My Drag Race Summer

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I have no idea what took me so long to start watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. Honestly, I’m sort of an idiot for waiting so long. I love reality TV, especially competitions. For years, I recapped Project Runway, ANTM, and The Bachelor right here on this very blog. This show was practically tailor made for me.

Then again, there are certain advantages to having delayed my viewing gratification: I have never binged a show with more gusto. I plowed through 10 seasons and 3 All-Stars in about four months. Do the math people. Suffice it to say, I didn’t “go out much” in those months.

The first season I watched was Season 10, which is ridiculous. I had no idea what was going on. When I first saw Michelle Visage, I thought she was a drag queen. (#oops.) In the beginning, I was like a 2-year-old in a doll store, pointing to all the queens and going, “Pretty!” and clapping my hands and saying, “Again! Again!” Eventually, after watching a few seasons, I began to fancy myself an expert, saying shit like: “Her waist needs to be cinched” and “Guess she can’t afford a lace-front wig” and “She’s painted for the back of the room.”

Strictly as a TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race is the best of all reality TV worlds combined. We have these insanely talented people performing insanely challenging tasks. But we also spend enough time with them to really get to know them, almost like a Big Brother type deal. RuPaul herself is a master of marketing, so the show has that comforting, repetitive formula so essential to good reality TV: Every season we know we’re going to get a Snatch Game, and a Makeover Challenge, and a Drag Ball, and a reading challenge. . . because reading is what?! Fundamental!

But for a cisgender, middle class, middle-aged white lady like myself, the show is also an entry into a really rich subculture. Drag culture has its own language and its own rituals. I now know about “fish” (a misogynist term, for sure, but so built into the drag language, it’s divorced from its original meaning) and “reads” and “Drag Mothers” and “drag balls” and the (crucial) difference between “kiki” and “kai-kai.”

One thing I think about a lot when I watch Drag Race: Gay men are just the motherfucking bomb. Seriously. I think a lot about the generation of gay men we lost to AIDS and the incredible contributions to art, theater, design, and culture the world was deprived of. Seeing these queens do their thing, I’m in constant awe at the combination of beauty and creativity and humor and survival skills they all possess. I’m a fan of every queen to ever set foot on that show, but here are my 10 faves—and why.

 

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  1. SHANNEL. A surprising and perhaps even controversial choice at number one, but what can I say, the heart wants what the heart wants. The wild thing is, Shannel was one of the last queens I met—I watched her two seasons (1 and All Stars 1) last—but I just fell for her, hard. I’m pretty sure my love was sealed when I watched her juggle, half naked, down the runway, pins flying in the air and between her legs, all while eye-sexing the judges. (I turned to my sister and said, “That’s literally the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen.”)
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    But more than that, I thought she got a supremely raw deal in Season 1 and my sense of that injustice intensified my loyalty to her. Shannel is an actual Vegas showgirl, which fits neatly into the many categories of drag I’ve learned about from the binge watch: There are showgirls or pageant queens, who tend to put a premium on glamour and appearance above all else (and who all basically subscribe to the “bigger the hair, the closer to god” theory of drag). There are the quick-witted comedy queens, who are particularly well-suited for this competition. There are the fashionistas, who fell in love with drag by reading the pages of Italian Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. There are the avant-garde queens, who see drag as art. There are the gothic queens, the body queens, the club kids queens, and probably a lot more categories I don’t know about, but you get the basic idea.

I tend to have a soft spot for the showgirls (see: Roxxxy Andrews at number 5) because they’re at a slight disadvantage on the show (you have to be seriously funny to survive on Drag Race—it also helps if you can act) and I find their commitment to excess and bling inspiring. The thing about Shannel is this: She’s notorious for having complained a lot during Season 1 that she should’ve won more challenges—but THE BITCH WAS RIGHT. She came into the show as a bit of a frontrunner, having already established herself as a very successful queen on the west coast. The judges, knowing how polished she was, seemed to be grading her on a higher curve. The fact that Shannel didn’t win both her makeover challenges—in one case, she elevated the look of adorably pocket-sized queen Ongina; in another, she took a bald, butch female MMA fighter and made her a glamazon—is a freaking travesty. And seriously? I would’ve just stopped the show, called it a day, and put a crown on her head after that juggling routine. I still have a lot of rage stored up against the judge Santino for arguing that Shannel didn’t have good taste. She’s a Vegas showgirl, Santino—you were expecting black pumps and a LBD? (Also Santino? The East Village in 1988 called. It wants its look back.)

Shannel got something of a redemption arc on All-Stars 1, where she was able to show off her amazing “character illusions” (her Lucille Ball is ON POINT), even if the judges still didn’t give her enough credit, claiming she hadn’t quite captured the essence of Lucy. I mean…

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Some people think Chad Michaels—whose laconic stoner sweetness belies the heart of a “drag assassin” (her words)— carried her to the finale, but that’s nonsense. If anything, Shannel’s slightly control-freakish personality meant that she was the one taking charge on most of the challenges—lord knows she didn’t sit back and let Chad take the wheel. As she famously (in my house, at least) said during the celebrity girl group challenge: “I may not be a dancer or a choreographer but I know FIERCE.” Yes, my queen. Yes you do.

 

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  1. BENDELACREME. Apparently DeLa is the favorite queen among straight women, so…guilty as charged? This brilliantly witty, kind-hearted, retro, “terminally delightful” queen is just a joy to watch. There were a few moments in particular that fueled my adoration for DeLa:
    In her first Snatch Game, she played Dame Maggie Smith, brilliantly. When asked about what strange thing Chelsea Handler might put in her next flavored vodka she deadpanned, “A libation flavored with citrus. Can you imagine such a thing?” That, my friends, is a fucking perfect joke.

Then I heard DeLa’s backstory, which is touching beyond belief: Basically Ben created the character of DeLa to bring positivity and light into his world and to stave off bouts of depression after the death of his mother. He knows she’s a little obnoxious (hence the “terminal” part) but he also knows that inhabiting someone so optimistic and happy is good for his own spirit and soul.

I already adored DeLa after Season 6, but All-Stars 3 proved that I had stanned wisely. After slaying the competition week after week, she chose to leave on her own terms, eliminating herself and giving Morgan McMichaels—the irresistibly bitchy mean girl of the show—a second chance at glory. This was a controversial decision to some—a few people thought it was disrespectful to Ru, the show, and to the eventual winner. But it actually gave me a life lesson. If you’re in a situation that goes against your moral code, get out of it. Be true to yourself, even if it means breaking the rules. Thanks, DeLa!

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  1. ALASKA. The crazy thing about Alaska is that I should find her voice—whiny, nasal, pitched at a constant Valley Girl’s kvetch—annoying. But I don’t. I actually love everything about Alaska, from her famous “hiyeeeeee!” greeting to her knock-knees on the runway to her trash-glam style. Alaska is the most quick-witted queen to ever be on the show (followed by Jinkx Monsoon, Bianca DelRio, BenDeLaCreme, Bob the Drag Queen, and Katya) and she’s also a Drag Race superfan—which means she steals from the best. In Season 5 she was perhaps still a bit unformed—and dealing with the enormous pressure of following in the footsteps of her then girlfriend, Sharon Needles, who had won the previous year—so she made a few missteps (dressing as a boy for an acting challenge, for one, although her Howdy Doody-meets-PeeWee Herman narrator character was adorable as hell.) By the time she got on All-Stars 2 the only thing that could bring her down was a coup of sorts by the other queens. She definitely got a little paranoid—the good-hearted Detox was never going to do that to her—but she acted like a brat for one episode and one episode alone. No biggie, it just made her more human. No one makes me laugh like Alaska (“I’m Dorothy, you’re Toto—GET IN THE BASKET!”) and I’m pretty much obsessed with her new RuPaul recapping podcast, Race Chaser.

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  1. SASHA VELOUR. One of the curious things about watching Drag Race in a vacuum—that is, separate from the contemporaneous social media chatter—is you’re surprised to discover you’re out of step with the rest of the fans. Apparently, Shea Coulee was the hands-down fan favorite of Season 9, but I loved Sasha—who literally looks like the love child of Michael Stipe and Annie Lennox—from the start. Don’t get me wrong, Shea is the tits. But if there was one thing that dragged her down—no pun intended—it was this: While she was literally good at everything, she didn’t have that one particular thing that really distinguished her. Sasha, on the other hand, had a very specific point of view: She was an avant-garde queen, whose bald head and arched, cartoon-villain eyebrows announced immediately who she was. Again and again, Sasha slayed on the runway (although I agree that at times she was more editorial than drag). Of course, Sasha sealed her victory during the final, iconic “Lip-sync for your life” where she lifted her wig, revealing a cascade of rose petals. It was a ravishing performance. I follow Sasha on Instagram and I could seriously look at the queen all day. Living, breathing art.

 

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  1. ROXXXY ANDREWS. One of the weird things about being a straight woman who watches Drag Race is it sort of recalibrates your sexual barometer. I like looking at Roxxxy as both a boy and a girl. (This is honestly true of all the queens I’ve picked so far.) Boy Roxxxy (actual name Michael Feliciano) is a particularly cute boy—caramel-skinned and pale-eyed and dimply, which no doubt adds to my appreciation of him in drag. Roxxxy, as mentioned above, is a pageant style queen and honestly the best (after Shannel) I’ve ever seen on the show. Her makeup, clothing, and hair are always insanely on point, always deliciously over-the-top, glammed for the gods, and unabashedly sexy. Roxxxy got something of a villain’s edit in S5, as she was a bit hard on the guileless underdog Jinkx Monsoon, but I even liked her then. (Roxxxy wasn’t that bad, and these competitions—which cut the contestants off from the world, ply them with alcohol, and ask leading questions in taped confessionals—are specifically designed to bring out the worst in people.) However, she really won me over on All Stars 2, where she did something virtually unprecedented on reality TV: She owned up to her own behavior! Instead of claiming that she was the victim of a bad edit—the last refuge of the reality TV scoundrel—she admitted that she had been a bit of bitch to Jinkx. “That’s not who I really am,” she said, and went on to prove it. Of all the queens on the show, Roxxxy might have the saddest backstory: Her mother literally left her and her sister on a bus stop bench when she was 5. Luckily, she was adopted by her doting grandmother, who emanates twinkly warmth. (An aside: It’s become common drag race sport to make “bus stop” jokes to Roxxxy’s face. Fuck that noise. If you’re making that joke, look at your life, look at your choices.) Any self-respecting Roxxxy fan would probably share the same favorite moments: her now iconic wig-under-wig reveal during the “Whip My Hair” lip sync in S5, her triumphant Liza-esque burlesque routine in the All-Stars 2 talent competition, and her so-bad-it’s-good “I’m Roxxxy Andrews and I’m here to make it clear….” lyrics on “Read You, Wrote You.” I also loved that she went from villainous queen in S5 to “queen so popular none of the other queens could bring themselves to vote her off” in All-Stars 2. Now that’s a redemption arc.

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  1. LATRICE ROYALE. I want to be best friends with Latrice because I feel like I would never need drugs or alcohol or any anxiety-reducing medication again. That Latrice Royale belly laugh is all the therapy you need. Every year they vote for a “Miss Congeniality” (aka fan favorite) and Latrice’s S4 win was a no-brainer. But I’m pretty sure she would also win a “Favorite of the Fan Favorites” competition. When Manila paired with her in All Stars 1, she specifically said it was because she hoped some of Latrice’s likeability would rub off on her. (I like you, Manila! I really do!) The thing about Latrice is that, on top of being preternaturally warm and loveable, she’s damn good at the game. Her “So Much Better Than You” duet with Willam is one of the most polished musical performances I’ve ever seen on the show. Her “Get those nuts out of my face” reading in the acting challenge belongs in the sitcom catchphrase hall of fame. And this is a queen who knows how to self-mythologize. Say it with me: “She is large and in charge, chunky yet funky—she’s Latriiiiiiice Royale!” Also, Latrice Royale is responsible for my all-time favorite Lip Sync on the show. As she planted her feet and faux belted out a passionate and guttural “Natural Woman,” little Kenya Michaels flitted about the stage like a wood sprite on speed. Funniest shit I’ve ever seen. Needless to say, shontay Latrice stayed.

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  1. WILLAM. I totally slept on Willam during Season 4. I just thought she was bitchy and I found her 1,000 yard stare a little creepy (turns out, she was high off her gourd). It wasn’t until I started listening to the podcast “Race Chaser” that I realized how brilliant (and sneakily kind) she is. I’ve now gone back and rewatched S4 and have concluded that she is one of the funniest, smartest, and most calculated queens to ever play the game. A seasoned Hollywood vet, Willam never forgot that she was playing a character on a reality TV show. Sometimes she would intentionally antagonize her opponents, because she knew it made for good TV. She never got overly emotional or overly invested in the drama, because she understood it was all a game. Her DGAF attitude drove her fellow queens nuts, especially the excitable Phi Phi, who was nearly apoplectic over Willam’s antics. Rightfully, the most iconic moment of S4 was the “tired ass showgirl” “go back to Party City!” exchange between Phi Phi and Sharon. But my second favorite exchange took place between Phi Phi and Willam on the backstage show, Untucked. After a worked up Phi Phi goes off for five minutes on Willam (“You should not BE HERE right now!”), Willam casually flips a blonde lock, stares Phi-Phi in the face, and deadpans, “Your tone seems very pointed right now.” Just once in my life I would like to be that cool.

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  1. KATYA. Arguably the smartest queen to ever appear on the show (and certainly the most flexible), the “high class Russian hooker” Katya went on an interesting journey in her two seasons. In Season 7, she was amazing but didn’t seem to know it yet. A recovering addict, she had a crisis of confidence after the Snatch Game and literally broke down in the arms of fellow queen Miss Fame. It was wild to watch and just another reminder that no matter how smart, talented, cute, and funny you are, you can still be overwhelmed by insecurity. When she came back in All-Stars 2, she was in a much better headspace and it showed. In another “let a drag queen be your life coach” moment for me, she completely defied branding expert Marcus Lemonis when he shot down her “Katya’s Krisis Kontrol” spray in the Drag Fish Tank challenge. His rebuke would’ve sent me scrambling back to the drawing board, but Katya was confident in her product and her shtick and stuck to her guns, winning lavish praises from the judges. Respect. Also, did I mention she was smart? Watching Katya on Drag Race is a bit like watching one of those super-clever television shows like Bojack Horseman that has jokes within jokes. Case in point, the sharp-eyed u/ATUKO1 on Reddit just pointed out THIS:

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Bow down, bitches.

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  1. RAVEN. The best word I can use to describe Raven is beguiling. On the one hand, she’s an icy queen with an amazing sense of style and a permanent resting bitch face. On the other, she’s a mama’s boy who is fiercely loyal to her friends and only wants to make RuPaul proud. That dichotomy—cool girl meets secret softy—is what makes Raven so endlessly compelling. The penultimate episode of All-Stars 1, where she lip-synched against her best friend Jujubee, exhorting her to “lip sync for your motherfucking life” before they both broke down in tears on the runway, was honestly one of the most touching moments ever on the show. (This is why I’m a fan of All-Stars 1, a controversial opinion, I know: It emphasized the relationships between the queens, which I always love.) Bottom line: Raven just makes for great TV. I can’t keep my eyes off her when she’s on camera.

 

 

 

 

  1. SHARON NEEDLES/CHAD MICHAELS. DON’T MAKE ME CHOOSE! I love both these queens, but what I really love is their unlikely oddball friendship. On the one hand, you have spooky Sharon, with her threadbare, ironically Republican tee-shirts, gothic drag, and full-on punk attitude. On the other, you have the dulcet-toned Chad, always a lady—as polite and demure and polished as a queen can possibly be. (Just once I want Chad to leave me a voicemail message and call me “Mama.” I would pay good money on the black market for that.) Indeed, the only thing those two crazy queens have in common is 2 percent body fat. But they found each other, mostly because “game knows game” as they say in the sports world. They were two of the smartest—and most talented—queens in S4 and they knew it. Their friendship—a kind of Junior League mother/rebellious daughter thing—provided one of my all-time favorite Drag Race moments. It was during the “DILFs I’d Like To Frock” challenge. Sharon had a very weird DILF, this kind of pumped up testosterone machine with a very out there sense of humor. I think he thought he was being playful, but he really was kind of aggressive. Anyway, he got in Chad’s face and, instead of backing down and running in terror (as I would’ve done), Chad stood up to him, which was a thing of beauty to behold. (This dude literally could’ve snapped Chad over his knee like a twig.) Then the roided-out dad said to Sharon, “Are you going to let this bitch talk to me like that?” to which Sharon replied, “Do NOT call my sister a bitch.” ❤️ To me, that’s what Drag Race is all about. The bonds among the queens. The families we choose. The places where we are allowed to truly be ourselves and let our glorious freak flags fly.
    I choose them all.

 

All photos copyright of their respective owners.

 

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Ready Tweeter One: A Friendly Reminder That Not Everyone is on Twitter.

 

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The other day I tweeted this: “Somebody smarter than me needs to write an essay about auteurs who are oblivious to the current cultural conversation.”

Well, no one volunteered, so here goes nothing.

I should probably clarify that when I referred to the “current cultural conversation” I was specifically talking about Twitter, the headquarters, if you will, of the Take Industrial Complex.

If you spend a lot of time on Twitter you know that it’s an ecosystem, with its own unique language, short-hands, rules, rituals, obsessions, and inside jokes. A few days ago, for example, most of the people I follow were preoccupied with an essay in The Washington Post called “I am Tired of Being a Jewish Man’s Rebellion.” We all agreed that the essay was bad—narcissistic, shallow, and almost certainly anti-Semitic. The article was so widely discussed that one needed only to tweet: “I read the thing” and people knew exactly what you were talking about. And within hours, there were satirical responses to the essay that were also circulating.

But here’s the thing you need to remember. Off Twitter, most people hadn’t read the article. If you said, “I read the thing” they’d have no idea what thing you were talking about. And of those who did read it, many didn’t give it a lot of thought. I can even imagine a world where someone might read that article and not be offended by it, or think it warranted little more than a chuckle and a shrug. On Twitter, however, some people were literally calling for the firing of the story’s editor. (Which was crazy talk, by the way.)

The point of this example is not to defend that particular essay, which was, indeed, trash, but to remind you that Twitter obsessions are not always real world obsessions. Likewise, Twitter speak is not always real world speak. On Twitter, everyone knows that captioning a GIF or photo with “It me” means you seriously identify with the image at hand. Post that same phrase on Facebook and people would assume that you left off an apostrophe.

On top of all the great and horrible things that it is, Twitter has become ground zero for the most up-to-the-moment conversation about race, pop culture, media, identity, gender, and sexuality.

We lefties on Twitter tend to agree on a lot of things. For example, we agree that white men have held the pop culture reins too long and that it’s time for women and POC to take charge. We agree that representation matters, both in front of and behind the camera. We know that it’s more polite to describe yourself as “cisgender”—as opposed to just male or female—and what it means when someone says they’d like to be referred to as “they” and “them.” We don’t think the #MeToo movement has “gone too far” and we deride those who do. We think that, in an attempt to appease “both sides,” the New York Times editorial page has become almost unreadable. We liked Jesus Christ Superstar—yeah, that was good. But Roseanne? Not so much. And so on.

But when everyone in your online ecosystem feels the same way—or claims to feel the same way—it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming those beliefs are more widely held and understood than they actually are. And I guess that’s why I’m pretty sympathetic to people who aren’t part of the Twitter conversation.

A couple of years ago, Matt Damon got into some hot water for some ill-advised remarks he made on his show Project Greenlight. One of the producers on the show, Effie Brown, who is black, was advocating for a more diverse behind the scenes crew.

“When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show,” Damon said to her.

It was a dreadful moment: Mansplaining, interrupt-y, white privilege-y. And as I watched it, I thought: Damon is clearly not on Twitter. Enlightened dudes on Twitter are so afraid of coming across as “mansplaining” they will actually apologize before answering a question that you asked. As for a white man explaining diversity to a black woman—time to fire up that Betty Gabriel “no no no” GIF from Get Out. (Cue the blank faces from those who aren’t on Twitter.)

Damon’s brand of paternalistic “liberalism” felt square, old-fashioned, out of it. The conversation had passed him by and he didn’t even know it.

He more than proved that point a few months ago when he stepped in it again, this time discussing the #MeToo movement. Damon tried to point out that there was a spectrum of misbehavior and that it was dangerous to lump, say, Louis CK and Harvey Weinstein in the same category. He also “helpfully” noted that lots of men hadn’t been accused of sexual harassment. It was a classic #NotAllMen moment, an unnecessary and unwanted addition to the conversation. But would Damon even know what a #NotAllMen moment is? Those of us on Twitter understand that it’s a form of defensiveness, usually expressed by guilty white people and, in particular, men. (“Not all white people are racist!” “Not all men are jerks!” etc.) Twitter, in its evolved understanding of how important it is to shut up and give the once-marginalized the floor, has created useful rules: Don’t argue. Don’t get defensive. Just listen. This isn’t about you.

But Damon doesn’t know those rules and I’m sure he thought he was being perfectly reasonable. (He subsequently apologized for his statement, noting: “I wish I’d listened a lot more before I’d weighed in on this.” At this point, he’s run out of excuses.)

No, I’m not going to go on to defend Terry Gilliam, who said that the #MeToo movement has devolved into “mob rule,” because he just seems like a jerk. But needless to say, Twitter wasn’t having it.

All of this leads to the question that I posed above: How attuned to the politics of Twitter does a filmmaker need to be? I ask this because in the last month, two great auteurs have put out films that suggest that they are not on top of the cultural zeitgeist—which is to say, they’re not on Twitter.

The first is Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, based on the divisive Ernest Cline bestseller of the same name. The book, about a dystopian world where people retreat into a virtual reality and a young man who saves the day by being more obsessed with 80s pop culture than anyone else, has gotten a lot of backlash for elevating a gamer to godlike status, especially in the wake of something called the GamerGate scandal. Now before I continue, I want you all to do something. Ask your parents. Ask your neighbors. Ask some random dudes on the street if they even know what a GamerGate scandal is. I’m guessing they don’t. (For the record, and this is an oversimplification: It was a grim period that presaged a lot of the bullying techniques of the #MAGA and alt-right movement where online gaming fans harassed and doxed female gamers and journalists who dared to call out the sexism of video games and gamer culture.)

I’d argue that, as an artist, Spielberg certainly doesn’t need to know what GamerGate is. But I’d also argue that, if he’s going to make a film out of a book that was the subject of a GamerGate controversy, well, it sure wouldn’t hurt. And having seen Ready Player One, which I mostly liked, it’s clear to me that Spielberg wasn’t thoughtful about his gamer guy saving the day and getting the girl and being rewarded for his mastery of arcane trivia. And he doesn’t really grapple with the fact that film’s Wonka-esque hero is another dude. So, basically, one god-like male savior taking over for another one.

The other out-of-touch auteur is Wes Anderson, whose Isle of Dogs has gotten a fair share of backlash for its “Orientalism” and “cultural tourism.” I like the idea of Anderson being this mad genius who works in a place that is adjacent to our world, but not quite of our world. I honestly don’t want him being overly influenced by pop culture trends or the latest correct way of seeing things. That being said, these criticisms have been leveled at him before. At some point, to not respond to them in a thoughtful way is a kind of willful ostriching. Because despite all his fussy nostalgia, Wes Anderson does live in the real world, and in the real world, issues of inclusion and racial sensitivity matter. In my review, I whacked Anderson for exoticizing Japanese culture, but I particularly criticized his use of a white female savior. As I noted to some friends on Facebook, even if Anderson is completely oblivious to the current conversation about race and inclusion, surely he must know that the white savior trope is tired and offensive. I mean we were talking about this shit in 1989 with Kevin Kline fixing apartheid in Cry Freedom.

I don’t know where I ultimately land on all this, except to say this: We should all have a little patience for those who aren’t versed in the latest, most nuanced understanding of every conversation on representation, race, and gender. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that heroes in movies were reflexively male or white—and usually both. We’re evolving, slowly but surely. I want filmmakers to catch up, but I also want them to be driven by their own creative impulses, their own muses. A film that parrots the current “correct” way of thinking is, in some ways, just as bad as one that seems oblivious to it. My experience with Twitter is that it’s often ahead of the curve—what was an exclusive conversation on Twitter becomes a mainstream way of looking at things two or three years later. But sometimes, Twitter—yes, even progressive twitter—gets it wrong. Sometimes it over-compensates, bandwagons, and silences opposing views. I’d hate to think that singular artists like Spielberg and Anderson were beholden to today’s group thought. Somewhere, there’s a compromise. Because an artist who doesn’t pay attention to the world around him or her is no artist at all.

Why I’ll Never Get Over Hillary Clinton

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What if someone you admired greatly was treated unjustly? And not just a little unjustly—the kind of relentless unfairness that makes you want to scream into a pillow. What if the attacks on this person got so ridiculous, so ubiquitous, so manifestly obvious in their bad faith, that it would almost be laughable if it weren’t also so infuriating.

Such is the case with Hillary Clinton.

Just for clarity’s sake, here’s how I see Hillary Clinton:

To me, she’s an uncommonly smart and hard working public servant; a little wonky; progressive but not an ideologue, with a particular affinity for causes that help women and children. She believes in getting things done, even if that means reaching across the aisle and, yes, compromising a bit for the greater good. She’s been in politics her entire adult life—and is one of the most famous women in the world—so she’s a little more connected than the average politician, has more potential conflicts of interest—more opportunities for paid speaking gigs; more meetings with powerful world leaders—which she has mostly navigated with a good amount of common sense and integrity. And again, she’s been in the public eye so long, she’s also made her fair share of mistakes—almost all of which she’s owned up to and learned from.

She’s not the warmest person, maybe even a bit prickly at times, but I personally find her funny and engaging and kind, especially when she’s around children. I think the fact that she’s a little stiff on TV is touching—she’d much rather be writing and enacting policy than talking about herself or performing a skit on SNL. Her evident brilliance—her command of facts, her knowledge of history, her grasp of international politics—is nearly unparalleled.

Importantly, I think she’s no more “corrupt” than any other longtime politician who knows how to work within a system to get things done—and that includes Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, John McCain, et al. What’s more, I think she’s smarter, more truly caring, and harder working than most.

That’s it. That’s how I see her.

Here’s what the Hillary Clinton haters see:

To them, she’s some sort of combination of Lady Macbeth, Medusa, and Claire Underwood—a power-hungry, greedy woman who will say or do anything to get elected; a woman without a sincere bone in her body who fakes everything—her religious devotion; her love for her family; her good health; her commitment to liberal-leaning policies; hell, even her love of hot sauce—just to win votes. In some of the crazier corners of the internet—alas, on both the far left and right—they see her as a murderer or someone capable of running a child pornography ring. There is no bridge too far when it comes to hating Hillary Clinton. In their eyes, she might as well be stroking a cat and plotting to blow up Gotham City. (This comic book reference is not incidental—her haters have dehumanized her; they hate her as much as they might hate a cartoon villain.)

It’s hard to reconcile those two things, isn’t it? The woman I see: Brilliant, wonky, and wholly committed to public service vs. the cold, calculating villainess seen by others. But let’s just assume for a second that I’m right. That Hillary is quite simply the woman I—and her legion of admirers—see her to be. Certainly there’s more actual evidence on my side than theirs. Can you see how monstrously, maddeningly unfair the last several years have been? How the injustice of it all could actually drive a person a little nuts?

Because Hillary Clinton has had to put up with shit that not a single politician in the history of this country has had to put up with.

Hating Hillary Clinton—in a vicious, visceral way—has become a national sport. The lusty chants of “lock her up” and “hang the bitch” that followed her everywhere she went; the unprecedented and politically motivated investigations into her private email server and the Benghazi attacks (FYI: there were 20 deadly attacks on U.S. embassies under George W. Bush, none of which were investigated); the reckless and mean-spirited speculation about her health; the characterization of her, by her both her Republican and Democratic opponents, as the very embodiment of political corruption and avarice, and on and on…

There were times when the whole thing seemed surreal: The so-called left-leaning media endlessly haranguing her for not being sufficiently likeable or inspirational; that infamous Matt Lauer interview, where the first (pre-selected) audience question began with the provocation: “If I had done what you did, I’d be in jail”; Bernie Sanders making that same joke, again and again, about his lack of paid of speeches (while knowing full well that U.S. Senators are not allowed to give paid speeches); the chants, led from the stage by Mike Flynn, of “Lock her up!” at the Republican National Convention; the Bernie supporters throwing dollar bills at her motorcade; Donald Trump, cracking mid-debate, that if he were president she’d be in jail.

The hatred was such that at times I feared for her life and wondered why she didn’t just quit—could it really all be worth it?—but she weathered it all with equanimity and a stiff upper lip. As she said in What Happened, she ran for president because she thought she was the best person for the job. She wasn’t going to let the haters keep her down.

When she, arguably the most qualified person to run for president in my lifetime, lost to Trump—a man who, among other unsavory personality traits has been accused of sexual misconduct by 19 women—it was crushing. It felt like a rebuke, not just of Hillary Clinton, but of women in general. It felt personal.

But it least it was over, I thought. At least they wouldn’t have Hillary Clinton as their punching bag anymore.

Oh, how wrong I was.

After the election, Hillary could do nothing right. She was chided for not giving her concession speech quickly enough. (Wisely—and very much true to form—she got a few hours of much-needed sleep and wrote an eloquent, gracious, and forward-thinking speech encouraging more young women to believe in themselves and run for office.) She was criticized for being too quiet—mocked for taking walks in the woods and going to Broadway shows. She was criticized for being too loud—having the temerity to write a book about her experience as the first female presidential candidate of a major party. She was told to go away, to shut up, to take up knitting, to never, ever, ever run for president again (when she had already made it abundantly clear that she has no intention of running.) (Also, newsflash: HILLARY CLINTON CAN DO ANY DAMN THING SHE WANTS.) Many male politicians—Bernie, of course, but even Joe Biden, Martin O’Malley, and (sigh) Barack Obama, stepped forward and said they could’ve won the election, that it was some sort of inherent character flaw that kept her from beating Trump—and not the result of a smear campaign led by Trump, Bernie, the media, and Russian social media bots and bolstered by a last minute assist from James “November Surprise” Comey.

Meanwhile, over on FoxNews, they covered Hillary as though she were president. It turned out that, on top of serving to distract from the many crimes that Trump and his administration are being investigated for, attacking Hillary Clinton was good for ratings. Again, the hatred for her was a kind of national pastime, on both the right and far left. A phony Uranium One scandal was cooked up. It was hinted that the Steele dossier proved she had been colluding with the Russians. There was no scandal they couldn’t blame on her—if only tangentially. Somehow, even the Harvey Weinstein debacle was made partly her fault. It was so funny, I forgot to laugh.

And now that the walls are closing in on Trump and his team, he’s using the justice department as his own personal attack dogs and opening up investigations into the Clinton Foundation and Hillary’s private email server—again.

It’s ridiculous. Unfair. Sickening.

So no, I’ll never get over Hillary Clinton and how horribly she was—and continues to be—treated. Excuse me while I go scream into a pillow.

 

Game of Unknowns or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Game of Thrones On a Remedial Level

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The following essay almost certainly contains spoilers for the Season 7 finale of Game of Thrones. Unless I got all the details wrong.

Game of Thrones is a show with thousands of castmembers, hundreds of whom have speaking parts. There are seven kingdoms, each with complex and thorough backstories and lineages. There are mystical creatures and witches and knights; zombies and dragons and giants. Some of the characters have multiple nicknames, for example: Daenerys Targaryen, who is known at various times as Dany, Khaleesi, the Mother of Dragons, The Silver Queen, Dragonmother, and Daenyerys Stormborn. There’s a group of warriors—the Dothraki—who even speak their own language. And the characters all have tongue-twisty names like Aegon Targaryen and Stannis Baratheon and Jaqen H’ghar.

As far as I can tell, there are three basic types of Game of Thrones viewers. There are the people who read the books, who follow the show with Talmudic attention to detail, who know arcane facts about dragonglass and direwolves and Valyrian steel, who could easily draw you a map of the Seven Kingdoms, and who can recite, by heart, the names, character traits, battles won and lost, and love affairs of multiple generations of Westeros’ seven major families.

Then there are those who never read the books but watch the show with similar closeness, who tune in to Game of Thrones podcasts and after-shows and who spend time on Reddit threads and various other message boards to dissect and analyze and obsess over each show. For these people, no detail is too minute, no character too minor, no snippet of dialogue spoken too passingly.

And then there are various degrees of folks like me, although I confess I’m a particularly hopeless case. I watch the show the way a small child watches one of those cartoons that contain lots of inside jokes for parents—easily half, if not more, of the plot goes over my head. I’d say that I’m playing checkers while the rest of y’all are playing chess, except checkers might be too sophisticated a game for my level of comprehension. Frankly, Tic-Tac-Toe might be a better analogy.

Take a few recent examples: A couple of episodes back, the scheming Littlefinger planted a letter, once written by Lady Sansa, in a place where her assassin kid sister Arya would surely find it. That particular show ended with Arya reading the letter. My first thought: What a cliffhanger! What could possibly be in that letter? Meanwhile, readers of the books and close watchers of the show already knew what was in that letter: It was the letter evil queen Cersei had demanded Sansa write, forcing her to pledging fealty to the Lannisters and blaming her father Ned Stark for his own death. Oh yeah, I thought, when I was reminded of all this on Twitter, that letter.

Another, perhaps even more embarrassing example: Recently, a group of seven of warriors went in pursue of the White Walkers or “wights” (honestly, I think White Walkers and “wights” are the same thing, but this could be another one of my gaps). All of Twitter was abuzz with talk of the “Magnificent Seven” and the “Dream Team.” But of the seven, I only knew four really well and the fifth guy I was a little sketchy on: There was Jon Snow (major character! Him I know!), Tormund (whom I call the “curiously hot ginger Wilding guy who was also in Force Majeure”), the knight Jorah (aka Dany’s bitch), the Hound (he’s kind of hard to miss), and Gendry, the one I was a bit sketchy on (I have some dim recollection of him being Robert Baratheon’s bastard son and also being seduced/tortured by the witch Melisandre, unless that was actually his lookalike, the kindly squire Podrick, who I think has an enormous shlong). It’s the two other guys I want to talk about because this is what really separates the chess players from us tic-tac-toe players. I had no idea who they were. Eventually, it became clear to me that one was a drunken preacher with the power to raise the dead and the other was a guy I vaguely remember he resurrected a bunch of times? Maybe in a cave? But I couldn’t recall how or why, or what either character’s connection to the larger plot was. And more to the point, I didn’t care.

Upon hearing this, serious Game of Thrones fans would no doubt be shocked or appalled—or both. But honestly, you have no idea how much fun it is to watch this show on a surface level. You still get lots of great acting and unchecked debauchery and awesome battles. There are still zombies and dragons. And you have a pretty solid understanding of the major characters and their motivations in any given scene. Every once in a while, you’re completely lost, but at that point you either tune out until the next scene, accept the fact that you have the comprehension of a small, helpless child, or, if you’re feeling particularly need-to-know-y, use Twitter or Google for additional insight.

Which brings me to this season. Much as I’ve loved Game of Thrones, I’ve always found it frustrating that most of the major characters are rarely in the same geographical region as each other, let alone the same room. This year, partly because the show is on an accelerated timeline (it’s ending next season) and partly because it has finally whizzed past George R.R. Martin’s painstakingly mapped out books, all that has changed. There have been reunions galore—Sansa and Jon, Sansa and Arya, Arya and the she-knight Brienne of Tarth, Bran and his sisters, all the dueling (and shagging) Lannisters, and so on. And characters we’ve long wanted to meet—hello, Dany and Jon!—have finally met and proceeded to get it on (all while buzzkill Bran calmly informed us that Dany is, in fact, Jon’s aunt). It’s been extremely satisfying. Some have complained that this is all akin to fan fiction, but it turns out I’m okay with expensively mounted fan fiction, as long as the acting is still great, the dialogue still clever, the stakes, both personal and political, still high, and the special effects still extraordinary.

What’s more, there have been grumblings on Twitter and elsewhere that the show has thrown away its sense of time and place in service of plot. Characters do seem to get from one part of Westeros to the other in record speed—I’m still not sure how Gendry ran all the way to Dragonstone, for example. Other reveals—the fact that Sansa and Arya weren’t really at each other’s throats, but were secretly conspiring against Littlefinger, for example; or a fake out involving Euron Greyjoy pretending to leave King’s Landing—seem less about logic than about creating awesome drama. Again I say—bring it on! With a few exceptions, this is the first season of Game of Thrones that I’ve been able to largely comprehend. Plus—zomg!— zombies vs dragons! Crumbling walls! Undead polar bears! Dragons that are zombies! After seven seasons, they’ve made Game of Throne for Idiots and this idiot, for one, couldn’t be happier.

Paint it Black: Thoughts on The Sopranos finale

THE SOPRANOS, James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Robert Iler, 'Made in America', (Season 6, episode 21, a

Thanks to actual godsend website web.archive.org, I was able to find this long lost post I had written on The Sopranos finale. I still feel this way.

The following contains boatloads of spoilers about the final episode and, for that matter, the entire Sopranos series. Like, duh.

Let’s put aside, if humanly possible, the maddening ending, the cut to black that had everyone checking their TiVo connections and satellite dishes and, finally, taking David Chase’s name in vain.
Let’s talk about the rest of the episode.
I thought it was a damn good finale, with as much humor, pathos, and, insight that true fans of The Sopranos could possibly expect.

Phil was whacked—and then, in a posthumously heroic gesture, saved his grandchildren from a dangerous fate in a runaway car by stopping them with his fabulous head of hair and (crushed) skull.
AJ was still depressed and wanted to go to Afghanistan, or maybe work for Donald Trump. And then he got a new M3, a job as a D-boy on a slasher film, and a hot girlfriend. Bye-bye depression.
Tony had an affectionate visit with Janice—they joked about blowjobs under the bridge and how nobody understands their warped, Sopranos sense of humor.
Tony went to see Junior and realized that any lingering resentment was poorly spent—he was a toothless old man, who didn’t even remember that he once ran his own crew.
Meadow was going to become a lawyer to defend other hard-working, law-abiding Italian-Americans like her dear old dad.
Carmela still had her spec houses and her impenetrable shield of denial.
Paulie Walnuts was going to take over Vito’s construction job and maybe wasn’t in cahoots with New York, after all.
All in all, a lot went down.

You see, real fans of the show know this: David Chase never gives us juicy finales. The major action usually takes place in the penultimate episode, or before. That’s when Pussy got whacked. It’s when Janice killed Richie Aprille. It’s when Ralph Cifaretto had his head lopped off; it’s when Jackie Jr. went to the big strip joint in the sky.
The final episodes are usually about averting danger; they almost always ended with the family together somehow—at a funeral, in their living room, at Artie Buco’s restaurant—bent but not broken.
And surely, no one can argue that tons of shit went down in this season’s penultimate episode: What, Bobby getting killed, Silvio clinging to life, and Tony on the run, sleeping on a tiny bed, cradling a giant AK-47 weren’t enough for you?

I even went on the radio here in Baltimore and predicted that nothing would really happen in the final episode, that there’d be no closure, just more ambiguity. I knew it in my head to be true.

And yet. . . damn that David Chase, even before the show started—fed by the hype, the largeness of the moment, and yes, a giant tray of baked ziti—I began to waver.

One of my friends at the finale party I attended ran a theory past me: Janice would whack Tony! It was perfect. Wasn’t this show all about Tony and his mother? Would Janice, blaming Tony for Bobby’s death, finish the job that Livia was never quite able to do?
Hmmmm.

And then, that first scene where Tony meets with FBI agent Harris suddenly I’m thinking: Whoa. He’s going to turn state’s evidence and go into the Witness Protection Program. It’s really happening!
But no.

And then, the scene where Tony goes to visit Janice at the beach house. This is it, this is the scene where she’s going to get Medieval on his ass!
But no.

And then, the scene where Paulie Walnuts is alone in the Bada Bing! He’s going to get it; it’s quiet in there—too quiet. Run, Paulie, run!
But no.

And then, the scene where AJ and his girlfriend are alone in the car listening to Dylan. They’re going to die in fiery blaze!
But no.

I go back to what I said earlier in this blog: I was a non-believer. A Sopranos atheist. I didn’t think anything big was going to go down in the finale.
And yet, even I got snookered.
As the family gathered, as Journey’s ridiculous (and perfect) Don’t Stop Believing wailed on the diner juke box, as one suspicious looking character after the next filed in, as the creepy guy with the American flag hat went ominously into the bathroom (just like Michael Corleone!), as Tony ordered onion rings for the table, as Meadow could. . .not. . . park. . . her. . . car—I felt sick. I couldn’t sit still. It was really going to happen. Something horrible. Something huge!

But no.

Black out. The Sopranos is dead.
All over but for the theories:

“When you die, it just goes black,” fans remembered Tony told Bobby at the beach house. (I of course, had forgotten that line, but I’ve never been one of those Talmudic readers of the show.)
So the screen going black symbolizes the death of Tony.
A nifty theory, one that would make more sense if the entire Sopranos had been from Tony’s POV. It wasn’t. Yes, he was our protagonist. But there was plenty to the world of The Sopranos that existed without him. So I don’t buy it.

Then, if I may borrow a phrase, there’s the three gunmen theory: In this theory, the diner was filled with assasins. The creepy guy with the American flag hat was Phil Leotardo’s nephew. The young African-American men were hitmen who’d offed Bobby. A third suspicious character was the brother of someone that Christopher had whacked. Really?
But David Chase has responded to that theory and said, unequivocally: not so much.

The third theory: That David Chase left it ambiguous because he’s greedy and wants to make a movie. You know what? As cynical as I am, I don’t buy that.
I think the open-ended ending was very consistent with the ethos of the show. Chase simply stuck to his guns (so to speak), didn’t pander, did what felt true to the spirit of the series.

So what are we left with? Ambiguity. Uncertainty. Life.
What? You were expecting closure?
Fugghetaboutit.