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Feminism

Becoming Exceptional: What We Owe Michelle Obama and Beyoncé

I have been watching and rewatching the glory and salvation that is Beyoncé’s Homecoming. The over 2-hour film chronicles her historical performance as the first Black woman to headline Coachella. The film is everything and shows the strength and dedication of a woman who has reinvented so much of the music industry. Truly, there is nothing I can say about Beyoncé that hasn’t been said already, she is an icon, artist, visionary, activist, and the closest thing to a representation of God on Earth.

On the same day Homecoming came out, my mom and I saw Michelle Obama on her international Becoming tour in Amsterdam. I wore a graphic dark green dress with flowers cascading on the back and front. As we were leaving, my dad asked why I had chosen to wear such a nice outfit, “It’s not like Michelle Obama is going to see you.” I laughed and simply said, “It’s Michelle Obama.” The 17,000-person venue was filled to capacity with a majority non-Americans beaming eagerly to see a woman who stands as a symbol of hope.

Michelle Obama in the Ziggo Dome, Amsterdam. © ANP

Now, this might seem like just a coincidence — to have a single day where I was blessed with so much uplifting feminist centric content. But for me, it was as predictable as my morning coffee because Black women continue to be the chosen source of encouragement for millions, whether some admit it or not.

With our country at war with itself ideologically, Black women are consistently the ones creating poignant work consumed by the masses. Whether it’s Oprah, Michelle Obama, or Beyoncé, Black women are serving as the leaders we all look up to. I mean, how many think pieces did we read about Oprah running for president after just a short Golden Globes speech? These black women are without a doubt exceptional but we have to be careful. We can’t think of Black women as superheroes coming to save us. And we certainly can’t expect any one person to “save us” from this mess. (I’m looking at you white women)

Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming has already sold more than 10 million copies, quickly becoming one of the best selling in history. In her book, Obama details the difficulties of being a Black woman in the White House, a historic monument built by slaves. Watching her on stage, I was inspired but at the same time, I recognized the work and incredible restraint it must have taken her to be as successful as she was as First Lady.

Michelle Obama and Beyoncé are not just motivational, they’re financial powerhouses. Netflix paid Beyoncé 60 million dollars for a three-project deal and watching Homecoming, I think Netflix got a pretty good deal. And her bankability is particularly impressive because Beyoncé does not let the audience forget who she’s constructing masterpieces like Homecoming for: Black women. It’s obvious in her lyrics, dancers, musical interludes, attitudes, and themes. Suddenly finding myself with a more flexible income, I went to my first Beyoncé concert after graduating college. I wanted to see the woman who had kept me awake as I studied for finals and reignited the power of the word feminist. I’d never seen a performer who more perfectly speaks to this moment in time. She spoke of the past but appealed to our present.

As I reflect on both Michelle Obama’s work and Beyoncé’s art, I am reminded of something we should all acknowledge: we owe Black women a debt that can never be repaid. They are the ones driving and creating our popular culture, creating work and activism (cough Tarana Burke cough) that captivates not only Black women but all of us.

Their burden is heavy, one of exceptionalism and brilliance. It’s not a coincidence that Black women continue to rise to the top of our cultural zeitgeist, they’ve worked the hardest. In a country that has continually told black women they are not safe, very few have made it to the top echelons of our society. It is this lack of systemic privilege that makes their work even more spectacular.

Michelle Obama and Beyoncé are two of the few Black women who have overcome the barriers society put in front of them. Not only do Black women continue to make 61 cents on the white man’s dollar, Black women continue to face the highest rates of maternal deaths, disproportionate rates of violence, and few positions of power. In recent years, I’ve found myself turning more and more to Black women for inspiration, and it’s clear we must support Black women whether they are a billionaire, a leader of this nation, or an artist. It’s the least we can do.

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Godless in Trump’s America

Since the election of Donald Trump, it seems like our country has been in a never-ending debate about who we are and where we come from. There are so many places to look for answers but as a media critic, I, of course, look to TV. And in this moment of Bible-signing, border “crisis,” and macho, guns-out leadership, I find myself turning to Westerns for answers. They’re our own creation myth, the story of American exceptionalism, power, and whiteness.

Recently, there’s been some effort to update the Western with Netflix’s Godlessas the prime example. After all, it did win all those awards and premiere the same year as Trump’s presidency. I confess, my political leanings are such that I see some of Donald Trump in the show’s villain, Frank Griffin. The two men share a certain heaviness of body and jowls (sorry Jeff Daniels!). They also share a faux-Christianity that doesn’t require any respect for human life. And both of them are the type of leaders who collect crooks and lowlifes, seeing personal loyalty as the only meaningful virtue. I mean who would Michael Cohen et al. be in the old west but a band of gun-slinging outlaws? Am I right or am I right?

Of course, Frank Griffin and his men aren’t the only folks in Godless. The show’s marketing made quite the ado about its setting in a man-less town, positioning Godless as a feminist Western (which it is not). Certainly, there are strong women in the show. Michelle Dockery as Alice Fletcher is mesmerizing as the isolated widow with a good shot and mixed-race son. Her love life is central to the show, even as the creators betray in her a totally unnecessary and graphic rape scene. In it, we learn nothing new about the characters, already having learned that Alice has survived tough things. No, her rape is just an uncomfortable excuse to titillate the audience with Michelle Dockery’s breasts, combining violence with eroticism in a way that says MALE GAZE IS RAPE CULTURE in all caps.

And there’s my personal favorite, Merritt Wever as Mary Agnes, the town’s would-be leader who’s given up dresses and men as she holds her community together. Mary Agnes advocates for the women’s independence, urging her fellow townswomen not to make a business deal with partners who see their gender as weakness. In the finale, she organizes the women’s last stand, setting a strategy that will keep at least some of them alive. And along the way, we see her taking care of her brother’s kids and the hapless Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Whitey Winn. You see, Mary Agnes may have gone butch, even nabbing the richest, most beautiful and most experienced woman in town — Tess Frazer’s former sex-worker Callie Dunne — but the show takes great pains to let you know she’s still a nurturer and thereby a woman.

And these are the characters the show empathizes with — the white women of La Belle, New Mexico. Spoiler: People of color do much worse. Godless is clearly trying to rewrite the western to be less sexist and less white supremacist but when you’re counting degrees of racism, you’ve already lost. You see Godless relies on the same racist tropes that power the Westerns of the past, much of the media of today, and far too much of our politics, policies, and national conversation.

In Godless, we see a black town, literally called Blackdom, and its inhabitants as “others.” They’re introduced late (in episode three of seven) and portrayed as extremely violent in a violent world. You see the men of Blackdom (yes, I’m rolling my eyes each time I type the town’s name) are Buffalo Soldiers, black cavalry that fought with white, Anglo settlers in the Indian Wars. They weren’t guaranteed freedom from slavery even as they fought for white expansion — an interesting bit of history for sure. Yet, the show takes great pains to tell you these men were particularly ruthless and indeed we see the town’s leader beating his daughter with a switch. And that’s before all of the black characters are massacred in the wind-up to the real showdown: the white folks of La Belle vs the white folks in Frank Griffin’s gang. This is your typical racist use of black bodies and black stories.

Think that’s bad? Native American characters do not do better in Godless: they’re stuck in the magical sidekick trope, Native Americans who use their mystical powers to help the white people. There’s Duane Howard’s unnamed ”Shoshone brave” (his character name, not mine) who is maybe a ghost, maybe a vision, but either way exists to give Bill McNue encouragement and advice. And there’s Tantoo Cardinal’s Iyovi who uses her healing powers on the injured Roy Goode, who issues wise animal metaphors to guide her daughter-in-law Alice, and whose skills in hunting and other matters somehow serve as comic relief. Neither is what you’d call a humanizing portrayal.

Samuel Marty’s Truckee, the half Native American, half white, son of Alice only does a little better. He doesn’t have any magical skills or even propensity to “Indian” tasks like horseback riding. But he’s portrayed as a fish out of water, part of neither the white nor Native community, lost without a father or strong sense of identity. It’s the type of character that multiracial people have been rallying against for decades.

And last but not least is the show’s complete erasure of Latino characters. For a show set in New Mexico, it is odd that there is no one of mixed Spanish and Native descent. In fact, despite the action going to Taos and other Hispano centers in the area, we do not hear a word of Spanish, and there are no Latino characters. It’s a gross oversight that erases New Mexico’s past and present with a single casting decision. And in case you think the show reflects some actual moment in history — it does not. Godless takes place in the 1880s, a time when Anglo settlers were stealing land from Hispanos all over the state. None of that exists in Godless. We just see English-speaking White and Black people carving out a living in tough land, fighting with each other, and occasionally referencing offscreen Native Americans as menaces. It’s racist and completely inaccurate.

At the end of the day, the central conflict in Godless is between Jeff Daniels’ Frank Griffin and Jack O’Connell’s Roy Goode as they solve their differences with bullets, killing whole towns along the way. You see the women of La Belle, even the mighty Alice and Mary Agnes, are just the scenery for these two white men. So are the POC who manage to find their way on screen. And this is a Western trying to be progressive!

So when I look to Westerns to understand this moment in American history, it’s not for accuracy. The true story of the American West is a mix of germ warfare and white supremacy used to steal Native land first by Spaniards and then by Anglos. The heroes are not white guys with guns. They’re Native Americans fighting for their way of life. The villains aren’t white bandits. They’re white soldiers and lawmen who rigged the system and used their guns to ensure the existing population couldn’t overcome their cheating ways. But we don’t tell this story.

No, Westerns are not a view into our past but rather our present, how we got to the terrible place we’re in: centering white men, their experiences, and preoccupations to our peril. This false narrative about America and our birth in the West is hurting us all. It pushes the real story out of the frame, limits the personhood and agency of the vast majority of the population, and leads to seeing white toxic masculinity as the only viable model of leadership (looking at you Donald T).

Here’s hoping we can imagine a better past, present, and future. I’ll be reading the tea leaves, looking for a critically acclaimed Western that doesn’t center white men. Who knows? It could happen, but for now, I’m not holding my breath.

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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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