2069| July’s To-watch Recommendation – Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling

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Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling

The second season of GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) dropped on Netflix a couple of weeks ago and my word it is excellent.

I fell in love with GLOW last year – it was released quietly (relative to other Netflix originals like Stranger Things or 13 Reasons Why) but quickly gained a loyal following for its 80s-rewind retro vibe, fresh concept, and satirical take on showbiz and women in hollywood. The show follows Alison Brie playing Ruth Wilder, a failed actress who auditions for a new women’s wrestling reality TV show called GLOW. The season chugs on at full speed as the cast of diverse actresses hired to play the worst stereotypes of their racial profiles come together and try to film a successful pilot episode, and there’s a lot of glitter, hair spray, and chokeslams. But the real heart of the show lies in the conflict between the two main leads, Alison Brie’s Ruth and Betty Gilpin’s Debbie, long time best friends who fell out because Ruth slept with Debbie’s husband (twice).

Season one establishes the story in a fun and dynamic way, but it never loses sight of the fact that sequins and spandex aside, the story is about the fractured relationship between the two leads. At the end of the first season, after a successful show, Brie asks Gilpin out for coffee, only to be rejected. “We’re not there yet,” Gilpin says, and it’s disappointing, but realistic – a splinter that deep does not get redeemed over the course of one season, closure be damned.

So, season one was great. I would have been ok if it ended there. Second seasons are always dicey, and I didnt think GLOW needed to risk undoing everything with a sequel just for the ratings. But I am so, so glad it got renewed, because the second season is even better than the first.

Season two is not perfect – ambitious and consequently uneven, but it is stunning in its efforts.

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One of my favorite episodes in season two centered around the relationship between Gilpin and Kia Stevens, who’s ring-persona is the offensively titled Welfare Queen

The female friendship between Brie and Gilpin was the anchor of season one, and in season two it is explored even more painfully. It reminds me of Ferrante’s brand of female friendship, one that is not afraid to explore the toxic and competitive tension between women, one that poses realistic yet difficult questions. It is to the showrunners credit that we are never truly able to take a side – because the characters are both so flawed, so deeply real, that you cannot help but empathise. This anchor branches out throughout the season to comment on the modern #MeToo movement, the way female power in the workplace is framed by male authority, the struggles of balancing motherhood and career, and the commodification of women in hollywood.

But beyond that, season two wrestles with larger issues like LGBT acceptance in the 80s, child support and teenage relationships, and it even manages to work in an arc about AIDS, which is present without being ever mentioned explicitly. That is a lot to take on for a ten episode season, which results in aforementioned unevenness. But the attempt to fully flesh out every topic they touch on as well as give all the wrestlers more back story, more show time, more character development, is so earnest that one can forgive the occasional missteps – which occur primarily in the show’s pacing, and not the actual storyline anyway.

It’s sobering that the issues faced by the characters in the 80s are still so relevant to the world today in 2018, and perhaps that is kind of the point. It’s kind of amazing that despite dealing with all these huge issues, GLOW never turns preachy (a problem Orange is the New Black, also by Jenji Kohan, suffered from in Season 5). Instead, it tackles them in the best way possible – by acknowledging the issues, slapping some glitter on, then jumping into the ring with them. The result? Taking season two into account, GLOW is now one of the best shows on Netflix. Watch it.


Season Two of GLOW is now streaming on Netflix.

Looking for more entertainment recommendations? You can read the rest of my monthly pop culture recommendations here

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Jem

#2062 | May’s To Read – Dear Ijeawele

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May was a good month, guys, forever etched in my memory henceforth as the month I read 14 books. It only makes sense then that May’s recommendation is a book, a short one, by one of my favourite authors – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

If Chimamanda’s name rings a bell, it’s probably because you’ve heard Beyonce rave about her, or seen her 2013 TED Talk title We Should All be Feminists splashed on Dior’s t shirts and endorsed by the likes of rihanna, amongst others. It’s not everyday that a literary star gets mainstream recognition on such a scale, which explains why chimamanda has reached more or less cult status in literary and pop culture circles.

Last year, she published a new short story adapted from a letter she’d wrote when her pregnant friend asked her for advice on how to raise her baby daughter as a feminist. The result? A 15 step manifesto of sorts, which is clear and concise, charming in its telling, and a fantastic entry point to new readers of Chimamanda’s work.

Approaching a new author can be daunting, especially if youre not a habitual reader, which is why I recommend this book – it’s great both for seasoned readers of her work as well as people who are brand new. It’s easy to read, and Chimamanda truly has a talent for taking complicated matters and putting them across so clearly and cheerfully that the issues dont isolate or alienate readers. It also makes a great gift for new parents, and I dont think it should be restricted to simply parents of girls. I 100% recommend this to everyone. It should be necessary reading in schools. It’s not even long, so you can’t bandy the excuse of having a short attention span, it’s like, 10,000 words, more a lyrical essay than anything else.

After reading Dear Ijeawele:

I also recommend her TED Talks – the danger of a single story, or we should all be feminists.

And my favorite novel of hers by far – Americanah.

That’s it for May, y’all. And no, i dont get a commission on for bookdepo/kino/times/wh smith/any other bookseller sales, before you ask. Though i really should start looking into that. Where y’at, booksellers? hit me up.

Looking for more entertainment recommendations? You can read the rest of my monthly pop culture recommendations here

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Jem

#2156 | April’s To-Watch Recommendation: Netflix and Marvel Studio’s Jessica Jones

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Netflix and Marvel Studios: Jessica Jones

Yes yes I know I’m late, but here I am anyway with April’s to-watch recommendation, just in the nick of time!

With the buzz surrounding this month’s release of the mega marvel movie, I thought it was a good time to revisit the ground-level heroes from the Marvel universe. Besides Iron Fist, which I consider to be Marvel’s equivalent of Disney Pixar’s Planes, I’ve binge watched my way through the entire Defenders collection on Netflix, and enjoyed them all. I find that the drawn out format of the television series gives showrunners more time to play around with proper issues and flesh them out in ways that a two hour movie can only briefly touch on, and in many ways I find that the ground level shows are making much greater headway in terms of progressiveness as compared to their cinematic counterparts. Not that that’s a criticism of the MCU – different forms serve different purposes, obviously – but when you take a step back to appreciate the way the individual facets of the Marvel franchise come together, overall, I’m impressed.

I’ve frequently mentioned that Jessica Jones is the best of the entire Defenders series, but I’ve never actually gotten down to explaining why. Therein lies my agenda for the day. I find it to be the most underrated of the series – and it’s been my firm favourite ever since its inception, despite Jessica Jones being clearly not for everyone. This is true of both the character in the context of the show, and the show in context of today’s world. The show is grungy, the titular character is determined to be unlikeable and makes horrible decisions, and the show has none of the feel-good payoff that most marvel narratives have. In addition to that, the marketing around the show has leaned very heavily on the fact that Jessica is a strong woman, and makes the immediate connection from there to it being a feminist show. I have issues with this because I feel like labels like these are meant to just shoehorn shows (or books, for that matter) into a genre for targeted marketing, but that’s a story for another day.

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One of the posters for Jessica Jones

Regardless, it is a feminist show. But it is dangerous to assume that anything is feminist simply because it prominently features females. No. To feature women in a show is simply to depict reality. The bar is higher than that. Jessica Jones is a feminist show because it intelligently engages with and represents female-centric trauma in a responsible manner. That, I think, is the crux of the show. There are two narratives in any show: the first being the entertainment plot (aka the storyline) and the second being the narrative of what the show is actually trying to say. Eg. GLOW is about females trying to put up a wrestling show but it is also about the mythicism of an unbreakable female friendship. The Good Place is about Kristen Bell’s character trying to hide the fact that she’s a fraud in the afterlife, but it is also about the moral philosophy with regards to the age old question of what we mean to each other. The Handmaid’s Tale is about Offred trying to survive in a dystopian patriarchy, but it is also about how beliefs can be dangerous when taken to the extreme. And Jessica Jones is about a superpowered woman trying to take down her ex-abuser who has mind control powers that only she is immune to, but it is also about the struggle of processing the trauma of a sexually and emotionally abusive relationship.

I’m referring specifically to Jessica Jones Season 1 (season 2 is also very good, but it deals with a different set of issues). The journey Jessica takes is as much to take Kilgrave (stupid villain name, but very charismatic acting) down as it is to try and process her trauma in a realistic manner. Pop culture trying to deal with sexual abuse and trauma is not new, but there are several things that stand out in the first season of Jessica Jones:

Despite being a show that deals with sexual abuse induced trauma, the actual rape of Jessica is never shown on screen. Instead, the effects of that trauma are intricately explored throughout the season, unlike many other shows that use rape as a plot device to shock and scandalise an audience coughGameofthronescough. The decision not to portray the actual rape onscreen has the unintentional (or not?) effect of paralleling the real life publicised rape cases – no one outside gets to see what precisely went down between the aggressor and victim, and all we have to go on are the victim’s words. In this case, we have to believe Jessica when she says she was raped and abused or the show falls apart, but it does leave us wondering about the difference between our readiness to believe a fictional character’s account over a real life victim.

Jessica’s recovery process is not a textbook survivor story, she does not seek help or display any desire to get better, she is stubbornly self reliant and finds her solace at the bottom of a whiskey bottle. She deals with her trauma by turning into an alcoholic with self destructive tendencies, but the show does a very good job of not romanticising the grunginess of the spiral – other characters are constantly pointing out the problems with her behavior, and how this makes her selfish, irritating, and hard to be around.

The sexual abuse was never portrayed as a transformative act, something a character has to go through to become stronger. It is portrayed as what it is – a crime. And at the end of the season, Jessica does not come to a convenient peace with herself just because her assaulter is out of the picture, because that is not how trauma works in real life. This is something Netflix has been pretty good with – look at Glow and how the friendship between the two female leads didn’t recover by the end of the season: because a visceral betrayal doesnt get put behind normal human beings over the course of one season. That’s just not how it works.

The trauma Jessica has to deal with is not just induced by the nonconsensual sexual relationship she engaged in with Kilgrave while under his mind control. It is also found in all the tiny ways she was emotionally controlled and manipulated (the show’s repetition of Kilgrave ordering women to smile and mean it is a tad on the nose, and for good reason), as well as the ways Kilgrave denies the charges when she finally confronts him. Would she still have to deal with post-relationship trauma if she had to deal only with emotional abuse and not physical rape? I think so – and that’s precisely what happens in the original comic books.

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“Just smile, Jessica.

I am thinking of Chimamanda’s ted talk – the danger of a single story – when I say this: narratives like these are important because they show that there are different ways of reacting to the same traumatic incident. I recently read an article on Harpers Bazaar (“Sometimes you make your rapist breakfast”, 2018) which referred to the idea of the Perfect Victim, which I thought was timely. While this is not to say that there arent survivors who process their trauma in a textbook recovery kinda way, I think it’s important to recognise that there are many different ways of reacting to a traumatic incident like sexual abuse, because when we only acknowledge one way to be a victim and survivor, then what we do is invariably dismiss victims who don’t follow this narrative. Take for example Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, which was the source of a lot of debate last year for its portrayal of suicide. For all the buzz around how Hannah’s suicide was portrayed, I found merit in the way the show portrayed the fact that another character in the show, also named Jessica, remained friends with her rapist as a means of dealing with it. Does this decision not to cut off the rapist retrospectively undo the rape? No – it remains what it is. To believe otherwise is to buy into the dangerous cultural myths regarding what legitimises sexual assault and makes it ‘real’.

I emphasise the involvement of both Netflix and Marvel Studios whenever I speak about Jessica Jones because the fact that they are both giants in their own rights is crucial to my final point – which is that the element of widespread appeal is the very element that cements the role of entertainment in the ecosystem of social commentary simply because entertainment forms reach and educate a wide audience that may not ever pick up an academic paper on trauma. Both Netflix and Marvel Studios have made missteps before in their attempts at engaging with social issues, but the important thing, to me, is the attempt. For if the big corporations don’t try, then how can we expect the financially struggling independent studios to solely shoulder the full responsibility of engaging in dialogue about difficult issues? And Jessica Jones represents to me a near-perfect child of that attempt.

Jessica Jones season one and two are streaming on netflix

Looking for more entertainment recommendations? You can read the rest of my monthly pop culture recommendations here

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Jem

#2141 | March’s To-Listen: 36 Questions – A musical revival of the podcast?

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Hey guys,

So I’m perpetually obsessed with finding new and more efficient ways to manage my time, and a big part of that is carving out time to consume content that i enjoy or that I feel enriches me creatively (see: Five ways to read more daily). And the most recent way this has manifested in my life? Podcasts.

Most podcasts are informational (I like the Freakonomics one) or funny (Weird Work), and I enjoy listening to them so much even if the subject matters have absolutely nothing to do with my life. It’s become so natural for me to tune in to a new podcast episode while getting ready in the morning or to plug in while on public transport. But very few of them have a narrative thread, and that’s something I greatly miss from radio stations in the UK – whole stations dedicated to people just reading stories to you in a comforting, grandfatherly voice.

So naturally, 36 Questions had me at three part musical podcast. It popped up in my recommended podcasts list, and I was like, are you SURE THIS IS FREE. Because how can such amazing content be free?! But the internet never ceases to amaze me.

We’ve become so conditioned to assume that content associated with high culture (art, music, etcetera) comes at a high cost – havent we all complained about Hamilton tickets being prohibitively expensive? – that i think when something similar is offered for free, it just blows our collective minds. When I was backpacking across europe I loved scouring forums for ways to get cheap tickets for musicals and plays, and it was also then that i really started being able to watch and enjoy theatre. That opportunity to really get into theatre would never have been afforded to me in Singapore because shows that travel here are mad expensive, and it’s just not within the price bracket for most people’s (semi?)regular weekend fare. I dont think there’s one easy solution for this because of the differences in cultural priorities for Singapore vs the States/Europe, but I do think that it’s a pity because it is a whole universe of joy and color and texture and magic and it comes at a cost that many people cannot afford.

That is a big part of the reason why here, especially, in the tiny island of Singapore, I appreciate what 36 questions aims to do.

The three part podcast is kind of like listening to a radio drama that occasionally breaks into song – it stars Jonathan Groff (Frozen, Glee, and Hamilton) and Jessie Shelton (theatre trained, but generally a media newcomer), and was written and directed by indie studio Two-Up. The story thread is relatively straightforward, with an interesting premise – a couple falls in love while doing the 36 questions (a psychologist-developed questionnaire that was popularised by the New York Times) and two years later, tries to fix their broken marriage by doing the 36 questions together again. There’s drama in the middle, a lot of rain, a lot of cheesiness, and also, a duck (throwback to season 4 of FRIENDS, anyone?). They often break into solos or have their dialogue phase into vocal harmony, which fires up a little frisson of delight in me whenever it happens.

There are two filmmakers who sit on the production team of 36 questions, and this works very much to the benefit of the podcast because it requires an intimate understanding of cinematic space, and subsequently how that has to be converted to an audio form without losing the lustre that comes with visual spectacle. As a result, listening to the podcast creates the sense that you’re sitting in on an intimate conversation between two people, privy to the tears, the heartbreak, the sighs, the drama, all up close. It’s a whole world carried around and transmitted to you through your headphones. And it’s extremely charming, which makes up for the dips in narrative, which does happen here and there. At some points the plot / acting becomes so cheesy I want to reach through the headphones and smack one or both of the characters, but this feeling is few and far between, and easily forgivable and glossed over by the charisma of the actors.

Overall a solid recommendation. I initially started on the series thinking it would be a great entry point to the world of musicals, but very quickly realised that it holds its own well as an entirely new musical form. You can download/stream/listen to 36 Questions here.

Looking for more entertainment recommendations? You can read the rest of my monthly pop culture recommendations here

x
Jem

#2138 | February’s To-Watch Recommendation

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Hey-ho,

A new thing I have decided to try and do this year is to give monthly entertainment recommendations, both because I have a lot of love for television shows/ movies/ books I consume, and also in a bid to force myself into a more disciplined balanced life (with work and a decent amount of hopefully enriching media consumption). Lets see how long I stick to this, but this month, here I am with The Good Place.

I first heard of The Good Place whilst I was in LA. We were at Universal Studios Hollywood, which is a wholly mediocre theme park remedied mainly by the fact that they had an hour long ‘ride’ called The World-Famous Studio Tour, where you go on this cart and they bring you around 13 blocks of the historic studio lots (which are still being used today!) and show you the behind the scenes movie magic stuff. It’s super super cool, and when we were on the tour the guide excitedly told us to be quiet at some parts because a show was being filmed live in one of the lots. That show was The Good Place.

So when I saw the show on Netflix, I thought – eh, why not? BEST. DECISION. EVER. The show stars Kristen Bell, who I first fell in love with during her Veronica Mars era, and who later on went to act in many movies you’ve probably seen – forgetting sarah marshall, you again, bad moms, and arguably her most prolific roles – the voice of Gossip Girl and Princess Anna in Frozen. Kristen Bell is basically extremely likeable, though I think she gets pretty b-grade roles, so I’m really excited that she’s the star of such a great series again!

The premise of The Good Place is fresh – Eleanor, played by Kristen Bell, wakes up in the afterlife and is told to relax, for she is finally in The Good Place. The Bad Place is for everyone who doesn’t live the absolute best and moral lives, which means all the famous philosophers and artists are there, ha ha. The heavenly architect, Michael, congratulates Eleanor on living this amazing life of community work and dedication to charity, and shows her to her new house which comes with her soul mate (matched by the heavenly computer system) attached. Welcome to perfection, she’s told. Here’s where you’re spending eternity, hope youre ready to be mega happy forever!

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Except there’s a mix up, and she’s actually a really annoying and awful person. In her words, she’s a “medium person”, someone who wasnt great but wasnt terrible either, and she deserves to go to a medium place, like Cincinnati. However, she’s out of luck – it’s either perfection or eternal damnation, and she really doesn’t want to be tortured forever. So she begs her soulmate, the pitiable but insanely endearing Chidi, who was a moral philosophy lecturer while he was alive, to teach her how to be good. Thus begins the season of her trying to earn her right to live in The Good Place and hide the fact that she’s a mistake from the rest of the neighbourhood.

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That’s basically the premise of the show. It’s created by Mike Schur, who co-created Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which should give you a sense of how funny and smart the writing is going to be like. The show is so fresh and irreverent that it truly makes the afterlife sound ridiculously fun, and the way it ignores storytelling convention (you think the show is about one thing, but actually, its like about five zillion other things, and also, oh, we forgot the first thing already) is incredible. It has a stellar ensemble cast. And it’s just so funny.

My favourite thing about the show, though, is Janet, the Siri-like Artificial Intelligence Assistant played by the excellent D’Arcy Carden. I firmly believe that she is the best damned thing about the show, because how can any show make us feel so strongly for an artificial assistant?? I came back home and was very nice to my Google Home after that. Hey Google, will you please wake me up at eight? and all that.

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Her comic timing is great too

Janet for the win!

In an age where the sitcom genre is getting a bit repetitive, The Good Place is really a fantastically devilish intervention. And the best part? The show really holds up to a second rewatching, where new meaning is brought to the same scenes we know and love. Amazing. I 10/10 recommend this.

Looking for more entertainment recommendations? You can read the rest of my monthly pop culture recommendations here

x
Jem