Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Can we just talk about Terrace House for a minute?

Something you should know about me is that I get anxious. Whether from insatiable curiosity or self-imposed pressure to achieve (likely both), I tend to count days and hours in terms of how "productive" they are. God knows what yardstick by which I measure productivity, because it fluctuates wildly and consists of a lot of justification. Well, I thought critically about those news articles I read this morning, so that was productive, I'll tell myself. I didn't write anything today but I did listen to podcasts on the treadmill, so it's not a lost day. Needless to say, I don't know how to relax.

So when a friend described the Japanese series Terrace House to me last summer as "a slow TV version of The Real World where nothing really happens and it's so soothing--I'm addicted," at the time I thought, life is already filled with the minutia of boring daily tasks; I look to TV narratives to both escape from and justify my warped productivity yardstick. Why would I choose to watch people being unproductive without spectacle and forego the twisting plots and water-cooler talk of serialized TV?

But then Terrace House came to Netflix. The Japanese-American co-production's subtitle is "Opening New Doors," and I have to say, that's exactly what happened. The premise: six strangers--three men and three women in their twenties--are picked to live in a house and carry out their lives. That's it - no script, no manipulative producers. Elsewhere, the movement of "slow TV" has been gaining traction in Scandinavia, but Terrace House isn't just about watching a train lumber into a station. There are humans and hence plot here, but it's subtle, and that's what makes it both riveting and relaxing, because humans are unpredictable. Even better is the group of commentators who dissect the housemates' interactions with just the right combination of empathy and snark, from interpreting their behaviors to predicting impending romantic fallouts.

it doesn't hurt that the housemates (Ami & Shion here), aren't bad to look at. 

Take Yuudai, the show's 19-year-old dud. He's a cocky aspiring chef who can't seem to find a job in a kitchen, or even roll out of bed before 2PM, but even though his youth and obliviousness cause him to miss social cues, the older housemates still mentor him like a little brother. When they might get fed up is a compelling dramatic tension not unlike when your roommate leaves dishes in the sink for the fifteenth time and you make it a game with yourself to see how long you can go without blowing a gasket at him. Humans are fascinating creatures to observe, like Shion, the Japanese-American model whose unreserved kindness makes you wonder where he got it from. Six out of eight episodes in and all I can really tell you in terms of plot are: Yuudai gets a job washing dishes, he and Ami go on an awkward date, Taka goes snowboarding, Tsubasa wants to get on the national ice hockey team, Mizuki gets drunk, and it snows. But I love it.

So do me a favor--if you use media to sooth your anxiety like I do, watch Terrace House. Your overwhelmed synapses will thank you.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Feeling Younger

It happened. I turned 30. Woe is me. Just kidding--but this milestone has been accompanied by certain clichés: hangovers are more severe, working out is becoming necessary, and I've somehow started to feel like it's really go time. No more dilly-dallying.

Which is why I've really been enjoying TV Land's Younger. The protagonist, Liza, is a 40-year-old mom and divorcée who, after 15 years out of the workforce, pretends she's 26 to get a job in publishing. In getting a second chance at her twenties, Liza reawakens the youthful spirit that laid dormant throughout her marriage. Produced by the guy who brought us Sex and the City, Younger plays out in the typical New York sitcom manner, with plots introduced and satisfyingly resolved in 20 minutes. But there's a narrative through-line that keeps me coming back, besides the will-she-get-discovered anticipation. It's the idea that self-exploration shouldn't have to end when your twenties do.

In other words: "nevertheless, she persisted." 

The show is lighthearted and goofy, but it gets certain things right about millennials and this zeitgeist. For one, it affirms that the ubiquity of social media is both exhilarating and daunting, and that what goes on behind the 'gram isn't always so picturesque. What I love about the show is how effortlessly it empathizes in two generations (X and Y) the struggles that we as women face in excelling in our careers and love lives. The challenges differ according to age but are universal: how do I get taken seriously? How do I figure out what I want?

At 30, I'm smack-dab in the middle of these two generations. For example, the geographic and emotional shifts I made in my twenties are now mostly quelled, but my career is just taking off, not yet fully embedded. Like Liza, I find myself wondering whether everything will work out (though my fears have less to do with fraud than climate change). More personally, though, I find myself still comparing my choices to my peers' and the lives they've constructed for themselves. Whether it's the patriarchy, the millennial highlight reel on social media, or my ever-questioning brain, I don't know, but sometimes the self-imposed pressure of go time mixes with self-doubt and I wonder if I'm just following a formula for success instead of designing one for myself.

Thanks to this character on Younger, though, and her 26-year-old coworker (played fabulously by a millennial whose pop culture appearances I grew up with, Hillary Duff), I'm feeling like time is elastic. Funnily enough, in season two there's an episode featuring a character who is a thinly-veiled Meg Jay of The Defining Decade. When I was in Copenhagen at age 25, trying to figure my life out, I devoured her book, which reminded me to live a life of intention and to eschew the notion that your twenties are a throwaway decade. To see this theme pop up on the show felt circular, like I'm doubling down on that intentionality while also asking some new (but similar) questions. It's funny to remember the same concerns I had then take a new form now, like: what does a (queer) partnership mean for me? How do I make a stable life while holding onto adventure? Younger and The Defining Decade may not be able to answer these for me, but they're providing a helpful lens nevertheless.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Girls, Revisited

It seemed weirdly epic, Sunday night, to be sitting in the dark in K's apartment, binge-watching Season 5 of Girls in preparation for that night's premiere of the final season.  Back in 2013 I wrote about feeling like an 'emerging adult' as I handed in my master's thesis on the show, and now, in 2017, more endings and more beginnings are emerging for me. It's been 3.5 years since leaving Denmark, a year with K, 3 years at Twitter, 3 months since leaving, 3 weeks since the Trump era has begun. So much has changed since that blog post, and yet I still find myself wanting to find some full-circle niceties on which to judge the interim.

still self-satisfied, always wanting more 

Like Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna's world, my circumstances have changed and I'm older, but the patterns of progress and closure still feel messy. Unlike them, though, I hope (to god) I've evolved more than they have. Marred by immaturity, obliviousness, and lack of self-awareness, the girls of Girls are just barely adults after 6 years, yet I keep watching the train wreck for the few, sublime moments of heart that Lena Dunham pulls off. What continues to fascinate me about the storytelling of the show is that the characters, while perhaps caricatures of people, are inexorably who they are. This is different from saying they know who they are, but they chase after some vision of what they want, at all costs. This kind of storytelling is bold; it may diverge from realism into satire, but there's a certain steadfast adherence to depicting the messiness of emerging adulthood in the show's style, stories, protagonists, and comedy that I admire.

It would do me well, in this time in my life, to appreciate that I may not ever be done, baked, out of the oven. I want to remember my former appreciation of the process, not outcome, of adulthood, as I described in the blog post. It's hard to remember, much less accept, that change can feel like crisis, loss, or adventure, and that curiosity eschews closure. These notions are hard for us as we settle into our adult lives, where bank account zeros and career achievements and personal milestones start to feel more like must-haves than guidelines. But believing in the process (especially creatively) means taking risks, and this gets harder as we start to decide, 'well, this is it, this is my life.'

Today, though, on a walk in the sun with icicles dripping off roofs and a podcast in my ear, I vowed to remember my potential to change for the better. Instead of nostalgia for the grad school days of being broke and wistful, I'm choosing to see the past three years as a continuation of emergence into that flow of adulthood. My Danish may be rusty but I'm fluent in queer. I may not long to see all the movies all the time, but maybe I've consumed enough stories to know how to tell a good one someday. We'll just have to see how it plays out.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Looking to Stories of Queer Resistance

As always, in times of uncertainty, I look to stories for answers. I am still reeling from the election, but I've found a teensy bit of inspiration in unlikely fictional sources: the new Harry Potter film and HBO's film The Normal Heart, both of which have subtle or not-so-subtle blueprints for engaged citizenship and activism in the face of oppression. 

As I was watching the new installment in the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I was momentarily overcome with a certainty that JK Rowling's intended her screenplay to be a comment on political resistance in oppressive times, which she confirmed at the premiere: "I conceived this story a few years ago, and I think I was partly informed by the rise in populism around the world." The film is laced with signals as to how people and groups cope with oppression, and how they respond in popular movements. For example, Grindelwald's radical campaign for Wizards to use violence to emerge as dominant is met with caution and fear of dismantling the regulations on magic. On the other hand, there is a damaging secrecy to the way the Wizarding community in New York has gone underground in the face of xenophobia and oppression; risking exposure means war, but self-containment is also dangerous, as is most powerfully articulated by the concept of the Obscurial, a dark, uncontrollable magical force which threatens to destroy a wizard from within if suppressed. 

is this the proto-Dementor? 

Either way, we're looking at a narrative that contemplates strategies for resistance, either through slow progressivism or radical change. In the words of Audre Lorde, we're looking at the dispute over whether "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." Fantastic Beasts doesn't particularly sway us either way (yet), beyond portraying Grindelwald as somewhat of a radical nut. But I find the depiction of Creedence, the (spoiler) young man whose Obscurial wreaks havoc on New York, to be a deeper symbol of a state of specific oppression: that of current LGBT discrimination. The Obscurial is an elegant metaphor for queer kids who know themselves to be different, and how the public's condemning of that difference threatens to spur on a dark, sometimes suicidal and life-threatening, self-hatred in those kids. Fantastic Beasts shows just how many lives we stand to lose if we do not recognize and champion that magical diversity in our children. 

Queer self-hatred and public shunning also comes to the fore in HBO's The Normal Heart, which I rewatched this weekend. Mark Ruffalo's portrayal of relentless activist Ned Weeks faces defeat and tragedy after defeat and tragedy as the medical and political communities turn their backs on a generation of young gay men dying from AIDS in the '80s. The interesting and arresting portrayal of self-divisions among gay activist groups, and the corrosive quality of public and private shame vs self-acceptance in these groups, gives the film its heart. But what I find most applicable for the fight ahead of us in 2017 is how much speaking out is too much, as Ned learns when he ostracizes almost everyone he knows and loves with his fervent passion for justice in the AIDS crisis. The film asks, what avenues should activists take to make effective change? Is there such a thing as being too radical? Where do our voices matter most in the face of oppression? 

"What do you mean, no one knows you're gay, when you're the president of the Gay Men's Crisis Center?"

I find myself asking these questions every day these days--do we focus our efforts on contacting our representatives? Building grassroots/local/community awareness? Attempt to curtail corporate influence? There's much for us to learn, but I do think watching films like these can give us models for progress. As always, we look to the queers for evidence of the brave, continued fight for equality and change. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

This Is--or Isn't--Us

I resisted NBC's new family drama This Is Us throughout the autumn, turning my nose up at the network's seeming attempt to replace Parenthood, thinking it was going to be just too mainstream for my liking. But now, after binging the first ten episodes, I'm circling back to that idea of what 'mainstream' means and what it can accomplish in television.

My dad and I were philosophizing about narratives in the car the other day, as we do in my family (it's in my blood, damnit!), and I felt it important to reiterate to him what's been swirling in my head for a while: I believe in the power of mass media to change hearts and minds. He brought up the very good point that yes, narratives consumed en masse are powerful, especially for the wide-reaching beast that is television, but often the cultural shifts that result come in waves that are clearer in hindsight. It may not be one or even a few groundbreaking TV shows that actively change people's minds, but if we look in the rearview mirror we can see the patterns forming from all of our cultural products of an age. This thought was a great reminder for me, who tends to be critical of and dissect shows and movies as individual entities, and who judges whether their individual merits affords them less or more impact in the public sphere.  Yet, I'm thinking now that what constitutes the mainstream stories we devour on TV may occupy an even more powerful place than we often notice in this realm, due to their subtle treatment of progressive ideas.

Network dramas, due to their advertising structure, have to appeal to mass audiences, and so it is often a critique that these shows are not niche enough and therefore not bold enough in their storytelling. Insecure on HBO may only get a couple hundred thousand viewers on Sundays but those viewers, who pay for their subscription, are probably ready to engage with complex story lines that resonate with them.  The TV landscape is definitely becoming more courageous in its storytelling in an attempt to reach splintering audience segmentations, but for the most part, boldness in TV is still found on cable, not network.

This Is Us wants us to see that families come in all shapes and sizes 

I'm therefore pleasantly surprised with This Is Us, which, like ABC's Shondaland shows, is looking at diversity through an interesting lens. For Shonda Rhimes's shows, diversity is just a given that is seamlessly woven into the plot lines (aka, inclusion), but This Is Us actively comments on it. The story of the black adoptive son into a white family chugs along side by side with one of a gay father figure and another of an obese character struggling with her weight, and while some critics have condemned the show's treatment of progressivism as too safe, others have argued that tackling these issues on the small screen is crucial when our country is so divided after the election. It's definitely not perfect, but I applaud This Is Us for using its intersectional stories not as a one-sided soapbox, but as a way to let good storytelling do the legwork and then using the platform as an opportunity to examine bias. Mainstream audiences are thus sucked into the drama of a story, with an added benefit of receiving subliminal messaging-like advocacy for championing diversity. This subliminal messaging, in my opinion, is not of the brainwashing, I-may-have-just-seen-a-cheeseburger-and-now-will-buy-one variety, but rather an opportunity to actively and yet safely question your own preconceived notions about certain identities. Fiction is always good for empathy; even better when that fiction reaches millions. Mainstream television can champion empathy as a storytelling tool to push the boundaries of viewers' receptiveness to new portrayals of American life. If it's done in a safe but subtly challenging way, like in This Is Us, it has the potential to change hearts and minds without alienating audiences. After all, for example, I fully maintain that the LGBT acceptance movement of the last 20 years partly has TV shows to thank, among them Queer as Folk, The L Word, and The Real World. 

There's definitely a deeper discussion about the tools of activism to be hashed out, for example whether progress is made through slow and steady steps or through radical disobedience. I'll leave that to another blog post, perhaps about the new Harry Potter installment, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which echoes these dueling strategies of resistance movements in the worlds of Wizards vs Muggles. For now, I'll continue watching NBC in the hopes that the progressivism stays just sneakily mainstream enough to make some resonating statements.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Post-election thoughts

Some may chide me for being so invasively personal in this entry, in a potentially public setting, but I don't think now is the time for censorship, but rather that honesty is the best policy under the threat of an attack on freedom of speech. So here goes. 

It’s been two weeks since the election, and a month since leaving Twitter. In the deluge of alarming articles I’ve consumed over the past 2 weeks, a few have stood out, and one in particular holds the most urgent personal call to action I can do right now, while parts of me are still paralyzed by fear, and any activism I harbor is just starting to wake up from hibernation. As we head into a most assured autocracy/kleptocracy/borderline tyranny, a Dutch journalist who has covered these regimes recommends writing down personal values and things you’d conceivably never do, as things stand right now, since you will surely do them in the future for survival. This collection of thoughts, emotions, and values may therefore serve as a reminder of my morality in the scary times to come. I’m already feeling myself be slow to act, perhaps leaning on my white privilege even when I need to actively denounce white supremacy along with my white comrades, but at least this record can serve to show me what I was like at the beginning of the Trump era, lest things change for the absolute worst, which I am terrified will happen.

Tuesday night and Wednesday after the election were the most unstable I have ever felt in my entire life. I had already felt the stirrings of fear wrapped up in the multiplication of anxieties over the past 6 months, and a few days before the election I even told my mom, ‘this is the first time in my life that it feels like everything is not going to be ok.’ I was sobbing all day Wednesday, an absolutely inconsolable mess, as K had to pool together the puddles of me that had dripped with tears into her couch. I felt completely hopeless in a way I never had before, as if the election had rocked my moral center and life philosophy in a way that was irreparable. Optimism gone with nothing to replace it. The blows kept on coming as I realized further aspects of a Trump presidency that would probably come to fruition: the racism, xenophobia, and homophobia in a first wave (already started, even to me with that homophobic dude yelling out his car at me on Friday), the threat of nuclear war in a second wave (predictable given Trump’s short fuse), and then climate destruction (almost certain). Each realization left me sobbing again, and as news of Trump’s cabinet picks have unfolded these last two weeks, my anxiety feels justified again, just as it had pre- and post-Brexit.

Yet in these two weeks I have also felt myself actually grow up. It was almost a physical, tangible shift, as my pre-election priorities left my body, to be replaced with a resilient assertion of adulthood. Gone were my wistful notions of a return to Europe; I have to stay and fight. I waved a (temporary?) goodbye to the idea of working in TV in favor of a career shift towards sustainability (if only I can hold on to that motivation). The sense of duty as an American to be on the right side of history has become my priority; I don’t want to become one of the “nice neighbors who made the best Nazis.” Yet my belief in our political system is so weak right now, I haven’t been able to will myself to call Senators or go to rallies – all I’ve done is report that harassment and donate to charities. Next is hopefully using this career opportunity to enter the climate change arena, and continuing the work of dismantling the pervasiveness of white supremacy, first by acknowledging that it has afforded me much of my position in life, but that I must not coast on it.

So, to complete that assignment from the Dutch journalist, here are some things I must keep in mind about values and action over the next 4 years, as we see our freedoms start to erode away:

  • Recognize that much of my success can be attributed to my relative privilege in life and therefore work to give back in a way that attempts to combat white supremacy (whether through time, money, words, civil disobedience, or other forms of resistance)
  • Remember that being the most hysterical person in the room can be good sometimes; it reminds me that I have not normalized the situation and that anxiety can serve as a warning. But I must not let anxiety get the best of me and prevent action or clear thinking, as it has been doing for several months. I should, however, continue listening to my intuition, as I did when I worried that Twitter’s passive support of the alt-right would help Trump get elected.
  • Remind myself that climate change is the thing that scares me the most, but that other things do too, in particular xenophobia and homophobia. I will not be prevented from living my life as an openly queer person nor will I condone xenophobia.
  • Refuse to stop living my own life or recognizing the joy in things, while demanding the most out of life as I always have. I have high expectations for myself, and I don’t want that to stop, but sometimes, civic duty is a higher calling, and obligation can be both more rewarding and matter more than hedonistic personal pleasure.
  • Commit. Commitment means a lot, especially now. I must not flake out on this commitment to a greener planet, even when my hope wavers. I may have lost my optimistic worldview, but if it is to be replaced with a pragmatism or even pessimism, I want to be able to honor my own character with a sense of commitment to the cause.
  • Create a new set of goals. This is in the works, but I think it’s part of why I’ve been off balance even before the election—I had either achieved goals or they were no longer applicable, so I was grasping around, trying to clench onto anything that resembled an appropriate goal, but my fists kept coming up empty.  While the youth-entrapped Kate valued externally motivated goals such as global travel, language learning, media consumption, and adventurous self-expansion, the new, more adult Kate is starting to formulate more internally motivated goals such as physical and mental health, a career dedicated to more than myself, and self-expansion through writing/reading/knowledge.
  • Finally, practice radical love and patience to the best of my ability. These times may test our patience and dedication, but I will try to invoke patience, love, and compassion more often than not, especially when encountering differences of opinion.
Who knows where the next few years will take us, and I am scared to see how this last, gasping whitelash will shape generations to come for the worse, but at least, two weeks out, I am not quite as continuously despairing as I was on November 9th. I’d like to think of it more as a workable anxiety, not a hopeless one.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

'Finding Love' on Reality TV

Today on the subway I was sitting next to K, goofing off in the way we do, even in public, and a man sitting across from us smiled and said, "I've seen you two before, and you always look so happy. What's your secret?" That gave us both pause, to which I could only brush off an answer, jokingly: "It's only been six months...and it's all a façade!" Joking aside, it made us stop and muse about serendipity, human connection and the small ways in which the universe organizes itself to confirm things that feel right (or that we just make things into signs of that rightness by the power of our own will).

These small moments of kismet come in direct opposition to a theme in summer's reality TV, which seems overrun by programs in which people attempt to 'find love' on camera. There are three in particular on this trend that I've been consuming with abject fascination and just a little guilt lately: "Bachelor in Paradise," "Finding Prince Charming," and "Married at First Sight." The first takes former "Bachelor" contestants and puts them on a beach together with enough competition to pair off that the pressure is on to find a mate. "Finding Prince Charming" takes the "Bachelor" concept and mixes it up with all-gay contestants, and "Married at First Sight" does exactly what its title indicates: matching two strangers in a legally binding marriage, at the alter, and seeing what unfolds for six weeks, after which they choose to stay together or divorce.

meet Finding Prince Charming's (mostly basic) "gay Bachelor" and his suitors

These three shows are deeply formulaic in their orchestration of connection, yet their conflicts are vastly different, even though they all involve the almost desperate striving by participants, and some sort of achievement or competition that enforces compliance with the formula. With something so variant and unpredictable as love, why do these shows win us (or me, an ever-sappy consumer of romantic stories) over with their formula? Have we come to believe that the trappings of romance, and the repetitive way its stories play out in media, are legitimate enough to be mistaken for actual connection? Are butterflies enough to go on? The contestants on these shows seem to think so, judging by how often they utter the word 'connection' as the token or proof of something promising, and legitimate.

I actually don't think it's just a matter of enjoying these stories because our hearts have been pumped full of romantic comedies. I am legitimately interested in how we 'perform' love in conjunction with our expectations for it, and reality TV is a perfect medium to explore this phenomenon. Think about it: assuming we all desire romantic human connection, what better way is there than consuming it vicariously, sped up, on TV, as it happens to 'real' people? But we must remember the artifice of the concept of reality TV love, which may or may not have any realness involved, and here's where it gets juicy. You get to see people's emotional baggage affect their behavior, their dispositions create conflict, and their expectations for the future either enhance or sabotage their search for connection (or just fame), all under the pressure of performance. Also, if you're introspective like I am, you may be able to turn the camera's lens on yourself in the process and think of how your own history would inform your performance of love on TV; would you be able to stay authentic or exaggerate yourself as you get sucked up into the 15 minutes of fame? Furthermore, how do you, yourself, perform love in your life?

If I were still well-versed in film theory I might be able to dig up some scholar's argument about the documentary film's inherent alteration of its subject, but broad strokes may suffice here: reality TV either has verisimilitude, or it doesn't at all. My question is, does the performance of love on TV, or even the audience's consumption of that performance, give it some sort of validity if there is even a smidgen of real feelings involved? The love doesn't have to be of the mind-altering, love-of-your-life caliber, but just the enacting of an inkling of chemistry, and the television's documentation of it, perhaps makes it so, because it creates a trope much like how romantic comedies encourage us to buy roses and chocolate for our loved ones. In clearer terms, the love might not last, or withstand real-world circumstances, but in showing us an example of how we could act in our pursuit of love, we end up playing the part in our own lives too -- looking for 'a connection' on OKCupid, listening to the fluttering of our stomachs on a first date, or even dramatizing a conflict "like they do on TV." It's like the Kardashians, who've achieved truly blurred lines between their TV selves and their authentic ones.

Any good story has a conflict, too, and in an attempt to spin a story out of 'reality,' reality TV love consumes conflict like wind to a fire for the sake of storytelling. Conflicts go from fabricated to authentic back to fabricated in the pursuit of a story arc; Chris Harrison arrives with a new 'date card' for the player who's just kissed someone else, or the gay bachelor conceals himself as a contestant to get 'true' first impressions of his suitors. I love this finagling of reality to produce conflict, because we watch as artifice has the potential to spur on actual conflict between actual humans. The humans may ham it up on camera, but I believe anger and jealousy are hard to fake.Yet the key difference between your own conflicts and the ones televised on these reality programs is that the camera has the power to change the performance and content of them, as the behavior triggered by the problem becomes more important than the root of it. I would say that most of us value equilibrium over conflict in our relationships, so we try to resolve issues, while reality TV contestants are perhaps emotional masochists in which they mine the circumstances for conflict, hence enhancing it.

It's so easy to get disillusioned, though, about love when we watch too many of these shows, because the formula becomes too prescriptive. The danger of reality TV is that it goes for sweeping gestures, romantic or dramatic, instead of mundane ones that have the potential to be so much more powerful. I, for one, am learning to recognize the small moments that build upon the big stuff in my relationship with K, and trying to silence that desire for broad, symbolic moments that fit so nicely into a crafted, neat story about love. The funny thing is, in recognizing a promise to love the moment for what it is, you are inherently building it into a story you tell yourselves, warts and all.