Wonder Woman

I’ve never really liked Wonder Woman. I know a lot about her, I was a child of the 80s and watched the Linda Carter show and somehow managed to get a hold of multitudes of Wonder Woman comics that I’d read when there was nothing else to read. But even so. I was a queer girl that couldn’t stand the already existing ways that parents, friends, strangers found to impose femininity on me (lipstick! hair! dresses!). Wonder Woman was just another imposition that I had to fight off.  The Halloween costumes and play outfits and lunch boxes and dolls were all just another way that ‘they’ had found to tell me that my job was to be a ‘woman.’ Not whatever I was.

So unlike many others, I was not thrilled to find out that they were making a movie about Wonder Woman, and I certainly wasn’t writing angst filled essays demanding that Warner Bros not fucking fuck this up. I mostly didn’t care about any of it until the movie was released–and then it all began. The earnest declarations of ‘True Feminism’ and the tear filled essays about how the movie changed lives. When I read that Diana/Wonder Woman and love interest Steve, were the best comic couple ever, I knew I needed to see for myself what was going on. Maybe for all my cynicism and resistance after all these years, there was something worth knowing in this Goddess that has been following me around my whole life? I was curious, but expected nothing except hopefully a movie worthy of the $5 matinee ticket.

Which is exactly what I got. A solidly average movie that had it’s problems even as it moved me in ways I hadn’t expected. For the first time, I could see why people love Wonder Woman–but consequently, that’s why so much of the movie was so frustrating.

I didn’t cry during this movie. I wasn’t awe inspired by Wonder Woman’s ability to kick ass. I lived through the original airing of Xena. I’ve watched the entire Buffy and Fire Fly series and was mildly obsessed over Korra. I’m old enough that seeing powerful women who can kick ass is normal enough that I’ve had a critique of them for years (in short: ‘kick ass’ is not enough, we need complex and human too). I’m not sure why it was so moving to for so many to see amazons or Wonder Woman doing slow motion pause stunts, especially when slow motion pause stunts are such an old over played basically never used anymore action cliche. If athletic physical women are breaking boundaries, then how they are filmed should be as well.

I was also vastly underwhelmed by the race politics of Wonder Woman. People do keep pointing to the nod Wonder Woman gives to the Native character or to the few black amazons that were training on Wonder Woman’s hold island. But come on. We all know that’s not enough. We all know it. There are many of us that want it to be enough, that try to force it to be enough. But when it comes down to it, we all know. It’s not enough. I’m not going to waste my time explaining why. We all know the critique, we all know the analysis. It been around longer than my analysis of women being cast solely as ‘bad asses.’

And this laziness around casting, filming choices, and storytelling is at the crux of many of the problems I have with Wonder Woman. Despite what people and critics say about Wonder Woman being ‘cutting edge’ in it’s representation of women, it really was just the same old bland retread of already much better done shows, concepts and stories and this played out in little and big ways.

For example,  I found myself randomly wishing halfway through the movie that Agent Carter was back on the air.  It took till the end of the movie when (spoiler) Steve dies in the airplane, that I finally figured out how much of this movie plays on Captain America and his main squeeze, Peggy Carter (check out some of them here) The problem is that Agent Carter is far more interesting than Steve is,  and frankly, for all the hoopla about Steve and Wonder Woman’s relationship, I think Peggy Carter’s relationship with Steve Rogers is actually far more nuanced and interesting. The Peggy/Steve relationship doesn’t act stupid about the very real issues of era specific sexism in the way that Steve/Diana do. Steve apparently isn’t being sexist when he uses Diana and shuts her up and rides over her concerns–he’s being a dedicated war hero that Diana is supposed to look up to. Indeed, he is the human that teaches Wonder Woman how to love, feel, show compassion and dedication to a cause. Captain American and Peggy, on the other hand, both come to the war with their own reasons for being there and their relationship is built on a mutual respect and a bonding over each of them being the underdog that has to fight in ways others simply don’t.

Still, Chris Pine is attractive and I would’ve enjoyed it immensely if he had embraced more of his softer naked side and made himself more available to non-clothed relationship with Diana. But in the context of the Wonder Woman story line–I didn’t find their relationship equal or that interesting. True equality comes when men set aside their own needs to support a woman that can actually get the job done, and I never saw that in Wonder Woman’s relationship with Steve. If he truly believed she would take care of the mess, he never would’ve sacrificed himself to begin with.

I did find many things I enjoyed about the movie–in particular Wonder Woman’s kindness. She is a likeable Goddess, one that is appalled by the brutality of starvation as much as she is by the violence of war. She is a Goddess that sees the suffering of women and children and gives it as much importance as she does the suffering of men. She takes seriously the responsibility given to her to protect those without power–not because she is a Goddess, but because she is compassionate and is willing to bear the burden of suffering with those who suffer.

Compassion is a beautiful thing to witness, and it’s in those scenes that I found myself unexpectedly filled with emotion. When Wonder Woman is on the Western Front with Steve, she is stopped by women that are caught in the middle of the battle between men, and it’s Wonder Woman that sees the woman’s suffering and wants to help. And when Wonder Woman refuses to kill Dr. Poison, because even in her anger, she can see and feel compassion for Dr. Poison, a few tears did flow.

The willingness to see the suffering of others is what we see so little of. It is what we’ve been told makes us weak, a pussy. Truth strength in the post-911 days of the US, is the murder a black man in front of his child and girlfriend. Beating a Muslim girl to death with a baseball bat. It is denying millions of people life saving health care. To see a superhero make the conscious choice not to kill even though she could and probably should, is exactly the moral decision making we need to see more on screen characters struggling with. In a post-911 era, we got enough Jack Bauer type characters  to last a life time. We don’t need anymore ‘complicated’ Punishers. We need characters like Wonder Woman, Spider Man, Captain America (or the Flash or Super Girl), characters that wrestle with the reality that evil exists and we have to do something about it, but that we also can’t run around killing everything and everybody either.

But that brings me to the final, biggest problem I have with Wonder Woman. We need characters that wrestle with modern moral questions. But when the characters that wrestle with these questions are almost universally white–it reinforces the white supremacist ideology that people of color and black people in particular, are not complicated or human enough to have moral reasoning or struggles, which as the effect of making non-white people not fully human. Because what is being human, but struggling through the morality of the human condition?

It also means that a key purpose of fiction, to imagine ways to solve seemingly unsolvable problems, never gets examined through the eyes of people that actually have found ways to solve unimaginably difficult problems, or at least make it a little better. Characters of color, like Miles Morales or Luke Cage, bring with them history that says ending violence isn’t a wild impractical dream, ala Hillary Clinton, but a necessary requirement for survival. There is a special irony in the fact that these questions never go away for communities of color, that every time the latest killing happens, the latest worker injustice, the latest deportation, we struggle through what it means to be human and require human rights–while white people often need superheros to even know these questions exist. If anybody could figure out what to do about Dr Poison and the threat she poses along side the reality that she’s a human being, it’s going to be a person of color.

In the end, Wonder Woman’s whiteness is just another example of a tired retread of the same story being told in the same way. I wouldn’t have really cared, really, if all the amazons were black. Because Wonder Woman is not really an amazon. She’s a Goddess. It’s not just that she’s powerful, it’s that she’s a sacred being, a holy figure. Somebody that people worship. And it goes without saying that in this world, in the USA, Santa Claus and Jesus Christ are both white. There are multitudes of ways that we emphasize the sacred holy position of white people. They are the ones that have been created in God’s holy image. The one’s that can save the world. The rest of us are simply pale imitations of the real thing. It is not ground breaking or innovative to have yet another white God, even if she is compassionate and kind.

Can Wonder Woman ever be black? The inclination we have as a culture towards ‘well, yes but…’ is where those of us who are not black need to be resting our moral struggles. And we need to finally get to the point where we can wholeheartedly say yes, of COURSE Wonder Woman can be black.

Wonder Woman is a good enough movie. It means a lot to a lot of people already, and it will mean a lot to a lot of really important people–young girls. It’s a movie I’m glad exists. But it’s a movie that could’ve done so much more and been so much better–both on a structural level and within the context of media making and comics and cultural narratives as a whole. Our world needs more than good enough right now. We need stories big enough to save the world. Wonder Woman could be that. She’s not that yet.









One Day at a Time

For my second essay in the 52 essays in 2017 challenge, I had a different theme planned. I was going to review a PBS show that is about to start, Victoria. I had the chance to catch a free viewing a while ago and I was planning on looking all On Board with my life by reviewing it. But then another show came along and it has me so excited, I decided to pull the Victoria review until later and focus on this show instead.

So what is this exciting show that I love so much?

One Day at a Time.

Old people like me will know that this new Netflix show is a reboot of an old 70s/80s show. In the original, a single working class mom gets a divorce and winds up in a teeny apartment taking care of her two daughters while working to stay afloat. It started Bonnie Franklin and many of you may remember that one of her younger daughters was played by Valerie Bertinelli (who was hot and one of my first crushes ever).

The new show follows the same structure, a single working class mom with two kids is working to stay afloat after a painful separation (not yet finalized with divorce). But new show also adds in new elements, like the family it’s focusing on has a son (instead of the two daughters of the original) and the grandma lives with the family. The mother is a military vet- oh, and the family is also Cuban American.

While I am not usually a fan of sitcoms, I can get drawn into them, usually through my children. They start watching the show and I sort of pay attention while I’m doing other things and eventually I start watching and enjoying the show as much as they do. This has happened with mixed success-I loved Parks and Rec and consider it one of my all time favorite shows. But I find  How I Met Your Mother to obnoxious. And I despise (and have even banned) The Office (US version).

One Day at a Time reboot got me interested not through my kids but through nostalgia. I did find a lot in the original series that I really identified with, also being in a working class family, and yes, there was very much a Bertinelli factor, so I wanted to see what they’d do (or how’d they mess up) with a program of my youth. What does a working class family look like today compared to in the past?

Turns out that answer is complicated.

Because while it’s made clear in this series that being a single mom is economically difficult and even stifling (like when single mom, Penelope, played by Justina Machado, finds out that her employer is paying her less than a male co-worker that started after her and quits, the first thing on her mind is the consequences her family will face because she stood up for herself), the family’s economic struggles are also not what the show is predominately or even partially about.

No, this show is the of the old school classic sitcom era. Episodes exist less to to tell an individual story about an individual character (think: ‘focus episodes’ in the Walking Dead that feature storyline for one single character), and more to contemplate an issue together as an audience through the series characters. What should parents do when their children are caught viewing porn? What do we think about immigration once there’s an individual face on the issue? How do we really feel about those Che Guevara t-shirts?

As a Chicana (US born of Mexican descent), I was a little put off at first by the focus on a Cuban American family. Cuban Americans are notorious in the Latino community (however it is defined) for being more conservative than other Latinos. They get special rights of immigration that other Latinos don’t (if they set foot on US soil, they are fast tracked for legal status, usually achieving it within a year) and earlier generations of Cuban immigrants generally were very wealthy anti-Castro/communism. They got their special relationship with the US based on agreement with US policy, whereas many other Latino groups (like Chican@s/Mexicans) have specific disagreements with US policy and are so considered criminals.

But as another person watching the series with me pointed out, the choice to focus on Cuban Americans may have made sense simply because that way there could be a more obvious and natural ‘face’ on the conservative viewpoint (think: All In the Family). In other words, there’s a legitimate reason many Cubans are conservative, whereas Chicanos are almost defined by their leftist stances. To try to make a Chicano conservative wouldn’t work just wouldn’t work the way it does with Cuban/Cuban Americans that have actual conservative community.

So I decided to keep an open mind and recognize that for all my bias, I actually know very little about Cuba but have always wanted to know more. This provided a perfect opportunity for me to learn.

But for anybody who may be looking for a detailed explanation of Cuban American stances on the Cuban/US political relationship or Cuban history, you’re not going to get it through this show. And that’s a shame because there were several opportunities to get into a discussion. For example, when the family’s white landlord, Schneider (played by Todd Grinnell), visits while wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt, the whole family yells at him about what a murderer Guevara was and that he shouldn’t be wearing anything with Che on it at all. But then the subject is dropped. I got that Cuban/Cuban Americans have specific reasons for disliking Guevara, but outside of calling him a murderer there was no explanation as to why Cuban/Cuban Americans specifically dislike him, or why other Latinos found him compelling enough to make him their leader or even what Cuban/Cuban Americans think of other Latinos that even worship him. While of course I would’ve preferred a break in the show to watch a documentary (haha) or a reference to particular books as we saw in Luke Cage, at the very least, it would’ve been nice to see the Che Guevara t-shirt convo happening with another Latino. We didn’t get that, and it was a disappointment.

But even as there are no broad or deep analysis of Cuban/American policy or history in One Day at a Time, there are many many more ‘general Latino’ situations/critiques that are dealt with in hilarious, compelling and surprisingly touching  ways that make excellent T.V.

Take Elena’s (the older daughter, played by the effervescent Isabella Gomez) Quinceañera. This celebration of a girl’s ‘coming of age’ (which happens when she turns 15), is the storyline that threads thru the entire series, and is reportedly based on the experiences of show producer and writer, Gloria Calderon Kellett. The Quinceañera is an increasingly conflicted space in Latino communities and households, often pitting traditional elders against younger generations that are farther away from the full investment in the Catholic Church that their elders are. At the same time, many decry the monetization of what is essentially a religious ceremony and others wonder why only girls get this ceremony. Many are also creeped out by the prospect of calling 15 yr old girls ‘women,’ especially within cultures that often see those girls married off in their teens.

All of these subjects are elegantly and humorously covered in One Day at a Time. But perhaps most bravely, the show dared to imagine what a Quinceañera might look like or mean to a young girl who bristles under the stifling constraints of ‘womanhood’ defined by a Quinceañera. What does it mean to ‘become a woman’ when you don’t like dresses and are maybe a raging feminist? What does it mean to ‘become a woman’ (and so, according to the church, able to marry, bear children, etc) and you are a lesbian? Or maybe not? Because you’re still only 15 and just not sure where your life will take you or what you’re meant to be?

I’ll not spoil the way the Quinceañera story wraps up, but I will say that for all the Queer Love that Netflix’s Sense8 gets, I found One Day at a Time‘s storyline to be far more touching and lovely and even better storytelling in many ways.

The standout of One Day at a Time is Rita Moreno, cast as the family’s matriarch, Lydia. That I know of, she is the first older Latina on TV since George Lopez’s mom in his show. And she doesn’t disappoint. Abuelita Lydia is sexy, sexual, funny, conservative, and an immigrant. She is definite in her ideas (see: the ongoing lipstick joke) but at the same time, willing to find ways within her conservative beliefs to still love her family and be there for people who need her. She feels that immigrants should go thru the system and ‘be legal’ as she did. But she also experienced enough trauma in her own legal immigration experience that when Elena’s US born friend with an immigrant family needs help, she shows compassion. And Moreno’s storyline with Elena on the subject of makeup is one of the most touching storylines I’ve seen on any show in a long time.

If over the top humor is your thing, One Day at a Time doesn’t fail you. Penelope gets put in many of these situations, including one that sees her stuck in a doggie door. Machado plays the different situations well and always manages to stop just short of getting hysterical or out of control–but at the same time, I found these over the top situations to be the weak point of the show. It’s not that I have a problem with slapstick humor, it’s more that I don’t believe that there’s any likely situation in the world that would see any mother stuck in a doggie door. For slapstick over the top humor to work for me, it needs to be grounded in reality, like when Roseanne and Dan throw their furniture out on the front lawn. While it seems unlikely that something like that would happen, it is very funny to think about all the times in your life it could’ve happened. And of course, there’s always a few people here and there where it did happen. That’s what makes it funny. Situations like the doggie door or over the top characters like Schneider just don’t make sense to me. Why waste your time on a character or a situation that would never exist in real life? But having said that, I do recognize that some people like over the top humor exactly because it’d never happen in real life–so if that’s you, this series has that for you!

But even as I have mixed feelings about sitcom humor, One Day at a Time, for whatever weak points it may have, always comes back to the compassion and love of family. And it was during the times when Penelope and Lydia were fighting about taking the kids to church or Elena was worrying about how to come out that I found myself remembering the classic era of situation comedies when families (even my very messed up often violent family) would use the situations on particular shows to start conversations within their own families. What would you do if that was happening to you? What would I do in that situation? One Day at a Time invites us all to reflect from a position of compassion and love, even when somebody is doing something we don’t agree with.

The greatest honor to me was when my kids saw what Penelope did in the final scenes in the final show, and they turned me and said, ‘We know you’d do that too, Mami.’ Everybody knew that the situation and person that caused Penelope to have to do what she did was wrong, and the series doesn’t look away from that pain. But it focuses on the love. It focuses on the best in us, the stuff that has been there all along.

There’s a lot to be said about representation and finally seeing a Latino family sitcom. It allows us to imagine a new world, one that is defined by diversity of thinking and people–and that is important. But more so, shows like this also reflect to the world what is already here. And loving, political, kind Latino families are already here. We’ve been around for generations, laughing, crying, making mistakes, and surviving anyway just like everybody else.

A welcome reminder as we move into 2017.