Intersectionality and Sense8

My recent post about the boundaries of diversity in Sense8 was upon reflection, incomplete. This is due to the fact that I neglected to discuss intersectionality. Let’s not waste any time and jump right into it.

First, it’s important to define intersectionality. A quick Google search gives the following: “the study of intersections forms or systems of oppression, discrimination and domination” which is a good place to start. Now, what does this mean? People are multifaceted, for example: a person isn’t just gay; they’re also white and poor for example. These are all axes of privilege and oppression; while there is merit in looking at them in isolation at a certain point that kind of analysis breaks down. Intersectionalism is about the contextualization of these axes as they occur in real life.

So what does this have to do with Sense8? As already established: this is a show about human diversity and many of the characters’ plots are defined by who they are and their experiences relating to systemic oppression and discrimination. This adds an important layer of verisimilitude, as diversity in a modern day setting that seeks to sidestep these issues rings hollow. In regards to the characters of Sense8, by and large their conflicts happen on one social axis. Centering conflict in such a manner is good and logical storytelling, but to see that conflict as the totality of the character is missing the point.

While systemic analysis and intersectionalism are useful in real life, there are limitations to this kind of thinking when applying it to a text itself. As such, it’s important to understand that individuals experience systems differently. Not only that, but how individuals feel and deal with the focal points of these systems such as their sexuality or a disability varies from person to person. All of this is to say that there could’ve easily been more diversity within the confines of the show as its structure sits.

Of course, when having this discussion about a show, it’s important to remember that the text isn’t immutable. The product that we see is something that has undergone multiple revisions in order to satisfy some sort of vision. All of the characters are exactly that, characters who have been crafted to tell this story. The ways in which diversity is and isn’t showcased are the product of decisions, both active and unconscious. This isn’t to take away from the diversity that is shown though.

Sense8 is an ensemble show that is literally about the diversity of the human experience, yet it still treats abled heteronormativity as the default. The notion that having more diversity runs afoul of some sort of narrative economics is predicated on the idea that all characters need equal screentime. As I’ve established before, there are entire swathes of the human experience that are ignored and could have been incorporated. While it would have been ideal to diversify the cluster more, it would have been better to diversify the supporting cast more.

Diversity isn’t some binary metric that we judge media on by comparing it to the perceived norms. It’s a wide spectrum of the human experience, with the inclusion and exclusion thereof worthy of criticism.  Sense8 may be too rooted in its own devices by now to remedy these shortcomings, but it doesn’t change the fact that these are shortcomings. At best it is something to keep in mind for the future. Next week is another mystery post, till next time.

 

Orange is the New Black Season Three: the Banality of Misery

Orange is the New Black was one of the Netflix’s first attempts at truly original programming and despite its flaws it gave an idea what could be done on the platform. We’re talking about shows whose subject matter wouldn’t actually air on TV. Season 3 is more of a structural departure from the first two, and in many ways it doesn’t pay off. While it still has its moments, those moments are farther away than they were in previous seasons. Let’s not waste any time and jump into it.

Trigger warnings: sex, alcohol, sexual assault, rape, language, emotional abuse

 

Beware of spoilers ye who enter

Season 3 can be best described as going wide instead of deep; by which I mean it doesn’t focus on a select few characters but instead uses the pre-existing characters to tell a wide range of stories. This approach has its merits. It’s a natural path to take the show, especially if they don’t want to repeat season 2 by having a character act as a sort of warping force on the entire setting. Not only that, but it falls in line with what the intended goals of the show, using Piper’s story as bait essentially, to create a space to talk about women in an intersectional framework. Not only that, but in a way it’s exactly what myself and others were hoping for in that the show would move away from Piper. Not to mention that all of these moving parts make Litchfield a much fuller place. This approach isn’t foolproof however; the basic idea is that you have such a density of characters and plots that some of them being duds is fine. In actuality, we have a cast of characters who are pitiable at best and contemptible at worst.

My problem with season 3, at the root, is that the characters aren’t as appealing they once were. The new gleam has worn off on some of them and others have histories that the show would rather we forget. It’s possible to have bad people be interesting characters, in a lot of ways that’s a good description of the TV renaissance with the exception of Parks and Rec, but these characters aren’t interesting. Nor can you call it misery porn, the notion that these characters deserve what they’re dealing with is antithetical to the show’s thesis and again, isn’t particularly interesting. In fact, this banality does reinforce the show’s thesis of prison being a horrible and dehumanizing place; it just doesn’t make for good television. Now, since it’s not that easy, there’s merit in discussing the individual characters and their arcs; I’m not going to discuss every character, just the ones that I have something to say on.

First, it’s worth mentioning that Larry was written out of the show, the only character from Piper’s life that shows up in more than one scene is her brother. This is an unambiguously good thing. Larry was both terrible and extraneous to the plot; a feeling that was only exacerbated by Jason Biggs being vocally offensive off the screen.

Piper is the closest thing to a main character, so it makes as much sense as anything else to start with her. She’s a terrible person and there’s nothing endearing. Her major moments can be summarized as following: being honest to Alex about getting her back in Litchfield, hate-sex with Alex, emotionally tormenting Alex, starting up and running a prison business, union-busting, cheating on Alex because of Alex’s tattered emotional condition, and getting revenge on Stella. The problem is that most of these actions are varying degrees of awful, the amount of space given the plot is disproportionate to how entertaining it is. Now while I’m not saying axiomatically that horrible things should be punished accordingly, there’s no consequence at all. Granted, Red finding out the truth and being robbed are both consequences but they’re comparatively small and abstract;  Red not interacting with Piper for half a season doesn’t stand out in this format and the money is a completely abstract issue. A lack of consequences is bad storytelling.

            Alex is completely superfluous. If she had completely disappeared after the season two opener, there would be questions but it would make sense. Instead Alex gets her own story that is by and large separate from the rest of the cast sans Piper. Most of the season is spent focusing on someone who turns out to be paranoid as a red herring and then we’re given a cliffhanger of a real assassin. While there is an attempt at integration by having Lolls be the person to introduce the kosher meal plot, that could have easily been given to Stella. The use of the red herring deflates the tension and actual assassin just comes out left field at the last possible moment. If nothing else, Alex did have one of the best lines this season, which you can find here.

Nicky is actually surprising. Her being written off via being sent to max was an unexpected development. The loss of her character is definitely a blow to the show although the fact that it happens gives more weight to such a fate compared to Miss Claudette, which again ties into the show’s thesis. The use of flashbacks in her final episode felt forced as it tried to gently rewrite her backstory and characterization to fit the narrative they were going for.

Healy, on the other hand, is a character that the show keeps trying to humanizing and I’m not interested in engaging with it on that premise. This is a man who has enabled the attempted murder of one woman, pushed another one into attempting suicide, and set out to get a female coworker fired in the course of less than a year. He is not a good person and whatever relationship he may have with Red or whatever nice thing he does is for his wife doesn’t make up his sins and how he is unrepentant.

Boo and Doggett intertwine enough and don’t have enough on their own to warrant separate discussion. Their relationship strangely works. Boo’s one plot in the spotlight is enjoyable, attempting to fleece fundamentalists and asserting yourself is good. Doggett is a lot more complicated though. First, the fact that Doggett tried to murder Piper and was a militant druggie fundamentalist is never really brought up again. This is certainly dissonant and there’s no answer as to why I’m okay with this. There is a certain amount of deprogramming going on and not addressing attempted murder, cause how do you do that?’ has a certain logic to it. Doggett’s main story is her relationship with Coates. The best reason for having this plot is a retread of the Daya/Bennett/Pornstache plot except shorn off the tone-deaf romantic subtext. Showing that prison rape is a horrible thing certainly makes sense in a show about prison. What makes less sense is showing the rape on screen, what makes even less sense is needing to juxtapose this next to a flashback of Doggett being raped. It’s the flashback that is truly gratuitous. Whatever point the show is trying to make is irrelevant; it’s doing so in a grossly shocking manner.

The biggest causalities of this storytelling method were the black clique. After Vee there was a large amount of emotional fallout that was more human and interesting than just about anything else. The lack of depth and constant moving away from them to other characters made it hard to buy in. Which is somewhat ironic, the de-emphasis on these characters to move onto other characters was somewhat expected, it’s just a matter of flawed execution.

Speaking of characters who had been de-emphasized, Sophia re-entering into the spotlight was good. That’s all.

Lolls and Stella aren’t really characters, or at least anything that approaches well rounded characters. They’re given so little attention yet the investment that the show asks us to make in them is far higher. Lolls is little more than a red herring hailing from the show’s brief Chicago trip, a weird attempt at mirroring the book’s events to begin with, but is at least characterized. Stella on the other hand is an intentionally mysterious entity that ends up hooking up with Piper, none of that is actual characterization but it’s basically all we’re given.

Caputo and by extension the prison privatization plot is essentially the season’s main plot. On a personal level, Caputo was being shaped up to be what passes for a good person on this show. The fact that his climax involves him selling out is a perfect encapsulation of how everyone on this show is varying degrees of bad, not good. The privatization plot in and of itself isn’t unexpected, it’s topical and relevant to the show’s overall themes. That being said, the show’s limited perspective really hurts the message. Obfuscating how the prison-industrial complex works, obscuring the profit motive for MCC to take over Litchfield creates an imperfect image of the system of oppression that the show is denouncing is a disservice. It muddies the waters and ends up being a weak-willed argument against the system at best.

Orange is the New Black may not be the best show, but it is a different enough show, and still has its moments that even if it’s not always entertaining, it still has value. Season 3 has been the worst of the lot, but there’s always room for improvement. Next week I’m not sure what I’ll be talking about, till next time.

 

 

 

The Diversity Boundaries of Sense8

 

Sense8, pronounced ‘sensate’, is Netflix’s new original series about a group of eight people across the world who begin to share their consciousness with one another brought to us by the Wachowskis and JMS. The show has been flying under the radar a bit, Netflix hasn’t done much advertising on its site and the only reason I even knew about this was from an ad on Youtube. In spite of its shortcomings, it’s still a very strong show with the Wachowskis bringing their cinematography and creativity with JMS bringing his writing. That being said you should be aware of the following triggers: Suicide, Drugs, Violence, Guns, Forced Institutialization, Sex, Alcohol, Misgendering

Now I said I would be reviewing the show, but upon watching the show I realized two things. One, there was a lot stuff to say but it was hard to organize into any coherent form. Two, this is something that deserves its own post. That being said, let’s jump into it.

 

Beware of spoilers ye who enter

Sense8 is a show that is literally about diversity and the interconnectivity of humanity. 7/8 of the main characters belong to at least one marginalized group yet they all have one thing in common. They’re all abled. In fact, there isn’t a single disabled character in the entire show. Within the show’s framework for diversity: people of color are accepted, LGT people are accepted, the poor are accepted, but the disabled aren’t. Sadly, this sort of exclusion isn’t new, but it never stops being disappointing at the very least.

The closest that the show ever gets to the sphere of disability is in the development of the sensates. These are people who see and hear people that aren’t there, be in places that aren’t their physical surroundings, can act radically out of character as another sensate steps into their shoes, and at least for some part of the show have intense migraines. While all of these things fall under the gamut of what neuratypical people experience, it’s a poor substitute for having actually disabled characters. In a show that is set in the modern-day, real world, a degree of realism is required for the show to work. What this means in terms of oppression and marginalization is that being a member of an oppressed group has consequences in the form of discrimination and microaggressions. This never happens when it comes to the characters functioning as sensates; the most we get is Diego warning Will that his “crazy Exorcist routine” has some people spooked. Compare this to Lito’s plot, which revolves around him being a closeted gay man being blackmailed for that fact. Compare this to Sun’s plot, which hinges upon the fact that as a woman she isn’t as valued as much as her brother. Compare this to Capheus’ plot, which hinges upon him being poor. Compare this to Nomi’s plot, whose identity and life experiences have been shaped by her being trans who grew up in a transphobic household. There’s no equivalent for being disabled. This is not say that those stories should have been replaced by disabled characters, but should have been in addition to.

The first response to this might be to ask about Nomi’s institutionalization and attempted lobotomy. This doesn’t count for a number of reasons. Disabled people aren’t the only ones who have been victims of malicious medical practices. More importantly however, being sensate isn’t the same as having an actual disability. Sensates are superheroes, or at the very least analogous to mutants from X-Men. They’re fantastical, the entire conversation around them is different. They might be metaphors for marginalized groups, but they aren’t the marginalized. A general metaphor means that at some point it breaks down and runs into the laws of the fictional universe that it is operating in. Again, this is egregious in a show that about diversity and has no qualms in having actual members of other oppressed groups be present, and not just as metaphors.

Speaking of other oppressed groups, disability isn’t the only issue I wanted to bring up. Earlier, I used the acronym LGT, this wasn’t a typo. It’s commentary on the MOGAI representation in the show. Where are the bi/pan characters? Where are the asexual characters? Where are the aromantic characters? Where are the characters who don’t fit into the gender binary?

All of these exclusions are disappointing and telling. Creators make choices, conscious and unconscious, about what they include in their stories. The most charitable interpretation is that due to systemic erasure and their own life experiences, they honestly didn’t think about these things. Which should not be interpreted to be a good thing, but it’s at the very least an understandable thing not rooted in malice. A less charitable interpretation is that this was more of an active decision, which is actively hurtful.

Sense8 is a good show, it’s the most fun I’ve had watching a show in a year. But that fun came at the cost of having to turn off part of my brain and part of my identity in order to enjoy it. It’s because of its quality and its focus on inclusiveness that means criticizing its shortcomings on that axis is of the utmost importance. If it was bad, I wouldn’t care as much, but it’s good and those are the things worth engaging. Next week, I’ll be talking about Orange is the New Black Season 3. Till next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Platonic Idea of Gaming

Gaming at its best is a contest between players who respect each other and are challenging one another to do their best, good players make good games after all. It’s the kind of things that can make friendships or even save a life. Nothing else matters, nothing else should matter anyway. This platonic ideal is harder than one would think or want to attain though. Let’s take a look at what makes this ideal so appealing and why it’s hard to attain this week, shall we?

This idea where society at large and all of its ills don’t matter; that this is a world a person can escape to in order to have fun. That this ideal exists in the first place is a big reason to be interested in gaming in the first place. It’s the promise of a different world where you’re able to channel your creative and/or competitive spirit free of societal pressures.

The hurdle to this platonic ideal can be summarized as the fact that gaming does not exist in a vacuum. It exists within the context of the real world and as much as we’d like it, and it’s hard to escape that baggage.  I want to use the controversy that has come to be known as Gofygate as a starting point.

Last weekend was Grand Prix Las Vegas, the biggest trading card game tournament of all time. It was a Limited Magic: The Gathering tournament for the set Modern Masters 2015, an all reprint set meant to alleviate the price of key cards for eternal formats. In short, we’re talking about a close to 10k person spectacle in a set where you can open serious money. In the Top 8, Pascal Maynard took a foil Tarmogofy pack 2, pick 1, over a card that would be good for his deck. Now, a foil Tarmogoyf is literally the most expensive card in the set, being worth about $400. The reaction, as with anything Magic related, was hyperbolic and negative. Several other pros talked about how they lost respect for Maynard and how he should respect the game. This was in turn accompanied/followed by people doing EV/utility calculations to determine if that was the right pick. It ended with Maynard saying he made the wrong pick and putting the card up on Ebay.

On one hand, it’s easy to see why there would be a negative backlash. It’s one thing to raredraft at FNM or on MTGO, cause those money cards are what enable you to keep drafting; and it’s often justified with logic along the lines of “well this isn’t Day 2 at a GP.” But this was the final draft of the tournament. On the other hand, this is literally a set designed to put out high value cards and passing a few hundred dollars while under time pressure is understandable; also it really can’t be stressed just how hyperbolic the reaction was. Such financial considerations are unavoidable in a collectable game but it does mar the idea of perfect gameplay, even if we’re talking about percentage points.

This isn’t an issue that is confined to money in collectable games either. It’s the small things, the microaggressions that bleed over from ordinary day. The bigger things as well: the flat out rudeness, hostility, and worse. All of these things mean that the platonic ideal is most likely accessible for only a segment of the population for basically no reason. While gaming’s original sin may recreating the patriarchy and other societal constraints, it doesn’t have to be that way. While the platonic ideal in its entirety may be a truly rare thing, there’s no reason why we can’t act in a manner that makes it as real as possible.

Next week, I’ll be reviewing the Netflix series Sense8. Till next time.