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Feminism

What “Pose” Taught Me About Womanhood

“God may have blessed you with Barbies, a backyard with a pony, a boyfriend named Jake, and an unwanted pregnancy that your father paid to terminate so you could go to college and major in being a basic bitch. None of these things make you a woman.”

Elektra Abundance

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Simone De Beauvoir

As a straight, cis woman, I don’t do too much thinking about my womanhood. No one misgenders me. I’ve never been clocked. Yes, I joke about how terrible I am at stereotypical lady stuff. My hair/make up/nail game leaves much to be desired. This is not a source of pride for me, but rather mild embarrassment. I’m 35 — shouldn’t I be able to blow dry my hair by now? Yet my lack of both inclination and skill in this department doesn’t make me less of a “real” woman. I’m not endangered because of it, the consequences are minimal. In fact, the only one joking about my inability to perform these aspects of femininity is me.

In addition to being dedicated to looking a certain way, society also expects women to be naturally nurturing. We’re the mothers, the people-people, the ones with emotions. But I’m not what you’d call a “warm, fuzzy.” I always get analytical instead of emotional on those personality tests. My husband once insinuated that I let our baby cry too long before picking her up. I wouldn’t describe myself as cruel by any means but quick-to-the-hug, I am not. Yet again, no one doubts the actual fact of my womanhood, even if I sometimes get comments about acting “more like a man.”

So if I don’t meet the expectations around looks or personality, I have to wonder, why is my womanhood never questioned? Is it the fact that I have a vagina? That seems highly unlikely. Everywhere I go, people treat me as a woman and 99.9% of them have no knowledge of my reproductive organs. They couldn’t vouch for my vagina’s existence. I certainly don’t go around imagining strangers’ genitalia. Do you?

So, the question remains: what makes a person a woman?

. . .

 
The women of Pose: Judge them not, lest you be judged!

Watching Pose, I never doubted the femaleness of Blanca, Elektra, Angel, Lulu, Candy, and crew. Sometimes, I got confused when other characters would perceive them as male — what were they seeing that I wasn’t? It’s like when other shows pretend someone is regular looking (say because they’re wearing glasses and a cardigan) and we’re not supposed to notice that there’s a weirdly attractive person under there.

The thing is, the women of Pose are so skilled at performing womanhood. The clothes. The nails. The hair. The makeup. The shoes. They understand the trappings of femaleness and are committed to executing it each and every day. I imagine for them, as activist and show writer/producer/director Janet Mock wrote, “Femininity was more than just adornments; they were extensions of me, enabling me to express myself and my identity. My body, my clothes, and my makeup are on purpose, just as I am on purpose.” And this purposefulness is key — it is not enough to simply dress a part, that part has to be integral to your identity.

Think of the season two finale — in it, we see the male characters walk the ball in drag. They’ve practiced strutting (or stumbling) in heels. They’ve got on wigs and dresses and jewelry. But as Elektra says, “Don’t get it twisted. These men are not trying to be women. These linebackers are tapping into their inner femininity and letting their inner queen come out to play.” In Pose and in real life, dressing up as a woman (whether you “pass” or not) does not make you a woman, no matter how feminine.

. . .

 
There’s more than one way to mother on Pose

There’s this idea that “masculine” and “feminine” are polls, two complementary forces that a person is between. We all know this script — the “masculine” is rationale, stoic, violent even while the “feminine” is emotional, nurturing, expressive. In this framework, to be “feminine” is to be vulnerable, less than. We see this play out in Pose as characters are continually punished for showing “feminine” traits, gay and trans kids kicked out of their homes, beaten, or worse. The consequences for being outside the norm are real from women who wear less makeup getting paid less all the way to the extreme violence perpetrated against the trans community. It’s a culture of violence, of regulation, of suppression.

As a feminist, I don’t believe there’s a correlation between someone’s sex and how “masculine” or “feminine” they are. Yes, women are socialized to be “feminine” and men, “masculine.” But people are primarily people and the expectations we put on them around gender are extremely limiting and unhealthy. As activist and author Jacob Tobia told Paper Magazine, “there’s this idea that there’s only cis people and trans people, and trans people have the complicated genders and cis people have the simple genders. That could not be further from the truth — gender is simple for nobody. Even people who think that they’ve experienced gender ‘simply’ have a nuanced, complicated, and multidimensional gender experience.” None of us are just or even primarily our gender.

Pose demonstrates this complexity so well. Think of how different the women’s personalities are, how each of them is a complex mix of traits. I particularly like how the show portrays motherhood in Blanca and Elektra. Blanca is the good, “feminine” mother we are used to seeing — she loves her children, nurtures them, and fights for them. She’s descended from Clair Huxtable and Tami Taylor, strong women who use both tough and unconditional love to raise their children. Elektra, on the other hand, could be seen as the “bad” mother — she starts the show putting down her family members in an attempt to make herself feel more superior. And while she grows over the two seasons (think of the beach trip as an example of how she takes care of her daughters), she’s not who you’d go to for a self-esteem boost. No, Elektra mostly provides for her children monetarily — her house is swanky, her ball costumes and props luxurious. This may be the more “masculine” way to care for people, but it never threatens Elektra’s womanhood. Indeed, it’s Blanca who worries more about getting clocked while Elektra passes with greater ease. Where their personalities fall on the socially-constructed spectrum of “masculine” and “feminine” does not determine their womanhood, either for themselves or the society that judges them.

. . .

 
The dress doesn’t make the woman on Pose or IRL

Gender is also not defined genitalia. That’s just silly. We categorize every person we meet quickly and easily into a gendered category with no knowledge of what’s between their legs. And it’s not about hormones or other biological processes either (see the backlash against women’s running for trying to define womanhood by testosterone level). We just don’t know those things about other people (or ourselves) and yet we’re all out here using gendered pronouns as a matter of course.

. . .

 
On Pose, the women must assert their womanhood over and over again

So, again, what does make a woman? If it’s not how you look, not who you are, not your biology, what’s left? Part of me wants to say it’s a performance. It’s certainly something I do every day, consciously or not. It’s in how I dress, how I walk, even how I speak. But you choose to perform and I never chose to be a woman, I never chose to be straight, and no one else does either.

Being a woman is more like a role that chooses you. It comes with impossible expectations, the pressure to live up to an unattainable ideal of womanhood. Sometimes as women we mold ourselves to match an ideal, trying to get as close as possible. Think of Pose’s Angel — she succeeds at portraying feminine beauty to such an extent that she gets big contracts in the modeling industry (only to see her success stalled thanks to the rumor mill). Sometimes, we rebel against those expectations, going in an opposite or third direction. Like Candy always ready to pull out her hammer, ready to defend herself physically whenever the situation called for it.

Regardless, when you’re a woman, you’re identity is in relationship to the feminine ideal in a way that a man’s or genderqueer person’s is not. Maybe that’s what makes a woman.

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This Latina Honors Toni Morrison

When Toni Morrison died, there was an outpouring of tributes. People wrote beautifully about the impact of her work, the strength of her character, the power of her insight. The tweets were amazing from President Barack Obama to local librarians.

As the love and mourning swirled, I was impressed by how much of the dialogue centered Black voices. Toni Morrison would have been proud. A quote of hers circulated: “Being a Black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination. It expands it.” A video of her went viral — in it, a white reporter asks when she’ll write “substantially” about white people and Toni Morrison responds with, “You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you?”

This is an author who for the entirety of her career showed what it was to not just center black women but how that choice reframes the entire American narrative. When you switch from the “usual” perspective of the white man to a marginalized, silenced, and ignored black woman, history changes. Our understanding of what it means to be an American, a lover and love interest, and simply a human — they all shift.

This is an author who for the entirety of her career showed what it was to not just center black women but how that choice reframes the entire American narrative.

The power of this experience is exponential. If you’re part of the group that is rarely centered, you can see yourself in a whole new light. You can value and love yourself in ways you didn’t know were possible, or even know you were missing. You can suddenly perceive all the previously invisible ways you were ignored, taught your experiences didn’t matter, and led to believe your perspective was wrong.

And if you’re not in the newly-centered group, there’s much to learn as well. I am not a white man so I don’t know what is to have the whole world structured to uplift my perspectives, preferences, and power. But I do have many privileges, fair skin among them. As such, reading and studying Toni Morrison has shaped my view of the world and made me a better person. They’ve taught me to listen, to question, to demand more of myself and others but that change wasn’t instant.

I was shocked when I got to college that other people read books like The Color Purple in high school. They were assigned books by and about black people? Gay black people? We did not have that. My high school was over a third Latinx but the only time I can remember reading an assigned book about the Latinx experience was Bless Me Ultima. It’s a good book. But it was the only one. I’m wracking my brain, trying to remember if we were ever assigned anything written by a black author. I don’t think so. We certainly never read anything from the LGBTQ perspective (or disabled for that matter).

Toni Morrison has shaped my view of the world and made me a better person. [She] taught me to listen, to question, to demand more of myself and others but that change wasn’t instant.

Now I’m a nerd from a nerd family (including a Chicano-studies professor dad and a woman’s history professor mom), so I read lots of great books. I remember being so impressed by Rain of Gold as a teenager and even, upon my dad’s recommendation, selecting Beloved for my independent book report project junior year. I don’t think my (white) teacher had read it. I certainly didn’t talk to her about Beloved. High school was not where you discussed books like those, at least not where I went

College, of course, was different. And not just because I could take classes like “Women Writers” and “Chicana History” but also because the experiences of black and brown people (including women!) made their way into the general curriculum. I took a class called “Literary Masters” and we just read Faulkner and Morrison. The power of telling kids of all backgrounds that these two voices are at the top of their craft, their ideas are in conversation, was monumental. The professor may have liked both authors equally, but I think I speak for all my classmates when I say Toni Morrison won. Her words, her moral authority, her characters sang in a way Faulkner’s don’t. Yes, they both earned the Nobel Prize in literature, but Morrison had to overcome so much more, be so much more excellent, to get it.

I was lucky to discover and fall in love with Morrison in school but I didn’t stop learning from her once I got my degree. After graduating, I stayed in dialogue around Toni Morrison’s work, part of a three-person book club (me, my favorite professor who just happened to be an esteemed Morrison scholar, and my roommate/fellow English major) who read literary theory and Morrison’s new works (as I said, I am a nerd). In addition to grappling with her work and words, letting them challenge and inspire me, I also tried to emulate her example. I became an activist, a cultural critic. In that role, I call for more and better representation of women of color, insisting we’d get better art and a better society if we diversified who we listen to.

In addition to grappling with her work and words, letting them challenge and inspire me, I also tried to emulate her example. I became an activist, a cultural critic.

Toni Morrison may not have written with me, a white-passing Latina, in mind. I am not the person most affected by her work or her legacy. I’m not even in that group. But I learned so much from reading her and learning how others read her. I am grateful that she did the hard work of becoming a writer, of insisting her words mattered, of valuing herself and those in her community.

She did so much for us. Let us honor her by using the space she created to push for more. More space. More voices. More black women at the center of it all.

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Watching and Loving the White, Male “Stranger Things”

Stranger Things is a white, male show. Yes, one of the original four boys is black, and yes, there are strong female characters, and yes, for the first time in season three we got a character who is BOTH black and a girl, but the fact remains — this is a show that centers the white, male experience. I don’t normally watch shows like this. I generally prefer to hear from women and people of color — voices vastly underrepresented in media. This tendency helps me narrow down the overwhelming options that are TV today and ensures I’ll be spending my time on the most interesting shows anyway.

Yet, there I was, gobbling up the third season of Stranger Things as quickly as I could (four nights in my case). And while the show is undeniably white and male, they’ve clearly done some thinking around how to be better on diversity.

First, there’s the addition of Erica, Lucas’ 10-year-old sister, as one of our child heroes. If you haven’t watched the most recent season yet, you may remember her from season two — she had several scene-stealing appearances. In season three, she joins our adventurers in saving the world, playing a pivotal part in figuring out what’s going in Hawkins. And while actress Priah Ferguson is amazing, leaving more of an impression than many of her older colleagues, there’s something in Erica’s role as the fast-talking, “sassy” black girl that made me uncomfortable — it’s a bit too close to stereotype for comfort.

See what I mean about the sass?

Meanwhile, her brother Lucas gets to be more of a whole person (perhaps because he’s not saddled with being both a girl and a person of color). That said, there were several times when he literally faded into the shadows, his face so poorly lit in the line up of boys that I couldn’t distinguish his features. Perhaps they should hire some of the folks who do lighting for Insecure to help out… And of course, there’s also the issue that Asian and Latinx folks exist, but still, I noticed and appreciated the effort!

Not just race, the creators of Stranger Things are also working on their portrayal of gender. This season featured two episodes directed by a woman (last season had one — the Eleven bottle-episode and the first season had none). Plus, Eleven and Max finally became friends instead of rivals, a truly annoying and unnecessary plot point in season two.

It turns out girls are not natural enemies — thanks Stranger Things!

In season three, we get more girl characters and more who are two-dimensional. Eleven is no longer a genderless creature, a girl in name only. She not only presents more feminine (she’s got hair) but also is figuring out what it means to be a different “species” than her boyfriend Mike and his friends. That journey includes a totally 80’s makeover-at-the-mall sequence, which is positively delightful (although where does she get the money for all those new clothes?). And she gets to kiss her boyfriend, create a “new look,” and make a female friend all while still being the most important of the kids, the one who stands in front of the gang and fights the monster, the one who everyone must protect even as she is the only one who can hold off the forces of darkness.

On the grown-up side, Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers is still the only woman involved in the adventure and her primary weapon remains her mom-ness. Yet, this time it’s not just her knowledge of her kids and drive to protect them that makes her important. She’s able to use those same skills outside the house (how novel!) to demand she gets what they need, whether it’s help from the government or our local Russian-speaking conspiracy theorist. Definitely progress from taping together drawings on her living-room floor.

And we meet Maya Hawke as Robin Buckley in the third season, a girl who’d have no place in previous seasons. Her hair’s a bit greasy and she’s got indie sensibilities, having played in band in high school and been invisible to her now coworker, Steve “the Hair” Harrington. But she’s down for adventure and good with languages, so much so that she breaks the Russian code and generally becomes crucial to our saga. At first, it seems like she’s just a lesson for Steve — shouldn’t he have gone for the girl who is smart and cool and right in front of him all along? But then (spoiler coming!) when he finally realizes his mistake and makes his move, Robin lets him down gently. Turns out she’s gay! And with that twist, she becomes not an object of Steve’s development but rather her own person, eventually helping our popular if pedestrian young man find employment after the mall “burns” down.

The other teenage girl (and Steve’s previous love interest), Nancy Wheeler, doesn’t do quite so well on bucking the gender stereotypes. She’s the most feminine of all our leading ladies consistently in skirts and heels. She fights misogynists at work and monsters in her free time but the way she’s shot makes her look small and fragile, despite being in a show mostly populated by actual children. Nancy’s not powerless — she’s right about her story idea and does the most damage with a gun of anyone this season, including the chief of police — but her power seems limited by femaleness (and her boyfriend always trying to save her) rather than stemming or even just free from it (like the rest of the female cast).

How many times have you seen this shot?

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to love about Stranger Things. Of course, there’s the 80’s nostalgia (I had that radio! I’d wear that dress today!) and all the great movie references, bringing us elder Millenials and Gen X’ers back to our childhoods. But more than that, Stranger Things is primarily a story of underdogs winning and who doesn’t love that?

I’m not talking about how the kids are nerds — watching from 2019, we know that 80’s nerds become today’s power players — I’m talking about how the kids are kids. There may be superpowers involved but the young people at the center of Stranger Things are exactly where they should be developmentally. They’re learning what it means to have romantic relationships, to grow out of childhood interests (so sad that Dungeons and Dragons scene), to have first jobs, and try on new identities. And they’re not all doing it at the same pace or in the same way as each other.

Stranger Things takes childhood seriously. The friendship between Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will is as important as anything else on the show. In fact, they succeed only because they are children: they need Erica’s smallness, adult’s underestimation, and their own, childhood ability to believe and imagine to survive.

It’s rare to see young people taken so seriously in media and Stranger Things really does it right by letting its kids grow. These aren’t characters stuck perpetually in a single grade, they’re actual people transitioning from being children to teenagers to adults. The show lets this change breathe, seeing it as an opportunity to explore new dynamics and possibilities rather than a wrinkle in its original premise.

The result is a unique narrative, one that expands who can be a hero, who’s worthy of our attention, and who deserves to have their story told. And this quality, this loosening of the adult-white-male hegemony over our imagination, is, as it turns out, what draws me to most of the media I consume. So I guess, that’s why I binged Stranger Things and why I’ll be one of the millions waiting for the next season. Yes, it’s white and it’s male but that’s not all it is.

Who’s ready for season four?
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“Sabrina & Corina” Colors in Our Erased History

I’ve always thought of Colorado as a white place. Despite the Spanish-language name, the state has marketed itself as more like Kansas than New Mexico and it’s worked. I mean, my dad is a professor of Chicana/Chicano studies and I grew up steeped in Mexican American history, learning the ways we are erased and the consequences of that erasure. Having lived in all four border states (CA, AZ, NM, and TX), I’ve noted the differences between how Latinx culture is presented, perceived and lived. So if anyone should have questioned the white narrative of Colorado, it was me. But I didn’t — I fell for the whitewashed marketing of the state, never doubting my impression that Colorado is and has been gringolandia.

Fajardo-Anstine captures the empty, arid, barrenness of the desert, contrasting it with the book’s other settings and filling the silence with real people — your primas and tias and amigas, dealing with things you wish they didn’t have to.

That is until I read Sabrina & Corina. Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut book is a collection of stories each centering a Latina protagonist from Denver. The stories span decades, revealing different facets of Colorado’s history with rich and beautiful writing. Fajardo-Anstine captures the empty, arid, barrenness of the desert, contrasting it with the book’s other settings and filling the silence with real people — your primas and tias and amigas, dealing with things you wish they didn’t have to. Each story keeps you turning pages as it breaks your heart with accounts of gender-based violence, bad-parents kept and good parents lost, and the psychological effect of your history, identity, and family being systematically erased.

Sabrina & Corina explores these pressing issues with nuance and compassion. Take the treatment of sexuality: in the title story, we see two cousins, one uncannily beautiful and “fast” and another responsible, conservative, and normal looking. The beautiful one trades on her looks for quick escapes, relying on men for her sense of self and her economic day-to-day. She ends up murdered by one of her partners. The other avoids men, relationships, and sex, living alone and isolated, even losing touch with her favorite cousin. Neither is a good choice.

On the other end of the spectrum, we see Alicia in “All Her Names” use her sexuality to literally ensure her freedom, pretending to be mid-tryst to escape the cops after tagging a train car. And this serves as background for a character who has an abortion without telling her husband and spends the majority of her narrative with her sometimes-lover, reliving what it was to be young and reckless. Sexuality is complicated and Sabrina & Corinadoesn’t back away from that as it portrays the lived experiences of Coloradian Latinas.

Sexuality is complicated and Sabrina & Corinadoesn’t back away from that as it portrays the lived experiences of Coloradian Latinas.

Likewise, Farjado-Anstine’s debut captures what it feels like to be the object of gentrification. In “Galapago,” we see a middle-aged woman try to convince her grandmother to move out of the old neighborhood. She remembers the break-ins over her grandmother’s 60+ years in that house and the ways in which the family contorted themselves and their home to continue thriving despite the surrounding violence. That story ends and begins with the grandmother Pearla killing a nineteen-year-old intruder — it’s finally time to move out.

In the last story, “Ghost Sickness,” we see the gentrification of history, not just houses. Here our protagonist Ana is a college student in danger of flunking History of the American West. She just can’t merge what she knows of the area — what the events described in her textbook felt like from the indigenous perspective — to the White Man’s version of explorers, tamed wilderness, and manifest destiny. She’s also dealing with the disappearance and probable death of her live-in boyfriend. This story ends with a modicum of hope — Ana may just pass the class thanks to an extra credit question on the Navajo original story, something she knows in her bones thanks to that missing, Navajo lover.

Overall, Sabrina & Corina made me feel seen, silly, and sad. Seen because these women are women I know, women I’ve been, but women I so rarely get to see portrayed. The power of centering Latina’s perspectives cannot be overstated. I also feel silly for knowing so little about my sisters in Colorado — I mean, I didn’t even know they existed! This erasure isolates us, keeping us from knowing and working together. And lastly, I was sad. These stories are heartbreaking and make you feel for each heroine as she deals with the tragedy before her.

Our experiences are not your sadness porn. There is in fact great beauty, humor, and strength in being Latina.

I hope Kali Fajardo-Anstine writes and publishes many more books. Her voice is powerful and her focus on women of color needed. But scrolling through reviews of Sabrina & Corina, I was uncomfortable by all the white women praising it, not understanding that to be Latina is not just to be in pain or doomed to tragic circumstances. Our experiences are not your sadness porn. There is in fact great beauty, humor, and strength in being Latina. And I hope Kali Fajardo-Anstine uses her considerable talent and now thankfully-large platform to share the joy of our identity with the world too. With so much sadness, we need the moments of joy as well.

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Four Reasons Why Charmed is Heir to Buffy’s Legacy

I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I watched it live, made sure I hadn’t missed an episode with the DVDs, and read all the think-pieces I could (and there are a lot). Not to mention science says it’s good for you — watching shows like Buffy (aka shows with kickass female leads) has a proven positive correlation to less gender bias in boys and men. In fact, with so much media out there, I’m pretty much only watching shows that fit the Buffy-mold: woman-led, woman-centered.

But can any show really pick up where Buffy left off? I mean, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a cult favorite for a reason, right? But I think it’s possible. And the show that’s doing it is the CW’s remake of Charmed.

You probably missed Charmed when it originally aired (to be clear I’m talking the 2019 reboot here). It didn’t get a lot of press. And what it did get was negative (the original stars weren’t happy, it uses cross-racial casting). Those critiques are valid and interesting and worth pondering. But it’s lack of critical acclaim (when they cover it at all) speaks much more to bias in criticism (old, white, male) than the show’s actual merit.

Charmed, now with its first season available on Netflix and a second season set to premiere later this year, is carrying on the Buffy legacy. Let me walk you through it:

1. Same Premise (and Mentor)

Both shows are about young women who suddenly find themselves in the position of needing to save the world, thanks to a set of new powers they didn’t see coming. Buffy first discovers her powers in high school (although we see her go to college+) while Charmed’s trio of Maggie, Mel, and Macy (let’s call them the 3 M’s for short) range from undergraduate to post-doc. They’re all in that figuring-out-who-you-are stage of life. It’s just that now their coming-to-age story includes defeating monsters each week and handling the season-long threats to life as we know it.

With the fate of the world resting on their young shoulders, the shows start with them learning how to control their new gifts (while navigating romances, school, and work). Enter a helpful, white British guy, representing a secret society of guardians who say they’re there to help our young heroines. Should we trust this far away bureaucracy? Both Buffy and the 3 M’s have their doubts. But is Giles/Harry a positive, crush-worthy if stiff, figure? Yes and yes. And with that premise, we’re off and running.

2. Humor Breaks Up the Darkness

Buffy and Charmed are campy and dark. The contrast of ugly demons with of-the-moment outfits is funny, dynamic, and telling in both shows. The idea that HQ for saving the world would be your mom’s house is pretty great. And the contrast between the villains being literal demons, while the superheroes are girls worried about losing their virginity is wonderful. Add in a bunch of puns and some general enjoyable silliness (see Charmed’sTouched by a Demon” or the Buffy-bot episode), and you have humor counterbalancing the serious, literal darkness surrounding our heroines.

Charmed even goes the extra mile by loading up on feminist in-jokes with Harry’s claim to fame being how Roxane Gay retweeted him once (but you have to scroll back a lot because she’s “quite prolific”), plus jabs at incels, manic pixie dream girls, and the like. It’s the updated Buffy humor you’ve been waiting for. Plus demons. Lots of demons.

3. (Intersectional) Feminist Intentions

Of course, plot and style is just part of what made Buffy so great. The key to its rabid fandom and staying power has always been its actual feminism — its centering of a small, young woman as worthy of our attention, admiration, and consideration. Charmed does the same thing, pushing the envelope by imagining that young woman as ::gasp:: not blond. Maggie, Mel, and Macy are Latina/Afro-Latina with a range of skin colors and hair textures. Sometimes their racial identity takes center stage (say when Maggie learns the truth about her dad) and sometimes it’s just in the details (they drink coquito at Christmas). But it’s always there, just like Buffy’s whiteness. Centering women of color pushes the argument further, allowing us to see more people as worthy of the supernatural feminist destiny we all crave.

Then there’s the presentation of sexuality. Buffy won accolades for its LGBTQ representation (I’m still shipping Willow and Tara) and Charmedtakes it to the next level by having one of its three principles be queer. Mel gets two women love interests in the first season and her romances are just as steamy, important, and complicated as her hetero sisters. Neither show assumes straightness and that’s how it should be.

Also on the sexuality front, both shows deal with female virginity and Charmed comes out ahead. Buffy famously lost her V-card to Angel, causing him to turn evil and setting up a multi-season arc of brooding heartbreak. The tragic costs of Buffy’s sexuality are pretty retrograde and while she eventually gets to have sex without consequences (which male heroes seem to always enjoy), nothing ever matches up with that first romance. Macy, on the other hand, starts the show a virgin not because she’s pure or religious but rather because she’s standoffish. That said, with the help of her sisters, she comes out of her shell, makes a real connection (after overcoming some magic roadblocks), and has sex. It turns out not to be that big of a deal. Because it’s not. Pretty cool, huh?

4. Charmed Picks Up Where Buffy Leaves Off

Remember how the final season of Buffy ended with Buffy changing the rules of the universe so there’d be more than one slayer? It was just too much for one person, however strong, to bear. Score one for collectivism, zero for individualism. Charmed starts there: we’ve got the “power of three,” which requires not one, but three powerful women (sisters no less) to save the world. They have to negotiate collective decision making (do decision have to be unanimous or just two-against-one?), their competing priorities (who’s practicing witchcraft versus at their job versus with their partner?), and their different personalities (because different people have different ways of solving problems). All things Buffy could ignore when she wanted to.

Charmed’s collective approach reflects its Latinx premise nicely, moving us away from the limited, bootstrap narrative attached to so many of our (white, male) heroes. In Charmed, we have a show that builds on Buffy’ssuccesses and takes us into 2020 and hopefully beyond.

So if you miss Buffy or just finished Stranger Things and want more young people + fantasy/sci-fi, let me recommend Charmed. It’s pretty delightful.

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We Are Changemakers: Attending My First #WeAllGrow Summit

Have you ever been in a room where every single person is impressive? Maybe when you started college or that fancy new job. Now imagine that room and instead of being intimidated, you feel welcomed, valued, and seen. Last week, I attended the #WeAllGrow Summit and found myself in exactly that situation.

Everywhere I went, I met amazing women. The poet I admired. The podcaster I can’t wait to start listening to. The journalist who is speaking truth to power. The artist whose work I’ve already started supporting. I’ve never been part of a community like that before and I have every intention of replicating it not just via my social media feed but also IRL with the chingonas in the Bay.

We came, we grew, we presented.

So would any of these amazing women be interested in hearing me speak? Spoiler: yes! Suited up in our #MakeLatinasVisible T’s, LatinaMedia.Co Co-Founder Nicola Schulze and I led a workshop called “What A Hashtag Becomes A Movement: A How-To on Online Organizing.” We drew on our combined twenty years of experience of social justice organizing and marketing to host a conversation about how to build a successful groundswell online. In the end, we all came out just that much more energized to do this work and do it in community.

As a media critic, the highlight of the event for me was the panel featuring the Vida team and of course, the Q&A with Yalitiza (we’re on a first name basis now). Vida showrunner Tanya Saracho was hilarious, strong, and smart, challenging us to support each other and laugh at ourselves. Meanwhile the cast — represented by Mishel Prada, Ser Anzoategui, and Chelsea Rendon — spoke about the transformational nature of the show, how it humanizes Latinx people in a time when we so desperately need it (see the news coming from the border if you need some background on what I’m talking about).

Dear Television Academy — The queer brown show “Vida” deserves an Emmy. Period.

The conversation with Roma’s Yalitiza Aparicio had me (and the whole audience) in tears — multiple times. Remember before Roma, she’d never acted before and didn’t have Hollywood aspirations. But today as the first indigenous woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award and one of the rare Latinas to walk that red carpet, Yalitza’s an inspiration to so many of us. On stage, she spoke of her journey as an actress and dedicated her performance as domestic worker Cleo to her mother, who’d done that work in real life. I loved the story she told of her mother walking down the street at home and everyone congratulating her.

While Yalitza’s evident heart, sincerity, and insightfulness shone through, what really got me was when five women from the audience told Yalitza what seeing her on-screen meant to them. For Latinx people as a whole and more specifically, indigenous women, Yalitza’s success has meant so much. We’re talking about a woman who serves as the sole representation (and a positive one at that!) of a group that’s normally erased and when they do appear are usually stereotyped, othered, and/or demonized.

Yalitiza and the Changemakers, courtesy of Nicole Goldinez, @nicolegoldinezphoto

It’s an immense burden and one Yalitza shouldn’t have to carry alone. Yet she is alone for now and somehow manages this solemn responsibility with maturity and grace. As the women assembled spoke from the heart, we all cried — Yalitza, the speakers, the audience. To share this moment of being seen and appreciated, thanked and giving thanks, united and individually celebrated was so intense. I’m sure it reverberated out into the cosmos and I hope even the Hollywood moguls felt it.

The summit’s theme was “We Are Changemakers” and it rang so true. This is an amazing group of women who are changing the world and doing it together. It was a thing of beauty to be a part of and I left with the strengthened abilities, connections, and ganas to go make it happen!

Cover image courtesy of Maria Jose Govea, @thesupermaniak.

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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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