Okay, so I know I’ve said in the past that season 3 was my favorite. And I can absolutely see why I remembered it that way, because this was the season where I jumped into the fandom headfirst. This was the season where Brittana shared their first kiss. It was also the season that gave us the Troubletones. No matter how absurdly problematic her storyline was, I will always have a soft spot in the corner of my blackened, cynical little grinch heart for punk!Quinn and the personal journey she goes through this season.
For me, a lesbian desperately looking for validation via a reflection of herself in the media, Glee season 3 was a goldmine of content that I had been so sorely deprived of in mainstream culture. It’s not that Glee is the first piece of validating media I’d ever seen in my life, not by far. If it was even a tiny bit gay, you bet your bottom I had watched it. But Glee was one of the first mainstream shows to be overtly gay, and on top of that it wasn’t just The Gays that watched it. Everyone watched Glee. Probably a fourth of my classmates watched Glee. My middle aged boss watched Glee. My freaking parents watched Glee (and I’ll come back to that detail later.) It’s really difficult to impart how big of a cultural phenomenon it was if you didn’t live through it or participate in it.
But a few key things had begun to change for the weird little show choir show that could. The first was that with larger audiences and the success of the iTunes tie-in sales, the show was under a lot of pressure to fit round-pegged songs into square-pegged story holes. While I can say that it worked reasonably well about 75% of the time, occasionally you would get some weirdness like Blaine and his brother singing a breakup song to each other.
I know that context matters, Glee, but that doesn’t make it any less weird that you went there.
With the increased pressure to churn out iTunes singles also came an increase in the number of songs per episode, which meant that the writing had to bend over backwards to tell a story in the spaces between the Top 40 hits. The show already strained a little in season 2 to mold its plot around the musical numbers, but in season 3 things got even rougher around the edges. There is still a (mostly) coherent plot here, and one that is filled to the brim with exactly the kind of ridiculous drama that we’d come to expect from Glee. But season 3 is the first time when the narrative starts to get really wobbly. It didn’t help one bit that the narrative took nosedives into problematic territory for the sake of drama.
If I broke down every single problematic story decision made this season, we’d be here all day. I don’t have the time to go through this television show episode by episode. Let me live. But I can give you a short list. There’s Quinn Fabray’s early season descent into madness that involved attempting to get Beth (her biological daughter) taken away from her adoptive mother Shelby and Shelby and Puck’s amazingly gross, inappropriate, and unnecessary affair. Then you have everything that has to do with Will Shuester’s weirdly codependent relationship with the Glee kids. Not to mention whatever they were going for with Rory the Irish Exchange Student’s plot, doubling down on the Asian stereotypes with Tina and Mike at every turn, the aftermath of Santana’s outing, and anything that had to do with Unique.
Yes, that is the short list.
So why was it my favorite season? Well, a lot of it begins and ends with the canonization of Brittana and the story arc of my favorite lesbian, Santana Lopez. Like the rest of the season, her arc was defined by some impossibly high highs and some embarrassingly low lows. But there was a reason I loved it, despite how deeply flawed it is, and I believe that deserves to be unpacked in detail.
Let’s start with her outing. It’s no secret that fans were angry about how Santana’s outing was handled. Hell, we’re still angry about it five years later. The short version is that in retaliation for yet another one of Santana’s legendary drag sessions, Finn comes back at her by literally shouting, “Hey Santana! Why don’t you just come out of the closet?” in the middle of a crowded hallway during a passing period.
Finn continues to come after her about this, even as she is walking away, saying that the reason she’s so mean to everyone is because she’s constantly tearing herself down. He says she’s afraid to admit that she’s in love with Brittany and that Brittany might not love her back. He tops it off by calling Santana a coward. If you’re making a ‘yikes’ face at your screen right now, me too buddy. Even just writing about it makes me cringe. Sidenote, the fact that he outed Brittany too is not ever really addressed. Swing and a miss there, Glee. Though it’s one of many, so it often gets lost in the crowd.
Back to Santana. There are dozens of students walking around in the background and lingering nearby who hear the entire conversation. One of these students passes this information onto a political candidate running against Sue Sylvester in a local election. The end result is that this political candidate puts Santana in a smear ad for Sue, explicitly naming Santana as a lesbian. The ad implies that this is due to Sue’s influence and/or responsibility, effectively outing Santana to the entire voting district (even more yikes).
Will and Sue notify Santana, and Sue explicitly apologizes, citing her scorched earth political techniques as the root cause of the awful turn of events. While this is objectively true in one aspect, the real reason it happened was because Finn Hudson didn’t stop to think for a second that maybe, possibly, there was a reason that Santana was afraid to come out. He made the choice for her because his feelings were hurt and he knew this was the only way to get back at her. If you are viewing this turn of events from a perspective other than one that mirrors Santana’s, it’s possible to have a little sympathy for Finn lashing out in hurt and anger. But I don’t have that perspective, so you’ll only get spitfire and brimstone from me.
Devastated, Santana runs crying out of the office. She hasn’t even had the chance to talk to her parents yet but now the whole county knows. But of course this is Glee, and the show must always go on, no matter what else is happening in your life. And the show that happens is arguably the best song in the entire series’ run:
After the musical number, Finn is whispering to a classmate, and Santana has an understandably inflammatory reaction to it when she assumes he’s whispering about her. She then slaps him across the face so hard it’s hard to say if that was a stage slap or not. I gotta be honest, that impact felt real. Or maybe I just wanted it to be.
Santana is then pulled into the principal’s office for slapping him. Because apparently McKinley has a zero tolerance policy for physical violence that only counts when it’s a lesbian rightfully smacking the shit out of the boy who outed her to the greater Lima area code. Finn falls on the sword for her, and then…. I’m really going to need to pull back from giving a play-by-play at this point, because my vision starts to get a little blurry from rage when I think too much about what happens next. All you need to know is that the episode where her outing is ‘resolved’ by the Glee club is called “I Kissed A Girl”. It’s every bit the disaster you’re thinking it is based on the title.
At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m defending this show. The answer is… well, partly because it’s a product of its time. As I’ve said in the previous two retrospectives, this was how the show humanized queer stories to a straight audience. I also mentioned that my parents watched Glee, and I was there when they watched this episode. Up until this point, the fact that I was a lesbian was deeply controversial in my family, but in a ‘below the surface’ kind of way. We never talked about it unless it was literally in my parents’ faces, and I was fully aware of how uncomfortable it made them. They didn’t understand what I had gone through. After this episode aired, my mother asked me, “Is that what happened to you?”
This was the first time she had made an effort to know this part of my life. To this day, it’s something I seldom talk about. Because while it didn’t happen exactly like it happened to Santana, it was in that ballpark. The important thing is that Glee was the thing that opened up that dialogue, no matter how hard it was (and still is) to talk about. My mother would never admit it, but watching Brittany and Santana was how she familiarized herself with my life experience. I don’t believe that would have happened without Glee. These were topics that she was unable to approach me with personally, for various reasons of her own, but she was able to learn another way. To me, this is the show’s legacy.
The slow pace at which the rest of Brittany and Santana’s relationship plays out across the season was kind of painful for queer women to watch though. We desperately wanted positive payoff. Every week we were there, waiting for The Kiss. When it finally did happen, it was like the entire internet exploded in celebration because it meant that all of the bad stuff wasn’t there for nothing. Yes, it’s awful that we as queer people had to be subjected to our struggles being repackaged to a straight audience as dramatic tension. But at least it’s possible to say that the ends justified the means.
This is what I mean when I say that queer media cannot be divorced from its historical context. Viewed on its own, without keeping in mind the culture at the time, all of this is just relentlessly awful. But when you consider the impact Brittana had, and the impact it continued to have going forward, this is why we can’t necessarily lock Glee in the Problematic Queer Media Vault and throw away the key. We need to remember not only that it happened, but why it needed to happen. In order to have this:
We needed to have everything that came before it.
Now, that being said, certain growing pains are significantly harder to defend. Up until season 3, Glee mostly dealt with just the first three letters in the LGBTQIA acronym. Season 3 is the first time the show started dipping its toes into the T part of the acronym. And boy did it stumble out of the gate.
I will be the first to admit that transphobia has been, and still is in many ways, a humongous blindspot on my LGBTQIA radar. The obvious reason for this is that I am not trans. It’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve become aware of these issues, and that they’ve become salient enough that I consistently notice them without someone else directing my attention to them. I fully acknowledge this blindspot. I do my best to correct it whenever I can, because intersectionality within the LGBTQIA community is incredibly important. What happens to some of us will have an effect on all of us, whether the effects are immediately apparent or not.
Going into my rewatch of season 3, I had my memories of Brittana and Faberry and precious little else. I knew I was going into this season with rose-colored glasses. Both because of everything that happened in 2016 and because of how I watched the season back when it first aired. I was so involved with Brittana and Faberry, I was more than happy to flat out ignore a lot of the larger problems with the season. I was fully expecting to encounter things I had either glossed over or didn’t remember at all. Especially when it came to the legendarily transphobic jokes that peppered the end of the season. What I wasn’t expecting was the sheer volume of them.
When the first few jokes floated by, my instinct was to fall back on the excuse that Glee is the epitome of the phrase “a product of its time.” But they just kept coming. And coming. To the point that I can’t really recommend certain episodes at all to certain viewers. The things they say are just so awful that even in the context of its time, and the improvements the show made later on (seasons 4-6), it’s just…not good, you guys. And a big part of that rationale comes not just from the jokes themselves, but the fact that it is painfully obvious that the show didn’t think what it was saying was all that wrong.
I’ll be the first to admit that how a joke is framed is just as important as the joke itself, especially when we’re talking about media created by members of the community. While many of the worst jokes come from Sue Sylvester’s mouth, they aren’t being framed as problematic per se. The show clearly wants you to laugh at them. These jokes were still acceptable in 2012. And that date is a lot closer to today than a lot of us are comfortable thinking about.
It makes me uncomfortable, because it’s yet another harsh reminder of how recent much of the intersectionality discourse is, even within LGBTQIA media. But it’s the good kind of uncomfortable; the kind that means something is shining a bright, piercing spotlight on your privilege. If it makes you squirm now and it didn’t then, good. That means you’ve learned something.
This brings up a specific issue that the LGBTQIA community has with most, if not all, of its historical media: if a show did some things very right, but other things horrifically wrong, is it still worth watching? At what point do we draw the line between “problematic yet educational product of its time,” and “outright harmful content that is best left summarized by others but not to be consumed yourself?”
The answer is, unfortunately, painfully subjective. With Glee, it varies drastically from season to season. I can say with a reasonably straight face that season 1 and 2 are worth watching from start to finish, problematic elements and all. I personally feel that the places where the show misses are few and far enough between that it doesn’t significantly diminish the larger cultural and historical importance of the content as a piece of queer media. With season 3, the answer gets a lot muddier, because there’s a much sharper contrast between the good and the bad.
When it came to portraying a mlm and a wlw relationship on television, Glee more-or-less hit the ground running on the right side of history. It wasn’t perfect, but the show clearly had a message it wanted to send, and that message was “being gay is okay.” For all its wobbles and missteps, its heart was always in the right place. How they handled Unique in season 3, well, it’s flat out awful. It doesn’t reflect well on those who wrote it, even less so when you consider how much times have changed in just five years.
I still personally find value in rewatching season 3 of Glee, despite the hefty amount of problematic and hurtful content. Mostly because of how the season can be viewed in the context of the entire series, and not just in isolation. There is no better case study for queer cultural shifts in the 2010’s, especially because it’s a show made by our own community. But we also need things like season 3 of Glee to remind us that even we are not above believing and perpetuating harmful and bigoted ideas despite being part of a marginalized group ourselves.
I can’t omit harsh critique of this content from my reflections on Glee as a series, because that’s the same as trying to pretend these prejudices never existed. They did, and they still do. That’s not a happy statement, but it’s a fact. And while it’s not my place to speak about how the transphobic content makes me feel personally, because I am not trans, I want to make an explicit point of discussing it’s existence on Glee. If you are going to watch season 3, go into it with the awareness that this content is there.
But also go into it with the awareness that this is not an indication of how the show treats this content going forward. The show does learn and evolve. Maybe not to the degree it could or should have, but it does improve. Much like the discourse within our own community, art reflects life, and life reflects art.
So what else is there to say about season 3? Well, I can tell you that there is no greater rush than watching the Glee club splinter apart at the seams, come back together, and then proceed to win it all at Nationals. In spite of all its missteps, and all of the ridiculous things the show did in the name of drama leading up to the finale, there is nothing quite like the feeling of watching the underdogs win. Doubly so because they deserved it. The Nationals performance in season 3 is hands down the best of the series, and it genuinely felt like this plucky little show choir from some tiny little town in the middle of Nowhere, Ohio deserved to walk away with that trophy.
Then, we get to see this ragtag group of misfits we’ve grown to love be treated like rockstars upon their return to McKinley High. I swear it almost feels like you were part of the winning team. Their triumph is the audience’s triumph too. Is it unrealistic and silly? Of course it is, but this is Glee. If you weren’t on board with that to begin with, this probably isn’t the show for you. Glee sells its audience a variety of fantasies, and one of those fantasies is that your dreams can sometimes come true.
And Nationals wasn’t the only fantasy the show sells. Our darling Rachel Berry chokes on her NYADA audition, but gets a second chance when the auditioner comes to see her perform at Nationals. This is 100%, pure, television fantasy, but you know what? I don’t care. Because sometimes we just want to believe that a small town girl with big Broadway dreams and an even bigger Broadway voice can get what she’s worked so hard to accomplish. And let me tell you, it was such a humongous relief to have her acceptance to NYADA end her high school engagement to Finn Hudson so she can follow her dreams in New York.
Okay, I know I probably should have mentioned that earlier, but I had more important things to talk about. And really, I’m skipping over a lot of good content for the sake of keeping this article shorter than a dissertation. Mostly because I still believe you should sit down and watch it yourself if you can. I want you to see for yourself how well they do West Side Story, and how well the backstage drama of it mirrors the drama playing out onstage. The Troubletones arc needs to be seen to be believed, because it is just that awesome.
Plus, words don’t really accurately describe the force of nature that is Sugar Motta. And while the content is problematic, Quinn’s journey through season 3 is incredibly emotional and actually dramatically satisfying. Even though the writers seemed hell-bent on putting the poor girl through more than any human being should be able to handle.
And there is plenty of Faberry in here, but as promised, I will be discussing that in its own article. It deserves to have proper attention paid, after all.
So, bottom line, is it worth watching yourself? I can’t really make that call for you this time. The reason I spent so much time talking about the problematic content is that for season 3, I really believe that you should make an informed decision for yourself. Historical importance does not trump your personal comfort, and I hope that outlining the bigger problems with the season will help making that choice easier for you. This will be a recurring theme for the remaining three articles in this series, as things get a lot more controversial from here on out.
Coming up, the moment I’ve been dreading; the return to season 4. It’s sure to be a doozy. See you next time!
Images Courtesy of FOX
Crazy Ex Girlfriend is Masterfully Deconstructing its Core
Here at The Fandomentals, it’s not hard to tell when we begin to fall in love with a show. You may recall the windfall of Black Sails articles surrounding its series finale, our rather overzealous coverage of Supergirl a year ago, or the way Steven Universe creeps into every podcast we record. We dig in and frenetically try to explain exactly the reasons why you should be so enthused as well.
Then there’s shows like Crazy Ex Girlfriend, where I find myself unable to say anything at all, since it’s more or less perfect.
I know what I’m setting myself up for when I say this, because I’ve felt the let-down quite keenly many times before. That’s part of why I’ve been so hesitant to write anything at all. The other part is that I truly feel my explanations won’t do anything justice; watch it yourself and you’ll see what I mean.
Is Rebecca Bunch’s character the answer to my prayers for jewish women in media? Absolutely. Do we all need Paula Proctors in our life? You bet we do. Is this finally the bridge between musical theater, sitcoms, and dramatic TV? Without a doubt. Hell, it’s a show whose entire premise involves calling attention to the tropes and storytelling conventions we bemoan, and then digging in and flipping them on their heads. All of this I could easily write dissertation-length papers on, while feeling that none of it is adequately explaining what is so great here.
So it’s only now that Crazy Ex Girlfriend is tackling one of the most important issues in our society, and doing it with a remarkably skillful hand, that I’m forcing myself to write out my thoughts. Because honestly? It’s a shondeh if I don’t at least try to spread the love at this point.
As a warning, there will be spoilers for major plot beats through the most recent episode, 3×06 “Josh is Irrelevant.” Which sure, may be a weird way to convince people into watching something, but as I’ve articulated a few times…knowing what’s coming and what a show explores actually makes me more prone to dig into it. If you disagree, let me just leave you with this before you bow out: the “crazy” in the title of the show is exactly why I didn’t watch it for a couple of years. And boy was that a mistake, because it is so intentional, and exactly what’s being explored now in one of the most nuanced and validating ways possible.
Yup, showrunners Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna are tackling mental health navigation and stigmatization. In the most recent episode, Rebecca Bunch receives a formal diagnosis (and even sings a song about getting one), and it’s made clear that all two and a half seasons were leading to this moment—not because of the diagnosis as an end in itself, but as a means to equip our character with the tools and understanding that empower her to push for a healthier state of mind. It is a show about a mentally ill woman lacking in traditional heroic qualities (dare I say antihero?). Yet instead of reveling in her moral greyness and watching her “oh my god” dissent, we are encouraged to actively empathize with her, and root for her to find balance. Because at its core, this show takes on a more positive view of humanity. We’re all just…trying to do okay with what we have, even if our weaknesses and anxieties can manifest in ways that hurt ourselves and those around us.
If that sounds interesting to you, watch the show. But for real now, explicit spoilers from here on out.
Rebecca Bunch was always meant to be a challenging character to the viewer. She makes an impulsive decision in the pilot episode to move to West Covina and pursue an old flame. Convinced this will make her instantly a happier person, she gleefully dumps her medicine down her garbage disposal (we’re unsure specifically what she took, though we do know anti-anxieties were in the mix) while whistling a merry tune. It’s clear this isn’t the healthiest thing you can do and she’s romanticizing the situation (and hilariously, the location as well).
At the same time, it’s also made clear that Rebecca truly was in an unhappy state in New York City, and her methods of coping through heavy medication and excessive work only fed into that. By midway through the first season, Rebecca tries to seek out a therapist to get new drugs, only to be told that she might actually need to explore her issues.
Rebecca: Those are the meds I was on in New York.
Dr. Akopian: Oh, my God. How did your body react to all this medication? You must not have been able to feel a thing.
Rebecca: Exactly. Numb as they come. So scribble scribble on your pizzle pad.
Dr. Akopian: Rebecca, your doctor in New York is a quack. He gave you a Band-Aid, not a cure. My method would be to do some digging and figure out what’s really going on inside your mind. And then we can discuss the appropriate medications.
Rebecca: So that’s great, but I need to be better by Monday.
The driving story continues to be about Rebecca’s quest for her fairy tale romance—a narrative that lives in her mind but not reality. Each romcom trope is broken down, from “unlikely suitor she actually falls for” (he turns out to be a fucking mess and leaves to be able to deal with his own issues in a healthy manner), to “the perfect prince who was always meant to be” (they both approach the relationship merely wanting to be in a relationship, without actually having a stable grasp on what they both need/want in life), to even the “screw men, we’ll just have a fun girl group and that’s enough” (Josh has a new girlfriend they need to stalk!).
However, it is always in the forefront that Rebecca is actively spinning the happenings in her life to fit whatever story she wants, all while resisting the core of what’s at her unhappiness.
Paula: Just let both of them go.
Rebecca: I don’t know who I am without them. I know that’s pathetic. I know it’s pathetic, but it’s true. Who am I supposed to be now?
Paula: Honey, be yourself.
Rebecca: What?! Who? No! Ew. Ugh! Who wants to be that?!
This becomes the most obvious when she enters into a relationship with Josh, but is not magically happier about everything. Rebecca very nearly has a breakthrough with Dr. Akopian to this point, only to be interrupted by Josh’s wedding proposal. Then from there, we get a tale as old as time: Rebecca stops feeling magical feelings about Josh, freaks out and kisses her boss in an elevator, freaks out from that and pushes their wedding date up to two weeks from that day, and then after not sleeping and going in full bridezilla mode, gets left at the altar because Josh begins to feel that he doesn’t truly know Rebecca. We also learn that Rebecca had previously wanted to marry another man in her past (Robert, a former professor of hers), but upon being broken up with by him, burned down his apartment and then was committed to a psychiatric institution for a time.
This is where Season 3 picks up, and in truth, I was very nervous about the Robert reveal. “Oh, so she really is ‘crazy’? That’s the point?” No. the point is that Rebecca is a troubled character who hasn’t received the help she’s needed. She has characteristics we all can relate to, from her self-deprecating thoughts to her struggle to feel ‘normal,’ even if we wouldn’t have necessarily made the same choices she did.
Season 3 shows her in crisis mode. Instead of confronting her insecurities, she lashes out at her friends, and even returns home to stay with her mother for a bit, despite their history with Naomi’s selfish and often inappropriate or harmful behavior. However, when her mom sneaks her anti-anxieties (out of fear of Rebecca wanting to commit suicide), Rebecca feels as though she has no one she can count on anymore, especially since she thinks she alienated everyone else. At the end of 3×05, Rebecca tries to commit suicide on a plane by taking a bottle full of anti-anxiety meds one a time, before telling the flight attendant that she needs help.
Other media has tried to depict suicide before, but it is so often done in a way that’s meant to shock, or even (distressingly) in a way that almost romanticizes the behavior. Hell, Life is Strange actually makes a student’s suicide a playable level, where if you’re just observant enough, you can stop it (for points!). Crazy Ex Girlfriend walked the impossible line of depicting the suicide attempt in a realistic manner—it was easy to track Rebecca’s feeling of hopelessness and isolation—without any sort of glamorization. She was in a rough, unhealthy state, and the audience was encouraged to root for that to change.
Better yet, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna made themselves available on Twitter immediately afterwards. That, in addition to a suicide helpline message which appeared on the screen following the episode, demonstrated that they were being as thoughtful as possible when approaching such a potentially triggering subject. It was difficult to watch, no question. But shying away from these topics doesn’t give equip us with the tools to handle them. We’ve praised Jessica Jones for starkly examining rape and rape apology; Crazy Ex Girlfriend is a show that should receive similar acclaim, particularly given how usual portrayals of suicide and mental health tend towards victim blaming.
Even that aspect was highlighted in the newest episode; Rebecca continually apologizes for the “hassle” she’s caused, and how bad she feels that everyone’s normal routine has been interrupted since like…her friends want to make sure she’s okay. It’s just so true-to-life. Too often our media has something *happen* to a character, and then it disappears an episode later. Rebecca’s deeply-felt self-loathing and general unworthiness isn’t gone just because her stomach was pumped, however. And that kind of consistency is important. Life doesn’t make narrative sense, so even though there’s a clear story that’s being told, it’s told in way that feels refreshingly familiar. Because it mirrors life.
Add to this the diagnosis. Rachel Bloom has talked openly about her own mental health numerous times. She also said this last week:
It’s clear this was written from a place of understanding, and with an attempt to be as validating and healing as possible. Rebecca sings a boisterous song about getting a diagnosis that will be her golden ticket to happiness (she’ll finally fit in somewhere), which amazingly captures the awareness of stigmatization alongside the often unreasonable weight people attached to their diagnoses. I just say this as a woman with OCD and general anxiety disorder, and I don’t want to speak for everyone ‘neurodivergent’, for lack of a better umbrella term. But in my opinion, the episode’s greatest strength was the way in which both of Rebecca’s doctors talked about her diagnosis. It’s not an identity, nor is it a fix; it’s a tool of understanding behavior, and one that can help guide treatment in a way that makes the most sense for her.
At the same time, Rebecca possesses the traits which define Borderline Personality Disorder. This was something I’ve said (mostly to Julia) for a long time, and something I’ve been scared for the show to tackle. I have intimate experience with this disorder, and without sugarcoating anything, some hurt as well. I have never seen proper depiction of it before this show, and I never in a million years thought it would actually be labeled, then fully described in a way that’s so accessible to an uninformed audience.
“A person with BPD is essentially a person that has difficulty regulating their emotions. Someone that lacks the protective emotional skin to feel comfortable in the world.”
It’s clear that Rebecca’s world is one that’s scary to be in. She never feels she fits, she has a terror of abandonment, and her impulsive actions that she does in order to control situations or feel accepted (be it breaking into Josh’s house to delete an embarrassing text, rushing to a wedding because she had a moment of doubt, or even sleeping with her ex’s dad because he was the only person being nice to her) have outcomes that usually result in more unhappiness. To be able to know that she’s not alone in this struggle is validating.
Though of course, and again realistically, the show doesn’t make the BPD simple or straightforward. Rebecca immediately Googles BPD and hates what she reads: that treatment can be lifelong, that there’s no “cure”, and even that 10% of people with BPD do kill themselves. She pushes against this diagnosis, even telling Dr. Akopian that she was bullied by the other doctor into agreeing with him on it, until Akopian whips out the DSM and goes through the checklist to see if Rebecca matches the criteria. Every point applies, and the show brilliantly provides flashbacks as these are read off. Rebecca sinks into despair, calling herself “certifiably crazy,”
Like…yeah. This is it. This is what happens. I was watching, half wanting to cry because of how easy it is to feel for Rebecca in that moment, and half wanting to laugh because finally what I’ve seen and experienced (second-handedly)—what I’ve even questioned and doubted—is on my screen for the first time, ever. We talk a lot about why fiction and representation matters, yet it’s almost unthinkable that the diagnostic process has been rarely been shown on our screens. Certainly not in this much detail.
The episode does end on a hopeful note, with Rebecca saying that she doesn’t want to ever feel like she did on the plane again. She goes to a group therapy, and gets a book to read afterwards. It’s not the end, nor was it ever meant to be. But it’s the means of getting her to a healthy place, and in that process, we see a lot of our own realities, from the hilarious to the uncomfortable.
That’s the story that matters, and that’s the story that was always being told. We’re just finally at the place where the characters see it too.
Images courtesy of the CW
A Bride’s Story is the Women’s Story You Were Waiting For
A Bride’s Story is a manga by Kaoru Mori (also responsible for Emma). Started in 2008, the series is still running and counts 9 volumes. It takes place in 19th century central Asia and follows several characters in their daily lives. The story is mainly focused on women of the region, but there is also the point of view Henry Smith, an English researcher. Anything else notable? Oh, I just remembered: it is really good.
Talking about a really good manga series could be enough on its own. But you know what’s even better? It is focused on women and their lives. Different women, with different lives, their work, their achievements, their pains. And it is written in a total love of all women. A good manga series, written by a woman about women? What else could we be asking for?
The Story of A Bride’s Story:
I am starting to not like this choice of title very much. But anyway, the manga opens on Amir and Karluk’s wedding. Amir is twenty whereas her husband is twelve (don’t worry there is no weird sexual content between the two). It is not the only thing that separates them. Karluk comes from a mainly sedentary village. Amir’s tribe still has a pretty nomadic way of life. Both spouses are pretty different so the first chapters of the manga follow their adaptation to each other (and to her in-laws in the case of Amir). The presence of Smith also allows the point of view of an outsider into the family.
The story then expands to other members of the family, friends, and neighbors, as well as people Smith will meet during his travels. Yet the story isn’t all over the place. We follow their lives and emotional development. And when Kaoru Mori focuses on one character she takes the time to tell their story. Even if she has to leave aside other characters for some time. But this is not a problem, as it is crystal clear she loves all her characters and will do them justice in time.
A Bride’s Story is going to focus on every aspect of the characters’ lives. There is high drama(military attack of one family on another) but also daily life (learning how to sew, finding your vocation).
In short A Bride’s Story is a really good read. But it is not the only thing that draws you in the narrative.
Art so gorgeous it sucks you in the story:
Another strings to Kaoru Mori’s bow which help you being completely absorbed in her world is that…
Which, considering the time we spend speaking about craftsmanship, is important. Having a visual representation worthy of the script is only doing it justice. If you don’t want to travel to central Asia to discover their handicraft after reading A Bride’s Story you are a liar, and that’s all there is to it. The characters and the details are insanely comprehensive. But we are also given amazing and dynamic action scenes.
This incredible art and interesting story combine to give us a narrative uplifting women at every turn.
An Hymn to women’s lives:
A Bride’s Story focuses, as its name clearly spells out, on brides. Sometimes young brides, sometimes bride-to-be, sometimes widows, but always women facing married life. And no it is not reductive. During the 19th century, marriage was (and still is in some cultures) one of the main events of a woman’s life. It was a literal change of family, of environment, and the real beginning of her adult life. So focusing around this event is not reductive. Quite the contrary. It reminds us that, as long as she is a good person, every woman’s life is worth telling.
Kaoru Mori spends a lot of time on women’s daily activity. Sewing of course (if the manga doesn’t give you a mighty need to start sewing you are a liar), but also cooking, taking care of the herd etc. Everything is worth the author’s attention, and ours. Do you know why? Because it is important work done with care. And this ask for our interest and respect.
Another thing which is incredibly well done in A Bride’s Story is the relationship between this women. They are supportive of each other. There is a mother-in-law ready to sacrifice herself to save her daughter-in-law. When Amir learns that she should go back to her family to marry another man because all the brides they have sent are dead (killed by their husband) she is not only crying because she is terrified. She is crying because she knew both of this girls and is devastated by their death. And the person reassuring her and saying that she is « not going anywhere » is her husband’s grandmother.
There are as many positive women relationship in there as there is stars in the sky. And not always just filial relationship. But also mentorship, friendship and emh…
And the icing on the cake is that every single one of these women is different from the others.
No wrong way of being a woman:
Truly it is refreshing to read about women helping each other. It is even better when they are allowed to be different. Because let’s be real, often in fiction women are created to oppose each other. The “good” kind of woman opposing the “wrong” kind of women. Just look at The White Queen and The White Princess, in which motherhood is glorified and “good” women are rewarded with it whereas “bad” women, women having a “man’s” ambition, became sterile and loveless.
Well, in A Bride’s Story we have traditionally feminine women who are soft gentle and love sewing. We have unconventional women who like to hunt and ride but are still good at feminine tasks (but let’s be real Amir is an amazement in universe too) and others which are not. We also have what other media often depicts as “failing” women, but are just unsure of who they are.
In short, Kaoru Mori is standing on her mountain screaming “They are all my daughters and I love them all!”. And trust me ,it feels good to be, as a reader, welcomed into this story.
To the surprise of no one, I heartily recommend reading A Bride’s Story. As a first manga, if it is your first, it might be putting the bar a bit high for future dives into the medium. But there are worse problems to have. Just to add to all I’ve said above, we also have good and interesting siblings relationships (my passion), making this manga almost without fault. It is worth a try. It really is.
All images courtesy of Yen Press.
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus Excels Because It Knows Its History
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a phenomenal game. It has an inordinate amount to say about racism, anti semitism, the cycle of abuse, ableism, eugenics, homophobia, fat shaming, PTSD, war, violence, and just about everything else under the sun. And developer MachineGames does all of that with this wonderfully strange combination of hyper-meticulous tact, high production values, and auteur confidence. Of course, none of that would have been possible if the setting surrounding the narrative didn’t work, and holy shit does it ever.
The newest iterations of the Wolfenstein franchise take place in an alternate 1960—leading into ‘61 for the second game—where the Nazis won the war. 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order was a game framed around the “how” of the world. How did the Nazis win? How do they keep their conquered states in check? How have things changed in this reality? How do we stop them from gaining more power? How do we fight back against a near global, yet also interplanetary, regime?
Throughout the game, you come across newspaper clippings and records (The Beatles sort of still exist) that fill the gaps between 1946 and 1960. The result is a fully realized world that isn’t just a horrifying coat of paint over reality; it’s how things would have happened…with a few super-science-y liberties thrown in because why wouldn’t the Nazis a moon base or fire breathing robot dogs? And, of course, the greatest twist of all: the Nazis’ inexplicable sci-fi advancement, the whole reason they won the war, was built on the backs of stolen technology from a secret society of Jewish science wizards. There’s even a sequence where the protagonist, William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, breaks into a high security compound and finds ancient schematics written in Hebrew, which he knows how to read.
We also knew, in broad strokes, what had happened to the other parts of the world. America had surrendered completely after Manhattan was obliterated by an atomic bomb, mirroring the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Nazis had yet to conquer the vast majority of Africa, as organized resistance was proving far more effective than they were willing to recognize. London was kept in line by a skyscraper-sized robot called the London Monitor, which you get to blow up.
Wolfenstein: The New Order took place almost entirely in western Europe (with a brief sojourn to the moon, of course) and exploring how the one region of the world that was, at one time, actually conquered by the Nazis, ended up being just familiar enough to what it was back then to what it became in their alternate history. It’s this foundation, this deep uprooting and deconstruction of history, that allows its sequel, The New Colossus, to head straight into the United States. We were shown what was comfortably familiar to us, so it was time to show what was uncomfortably familiar.
An America subjugated and ruled by the Nazis.
Enemy Of The State Of Affairs
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a game about “why”. Why do we fight against oppression when society around us punishes those who do? Why do we push back against systemic hatred, even when it has no bearing on us? Why does a man like William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, the perfect aesthetic poster boy for Aryan supremacy, reject those who would treat him like a king?
Why has America submitted to Nazi rule? The short answer is: giant airship. The long answer? Well, that one’s not so complicated.
Relatively early in the game, you meet up with a New York City resistance cell lead by a black woman named Grace, a survivor of the Manhattan bombing. In fact, all but one of her members are black with the exception of her partner Super Spesh. Their character designs explicitly invoke imagery of the Black Panthers and the overall Black Power movement.
The first game had you run around helping the Kreisau Circle, the Berlin-based Nazi resistance group that eventually cut the head off the Nazi war machine and stopping them from developing new weapons. This cell was lead by Caroline Decker, a paraplegic veteran. But, in the opening of this game, Caroline is executed by the main antagonist, Frau Engel, leaving a gaping hole in leadership that Grace fits perfectly. Who better to represent a 1960s violent uprising of the oppressed than a black woman in America?
She even goes so far as to move into Caroline’s old cabin in their captured Super U-Boat. From the start of the narrative, Wolfenstein is showing us that America is very different from a conquered Europe. For one, the English language is being banned, hearkening back to that old adage of “If the Nazis won, we’d all be speaking German”.
The largest among the differences though is that, just as Grace says above, America never stopped fighting the Nazis. The military did, yes, and the vast majority of the white population, including a South-governed KKK, but the fact that there is a dedicated anti-gravity airship, the Ausmerzer, whose sole role is to travel the country and crush resistance factions for the past decade tells us in no uncertain terms that the hold the Nazis have over America isn’t as ironclad as they believe it to be.
Even if they are able to put on one hell of a show.
We find newspaper clippings within the game describing resistance cells crushed by the Ausmerzer, and there’s even a moment during a trip to Roswell where you’re recognized (you’re the Reich’s most wanted, after all) by a local resident who, in a terrified act of defiance, whispers that he believes in what you’re doing when just seconds prior he was selling newspaper propaganda with glee.
The cap to this, however, is the final scene of the final mission of the game where you ambush Frau Engel’s live appearance on a talk show. You sneak through the bleachers and into the rafters, noting that every single person in the audience is a cardboard cutout. The show may be being broadcasted to every living room in the world, but it stands to reason that if people aren’t going to the live show…they’re not buying into the lies.
America is being crushed under the heel of the Nazis, yes, but it has yet to be crushed. Good people are still out there in the world, but they’ve forgotten how to resist. Those who were already filled with hate jumped on board, the minority, while everyone else is either putting their head in the sand or just trying to survive.
On the other side of the table, though, is how white America perceives the Nazis. I’ve already mentioned that the KKK controls the south, but it goes a whole lot deeper than that. Slavery has been legalized once more, and auctions are the talk of the town. We find out that, in true Nazi form, they rounded up the country’s degenerates—Jews, queer folk and people of color—and either purged them or sent them off to die in New Orleans…which is now a massive ghetto, Escape from New York style.
And if you “named names”, you were rewarded with what those same people left behind. Land rights, mansions, savings; everything they owned was either seized by the state or given as a gift to those who betrayed their friends and neighbors. This is not something we discover on a broad scale; it’s personal to B.J.
He visits his childhood home after nuking Area 52 (it wasn’t aliens, just ancient Jewish Techno Wizard secrets) and finds his abusive father, Rip, waiting for him, having heard he was in the area and assumed he’d come around. Rip, as we learned from flashbacks, was physically and emotionally abusive to both his son and his wife Zofia, a Jewish Polish immigrant. That, and he was a hardcore White Supremacist, having only married Zofia because he believed her father would be a business asset. He bemoans that no one knows what it is like to suffer as he does, thinking that everyone is trying to steal everything from the White Man.
In short, he represents everything that B.J. has spent his entire adult life fighting against.
When asked what happened to his mother, Rip admits that he sold her out to the Nazis and they took her away. The confrontation ends with B.J. killing his father after he presses a shotgun to his son’s forehead, but through their entire conversation he’d been on the phone with the Nazis. He’d sold out his son, too.
That’s the state of the world in Wolfenstein, and in The New Colossus you blow it the fuck up.
Terror-Billy Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass
While the game’s marketing may have been pointing towards a parallel with the American Revolution as for how the country ousts the Nazis, I posit that the historical context is far more evocative of our 1960s.
Grace’s existence and design are already evidence of this, but it’s the rest of the resistance that makes this all the more clear. The second big group you recruit, aptly enough from the New Orleans ghetto itself, is lead by a man named Horton. He organizes a group of communists, socialists and anarchists who you’d think wouldn’t fit in with Grace and her people. These are the people that dodged the draft, even if they did push the concept of equal rights earlier than most. Horton even flat out cites their attempted push for a civil rights movement in an argument with B.J.
Of course, there’s a key difference between refusing to fight on foreign soil in a war that benefits the military industrial complex and what’s happening to them now. Horton’s group draws upon sentiment from both the end of the Great War and the counterculture movements of the 1960s.
Again, many of them were draft dodging pacifists, but that goes right out the window when it comes to Nazis. It’s one thing to refuse to fight a foreign enemy on foreign lands when victory would have only spread what you’re rebelling against. It’s quite another to sit by and accept fascism in the very country that allowed, though not always encouraged, you to believe what you saw in your heart as just.
It’s at the end of the game, however, in the ending cinematic, that this entire idea solidifies. That this historical context isn’t an accident, and the frankly unbelievable amount of homework MachineGames must have done paid off in spades. Mere moments after B.J. kills Frau Engel on live television, Grace and Horton speak directly into the cameras and ignite a violent revolution. The Kreisau Circle may be organized like a guerilla military operation, but the American people aren’t. They don’t need to be.
It’s an angry, raw, improvised and imperfect call to arms, but that’s what makes it perfect. Violent uprisings don’t start with eloquence or deep debating over the justification to fight against those who oppress you. They start with whatever you’ve got on hand. The Civil Rights movement, the Stonewall Riots and the general counterculture protests that dominated the 60s are clear influences on Wolfenstein’s depiction of “retaking America”. Seriously, if it didn’t sink in already, they blast a heavy metal cover of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” over the end credits coupled with imagery of violent rioting and uprisings across the nation.
Wolfenstein does not attempt to hold a mirror to our world today, even if it does so inadvertently. It tries to make us look back, so that we remember how to keep moving forward. It’s message is clear because it knows what it’s talking about, no matter how over-the-top the presentation:
Equality is not a debate; it’s a right. Those without it won’t stop until they have it, because for them it’s literally “Fight, or Die”. So the best thing you can do, if you’ve already got it, is to pick them up with you. And if you don’t? If you keep trying to push others down? It’s gonna get bloody, just like it always does, and chances are it won’t be them who’s dying.
Images courtesy of MachineGames
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