thinking: Did I really just watch a film in 2013 that says the women burned in the Salem Witch Trials were actually witches, so, uh, good going?

Look, I realize we can’t all be ~social justice warriors~ and not all of us can be invested in American culture wars. That’s fine. But this film clearly demonstrates the problems one runs into when you divorce an event or an idea from its social and historical context so it can serve as the backdrop for your kewl film. I understand why the Salem Witch Trials would be attractive to a storyteller, but I think it behooves us to stop and think about the fact that, aside from it being an interesting historical event, it also comprised serious acts of sexist oppression and religious hysteria.

All of this becomes even more distressing when you consider the implications of the film’s villain and its insistence on God and religion. The villain is literally a woman (a witch) who is a bad mother and influences other women to be bad mothers. In effect, the movie becomes not just about punishing or otherwise saving these bad women who don’t fit into their prescribed roles, but also becomes unavoidably invested in restoring normative family structures. It’s absolutely bizarre. It follows and substantiates the logic behind a lot of woman-hatred: it’s not just that some women are bad; it’s that they are also bad for the community because of their effects on other women and on the family as a unit. The film’s insistence on religion, on God, as the cure for all of this feels outrageously, fantastically tone deaf. I think even Christians would agree that this is a part of history that doesn’t need to be celebrated or substantiated.

The Conjuring is half of a really wonderful haunted house film, but the cracks that were evident in Insidious have only gotten wider and deeper here. I think Wan would do well to spend more time fully conceiving the narratives at the center of these tales. For all my complaints about Insidious, its ending is still way more interestingly realized than the latter bits of The Conjuring. Hopefully he still has some tricks up his sleeve, as well, because the “it’s not a ghost, it’s a demon” thing has gotten a bit old.

(1) Wan has his hands in the Saw series, and surely his superior films come directly out of the PA mold

(2) I’ve seen a lot of people criticize this scene for being silly, but I think that’s part of its charm. More importantly, though, it absolutely nails the creeping dread of something that was previously normal becoming slowly and subtly dangerous.

(3) Why would you keep this stuff in your home? I can’t even.

The Top 10 Films of 2012

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10. Pitch Perfect

Beats Glee at its own game.

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9. Take This Waltz

This is a movie that took me a while to digest, but Michelle Williams on the carnival ride set to “Video Killed the Radio Star” is an immediately indelible image.

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8. The Hunger Games

A confident and nearly perfect adaptation.

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7. The Avengers

Rarely are movies as fun (while being empty-headed) as The Avengers.

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6. The Cabin in the Woods

It’s the year of Joss; we all knew he’d get his “big break” some day, but who knew it would happen like this.

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5. Silver Linings Playbook

I don’t really care for the film’s treatment of mental illness, but this was delightful.

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4. Moonrise Kingdom

I don’t really care for Wes Anderson, but this was delightful.

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3. The Master

Alternate title: “Homoeroticism: The Motion Picture.”

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2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The best and most heartbreakingly sincere Pretty White People With Problems movie in a good while.

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1. Amour

oh my god these old-ass french people are so old and their bodies don’t work and they have to watch the ones they love the most die and one day i will be old, broken, and sad too