Orange is the New Moral Dilemma: Season 5’s Tensions and Gray Areas

Like everyone else who’s been keeping up with Orange is the New Black, I, in my lack of self-control, marathoned the new season in two days despite having other things to do. After letting my thoughts stew for a bit and discussing some of them on Tumblr, I found myself thinking a lot about this season’s focus on blurred morality.

Season 5 stretches roughly four days across thirteen episodes, a significant change of pace from previous seasons, which generally cover a couple months or so. On one hand, this pacing makes sense because stressful situations, like riots, do make the days feel long. A lot happens to these characters internally and externally over a very short period of time. On the other hand, the riot felt too long. It didn’t need to last the entire season–in fact, it’s still not technically over. One reason why the season felt so slow is that several characters go through some intense changes and moral dilemmas that we as viewers logically think should take a long time to work through; however, it’s entirely possible to go through significant internal changes during a crisis in a very short amount of time.

Many of the changes for these characters involve moral dilemmas that have no easy answer. The broadest of these is “Can the inmates run a more just system than the existing prison hegemony, or will they resort to implementing the same abuse they were subjected to?”

Are We Better Than Them?

Over the years, Orange is the New Black has made us sympathetic to the prisoners, the protagonists. Now, some are dolling out the same abusive treatment they received from the guards, and whether we find it funny or repulsive depends on our sense of justice and notions of retribution. The show does this on purpose, forcing us to think about whether they are right to do so, and showing us some characters who blatantly question whether they are really better than the guards.

Some characters want to try and prove that they are–that when you take away the corrupt agents of the prison system, the inmates will create for themselves better living conditions. This works to some degree. Brooke gets her living library, some inmates create a cafe, and others set up small shops in the hallways akin to a craft fair. When Pennsatucky gets scathed for helping Coates, Boo convinces the other inmates that instead of throwing her in the Poo, they should hold a fair trial. Ultimately, Tucky’s “punishment” is community service, which makes her happy, gives her a sense of purpose, and appears more rehabilitative than locking her in a port-o-potty.

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However, other characters care more about retribution or simply want to relish in the chaos. Leanne and Angie literally piss in Tucky’s pot, forcing Tucky to conclude that doing nice things for others is pointless–that the second she starts to feel a sense of purpose in life, it’ll just be taken away, not only by the guards (the system) but also by the people in the same boat as her. These circumstances place a pessimistic spin on the notion that subjugated people can rise up and run themselves more justly instead of emulating the practices they’ve known for their entire lives, or in this case the treatment they’ve received in prison.

Pull The Lever?

In this vein, several characters face moral choices of the utilitarian variety: sacrifice the one for the many or the many for the one? This problem explicitly arises when Piper, Black Cindy, Allison, and a few other inmates watch Taystee’s negotiations with Figueora and Figueora learns that someone shot one of the guards. It comes down to a choice of whether they should turn Daya in to keep Figueora’s quickly dwindling trust, or if they should cover for her. Piper connects this dilemma to the utilitarian answer to the trolley problem–whether you should sacrifice one person to save many more people. Ultimately, Daya makes her own decision and chooses the many by turning herself in. By taking responsibility for her actions instead of trying to get away with them like her mother always taught her, Daya manages to keep the negotiations on the table for all the other inmates to see the changes Taystee is fighting for.

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Throughout season 5, Taystee has only one goal in mind: justice for Poussey. In my opinion, she and Brooke are the only characters who keep Poussey at the forefront of their minds. Other characters, like Allison, help to solidify the anger and pain into tangible demands that can help the inmates who are still alive. Together, all the black girls lead an organized effort for all the inmates to input their demands. Then, the black girls sift the top ten demands into a written letter, and it’s these written demands that Taystee spends hours negotiating. In her mind, all of it is for Poussey. Toward the end of the season, however, Black Cindy voices her disagreement, telling Taystee that her efforts stopped being about Poussey and started being about her pride a long time ago. She believes that Taystee should accept a deal with Figueora, one that satisfies every demand except the one most immediately related to Poussey’s death: arrest CO Bailey. Should she settle for this and struggle with feeling like she caved in or lost sight of what the whole riot was really about? Or should she stick to her ideals and push for every demand? In other words, Taystee’s dilemma is whether she should help the many by taking the deal offered to her and (theoretically) secure tangible changes for all the inmates, or if she should help the one (Poussey) by seeing that her killer is brought to justice. Taystee chooses the one. She holds out on accepting the deal and getting most of the demands met. Then, the moment is gone and by the season finale, it looks as if none of the demands will be met.

Whether we think Taystee was right to stick to her ideals or that she made an entirely foolish decision that screwed over hundreds of inmates depends on how strongly we value ideals over imperfect yet real compromises. Either way, this should be a major sticking point for Taystee in the next season. She will be blamed for not having taken what she could to help the inmates who are still alive.

Personally, I never sensed as I watched that Taystee had become prideful or that she had turned the riot and negotiations into an effort to stroke her ego. I think she wanted retribution for her best friend’s death, and whether her choice becomes a good or bad decision will depend on how season 6 unfolds.

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Taystee and Daya are not the only ones who face this many-or-one decision. Gloria struggles with it as well when she learns that her son is in the hospital and the only chance she has at getting furlough is if she releases the hostages. However, that would mean betraying everyone she’s known for the past several years. Does she leave the hostages alone for the (supposed) good of the many prisoners to continue the riot and their demands for justice? Or does she choose the one–her son–above all else? Though she does choose her son, her efforts fail, emphasizing the reality that many of the characters on this show face: the best attempts to do the right thing–to change–are stacked against them because someone somewhere wants them to fail, whether it’s another inmate, the system, or the universe.

Resistance and Social Media

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I once jokingly told a coworker that sometimes, the best way to stick it to the man is to “just chill.” That’s exactly what Alex ends up doing, though she doesn’t see herself as a resistance leader. All Alex wants this season is to chill outside in her bulldozer house and not deal with any drama, yet this somehow becomes a symbol of resistance to other inmates who want nothing to do with the riot. But is it really resistance to hang out away from the fray and not partake in the chaos inside? Mostly, it seems like self-preservation. Alex herself isn’t trying to make any statement, but her “followers” do participate in the outdoor camp to resist the violence of the riot. Through one lens, they may be cowards for not participating. Through another, they may be smart for doing what they must to protect themselves. Yet the chaos does eventually reach them, and Alex ends up locked in a supply closet with only a shower curtain covering her as Pischatella ruthlessly breaks her arm. Gina catches this incident on camera, then disperses it into the world of hashtags and reblogs.

Yoga Jones comments later on that it’s hard to ignore injustice when it’s on your Facebook feed, yet she says this in a pessimistic tone. This is important because it makes the audience think about how the wider world only appears to care about injustices when we see them on social media, not at any point before. It conjures questions of the merits of social media activism and why it takes something going viral for people to begin caring about an issue. Yet social media is a powerful tool this season and its role in the show reflects its role in reality. It’s not always the vehicle for change that we want it to be. The Internet will take a serious video, autotune it, and spit it back out as a meme, as we see with the Litchfield confession video and “Black Lattes Matter.” The most viewed content coming out of Litchfield appears to be Flaritza’s makeup videos, which do contain some brutality in the background, but are otherwise silly and therefore perfect for a YouTube fanbase.

Whether it’s good or bad that it takes social media to stir consciousness about injustice depends on our sense of how people should respond to daily injustices, our views about social media in general, and how removed from a particular experience we must be to first see it on social media–or on a TV show, leading me to my last reflection.

Art Reflects Life?

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I’ve had a post about season 4 sitting in my drafts for a year because most of it consists of rhetorical questions, and I couldn’t articulate my thoughts without sounding like I was making excuses or diminishing experiences I don’t have. Season 5 has helped to bring some of that into clearer focus.

The truth is, I saw Poussey’s death in multiple lights. I saw the needlessness of it in that she was one of very, very few queer black characters on television and was therefore vital representation for so many. The season also aired during a year where it seemed like every TV show was killing off its queer women. Furthermore, one point of Poussey’s death was to stir consciousness in an audience that might not otherwise have cared about or understood #BlackLivesMatter. Indeed, some non-black fans of the show did post about how they never felt affected about this particular brand of injustice until it happened to a character they loved, and we know how some of us can be with our attachment to fictional characters. Why did queer black representation have to be taken away like that for some audiences to awaken?

In another light, I see Orange is the New Black‘s overall purpose and a particular silver lining that art, in general, occupies. Orange is the New Black has always aimed to raise awareness about life in incarceration and the mistreatment inmates face in federal prisons. Though it wavers between humor and drama, Orange is the New Black has always had realism in its serious plot developments. That intention on the writers’ parts is clear. The reality of a black person dying at the hands of a federal or state authority figure is well within the scope of horrors that Orange is the New Black could reflect back to its viewers. The show has always aimed to be provocative. One of fiction’s roles is to stir outrage and reflection upon broken parts of society, to make readers and viewers care about people and issues and realities that they might not have otherwise known or cared about. The great thing about all of this happening in fiction? It’s not real. This is why fiction is a safe(r) place to encounter these situations. At the end of the day, Samira Wiley is still alive. Poussey herself is just a fictional character, one who is well-developed and certainly feels like a real person, but still a character nonetheless. That is our level of removal from any story we read or watch, and sometimes, that removal is protective. Does Poussey’s death reflect what happened to Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland? Absolutely. Poussey not being real doesn’t mean that her story isn’t realistic or that it isn’t based on reality. It just means you can sit there taking in what happened after that fade to orange and know that this particular case is only a story.

Would Poussey’s story have turned out differently if the Orange is the New Black writer’s room wasn’t mostly white? I’m not sure, but I think about how Dear White People had Reggie almost shot by a campus security guard and how that provoked a similar sense of outrage among the characters. Not only did Reggie not die from that incident, but the audience also saw the psychological aftermath–both the trauma and friends gently checking on Reggie. To me, this was just as powerful and made as much of a point as Poussey’s death did, but Reggie lived.

Personally, I could go back and forth with myself on this and many of the other tensions Orange is the New Black presents to us. Although I’m starting to sense that this series is spiraling out of control and is nearing the ends of its run, I’m still invested enough to see it through to the end.

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Almost Adults: I Like It, But…

Almost Adults follows two best friends, Mackenzie and Cassidy, during their last years of college as they grow up and grow apart. Mackenzie comes out as a lesbian while Cassidy navigates her way to independence after ending a serious relationship with her boyfriend. Natasha Negovanlis and Elise Bauman of Carmilla fame star as the main characters, so naturally I had to watch it as soon as it came on Netflix.

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I did like this movie. I thought it was funny and I enjoyed the story of two friends accepting that their lives are taking different paths because that’s real–that’s what happens in your last years of college. It’s nice to see Negovanlis’s humorous side since Carmilla is such a broody gay vampire, and her acting chemistry with Bauman is worth the watch in and of itself. Since they played lovers in Carmilla, it’s great to see them pull off best friends in this film.

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But given that Almost Adults is about two college kids who are still immature in many ways, there are some aspects of the writing that miffed me or made me roll my eyes.

The film often uses people with disabilities as the butt of a joke, particularly those with mental disabilities. While it shows how ignorant, dense, and selfish the main characters are (especially Mackenzie), it comes across as crass whereas the intention seems to be humor. The same can be said for the possible transphobia in the story Mackenzie tells about her ex-boyfriend. On the surface, it’s intended to be a roast of his genitalia and nothing more (though it again points to Mackenzie’s childishness and is fitting for a character in a film called Almost Adults), but some of her language is easily coded as transphobic, particularly the whole “it was totally an innie; it was practically a vagina” thing.

There’s also the dig Mackenzie makes at herself for being pathetic because she’s a 22-year-old “virgin,” not only discounting the experiences she had with her ex, but also perpetuating the harmful notion that it’s pathetic to not be sexually experienced by your 20s. This attitude is rampant in queer media and in some queer communities, but I don’t think it does anyone any good. It only feeds people’s insecurities and makes sex a bigger deal than it has to be.

Levi, the stereotypical gay best friend, pressures Mackenzie to come out to Cassidy. Pressuring someone to come out is inappropriate as is shaming them for not coming out. There’s no timeline for this and no one says you have to come out to everyone all at once, which is what Levi seems to want for Mackenzie. At least Mackenzie later stands up to Cassidy for giving her the same bull.

Speaking of coming out, Mackenzie’s disappointment that her parents didn’t make a fuss over her being gay is a bit strange. Sometimes, it seems like she’s being sarcastic, but other times she seems genuinely disappointed that her parents are supportive, like she was mentally gearing up for a big a fight or a dramatic rejection. At least the audience gets cathartic relief from Levi rolling his eyes in the background. Mackenzie’s reaction is perhaps the most revealing of her character: she thrives on some level of tension or drama in her life, and perhaps she believes that her coming out isn’t legit unless she faces rejection from her parents, which is a pretty messed-up way to think, but it again points to her immaturity.

All of these moments of selfishness and immaturity, though, do fit with the point that Mackenzie and Cassidy are almost adults. Of course they’re still childish, selfish, and petty. They have to grow up and get used to their changing relationship.

This film holds up The L Word as its basis for what it “should” be like to be a queer woman given the numerous references to the show (many of which I thought were funny) to the actual plotting and characterization. Even though I enjoyed The L Word (a lot back when I watched it), I wish we could stop using it as the pinnacle on which all other wlw media is based. I get it–it’s a classic and it has its place in LGBTQ media history, but as a result it tends to become definitive for the way real queer women live their lives and what they can expect from relationships. One of the reasons why I enjoyed Carmilla so much was that it doesn’t have this air of “this is how you’re supposed to be a lesbian and this is what your relationships will be like.”

Speaking of Carmilla, the fact that I like Negovanlis and Bauman so much as actresses is one of the reasons why I enjoyed this movie as much as I did. They do have great acting chemistry and I’ll probably watch anything they’re cast for in the future because I’m interested in seeing the different roles they can play. While their characters in Almost Adults aren’t carbon copies of Laura and Carmilla, Mackenzie and Cassidy are pretty similar. Both Mackenzie and Laura have a dorky naivety to them, while Cassidy and Carmilla have this tendency to run away from things (Cass breaking up with Matthew because he proposed, Carmilla for centuries trying not to get attached to the girls her mother has her take). I really hope these ladies don’t get typecast.

So while Almost Adults does, in some senses, depart from typical queer narratives of dramatic coming out stories and equally dramatic relationships, focusing instead on a friendship story, it doesn’t do much to dispel some of the harmful rhetoric of the wider world. Even though I liked the movie and genuinely laughed out loud at many scenes, I think it perpetuates some notions that many wish would just go away.

Carmilla: A Glimmer of Hope in a Sea of “Bury Your Gays”

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Last month, the YouTube series Carmilla ended and neither member of the main lesbian couple died (permanently). In fact, Carmilla lived and I have some theological feelings about that.

Carmilla is loosely based on the 1872 novella of the same name. It follows Laura Hollis, a student at potently supernatural school called Silas University, as she investigates the sudden disappearance of her roommate. What begins as a beefed-up journalism project turns into a mission to save the student body from an evil dean (who turns out to be an ancient god) and blossoms into a better love story than Twilight. By season 3, the gates of hell are all but unleashed and it could’ve been so easy for this story to end in darkness and tragedy. I was fairly confident that it wouldn’t, largely because the cast and crew of Carmilla are so cozy with the fandom. Even before season 1 ended, people flocked to Carmilla, especially queer people. Since then, the Carmilla team has been quite responsive to the fandom, adopting the term “creampuff” in its advertising and social media presence much like the Orphan Black team adopted “clone club.”

So, given Carmilla‘s awareness of its audience and more importantly, everything this audience is tired of, I wasn’t all that worried about a sad ending. Still, I prepared myself for it and thankfully got a cheesy, nicely-wrapped-in-a-bowtie ending, complete with heroic self-sacrifice saving the day and transcending death.

Carmilla actually reverses the “bury your gays” trope for its main couple and says, “resurrect your gays.” Carmilla, being a vampire, is dead from the start and Laura dies in the antechamber of the seventh gate.Yet Carmilla is given a beating heart (despite her protests) and Laura regains her life. Both were dead and then alive, and as an amateur hipster theologian, I’m totally cool with that.

So many stories in Western pop culture about queer women portray toxic relationships or one of the two partners in a couple dies tragically and often violently. Carmilla does not tell either of these stories. Laura and Carmilla aren’t perfect, but their relationship is complex without the drama of cheating and without the drama of violent death.

In light of all the ridiculous supernatural occurrences in Carmilla, queerness is just a matter of fact, neither dramatized nor relegated to subtext. It’s also not sexualized and it’s basically impossible to come away with the impression or suspicion that Carmilla is really made for straight men.

In short Carmilla does a lot of things right in terms of representation. It’s become a fictional sanctuary of sorts for many of its fans looking for a queer story that doesn’t make them cringe.

Being an independent YouTube show, I’m not sure how much Carmilla will influence mainstream pop culture. Still, between its refreshing queer representation and how it’s shot as a video blog (therefore leaving many of the exciting events to the viewer’s imagination), Carmilla is worth watching and worth talking about.

Some Love for The Get Down

In this era of Netflix, stories that wouldn’t have had much of a chance on TV 15 years ago now get their own spotlight and can spawn fandoms overnight. We’ve seen this with Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Sense8, and Stranger Things. My question is: where’s the love for The Get Down?

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The Get Down takes place in the late ’70s during one of the worst periods for those living in the Bronx. Featuring a cast that is almost entirely black and/or latinx, The Get Down tells the story of the birth of hip-hop and rap in the age of disco despite the depraved conditions of neglected neighborhoods and the unsavory business people get into just to make enough money to pay for rent and food. It has a cheesy love story, a fantastic soundtrack, and hints of upturning the homophobia it has to portray given the time period.

Fans of Hamilton should find plenty to like in this series. Revolution and hip-hop and possibly bisexual characters? You’ve got that here. Supporters of diversity in fiction will find representation that is varied and dynamic. The show touches on racism, on finding a way out of poverty while still trying to maintain a sense of your roots, and on the blossoming of new art despite all the surrounding destruction. In their own respective ways, two of the main characters, Mylene and Zeke, turn to music to make something of themselves. For Mylene, it’s disco and she’s often chastised for all that “white singing.” For Zeke, it’s the emerging underground hip-hop scene, which conflicts with opportunities he receives to succeed in the white world.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the series for me is how Mylene ends up adding a disco flair to a worship song and that single goes from the sanctuary of a church to the sanctuary of a gay club, becoming an anthem for the gay community and solidifying Mylene’s single as a hit. And yes, gay clubs were and still are sanctuaries for many people. They had to be, especially when the church did not allow gay people in their own sanctuaries. Rare was the gay person who heard a message of liberation and freedom for them in a church sanctuary in the 1970s, yet The Get Down has that message reach them anyway. Although gayness only starts to come to the forefront near the end of the first season, I see and hope that the series will explore it more in depth. 1977 is not even ten years after Stonewall. If Dizzee and Thor get a story line that’s just as campy as Zeke and Mylene’s, while also confronting the realities of trying to exist as queer people in the 1970s, then that’ll be yet another untold story brought to life.

I also hope, but won’t necessarily hold my breath, that religion will get a more dynamic portrayal. Yes, the ultra-fundamentalist Christian pastor father narrative creates a lot of drama and tension, but I’m quite tired of that being the only type of Christianity I ever see in media (which is why I use progressive Christianity in my own writing). The show’s creators have some alternative religious narratives to choose from, such as the United Church of Christ’s growing acceptance of and compassion toward LGBT people in the 70s. Of course, as I’ve expressed several times in the past, the comfortable narrative to go with is the conservative one.

Even so, The Get Down is just a fantastic story. It’s a bit over-the-top at times, which is fine by me as an anime fan, but it totally deserves just as much love and fandom as so many other series have right now. Part of it is that the show was only released a month ago, but I do hope the love picks up some steam.

Queer Life and Death in Cartoons and TV Shows

The Internet has been abuzz lately regarding the “Bury Your Gays” trope, escalated by several popular TV shows killing off queer characters, particularly women, and adding to this larger idea that relationships between queer women are unstable at best and tragic at worst.

A lot of people are currently criticizing The 100 and Orphan Black for killing off major queer characters and making their partners suffer. I know nothing about The 100 except for what I’ve read about that one character’s death and how it’s angered many viewers. However, I will say that I was previously a bit interested in watching the show. Now, I probably won’t because I’m quite tired of queer female relationships–when they’re shown at all–being tragic, petty, or unstable. I’m not keen on getting into a show already knowing that that’s what’ll happen. I’m sure The 100 is phenomenal in many other ways, but this turn of events makes me hesitant. Orphan Black is a different story for me because I’ve been a fan of the show from the very beginning, so I didn’t know going into it that there would be queer representation at all nor did I know what would happen to Delphine at the end of season 3 (however, I don’t think she’s really dead). I’m invested in the story for many other reasons besides Cosima and Delphine, but I can completely understand why some people have dropped the show and others who maybe hadn’t seen it yet might not be interested anymore.

When I reflect on queer representation that I’ve come across, I find that there are more positive examples in cartoons (and maybe anime) than in live action TV shows or movies, especially mainstream ones. Part of this is certainly differences in the type of audience. Cartoons in the West are generally aimed at younger audiences and along with that comes particular ideas of what’s appropriate and not appropriate for kids. Queerness for a long time has been deemed “not appropriate,” hence why there are only a handful of recent cartoons that make queer relationships more explicit. On the flip side, tragic death, drugs, and excessive blood and violence are also generally deemed not appropriate for children’s media.

This could be why queerness, when it’s clearly presented in cartoons, is much more positive than it is in live action shows, including those that explore queerness in depth.

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I’m going to pick on The L Word, which for the longest time was touted as the quintessential lesbian show. Just about every queer woman under 40 has seen it or at least knows what it is. I watched the entire series several years ago and I enjoyed it, but all of the characters are so terrible to each other in their relationships. All of them. Every single one. They cheat on each other, they lie, they break promises, and some eventually set out to ruin others’ lives. All of this is the stuff of great drama, so The L Word is really just doing what its genre does best, but subsequent TV shows haven’t seemed to step away from this. Orange is the New Black is also pretty gay, but Alex and Piper, as cute as they are together, basically exhibit the same selfish toxicity that’s evident in The L Word. I had similar frustrations with the first season of Transparent. I generally liked the show, but hated every character except Ali and Maura. They’re all selfish, terrible people, including the token lesbian couple that comes into being through breaking up marriages.

I see almost the opposite in cartoons. I’ve discussed Korrasami at length on this blog and noted many ways in which they have a stable, supportive relationship. Marceline and Bubblegum from Adventure Time are also getting back to that level (though they have a lot to work through and Marceline is also the Angst Queen). Ruby and Sapphire from Steven Universe are a great example of a committed couple that works through their problems. Sure, they have conflict, but they would never cheat on each other or hurt each other in ways that I’ve seen queer women do in live action TV shows.

Of course, presenting cartoons as full of entirely positive queer representation and live action shows as full of entirely negative ones reduces the issue too much and is inaccurate. Carmilla mostly shows Hollstein as happy together, but even when they’re not, it’s not because Laura or Carmilla cheat or hurt each other on purpose. Their conflicts typically come from Laura’s hero complex and Carmilla’s survivalist instincts. On the other hand, most queerness I’ve seen in anime is subtle, stated but not explored much, or tragic (Kill la Kill and Revolutionary Girl Utena come to mind).

Why is any of this a problem? Isn’t drama and death just part of good storytelling? Of course it is, but we have to remember how influential media is. Someone who’s never met queer women before can watch all of these shows and come away with an ill-informed notion about how these relationships work in real life. I know so many people who live and love nothing like the women in The L Word or other shows (at the same time, I know people who relish in that exact sort of drama, which gets into a different issue of how much queer media affects our actual behavior).

Fiction is powerful. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be a writer. Therefore, it’s always a good exercise to examine these sorts of tropes and trends and ask if the story must always play out this way. I don’t believe it does. I think there are so many other ways to tell stories about queer relationships, but it’s easy to get stuck in the same patterns.

The Passion’s Surface-Level Treatment of Holy Week

 

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Over the past few months, NBC and Fox have experimented with airing live theater performances. First came The Wiz Live, then Grease, and now The Passion, a copy-paste of the Holy Week story into the 21st century.

The Passion narratives in the gospels recount Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem through all the well-known scenes of his last days–the Last Supper, the garden of Gethsemane, Judas’ betrayal, the trial by Pilate, Jesus’ death, and the Resurrection. It has all the elements of great drama and has been put to stage and film for almost as long as those mediums have existed.

The last Passion adaptation to gain widespread cultural attention was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, so I was intrigued when I first saw the commercials for a new adaptation in this “live” format. Unfortunately, The Passion is a disjointed mess. There’s more MCing and interviewing than actual story. I found it difficult to be fully engrossed in the story when we kept cutting in and out of the narrative to Tyler Perry on stage and the person-on-the-street interviews. Both aspects, for me, disrupted the flow and suspension of disbelief. Sure, you can make the argument that the story is Holy Week in today’s world, meaning the news media would be all over it, but that aspect would’ve been more effective if these interviews actually expounded on what’s going on with Jesus and the disciples.

For example, they could’ve set it up so that the interviewer asked questions of the “multitudes” gathered in the city about the things that Jesus preached. You’d have some interviewees who heard the Sermon on the Mount and give their accounts of that. Obviously, it would have to be scripted and worked into the larger story, but such an approach could’ve made that interview part work better with the rest of the show.

What we do get of the story–scenes of Jesus with his apostles or the apostles alone–are little more than music videos of great singers doing great covers of popular songs. I laughed when Judas started singing “Bring Me to Life,” if only because Internet jokes about MySpace and the 2000s are never far from my mind. Other than that, the characters weren’t well-developed at all and I feel like if I didn’t already know the gospels, I wouldn’t have understood the characters. We never see Jesus preach before a crowd or do any of the things that pissed off the police enough to arrest him.

The musical selection is among many creative choices that I disagree with. I understand wanting to make a Christian story as appealing as possible to a mass audience, but I think making the soundtrack covers of songs, some with vaguely religious language, obscures the message more than amplifies it. It also adds more fuel to the whole “Jesus is my boyfriend” criticism of contemporary-styled Christianity given that many of the songs covered are love songs. The Imagine Dragons number between Judas and Jesus is one exception. I thought that was fitting because the song has lots of relevant imagery and making it a duet added a new meaning to it.

Just because I love me my hymns and organs doesn’t mean my issue with the music is a mere traditional vs. contemporary criticism. I just don’t think most of the songs the production team chose help to expound on what’s going on theologically or interpersonally. Sure, some numbers definitely flip the usual meaning of the song, especially when Peter covers Hoobastank (which certainly creates space for “Jesus is my boyfriend” headcannons). However, most of the time I thought the songs were a stretch or a distraction. Jesus “calling all angels” in the garden doesn’t make much sense to me because the garden scene is so focused on Jesus crying out to God, specifically, not angels. That song would’ve fit better coming from one of the disciples, probably after Jesus’ death.

In all honesty, I think the show would’ve been much, much better if they just did original music. Hymns done in the style of contemporary music also could’ve presented some theological ideas or reactions, but they could’ve been more alienating to an unchurched mass audience.

My other large criticism is the social commentary or lack thereof. Again, without the narrative context of why and how Jesus pissed off the authorities, viewers of The Passion entirely miss the political subversion that Jesus enacted. For example, Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey through a back gate was a direct affront to the Roman state and that level of understanding just isn’t present in this modern rendition of the story. The message of the Gospel is radical, both personally and systemically. The Passion seemed to play it safe, sticking to a very surface-level presentation focused on the personal aspect of Jesus, sin, and everything that happened during Holy Week.

Despite all my criticisms, The Passion obviously reached and blessed thousands of people. God speaks in many ways and just because this particular way didn’t jive with me doesn’t mean that it’s terrible from a presenting-the-basic-tenets-of-Christianity perspective. There are certainly people out there who can’t even begin to hear anything religious unless they perceive it as non-threatening. For such people, the musical decisions may make perfect sense and the lack of political overtones may have made the story easier to grasp. They’re a way to connect “safe” pop culture or individual experiences to something they see as unsafe, exclusive, or even abusive. So if this prompts people to contemplate God, then it’s done its job as an icon. And like every icon, its effectiveness is up for interpretation.

Her Story Explores Intersectionality in LGBTQ Communities

HerStory_Logo.gifThe beautiful thing about web series is that they’re short and easy to watch in one sitting. They’re also increasingly marking themselves as spaces where underrepresented stories are told. Such is the case with Her Story, which you can watch in about an hour.

Her Story is about trans women with actual trans actresses playing the parts. Violet and Paige navigate the complications of relationships old and new. Violet struggles with viewing herself as a real woman, especially since she also likes women. Paige struggles with finally meeting a man who seems to like her for everything that she is, something she hasn’t experienced in years.

In its short six episodes, Her Story explicitly addresses the problem of transphobia within queer communities. Lisa, a friend of Violet’s love interest Ali, is the straw TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) who deliberately misgenders trans people and encourages outdated notions of queer womanhood among her group of friends with her comments (e.g. the idea of “gold star lesbian”). Ali comes to both Violet’s and Paige’s defense multiple times throughout the series, but her ignorance about trans issues is rooted in lack of exposure rather than hostility. And it’s perhaps that lack of exposure that’s easier for audiences to relate to. Lisa is rude and brash and clearly doesn’t care about fundamental respect and protection of other queer people (like not outing someone). She’s obviously the person you don’t want to be.

But Ali’s lack of exposure–or her unawareness of trans people’s existence at other points in her life–is a quieter issue, but an issue nonetheless. She assumes that she hasn’t known any trans people and therefore she didn’t need to know much about them. Meeting Violet, and then falling in love with her, teaches her (and the audience) a lot.

Race, though not at the forefront of the series, does come up toward the end of the season when Paige confronts Lisa. There are also hints of her struggles in dating life as both a black woman and a trans woman, which would explain why she’s been so closed off and is worried about revealing too much of herself to James. Thankfully for her, James doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Her Story has a lot of potential as it both addresses some trans 101 questions while showing how to taper transphobia. It’s certainly worth checking out.