Our letter is VERY late in arriving to our beloved readers, but for good reason—we are both slammed with work and school responsibilities this month. My first semester of teaching is well underway, and while I’d prefer to not get into the details, my second Title IX complaint in as many years has eaten up much of my time and attention the last month or two.
Sometimes, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, life becomes a shitshow quite quickly and you may be forced to tidy up several messes you did not create. This does not mean you are a “shit starter”. Sometimes things just happen and we happen to end up stuck in the middle of them. My tendency to blame myself when I’m involved in problems needs to end. That said, I consider shit-starting a spiritual and deeply feminist work, along the lines of Dr. Sara Ahmed’s work on feminist complaints. So I refuse to bash on shit-starting. In fact, I’d like to spend the rest of my letter honoring it.
All the protagonists of this month’s newsletter have one thing in common: they tend to start shit. Whether it’s watching your dog pee down the face of a statue of St. Mary, riding the slippery slope until you’re drugging some of the wealthiest men on Wall Street to steal their money, or getting involved with a portal that opens into another dimension, our heroes have all gotten their hands dirty in some truly messy shit.
Sometimes it’s funny! In Derry Girls, Erin Quinn is just a typical Irish Catholic girl trying to survive Catholic school but somehow always running into trouble in the process. Derry Girls sets our messy protagonist and her friends within an even messier political era: “The Troubles” of Ireland in the early 1990s. Our five beloved teens—dramatic Erin, good-natured Clare, weird af Orla, almost always horny/drunk Michelle, and her cousin James—are navigating one of the most turbulent phases of growing up in the midst of turbulent political upheaval.
I love this premise so much! And I love its application even more. I enjoyed S1, but I fell in LOVE with S2. Every single episode of S2 is a masterpiece. I’ve also discovered my own personal aesthetic goals in their motorcycle-riding English teacher.
(This attitude! This leather jacket!!!!)
I know how much you love Sister Michael, so I won’t steal your thunder. All I’ll say is that her delivery of “should we just leave them?” in the first episode of S2 was when I knew I had no choice but to stan.
The first episode of S2 is, in my opinion, the pivot of the show from “funny” to “hilarious and important”. S2 opens with a field trip for the Catholic girls school to meet up with a Protestant boys school with the intent to “create awareness” and “develop empathy”. In fact, all of the teens struggle to name a single thing they all have in common—until the end, when they realize they all have annoying parents. It’s creative and heartwarming and I can’t wait for when S3 arrives in 2020!
I have so much to say about Hustlers, that I’m not entirely sure where to begin. I’ve seen it 3 times in theaters. The first time I cried as Jennifer Lopez did her unbelievable strip routine, to FIONA APPLE NO LESS. I could barely take it. The fact that there is still not a good photo in Google Images of Jennifer Lopez, lazily smoking her cigarette in a gigantic fur coat open to display her lingerie on a NYC rooftop, is nothing short of a crime. We all deserve this downloadable content.
(THERE’S NOT EVEN A GIF! So this will have to do)
What’s so mesmerizing about Hustlers? Perhaps the better question would be, what ISN’T mesmerizing about Hustlers? And that question would still be impossible to answer, because EVERYTHING about this movie is mesmerizing from start to finish. Whether it’s Constance Wu’s incredible, underrated performance as our morally conflicted protagonist in need of some cash to take care of her grandma, or Jennifer Lopez’s charismatic, powerful Ramona who is willing to get into some Good Girls-style trouble to take care of herself and her daughter, or the incredible costumes and the fascination we have with women getting their revenge on men and on capitalism—this movie has it all.
The end of the movie wraps with Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) quipping one of the most profound things I’ve heard in a movie theater all year: "It’s all a strip club. You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance."
There’s no good segue to our final topic for this letter, so we’ll just have to do it. STRANGER THINGS.
Pretty much everyone who has self-selected into subscribing to this little newsletter has probably heard of Stranger Things, the quirky little show that began in 2016 with a 12-year-old boy who mysteriously vanished and a community desperately trying to find him.
The great love story of this show, from the beginning, was Joyce Byers’ love for her son. It’s the thing that anchors all of S1. In fact, the complexity of the parent-child relationship continues to be the most engaging thing about this show, even when it’s infested with patriarchal toxicity like we see with Hopper in S3. It’s my “professional” opinion that after the show exploded with its popularity and was contracted for three more seasons, the show’s creators lost sight of this narrative. They felt the need to expand the cast, add more characters (I honestly don’t like any of the new characters added in S2, and the only one I liked in S3 was the Dr. Alexei subplot), and yet all we do is revisit the same problem over and over again instead of coming up with anything new. I was a big fan after the first season, but at this point I’m more of a tiny hand-held fan that dies every few days and has to have the batteries replaced.
I do love the spooky element of ST and I’m glad we chose it for our October edition, if only that the nose-bleeding waffle-holding Eleven will always be my favorite and now that I’m writing about this I want to watch the first season all over again!! Truly a standalone work of art, regardless of the following seasons. (Did I start this section expecting to talk shit about this show? No. Am I mad about it? Also, no.)
The best parts of this show for me are Eleven and Steve. Millie Bobby Brown is just so wildly talented and gives one of the best child-acting performances of the 2010s in every season of the show. She’s honestly the only reason I bothered with S3, and she did not disappoint. If Eleven ever dies, I will RIOT.
(Look how little she looks!)
Novels could be written about the character arc of Steve Harrington. From douchebag high school prep to ice-cream-scooping babysitting high school graduate, no one has changed over the course of 3 seasons more than Steve. I think it’s safe to say none of us saw this pivot coming for his character, but I am not mad about it in. The. Slightest.
Thanks for never opening a portal to another dimension just because you’re an immoral monster who wants to take over the world in the name of *~science~*.
Sadly I have nothing deep or snappy to say about how hard this fall has slammed into me, but if I had to sum my feelings up using a tweet, I would use this one by Jonny Sun: https://twitter.com/jonnysun/status/1185595759976038403?s=20
That being said, let me jump straight into something that has breathed life into every cell of my being, possibly my favorite movie of the entire year: Hustlers!
I don’t know if I’ve felt this rapturous coming out of a movie since A Simple Favor last year, another masterpiece about scheming, well-dressed women. Based on the true story written about by Jessica Pressler in The Cut, this movie is so good that even though I had to sit in the very front row the first time I saw it, I didn’t even REGISTER that physical discomfort until the movie was over.
I’m so glad we’re talking about this right after we talked about Dead to Me, because ⅔ through this movie I started thinking about how it allows complication and nuance in its female characters [which, gloriously, are pretty much its only characters]. Last month in my Dead to Me section I talked about how Jen’s anger isn’t portrayed as silly, but it also isn’t portrayed as wholly righteous.
We’re clearly meant to root for the women in Hustlers [AND I CERTAINLY DO] but we’re also not allowed to flatten their own mixed feelings out of them. In particular, there’s a scene between Julia Stiles and Constance Wu when Stiles, sincere but also attempting to win back the slipping trust of her subject, admits that she doesn’t feel bad for the men who were drugged and stolen from. Immediately, Wu’s character shoots back, “Well I do!” Part of portraying female agency [that storytelling buzzword] is making space for, say it with me, NUANCE! Meanwhile, though Lopez’s character never displays any compunction for her actions regarding the men, it’s her tenderhearted drive to take care of the women around her that starts the whole plan in motion, and is unfortunately part of the plan’s demise.
(LOOK! AT! THEM!!)
To the distress of some male viewers [and reviewers coughcough], men are incidental at best to the personal lives of the women in the movie. While the women in the movie certainly are susceptible to greed and jealousy, that never extends to the men themselves, nor even, it seems, what can be gotten out of the men. A quote from the Pressler piece articulates this perfectly:
“While evolutionary theory and The Bachelor would suggest that a room full of women hoping to attract the attention of a few men would be cutthroat-competitive, it’s actually better for strippers to work together, because while most men might be able keep their wits, and their wallets, around one scantily clad, sweet-smelling sylph, they tend to lose their grip around three or four. Which is why at Hustler, as elsewhere, the dancers worked in groups.”
Look I am always going to get invested in a story about women working together, but throw in music and costuming that expertly pinpoints each specific year in which the movie takes place? [2007-2014] I am sunk!!! It bears mentioning that the movie was written, directed, and edited by an all-woman team [this oral history is fantastic and also made me emotional], which means that if the Academy could find any sense in their dang heads they’d make this Oscars season a really exciting one for me personally.
On to something a little less exciting for me personally….Stranger Things.
I remember reading a couple years ago [and I don’t remember if it was in an article or Twitter so I feel very bad about lack of attribution!] that the reason that first season worked so well was that it was essentially doing three different kinds of stories at once — and doing them all well — that came together in a satisfying and meaningful way. You have the gritty adult mystery show with Joyce and Hopper, the teen action drama complete with the love triangle between Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve, and the coming of age adventure comedy with the kiddos. And it was a really really good show!
I minded the new characters much less than I minded the effort they made to mix’n’match characters across the adult/teen/kid storylines. Look, I cherish the Dustin/Steve bond as much as the next person, but come folks…….it doesn’t actually advance the plot in anyway. And as for “the plot,” seasons 2 and 3 were essentially identical to season 1, with a slight “leveling up” of the immortal Hawkins, Indiana demon. They veered toward an interesting angle this season, as Nancy and Jonathan investigated the overlaps between the town’s supernatural pest problem and the corrupt capitalist ambitions of the town’s administration. But they never really pushed far enough and/or cut out enough Russian conspiracy/demon army stuff to make room for it. [Sidebar: Cary Elwes!!! I still don’t know if his accent was, shall we say, “good,” but it was extremely Committed and he seemed like he was having just the best time ever which was a delight.]
I’m glad you’ve already talked beautifully about the excellently done character arc of Steve Harrington, because I know that I would not be able to get very far without embarrassing myself, so all I will say is that the only spin-off show I want is “The Retail Adventures of Steve & Robin, renting movies and picking up chicks.” Also, Joe Keery……….call me.
Okay and I’ve made it this far without soapboxing about streaming TV episodes [from Netflix in particular] being too long but……...THESE EPISODES ARE TOO LONG!! Our hero Kathryn VanArendonk writes a lot about “the episode,” for example this scholarly article called “Theorizing the Television Episode,” and more directly related, this Vulture piece about episode manspreading. There’s a lot of great stuff in both, but this section from the manspreading piece in particular sticks out to me, particularly as I transition into the final topic:
“Overly long TV episodes feel like self-important prestige signaling, more about muscle (and budget) flexing than they are about the best way to serve a story. They take up narrative space with all the blithe obliviousness of a story that assumes it’s the most important, most worthy thing you’re doing with your time. Long TV episodes imply they deserve that extra space — after all, they’re significant, quality TV. And bigger equals better.”
And you know what show is NOT under the illusion that bigger equals better? DERRY GIRLS!!!
Every episode of Derry Girls is a perfect story unto its own, each one expanding the overarching narrative in a way that mirrors the way the girls themselves are at a precise age and time in history in which their world is expanding in front of them. And every single one of them is outrageously funny without needing outrageous external circumstances. Though the girls are already living in what many of us would consider outrageous external circumstances, The Troubles themselves are almost mundane compared to the situations the girls get themselves into.
I feel very Seen by you leaving Sister Michael for me, since, as Margaret H. Willison on the Derry Girls episode of Appointment Television aptly puts it: “every character is the best character, except for Sister Michael, who is the ACTUAL best character.” Sister Michael is a perfect example of what this show does with every single person on the show, no matter how much or little screentime they have. In another, less-interesting show, she would be a simple, biting, one-note foil to the girls, an obstacle with nothing on the other side. Instead she’s incredibly interesting in her own right; sarcastic and self-interested, but with an affection for statues and a disdain for a great deal of the religious structures she’s supposedly dedicated her life to. There’s a similar depth to Erin and Orla’s Granda, a man relentlessly critical of his daughters’ partners, but only due to his relentless belief in his daughters themselves.
It’s one of the best things I’ve seen this year and I’m bonkers excited for the next season in 2020, almost as excited as I’ll be to celebrate a year of newslettering with you in a few short months!! Thanks for appreciating an excellent music cue and understanding that I will almost always identify with the crankiest woman on any given show.