Category Archives: media

Apparently only dudes in Westworld are complex enough to have darkness

I’ve been watching Westworld on HBO, and I intend to watch it through to the end, but I’m not very satisfied with it. I mean, besides the fact that I’ve always had a huge mental block against sympathizing with robots as characters, as I still basically think they’re always going to just be things, it’s not that fresh a robots-as-people narrative. Basically, they’re gaining sentience as their programming advances, and they’re probably going to make humans pay for the horrific treatment they’ve undergone when utilized as things. I am absolutely sure that will happen if AI ever gets advanced enough in the real world, and we’ve seen it in stories a million times before.

But the thing that gets at me the most is the logic behind the Westworld park itself. It’s appeal is basically presented as a place to indulge your darkest urges free of consequences– specifically, they assume, things that take the form of hurting others. The park is full of robots, not people, so you can hurt or use them in any way you want and it doesn’t matter. And that’s basically the reason why people like to come.

Well. Even leaving aside what a morbidly cynical view of humanity is– I don’t even think that’s all that representative of the way people’s badness manifests. Personal I’d say most of the worst of us manifests not as sadism– the desire to cause or the enjoyment of suffering in others –but rather as selfishness. It’s not so much that you WANT other people to hurt, it’s that you care so much about yourself and your own gratification that the harm you do to others doesn’t matter to you. Sure, causing pain often gives us power over others, which is another thing we’re all susceptible to, but again, I’d argue that you want the feeling of being powerful so much that you don’t worry about causing pain. True psychopaths, who LIKE causing pain in and of itself, exist, but they’re much rarer. Faced with no consequences for our actions, that morbid indifference to the feelings of others in favor of indulging the self is the true danger that is likely to come out of us.

I mean, I can imagine if I were in a scenario like this– leaving aside the other problems with the workings of Westworld, which are beside my point here –I might have fun being the best shot in the West and beating a horde of rampaging gunslingers by being the fastest draw. That appeals to my sense of adventure and excitement, plus the thrill of being the best. I could see conceivably being so selfish that I care so about my enjoyment in that way I don’t care that I subjected a bunch of people to painful death. But it adds nothing to that appeal to see the men I beat twitching and gasping in pain as they die from the bullets I put in them. I could see prioritizing my sense of fun such that I didn’t care that I killed them. But having to witness their suffering is distasteful, such that the imposition of their pain is a consequence that would make my victory less fun. I think it would be to most people.

But even beyond that– the version of the “dark urges” the park is designed to caters to? Is this totally one-note, stereotypically masculine conception. Basically, the form of indulgences it expects its guests to want are all extremely retrograde masculine fantasies, mostly sexual, violent, or a combination of the two. Sure, given how toxic they expect people to want to behave, you’d expect them to appeal to people’s toxic masculinity, but there’s no appeals to any impulse that are not coded masculine. It’s all just about the chances for brutal violence or increasingly outre sexuality.

I can’t figure out if it’s intentional or not. Is it as a statement of how prevalent such fantasies are in people, or even how hypermasculinity encourages it? Or is it because the SHOW can’t imagine dark impulses under any other encoding?

If it’s intentional, there has yet to be any explicit acknowledgment that Westworld is designed under that assumption. I’ve seen no commentary on the problem of that conception. There’s been no connection of the horrors being committed to the idea that they rise from hypermasculinty– in fact, the only suggestion the show gives is that it comes from HUMANITY in general, rather than specifically from males. And I don’t think depicting an idea without any form of critique, in so many words or otherwise, counts as commentary.

On top of that, most of the women characters in the show have been portrayed in really limited ways. The only female guests tend to be either wives supporting the adventures of their husbands, or else having identical dark urges to straight men. (There’s been some portrayal of lesbianism, but it all smacks of “chicks that act like straight guys” rather than women attracted to other women. By contrast, the one bisexual dude’s orgy? A woman riding his dick, another woman making out with him, while the one other guy… rubs his belly. Cowards.) The women host robots fall into a pretty stark virgin-whore dichotomy. Again, if there was some suggestion of critique of this, that women suffer even more when people act like objectification is just okay, then I might see it as a meaningful choice. But again, I’ve seen no sign of this.

So it’s increasingly striking me as unintentional, which is both a staggeringly limited view of humanity– even humanity’s darkness –and also misogynist. I mean, why do women come to Westworld in this universe? Just to support their husbands’ hero hypermasculine-coded hero fantasies, or if they want to indulge in THOSE EXACT SAME HYPERMASCULINE FANTASIES themselves? Is there nothing here to enjoy that’s actually geared toward the interests of women– or even the ways women specifically tend to break down? If nothing else, where are the hot male whores throwing themselves at female guests?

I’m only three episodes in. Maybe they’ll deal with it. But I don’t think it’s been handled well so far.

Captain America’s Winter Soldier hair

No, this isn’t me making good on my threat to rhapsodize over each of Chris Evans’s individual attractive features in turn. Okay, there’s a little of that in here, but I swear I have more of a point. This is about costume design.

If you’re like me, and you are closely attuned to the tiniest details of the presentation of the most physically desireable man in existence, you may have noticed that Steve Rogers’s hair changes between his original 1940s look introduced in the first Cap movie…

…and the updated look in The Winter Soldier.

(Yes, those are all from a personal collection in my photo library.)

Or maybe you (like Bernie, who has already been subjected to this rant) didn’t notice the styling of his hair at all. But I actually think it was a significant design choice, with a lot of meaning in it, and it’s a change I’m not sure I’m on board with.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Cap’s hair, at least from an aesthetic standpoint. Whether old-fashioned or modern, short, blond, and styled is my favorite look for the man who IS just about my favorite way anything looks in the universe. So from a plain prettiness standpoint, I’m cool with it. But from a costuming standpoint… I’m not sure I buy it.

Hear me out!

Look at THIS hairstyle they chose to use in Winter Soldier in particular. First of all, it’s noticeably modern, particularly in contrast to the sideswept, side-parted, and likely pomaded 1940s good boy look we were introduced to him with. I know why they chose to update it. Probably partially to take advantage of Evans’s boy-next-door good looks, but also, like all costuming and styling choices, to tell you something about the character. In this case, I think it’s to show he’s making an effort to adapt to the present day, to not live in the past. That’s borne out in his acknowledgement of all the good changes since the 1940s, and his effort to learn about current culture.

But what bugs me is not that he has adopted a modern hairstyle– it’s that it’s THIS hairstyle. ‘Cause that look? Is NOT a roll-out-of-bed, low-effort, natural look. It’s not even the Hollywood version of how average men wear their hair, where all the work of styling and product applied are deliberately concealed in order to create the illusion of natural hair. THAT hair is a clearly, obviously, carefully curated, meticulously designed, faux-messy style involving a lot of work and hair gel, associated with young, contemporary men who not only care about fashion and appearance, but about giving off a hip, current vibe to the people who see them.

I am a costume designer. I believe very strongly that truly good costuming (as with all aspects of production design) helps to tell the story. So the baggage the audience attaches to the clothing and styling of the characters should give them information about the characters and narrative.

So, diegetically… why would Cap have that? Now, he might not a be a stranger to styling product. He went into the ice a bit too early for the wet look of the 1950s, but he was probably pretty used to pomading things down as a matter of routine. But this modern look? Is LABOR INTENSIVE, and involves a fair bit of skill to execute those soft spikes and artful back sweep that’s just the right height. In order to wear hair like that, he would not only have to put in the not-inconsiderable time and effort to do it every day, he’d have to deliberately learn how. Where from? I get the idea that he’d choose something more modern to indicate his attempt to update to the present day. But does he really strike you as the kind of guy who’d choose a high-maintenance style that could say anything from “trendster,” “vanity,” “metro,” or even “douchebag”? I could see Steve, with his respectful, good-boy military background, wanting to be neat and turned out, but I don’t see him as hip or invested in preening. To give you an idea, taken from this most excellent video, this is how a 1940s young man with a little bit of daring and vanity did his hair to be eye-catching:

Compare that to Steve’s wartime look. Clearly he’s a much more modest guy than that.

It’s not that big a deal. Probably most people didn’t even notice. And hell, other aspects of his presentation have more to do with his status in a superhero and the attendant stylistic choices– I also doubt a truly diegetic Steve would wear his clothes that tight either.

But tight costumes are part of the superhero genre, Steve’s extreme physique is likely going to fill out ANY article of clothing, and Hollywood is sure as hell going to show off that exquisite heroic figure. I’m the LAST PERSON ON GOD’S BLESSED EARTH to complain to you about that. Hell, I like the fanon joke that all the ladies at SHIELD told him that in the future, everyone wears their clothes that way.

But the hair bugged me. I felt like you could have communicated “Steve is trying to update” without making an out-of-character choice.

The relative importance of tone

Tone tends to be very important to me when it comes to whether or not I can become absorbed in a given piece of media. By tone, I mean the overall feeling and vibe a piece gives off, plus the attitude they take towards their story or subject matter. Embracing the right tone for the right story is something I care very deeply about, and can make the difference between obtaining my buy-in to the tale you’re telling or shutting out my sympathy completely.

This can have an even more significant effect when I’m already invested in a property. For example, contributing to my notorious pickiness about fan fiction is that if I feel a fic has a tone that doesn’t fit properly with the original, I usually cannot get into it at all. I guess it doesn’t necessarily have to reproduce the same tone exactly, but unless it feels compatible, it just doesn’t work for me. Similarly, in a series, if later installments go too far off the tone, or embrace a tone that doesn’t gel with earlier ones, I get skeptical and put off.

Recently I experienced this most strongly (at least in the anticipation) of Guardians of the Galaxy. The Marvel movies have generally had a light tone that was not SO frivolous as to cut off drama, which I’ve always thought worked for them. When Guardians was announced, I was seriously doubting that it was going to work in context with the rest of the series. It pushed the boundaries of the silliness and weirdness allowed by the series, and I thought it was going to be really ATONAL, disrupting the vibe the world had established. I was surprised to find that Guardians worked, even with the tone shift, probably mostly because it wasn’t quite as exaggerated as I thought it would be, and because it existed at such a remove from the other stories, a literal galaxy away.

I am still doubtful of when the Guardians stuff bleeds into the already-established-on-Earth stuff. I still don’t quite buy the notion of Rocket Raccoon existing in the same universe as Jessica Jones. Though to be honest, Daredevil and Jessica Jones are a fair bit darker than the films ever got, which is a tone shift of another kind. I guess when I get dramatically invested, I’m more likely to buy things getting a bit darker than getting sillier. That may just be my personal bias.

But it’s something to think about in my own work. It occurred me to that maybe my silly Woodhouse parody larp Woodplum House could be part of the Breaking History universe, except that it’s REALLY out there tonally from the rest, and that gave me pause. Again, it was weird thinking of that and Mrs. Hawking existing in the same world and theoretically being able to meet. Okay, I think she’s dead by the 1920s, but that’s beside the point. Hell, I’m even slightly worried about how the Hawking stories are going to take a slightly darker turn with the second trilogy. I don’t want to go all grimdark even so, and I don’t want to alienated people who liked the tone of the first set. I have to tell the story I have to tell– just as any writer does –but it’s one more of the many things to take into consideration when you’re taking on the challenge of serializing.

That je ne sais quoi

In Mad Men, a television show that I would not say I like but still totally fascinates me, a recurring theme is the idea that things either ARE, or they AREN’T, the notion that some stuff just doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi to make it what it is supposed to be. An example that recurs is the state of the Draper marriage, which to all surface appearances looks like the perfect idealized union of the 1960s, but in reality is fundamentally and fatally flawed within. Another example is when the advertising client Pepsi requests a shot-by-shot imitation of Ann-Margret singing Bye Bye Birdie, and the resulting imitation seems to have all the details of the original but for some reason none of the charm. It is, in keeping with the cynical attitude of the series, a rather bleak view, giving the implication that such things are immune to effort, growth, or development to become what they are trying to be. But even if you do reject the notion, as I do, that things can never improve or become what they are striving to be with effort or practice, there is still the ineffable factor to be considered that makes somethings different from other things. There is often something that we cannot quite put our finger on, sometimes an unquantifiable quality that can influence how we see, view, or experience a given thing.

I find this concept to be relevant when critiquing or even just experiencing art. Because art is to such a large degree subjective, despite the presence of rules of thumb that provide guidelines for what sort of artistic expression tends to be the most effective or moving, there will always be the matter of what appeals to individual taste and what does not. Or sometimes there can even be an unnameable reason why people like something even though it is qualitatively similar to something they dislike. If you have a piece of art that works, it almost does not matter what rules it breaks. The rules exist to help us figure out what works, but they are the means to the end of creating a reaction in the audience. If that reaction is caused anyway, adherence to rules is ancillary. There are many pieces of art that do not seem to conform to what we consider to be objectively good, but still managed to be good because they for whatever reason work on the audience.

When your primary medium is drama, as mine is, this can be especially present. A piece of drama is meant to be experienced beyond simply what the dramatist rights on the page. If a piece “plays well,” it often creates quite a different effect on the audience than when simply experiencing it through reading it and applying conventional literary assessment. Sometimes the difference is quantifiable, but sometimes it is very hard to pin down what is making the difference. And often it is completely subjective, a total matter of taste.

In interpretive pieces, like plays and screenplays, which require collaboration between numerous other artists in order to be fully realized, the other contributors may be that additional factor. Plenty of times, a dramatic work is rescued by the presence of a talented or charismatic actor, or a weak actor sinks even a good script. But even what makes a good or likable actor is hard to pin down. Generally we like people who are pretty and expressive. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we each can see meaning in different things depending on our perspective. Sometimes we bring our own baggage to things, where an emotional response in us drives us to bring our own meaning that’s not necessarily being offered by the “text.” Betty Draper, to continue with the Mad Men example, reminds me of a lot of personal issues, so even though the actress is generally considered to be on the flat side, I find her compelling and fascinating even when perhaps objectively she is not. By contrast, I find Scarlett Johansson so wooden that any character played by her is immediately contaminated in my eyes, whereas plenty of other people don’t have nearly so much problem with her.

It’s tough to nail down things that can vary from person to person. I just know we can’t rely on hoping the audience will pick up the slack in our work, because we can never precisely predict what will speak to people and what won’t.

How Bojack Horseman is revolutionizing the Unlikeable Tortured Protagonist

You may have heard me talk of a weird little Netflix show about anthropomorphic animals that’s been getting a bit of press lately by the name of “Bojack Horseman.” More than once I’ve heard people express bewilderment at the appeal of an odd little work like this cartoon, and I confess I was there myself when I first heard of it. But after sticking it out to the end, (and several more times through after that) I am not only a convert, I am here to evangelize on its behalf. “Bojack Horseman” is my vote for most compelling show currently on television, and that’s because of how it portrays the “unlikeable tortured protagonist” in a way that no previous example has ever managed.

Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show is on the surface a cartoon critique of the celebrity world and culture using anthropomorphic animals, centering around a washed-up Bob Saget-style sitcom actor who happens to be a horse. From that description it hardly seems a fresh setup, but its true magic is within the story that setting is used to tell. The show juxtaposes extreme cartoon absurdity for the sake of humor with dark, character-driven storytelling that studies a fascinating anti-heroic character that you both judge and sympathize with, to a level you wouldn’t have believed possible.

On the surface, particularly in the first few episodes before the plot arc kicks in, Bojack appears to be not much different from your typical Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist. He seems characterized by qualities that at this point have been played out as comedic flaws— crass, drunk, and morbidly self-absorbed. On top of that, he is massively privileged, a mega-rich Hollywood actor who, despite being a horse, is of a background that implies being White and Upperclass. And, as we did with fellows like Don Draper, we soon find out that Bojack hates himself.

The TV landscape recently has been saturated with these kinds of protagonists— privileged white men whose pain adds fascinating dimension to their otherwise fairly exciting lives. Don Draper was a miserable unwanted child trying to hide his true self, but damn if he didn’t look sexy kicking down doors in impeccable suits while women threw themselves at him. Walter White was a bitterly disappointed man cruelly used by fate, but his adventures in the meth game sure gave him a lot of adventure and control back. I think as a culture we’ve become a little bored with this, as we’ve burned out on feeling sorry for sad dudes who can’t get it together when so many of us have fewer advantages and significantly less sexy lives.

The difference, however, is in how the facts of Bojack’s condition are presented to us. Bojack’s behavior whips across the punish-lavish axis in a sick cycle, from self-flagellating when he hates himself to self-indulging from when he feels sorry for himself. While one of the most accurate depictions of a certain kind of depression ever committed to TV, it also comes off as more than a little gross. But this very quality is what saves the show from being just a portrait of an unlikeable, over-privileged sad sack unable to appreciate what he has. Rather than trying to depict this as sympathetic in any way, on the contrary, the narrative never stops judging him.

There’s an old chestnut that says a writer should never judge their characters, but this story is richer for the creators ignoring that. When Bojack screws up, when he makes a truly destructive or even deplorable choice, the writing never asks you to see those actions as anything other than what they are. The results is it gives the viewer the breathing room to both castigate Bojack and find some understanding for him. He is obsessed with the notion that he’s broken somehow, that his inherent badness can never be changed or overcome, so why not do bad things if he’s bad anyway? But even as this provides a reason we are able to understand for why Bojack makes terrible choices again and again, it never asks us to find that an acceptable excuse.

What this gives us is a notion of accountability for Bojack. Despite the brilliance of both their shows, Don Draper and Walter White were not allowed a lot of room for any real growth or change. That’s partially the nature of the serial storytelling form, where you cannot drift too far from your premise without losing your audience. But it gets tiresome after a while watching these guys make the same mistakes over and over again. On top of that, Don and Walter very rarely ever saw real, true consequences for their actions. The important people in their lives put up with their antics, eventually forgave and came back to them, or at least came to a place of peace with them.

Bojack, however, is subjected to the consequences of being a massive self-centered dick. He is not granted forgiveness every time he asks for it, his bridges do get burned, and he has to live with the repercussions of the stupid choices he makes. Not only does this feel more real, it also has an effect on his character, driving him to try new things if he ever wants to change his life. Though he fails and regresses, through it all, there’s a sense of two steps forward, one step back, that makes him a little less contemptible. Bojack is not strong, so he breaks in the face of great adversity. But the fact that he pits himself against that adversity despite his weakness makes him more interesting to watch.

Finally, the show strikes the right balance between keeping his life interesting without excessively glamorizing it. When we watch Don and Walter, there is always a sense of envy at how cool Don is, or the excitement of Walter’s life, which undermines the message that these men are truly suffering. But you never for a moment wish you were Bojack, not for all the Secretariat movies, houses in the hills, or impulse-buy restaurants in the world. From his abusive childhood, to the hollowness of his accomplishments, to the way he’s so widely regarded as a joke even at the height of his career, there’s a genuineness to his misery that makes the notion of his self-loathing believable. It’s made even more poignant when we see flashes of the character in his youth, before the real grossness set in.

This is perhaps the great tragedy, and the great brilliance, of the show—once, Bojack was a genuinely nice guy, trying to do his best, who cared about other people and was working VERY hard to escape being the kind of bad person he felt like he was doomed to be. It makes seeing him lose that battle actually rather heartbreaking, and you find yourself actually holding out hope that he will find some way to get better. Because you know he did once put in that effort, you are driven to pity this man, even as you never want to absolve him. And if there’s not one moment a season— usually in the end of the eleventh episode —where you find yourself yelling at the screen, begging Bojack to not to shipwreck himself on the rocks of his own self-loathing, well, I don’t know what kind of person you are.

That’s a hell of a lot more than you ever expected from a thirty-minute cartoon about a horse.