Friday, 5 August 2011

Popular - I think it’s different for everyone. That’s what makes it so hard.

Popular: 1x15 Booty Camp.

So, let’s do a „previously, on Popular“: Last week, I got angry and felt like the show should use its superpowers (over-the-top humour, satire and ridiculous stylistic elements) to expose stereotypes rather than play into them. Also, Sam spontaneously got over Josh which really helped the burgeoning relationship (Friendship! Sisterhood!) with Brooke, Brooke ended her friendship with Nicole, turning her into a free agent, and Mary Cherry revealed that she lusts after Joe. Joe, as in Harrison John! Even more awesomely, she started calling Lily Lil Lily!! 
This week on Popular, someone anachronistically heeded my plea and used Popular’s superpowers responsibly! For with great power comes even greater responsibility, etc. 

Brooke and Sam are volunteering at the school’s peer hotline, because Kennedy High is the kind of unrealistically well-managed school in which students are protected from bullying and abuse by the school authority, rather than left to fend for themselves. This is probably the first episode that really made me realize how much this environment is, in a way, a dystopian idealistic school, rather than a grim and realistic portrayal of indifference or helplessness – of course, Bobbie Glass is still strange, and occasionally, depending on the writer of the episode, borderline psychotic, and there are some issues that can’t be solved by a save environment alone, but in general, Kennedy High is not a horrible place to be. 
They receive a phone call from an anonymous student who tells them, in confidence, that he is being bullied. Someone is calling him names and framing him as a gay, even though he self-identifies as straight. They both feel helpless and don’t know what to do to help him, but the situation gets even worse when they realize that Nicole, now peer-less and apparently void of the humanity she recently found, is the person who is torturing Freddy Gong. Brooke tries talking to her, but Nicole explains that she doesn’t see a point in being kind and nice to people if all it does is make her appear weak, and, ultimately, lonely (which isn’t what she says, but Nicole’s recent abandonment and everybody else’s chance at revenge is portrayed sufficiently to imply it). Carmen left the Glamazons. Brooke stopped being her friend.
Nicole: Listen, you wanna dump me as your best friend despite the fact that I’ve walked over broken glass for you barefoot, fine, but honey, you may fool everyone else, not me. I know you all too well my little passive-aggressive one.
Brooke: I want you to stop picking on Freddy, got it? It isn’t cool.
Nicole: Listen, Princess Grace. I’m just reinforcing the social order that you started, you know, until having a conscience became fashionable. And FYI, hypocrite? Remember homecoming, until two months ago you didn’t even know Freddy Gong’s name.
She’s torturing Freddy because she’s frustrated. She is probably doing it to carve out a new niche for herself, now that she’s lost her context, and she is also maybe doing it to get a reaction out of Brooke. What she is doing is gross and horrible, but it’s hard to deny that the accusations she makes to Brooke are true too (once again, with the uncomfortable truth). Brooke was part of the same toxic social order she is now trying to change, and she did have no idea who Freddy Gong was until she was called out for it. 

This episode focuses on Nicole and Josh. My only criticism of Josh’s story is that I would have expected him to already be in the position of being completely supportive of his mother in her decision to leave his father at the end of Ex, Lies and a Videotape. He seemed ready to defend her against his dad, who was portrayed as abusive – but let us, just this once, ignore a potential character continuity issue for the sake of an otherwise well-written episode. Josh, keen on preserving his precarious little family, talks his mother into staying. He convinces her to partake in a family tradition – a fishing trip – and puts all his hope in the restorative power of a shared ritual. At the same time, he chooses not to share his issues with his friends (and this, I think, fits in very well with past behaviour – the person he might feel comfortable talking about this is Brooke, and she isn’t really in his life anymore). 
Keen on appearing as manly and unperturbed as ever, he makes some thoughtless remarks about Lily (“where have you been hiding those?”) – who has decided to wear a more revealing and feminine outfit to school than she usually does – and Lily doesn’t feel complimented, but harassed. Harrison, probably out of a misguided need to fit in with the boys, doesn’t help her. Lily calls the helpline – Sam and Brooke – and eventually goes to Principal Hall to complain, who is the kind of principal we all wish we had, detects that this is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with, and not just the harassment itself, but also Harrison’s indifference to it (“Apathy, and callous indifference, are symptoms of deeper sensitivity problems that need to be dealt with.”) She forces them to choose between suspension, which would go on their permanent record, and enrolment in a sensitivity camp, which unfortunately for Josh collides with the fishing trip he has put all his hope into. 
This episode came out in 1999, so it’s even more tragic that none of this seems outdated. Harrison continues to argue that Lily shouldn't have come dressed like that if she didn’t want the attention. 
Sam: A girl should be able to wear whatever she wants without fear.
Harrison: Lil, Love ya, but face the facts. If you didn’t want the attention, you wouldn’t have dressed like that.
Lily: There is a big difference between attention and abuse, Harrison.
Josh: Yeah, and who gets to decide what that is?
The girls: WE DO!!!
In my personal nightmare version of this episode, Lily would have been ridiculed for her response. Sam would have been portrayed as the unfunny girl that spoils all the fun with her serious! Issues! (as her actions sometimes unfortunately are framed – but she’s right! Mostly!) But not only does this episode steer from this, taking their plight seriously, it also manages a surprising shift – pointing out that objectification isn’t just something that women suffer from and men perpetrate. It introduces a “teacher” (a former marine gunnery sergeant who is going to fight misogyny and bullying) who, despite being played by yet another suspiciously similar-looking relative of Bobbie Glass, is never ridiculed for what he says. 

When I’m through with you three disrespectors of women, glass ceilings will be shattered, personal space will be respected! How am I gonna make you shining examples of male enlightenment. I have a three-pronged plan.
The three disrespectors are soon joined by Nicole, when Brooke realizes that she can’t continue protecting her. And then, inadvertently, by Mary Cherry, who “can’t be a feminist, I wax” and drills a hole above the boys’ showers to get a closer look at Joe – and draws Carmen in by promising her a good look at Josh. Women objectify men too! And are promptly sent to sensitivity camp for it. They are then joined by Brooke and Sam because Freddy Gong decides that his only escape from Nicole’s torture is helping her to take revenge on them. Lily eventually ends up in boot camp too, after she’s caught trying to liberate Carmen. 
The boys realize that being objectified isn’t as fun as they originally imagined: they are forced to walk down the hallway while being shouted at, and what sounded like a great thing soon turns into a nightmare. The girls, with the exception of Mary Cherry (“There are clinics for people like you, Cherry”), don’t see what they’ve done wrong, until Sergeant Empathy points out to them that loudly perpetuating a male beauty ideal in front of people who don’t feel like they meet that standard is also potentially harmful (which isn’t strictly speaking harassment. It’s not good behaviour, but calling it harassment only serves the episode well… let’s ignore that one too because the issue is handled well otherwise, and loudly judging someone’s behind IS harassment).
Finally, it all boils down to one demonstration. Harrison is forced to admit he would feel that the remarks were a violation of he heard them directed towards “his baby sister”. Sam is asked to loudly judge his body in front of everyone.
Sam: That is not fair. You’re taking away my choice.
Sergeant Empathy: Exactly. Recognize that feeling. That’s what harassment is about. Taking away somebody’s choice not to be judged. Taking away somebody’s choice to be left alone.   
They all realize that they’ve acted wrongly; everybody, except Nicole and Josh. Josh is confronted with the fact that his mother is going to move out, and angry at everything and everyone, blaming the sensitivity camp for the fact that his family is now falling apart (and he also seems to consider both Lily and his mum's pleas as over-reactions). He still doesn’t understand – he tells Lily that what he said would “only flatter a normal girl”, that “maybe you’re insecure”, until finally, he says, “Just deal with it, it’s not like I hit you”, and he realizes, with terror, that this is something his father might have said to justify his behaviour. Josh is more afraid of turning into his father (Ex, Lies and Videotape was all about Josh trying to become a good person, despite the example his dad is setting) than seeing his family fall apart. He apologizes, and he moves in with his mother, because deep down, Josh Ford is a good person, and Popular is the sort of show that provides him with an environment to grow (which I think, ultimately, is why I like this show so much). 

Nicole “wins”. She is the only one who doesn’t admit that she’s done anything wrong – but she also leaves without any friends, as lonely as she was at the beginning of the episode. 
You’re a strong girl, Miss Julian. Strongest recruit I’ve ever encountered. It’s unfortunate you have nowhere to channel that energy. You do make a good leader, it’s too bad you’re all alone with no one to lead.
She sits down with Freddy, who is also always eating alone (let’s just forget for a bit that technically, Freddy has his own social circle which is conveniently absent in this episode…) and finally apologizes to him, realizing that she isn’t going to be any less lonely if she continues being the person she has become. 
My favourite bit is the conversation between Lily and Harrison though, because their friendship is one of the subtle emotional centres of the show and seeing it threatened is like putting Willow in danger: 
Harrison: I wanted to tell you that you looked cute, but I didn’t know if that would be okay or not, so… is it?
Lily: I think so. Yes. Yeah, you can tell me that I look cute.
Harrison: Okay.
Lily: It’s really complicated, right? I mean, I know that you’re my friend, and I know that you weren’t trying to hurt me.
Harrison: But I did. And I’m sorry. Lil, you should be able to wear whatever you want.
Lily: I know but maybe I was trying to get some attention.
Harrison: But not like that.
Lily: The thing is, where do you draw the line, I mean is it at you look cute, pretty, you’re hot, sexy.
Harrison: I don’t know.
Lily: I think it’s different for everyone. That’s what makes it so hard.
I think a really good way of making it easier for everybody is creating a safe space for conversation, rather than an environment that fosters abuse and violence. And Lily and Harrison being able to talk about it and agreeing and still retaining their friendship, in spite of what happened? Isn’t it beautiful, how heartfelt Popular can be at its best? 

Random notes: 

Thematically, this was one of the most difficult episodes so far, and yet it felt incredibly light and enjoyable, without being flat or superficial. I think this actually perfectly balanced all the (sometimes not completely harmonising) elements of the show. 

Mary Cherry gets Brookie a horse, now that the second-in-command position has opened up. OF COURSE SHE DOES. 

Lily: Why are we sitting with Mary Cherry? Isn’t that one of the signs of the impending apocalypse?

Mary Cherry attempts to win Brooke over by writing a feminist manifesto inspired by Valerie Solanas, which unfortunately only gains her Carmen’s cooperation, which she didn’t really aim for. 




Obscure pop cultural reference: 

Private Benji, Nic’s call sign, is a reference to a Goldie Hawn movie from 1980. 

Things that failed to make Private Benji “empathize with tolerance”: YOU WILL WATCH PHILADELPHIA. ON AN ENDLESS LOOP!! 

Nicole: Tom Hanks won an Oscar for that? And why do Bruce Springsteen songs all sound the same?

Uncomfortable Truth! 


Emma said...

Yet another episode I really enjoyed! I actually think the whole walk-of-sexual-harassment down the hallway thing should be compulsory training for men, because I don't know a single woman who hasn't had an experience like Lily's, some not as overt, others ten times worse.

That this sort of sexism still exists in 2011 is just tragic.

That said, I also thought it was good that they didn't just blame men and make women universal victims. It's this kind of even-handedness that makes Popular such a great show.

flame gun for the cute ones said...

The balance worked just really well in this episode. Humour/seriousness, character development/entertainment... that's Popular, using its powers responsibly. And it shocked me how the issues the episode brought up haven't changed at all. If anything, I'm less optimistic now that a school would react so well to this (not that I'm in any position to judge if this was a realistic portrayal of a school in 2000).