Patricia Arquette, feminism, and brevity

When Patricia Arquette won the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her turn in Boyhood, I, like a lot of viewers and feminists, was thrilled when she took the opportunity on stage to declare that women’s rights – particularly when it comes to income inequality – are important and vital. In part her speech read, “to every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States.”

A great speech, and an awesome way to harness a temporary, global platform for a worthy cause.

And then backstage, she said this:

“It is time for us. It is time for women. …The truth is even though we sort of feel like there is, there are huge issues that are at play and really do affect women. It’s time for all the women in America, and the men who love women and all the gay people and people of color we’ve fought for to fight for us now.”

And just as quickly as Arquette became a viral feminist folk heroine, she became another symbol of entitlement and privilege. Some feminists quickly condemned the actress for her “You got yours, now you owe us” rhetoric, among them Blue Telusma with “Dear Patricia Arquette: Blacks and gays owe white women nothing” or Amanda Marcotte with “Patricia Arquette on pay equality: Insulting to feminists.” It should be noted Arquette does have some high profile supporters as well, who see feminist critique of her statements as petty infighting and willful misunderstanding of her speech.

It’s all very confusing and one doesn’t what to think: after all, it’s always great when feminists speak out – and using the Oscars, when some 30 million people are watching, as a way to push forward a very important, if oft-ignored issue, should be celebrated.

But what about the backstage comments? What is the rhetorical effect of having Arquette take gays and people of color to task for fighting the good fight? Well, her supporters insist we look at her intentions – a sort of, “we all know what she meant” interpretation of her words. The problem is Arquette’s words, not her intent, comes off as injured as aggrieved: “we did some much for you, gays and people of color, now it’s your turn to support us.” Of course, the first problem with this assertion is it ignores that women, gays, and people of color aren’t three distinct groups – they intersect or overlap, and so the women that she recalls who have fought so hard for women’s rights without the support of gays or people of color, were also gay and people of color. Another problem that pops up is – or actually it’s more of a question – is when she says women fought for gay rights or for racial equality – who is she speaking for exactly? Because the feminist movement has had huge problems with racism, homophobia, and transphobia throughout its history – problems that are still being ironed out as we speak. It seems like Arquette has either a confused or overly-rosy view of feminism and its history.

When women of color and queer women felt neglected or disenfranchised by the mainstream feminist movement, many of them splintered off and started movements and groups that address their specific needs – and this isn’t exclusively a feminist issue – every major socially progressive movement has had issues with internalized prejudice, be it racism, homophobia, transphobia, or sexism. But Arquette’s backstage plea, in particular, echoed the nasty rhetoric that gay rights activists espoused when Proposition 8 passed on the election of Barack Obama as president. Many white gays lamented the unfair Prop 8, but quickly seized on disreputable reports that blamed black voters for its success; there was an injured, offended refrain of “We voted for a black president, and yet black people voted against our right to marry” (never mind that it was religion, not race, that helped Prop 8 pass). White gay men, understandably bitter and upset, were bringing up Baynard Rustin as an example of how “gays helped  black people” and now these ungrateful blacks weren’t returning the favor – again Rustin’s homosexuality and his black racial identity highlighted the intersectionality that is often ignored by white liberals.

But all of this talk about Patricia Arquette could be simply ascribed to a nervous and excited person who just got off the stage after winning her industry’s biggest prize. She didn’t have time to think through what she was saying, and so we should give her some slack – after all, when she spoke of women, she didn’t say white women, so the implication is that all women are suffering.

But still, despite her intention, she still said it. She still said, ” It’s time for all the women in America, and the men who love women and all the gay people and people of color we’ve fought for to fight for us now.” I think it’s the word “now” that I might have the biggest issue with – the word “now.” It connotes a finality. It reads that gays and people of color got what they needed and now it’s time for them to step up and fight for someone else: but the problem is there is no “now” when it comes to LGBT rights and racial equality (or gender equality). There is no “now” yet because we haven’t been able to close that sentence where it’s time for folks of color and queer folks to reprioritize – because when a gay queer Latina is fighting for her right to exist, she’s fighting for all of her identities – she’s doesn’t have the luxury that the “now” assumes, in which she can prioritize and stagger her rights – everyday she’s being assaulting by right wing conservatism that is seeking to limit her opportunities.

So, even though, Patricia Arquette’s intention was noble and admirable it did reflect an ugly side to white liberal progressivism that still isn’t completely figured out. The one good thing to come out of this fracas, is that we are talking about it – we are spotlighting intersectionality and we are talking about gendered income inequality (hopefully when Arquette’s words fade in the public’s interest, we’ll still be talking about the ERA). Hopefully, other white liberal progressives see this as a learning opportunity: to not assume that others – particularly those who have intersecting identities that are oppressed or marginalized – have the opportunities to focus on just one aspect of their identities.

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‘Parks and Recreation’ ends on a wonderful, wistful, high note

Parks and Recreation

Sigh. I knew it was coming, and I knew it would be bittersweet, but still – the last episode of Parks and Recreation was poignant TV watching. The truncated seventh season was all about change and moving on. So it makes sense that the final episode acted like a condensed version of the seventh season. In the first episode (all the way back in January), we leaped forward three years to 2017. In those three years, lots happened, and our crew pretty much split up, each going his/her own separate ways.

In the final episode – “One Last Ride” – writers Michael Schur and Amy Poehler played around with time like Faulkner, jumping around from 2017 to 2024 to 2034 to 2048. Because Parks and Rec is, above all, a very sentimental show, the changes for our beloveds were pretty much all good. The most equivocal was Tom Haverford, who took his successful bistro and expanded it to a floptastic chain which decimated his fortunes and left him humble and depressed. But before we felt too sorry for Tom, he quickly rebounded as a profitable motivational speaker and author (with the gorgeous Lucy by his side).

But aside from Tom’s momentarily blip, all of the other Parks and Recs had great futures, wrapping up some wonderful plot lines. Donna Meagle, a real estate superstar leaves the corporate world for the nonprofit sector, throwing her considerable wealth, intelligence, and attention into an education charity; Andy and April are living wedded bliss, punctuated by a baby; perpetual punching bag Jerry is elected mayor of Pawnee and lives to a ripe old, old, old age of 100, dying with his gigantic family by his side, including his still-gorgeous wife Gaily; Ron, finished with running his own successful construction company, goes through a spat of midlife crisis, and turns to Leslie for guidance – and Leslie, being Leslie, gets Ron a job overseeing a national park; and Leslie and Ben have major decisions to make when both are tapped to run for Indiana governor. And even Craig gets a flashforward, in which he marries Typhoon (and Ron – say what? is best man), and lives sorta happily ever after (as happily after as the overly emotional Craig can be).

Predictably, this episode was full of laughs and tears. Parks and Rec is a show defined by warmth and friendship – though it started off as a The Office clone, it really is a Mary Tyler Moore Show descendant. The show is about how people find themselves becoming each others’ family because they work together. The show’s first season was about establishing the characters, but it did a piss poor job. Leslie wasn’t the hyper competent, wonderful, inspirational woman we know – instead she was a daffy Michael Scott clone who was the source of derision and contempt from her colleagues. Thankfully, that concept was junked, and instead the show developed a strong love among the folks in the parks department.

Along with its warmth, the show was also marked by projects – big projects. Leslie had a big goal to achieve, whether it was the Harvest Festival, running for office, or the Unity Concert. The seventh season didn’t have a big project, and instead, each character was given his/her future. But it seems fitting that in “One Last Ride” there is one last project: a minor issue with a park swing needing some fixing. Even though she doesn’t work in the parks department, she jumps in with both feet, dragging her pals. Shur and Poehler do a great job of writing these tiny vignettes, where viewers are magically transported into the future – thankfully, Shur doesn’t slather our actors in terrible aging makeup (Poehler, Adam Scott, and Jim O’Heir are the only ones who sport wigs and fake wrinkles), and the futures are believable.

Ron’s growth is the most poignant, given that the seventh season hurt like a muthafucka for him. His family unit was disheveled by change, and he, like Leslie, doesn’t do well with change. In “Ron and Leslie” we see how a deep and important friendship was damaged by pride – and Ron knew better than to let it happen again. He appealed to Leslie, the woman he was closest to, and knew him best. The solution – only in TV do we get a solution this pat and convenient – Leslie gets him a job as a park manager (Ron Swanson working for the Federal Government, who woulda thunk it).

Though Ron’s journey was the sweetest, Donna’s was the most inspirational, because it’s clear, that like April, Donna’s time with Leslie made a profound influence. Despite her financial success, she recognizes the virtue of philanthropy and benevolence. Donna has always been a good person, but she was also easily dismissed as materialistic because of her love of expensive jewels and clothing (and her romance with her Mercedes Benz). The writers were great in that even if Donna was usually a peripheral character, her commitment to her work (and her love for Leslie) made the progression credible and organic. Who wouldn’t want to do good after working for years with a do-gooder like Leslie Knope?

As for Leslie? Well, the future is bright, but we’re not given all of the answers. She’s a two-term governor from Indiana, but there’s an implication that she (or Ben) is president of the United States (at Jerry’s funeral, she’s flanked by Secret Service). And her triplets are hell raisers (reminds me a bit of Felicity Huffman’s appalling twin boys on Desperate Housewives). Towards the end of the episode, Leslie’s getting an honorary doctorate from Indiana State University (with its library named after her), and gives a beautiful speech about public service “When we worked here together we fought, scratched, and clawed to make people’s lives a tiny bit better. That’s what public service is all about. Small, incremental change, every day.”

And that’s what Parks and Recreation was all about: a group of friends trying to make people’s lives better. Once the show runners junked the empty snark of the first season, the show promoted love for one’s community. Leslie’s road to the governor’s mansion (and possibly the White House) is the tale of the least cynical fictitious politician. It’s interesting comparing Leslie Knope to Selina Meyer from Veep – unlike Leslie, Selina’s public work is solely motivated by personal gain and ego – Leslie has a healthy ego (which is constantly stroked by her endless successes, but kept in check by the periodic failures), but her motivation has always been to help others and help her town.

Parks and Recreation

Like every good finale, “One Last Ride” brings back some old favorites – including the beautiful and gorgeous Ann Perkins. Unfortunately, Rashida Jones’ appearance is merely a cameo, but Leslie’s pure, unadulterated joy (“It’s Ann! It’s Ann!” she screams and she shoves Ben out of the way) is great to take in. Ann Perkins’ departure in the sixth season made Leslie rely more on April and Donna for sisterhood support, but in the five minutes that was spent watching Leslie hug Ann showed just how right for each other the two are (and I misted a bit when I learned that Ann’s tween daughter is named Leslie).

Though Parks and Recreation‘s ratings were tiny when compared to 30 Rock or The Office, in the end, I found myself more invested in the gang from Pawnee instead of the folks from Dunder-Mifflin or the scribes at TGS. What pushed Parks and Rec forward is the unabashed way we’re supposed to love Leslie Knope – the epitome of hard work, determination, intelligence, and kindness.

Parks and Recreation

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Why Bruce Jenner deserves some space and what our speculation say about us

Bruce Jenner is rumored to be planning a major reveal via the media about his gender. The tabloids, the mainstream media, and countless Internet bloggers, commentators, and trolls, all have swooped in to speculate on Jenner’s life and whether he’s transgender (author’s note: I will use the pronoun “he” for now, because he hasn’t come out publicly as a woman – if that’s the case, then I will edit my post to correctly gender Jenner). It’s understandable that people are curious: after all, aside from his fame as an Olympic gold medalist, Jenner’s main claim to notoriety is being a reality TV personality. For years, he allowed cameras to track the movements of him and his family in exchange for (what I hope is) a large sum of money.

But does his reality TV celebrity mean that he doesn’t deserve privacy, respect, and some dignity?

To many it doesn’t. To many, Jenner forfeited privacy when he allowed his life to become fodder for reality TV. Because we became privy to so much in his life as well as his families, an announcing of being transgender seems only part of the package: we give him fame and fortune, and in return, he must give us details about his private life.

I don’t know if Bruce Jenner is transgender – and frankly, I don’t care. What I do care about, though, are the thousands of trans kids and adults who have to listen to all the awful crap that’s slung around in light of these rumors. In a world that’s already hostile to trans folks, does it need to be made worse by the Jerry Springer-like tone the media adopts when reporting on Jenner? Why do the anonymous Internet trolls, hidden and protected from responsibility and culpability, feel it necessary to denigrate Jenner and the trans community? Why does the mainstream media join the tabloid press in creating a mini-media circus that sensationalizes an issue that means so much to so many people?

A couple weeks ago, Oscar-winning actor Joel Grey (Cabaret) came out publicly as a gay man. Instead of congratulating the guy, many in the LGBT community unleashed mean, waspish remarks of “glass closet doors” and rhetorical questions of “and the news is?” Whether those who speculated on Grey’s sexuality were right or wrong, the important thing wasn’t that someone can crow “I knew it!” but that Grey himself felt it was time to share. And the snide, mean, snarky comments that met with his announcement creates a toxic environment for others who may be coming out.

Ultimately, Bruce Jenner has to live the life he wants to live – as a woman or as a man, and he doesn’t owe us an explanation. In fact, he doesn’t owe us anything. But we do owe him something. We owe him respect.

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Jerry Seinfeld’s old school of comedy bumps up against the post millennial comedy of Miranda Sings

Jerry Seinfeld’s Web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is an exercise in simplicity: Seinfeld drives around the city with a fellow comic. For the most part, the comedians chosen work on a similar level to Seinfeld’s: Larry David, Michael Richards, George Wallace, even Sarah Silverman, whose raunchy material is a major departure from Seinfeld’s observational quips, has lots in common with the comedy vet. So, I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued when I saw that in one of the latest episodes, Seinfeld meets up with Internet comedienne Miranda Sings.

What’s interesting about Miranda is that she’s a character, almost bordering on performance art. The creation of Colleen Ballinger, Miranda Sings is a send up of the delusional sad sacks who think themselves superstars because they post videos on YouTube. In an almost seamless performance, Ballinger portrays the sour, self-involved Miranda Sings, who has little patience for Seinfeld, who plays with Ballinger gamely, but doesn’t seem always at ease.

It’s because Seinfeld is a creature of early 90s stand-up, that the pairing of Miranda and he makes for such a fascinating show to watch. Unlike the other Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, the interaction between the two comics is rife with passive aggression  and hostility. Miranda lives in a world in which she reigns supreme, and Seinfeld’s vintage schtick doesn’t fit; Seinfeld, for his part, has built a comic persona that is the ultimate everyman: on Seinfeld, his alter-ego was unlikable, but it wasn’t to the degree of Miranda Sings’ persona, which is meant to be ugly.

And though Seinfeld is the bigger star, it’s Miranda who’s the star of the episode. Ballinger steals the show with consummate skill. And though Seinfeld’s a master at what he does, no one can accuse the guy of being edgy: but Miranda is – she’s proudly unappealing in a way that would make the misanthropes of Seinfeld cringe. And Seinfeld is brave in letting his world be intruded by something so current as Miranda Sings. For the most part, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a congratulatory back-slapping fest in which Seinfeld and a comic will make each other laugh (at the exclusion of the viewers, sometimes).

Like Seinfeld, the late Joan Rivers also adapted to Internet with a Web series, In Bed with Joan. Though, the bulk of her guests were established comedians and comedic actors, she reached out to YouTube celebrities, as well. She was willing to let her very Hollywood style of comedy intersect with the very democratic nature of YouTube comedy.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a great way for Jerry Seinfeld to find a renewed sense of relevance. If he’s willing to take risks, like working with someone as volatile and unpredictable as Miranda Sings, he may find a brand new audience. A great step was appearing on Miranda’s YouTube channel in the hilarious video, “How to Be Famous! feat. Jerry Seinfeld.”

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Leslie Knope takes a back seat in the excellent ‘Parks and Recreation’ episode “Donna and Joe” – a recap

Parks and Recreation I always loved Donna Meagle – she was a great scene stealer, who never got her due. Now in the final season, she finally gets to have an episode of her own: “Donna and Joe,” in which the fabulous Donna gets married to her lovely, Joe (Keegan-Michael Key). In “Donna and Joe” Ben also faces a huge decision in his life: should he run for congress? Interestingly enough, Leslie, normally the comic force of Parks and Rec, plays it pretty straight, letting the other characters shine.

Parks and Recreation

The main plot has April killing it in her duties as maid of honor. I’m not surprised that Donna chose April (though it would’ve been nice if Leslie was MOD). April approaches the position as she does everything else – with a newly-developed work ethic and devotion to make her friends happy. What Donna wants is a happy wedding, with no drama – no easy feat because it’s the Meagles, a legendary family of chaotic proportions. In a great confessional, Donna informs the camera that no more than three Meagles are allowed on an international flight. April’s other major obstacle is Craig (Billy Eichner, who gets a “starring” credit), the easily excitable parks and rec worker who is an amateur wedding planner on the side (Craig’s trigger words, by the way: flowers, schedule, vows, bride, groom, food, love, happy, church, event, wedding, and Craig).

In an episode heavy on awww moments, Donna’s wedding takes place with little-to-no-drama. Remember the other two weddings on the show: April’s and Andy’s and Leslie’s and Ben’s both had some kind of conflict: in April’s and Andy’s, it was Leslie’s panicked reaction to their nuptials; and in Leslie’s wedding to Ben, Ron knocked Councilman Jamm out. But on “Donna and Joe” the most dramatic moment came at the end, when Roots drummer Questlove pops by as Donna’s estranged brother, dropping a microwave to settle a long-festering dual.

Parks and Recreation

In a minor subplot, Tom and Lucy are inching toward a relationship, and Ron, perhaps heady over wedding talk, butts in and makes things awkward by revealing to Lucy just how enamored Tom is of the darling Lucy. Of course, Ron is nothing if not blunt and straightforward, so his over sharing comes off as boner-shrinking for the lovely Lucy who is understandably worried that Tom may be going too fast. As I said earlier, this is a very minor plot, super slight, and feels like it works only to pad the episode into the 22 minutes or so. But that being said, it’s nice to see Ron happy and joyful, and emotionally open – for the beginning of the last season, Ron had to be a quasi-villain, so it’s nice to see Ron being unabashedly sentimental (well, relatively so).

Parks and Recreation

In other plot in “Donna and Joe” has Ben deciding whether to run for congress. I love this plot, and love the possibilities – though, I wish the writers had more than just a handful of episodes to explore Ben’s political aspirations. The other thing that is cool about this plot is how graceful and gracious Leslie is. When Jennifer Barkley (the wonderful Kathryn Hahn) comes back to recruit Ben to run, Leslie assumes that it’s she who Jennifer is trying to tap. When it doesn’t happen that way, I thought Leslie would allow for hyper-competitive nature to elbow her hubby out of the way – but instead, she’s set to have Ben run for office. Atypically, Leslie is restrained and doesn’t blast through, bullying Ben to run; holding back, lets Ben take the center stage, a nice change of pace for Adam Scott, who rarely gets to step out of the straight man role. It’s nice that Scott and Amy Poehler trade roles because it shows just how versatile the two comic actors can be.

Because Ben and Leslie are parents of insane triplets, the idea of running for office seems nuts. Also, Ben was a mayor at eighteen, whose career fell into ruins after disastrously bankrupting his town. But that was the old Ben. Like all the other characters, Ben’s changed – he’s gotten much more confident in his abilities. No where is this more apparent than in his impromptu press conference, when a group of journos call him out on his qualifications. Instead of being adorable and stammering (Ben did remind me of Hugh Grant at times), he was forceful and assertive, proudly listing his accomplishments running Pawnee’s city operations. It was a wonderful moment because it also cemented the bond between Leslie and Ben: it’s clear that the two share a lot in common – among them, a bright ambition and love for public service (plus, if Leslie’s dreams of being the next Hillary Clinton are to come true, she needs a Bill Clinton).

There are six more episodes left, and because the season is so short and tight, it’s also really consistent – there hasn’t been a dud yet (though, to be fair, few of the episodes, save for the icky first season, have been more than a B effort). There is a valedictory feel to these episodes – a touch self-congratulatory – but that’s okay, because Parks and Rec deserves to feel a bit smug. After all, which show lasts seven years and still manages to deliver fresh and funny episodes? (Modern Family needs to take notes as it’s aging faster than Dorian Gray’s portrait)

Random notes:

  • Billy Eichner is great – though strangely subdued – let’s have more of the screamy Craig
  • How neat it is that Tom gets Lucy a dress to match his suit – in baby blue brocade
  • Ron on 19th century architects: “those bastards knew how to construct an edifice”
  • Amy Poehler gets a nice mini-reunion with SNL alumna Rachel Dratch as Roz, the bedraggled nanny.
  • Leslie to Roz: “I love you more than Ben.”
  • Roz on the kids: “All three of them just bumped into each other and broke everything you own.”
  • Christie Brinkley’s back as Terry’s impossibly beautiful wife, Gayle.
  • Jennifer: What’s that horrible sound?” Ben: “Children.”
  • I love that one of April’s duties as maid of honor was breaking up a fight on if it was really Lena Horne in the grocery store in 1970.
  • Leslie’s very supportive of Ben’s congressional future. In fact, she thinks he should be “The Royal Archduke Sultan Emperor of All Inhabitable Lands on Earth.”
  • Guest-starring as Donna’s dad is Hal Williams, Lester, from 227
  • Genuwine is back as Donna’s use-to-be famous cousin
  • Leslie and Ben breakdancing to Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two.”
  • Jennifer’s feelings about children: “So happy with my choices.” Love, love, love that line…
  • Donna to Leslie and April: “Y’all inspire me and I love you.”
  • Craig to Donna’s hairdresser, Typhoon: “Typhoon, I am interested, but now is not the time.” I’m glad Craig is gay and it’s not just an open secret.
  • The church is playing “All Things Bright and Beautiful” during the vows – which are beautiful.
  • Tiny hole in the plot: Ann and Chris don’t show up for Donna’s wedding??? What’s that about???
  • Donna: “Steal my thunder? I’m sorry, have you seen how I’m wearing this dress?”

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‘Downton Abbey: Series 5′ a review

***Potential Spoilers***Potential Spoilers***Potential Spoilers

Masterpiece: Downton Abbey Season 5Last season’s Downton Abbey was hobbled by an unnecessary subplot that had Anna (Joanne Froggatt) suffer a rape. While the actress handled the story line beautifully (she won a well-deserved Golden Globe for her efforts), its inclusion felt gratuitous, intent to both shock its audiences as well as make the show seem relevant and timely in 2014. The impulse is repeated in this season, albeit briefly, with a minor story line that had the dastardly Thomas (Rob James-Collier) go through some barbaric ex-gay therapy. Still Anna’s rape looms over the fifth season that extends the murder mystery: did her husband, Mr. Bates (Brandan Coyle) avenge his wife’s honor by murdering the rapist?

Alongside the murder mystery, the fifth series continues the redundant theme of “times are changing.” In fact, most of the characters stand around, giving each other resigned looks and saying variations on the line “times are changing.” The Labour government has been elected, and with that, the pie-in-the-sky optimism of the servants who think the new government will bring in a host of opportunities, while the Crawleys are unnecessarily worried that England will no longer have economic inequities. As Robert petulantly whined in the first episode, the Labour party is “committed to the destruction of people like us and everything we stand for.”

At this point in the series, it’s become a bit of a bore to hear Robert or Violet (Maggie Smith) grouse about the ever-changing world. It’s silly and self-conscious, essentially announcing to its audiences that Downton Abbey is a period show. In a positive review of the 60s nostalgia dramedy, The Wonder Years, the AV Club wisely pointed out that the show never made its time setting a punchline – unfortunately, at times, Downton Abbey feels like a huge nudge and wink.

But writer/creator Julian Fellowes loves to throw changes at his characters only to write how difficult it is to get used to them. In the fifth series we have the rebellious Lady Rose (Lily James) doing her bit to help out the refugees from the Russian revolution. During her good works, she catches the eye of the handsome Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber), who is Jewish: while the Crawleys are anachronistically fine with having a Jewish son-in-law (possibly because Lady Cora’s pop was Jewish), his own dad Lord Sinderby (James Faulkner) is put out by his son’s choice of bride (he even calls her a shiksa). While Atticus’s mother Lady Sinderby (an excellent Penny Downie) is happy about the union, her husband eyes the impending nuptial with wariness. As with Lily’s interracial relationship in series four, the interfaith marriage allows for Fellowes and company to pat themselves on their back to show just how far we’ve come when it comes to anti-Semitism.

Other plots involve the engagement of Isobel (Penelope Wilton) to Lord Merton (Douglas Reith). Violet, who has become Isobel’s BFF, views the pairing with some trepidation because she’s scared she’ll lose her companion. It’s a shockingly vulnerable and open admission by the usually prickly Dowager, and a welcome side to Violet that we hardly ever see – it’s also a good way to properly use the monumental talents of Maggie Smith, who has quickly become little more than just a zinger machine. In fact, the fifth series has some of Smith’s best work, as she has to navigate the complicated feelings Violet has for Isobel’s love life: on the one hand, she’s wants what’s best for Isobel, but she’s frightened of being left behind. Free from acting as a history lesson, this subplot is probably the strongest because it’s solely a character study, and both Wilton and Smith have a marvelous chemistry and an easy way of sparring with each other (and though Smith has a near-perfect mastery of throwing out one-liners, Wilton is no slouch, and can keep up).

Because social mobility in England in the 1920s is a near-impossibility, characters are chafing underneath their socially-imposed roles, none more so than cook, Daisy (Sophie McShera), who takes to math and history books to improve herself. With shades of Educating Rita, Daisy’s story is about how some of these characters are young enough to feel that their lot in life shouldn’t be static. Because she has a future as a land owner herself, Daisy has an inkling that there’s more to life than her kitchen – she’s spurred on by the village schoolmarm, Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis) – to become a braniac, and to the viewers’ delight, it turns out that Daisy’s a pretty smart cookie. As Violet sees Isobel’s social ascendance with wariness, so does Daisy’s boss, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), who has developed maternal feelings for Daisy. I always thought Daisy was one of the more interesting characters of Downton, and in series five, we get a more confident and assertive Daisy – not the mooney and oft-petty Daisy of the first couple seasons, but a wiser Daisy, who has some very real world experience and is arguably the only servant who will be able to ride the waves of change with success.

Though the servants’ stories are more interesting, the fifth series does have a lot going for the “upstairs” characters, namely Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Mary (Michelle Dockery), and Edith (Laura Carmichael). Unfortunately, these stories are far too soapy and melodramatic. Cora is being wooed by a charming (if very viperish) art dealer (a suitably oily Richard E. Grant), which doesn’t amount to much, but it does give McGovern a little bit more to do than just give baleful looks and simper. Mary, on the other hand, is still juggling between two suitors. And Edith is still treated like a sad, pathetic charity case, with her maternal instincts driving her to act pitifully, as she struggles after giving up her secret daughter to a village farmer, while still waiting to learn of Michael Greggson’s fate in Germany. McGovern, Dockery, and in particular, Carmichael all do solid work – but, they’re let down by the weepy plots.

And if I may, a quick note about Elizabeth McGovern – never has an actress been so let down and betrayed by a show. What started out as a fascinating and funny character in the first season has quickly become a tedious presence. She has little space for character development, and Fellowes seems to have run out of ideas for her, and is unsure of what exactly to do with her at this point.

Anyways, the fifth series of the show is surprisingly consistent and improves a bit on the fourth; I think a major reason why Downton Abbey is aging so well is because each season has about half a dozen episodes, so it’s easier to maintain a decent level of quality and to come up with interesting and watchable scripts (an American season would have about 100 episodes by the fifth season – that’s a lot of writing…)

 Click here to buy Downton Abbey: Season 5 on amazon.com.

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Iggy Azalea and cultural appropriation

Rapper Iggy Azalea has been the central focus on a debate about cultural appropriation – particularly when white artists take on cultural tropes of nonwhite cultures. Now, before I go on, it should be noted that Azalea, who’s Australian, does claim to have some Aboriginal ancestry. And though she’s Australian, she has lived in the United States since she was sixteen, living in a series of cities in the South including Atlanta. As hip-hop is a diverse and multicultural genre that was essentially created by African-Americans, the voice of a white Australian woman could be an interesting and intriguing one to hear.

But some accuse the rapper of essentially hiding her Australian culture and appropriating black culture because it’s possibly more commercial. It’s not a new trick – white artists have been swiping away at black culture for decades. Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, Eminem, Lisa Stansfield, Madonna, Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Adele, the Beastie Boys have all – to various degrees of success and acclaim – found inspiration in black culture and black music. And though ideally we’d like to maintain that music is universal, the truth is there is a problem in privileged white artists – especially if they’re wealthy – taking on the sounds of black artists without credit or remuneration. Presley in particular is often cited for the soulful and bluesy influence in his music, but his legacy has also been shadowed by accusations of cultural colonialism and piracy. For example, his huge hit “Hound Dog” (written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller) is considered one of the greatest rock and roll singles, yet its original artist Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was the original artist whose scorching version has been usurped by Presley’s excellent, if smoother, version. And many have accused Madonna of descending from her Ivory Tower to grab at black and Latino gay culture to inject her sound and image with cred.

And Iggy Azalea, like Presley and Madonna, has also been accused of making a lot of money (her album The New Classic has sold over 400,00o copies and three of her singles landed in the top 10, one of which was number one) by heisting black music. Fellow rapper Azealia Banks voiced her frustration with appropriating black music by aying, “Whenever it comes to our things, like black issues or black politics or black music, there’s always this undercurrent of kinda like a ‘fuck you’ … Ya’ll don’t really own shit. Ya’ll don’t have shit.”

Other performers concur with Banks, including Eve and Jill Scott, who both see Azalea’s work as being derivative. Eve even suggested that if Banks were to incorporate some of her own background in her music “it would be dope” because “she’s from a different place.”

Azalea has dismissed these criticism as either racist/bigoted or simply “hating.” But she shouldn’t be so quick to do so because when she does, she misses the history of what these ladies are referring to: while few of these artists are suffering the financial graft that black performers and songwriters suffered up until the 1980s, they are touching on a troubling side of pop music history that has yet to work its way out: the devaluation of black contribution to popular music. Artists such as Little Richard, Jimmy Scott, Ruth Brown,  and Sly  Stone are examples of artists who made millions of dollars for their respective record companies and then had to do battle in the courts to earn back their due. It’s also difficult for some black artists to see their work – honed through years of performing in small clubs and the streets – be homogenized and sanitized for public consumption by white artists – especially since many of these black artists struggled financially while making their art. The most obvious example that comes to mind is Madonna’s success with voguing, and how she was able to take a dance style born out of the black and Latino gay subcultures and market it to soccer moms and suburban teens.

Despite the personal digs that Banks and Azalea have thrown at each other, the debate they’re having – if it could remain civil and constructive is a good one to have. Pop culture – specifically pop music is all about making things marketable to a large audience – to do that, one must make it smoother and less challenging (think crossover opera). And Banks has tapped into an emotional issue about cultural appropriation – in her radio interview, she exposed just how painful cultural theft can be to those who still struggle to make authentic art.

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