Belittled Women

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The irony was lost on members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at last night’s Oscars when it showed a film clip from Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. In the scene, fledgling writer Jo March and her sister Amy disagree about the importance of Jo’s work. Confessing her doubts, Jo asks, “Who will be interested in a story of domestic struggles and joys? It doesn’t have any real importance.” Amy responds, “Maybe we don’t see these things as important because no one writes about them.” The act of writing them, she argues,  “makes them important.”

Despite being nominated for Best Picture, Little Women did not garner a directing nomination for the gifted Gerwig, whose stories about girls and women are quietly subversive. In the case of Little Women, Gerwig took a cherished and sentimental classic and transformed it into a commentary about the limits society places upon women. These limits are still clearly being felt, as evidenced by the boys’ club in Hollywood that fawns over directors like Scorsese and Tarantino with their male-dominated, machismo-saturated storylines.

Indeed, the latest version of Little Women was looked upon by many as a “chick flick,” something no self-respecting guy would watch. A story featuring and dominated by women – “a story of domestic struggles and joys” –  still holds limited appeal in a society that glorifies war, racing, crime and other manly subjects.

Everything about Gerwig’s version of Little Women made it worthy of an Oscar. The acting, the script, the production design that created a series of impressionistic visual images, the soaring musical score: it was a masterpiece. And it did win an Oscar – for costume design. I guess a “women’s movie” is allowed to be praised for its fashion sense.

As inspiring as it was to see a relative unknown, Bong Joon Ho, win big for his movie Parasite, I was disappointed that in 2020, women are still struggling against a perception that their stories and concerns are too light and inconsequential to be taken seriously. Maybe if Greta Gerwig makes the sequel, Little Men, the Academy will finally take notice.

 

For the Birds

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I have never really understood the purpose of Twitter. Communicate an idea in 140 characters or less. But why?

Sure, I can see the allure of posting pithy sayings that get a lot of likes. I can pat myself on the back for my cleverness, but that sense of self-congratulation doesn’t last. I can also see that Twitter might be a good space in which to vent, to spew out into the Twitterverse one’s anger or discontent.

But to me, the Twitter world creates more harm than good. Look at our current president. He spend hours rage-tweeting and creating angst. What is our Commander in Chief doing ranting through the night and revealing an enraged, bullying, and narcissistic personality to the entire world? And for Trump, the now-280 character limit doesn’t really work. Instead, he posts a diatribe through a series of tweets. If only the Unabomber and Son of Sam had had Twitter!

These days, Twitter wars erupt over all kinds of minutiae. Celebrities get into vicious spats, and we’ve even seen all-out fights over which chicken sandwich is the best. Even more dangerous, world leaders have taken to Twitter and nearly incited real wars. Whether it was Turkey vs. Greece or Israel and Pakistan getting into it, the war of words can come dangerously close to a war with real weapons. And, of course, our fearless leader takes to Twitter routinely to threaten friends and foes alike. His recent tweets threatening to decimate Iranian cultural sites caused an uproar. Sad when the U.S. president has to be scolded for publicly threatening to flout the rules of the Geneva Convention.

Twitter may have been the perfect commercial enterprise for the sound bite generation. But it is a poor substitute for reasoned discourse and general civility. This #NeverTrumper pledges to be a #NeverTweeter. Care to join me?

 

The Evolution of Humor

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In the old days, comedians had to tow a strict line when it came to language and content. In the early Sixties, for example, Lenny Bruce was routinely arrested for using profanity and sexual references in his comedy. In the Seventies, George Carlin made hay with “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” repeating the obscenities over and over for humorous effect. I remember listening to this bit and being scandalized.

At the same time, comedians were allowed to make blatantly racist jokes, and Archie Bunker was everyone’s favorite lovable bigot on TV. Disrespect for women was also totally allowable. Take Jackie Gleason’s catchphrase on The Honeymooners: “One of these days, Alice – to the moon!,” implying that if she didn’t stop her yapping, he’d punch her lights out.

Nowadays, we have seen almost a complete reversal of these late Twentieth Century standards. Chris Rock can stand up and riff about deviant sexual practices using graphic terms, and no one bats an eyelash. Foul-mouthed comedians are a staple of  comedy clubs. Even on network television, still a bastion of common decency, characters can use swear words such as “hell” and “damn” and vulgarities such as “bitch” without censure.

Yet on sensitive subjects such as race and sexual harassment, comedians tow a fine line today. And violence, particularly involving shooting, has become verboten in the world of comedy. I was thinking about this recently when I recalled the lines of a humorous Christmas parody written by my brother-in-law a few decades ago. The song describes the nightmare before Christmas when a parent tries to put together a gift using the English-language-challenged user’s manual. One of the verses goes:

O come, o come and pay the man the bail
And ransom captive Da-a-ad from jail
He got so mad he blew a fuse
His rampage through the store was on the news

 With today’s reality of mass shooting after mass shooting, I’m not sure we can joke about people “going postal” anymore.

I think that for the most part, this evolution in comedy is a good thing. Making it socially unacceptable to joke about hurting people or to denigrate someone’s race or gender is, overall, a good thing. But our desire to be “politically correct” can sometimes make us humorless.

Humor is, after all, the juxtaposition of the acceptable and the unacceptable, the normal and bizarre, the right and the wrong. Back in the day, when Henny Youngman said, “Take my wife – please!,” it was a corny but tongue-in-cheek dig at the sacrosanct institution of marriage.

When we take ourselves too seriously, we refuse to see the inconsistencies and hypocrises in our and others’ behavior, in our families, and in our institutions. For example, John Mulaney, a favorite comedian of mine, regularly mocks his Catholic upbringing. While I have grown to appreciate my Catholic faith more and more as I’ve grown older, I recognize the exasperation of a young person sitting through what can sometimes feel like the interminable and pointless rituals of the Mass. And I sense a fondness Mulaney has for his experiences even as he makes fun of them.

In the area of comedy, there will always be people who are offended by a particular skit or remark. As much as I am happy to know that spousal abuse is no longer something to joke about, I hope that we don’t completely lose our sense of irony and humor about the ills of our world. A world without comedy is no laughing matter.

 

Cause Celebre

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The Golden Globes (or what I like to think of as Oscars antipasto) have come and gone, and the major buzz has not been about the winners and losers but about Ricky Gervais’ caustic hosting turn. Viewers are divided between those who think Gervais was far too mean-spirited in his skewering of celebrities and those who found his roasting of the Hollywood elite to be a perfect comeuppance for their left-leaning hypocrisy.

There is a certain portion of the American public who disdains most of Hollywood as out of touch with the mainstream, hypocritical as they jet off to climate change protests, and just plain annoying with all their self-congratulation. My question to these naysayers is: Why in the world would you waste the better part of an evening watching the Globes if you find the award recipients so reprehensible?

Let’s face it. Most of us are intrigued by celebrity. I know this from my years in L.A. where celebrity sightings were a regular occurrence that made them no less thrilling. There’s something slightly surreal about, say, rubbing elbows with Tom Hanks in the local supermarket. We see them on our TV screen or at the movie theater one day, and there they are in the flesh the next!

The annual awards shows are filled with glamor. Some people want to see the gowns and how the women wear their hair. Some have a favorite actor or movie they want to see given its due with a glittering statue. And others, well, they tune in to see the likes of Ricky Gervais do some spot-on mockery of these larger than life figures.

I have to admit I laughed at Gervais’ quip that Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood was so long that by the time the premiere ended,  Leonardo DiCaprio’s date was too old for him. And even though he verged into tasteless territory by joking about pedophilia, Gervais was a master at hitting his marks. And the Hollywood glitterati in attendance? Well, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Say what you will about the self-importance of Hollywood stars, they still spark stars in our eyes, even those of us who love to hate them.

Remembering the “Old Man” at Christmas

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My father was a Christmas Eve baby. Although celebrating his birthday each year might have been an inconvenience for my grandmother, his own kids loved having something extra special to revel in during an already magical season.

Dad’s birthday kickoff would be a traditional turkey dinner with all the fixings. Then we’d present the gifts we’d racked our brains to come up with, fathers being notoriously hard to shop for. The typical ties and pairs of socks we wrapped up each December 24 sometimes gave way to more unusual items. One year I gave Dad a small oil can, something the Tin Man might have used. Another year all 11 children pitched in and bought my father a smoking jacket. It was deep red velvet and lined with black satin – positively Hefner-esque.

When my older sisters reached their teens, we developed a new tradition to mark my dad’s birthday. Each Christmas one of the networks would air the classic Bing Crosby movie White Christmas. This was one of our favorites. We particularly loved the song “Sisters” performed by Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen, and we would often do our own sisterly rendition in the kitchen while washing the dinner dishes. During these TV viewings of White Christmas, my dad would join us and gently mock the schmaltz. We knew, though, that he secretly liked the movie and enjoyed sharing it with his kids.

In the film, two old war buddies decide to help their commanding officer, who has retired to Vermont and runs a ski resort in risk of closing down due to the lack of snow. The two friends track down their fellow soldiers and invite them to the inn for a musical show on Christmas Eve. When the former CO walks into the theater, the men all stand and sing “We’ll Follow the Old Man.” It’s a teary and heart-warming scene.

The older kids in my family decided it would be fun to sing this song at our “old man’s” birthday celebration. We bought a paper birthday crown that we made Dad put on after dinner. Then we gathered around him and sang a rousing chorus of the song, whose lyrics include, “We’ll follow the old man wherever he wants to go” and “Because we love him.”

Singing “We’ll Follow the Old Man” became a Christmas Eve tradition. My dad would chuckle softly, and his eyes would twinkle as his children, and later grandchildren, surrounded him and sang. The year my father died, we sang it in his honor on Christmas Eve.

“And we’ll tell the troops we answered duty’s call – to the greatest son of a soldier of them all.”

 

Tik Tok: Time’s Up

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My teenage daughter has found a new way to waste tons of time: the phone app Tik Tok. For the uninitiated, Tik Tok is a platform for posting short videos of yourself usually singing, dancing, or performing in some way. According to my daughter, it’s supposed to be the antidote to the glammed up versions of ourselves we’ve been posting on Instagram. (When I say ourselves, I mean the youngsters!)

On Tik Tok, you see, you can be silly and unpolished. Getting laughs is pretty much the point. Lately, the craze seems to involve posting intricate dance moves and having others compete with their own Tik Tok posts replicating the same dance. The whole thing seems terribly pointless, and the expenditures of time on the site are ridiculously wasteful.

Let’s face it. If you feel the need to post pictures or videos of yourself on social media, you are looking for attention and approval. It matters not whether the image is an airbrushed ideal you are trying to portray or a “Hey, I’m just a regular girl/guy” persona.

My daughter is the youngest of four children, and I am grateful that my three older kids grew up largely before the influence of social media. It has been a struggle to rein in my daughter’s addiction to her screen and insist that she get homework done, rest, and interact with her own family from time to time. I can’t imagine if I had had to deal with crazes such as Tik Tok four times!

I recall the advent of social online presences when my oldest child got AOL Instant Messenger on the computer. She would simultaneously complete her homework and chat with friends. Once my husband and I discovered an “away message” on AIM that included a mild expletive. We grounded her from the computer for a month!

In the good old days, I could also monitor what my kids were listening to music-wise. They were only allowed to download radio versions of songs that removed all the bad language. And although they did have iPods and could ostensibly get around that rule, they largely listened to their music in ways that I could hear.

I don’t envy younger parents. A tech-saturated world is only going to get more advanced. Soon parents will be grappling with teens having virtually reality sex and killing off their enemies in not-so-innocent VR games. I guess I should be happy for the relative innocence of Tik Tok.

Still, I think the clock needs to run out on Tik Tok. I still have to get my daughter through her senior year!

Wait for It

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Ever since the arrival of paid subscription television, the Big Three networks ABC, NBC, and CBS have been looked upon with a certain amount of disdain. Network shows are seen as largely predictable, saccharine, and not particularly worthy of critical acclaim. For a few dollars a month, viewers can watch quality TV without the interruption of annoying commercials. Further, streaming services such as Netflix have allowed the New Millennium phenomenon of binge-watching an entire season of a television series in one sitting.

I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy some of the critically acclaimed fare on these subscription networks: The Sopranos, Homeland, and Stranger Things, to name a few. Yet I am still a fan of so-called network TV. And I was heartened to find that I am not alone. Los Angeles Times writer Robert Lloyd penned a defense of network TV that appeared in my Chicago Tribune today. He pointed out that while broadcast series have been largely snubbed in recent years at the Emmys, there is still much to be enjoyed about these stories that enter our home week after week. I must agree.

One criticism of broadcast television is that it is bland and not edgy. The main reason for this perception is that the FCC regulates the content of shows appearing on the Big Three networks. NBC’s The Good Place even uses this fact cleverly with the conceit that, in Heaven, all swearing is converted into innocuous language. (“Holy Mother-forking shirt balls!”) Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t need gallons of blood, gratuitous nudity, or strings of F-words to be entertained. What’s more, I can watch the more family-friendly fare you find on network TV with my kids.

Because network television has to appeal to a broad audience, TV snobs find it uncool to like 30-minute sitcoms, police procedurals, or family dramas. Yet some of the most clever comedies of recent times originated on broadcast TV. I defy anyone to find a funnier, hipper or more heart-warming comedy than The Big Bang Theory. And the comic timing of the actors on Modern Family is nothing short of genius. As Lloyd points out in his commentary, streaming services have been spending big bucks obtaining the rights to former network shows due to their widespread and enduring popularity. (“In defense of network TV,” Robert Lloyd, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 19, 2019)

Of course, there is nothing enjoyable about sitting through television commercials, and this was an initial appeal of paid-for TV: the lack thereof. But with the advent of the DVR, viewers can still avoid TV ads simply by fast forwarding them. Or we can use commercial breaks the way gramps and I did in the olden days. It’s the perfect time to use the bathroom or get a snack.

I have to give credit where credit is due. Competition from subscription TV programming forced the Big Three to up their game in terms of quality. Today there are some wonderfully nuanced and special shows on the networks. My favorite is the drama This Is Us. Although I’ve always found the series title atrocious, I am amazed each week at the depth and surprises to be experienced in following the lives of the fictional Pearson clan. Each episode leaves me dying for more.

And that comes to the final reason to love network television. There is something special about seeing a story unfold week after week, to be given small doses of an ongoing saga as opposed to watching episode after episode and, as Lloyd puts it, “feeling way too full and maybe a little dirty.”

Broadcast television will give you a steady diet of laughter, inspiration, and suspense – if you’re willing to wait for it.