What We’re Watching

The Fantastic Terror of Lupita Nyong’o in “Us”

Women have depth. We are multidimensional and valuable for more than just what we look like. But you wouldn’t know that from watching TV or movies today. If life was like film and TV, we’d all mostly be straight white cis ladies who all wear a size zero and are only allowed to talk about the men in our lives who coincidentally are also straight and white.

In Jordan Peele’s Us, Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o gives a masterclass performance while breaking all the stereotypes of what it means to be a woman, especially a black woman in film. The characters she plays not only have their own agency, but the duality of those roles show the depth and expanse of Nyong’o’s talent. It’s not a coincidence that a man of color, Peele created this world for Nyong’o to thrive, giving her the space to develop characters that are rarely shown in film. Us proves that when women and people of color get to tell their own stories, they are simply better.

From 12 Years a Slave to Black Panther, Nyong’o’s talent is undeniable. Which makes it even harder to believe that Us is the first major film where Nyong’o has the lead role. And it’s already breaking records. Us not only had the largest debut for an original horror film, with $70.3 million at the box office, it also had the largest opening weekend for a film headlined by a Black woman.

Us is about a family’s vacation gone wrong — with the family’s “evil” doppelgängers finding and terrorizing them. Winston Duke plays the lovable and slightly dorky dad Gabe, and Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex playing the daughter and son, Zora and Jason. Nyong’o plays the mother, Adelaide, who is determined to keep her family safe. And in a surprising twist, Adelaide’s double, Red, who shares one of her earliest and most traumatizing childhood memories.

What’s so impressive about Nyong’o’s performance is the distinct character she creates for both Adelaide and Red. Too often horror movies only give women sexy-scream-run-die roles. These are the roles that mostly involve being scared, making stupid decisions, dying almost always a gruesome death — all the while highlighting the woman’s sexuality. We all know there are many films that spend more camera time on a woman’s cleavage than on actually developing her character. In horror films misogyny is even more terrifying, when oftentimes female characters experience violence and brutality at the hands of male antagonists creating a cultural narrative that conflates sex with violence. And in old horror slasher movies, it’s even worse for black women who often die first if they’re present at all. (Spoiler: white people die first in this movie)

In Us, Nyong’o breaks gender and racial stereotypes, giving us characters with full narratives that Hollywood has historically denied Black women the opportunity to create. Nyong’o depicts Adelaide as a woman with a history of fear and darkness she has kept from her family. This background gives Adelaide the room to build a narrative distinct from her role as a mother and wife. I mean how many times have we seen mothers in movies that are given the freedom to have meaningful, separate life experiences from marriage and children? Adelaide is the leader of her family and guides them through the darkness as they become dependent on her for survival. Then there’s Red, Adelaide’s double that Nyong’o creates as a twitching-unsettling figure with wide enveloping eyes who was previously relegated to Adelaide’s nightmares. Red’s voice, ticks, and eyes look as if they were constructed by Adelaide’s subconscious to show the scariest version of herself.

How Nyong’o builds the relationship between Red and Adelaide is most impressive. Building off childhood memories and flashbacks, the audience is slowly able to connect the dots between the two characters as Nyong’o uses facial cues to bring the audience with her. Nyong’o transforms a character who might be a terrifying zombie-like-figure looking for revenge into something more terrifying — a deep look into one’s self and subconscious. Together, Red and Adelaide show us that sometimes the greatest thing we should fear is looking in the mirror.

Us is a masterpiece thanks to Nyong’o filling the canvas — she leaves you haunted by the depth and nuance of the characters she portrays. She’s the rare woman on screen who’s scared and terrifying, strong and weak, emotional and stoic — unable to fit in any of the boxes society has tried to put her in. These are the characters women, especially women of color, deserve to play. Through Nyong’o, we are taken on a journey of one women’s life, one that doesn’t start at marriage or when she becomes a mother, but is rooted in her personhood. It’s a terrifying journey, and one that will not only make the audience look inward, but also ask why we waited so long for a woman-centered film like this. In Us, Lupita Nyong’o gives women, on screen and off, permission to be scary. Because if there’s one thing I know about women: “If you want to get crazy. We can get crazy.”

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Why Michael Burnham is Great and “Star Trek: Discovery” is Not

It is rare to see women of color on screen. Across media, women get about a third of speaking roles with people of color only getting a third of that. That’s about 10%, significantly less than our percentage of the general population. And of course, women of color in lead roles in STEM-focused shows are even more scarce

For that reason alone, Star Trek: Discovery is worth watching as it follows the adventures of Michael Burnham, a black woman who breaks all sorts of stereotypes. Sonequa Martin-Green’s Burnham is not what we Trekkies (yes, I’m a nerd) have come to expect from a lead character.

For one, she’s not a captain. It may seem like a small shift to those who haven’t been watching pointy-eared people say “live and long and prosper” their whole life, but for those of us who have, it’s a big change. This shift allows us to get to know the life of more junior crew members, making at least one Ensign (Mary Wiseman’s excellent Sylvia Tilly) a major character (instead of just cannon fodder). It also allows us a look into what the life of the vast majority of the crew is like. The young crew members don’t know the captain’s intentions, lack insight on the reason for their mission, and are not part of the top-level decision-making process. With this limited knowledge, they must decide to follow orders (or not) in life-threatening scenarios. It’s quite a different experience from that of the captain.

And that’s just how Burnham breaks Star Trek conventions. There’s also her black woman-ness. Raised on Vulcan (by Spock’s parents no less), Burnham is hyper-rational, a human learning to accept her emotions. That’s classic Star Trek but it’s quite different from the “Angry Black Woman” we see so much in television and movies. It’s also hyper-relatable. As a Latina raised in a society that uplifts stoicism, I understand the pull towards suppressing emotions. It seems like life would be simpler without them, no? No one would label you as “emotional” and you could always be the calm one in an argument. Of course, you’d also miss out on all life’s joys, so… not worth it. Anyways, Burnham is on a journey to seeing her humanity as a strength and I relate.

Michael Burnham is also an awkward date-r, unsure of her own feelings, and how to assert herself. This is largely outside of how we see Black women portrayed as well. We’re used to seeing them more on the poles of sexuality, either as hyper-sexual or a-sexual, jezebel or mammy. Neither is true of course and shows like Insecure are breaking this trope. But it’s nice to see Star Trek, a leader in a completely different genre, do it too. And of course, I love seeing Star Trek ask its fans (of all genders and races) to take this journey through the lens of a Black woman who’s smart, flawed, and growing.

And Burnham isn’t the only character pushing representation issues on Discovery. There’s the unparalleled Michelle Yeoh as Captain/Emperor Philippa Georgiou. She’s deliciously evil as the Emperor, traipsing through the galaxy in multiple dimensions, exerting her will wherever she goes. And so as not to play into some sort of evil-Asian stereotype, we have her heroic Captain whose warmth and strength of character serve as a strong foil. We also have body diversity in Ensign Tilly (surprise, not everyone in space is a size two!) and a same-sex relationship between Anthony Rapp’s Paul Stamets and Wilson Cruz’s (aka Rickie) Dr. Hugh Culber, portrayed with the romance, care, and intrigue usually reserved for straight characters.

And all this is classic Star Trek. This is the franchise that had the first interracial kiss on television. That cast Avery Brooks, a Black man, as Captain Sisko in Deep Space Nine and Kate Mulgrew, a woman, as Captain Janeway in Voyager. That, thankfully, continues to push barriers today.

This purposeful diversity is part of Star Trek’s optimistic ethos. At the franchise’s core is the belief that humanity can be better than we are today. It’s an alternate vision to the dystopia all around us. A vision of the future where we’ve overthrown racism and sexism, eliminating poverty and crime as we go. Greed (or capitalism) is no longer society’s organizing force. Instead, in Star Trek, humanity is a race of peacemakers and explorers who are driven to learn and be better. It’s a glorious vision and one I’ve loved tuning into since I was a child.

Yet, despite its amazing cast, Star Trek: Discovery doesn’t quite embody this worldview. Yes, they talk about the “prime directive” (for those not in the know, that’s not interfering with other societies’ natural progression). And yes, the action takes place within the Federation of Planets, which consists of a variety of different species who’ve all come together in peace as scientists and explorers. But the show itself doesn’t seem to hold these values.

You see the first season is all about Star Fleet’s war with the Klingons. This war was the background for Kirk and crew and Discovery gives us new details. But while I know the Klingons will eventually spawn such strong, relatable characters as Worf and B’Elanna Torres, in Discovery, they’re an ugly, dark race hell-bent on war and destruction. Motivated by nothing other than to fight, they seem wholly evil, an enemy worthy of nothing but death. It’s a trope you see a lot in fantasy and sci-fi (see Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter,etc.) and it’d be fine to fantasize about such clear moral lines if we didn’t also see this same dehumanization used to excuse real-life violence. Look up the argument for using the Atomic Bomb against Japan for an atrocious example.

This lack of nuance fails Star Trek’s core values. Yes, the crew of Discovery (spoiler) ends up staying the Federation’s hand from committing its own atrocity. We even see Burnham give a rousing speech, celebrating Federation values. But the show hasn’t given Klingons the human treatment yet. Instead, it’s let them remain heartless and destruction-bent. I guess we’ll have to wait a century or two to see the beauty in their warrior culture and how they value honor and family above all us.

And that’s not the only example. In the current season, the show (not the characters) fails to have any real curiosity about the universe it’s exploring. In “An Obal for Charon,” the ship meets a 100,000+-year-old orb that is dying and trying to communicate the mysteries of the universe to the crew. However, instead of being interested in this orb’s subjectivity or experience, the show treats it as an obstacle, remaining doggedly fixed on the danger to the crew and mission. This is not Picard’s Enterprise. It’s just action sequence after action sequence, something you can see on countless other shows. It’s got none of the Star Trek sense of wonder at the great unknowns of the universe.

And I could go on. How easily the show moves past Saru forsaking the prime directive in “The Sound of Thunder,” making this literal prime directive into an obstacle too, not an actual moral dilemma. Or that the predator race, the Ba’ul, in that same episode looks like pure evil, a black, dripping, stooping menace, reminiscent of the girl in The Ring. These choices make the show too easy to watch. They keep Discovery from posing any intellectual or moral questions, asking nothing of its viewers but to be along for a ride.

I guess what I’m saying is that Star Trek: Discovery isn’t nerdy enough to be great. I so wish it was. Michael Burnham and crew deserve the complex universe of Picard, Janeway, and Sisco. The one we real people inhabit where choices are not always easy, you can’t tell a bad person from a good one by their appearance, and curiosity in others is not just a passing fancy. Discoveryis just in its second season and will hopefully find some depth soon. If not, there’s always the Michelle Yeoh as Emperor Philippa Georgiou spin-off to look forward to.

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The Hilarious and the Heart-Wrenching in “Workin’ Moms”

Women have whisper networks. We talk about handsy colleagues and compare paychecks. We discuss skin care routines and pass book titles back and forth. I learned about Netflix’s latest import (from Canada no less!), Workin’ Moms, through my network and immediately passed it on.

You see, Workin’ Moms hasn’t gotten the press coverage of Russian Doll or You. It’s more in the One Day At A Time bucket, forced to grow its own audience through the luck of the algorithm, assumed to only speak to a niche audience (like Latinos — 16.7% of the population, or working mothers — 12%, le sigh). And so, we real working moms are spreading the show amongst ourselves, relaying the fact that this comedy gets to some of the truths of early motherhood in ways we haven’t seen before.

Usually, early motherhood is skipped over entirely (look at this cute baby, now skip forward until they’re old enough to lead their own storylines), glossed over as a sacred and precious period (babies are adorable yes, but difficult to care for too), or portrayed in slapstick comedy form (dirty diapers are perhaps not so hilarious when part of your daily routine). Not so with Workin’ Moms.It’s about the good and the bad, the hilarious and the heart-wrenching of early motherhood. There’s the scene about trying to get your baby to latch. The one where you finally have good sex after the birth. The one where you realize you’re pregnant again and think, I cannot do this.

I’m particularly impressed with how the show presents motherhood as an affront to your identity. All the moms on the show deal with it. In the first season (the one on Netflix now — Canada’s on season three), Jessalyn Wanlim’s Jenny Matthews rebels against the role of motherhood, reverting to her college-aged self, wearing chokers, piercing her nipple, and flirting/hooking up with inappropriate men (aka not her husband, aka her boss and random younger men). Juno Rinaldi’s Frankie Coyne faces the chemical imbalance of motherhood with postpartum depression, unable to keep her job, her sense of self, and sometimes her grip on reality. Dani Kind’s Anne Carlson struggles to match her gruff personality with mothering, feeling jealous of her nanny’s easy connection with her prepubescent daughter and contemplating an abortion of her third pregnancy. Meanwhile, our lead, Catherine Reitman’s Kate Foster hides her promotion from her husband, a career advancement that would be a no-brainer without kids. Now it’s fraught and painful, a no-win situation that turns Kate’s professional dream turned into a nightmare when her son winds up in the hospital.

Throughout, we see the specter of motherhood, this role that is supposed to fulfill you but requires never-ending self-sacrifice, as what it is: really fucking hard. Society’s depiction of motherhood in movies and in the media doesn’t fit actual women with actual lives. So many of us mourn the life we had before kids, the one that allowed us more leeway to focus on ourselves, to grow our careers and interests. The one that included late night outs and bodily autonomy. The moms on the show and the ones I know in real life all want the best for their kids and are willing to work hard and sacrifice for them. But what if we sacrifice too much? When does it become counterproductive? Maybe older kids can recognize that their parents have needs outside of them, but babies and toddlers cannot. Their needs are endless and can consume you if you don’t create boundaries. It’s a pretty tough line to draw, made more so by a social narrative that says you’re supposed to give endlessly and like it.

Not that motherhood is all bad nor is the struggle to navigate its demands. On Workin’ Moms, we see Anne finally bond with her daughter and when they connect it manages to be satisfying, meaningful, and funny. When Kate gets her baby to latch and then later decides to stop struggling and switch to formula, I felt her success in my bones (really my nipples) and the bittersweet compromise in my soul. Each woman is becoming better, yet different people through the journey of motherhood. This show honestly portrays the growing pains of this weird, rewarding, and difficult transformation that is early motherhood.

Workin’ Moms captures much of what it is to be a new mother but it is not perfect. All the moms are relatively affluent, either paying for nannies or able to have one of the parents stay home. The racial dynamics are rough, focusing mostly on the white experience. Early on Kate (white) fires her Filipino nanny in a scene that made me cringe — it othered the brown woman while allowing the power dynamics to go unquestioned. In the show’s mother circle, the lone black woman is consistently played for laughs, made strange and unrelatable for no discernible reason. Yes, the show features two women of color, Jenny and Frankie’s partner Giselle, but neither of them takes as central of a role as the white women.

And then there’s the stay-at-home mom in the mother’s circle who’s made the villain, Katherine Barrell’s Alicia Rutherford. She has precious ideas about self-sacrifice and women’s role in the home. And the other women bond over belittling her. After all these years of mommy wars, it would have been refreshing to see a show that doesn’t pit one type of motherhood against another. We’re not actually in conflict with each other. We’re in conflict with a society that tells us we should find fulfillment in unpaid, undervalued work no matter our personality or predilections. Workin’ Moms generally rallies against this notion as do the real working mothers I know. Here’s to the next two season arriving in the US, hopefully not repeating some of the more tone-deaf moments, and continuing to show motherhood for what it is: beautiful, impossible, real. That’s a story worth telling.

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Rosa Diaz and Amy Santiago Are My Favorite Things on Television

When it premiered in 2013, Brooklyn 99 seemed to be like any other cop show centered around a white male police officer named Jake Peralta. In this case, the known star is Andy Samberg of SNL and Lonely Island fame. And while I liked Andy Samberg, I wasn’t about to make time to watch a slapstick cop comedy. But I gave it a shot, figuring what’s 20 minutes in this post-Netflix world? And let’s be honest, I had just graduated from college, and was still enamored with the concept of there being no homework or trips to the library after dinner. With these low expectations, imagine my disbelief upon seeing Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) and Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) in the intro.

Diaz and Santiago represent many of the hopes I have for how Latinas will be represented on television and in media in the future. Not only is salsa music never in the background when they’re on-screen, neither of the two characters represent the stereotypical roles I usually see Latinas play. Neither of them are ever described as “spicy,” made fun of because of their accent, or fit the two roles that TV has largely cast Latina women in: the sexy hypersexualized love interest or the janitor/gardener/maid.

Detective Rosa Diaz is the toughest cop in Brooklyn 99 by far. Let’s not forget the episode that is completely dedicated to her coworkers’ challenge to get her to smile. She also insists that people simply share too much stating in one episode: “I hate small talk. Let’s drink in silence.” Not only is she strong but she is also vulnerable, coming out as bisexual in season 5. Actress Stephanie Beatriz herself identifies as bisexual and queer and has talked about how important it is to have a character like Rosa on TV.

 

 

I identify as bi and queer…growing up I didn’t ever see myself on television, not to mention that I’m Latina. So there were very limited characters that I identified with… I can think of many times when I was 13, 14, where I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be okay… I don’t see people succeeding that identify this way.’

Breaking the oh so common one Latina per TV show, Amy Santiago is a very different character from Rosa. Santiago is extremely competitive and has a serious addiction to binders, label-makers, and organization in general. She is notoriously horrible at cooking and her dance skills are more Urkel than Shakira. The show evolves Santiago as a character to become truly multidimensional, something few Latina actress have had the opportunity to play in the past.

 

In an episode directed by Beatriz (Diaz), Santiago is put on a case where a man attempted to sexually assault a female co-worker (at you guessed it an investment bank). In the episode, Peralta and Santiago are put on the case trying endlessly to prove without a doubt that a “typically toxic” male character is guilt. For a sitcom known for slapstick comedy to try to comment on sexual assault was definitely a risk. But one that was clearly worth taking.

Although a little awkward at times, this episode shows the right way to have a conversation about gender power dynamics in the workplace, while ignoring some of the shows previous misstep regarding women in the workplace. While there are still plenty of jokes, Beatriz orchestrates moments of truth that shed light on the ways both women and men react to sexual assault. Whether it’s the disbelief of male allies when confronted with women’s everyday obstacles in the workplace, or the complexity of the decision to come forward, Brooklyn 99 handled it with care and responsibility.

This show has become my favorite comedy sitcom on television because it not only looks like the world I know but features and centers people of color who break the stereotypical structures forced on POC in televisionBrooklyn 99 centers an ensemble with two Latinas showing all of television that the “no more than one” rule doesn’t and shouldn’t ever apply to casting. And I’m not the only one who’s a fan (cough Lin-Manuel Miranda cough).

 

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The Case for Still Watching “Grey’s Anatomy”

It’s official. Grey’s Anatomy is now the longest running medical drama in TV history. With its 332nd episode, it surpassed the previous record holder, ER. I have watched every single episode, and some many times. I unabashadley love Grey’s Anatomy and no snark, hot take, or hip millennial opinion will get me to stop.

The show was wildly popular when it premiered with viewership peaking at over 25 million. Life was different then. Facebook was just for students, Twitter didn’t exist yet. George W. Bush was President. You get the picture. I was still in college, not a married professional with kids. The show spoke to my friends and me – the interns on Grey’s were who we wanted to be (but weren’t yet): brilliant, complicated, sexy, ambitious.

A lot has happened since 2005, both in the world of Grey’s Anatomy and (dimmer, less-just) real life. Along the way, people have stopped watching Grey’s Anatomy: its most recent season premiere had less than 7 million viewers. But, as one of the 7 million, nearly everyone I talk to has a Grey’s story. They remember the brilliant first few seasons and how they were transfixed with Meredith and Cristina’s love life. Perhaps they followed the on-set drama. They definitely have an opinion about Katherine Heigl. Regardless of when they stopped watching, these 14 million people still carry parts of the show and its worldview with them. And I’m here for that.

I’m not saying the show is perfect. There have been bad episodes, ridiculous arcs. Izzy’s sex-with-ghost plotline comes to mind. The episode when they first revealed Dr. Miranda Bailey’s mental health problem was not great. April Kepner’s introduction was rough between her awkward crush on Derek and how long it took for her to have an actual backstory.

I weathered these rough moments waiting for the more brilliant ones to shine through. And they do. Take the case of Dr. Miranda Bailey. She started the show off as so tough and exacting as to earn the nickname “The Nazi.” At first, we see her as her interns do – a slightly unknowable authority figure who expects the best of you. But as the show progress, we see more of her. We see her give birth in harrowing circumstances, losing her edge as her ability to control dissipates. We see that first mental health breakdown, the cost of always being strong and hyper-competent. And we see her take risks in her love life and as a mother – some that pay off and some that don’t. We’ve learned so much about her and the fascinating, complicated, strong woman that she is. That’s the type of nuance you get when you’ve stayed with characters for fourteen years, 330+ episodes.

Not that all the characters have stayed. Of the five original interns, only Meredith and Alex remain. Webber and Bailey are still there but that’s about it. Derek, Bourke, Addison, Callie, they’re all gone. I wasn’t sure the show could withstand the departure of Sandra Oh’s Cristina Yang. More than Meredith’s relationship with Derek, the Meredith and Cristina friendship was the central bond guiding so much of the early action. They coined “you’re my person.” They fought and reconciled and supported each other. Without that central relationship what would be the show’s heart? (Certainly not Meredith and Derek. Derek never compared…)

Luckily, the show’s ambitions were always greater than the five original interns. For example, did you know that Callie Torres is the longest running LGBTQ character in TV history? She was introduced in season two and left in season twelve leaving a string of broken hearts behind her (including mine for no longer getting to watch her). Or did you see the recent episode in which a trans character outs himself by revealing the great lengths he went to change his sex on his driver’s license? Or the compassion for Dr. Sam Bello when she faced deportation?

And less you think Grey’s is just a lefty fantasy writ large, the show also explores what it means to be a Christian in a largely secular world with the much-missed April Kepner. It explores veteran reentry issues with Dr. Owen Hunt, advocating for better medical care for veterans while valorizing their service.

You see at the heart of Grey’s Anatomy is not a single relationship or person. At its core, the show is about love and excellence, the ways these things sometimes compete and also drive each other. It’s about challenging us to love each other better and not be divided by race, class, sexuality, you name it, while also acknowledging and decrying the unjust structures that make those divisions so strong. It’s about what we can accomplish when people at all levels compete and contribute. It’s about a world where women, people of color, and particularly women of color have their talent and skill recognized.

It’s this radical vision of what humanity can be at its best that keeps me tuning in. And I’ll watch for another 300 episodes if they let me.

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The Joy of Watching Women of Color in Power

Wednesday, many of us watched, as former personal lawyer to Donald Trump, Michael Cohen, testified before the House Oversight committee. In his opening statement, Cohen called President Trump a “racist, conman, and a cheat.” Unfortunately, watching a white man being called out appropriately is never as satisfying as it should be. Usually, these events tend to be traumatic *cough Brett Kavanaugh cough* — reinforcing the status quo that accountability never looks the same for white men as it does for the rest of us. Yet, this hearing, while not without moments of ridiculousness, exceeded my expectations, thanks to three new congresswomen: Democratic Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.).

During the hearing, Rep. Mark Meadows, a white Republican congressman from North Carolina, brought Lynne Patton, a black woman who works in the Trump Administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development . By bringing her, Rep. Meadows hoped to challenge Cohen’s labeling of Trump as a racist using the oh-so-popular “Black friend card.”

Seem problematic? Dare I say racist? I thought so too. But even in 2019, I expect these situations to be ignored by our representatives, leaving most of us to flock to Twitter to debrief and find validation for our frustration.

However, this year is a little different. Why? Women. Or more specifically, women of color. Granted, women still only make up 23.4% of the US House of Representatives. But believe it or not, this is a vast improvement from 20% before the midterms. To be clear, that’s a total of 102 women and just 43 women of color. Don’t get out your confetti just yet. We still have a long way to go before Congress reflects what our country actually looks like.

Image courtesy of NPR

When you zoom in on the demographics of the Oversight and Reform Committee, iit gets a little better. Of the 42 members, 13 are women (31%) and 7 are women of color. Three of those women were newly elected this year.

It is these three women who transform the direction of this hearing. A couple hours after Rep. Meadows introduced Trump’s token Black friend, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez began her questioning. Her interrogation of Cohen was so compelling, The New York Times’ headline was “How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Won the Cohen Hearing” and Slate’s “Did Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Just Lay Groundwork for Democrats to Subpoena Trump’s Tax Returns?” To watch a Latina from the Bronx, newly elected to Congress, appear on television in front of a committee of largely white men and conduct the best line of questioning, validates what we already know — women of color are not only capable, we excel. We’ve worked twice as hard to get half as far and AOC’s performance proves it.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley shined too, taking a different approach to dealing with Cohen. Like so many of us, she knew Trump was racist long before Michael Cohen decided to announce it to the world. So she asked Cohen during the hearing, “Would you agree that someone could deny rental units to African-Americans, lead the birther movement, refer to the diaspora as ‘shithole countries,’ and refer to white supremacists as ‘fine people,’ have a black friend, and still be racist?” “Yes.” Cohen replied. Not only did Rep. Pressley make a statement about how racism actually works, she showed quickly and concisely that simply presenting your token Black friend proves nothing.

And finally Rep. Rashida Tlaib took the stage and addressed Lynne Patton’s presence directly. “Just because someone has a person of color — a black person working for — them does not mean they aren’t racist,” she said. “And it is insensitive that some would…use [as] a prop a black woman in this chamber, in this committee. [That is] racist in itself.” Immediately, Rep. Meadows demanded a retraction from Rep. Tlaib for her daring to appropriately label his racist behavior.

I don’t know about you, but this interaction didn’t seem foreign to me. Certainly Rep. Meadows was more concerned with being called racist than examining the ways his behavior WAS racist. And the person of color, here Rep. Tlabi, spent all her energy restating, in excruciating detail, her comments — even though she was right all along. THIS is the POC twilight zone so many of us live in. So many times people of color, especially women of color, are forced to educate white people about racism, often times at their own expense. I am sure it’s not the first time that Rep. Pressley or Tlaib have had to have this type of conversation. I know it won’t be the last. As I watched them on TV, I felt a natural connection. I’ve had these conversations myself and it was invigorating seeing someone who looked like me — in the halls of Congress no less — reflecting my experience.

The fact is these women are now in the room where it happens, where the laws and decisions that govern our country are shaped. It wasn’t long ago when rooms like these wouldn’t have allowed in women like Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Tlaib. They stand as living testaments to the generations of women who’ve made their journey possible. Watching these three Congresswomen of color felt like the opening of the door through which so many more women will enter the halls of power. And I can’t wait to see what that room looks like.

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Roma Didn’t Win Best Picture And That’s Okay

Last night Roma didn’t win for Best Picture (mass eye roll for Green Book’s win) and Yalitza Aparicio didn’t win Best Actress in a leading role, and yes we’re disappointed. But we’re not hopeless.

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As Latinas, we’re used to not winning awards. I mean let’s face it it’s been 58 years since a Latina has won an acting Oscar (Shout out to reina Rita Moreno). However this year, Latinos proved we will not and cannot be ignored. And I’m not just talking about Jennifer Lopez’s mirror dress, which we’re pretty sure she wore so the max number of Latinas could see themselves on screen. Or the crazy amount of Spanish we heard on the Oscar stage AND during the Oscar ads. I’m talking about how Roma not only won Alfonso Cuarón Oscars for directing, cinematography, and best “foreign” language film, but made a larger statement about the importance of Latino made and driven films.

“I grew up watching foreign language movies and learning so much from them and being inspired like Citizen Kane, Jaws, Rashomon, The Godfather, Breathless… The nominations tonight prove we are part of the same ocean.” – Alfonso Cuarón

Cuarón’s speech tells us everything we need to know. The idea of a “foreign” film makes Spanish and all non-English language films others. It says those stories are different and don’t belong to us. This despite the fact that English is NOT the official language of the US (nor should it be of Hollywood). What stories are “ours” is not based on borders and walls. The talent at the Oscars understood this, even if the categories didn’t reflect it. Even the sponsors got in on the game - shout out to Verizon and Rolex who had non-subtitled Spanish in their ads. It’s like they realized that Latinx people exist and spend money too.
Hopefully, this Oscars acts as the start of greater inclusion for Latinos and all the stories we have to tell. Because I think we can all agree, we definitely don’t need another biopic about Winston Churchill. Or another movie about racism written and directed by white men.

As Javier Bardem said in Spanish no less (but with English subtitles), “There are no borders or walls that can restrain ingenuity and talent. In any region of any country of any continent, there are always great stories that move us and tonight we celebrate the excellence and importance of the cultures and languages of different countries.”

Again and again people of color have proven that our stories are not only worth telling but add a richness and diversity that society cannot ignore. Let’s check the stats: 5 of the last 6 winners of best director have been Mexican. At this year’s Oscars, three of the four acting winners were people of color. Black women won firsts in costume design and set production. And women took home a record breaking 15 Oscars this year, three for directing. Roma was particularly special because it starred an indigenous woman, took place in Mexico with everyone speaking either Spanish or Mixtec, AND won 3 Oscars. A film about Mexicans made by Mexicans that wins all the awards? That’s rare. Roma‘s success has allowed us a glimpse of what we’re capable of if people just give us a seat at the table.

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Six Reasons Why “Russian Doll” is So Perfect (Warning: Spoilers)

If you haven’t binged Netflix’s Russian Doll yet, you should. The show is perfect. Pretty bold to say, I know, but in the world of prestige media, I challenge you to find something better.

Much has been made of Russian Doll’s use of all woman writers and directors and I, of course, love seeing women’s perspectives on screen. And what this woman-led creative team delivers is truly amazing. Here’s why the show is so perfect (spoilers ahead):

1. Natasha Lyonne is a National Treasure

Whether you’ve been watching her since she was in American Pie or just noticed her in Orange is the New Black, you know Lyonne’s raspy voice and wry sensibility manages to steal every scene she’s in. Seeing more of her is always a pleasure, but Russian Doll takes it to the next level by building the show’s entire universe around Lyonne’s unique presence. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lyonne’s Nadia is the ultimate cool girl with great clothes, artsy friends, creative job, big heart, sarcastic personality, and troubled love life that you’ve always wanted to see on screen. She’s aspirational while also being deeply troubled and deeply troubled without ever being pitiable. While I’m not sure if the show’s title refers to Nadia herself or the cascading structure of the experience she’s in, I do know that as I spent more time in her world, I never lost this strong sense of who Nadia is. There is no secret side to Nadia, no hidden truth that changes everything. Instead, the show reveals the tender inside of a tough woman we instinctively root for, showing the complicated nature of her existence. And it’s beautiful.


2. It Doesn’t Center Whiteness

Russian Doll is undeniably a vehicle for Natasha Lyonne, a white lady. And for the first three episodes, you can be excused for thinking it’s just an edgy mash up of Sex and the City and Groundhog’s Day. After all, we spend those first few episodes following Lyonne’s Nadia as she repeatedly celebrates (and dies on) her 36th birthday with her fabulous and fashionable friends, goes to her video-game design job, and contemplates all her past drug use. This is a rich and rarified New York with pretty, thin, 30-something women run amok.

Then the show pivots, spending its fourth episode entirely with Charlie Barnett’s Alan. Alan is the opposite of Nadia in so many ways – he’s uptight and fearful while she’s reckless and free. He’s isolated and struggling while she’s a badass with more friends than she knows what to do with. He’s also a tall, broad-shouldered black men while she’s a small, white, woman. They are different. But their differences do not privilege one over the other.

You see, Nadia and Alan are linked and equal in the show: They’re both stuck on the same death loop, reliving the same day and dying at the same time. And Alan’s been there the whole time, we, the audience, just haven’t been paying attention to him. It turns out Alan and Nadia need each other to face their past traumas, deal with the ongoing symptoms of those wounds, and get out of their Groundhog’s Day dilemma. They are different yes, but one is not more interesting, more human, or more pivotal than the other. Nadia’s white experience isn’t the only thing that matters here, it’s just one of multiple stories worth telling.

3. No One is a Stereotype

Too many shows use shortcuts for their characters: the emotional woman, the angry black man, the righteous white guy. Not Russian Doll. Here we see a diverse and vibrant New York populated by people whose personalities are not determined by stereotypes. Nadia’s East Village has rich and poor, young and old, black, white and brown people all living on the same block and interacting as fellow humans. Whether it’s the homeless Horse, the quirky Maxinne, or the wise Ruth, the show gives each of these characters dignity and humor, shattering the homogenous portrayals of the city so common in shows with white leads like Girls and Sex and the City.

Certainly Nadia and Alan defy expectations with Nadia avoiding the woman’s domains of emotional entanglements and motherhood while Alan demonstrates an obsessive need for tidiness and order that is almost never associated in TV’s limiting portrayal of blackness. But it’s not just the leads.

Nearly every character on Russian Doll defies stereotypes. Take for example Ritesh Rajan’s Farran. He’s Alan’s best friend who Nadia knows because he works the late-night shift at her local bodega. I know what you’re thinking a South Asian character as a store clerk? This is just another Apu. But no, Farran and Alan didn’t meet doing manual labor (as he fools Nadia and the audience into thinking for a second), but rather pledged the same fraternity in college. Farran’s writing a novel and has more emotional intelligence than either of our two leads. He’s not a faceless brown guy waiting to serve richer, more complex white people but rather an interesting human with his own set of challenges, goals, and aspirations.

Likewise, you could read Rebecca Henderson’s Lizzie as a stereotypical lesbian in overalls but you’d miss the importance of her character in the final episode and all the nuance and humor along the way. Or you could decide Dascha Polanco’s Beatrice is just the cruel, cheating woman there to inflict pain on the innocent, worthy man but you’d be falling into the same trap that leads Alan to commit suicide in the first place – seeing his love as an object to be possessed rather than a partner to learn and grow with.

4. Well, Almost No One

In fact, the only character who consistently conforms to type is Jeremy Bobb’s predatory professor Mike Kershaw. And I’m ok with that. Not just because in the #MeToo era, it’s necessary that we show these men for the villains they are. Or because he recognizes that he’s “the hole where the choice should be.” Or because there’s no chance white guys as a group will be stereotyped as a result of this single role.

I’m ok with Mike being a stereotype because he’s also a direct foil for Cuban American actor Yul Vazquez’s John. Both are men of a certain age who sleep with Nadia on different loops and as such present a clear contrast. Sleeping with lecherous, unethical Mike is clearly a mistake, whether it’s Nadia or one of the many women at her birthday party. He is rude and manipulative throughout the series, saying whatever he can to get whatever woman is in front of him into bed. He is a hole women fall into.

Meanwhile, John is a viable choice who Nadia dumps when the emotional commitment becomes too big for her. Throughout the series, John is kind and honorable, helping Nadia on her spiritual quest and demanding that she show up for him emotionally. Indeed, it is his insistence that she meet his daughter that gets Nadia to finally confront the trauma she experienced as a girl of John’s daughter’s age.

Comparing John and Mike reveals a choice for men how men who have achieved positions of status should act and how we should interact with them. It’s a clear choice but one that bears repeating.

5. It’s Just So Rich

There are a lot of ideas on Russian Doll, a lot of themes savvy viewers can delve into. Are you a gaming nut? You can see the whole series as treatise on gaming. There’s Nadia’s job as a game creator and expertise in code. There’s Alan’s take on crowning achievement – “You created an impossible game with a single character who has to solve everything entirely on her own” – as a metaphor for her entire predicament. There’s how the characters die and the timeline resets, effectively mirroring how so many video games work. And there’s Nadia understanding of what’s happening to them as a bug in the universe’s code.

But it’s not just video games. It’s addiction, trauma, religion – big stuff. You can see questions of life, love, and struggle explored explicitly and implicitly in the show whether it’s the song in the background, Alan looking to Catholicism to develop a theory of what’s happening (and Nadia going visiting a Rabbi to explore one of hers), or psychoanalytic theories of trauma underpinning the show’s repetitive structure. Interior design enthusiasts will even be satisfied with Nadia and Alan’s apartments both reflecting their interior states and turmoil. It’s really got something for everyone.

6. There’s A Moral to the Story

In the end, though, like all great stories, Russian Doll is more than the sum of its parts. All the richness in theme and theory doesn’t distract from the show’s central focus, the quest of Nadia and Alan to save themselves. Yes, of course they need to get out of their loops and stop dying. As the show goes on, the stakes rise – their worlds shrink and the whole universe is in jeopardy.

How do they do it? How do they break the cycle and bring back the world as we know it? They find salvation in helping each other. In recognizing their pain is keeping them from life’s most important calling: being of service to each other. Isn’t that beautiful idea? One might even call it perfect.

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“Roma” and the Pressure to Represent all of the Latinx Experience

“I’m Mexican.”

That’s something I say sometimes. Mostly to people who are (rudely) asking “where are you [really] from?” And sometimes to those who take my light skin as an invitation to say something racist. Every once in a while to a fellow Latinx person as we share experiences.

The thing is, though, I’m not really Mexican. I’m the descendant – the granddaughter to be precise – of people who immigrated from Mexico. When I go see my extended family, I go to Los Angeles. I don’t know a single relative who lives in Mexico. And even if I did, I’d be too embarrassed by my Spanish/Spanglish to really connect. So yeah, I’m not really “Mexican,” I’m more Mexican American/Chicana/Latinx, a product of a culture that systematically was forced to mix and assimilate.

All the same, I went into Roma expecting to see myself or at least my family reflected back to me. Latinas are the least represented group in US media when compared to our actual numbers and here is a ten-time Oscar nominee with two of Latinas as the stars! I couldn’t wait to watch it and get the rare glimpse of my identity on screen. After all, we do buy the most movie tickets every year AND have the highest rates of Netflix subscriptions.

Latinas are the least represented group in US media when compared to our actual numbers and here is a ten-time Oscar nominee with two of Latinas as the stars! I couldn’t wait to watch it and get the rare glimpse of my identity on screen.

Roma stars Yalitza Aparicio as Cleodegaria Gutiérrez, one of two indigenous maids and the primary caretaker of a white Mexican family, living in the upper-middle-class Mexico City neighborhood of Roma. The film follows Cleo through a year in her life, starting in 1970, during which big events shake her life and the broader world she lives in. This is the year the patriarch and Cleo’s employer leaves his family – his wife, four children, and extended household, never to return. It’s the year Cleo gets pregnant and experiences her own abandonment with the child’s father disavowing her. It’s also the year of El Halconazo or Corpus Christi Massacre, in which government forces kill around 120 people for participating in student demonstrations in DF. And it’s the year Luis Echeverría becomes President of Mexico, seizing land belonging to the likes of Cleo’s mother. Throughout these events, both personal and political, Cleo stands in the center with the male characters relegated to supporting roles.

Roma is a biography of sorts for writer, director, and cinematographer, Alfonso Cuarón. One of the leading voices in the Nuevo Cine Mexicano (along with Gonzalez Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro), Cuarón based Roma on his own memories of being one of the children in the aforementioned family. The film is shot in black and white and brings into focus the small details of Cleo’s life – where she puts the dishes before turning off the lights, the song she sings to wake up the children, the sounds it makes when she cleans up the dog shit.

In the film, the children are a gaggle of ill-behaved, loved, and loving creatures who Cleo manages and clearly adores. We also see the family’s mother Sofia, played by Marina de Tavira, alternate between cruel and kind to her children, herself, and particularly Cleo as she adjusts to her new position as a woman without a husband.

Roma is nominated for all the awards and I’m particularly excited to see Latinas finally breaking barriers in their categories. If Yalitza Aparicio wins for Best Actress, she’ll be the first Latina to do so and the first indigenous woman at that. Gabriela Rodriguez could be the first Latina to win a Best Picture Oscar and Marina de Tavira would be only the second Latina to ever win Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars (shout out to Rita Moreno for being the first)!

That’s who I come from. A mix of White and indigenous folks who left Mexico and got jumbled together because, even though colorism is real and dangerous in these Estados Unidos, once anyone from Latin America crosses the border, they become just another ‘dirty Mexican.’

At this moment, Roma is THE movie about the Latinx experience in the way that Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther represented those communities. And yet, as a Mexican American/Chicana/Latinx person who loved the film, cried watching it, and tries to catch everything Cuarón does, I didn’t see myself in it. You see, my family story is hard to square with the world of Roma. If we exist at all in the film’s universe, it’d have to be long before Cleo goes to work for Sofia. My family is more like if Cleo’s grandmother’s sister and Sofia’s grandfather’s cousin both migrated to the US separately, met and got married here, and started a whole other family. That’s who I come from. A mix of White and indigenous folks who left Mexico and got jumbled together because, even though colorism is real and dangerous in these Estados Unidos, once anyone from Latin America crosses the border, they become just another “dirty Mexican.”

I’m not saying the differences between White and Indigenous Latinos do not exist. Or are not substantial. In fact, I’d argue the opposite – the racial divide among Latinx people is often ignored in the US to our peril. Roma is telling an important story. It’s just not a story that includes large portions of the population, like me. And that would be fine except if Roma somehow becomes the end-all-be-all of how we understand the Latinx experience. Certainly, it’s the only movie about us that’s broken through this year. And when you look back at the record, it’s the only film about Latinas that’s EVER received this level of attention (remember how Rita Moreno is the only Latina to have won an acting Oscar? And for West Side Story way back in 1961 – a film that came out over 50 years ago and is arguably not about what it means to be Latina…).

The thing is, I don’t fault Roma for not including me. It’s not fair to expect any single piece of art to represent a group as vast as the Latinx community – we’re talking about more than a continent full of people here! But the pressure is still there, the hope, and the expectation.

The thing is, I don’t fault Roma for not including me.

Because I so rarely get the chance to see myself on screen, each time is fraught with more meaning than it should hold. It’s not like I’m a white guy who sees the complexity of my experience everywhere I go. As a Latina, we don’t have much. We have the commodification of Frida Kahlo. The emerging consensus that original EGOT-winner Rita Moreno deserves a lot of backdated respect. We have Jennifer Lopez in that green Versace dress now and forever. And we have Sofia Vergara’s paycheck. Note that none of them are Mexican American like me (even though we make up more than half the Latino/Hispanic population in the US).

I hope Roma wins all the awards. I also hope it leads to more representations of the Latinx experience. After all, it’s a beautiful story that centers Mexican women in a way you almost never see. It’s just not my story and that’s ok.

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Finding Love and Pandemonium on “The Good Place”

In “Pandemonium,” the season three finale of The Good Place, the show makes explicit its most radical idea yet: love. Specifically, love as what gives life meaning. As Janet, the all-knowing robot says, “If there were an answer I could give you to how the universe works, it wouldn’t be special. It would just be machinery fulfilling its cosmic design. It would just be a big, dumb food processor. But since nothing seems to make sense, when you find something or someone that does, it’s euphoria.” This euphoria, the way the world stops spinning when you’re in love, this is the answer to the “randomness and pandemonium” of the human condition.

It’s a nice idea and backed up by the show’s emphasis on relationships. At one point in the finale, Michael encounters Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani together and says “Look at the four of you all together.” And as the camera shows our quartet, the four humans at the center of the show, I was struck. A group of friends, sometimes lovers, on an amazing adventure together. The Good Place succeeds because of the relationships. It is the drama of each character’s interactions that allows the shows to delve into the Big Ideas it’s known for. Without them, it’d be like watching a textbook.

That’s not to say that I don’t find the romance between Chidi and Eleanor a bit overdone. I’m not particularly interested in their will-they or won’t-they plotline but the season three finale got me (spoilers ahead). In it, we see the happily together couple face a new dilemma: Chidi’s ex Simone will be one of the four new humans upon which the group must prove can improve to save all of humanity from ending up in the Bad Place. Convinced he won’t be able to teach her moral philosophy without their past interfering, Chidi volunteers to have his memories washed.

After the reset, his memories will stop at the moment he originally died, effectively erasing all his relationships on the show and particularly devastating to the new, happy couple. Unlike the previous resets, the other three humans won’t be losing the memories too. Meaning Eleanor will go on knowing and missing her relationship with Chidi while he’ll have no idea what’s happened. It’s new territory for the show that’s kept its four principles all in the same position over three seasons as they reboot, go to heaven, and discover hell altogether. Now Chidi will be on his own or more precisely part of the new group of people which includes Simone and doesn’t include Eleanor, Tahani, or Jason.

In addition, because of Michael’s fear of failure, Eleanor has stepped into the architect role, acting as the mastermind of the afterlife. Her new role further separates the group, disrupting the original dynamic of four relative equals even more. It’s certainly an interesting visual: to replace Ted Danson’s old, white man, the prototypical face of leadership, with Kristen Bell’s small, casual Eleanor. Let’s just say her T-shirt did not inspire confidence in her first few scenes as the architect. But wardrobe questions aside, Eleanor’s always been the natural leader in the group. Yes, Chidi has been the teacher but Eleanor started the lessons, built the relationships, figured out the rouse first, and got the rest involved. I’m excited to see what her leadership will look like with formal trappings, especially after watching its growth for all these seasons.

So I guess the remaining question is: will love conquer all? Specifically, can it conquer the structural barriers the show has set up for season four? Eleanor and Chidi have found each other through countless do-overs so there’s certainly hope for them. That said, sometimes they end up as friends (my general preference for the two). This time will be particularly difficult because Chidi will meet Simone and Eleanor at approximately the same time, making his chance of falling for either of his two (forgotten) exes pretty even. Plus, as the architect, Eleanor won’t be in the same group or situation as Chidi and the other humans, making it even harder. I adore Simone (played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste of Killing Eve) and thought she was a great match for Chidi when they paired up earlier in the season. I’d still argue that she has more chemistry with Chidi than Eleanor. So who knows what will happen?

The problem with rooting for Simone though is that Eleanor and Chidi’s relationship is what makes them grow. It’s what turns Eleanor from a self-absorbed “Arizona dirtbag” into someone engaged with ideas, concerned about the feelings of others, and interested in doing good. It stops Chidi from being paralyzed by his choices and let’s him finally live. So can this same growth happen if their relationship isn’t romantic? If Eleanor and Chidi are just friends? I hope so. Love comes in so many forms it’d be frustrating for a show as smart as The Good Place fall into the damaging (and often sexist) troupe that only romantic love counts.

So whether they’re coupled or not, I hope Chidi, Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason keep changing because their development is what makes the show so dynamic. If these charmingly insufferable people can evolve, then there’s hope for the rest of us. I guess what I’m saying is, of all the big ideas, famous theories, and lesser known concepts The Good Place has dramatized, its presentation of love may be the riskiest. We’ll have to wait until next season to see if the gamble pays off.

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