Analysis

Mother Knows Best: The Identity of Evil in “Bates Motel” vs. “Psycho”

bates_motel_101Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

What ruins Norman Bates?

It’s the question on everyone’s mind as they tune in (in record numbers) to A&E’s drama series “Bates Motel,” the “before” to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. As we approach the series finale (airing Monday), are we any closer to identifying the source of Norman’s otherness—or at least a probable catalyst which makes Psycho a credible “after” for one of the most prominently disturbed characters in cinema history?

At what point does a slightly awkward, attractive, brainy do-gooder of a teenager become a sexually confused, murderous social deviant? The answer has yet to be found within “Bates Motel,” which is just beginning to find its legs as a drama as we come to the conclusion of its first ten-episode season.

If Psycho is Hitchcock horror at its finest, “Bates Motel” is a few Asian sex slaves ahead of being a watered-down Nancy Drew mystery, with the ending already set in stone nearly fifty years ago.

Psycho teaches us that evil has an inherent home within his mother, after all.

…that has to be it, right? We need someone to blame, and if Hitchcock’s extensive filmography has taught us anything, it’s to never trust a woman.

But, the assumption that Norma’s ways are cloying and possessive (damagingly so) has implicated her since the release of Psycho. “Bates Motel” hasn’t exactly shown us otherwise, and for good reason. It’s a classic argument made against the infamous maternal presence in Norman’s life, which is never anything more than a corpse and sloppy-drag incarnate in Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece, but a much more tangible presence in “Bates Motel,” as Norma Bates’ relationship with her son serves as the framework for the series instead of a thematic crutch. If “Bates Motel” were in clumsier hands, the ideology of the 1960 classic might have bled into the contemporary cloth. Norma isn’t worth exploring as a character; she is now and has always been the pre-established burden of femininity; the bane of Norman’s existence; the origin of blame and the source of Norman’s life and his demise. But it’s time we view such analysis as archaic, much like Alfred Hitchcock’s objectification of women in nearly every film he ever made. It’s time to move past old assumptions because, frankly, “Bates Motel” is in some ways the worst potential multi-season narrative ever conceived. With a conclusion that’s become common knowledge far outside just the film community, how does a series earn its legs as a prelude for an already-exposed ending? The answer lies in its treatment of gender and its disregard for Hitchcock’s ideologies.

“Bates Motel” doesn’t incriminate Norma as a woman, but rather as someone on, in the simplest terms, an intense power trip. Having the series set amidst a modern backdrop (complete with iPhones and high school raves) alleviates the foreboding presence of old-timey perspectives on the issues of transvestitism, motherhood, and gender identity which made Psycho at once a blessing and a curse for the queer identity in cinema and society. The time is here and the time is now; dressing Norman up in women’s clothing simply wouldn’t have the same immediately-othering effect as it did in the 60s.

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The strength of “Bates Motel” lies in its insistence on not equating anything, from convoluted morals to pure murderous evil, with gender. Whereas Hitchcock’s Psycho epilogue seeks to explain, bit by bit, Norman’s psychological and gender-based transformation from a man’s mentality to a woman’s, “Bates Motel” instead sifts through the psychobabble bullshit and delivers a pure representation of actions without generalized implications.

The series begins as Norma (Vera Farmiga) and Norman (Freddie Highmore) move to the fictional town of White Pine Bay, Oregon (a town with a local economy supported by Marijuana distribution and patrolled by corrupt police officers staking a cut), to start afresh after the demise of the family patriarch. Norma is a woman, but she’s also in a position of power, enough power and conviction to move her son across the country to build a placid state of blissful isolation from the past. Here, “mother” is not inherently synonymous with “possessive,” but Norma’s relationship with Norman is, at least we’re to believe, almost solely responsible for his social ostracizing in White Pine Bay. When Norma is in trouble (which happens shortly after the move), Norman’s life is put on hold. He needs to “be there” for her, as he often explains, which often gets in the way of his social land sexual progress. Norma is raped in the first episode of the season, and Norman aides in the fending off (and eventual death and disposal of) the attacker. Norma hides the evidence, and Norman assists. Norma is found out, and Norman puts his life on hold to assure her freedom. Whatever the circumstance, Norman is implicated alongside Norma by pure choice. It isn’t until the midway point that we come to understand that Norman’s clingy behavior is predisposed. He has a mental deficiency, one which makes him hallucinate, to see things that aren’t there. Often, it’s images of his mother telling him what to do. We’ve come to observe in waking life that Norma is far more subtle in her controlling ways. She likes to imply, to suggest, and to coax, but never command Norman to do her bidding. Their bond is assumed, and Norman has simply grown to subconsciously accept it as normal, even in the face of strong opposition to the relationship from his brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot), and English teacher, Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy). Norman is constantly overshadowed by people far more influential than he. Acting on the advice and whim of others is Norman’s specialty.

There’s only one explanation (or exposition, one might argue) for this that’s been given thus far. After guiding our suspicions onto Norma for the death of her husband, it is revealed midway through the season that it is Norman, in a fit of all-encompassing psychotic rage after his father harms Norma, who commits murder. This had apparently been going on for quite some time as Dylan, who left the family a few months prior to escape Norma’s manipulative ways, consistently reminds her of the turbulent marriage and its damaging effect on her sons. While Norman is directly responsible for his father’s death, he only did so because of Norma’s involvement. It is a subconscious trigger which fondles Norman’s psychotic nerve to protect his mother, manifesting itself in other ways in his conscious state, particularly within his skepticism regarding her relationship with Officer Shelby (Mike Vogel). The bond is psychological, physical only to the extent of Norma’s keen insistence that her son’s proximity remain consistently close. The bond is not gendered, but rather familial. Would these implications against Norma be any different if the roles were reversed? If Norma had been the physically abusive spouse instead of her husband? Understanding the bond and its balance between mental and physical (and Norman’s inability to accept casual affections from anyone else including Bradley, his crush and first sexual partner) is key to understanding the effects of possession itself versus lumping everything into the category of maternal smothering.

Although Norma is obsessively possessive of Norman, her power as a character is derived from her strong-headed will and conviction to her actions, not solely based on active sexual power or pull on Norman’s sexuality or any other man’s. We’ve been given enough information at this point to know that she’s more than capable of getting herself out of complex situations where coupling is only a loose connection versus a binding commitment. Shelby is a sexual deviant (he traffics sex slaves in and out of his house) Norma sees fit to use for her benefit only after he initiates an attraction. Norma falls into the right line of attraction at the right time. She doesn’t proposition him and serve her vagina with a side of deception, rather it is Shelby who pursues a relationship while Norma falls for him outside the net of intent she’d originally cast by complying with his advances; she grows more invested than simply indulging his desire for her own gain (and the opportunity he presents, on the opposite side of the law but willing to do things like steal incriminating evidence from the storage room to ensure it won’t be used against her), so her power over him transcends both of their sexual desires into something emotionally-based. He wants to protect her, and she is more than willing to accept the help without lording sex over his head; she doesn’t have to. “I love you, you idiot,” he tells her in Episode 4, and she smiles; they kiss as Shelby pushes Norma against her car amidst a backdrop of the misty bay. It’s almost sickeningly reminiscent of a romantic melodrama of the 1950s, indicating that Norma is able to have “real” relationships outside of the one she has with Norman. While sex might be a component, it’s not the definition. And Norma’s frustrations about her son’s budding sexuality seem to stem more from her knowledge of how she experiences sex as a would-be tool for manipulation rather than an all-out attempt to smother him. Again, this is not inherently a “gendered” issue, working against Hitchcock’s insistence on adorning Norman in women’s clothing and a wig as an immediate sign of othering.

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Norma’s ability to have an onscreen sexual relationship with a man who isn’t Norman’s father only strengthens “Bates Motel” as a challenger of Psycho-era ideals of female sexuality. In 1960 her son is a social deviant, a feminized male demonized not only for his murderous ways but also because he kills under the guise of being a woman—of believing he is a woman, of actively making himself a woman. His mother, dead throughout the entirety of the film, lives on only in Norman’s mind. He becomes his mother, or whatever memory of her Norman keeps alive within his own psyche, an unimaginably taboo subject for an audience not nearly as socially evolved (or accepting) as the one watching “Bates Motel” today. With or without being a killer, Norman is othered purely by gendered deviance. The “normal” side of him is calculating and precise; he is fully aware that there is a hole in the parlor wall into the adjacent hotel room. He actively peeps through it, wanting to see a young woman undress, which ultimately triggers the maternal murders. The clothes don’t materialize on his body. It is Norman who puts the dress and wig on, who grabs the knife from its resting state, and plunges it into Marion Crane’s body. It’s a female-driven, female-executed act of male sexuality (even the word penetration resonates masculinity). In “Bates Motel,” we’re still exploring a Norman who is unquestionably uncomfortable with the murderous dreams he has of Bradley (Nicola Peltz), after she reveals that their one-night stand was in fact just a one-night stand. Norman still passively receives the thoughts from his subconscious.

Present-day Norman is not mentally unstable because his mother is a woman with similar mental complexes; it is authority, rather, and the convolution of authority above Norman, which contributes to his state of being. Norman’s father, as we glimpsed a few episodes back, is abusive; lazy; violent. His mother, pushed into a corner far too many times, retaliates. She wins. But she wins through Norman, as her victimization triggers Norman’s patricide. It is Norman rebelling against the male side he’s yet to fully explore (his budding sexual escapades with Bradley, confused emotional attachment to Emma, his acceptance of Dylan as a pseudo father figure, etc., each indicate that Norman is not yet a “man,” but very much still an inexperienced boy on the verge of technical adulthood). Gender plays a role in Norman’s transformation, but it is far from the defining factor of his psychological evils. Similarly, Norma’s relationship with Shelby is not deviant because it is sexual, but rather pathetic in its teetering between legitimacy and fraudulence. Norma enjoys the romantics, but the burden of murderous guilt (and the benefits screwing a crooked cop with ways to decriminalize her public name) prompts her to keep the relationship from gaining as much momentum as Shelby would like. Shelby desires a nuclear family. He wants to claim both Norma and Norman as his own. The problem is he already asserts himself as a dominant sexual force as a sex-slave trafficker. He owns “vagina,” but not “sexuality,” and Norma is far too concerned with preserving an ideal state of illusion to toy with a man predisposed with old-fashioned perspectives on female sexual and domestic possession.

I’ve heard many fans of “Bates Motel,” new to the world of Psycho or longtime Hitchcock savants criticize Norma’s newly personified presence in this TV series. “Sure, blame it all on the woman,” I remember reading on Twitter after the premiere episode, the budding feminist anger building to a slow boil as the show continues. If the viewer is angry that Norma is a convoluted person, or angered by the fact that she’s a woman, or interprets that anger as the show being anti-woman, that’s simply the viewer’s responsibility and lazy projection. Norma is not evil because she’s a woman. At no point does “Bates Motel” offer us any indication that women are inherently deceptive and smothering with the intent to turn their sons into serial killers; Norma’s gender is treated as happenstance, as an afterthought; she is simply Norma. Do we need someone to blame? Is Psycho going to be any less impactful if “Bates Motel” offers an alternative framework to the one we’ve believed for fifty years? More importantly, is it inherently evil of us to assume that a male’s source of deviant corruption can only come from his mother? She’s a mother with questionable parenting skills, but skills which can’t be seen as the sole ingredient in the murderous monster mix of an adult Norman Bates—that is, perhaps, until season 2.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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A Feminist Revolution (If Only for Hannah): “Girls” Season 2, Episode 5

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You’d think after two seasons of getting it wrong, Hannah Horvath would at least have a slight grasp on how to put one foot in front of the other. Instead, Girls creator/writer/director super-hybrid Lena Dunham continues to put the character in situations which yield little crop for Hannah’s ambitious quest to acclimate into the “real” world.

The only problem is that Hannah’s interpretation of the real world is often clouded by her insistence on seeing it like a child, a self-made roadblock to the fullest extent. She knows what she wants to do; become a writer, and we assume she’s a great one (although we’ve only been treated to glimpses of her work), otherwise we wouldn’t have a running goal to frame an entire television series around. But, making “it” happen takes time, a diligent work ethic, and money, each of which–living in the fast-paced, expensive New York City–Hannah just doesn’t have.

Sunday’s episode of Girls registers as one of the most polarizing of the entire series. Social media was aflutter, as was my phone’s inbox, with people either complaining about the episode’s drastic shift in tone from the rest of the series, or praising it as one of the most uniquely impressive entries into the show’s already-impressive repertoire.

I fall into the latter category, but let me explain myself.

Season 2’s fifth episode sees Hannah developing a whirlwind attraction for a 42-year old who lives just down the block from the coffee shop where she works. Josh[ua, as he keeps reminding Hannah when she shortens it], played by Patrick Wilson, is upset because someone from the coffee shop is placing their trash into his cans. Hannah invites herself into his home after leaving work, shares in a glass of lemonade tinged with basic conversation topics, and, you know, has sex with him.

The midday affair turns into a two-day sexfest, with Hannah and Joshua both calling off work the next day to stay home and cuddle, eat steaks from the grill, muse about his aging, and have sex after playing a few dozen sets of naked ping pong (the game table facilitates the fun stuff, of course).

The tone of the episode mirrors its content. The framing is stationary, almost static at times, and highly claustrophobic. We are treated to countless shots of Hannah and Joshua fit tightly into compositions which read more like 18th century portraits versus moving images from a 2013 television series. At once this functions as a means to isolate Hannah from the outside world, seeing as she’s indulging in a sex fantasy come to life. But, on the other hand, we can also read these shots as Dunham’s insistence on attempting to push Hannah into a frame of normality, which simply doesn’t work—and for good reason.

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Hannah learns that Joshua is a doctor (hence the fabulous house, standard-sized in any other part of the country, but a small-scale castle when placed into the arena of New York City housing prices), recently separated (but not divorced) from his wife, who now lives in San Diego. “What did you do? I mean, to make her leave?” Hannah asks him, with all the terrible experience of her former loves building to a head in that very moment.

In essence, Joshua represents the ideal life for someone like Hannah, who has unrealistically dropped into her lap like a Godsend from straight girl heaven. He’s attractive, tall, sensitive, loaded, and the fact that he’s “separated” and not “divorced” adds a little bit of scandal (if harmless) to the whole affair, something we’re to believe a girl in Hannah’s position (penniless, struggling liberal arts major, twenty-something with big ambitions and no means for which to accomplish them) would jump at. He could provide her with stability, money, and good sex—things she isn’t used to (or at least things she’s only been used to in parts, but never all together at the same time). The cinematography in this episode shifts from merely isolating Hannah from the rest of the world in a bubble of sexual satisfaction to attempting to shove her into sort of picture-perfect, portrait-style framing of a typical life she could have so very easily if she were to be with a man who supports her. The problem is that Joshua is distracting Hannah from living. Having no money and trying to make it on your own in one of the most expensive, dream-crushing cities in the world is a task which takes an independent to succeed, and an even greater one to fail. Hannah realizes this when she’s revealing some of her deepest thoughts to him after sex, and the spark that was once in Joshua’s eyes dims mid-conversation. He’s not interested in feelings or philosophy. He doesn’t understand Hannah’s mind, he merely understands her body as a placeholder for the emptiness he feels having lost the “stable” part of his adult life. Hannah might be 24, but she’s by no means an adult; her experiences are yet to be had. “I just want to feel everything,” Hannah tells him, not realizing that at 42 he’s felt close to the “everything” she speaks of.

We’ve already seen Jessa get herself into this situation, and both times now we’ve seen that the “ideal” life for a New York woman is not, as it would seem, that of a rich housewife sitting at home using her husband’s money to hone her craft. It’s artificial.

After indulging in a few last-minute housewife experiences, however, after Joshua goes to work (browsing his huge closet, reading The New York Times at an outdoor breakfast nook while eating the finest organic jams his pantry has to offer), Hannah leaves the house, taking out the trash (her “growing up,” so to speak) and fitting it into a garbage can once plagued with trash from the coffee shop. She leaves the “sex vacation” behind and makes her way to the street. In a single shot (which breaks the stagnant framing of the interior) the camera becomes mobile and pans over, watching Hannah her make her way out of the static confines of immature passions (and constrictive framing) to the bustling road at the end of the stagnant avenue she’s on, towards a life where she’ll have to work for her stability. She leaves a life of ease and makes her way towards one where she has to work for herself in order to “feel everything,” not let some man from a dream world she doesn’t have the right to inhabit yet give it all to her based on a whirlwind bout of sexual passion.

The episode does something we’ve rarely seen in Girls before, a true turning point for Hannah as a character. We’re used to seeing her make a fool of herself. At 24, she makes a sincere proposal to her parents to support her writing at $2,000 a month until her book is finished. She does cocaine because a shitty blog editor tells her it will be a “good experience to write about.” Hannah has no filter between what’s conductive to her career and what’s simply an immature decision made out of desperation and destitution. Hannah generally fails to see herself for what she is. She knows she’s broke, but we get the sense that she sees that as more of a beautiful “struggling artist-chic” sort of thing than a “I have a shit job and can’t pay my rent” kind of thing. In this episode, Hannah confronts the side of her that makes her pathetic and, hopefully, had her sights on getting it together as she made her way out of Joshua’s house and down that long road back to the coffee shop. She realizes that staying with Joshua would only be indulging the child in her that relishes in the fantasy of not having to work, being with a rich man, and having it easy on Park Avenue for the rest of her life.

For once Hannah grows up, and Lena Dunham’s genius writing couldn’t have made the process any more satisfying–for us, at least.

Sexual Colonialism; Feminine Assimilation in “I Spit On Your Grave”

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Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978)presents a narrative in which a single female is raped by a gang of males. Released in the same decade which produced a female character, Ripley, revolutionarily prevailing as the strongest person aboard a spacecraft during a monstrous attack in Alien, I Spit On Your Grave similarly gives a female character enough agency to seek deadly vengeance for an attack against her. However, although Jennifer ultimately kills the men who rape her, I Spit On Your Grave presents her feminine sexuality as an easily manipulated entity, allowing the male sexual mentality to reinvent traditional sexual practices on its own terms. As a result of that that process coupled with the fact that the film remains, as Carol Clover states, “aftermathless,” Jennifer ultimately objectifies herself and assimilates into the male mentality through her acts of vengeance, reconstituting her feminine societal position as a result of male-driven sexual domination.

The film stages the clash of male and female sexuality in its presentation of a diegetic space where its characters are presented as polar opposite, unable to coexist in the same setting due to their societal origins. The dichotomy is fleshed out via a key binary opposition pitting country and urban life against each other. Jennifer comes from the city whereas the rapists inhabit a rural locale. The film establishes the opposition during the beginning sequence of the film which sees Jennifer leaving her life in the city for the summer, hoping to clear her mind during a trip to a rural town. Jennifer’s city life is starkly contrasted with that of the rural town primarily through the usage of sound and imagery. The city is characterized by car horns, tall buildings, and other aural and visual signifiers of human life. On the other hand, the town is a quiet place devoid of the hustle and bustle of the city, whose sounds are noticeably absent as Jennifer transitions from one setting to the other. Natural sounds such as birds chirping and wind blowing through the trees serve to isolate the noise Jennifer’s car makes, contrasting its mechanical drone with the foreboding silence of the country.

Jennifer is introduced as a well-off urban resident with a job as a writer. Upon meeting Johnny for the first time at a gas station in town, Jennifer explains that she hopes the quiet, serene atmosphere of the country will facilitate a train of thought for which to write a new story She idealizes and objectifies the country life, assuming that it is a much simpler place than the city she inhabits, therefore hoping to channel that simplicity into clearing her mind of stress and city-induced pressures. Because Jennifer compartmentalizes settings such as the “city” and “country” as signifiers of entirely different ways of life (placing them on two separate planes of complication; the city is sophisticated, the country is simple), she essentially “others” or exoticizes the rural town, hoping to pillage (or rape, in a sense) its resources (the “simple” train of thought it will provide her) for her own financial gain (in the form of her story, which she will assumedly profit from).

The film emphasizes Jennifer’s exoticizing of the rural setting through the aforementioned scene where she meets Johnny at the gas station. Jennifer exits her car and asks Johnny to fill her tank up. She makes conversation with him, telling him that she’s enjoying the act of stretching her legs (which we later learn Johnny assumes is an act of Jennifer “asking for” his sexual attention). The long shot is broken by a shot-reverse shot “conversation” of sorts between Jennifer and two other men (Stanley and Andy) who take turns throwing a knife into the ground for their own entertainment. The editing in this scene allows us to see Jennifer’s reaction to the men’s activity, viewing it with an almost condescending smile. Jennifer observes this act as an outsider observing a foreign practice seeing as throwing a knife into the ground is a useless act when placed in the context of city life. The scene also intersperses shots of Johnny observing Jennifer observing the knife throwing, looking her up and down in a sexualized manner. Jennifer “others” the rural town’s residents by exoticizing their location and behavior, while they “other” Jennifer by objectifying her as a sexualized object. The setting itself also functions to “other” Jennifer in a scene which sees her enjoying the liberation a secluded place like her summer cabin offers her. Jennifer removes her clothing and enters the river beside the cabin, the camera zooming out further and further until it seems to hide behind the foliage on the banks opposite Jennifer. In a sense, the audience’s perspective as voyeur (which undermines Jennifer’s assumptions about seclusion providing her with peace, foreshadowing the “intrusion” of the four men who rape her) is emphasized while at the same time the setting itself “others” Jennifer’s presence by dwarfing her scope in relation to the woods as the shot zooms out.

In terms of male sexuality, that which pervades the male group in the film is presented as highly colonialist in terms of its function. As Johnny, Matthew, Stanley, and Andy discuss sexuality while they fish (prior to the rape of Jennifer) they speak of it as a tool to conquer or spread their dominant ideals. Johnny insists that the group tries to “find [Matthew] a broad,” in essence legitimizing Matthew as a man by conquering a female and making her his possession. Andy then muses on “chicks” from Los Angeles, saying that the city is “swarming with chicks looking to get laid.” Stanley echoes the sentiment, saying that “chicks come from all over the country,” and their only desire is to “get laid.” The men view feminine sexuality as something which needs conquering, and they are entitled to provide that sexual “completion” for these females because they are endowed with a penis, the tool which will “lay” the women who apparently so desperately desire it. This sets the stage for Jennifer’s rape, which functions as an act of not only sexual gratification for the men, but also as a means for them to fulfill their role as sexual colonist in the world as they see it (a world which, unlike the city where Jennifer comes from, is one where women have no individual power for which to hinder the seed of the males from spreading).

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The film emphasizes male sexual dominance intruding upon Jennifer’s feminine space in two key scenes. First, Jennifer finds a handgun in a chest of drawers when she first moves into the cabin. The camera switches between a shot of the gun and Jennifer’s face, emphasizing her weary reaction to its presence. Guns generally represent male aggression and power, and in this case Jennifer is uneasy about the gun’s intrusion upon her feminine space she hopes will facilitate her writing, but decides to leave it in the drawer (foreshadowing her transformation from feminized victim to masculine aggressor). Another notable scene which emphasizes the male intrusion upon Jennifer’s feminine space occurs shortly before the rape. Jennifer is writing her story as she sits on a hammock overlooking the river. An interior monologue is audible in which Jennifer recites what she is writing. She writes in a romantic style as birds chirp lightheartedly overhead, using flowery phrases such as “the fabric of her life,” describing “the big city, her job, her friends,” and the things which “other” her from the country setting and the male rapists. Her monologue (and romantic state of mind) becomes muffled as the sounds of a motorboat carrying Andy and Stanley approaches, drowning out her thoughts and rendering her momentarily unable to write as male presence disrupts her.

Jennifer’s rape indicates the full penetration of both Jennifer’s feminine, urban world and her sexual barriers at the hands of a dominant male group from the country. The male group presents her as the conquered object to Matthew, with Johnny telling him to “come on, we got her for you,” as they hold Jennifer down. Johnny’s words indicate the assumed (on the part of the males) roles for males and females in the world. Johnny views Jennifer as an object which must be captured, conquered, and codified as someone’s possession. As one in the group sexually assaults her, Jennifer is held down by the others. This indicates that while Jennifer is a victim, she is not placed on an equal plane. The act of male-on-female rape occurs at the hands of a group who rely on each other for moral support (they shout words of encouragement to whoever is currently raping Jennifer) as well as physical support (they hold Jennifer down). Matthew’s desire to rape Jennifer is also depicted as reliant upon the approval of his peers in order to produce any sort of actual pleasure for him. He only rapes her because the other males encourage him to and make fun of him when he says he doesn’t want to. Matthew finally succumbs to their desires, pleasuring the other males in the group with his compliance versus raping Jennifer for his own sexual satisfaction. This defines male sexuality as a colonialist exploit, pillaging Jennifer’s body as if it were a piece of land (or a piece of meat) for their own conquest. The power the male group has over Jennifer becomes apparent through various reconstitutions of “traditional” sexual ideals their exploit produces. The men rape Jennifer, they do not “have sex” with her. The act is forced, not consensual. Andy sodomizes Jennifer instead of entering her vagina. The act takes place outdoors instead of in a bedroom between multiple partners instead of involving one male and one female. The male sexual mentality is presented here as having enough power over feminine sexuality to reinvent the practice of sexuality itself.  Each of the aforementioned factors (primarily the act of sodomy engaged in instead of vaginal penetration) functions to indicate the male group’s interdependence of its individual members, fitting into how Robin Wood describes sexuality as “a mere by-product that one can choose or not… [there is] no logical reason remains why sexuality should be restricted to heterosexuality”.

The proceeding transition from Jennifer’s passive state to her aggressive state begins with key visual parallels which signify the shift. After she is raped, Jennifer is shown cleansing her body in the shower. She washes away the red blood which covers her body, indicating that she is shedding her “city” self (she was introduced to the audience wearing a bright red dress). A graphic match connects a scene where Jennifer drives to a church to seek forgiveness for her act of vengeance to the scene where she leaves the city to come to the country. Jennifer is positioned on screen left, aligned in profile view to the camera. Where the skyline of New York City was in the initial scene towards the beginning of the film is now replaced with a graveyard. As Jennifer enters the church, she is wearing dark pants (another contrast to her feminized city attire), indicating her shift from feminized victim to masculinized aggressor.

Although Jennifer succeeds in killing each of the men who assaulted her, she is not presented as a dominant female. In her act of revenge, rather, she is further implicated as a weak character. Because Jennifer kills the men because they raped her, the film presents feminine power only coming after a male has sexually violated her body. Before the rape, she is barely strong enough to stand up straight in her rowboat as she is dragged out of it let alone put up a decent fight. The men’s reconstitution of traditional sexual practices goes against what Jennifer would seemingly consider “normal” circumstances under which to have sex (judging from her romantic writings, etc.). The act of rape “awakens” Jennifer’s masculinized side, causing her to then accept the male presence in her life, retrieve the gun she felt weary of before, and attempt to use it to subdue the rapists.

Jennifer is also only able to kill the men after she sexually seduces them. She offers Matthew a “summer [he] won’t forget,” to which he responds with sexual arousal as Jennifer welcomes him on top of her. He is far too invested in completing the sexual act to notice Jennifer slip the noose which will kill him around his neck. Similarly, Jennifer lures Johnny back to her home (after feigning romantic feelings for him just before shooting him in the woods) and castrates him with one hand while pleasuring him with the other. In both cases, Jennifer must first play into the role of the feminized sexual object before she can act as the masculinized aggressor exacting revenge. In essence, Jennifer does nothing to advance the female position in the film. She yields to male sexual desire in order to get what she wants, becoming the sexual object, overpowering male sexuality by playing into their expectations of women who only desire to get “laid” which, while still technically yielding the result Jennifer wants (their deaths), relegates her to an inferior role once again.

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Jennifer succeeds in killing all four men, but the fact that the film remains “aftermathless” only further implicates her as a weak character . Carol Clover’s emphasis on the film’s lack of an aftermath forces her readers to consider the film’s absence of a concrete solution to the film’s occurrences. Jennifer, a member of “city” society who relies heavily on her roots as an urban resident, is not given any sort of legal outlet for which to prevail. She simply kills the men in secrecy. It is unknown whether or not Jennifer truly “gets away” with killing the men, so the true “aftermath” of the film remains unknown. What is clear, however, is the fact that the last impression the audience has of Jennifer is that of a murderer. She has only triumphed in getting “even” with the men as she sees fit, not as the strict laws which govern her urban society would dictate. The film ends with Jennifer as a byproduct of dominant male aggression. She is a changed woman who bares not only the physical scars of her rape but also the mental ones which resulted from both it and the murders she committed, allowing (even in their deaths) the dominant male mentality which victimized her to reconstitute her life yet again.

I Spit On Your Grave focuses its audience’s attention on the dichotomies between urban and rural life and the male and female sexual mentality. Despite her shift from feminized victim to masculinized aggressor, I Spit On Your Grave ultimately concludes with its protagonist as a weak person whom has completely (consciously or subconsciously) submits to male power. Through its depiction of the binaries between urban and rural, victim and aggressor, and male and female, the film uses Jennifer as a tool for which to show the undying power of male sexual domination through to its conclusion, which sees her as a byproduct of their sexual crimes despite her position as a financially empowered woman of the city at the beginning of the film. While she uses her status as a victim to fuel her revenge plot, it is still the male’s actions which fuel hers, forcing her to submit once again to their ideals of women as sexual objects without any sort of justice-based narrative conclusion to affirm that what she’s done is “right.”

The Road to Oscar; the Relevance of Originality in the Race

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There’s no denying the social and cultural force that the film industry has grown into for the American people. Ushering in new ideas, fantasies, and stories for a willing audience to indulge in, letting us live out the dreams that play over in our heads night after night, the film industry is a longstanding conduit between our reality and the “reality” we so desperately seek to inhabit in times of need. Movies are our escape, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences champions the very best of such devices year after year.

If we look back at past winners of the Oscar ceremony’s top honor, the significance of each year’s respective Best Picture to American culture is glaring. 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, a ravishing, colorful emotional epic of renewed perspective and undying hope for a better future paralleled the historic Presidential Election which saw Barack Obama give “power” in America a new face. A year later, The Hurt Locker not only attempted to delve deeper into Middle Eastern conflicts that took up a huge portion of topical discussion during the 2008 Presidential Election, but also catapulted a female director to the forefront of Oscar recognition. At a time when issues of women’s/gay/”minority”/civil rights in general were gaining momentum in the political arena, the Academy again asserted film’s social “relevance” as a sign of the times as Kathryn Bigelow (whether fully deserving or not) became the first woman to notch a win in the Best Director category.

The social climate of the nation has changed drastically throughout much of recent memory. The first four years of Obama’s Presidency haven’t gone over well with the American public. His election to a second Presidential term over Mitt Romney this past November proved the nation is divided almost evenly. The economic downturn (whether attributed directly to George W. Bush or diffused onto the shoulders of Oabama) has seen record numbers of unemployment, working families living in homeless shelters, and the disappearance of the middle class becoming a very tangible reality for average American households that form the bulk of the film industry’s consumer base. Thus, 2011’s Best Picture, The Artist, took us back to times of grandeur and prosperity; the silent era of Hollywood’s roaring heyday, when film stars were poster children for the prosperity of a nation versus a distant metaphor for the unattainable life so many Americans have given up dreaming about.

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Anne Hathaway, likely Best Supporting Actress winner in Best Picture contender “Les Miserables”

The road leading to the 2012 Presidential Election drove a wedge between Americans not unlike the Union/Confederacy split depicted in this year’s Lincoln, which chronicles a time in U.S. history bearing resemblance to the social climate we endure today. Slavery, violent opposition to the man we call President, and an increasing hostility between opposing views of social, civil, and economic ideologies make Lincoln a timely piece of perspective for contemporary unrest. It’s no surprise, then, that the filmis an early frontrunner to take the Best Picture prize in February. Les Miserables, another heavyweight contender, bears parabolic similarities to the Occupy movement, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo bringing up the rear with musings on the ever-sizzling conflict in the Middle East and the boiling pot of uncertainty that no politician, country, or war could put a lid on over the past decade.

The bleakness doesn’t wear off until we examine the latter half of 2012’s Best Picture contenders; i.e., the Silver Linings Playbooks and Beasts of the Southern Wild—multiple pictures that are still “in the race” but don’t stand a chance at taking home the Oscar come February 24th. Silver Linings Playbook and Beasts of the Southern Wild tap into an almost fantastical notion of optimism amidst tragedy, the former chronicling post-personal-meltdown recovery and the latter compartmentalizing pure, individual struggle of residents trapped within with a weather-ravaged, poverty-stricken, fantastical Katrina-esque village fighting oppression from a class of bourgeois oppressors. While Silver Linings and Beasts are adapted from other works, they capture the spirit of perseverance post-trauma. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence overcome adversity and create a unique emotional environment as “minorities,”  whereas little Quvenzhane Wallis, portraying a six-year old girl in Beasts, captures the “rebirth” of youth, her character forced to grow up (yet retain the undying spirit of optimism) in a world with no time for innocence or purity.

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Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones in the Oscar-worthy “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” that will most likely go unnoticed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

The thematic nature of Beasts makes me question why the Academy (and its precursor award brethren) hasn’t embraced a more fantastical branch of filmmaking 2012 was rife with. Films like Beasts, Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, and Holy Motors use their whimsical nature to make powerful statements on the persevering spirit of humanity in times of dire opposition. Grounded more in “reality” but still spiritually ambitious, films like Celeste and Jesse Forever, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Master, The Hunger Games, and The Grey delve deep into territory which sees humans overcoming obstacles far beyond their control. Celeste and Jesse Forever, being the most “human” of the bunch, sees a woman’s journey to spiritual homeostasis come after learning to cope with the absence of a lover while keeping him close as a “friend” in her life. It’s a task that seemingly pales in comparison to overcoming the psychological control of a cult (The Master), fighting back against an oppressive government (The Hunger Games) or finding true love amidst the end of the world (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), but one that shows the evolution of the human spirit endures even in the simplest of vignettes involving a boy, a girl, and the universal thread of love.

Another interesting contender (only for technical categories at this point, it seems, although Emily Blunt still has slight buzz for her supporting performance) is the sci-fi actioner Looper, about do-overs, internal strife, self-hatred, and the often intangible idea of fresh beginnings. The sentiment could be applied to anyone at any given time, but Looper’s insistence on ridding our reality of darkness and preserving it for fresh perspectives of change are, perhaps, the most “relevant” to the culture of 2012 America as we head into a second term with President Obama.

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Jessica Chastain, only slightly behind Best Actress frontrunner Jennifer Lawrence, struggles between her duty as an American and her impulses as a human in Best Picture contender “Zero Dark Thirty.”

The lack of “originality” in what’s vying for the Oscar for Best Picture this year frightens me a little. Out of the ten films Awards Daily (one of the most accurate prediction sites on the web) acknowledges are in the running for Best Picture (Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Flight, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom), only two are not “based” on some other form of media/socio-cultural figure or event (Moonrise Kingdom and The Master). With the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle naming Zero Dark Thirty their Best Film of 2012, and other precursors pointing to either Argo, Lincoln, or Les Miserables, The Master and Moonrise Kingdom find themselves somewhere near the bottom of the pack (if they pick up a nomination at all). Small buzz for Michael Haneke’s Amour, about aging, death, and the degenerative mental capacity that comes with them, has been building since its screening at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. While likely to win Best Foreign Language film but almost assuredly out of the Best Picture race, perhaps it taps into the most terrifying element of humanity, which is not oppressive governments or masked supervillains blowing up football stadiums; it’s the potential for human fracture, the potential for degeneration, the potential to “forget” the very things that make us who we are and, in turn, losing the ability to preserve the “feelings” of our times within original fiction that seems to be slipping by the Academy’s scope of interest in a time where “escape” is needed the most.

Leos Carax brings “Holy Motors” to Pittsburgh

Kylie Minogue and Denis Lavant in Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors.”

The Three Rivers Film Festival continued this week with a screening of Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors,” an eternally perplexing film whose presence at this year’s festival is a testament to Pittsburgh’s standing as an up-and-coming hub for the arts.

The print was introduced as one of the only copies in the country, with a 35mm print having not reached U.S. shores as of Wednesday’s screening at the Harris Theater, downtown.

In line with previous screenings at the festival, however, the night didn’t go without its share of technical hijinks. Halfway through the film, buffering issues plagued Carax’s gorgeous film, forcing flustered employees to nervously inform a jeering audience that they may not be able to see the conclusion to “Motors.” Telling an auditorium full of pretentious film buffs they can’t see the end of a film like this is like telling a mother she can’t keep the precious results of the last twelve hours she spent in labor. Some were calm, some were up in arms. But, alas, the wonderful staff at the Harris Theater made sure those who chose to stay for the thirty or so minutes it took to fix the print went home happy.

The film itself eludes description—or “fair” criticism for just that matter. It is a film perfect in its artistic execution, catharsis in its purest form. It feels unfiltered, unburdened by a studio’s overarching creative control, but not lacking a thematic direction. It tells the story of a man, “Mr. Oscar,” given the task of completing various fantastical “appointments” throughout Paris which include masking his own identity to become someone—or something—else within various staged vignettes. Each of the scenarios sees Mr. Oscar applying makeup, full body suits, wigs, weapons, even “dying” a few times, all for the sake of crafting pure spectacle for an audience—not any specific one, simply the “idea” of “the audience” that lies at the core of any performance, filmic or non. “Holy Motors” is laden with elements Film Studies classrooms spend entire semesters reviewing; intertextuality, self-reflexivity, and conflicts between diegetic/non-diegetic aspects all come into play. “Holy Motors” is a film major’s wet dream, an act of defiance against contemporary cinema’s willingness to gloss over the dark (juicy) bits of reality that places the audiences in a position to respond versus passively “receive” at all times.

Edith Scob dons her “Eyes Without a Face” costuming in “Holy Motors”

It’s frustrating, confusing, intense, elaborate, something, nothing, and everything Leos Carax wants it to be all at once. Even in its most irritating portions of reluctance to let “the audience” in, “Holy Motors” is a film which can’t be faulted. After all, dreams can’t be wrong, can they? As a midnight excursion your brain may endure, the film is in a constant state of evolution, deconstruction, and re-imagination; destroying ideologies and scenarios pre-established only moments prior. There are countless references to films–classic and modern–that make “Holy Motors” a veritable treasure trove of cinematic and pop cultural history. Edith Scob reprises her role from “The Eyes Without a Face,” Kylie Minogue plays someone who is not Kylie Minogue in a film where Kylie Minogue music plays at a party, characters from other Carax films (“Tokyo!” in particular) make appearances as if they’ve never had a camera on them before. Scrapbooking for scrapbooking’s sake, I suppose. But not without purpose; this is a film which questions identity, performance, consciousness, and reality. Things taken for granted whilst commuting to work or seeing a concert, but pondered with precision and caution in dreams and cinema, the most pure forms of expression, which collide with dazzling results in “Holy Motors.”

When the print of the film lagged and skipped around thanks to the aforementioned buffering issues, one audience member (proud of himself for having such a brilliant thought) proclaimed (loud enough so the whole audience could hear) “I think the jump-cuts are intentional. This is brilliant.” While fancying himself a modern day Godard, he was shot down not only by the staff’s “fixing” of the “jump cuts,” but also by the one constant thematical message which runs throughout “Holy Motors”. The audience is a cog in a giant machine, victim (and, at times, willing participant) of the cinema’s ultimate power over any who relinquish their conscious state and hand it over to the all-powerful medium of film. He was wrong, but I’m sure Carax would appreciate his earnestness.

Andrea and the Boys; Analyzing One of the Most Hated Characters on Television

The natural order of life gives birth to the structural order of society; an infinitely dichotomous relationship forming between free-flowing chaos and streamlined rigidity. When flesh-eating zombies are thrown into the mix, however, the man-made confines of civilized society fall victim to the “natural” order of patriarchal dominance—if we’re using the ideological outlook of AMC’s The Walking Dead as a playbook for the end of the world, that is.

While it’s hard to know just how the societal cookie will crumble once humanity is faced with the actual apocalypse, The Walking Dead seems to think men have the upper hand in a broken down, flesh-eating fantasyland. The series sees a group of survivors (about equally comprised of men and women) fighting their way through metropolitan Atlanta in the midst of a zombie infestation (Epidemic? Outbreak? Have we deemed an appropriate term for this by now?), reverting largely to the hunter-gatherer state of living we all remember learning about during the Neanderthal unit in elementary school. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) leads the pack with an iron fist and a soft underbelly; He’s authoritative but level-headed, with his go-to “veep” Shane (Jon Bernthal) nipping at the heels of his newfound authority. Both men are former police officers, typical posterboys for a male-dominated field synonymous with control, power, and brute force.

The women of the group, most notably Rick’s wife Lori (Sarah Wayne-Callies) and middle-aged mother Carol (Melissa McBride) take on a much more passive role; cooking, mothering, and all-around homemaking in a world devoid of homes or families to fit within them.

One woman, however, doesn’t take kindly to her would-be role as submissive camp servant; Andrea (Laurie Holden) is the black sheep of the female survivors, rejecting any notion that she’s there to serve anyone but not entirely free from patriarchal constraint, either. It seems that, for these very reasons, the public’s relationship with the character has been tumultuous at best. She can’t even find solace in the confines of online message boards. Endless posts ragging on her “whiny” episodes, her unwillingness to “shut up,” and her inability to “stop being a bitch.” But, do these fears represent a genuine dislike of the character or a subconscious self-hatred for contributing to a society that’s made Andrea the conflicted, restless, emotionally unstable woman that she is?

When I say “emotionally unstable,” I hope not to conjure images of a hysterical numbnut. Andrea’s lost a sister, a protector, her “old” life and, as of Season 3, her newfound “family” (the group left her at the farm, assuming she was dead). Andrea never really “fit in” with the hierarchical scale of the survivors in the first place. The constant power struggle between Rick and Shane intensified in Season 2, leaving little room for female characters to “butt in” to the conversation. Lori, the “First Lady” of the group was, at best, Head Housewife of Season 2. Let’s face it—Lori embodied passivity and stereotypical womanliness that a single television character can. A doe fought for between two hot-heated bucks, Lori was the sexual and emotional “prize” in the feud between her husband and Shane. She was knocked up, had to be “saved” by her husband multiple times, and spent the majority of the season rounding up the other women to do chores and housework around Hershel’s farm.

Andrea, on the other hand, was busy getting over Dale’s decision to “save” her from her decision to end her life during the finale of Season 1. An independent “person” (gender has no room to talk, here), Andrea was able to decide for herself that she no longer wanted to passively endure the hand she’d been dealt. Her sister now a flesh-eating zombie, the rest of her biological family dead, and seeing no clear reason to continue, Andrea chose death. In essence, a much bolder decision than Dale’s to forcefully insert himself into another person’s problem until he gets what he wants. We see him do this again in Season 2 when the group ponders the fate of an “intruding” survivor they’re holding as prisoner in Hershel’s barn. Dale kicks, screams, and makes a fool of himself stomping around the farm like a five-year old until someone agrees with his wishes to keep the man alive versus the majority decision to kill the prisoner. Andrea is bitter for Dale’s “intervention,” and rightfully so.

Things don’t go much smoother when Dale bars Andrea from using her own gun out of fear she’ll use it to kill herself. Shane and Rick agree, although Andrea wants to help them protect the group instead of folding linens and looking pretty in the RV. Again, the patriarchal societal structure keeping her one step behind the men in line with the other women.

Andrea’s presence in the community can best be described as a challenge to the male authority that controls it. She’s the only woman (save for Maggie and Michonne in Season 3) that take any sort of active role in protecting the group; Andrea learns to steadily wield a gun in Season 2 (after Shane effectively plays her emotional chords) and becomes what the men clearly view as a “third-rate” asset to their defensive team; she’s ultimately used for “keeping watch” on the farm.

While Andrea is treated as an afterthought for most of the men, she actively inserts herself into the role of sexual object during a key moment in Season 2. She and Shane embark on a small road trip to search for Sophia. After an hour or so of successful zombie slaying, Andrea—seemingly “turned on” by her exploits as an active member of their small militia—initiates a sexual encounter with Shane. She forcefully grabs his crotch out of left field, instigating a romp in their vehicle unlike anything else we’ve really seen before on The Walking Dead. It might seem out of place, but for a woman on this show it’s a moment from the heavens. Andrea chooses to seduce the man not to gain anything from him other than his penis. She’s not sleeping her way up the chain of command, but merely satisfying her own sexual craving. The moment of passion is barely referenced again throughout the rest of Season 2, indicating yet again that it means nothing more than a momentary brush with ecstasy amidst a world of terror and despair. She breaks from her would-be role as passive female, placing herself at the forefront of her own desires, taking the man (and our perceptions of female sexuality) along for the ride. Her ride.

For me, Andrea’s shining moment comes when Hershel’s daughter, Beth, teeters on the edge of suicide and is placed under house arrest by her family. Andrea agrees to take watch, only to whisper sweet nothings of reality into Beth’s ear. She tells her if she wants to die, there’s nothing wrong with that; the decision is hers and hers alone. Neither persuading her to die as Dale persuaded Andrea to live nor hoping to scare her into living, Andrea gives Beth perspective. She levels the playing field instead of building against for or against her; just because Beth is a young female doesn’t mean she has to submit to the overarching control of her family’s desires. Her decision to die is her decision alone. And, of course, Andrea’s name is besmirched yet again once Beth chooses death.

Beth is ultimately saved from her decision, just as Andrea was last season, but Andrea is forced to deal with the aftermath alone. Beth is “clearly” a victim of Andrea’s manipulative ways, when all the latter did was gently open Beth’s eyes to another perspective, not having to pry them open with a crowbar as forceful as Dale’s. Lori in particular is hard on her, saying that Andrea has barely done anything to help the other women construct the façade of the homespun fantasyland Lori so unrealistically seeks to maintain. Lori is a woman blinded by the weights around her ankles grounding her in a sort of post-feminist world which sees her as a safety net for the men to fall back on—sexually, emotionally, and for simple peace of mind. She preserves the comforting “image” of the nest while Andrea actively seeks to physically keep it—and its contents—alive.

My biggest problem is that The Walking Dead and its characters never seem to acknowledge Andrea as anything more than a tag-along pain in the ass. As an audience we’re given pieces of a puzzle to solve and make connections here and there on our own, but Andrea becomes a case for study on our part while the inter-character conflicts remain diegetic. I’m not sure if the show is making a case for women’s rights by attempting to funnel the audience’s perception of this post-apocalyptic societal breakdown in a negative light. We’re clearly meant to understand that this is a world driven by brute strength, cunning, and power—things none of the women on the show have. Society, for them, has devolved into a primitive state of man-before-woman, the male characters taking clear control over each of the major survival groups we’ve seen so far and will continue to see in Season 3 (The Governor, I’m looking at you). The women have “accepted” their passive roles thanks to an unspoken, almost preconceived veil of inferiority following them around from pre-zombie society; Carol was an abused housewife, Lori was a mother living in the shadow of her powerful husband. Is the show critical of this way of life the characters seem to have simply fallen into without question? Do the creators of the series genuinely believe the world will revert to this sort of primitive existence in the face of such apocalyptic events? Or are we meant to see this sort of power structure as archaic as a result of our own notions of right and wrong which still exists outside the lore and fantasy of The Walking Dead?

The answer to that question lies within Andrea. We’re supposed to see her as a woman fighting back against the “inherent” societal structure which succeeds on male activity and female passivity. Andrea is forced to deal with backlash from a public audience who deem her as insignificant and a waste of space. I welcome an existentially-questioning character in a show like The Walking Dead. She’s conflicted far and away above the other characters, and perhaps that’s part of the problem. I have no doubt in my mind that the majority of people watching this show don’t want to entertain the effort that’s required to fully appreciate Andrea’s character. Her history on the show is complex and tainted by her insistence on merely existing as she sees fit, not on anyone else’s terms—especially not the men who see it necessary to revert to primitive hunter-gather, active-passive binaries based solely on gender. Andrea is flawed, but beautifully so; in a post-rules, post-structure, post-logic world she’s merely regaining her consciousness as an independent female fighting against a tragedy-induced society of patriarchal command.

Why Carly Rae Jepsen Will Work

Sweet voice. Dimpled smile. Tiny frame sporting clothes stripped right off the freshest rack at the hippest Justice in the world. The girl in question looks no more than seventeen years old. An average, suburban-bred cutie pie indiscernible from the hordes of others who sing along to the multi-platinum single she released earlier this year when it makes its rotations on the local eight at eight.

The reality is that this “girl” is Carly Rae Jepsen, nearly thirty and poised to ascend the ranks of worldwide pop royalty with the release of her new album, “Kiss,” today.

Of course any pop artist would kill to have a track like “Call Me Maybe” in their repertoire; the single reached #1 in major markets around the globe within the first few months of its release. Jepsen joined the ranks of Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Katy Perry as one of the biggest successes for contemporary pop in the past year. The question on everybody’s mind, however, soon turned to how exactly Jepsen would turn a massive single hit into an extended career as a pop superstar.

“Kiss” is armed with an artillery of songs that sound like a raging battle of young love, where lollipops take the place of swords and Hershey Kisses burst out of candy-cane shaped cannons. It’s sweet, catchy, and represents a much-needed escape from the pretentious, watered-down theatrics of some of today’s biggest pop acts. The one thing that separates Jepsen from the aforementioned poster children for contemporary pop music is her image. She doesn’t really “fit in” with any of the industry’s other leading ladies. The dichotomy between the “old” and “new” has never been more apparent as it is today. We still have tried-and-true traditional icons from past decades like Britney Spears, P!nk, and Christina Aguilera still impacting international charts; then you have the “newcomers” (as Xtina so lovingly refers to them) in the vein of Gaga, Minaj, and Rihanna making a colorful (albeit an arguably superficial) splash with their outlandish costumed antics both onstage and off. Jepsen lacks the maturity which anchors the former group firmly into our iPods (she’s 26), nor the “freshness” the latter possessed when their “originality” first impacted the industry (um, she’s 26).  In essence, Jepsen is the first “traditional” pop star we’ve seen sift through the bullshit, feathers, and pseudo-subgenres to the top of the mainstream charts in years.

Of course she’s done it all without bleeding to death on stage or kissing Madonna, but that’s not to say Jepsen hasn’t had any “help” along the way. Her career, persona, and musical output at this point strikes me as such an interesting dichotomy between forced and genuine that it’s hard to discern whether or not she’s actually a “pop star” or she’s simply hit the industry jackpot at a time consumers crave simplicity and no-strings-attached innocence over anything else.

Take, for example, Jepsen’s alternate medium equivalent, Bella Swan of the Twilight novel and film series. The girl is a vapid, lifeless character who resonates with young readers (particularly girls) largely due to her “non-existing” existence. She has no personality, wholeheartedly emotionless, and is played by perhaps the most boring, stony-faced actress of our generation, Kristen Stewart. At the risk of sounding like a generalizing asshole, it’s hard not to think the female fanbase of a series like Twilight is simply indulging in a cut-and-paste series of events where they’re subconsciously interchangeable with a lifeless protagonist and her experiences. After all, Bella is paired with a hunky guy she’s “forbidden” to “have” (uh oh, cue rebellious teen girl phase), ultimately portrayed by arguably the most intense-looking, attractive young man in contemporary Hollywood, Robert Pattinson, who really looks at them when he’s framed, close-up, on the silver screen in front of them (really, now, how many shots can you have of one actor looking into the camera in a single film?).

How many times have you seen a “Will you be my Edward Cullen?” Facebook posting, message board comment, poster, sticker, binder, trapper keeper (still using those, right?), or any other form of studio propaganda convincing girls this is the type of man they want—the type of man they need—and is ultimately a fictional creation whose only contributing a blank slate for which girls to project their desires unto with (no return) in a one-sided “relationship” rooted in fantasy. The only way they can “have” him is by, well, buying more Twilight bullshit.

Jepsen’s music, as gleaned from a quick listen to “Kiss,” calls upon listeners to fill the same set of shoes. The lyrics are almost unbearably saccharine, too sweet to be taken entirely seriously as a 27-year old woman’s deepest confessions, yet tinged with just enough suggestive flirtation to make her fit in with the contemporary Top 40 crowd. Her appearance begs us to disregard her body as a canvas (something Gaga or Ke$ha cringe at) and as a mere playful vessel just being cute and “doing what girls do” as she dances onstage with all the coy innocence of a high schooler at their first boy/girl party. She’s relatable for lacking a concrete personality. Her songs don’t require much thought to really enjoy, and she’s singing them without the theatrical flair that make her industry counterparts so readily accessible at awards shows and on magazine covers. They come with previously established standards of eccentricity, Jepsen merely comes with a song and a smile—there is a superstar, and then there is a famous girl. Gaga is revered as a performer, as a star, as someone associated with the outlandish, a clear border between her and the “normality” of the consumer. Jepsen, however, is simply “a girl with some cute outfits and catchy pop songs.” How does that manage to burst through the corsets, pink wigs, and glow-in-the-dark capes?

I’ll tell you how; with the help of a male pop star. Jepsen’s rise to fame came as a contestant on “Canadian Idol,” where she placed third. Her superstardom, however, didn’t come until after she exchanged tweets with Justin Bieber, who then signed her to his record label. Bieber’s commanding force of millions of young girls swayed the tides in Jepsen’s favor. She didn’t necessarily “do” anything besides bask in the spotlight Bieber fixed on her. Clearly we’re past the social mindset that men “need” women and the other way around, but it’s hard not to think that Jepsen would never have succeeded if it weren’t for the sexually-crazed girls blindly following wherever Bieber’s dic—erm, point of interest—directed them. In interviews, magazine articles, and even on “Kiss” where she sings a duet with him, she’s consistently associated with the teen heartthrob. A point of reference for teen girls, a simple façade, but the receptor of Bieber’s attention, something these fans so desperately seek.

Even the likes of Adele and Taylor Swift have their identities carved out for them, whether by genuine artistry or by studio analysts. Adele is brooding, not physically atypical for a “pop star,” and has a voice that elevates her beyond the Katys and the Rihannas; Taylor Swift dabbled in a genre that’s all about consistency and wholesomeness far before she dipped her hands into the well of pop. She got her start crooning about idolizing a country icon, Tim McGraw, as many women have, and has ridden the waves ever since. What Swift does, however, is pen her own tracks in the vein of authenticity. She publicizes breakups and turns trivial moments like Kanye West stealing her microphone at the VMAs into a song that wouldn’t sound entirely out of place if sung to someone who raped her. Carly Rae isn’t really doing any of this on her own. She kind of wants you to “know” her, but kind of really wants to have her song played in a club, too.

But, what’s fueling this desire to return to pop’s roots as a traditional outlet for “normal” people turned superstars? Have we finally tired of putting effort into caring about Gaga’s meat dresses, about the vomit in Ke$ha’s hair? The truth is that people like Gaga and Ke$ha are genuine artists. They pen their own tracks, compose their own music, and even write for other artists. They’ve established themselves as a business with an edgy shell that happens to involve a little glitter and grease. But has the public given up on recognizing their artistry in favor of the glitzy bits? Carly Rae represents the opposite in a time where it’s convenient to simply say “fuck this mardi gras bullshit, I just want a pop star I want to fuck.”

I hope none of this sounds like a sexist rant, because industries like the music business have always banked on gendered appeal whether you want to acknowledge it or not. Whether Carly Rae Jepsen’s success will ride on the genuinely catchy tunes that provide the bulk for her “traditional” pop album, “Kiss,” or her ability to “happen” at a time when simplicity and innocence provide a convenient escape from the cluttered state of the world is still yet to be seen.