Friday, December 30, 2011

Skins 3x07 (a very retrospective review)

The first episode of Skins I saw was 3x07 and it made me fall in love with the show because I was so impressed by the portrayal of a teenager with diagnosed autism and mental health problems. I've written about the episode a thousand times before, but it occurred to me that what makes it so progressive comes from the very structure of Skins.

First, the episode about JJ has to be from JJ's perspective and show his home life and how he acts when he's by himself, because that's how Skins episodes work by definition. And second, because it takes place pretty late in the season and the audience has seen the episodes about different characters, we understand that everyone has problems.

I hate when people with autism are portrayed as a different species. It's not just insulting to us, but to humanity in general. Talking about how people with autism don't read social cues or understand other people's feelings just makes you sound like you don't know any people without autism. It puts people without autism on a pedestal and ignores what's interesting about all people--our weird, unique failures and perversities and charms.

To me JJ's episode is about stigma. Whether or not that was intended, it can't not come across that way. After all, there's this stereotype that Skins is about kids having parties where they trash houses (there was even a media panic that it was encouraging British kids to have "Skins parties" where they tried to emulate the ones on the show). And there are several instances of Skins characters breaking things when they're angry or high or drunk. Sometimes this is a problem in the character's life, but it's not medicalized--except when it's JJ.

The episode starts with JJ sitting in his room immediately after getting really upset and breaking everything. Unlike most Skins characters who do this, he's actually worried about the fact that he's done this. Unlike every other character who trashes a room in the show, JJ decides that he needs to see his doctor because of what he just did. The doctor, without much thought, prescribes him more medication. JJ, without much thought, obediently takes it.

Later in the episode JJ says something to his friend Cook about not being into drugs. Cook replies that JJ takes a lot of drugs, and JJ gets so mad that he sets out to sabotage Cook for what he said. The truth is that what Cook said is technically true--they both take a lot of drugs--while actually being completely offensive and false.

The difference between JJ and Cook's drug use isn't that one takes drugs and the other doesn't--that isn't the case--but that Cook has a choice about what he puts into his body. His drugs may mess him up more, but he takes them for pleasure and he takes them when he feels like it. JJ has been taught that everything about him needs treatment, and that he should always conform to what other people say is good for him.

We know Cook and the other characters well enough to know that many of them do things that are bad for them, and make choices that hurt other people, while still being really confident in who they are. They have compasses, even though they are shitty ones. JJ is a more thoughtful and sensitive person, but he has no compass. He's afraid to not do what he's told.

When JJ talks to Effy in his episode, she says, "I'm officially off the rails"--she's not joyful about it, but she is a little pleased with herself. It's a cool thing to say. JJ replies that he can't go off the rails because it would upset his mother. Effy is fucked up but she has the freedom to brag about her fucked-up-ness and go as deep into it as she wants. JJ has a disability label so he's held to a higher standard; any signs of fucked-up-ness are a symptom and a potential tragedy that needs to be immediately controlled.

The heart of the episode, when we really learn who JJ is, is when he's talking to Emily about what he would do if he was "normal." He'd have sex! He'd eat whatever he wanted! He'd tell people exactly what he thought! Everyone would respect him!

I can't imagine watching this without wondering what Cook and Effy did to earn all these rights JJ apparently doesn't deserve. Why are they normal? Sure, JJ is different, we can tell he's different, but there's no bad thing he's done that a "normal" character hasn't done too.

Later, Emily and JJ are talking about how Emily's sister won't accept Emily being gay. Emily reassures JJ, who accidentally outed her, that Katie loves her and will get over it. JJ suggests that Katie is "locked on" and Emily agrees with the phrase.

When I first saw the episode I thought that "locked on" was a common British term for...something, I couldn't tell exactly what. After I watched more of the show, I realized that it was a euphemism JJ and his friends use for his particular emotional states. At one point they use it for a meltdown, and in another episode JJ is just getting overexcited and yelling about something when his friend sees the need to correct his behavior--"JJ, you're getting locked on."

I don't think that JJ was written well after series 3, or even in some episodes in series 3 where he serves as a stereotypical "awkward" character who provides comic relief and inappropriate exposition. But his episode is perfect, especially this moment. He realizes that Katie, a very "normal" person, can be described as "locked on." There doesn't need to be a whole separate vocabulary for the things JJ does.

Series 3 does a great job showing how JJ's friends and acquaintances see him as being different (and sometimes lesser) and how he sees himself that way. This is a really serious part of how some disabled kids grow up and yet you hardly ever see it when disabled kids have friends on TV. Their friends either treat them "like everyone else" even when they're clearly different, or take care of them with saintly patience. Mentally disabled people are often portrayed as not knowing we're different, even as we inconvenience and hurt other people with our differentness. Skins shows all the complications for a disabled kid who has friends, but is separate from them--and because of how developed all the characters are, we know just how shoddy the reasons for that separation are, and how unfair it is.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Some ~feelings about Chase/Gert

(This is a bit more altered from the original.)

Part Two: "I think I got brain damage"

Just in case I ever write an academic paper on Runaways (I wish), I'd like to point out that one of the positive nerd characters is Victor Mancha, who has the same first name as Chase’s dad. Characters don’t usually have the same name, so what’s up with this? Notably, Chase resents Victor Mancha because a)he thinks that his nerdy girlfriend is going to leave him for Victor because Victor is nerdier/smarter than Chase, and b)as he admits to Victor, Victor is exactly the kind of son Chase’s dad would have wanted.

Gert was my favorite character when I started reading Runaways, but somehow Chase's love for her made me love him so much that I started liking him even more. Their relationship is pretty close to being my OTP of all time, regardless of genre--I right now cannot think of anything I love quite that much.

It's not exactly groundbreaking for a more "normal" teenager to fall in love with another kid who's geeky/alternative/fat. I do give props for Gert actually being fat sometimes, depending on the artist. But what I really love is how their personal insecurities/stigmas (dumbness for Chase and "ugliness" for Gert) interact so that they're not just opposed in the obvious way, but on every level.

Gert, who is super intellectual, is sure despite all evidence to the contrary that Chase wants to leave her because she’s fat. Chase, who is super conventionally attractive, is sure despite all evidence to the contrary that Gert wants to leave him because he’s dumb. I think the reason Gert/Chase is my OTP to end all OTPs is that neither of them actually cares about the thing the other person expects them to care about. They are awesome, not just on their own, but through each other–because they’re both awesome for being able to see that someone so different from them is awesome. Their awesomeness increases the more they love each other! It’s an infinite awesomeness loop!

Chase, before kissing Gert for the first time: I think I got brain damage ’cause suddenly you’re the hottest chick I’ve ever seen.

Gert, reassuring Chase that she’s not going to leave him for Victor: The smartest man in the world is the one who knows that I’m the best girl alive. I’ve only got four-eyes for you, okay?

Quoted because I love them so much, and emphasis on the intersections that shape their relationship. Obviously both quotes are jokes, but still they’re worth looking at. Chase is “brain-damaged” but “the smartest man in the world,” while Gert is “four-eyes” but “the hottest girl I’ve ever seen.” The first quote sets up Chase as being dumb for loving Gert, while the second quote says the opposite. Or does it? Is it Chase’s dumbness, his identity as inferior to his parents and Gert, that makes him “smart” enough to see Gert as hot instead of as the way she sees herself (inferior to Karolina and Nico)?

It has to be addressed that enemies of the Runaways often refer to Gert as ugly and fat, and mock Chase for having her as his girlfriend. There aren’t equivalent scenes with enemies telling Gert, “Your boyfriend is stupid.” Chase’s hatred of himself for being dumb is at least as deep as Gert’s discomfort with her body, but it’s Gert who is much more regularly attacked for her identity. I think this is a fair portrayal–because while of course there is violence and hatred of “dumbness” in the world, especially among nerds, it’s nowhere near as intense as hatred of fatness, which exists in both nerd culture and mainstream culture. Chase is more personally affected by his stigma, but he’s the more privileged person in the relationship. Which I think he doesn’t always understand.

Just one more thing: at the end of BKV’s run, Gert/Chase both arguably find some kind of peace away from stigma. Chase, who identifies as “bad” just as much as he identifies as “dumb,” carries out a complex plan and comes to identify as “innocent.” (It doesn’t hurt that in during the course of his plan he defeats Victor Mancha with logic, and that the two people he defeats are the two supposed threats to Gert/Chase.) Gert seems completely sure that Chase loves her, and refers to her conventionally attractive, skinny future self as “boring” and “a threat, not a promise.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Some ~feelings about Chase Stein

(This is something I wrote in March on one of my abandoned blogs.)

Part One: "Isn't that a cliche?"

I guess Runaways is a geek-centric comic in that most of the main characters are geeky/alternative in some way--and I think this is sort of what makes Chase like my favorite comic book character of all time. Let me explain. I feel like a character like Chase (who is introduced as a “dumb jock,” and is a lot more than that; but that description never stops being true) is normally only presented sympathetically in really mainstream narratives, which tend to not have a ton of depth and tend to portray geek characters stereotypically. Brian K. Vaughan decenters Chase from being the character we’re supposed to identify with, but still portrays him with a lot of depth.

Chase reminds me of my best friend in high school, John. John was a jock, and he was dumb. He made gross jokes. He was also a really good friend, and he was an outsider in his own way. I feel like writers, especially genre writers, tend to be geeky/alternative and don’t portray “dumb” or non-alternative characters in a compassionate way.

Although I guess in a lot of ways I am Hipster Scum, I just don’t really identify with the value of rejecting people who aren’t intellectual or aren’t alternative. I try to relate to people based on how I get along with them emotionally and not based on their subculture or what they want out of life. I can certainly be a dick and cut myself off from people for other stupid reasons. But I guess I just get annoyed by people who are anti-anti-intellectual and I got irked with Joss Whedon for the way he wrote Chase during his run.

I also think that Chase’s lack of nerdiness/intellectualism/intelligence/alternative-ness (including the facts that he isn’t part of a subculture, doesn’t do well in school, and is often kind of dense and spacey) is an extremely important part of who he is. Because of that I find Whedon's retcon of him insulting to the character (yes, I'm 12, I can be insulted on behalf of comic book characters).

The conceit of Runaways is that all the main characters have parents who are a different type of supervillain and when the kids find out, they team up to fight their parents. Chase’s parents are “mad scientists,” obviously the most intellectual type of supervillain (which Whedon himself portrayed as a hero in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, with the villain being a superhero who is a stereotypical dumb jock). Although, like all the Runaways’ parents, they do evil with the goal of providing for their children, Chase’s parents are physically and emotionally abusive, and they are the only set of parents who are like this.

Although Chase fights with his parents and behaves rebelliously, he is written throughout Brian K. Vaughan’s run as having internalized the lessons he was taught by their abuse--basically, that he deserved to be abused because he wasn’t a good person, misbehaved, or was otherwise unsatisfactory. Chase’s parents frame their abuse of him in terms of “we’re smart, and you’re unsatisfactory and don’t know what is good for you, because you aren’t smart/intellectual.”

This value set has to come from somewhere, and it's not hard to guess. When the Steins first appear, Chase and his parents are fighting about his grades. Victor punches Chase and tells him he is a “dumb jock,” a “cliche.” Chase responds, “You’re a nerd who punches like a girl--isn’t that a cliche?” Which I think is really interesting because if you do read Chase’s dad through that lens, as a nerd who was bullied as a kid and wasn’t physically able to stand up for himself, and the violence that grew in him became his supervillainy...doesn’t that serve as a frame for his parenting? Does he have a childhood hatred of “dumb jocks,” which he takes out on his dumb jock son? It doesn’t matter if you “punch like a girl,” after all, if the person you’re punching is young and dependent on you.

So can I just say how much I love Brian K. Vaughan? He clearly isn’t mainstream or anti-nerd, as many of the positive characters are nerdy, but he also sees the potential violence in the idea that nerds are better than other people. In Y the Last Man he does a great job of portraying very diverse characters and the same is true for Runaways.

Joss Whedon is Diablo Cody

After googling their names I found out I’m not the only person in the world to draw this conclusion, which makes me feel better about the world.

Okay seriously. I was trying to explain to Clayton why even though BtVS is really special to me, I don’t really consider myself a Joss Whedon fan. About the time I stopped was when he wrote some issues of Runaways and portrayed Chase as a big superhero fan. This sounds dumb, but like…that would be Victor. It became really obvious to me while reading that arc that Joss Whedon could only write, or was only willing to write, Joss Whedon Characters with Joss Whedon Dialogue.

That felt self-centered to me—well, maybe I’m putting moral judgments on the lack of certain abilities, but even if that’s true, I don’t think Whedon should be considered such a huge genius if he can’t write characters who think and talk outside of a very narrow style.

While I was saying this to Clayton, it occurred to me that Diablo Cody is super maligned for: a. writing characters who belong to a certain “type” b. writing characters who all talk in a certain quirky way.

What the fuck, guys!

I would argue that in Juno, despite the homeskilletness or whatever people are offended by, Cody comes out on the side of saying that someone uncool and unquirky like Jennifer Garner’s character is a better person than her husband who seems to think he’s better than her because he’s so ~indie. Which in my opinion is much more open-minded than Joss Whedon.

Yet Joss Whedon’s name is basically a synonym for AWESOME, while Cody is criticized and made fun of for having quirky dialogue and characters?