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Feminism & Warner Brothers’ Suicide Squad

*This post contains spoilers for the movie Suicide Squad. Please stop reading now if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to be spoiled.

Hear me out.

I know what you’re thinking. Feminism, in a film where a female character is punched in the face just before the punchline, “She had a mouth,” is delivered? Feminism, in a film where countless characters threaten the female lead with violence, constantly stating that they don’t care that she’s a woman? Feminism, in a film that, to say the least, depicts an unhealthy romantic relationship as #goals?

I promise, there is.

When early promotional spots for Suicide Squad were released, many fans expected the film to be all about The Joker. Jared Leto was featured heavily in trailers, commercials, and interviews. His performance was continuously hyped up, and he received significantly more media attention than his co-stars (in fact, his name is top-billed on posters for the film and in the credits, despite the fact that his character appears for a mere fifteen total minutes out of a two-hour-plus movie). Co-star Margot Robbie, who was just as excited about playing Harley Quinn as Jared Leto was about playing The Joker, was somewhat overlooked as critics speculated what Leto would bring to the famed role.

Now that the film is out, and viewers have had a chance to digest the material, many are shocked at how little Joker scenes there were. Instead, much of the film focused on Robbie and Will Smith’s characters and the complex nature of their relationships with the film’s other characters. What was once billed as ‘The Joker Show’ has actually turned into Harley Quinn Land, and while many fans (and Leto himself) have expressed their disappointment at the amount of cut scenes… I don’t hate it.

I know that film studios think that women like me (read: women who love superhero films) don’t exist, but the truth is, we do, and we like it when a woman takes the lead. Suicide Squad puts Robbie’s character front and center, and doesn’t give the audience a chance to mind, because there is nothing to complain about. In the comic books, Harley Quinn is an undeniable badass, but she is also fanatically obsessed with The Joker, and lets the love that she has for him dictate her every move. Comic-Harley is defined by her love for The Joker. She is, first and foremost, The Joker’s girlfriend, and the fact that she is a complex character takes the backseat to The Joker’s will, always.

In the film, Harley Quinn is her own person. She has so many other things going on. Suicide Squad provides us with scenes that show so much emotional depth. The viewers learn about Quinn’s past, her present, her future. Her hopes and dreams are explored and surprise viewers because they are different from what we believe Harley to be. Harley never stops surprising the viewer, and, most importantly, the viewer never loses interest because the character has so much to offer. And, while we see so many of Harley’s relationships with the other characters explored so intimately, all we see from The Joker is how he feels about Harley.

Throughout Suicide Squad, Harley takes charge of her own life. She does not let The Joker define her. Harley makes friends, saves the world, loves and mourns The Joker but does not abandon the fundamental core of who she is in order to be with him. Meanwhile, The Joker’s every scene involves Harley Quinn. A majority of his lines are either to her or about her. When Quinn is imprisoned, The Joker lies on the floor, desolate and pining for her. The Joker is the one who does not know how to be when his love interest is not around.

Given that, in so many films, the female character is relegated to the ride-or-die love interest role, the feminist in me is thrilled to see a man as powerful as The Joker take the backseat for once. Rather than have Harley’s entire story line revolve around The Joker, as it has in past depictions of the character, Joker’s entire story line revolves around Harley. He spends the whole film chasing her. How many other movies can you say that about?

Shooting Suicide Squad from the perspective of Harley Quinn and showing only bits of The Joker was a smart choice by Warner Brother’s. No, I’m not kidding. After a list of (alleged) deleted scenes was leaked, fans took note that many scenes where Mr. J appears to be inflicting violence upon Harley were cut from the film. Fans were understandably upset – in the comics, Mr. J is incredibly abusive towards Harley, and fans were unsure how they felt about a more romantic version of the toxic couple they’d known for so long.

After having some time to think about it, and being a fan of both the comic and cinematic universes, I have decided that I enjoy the on-screen portrayal of their relationship much more than the abusive one. It is honestly thrilling to see Harley as the strong, independent badass she is. She still loves The Joker, and would do anything for him, but her obsession does not define her character or compromise the person she is when he isn’t around. Instead, the viewer is exposed to so many nuances of her personality, and we learn so much about who Harley really is, even without The Joker’s influence.

I understand why fans are disappointed. I understand why Jared Leto is disappointed. The Joker is an iconic, larger-than-life character. Fans expected him to be front-and-center during the film, and Leto dedicated himself to a role that he didn’t know would be thrust into the backseat. But I encourage everyone to give this version of the story a chance. While you might not find too many things outside of Margot Robbie’s performance enjoyable (though Will Smith remains a national treasure), this film is doing great things for the way women are treated in the superhero genre. This film understands that women love superhero movies, and that the summer blockbuster doesn’t always need a hot girl to play the doting girlfriend.

Women can be killers, can want to be mothers, can be prison inmates and sexy and violent and loving and all of these things, all at the same time. Female characters do not need to be defined by their boyfriends. Female characters can carry the film, because superhero films are not exclusively seen by men anymore. And an actress of Margot Robbie’s caliber certainly does not deserve to be pigeon-holed into a role where she merely play’s somebody’s girlfriend.

I applaud Warner Brothers and DC for taking this first step in the right direction. I hope I don’t regret this post when the Harley Quinn spin-off comes out.

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DigComm - Jan 2016

Week 5 Reflection: Free Culture, Free Speech, and Monetizing the Internet

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This week, we explored a variety of topics pertaining to internet use. Much of what we discussed expanded upon our previous discussion on “Who owns the internet?” with the added delving into of what each person can and can’t say on the internet. During the live session, my classmates and I presented on several different aspects of online ethics. I really enjoyed this part of the discussion, because as we have started to see over the past few weeks, when it comes to the internet and online culture, the laws are lagging and there is often a whole new set of rules.

After answering a prompt about our opinions on free culture, I did some more research on the topic, independently of anything we were assigned for class. I had been under the impression that “free” culture meant not charging for the viewing and distributing of art and other like-minded materials, such as movies and music. In actuality, “free culture” adopted the term “free” to liken itself to free speech. The idea of a “free” culture is more about the free-flowing exchange of unrestricted information than pirated music, which I was surprised to learn.

However, in America, there’s already things like open-source software and hacker culture – things that are fairly free to begin with. Yet there are still those who argue against this freedom. Sure, these critics are mostly large, important copyright lawyers and those who profit off of restricted access, but there are also smaller artists and upcoming producers who support the idea of a free culture, yet need the profits that come with restricted access to make a living producing their art.

So is there any validity to the idea that copyright law is ruining art? Particularly, in music, I can think of a few examples that might support this. Copyright has made remix culture and certain forms of expression particularly difficult. Additionally, it has really hurt the ‘average’ fan in a lot of ways. What about the poor couple who lost their wedding vows, speeches, and entire wedding audio all because their first dance was set to Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’? Just because an artist is greedy and their lawyers want to capitalize on fan popularity (see: how the original owner of the ‘Harlem Shake’ song made millions with YouTube and Content ID) doesn’t mean that fans should be discouraged from showing their appreciation with remixed art forms. Isn’t setting your wedding dance to a Taylor Swift song part of being a fan? Isn’t participating in remix culture part of what being a fan is all about?

This week’s material was troubling for me because, while I can see both sides of the issue, I am largely in favor of a free culture – with dual use of the word “free.” I believe that art should be less restricted, and I believe that art should be free of charge. For example, I have little respect for musicians who choose to keep their music off streaming services – don’t people who can’t afford the extra luxury of buying an album deserve to listen to music, too?

Yes, artists deserved to get paid for the content they produce, and, yes, there should be laws in place so that artists cannot be copied and thus lose profits to someone else’s copy, but there has to be a better way. In interviews, actors and musicians are quick to say that they produce art for their fans and because it is fulfilling – not for the money. Of course, many artists who make these statements are those that can probably afford to lose a few dollars due to a pirated CD – especially when album sales don’t really matter anymore.

But what about their fans who have student loans, car payments, and rent, and thus simply can’t spare a few extra dollars to see a movie in theaters or buy an entire album – or even a song or two on iTunes? To ignore the very real income inequality among supporters of music and movies is, I think, insensitive. At the same time, to ignore struggling artists who produce independent films and need ticket sales to be validated is also insensitive. I’ve thought a lot about this issue, and examined the many complicated aspects of it from both sides, and I’m still no closer to a solution or an answer than I was before Week 5’s Live Session.

Going forward, I welcome the input of my other classmates. I can’t be the only one who has struggled with this idea of a “free culture” and how it intersects with more complex issues, like systemic poverty and income inequality, so it would be valuable to see some other opinions on the issues. Furthermore, I feel as though I’ve debated a few relatively complex ideas in this blog post, and yet I didn’t even venture outside of American policy. Other countries have far more restrictive rules, so how could the idea of a “free culture” ever possibly work on a global scale?

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DigComm - Jan 2016

Week 1 Reflection: Cultural Nostalgia and the Skyscraper Phenomenon

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Many of the ideas presented in this chapter were interesting, as they presented a well-rounded view of the current state of digital communication. Both sides of every issue were presented and gave me a lot to think about as I begin my first week of class. However, there were a few things in particular that stuck out to me.

The idea of high and low culture, along with the cultural skyscraper, is something that has been around for a very long time. While the cultural rankings can seem to be arbitrary at times, what I found most intriguing about this chapter were the points about nostalgia. Collectively, critics and cultural purists seem to be of the opinion that culture was better before modern-day popular culture was introduced. Things like the popularization of reality television, autotuned music, and famous celebrities without marketable talents are seen as parts of society that have “ruined” culture.

I have observed what the book calls “a call to return to ‘the good old days’” many times before, across just about every genre of books, film, television, and music there is. Even sectors of pop culture, such as rap music, that aren’t usually thought of as having a ‘good old days’ period face comments and critiques from people who thought that rap music was better ‘before.’ The book lists a few examples of this and states that they have become cultural ‘classics’ (jazz, ragtime, silent movies, and the waltz). However, while certain cultural purists may look fondly at these classics and call for a return to them, the overwhelming majority of people see no need for a return of the silent movie. For all the complaining about new films and the way they are presented, no one would go to a movie theater next week and pay twelve dollars to see a silent film.

The authors of our textbook seem to believe that cultural nostalgia comes from a place of fear by people who are uncomfortable with the changing tides of popular culture. However, this phenomena isn’t only evidenced in older generations who dislike the amount of hip hop played on the radio. Just a few years ago, the Nickelodeon network found that the 18-34 demographic was experiencing nostalgia for old, 1990s programming. After reintroducing a few ‘classics’ into the lineup, their ratings skyrocketed.

So this nostalgia isn’t something that only older generations experience. Every person seems capable of looking at current popular culture and commenting that some aspect of it was better ‘before.’ I can’t help but wonder if this is how future generations will act. Will there ever be a day when a forty- or fifty-something adult scoffs at their radio and claims that popular music was better when it was performed by artists like Katy Perry and Ke$ha?

I liked the ideas presented in this chapter a lot. I felt they laid the ground for a very interesting semester. There are many points in this chapter that I am excited to discuss with my fellow graduate students in class. As a younger person (I’m not a fan of the term ‘millennial’), I was surprised to find that the ideas about cultural nostalgia even applied to me, but they do. Things like the current state of Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel evoke a fierce nostalgia from me, and my fellow 90s kids. I’ve seen countless postings on the internet to the tune of ‘like if you remember when so-and-so was like this.’

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I guess I have the same question that the textbook poses: how can we tell what the future has in store for popular culture? With cultural values constantly changing, and things like social media, media convergence, and media multitasking changing the landscape of digital communication every day, how can someone even begin to attempt to predict where culture may be in five years, let alone ten or twenty or a hundred?

Maybe finding out why pop culture has changed in the way that it has is a good next step towards predicting these changes. Along with analyzing why people from every generation can all experience cultural nostalgia towards something, this seems like an important starting point for anyone interested in looking towards the future.

In class, we discussed what makes certain media higher or lower on the cultural skyscraper. It seems like some of the same things that we think make media seen as ‘refined’ or ‘trashy’ (thematic content, public opinion, societal values, and talent, to name a few) could also produce nostalgia in viewers. Perhaps people nostalgically long for ‘wholesome’ shows like I Love Lucy or The Brady Bunch because they also long for the cultural values of that time. Isn’t this why 90s kids miss the ‘old’ Disney channel, and why we are so fascinated whenever we see a grown-up picture of Selena Gomez or Miley Cyrus?

Part of my personal nostalgia for old media, or a return to the classics, certainly comes from a longing to return to a time that has passed. In class, we also mentioned two themes that seemed prevalent in everyone’s stories about their first interaction with media: isolation and togetherness. The experience of participating with media was something many people in class  noted as an important part of their first media experience. Is this what we’re really longing for when we participate in cultural nostalgia? It seems plausible. When I look fondly back on experiencing the Harry Potter books for the first time (my first experience with media) I always remember the experience of making friends with Harry, and ending my isolation by stepping into J.K. Rowling’s world.

Cultural nostalgia is an odd concept, because there seems to be no fix for it. If all media returned to the types of media that were popular in the 1950s and 60s tomorrow, there would undoubtedly be critics and disappointment worldwide. People long for old media while consuming new media, and thus cultural nostalgia is more of a paradox than anything else. Yet we all experience it, even if it is difficult to explain where it comes from or why. This makes it an interesting part of communication and an integral part of most discussions about popular culture – although not one that is likely to be fully understood anytime soon.

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