Concussion, Buffy, Charmed, Earthseed and Adventure Time

We’re most of the way through January, and I’ll be honest… this year is kicking my ass. Fibromyalgia, depression, and now the cold that won’t quit – I’m wiped. My Year of Self-Care is suffering. But! My Year of Curated Media is proceeding apace.

So what am I consuming?

Mostly, Buffy. This is, I think, my sixth time through the series and I’m watching it through a much more intersectionally feminist lens. Buffy meets my criteria because of its well-rounded, nuanced, respectful representations of women, and its inclusion of queer characters. Also, the episodes written by Jane Espenson tend to be my favourites, so it occasionally meets the creator criterion as well.

Here are three topics I’d like to eventually research or blog about so far (we’re halfway through Season Three):

  • Kendra, Jenny Calendar and race representations. Kent Ono has an excellent chapter on the topic of race, with a detailed analysis of Kendra’s treatment on the show. Regarding Jenny Calendar, wtf is up with the frequent use of “g*psy” – even in the 90s, that language was not okay (even Entertainment Weekly knew that!).
  •  Xander, and the hatred I bear him. I have disliked Xander since the first time I watched the series (I ship Buffy/Angel hard) and every time I watch again, my distaste for him grows. This is the first time that I’ve really noticed all of the myriad microaggressions that he directs towards the women in his life. He is forever expressing his feelings of entitlement to their bodies and time, and he has a serious case of Nice Guy. He expects (and gets!) praise for not date raping Buffy when his love spell goes wrong, and that just sums him up, right there. Gross.
  • Rape culture in the Buffyverse. Lady T over at Bitch Flicks comments on quite a few of the instances of rape culture represented in the first two seasons here. (And you should be reading her blog and articles – SO GOOD!) My biggest issue related to rape culture, the one I keep coming back to over and over again as I watch, is that the show makes it so easy to gloss over the fact that sexualized violence is what we’re watching. It’s very normalized within the Buffyverse. I find the fact that Buffy regularly confronts and overcomes rape culture awesome, but I find the fact that we do not see it named or commented on very disconcerting. In Go Fish, particularly, I wanted her friends to say something about the fact that she was, again, the victim of an attempted sexual assault in the car, and that it was completely disgusting that the coach then blamed it on her outfit. But they don’t. It’s just glossed over as part of the normal violence of the environment, and that bugs me. I’m still working my way through my thoughts on why and what I want them to do differently, but it’s a big one. Name it. Name it! Showing it, it seems to me, is not enough. (And I do recognize that showing it is a long step beyond most television shows, so I’m asking for “above and beyond”… but I’m okay with that.)

I’ve also been watching Charmed, because when I posted about rape culture in Buffy on Facebook, someone recommended it as another show that regularly shows rape culture and women resisting/evading/overcoming it. I’m not nearly as enamoured of Charmed as I am of Buffy, but I am enjoying it. It meets my criteria because of the representations of women, and because the creator is a woman.

The topics that keep coming up for me (most of the way through Season One):

  • Race, again.
  • Sex-positivity! I really appreciate that the sisters are all sexually active, and all fine with that. Sex is a normal part of their lives, with partners who are one-night-stands, long-term boyfriends, etc. It’s refreshing.
  • Class. This is a pet peeve of mine, but I really want to see a variety of classes represented in my media. I know that money makes things run more smoothly, but it gets fucking boring seeing only upper middle class folks (straight, cisgender, white upper middle class folks, mostly) in my media. Come on. One thing that I love about Buffy is that the Scoobies do eventually represent a variety of class positions. Listening to Phoebe talk about how broke she is so often, despite the clothes, the “manor,” etc…. it drives me a bit bonkers.

And, finally, to round out my televisioning, I’m watching Adventure Time, finally. It’s SO GOOD! I love it. How does it meet my criteria? That’s tricky, because it’s created by a white guy and the main characters are voiced by white guys, but it does meet my criteria because of the way it challenges, regularly, hegemonic norms. Finn casually referencing that he doesn’t know the gender of a creature, or LSP’s ability to be read as trans*… there are so many moments of subverting expectations. I love it. The Adventure Time Analyzed tumblr talks about some of the ways that the show challenges expectations.

In other media, I’m listening to an unabridged audiobook of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the first of her Earthseed books. It is amazing. And fucking depressing. But mostly amazing. I love Lauren, the young Black woman at the centre of the story – she kicks so much ass. I’m having trouble making it through the book, though, because it truly is terrifying and depressing. A near-future speculative fiction book, it’s set in California after complete economic collapse. It’s believable, and I hope it’s not prophetic.

I’m also listening to Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark, which is another near-future speculative fiction, centring on an autistic man and his community. I am loving it so far.

And last, but not least, I watched Concussion. That’s what I actually came here to write about.

Autostraddle says that Concussion is a Watch Now movie and I heartily agree. Feminist Spectator also gave it a thumbs up, and She Wired also approves. I learned my lesson and am reading way more reviews before jumping in to a movie, and it helps when a film meets so many criteria right off the bat – about women, starring women, who are interested in women, written by a woman, directed by a woman… it might have sucked, but it was unlikely to have failed as spectacularly as Anchorman 2.

So, Concussion. Immediately after watching it, I had pages and pages of thoughts about it. I also came down with a nasty cold/flu/abomination and didn’t write any of them down. So we’ll just see how much I remember. Spoilers ahead.

First, the fact that Abby and Kate are a married couple is introduced as secondary to the fact that Abby (a stay-at-home-mom at the beginning of the film) is fallible and human. She yells at her kids, she’s angry, she’s frustrated… as someone who has watched my friends and family parent, and who sees the incredible pressure that parents are under to be (or to be seen to be) calm, caring, compassionate, collected at all times, Abby’s initial outburst was just so refreshing. It is possible to be a good parent and to also yell at your kids. (I say this as someone who is not, and will never be, a parent. But also as someone who loves the parents in my life. So, grain of salt, etc.)

That she is a married lesbian was also refreshing and welcome, and there was no drama around their orientation. No issues of skeptical doctors, homophobic friends… the whole environment of the film was beautifully accepting of (cisgender) queer identities. I love this because so often the response to critiquing homophobia in films is “but that’s reality” and that response makes me want to scream. It’s as though there is an expectation that in order to tell the stories of marginalized communities, you must focus on the ways in which they are marginalized because that’s the only “real” thing about them. And that’s bullshit. Yes, homophobia happens. Yes, a film that addressed or included homophobia would be true to (parts of) reality. NO, that is not the only way to tell stories about queer characters! Concussion does a fantastic job of telling a story about queer characters – a conflict-filled, tense, complex story! – without it being about their struggles as queer characters. It’s just about them as characters. Ahhhh… fresh air.

And when it comes to the queerness represented, here is something else beautiful and refreshing about Concussion – Abby is a lesbian. She’s a “men? god, no” lesbian. She doesn’t want to have sex with men, or even penetrative sex with a strap-on, and that’s awesome. AND there are bisexuals in the film. Bisexual women. Coexisting with lesbian women. No big deal. ‘Cause queer women come in a variety of flavours, and both lesbian and bisexual are a-okay.

Let me tell you how thrilled I was when one of Abby’s older clients talked about her husband, and it wasn’t in order to demonstrate how much she wished she’d married a woman. I was SO THRILLED. It is rare to see multiple queernesses given equal legitimacy in a film. (All of these queernesses are cisgender, to be clear, and most of them are white. The film does not represent all the queer women, only some of them. There are no queer trans women, for example. And there are no queer women of colour who get more than a few moments of screen time.)

Did I say client up there? Yes, yes I did. Because Abby becomes a sex worker.

And it’s okay.

And she’s not shamed for it, or ashamed of it. (!!!!)

And she’s safe! We see her multiple times at the doctor, talking about her work and getting tested. She goes to the STI clinic, and it’s okay! She’s not punished with an STI. She’s not shamed by her doctor. Nobody pressures her to go get tested. She’s a responsible, sexually active adult and sex worker, and that’s just the way it is. Again, no big deal. This is amazing! (Okay, I know, hyperbole all of the place here. But I really did love this movie.)

Her sex work isn’t perfect. Kate doesn’t know about it, and that’s not cool – she should have the opportunity to consent to her involvement. But perfection is not the goal here, respectful representations are, and this film definitely meets that requirement far more than many other films that include sex work. Concussion has been compared to Belle de Jour, for example, and like the blogger at Autostraddle I completely disagree because of the level power between Abby, The Girl and her clients. Nobody is being coerced, manipulated, or lied to (except Kate, as I mentioned).

Kate, though, introduces another aspect of sexuality that is rarely seen in films. Kate can be read as asexual, particularly when she tells Abby that she “doesn’t want anyone.” Asexuality is so invisible, even more than other non-monosexualities, and although the film doesn’t give it more than this one line, it is at least present. It’s impossible to know whether this is a shift for Kate, or a result of external factors, but it’s there. 

Similarly, consensual non-monogamy gets two brief nods – first, when Abby asks Justin if he and his girlfriend are still “swingers,” and again when The Girl asks whether it’s “gross” that Justin slept with her friend, and Abby replies that she is “learning that it depends.” These are small gestures towards the existence of consensual non-monogamy, and they are somewhat countered by Abby’s inability or unwillingness to understand why one of her clients would be seeing her despite having a husband who is “passionate” about her. She doesn’t seem able to recognize that her client might want sex outside of a sexually fulfilling and passionate marriage. This, though, seems to speak more to Abby’s own feelings about her own marriage and her reasons for pursuing sex outside of it, and less to the films own views of monogamy in general.

There are multiple sex workers in the film and they are almost all treated well. The Girl, Abby’s madame, is a student hoping to get into law school and she respects Abby’s boundaries and treats her with respect. The second sex worker that Abby sees (before she becomes a sex worker herself) is also treated well by the film.

The film also treats the clients with compassion, which I loved. Abby starts as a client, and Abby’s own clients are each unique and sympathetic. The shy virgin whose mom is pressuring her to lose weight, the older, sexually dissatisfied married woman, the bored housewife – each of the clients is presented as a complete person rather than a caricature or criminal.

Even Justin and The Girl, who each act as liasons between clients and sex workers, are treated with compassion and humanity. I wonder whether a film that includes heterosexual sex work would be as willing to treat all of the people involved in the transactions so well, but the fact that Justin maintains his likability and isn’t reduced to the stereotype of a pimp gives me hope. (He does, though, become concerned about Abby’s sex work and is the only one in the film who comes close to moralizing at her to stop, despite the hypocrisy of this.)

However, the first sex worker that Abby sees is described (by Abby) as “dirty” and she’s a much more stereotyped representation of a sex worker. She’s on drugs, the room they meet in in dingy, and where Abby seems to approach sex work as a vocation and a form of self-expression, the first sex worker seems to be doing a job. This is a problematic binary to set up, where the only acceptable sex work is sex work that is art, rather than sex work that is work. It also points to my biggest problem with the film, which was the representation of class position.

The film is about upper class women. Abby becomes a high-price, high-class sex worker. Kate makes a lot of money. Abby’s clients pay her a lot of money. Money, money, money. The only character in the film who does not have visible wealth is described as “dirty.” That’s not okay.

In the end, it’s unclear whether Abby goes back to sex work, finds an extramarital affair, or stays celibate in her marriage. She is still with Kate, and the film ends on a melancholy note that is open to interpretation. I loved it.

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