Thursday 3 January 2013

Popular - It’s hard to have, but it’s even harder to lose.

Popular: 2x17 Coup.

Short review and a happy new year, kittens!

I spend a lot of time thinking about what exactly happened since I originally saw the series that might be the reason for how much I’ve been enjoying Nicole Julian. If someone had told me that the one thought often coming to my head while viewing an episode would be “not enough Nicole”, I wouldn’t have believed it, but here it is: the biggest surprise of rewatching and reviewing this show more than ten years after it final episode aired was discovering Nicole Julian anew. 
The obvious reason for why this never occurred to me before is that being in high school makes it much more difficult to enjoy characters who make it very difficult for other characters to be in high school, which is definitely one of the things Nicole Julian does. It’s not the only thing – much has happened to her in the past two years – but it’s fair to say that she is still very good at making life difficult for everybody else (when she isn’t in the process of saving lives, that is). 
But the episode isn’t exactly about Nicole making life hard for other people, it’s a more fundamental question about the nature of her particular power, and maybe even power in general. It’s also another episode that uses one of Ms Glass’ lessons as the thematic starting point, specifically a video of a praying mantis devouring her mate, an act that Bobbi and Nicole interpret very differently. 
Bobbi: This is the rare display of women getting the upper hand but sadly only through sexualized ambition.
Nicole: Excuse me, yes, hello, Claw. I’m sorry but I beg to differ, as usual, with your insane pretzel logic. Now you see, although I do acknowledge that very few women have power now in our society, but I must point to myself as an example of a young woman who is breaking through that glass ceiling.
Bobbi: Miss Julian aka crashing feminist disappointment, the only power I see you exploiting is the lovely twin set in your twin set. Girls, pay attention. It’s just struck me. Don’t be a Nicole, don’t be a mantis, evolve. You are the first generation where there is the possibility of parity and power among the genders without resorting to sex.
Nicole: Excuse, back on point. I do have power.
Bobbi: Miss Julian, you are a teen mantis who’s lost all of her power, mainly because you’re no longer on the Glamazons. I bet you don’t ever get that power back.
Nicole: I bet you I do. I don’t need sex to get power.
It’s a scientific thesis for Bobbi Glass, that Nicole only has one way of attaining power and that way has been blocked by her past actions; but Nicole reads it as a challenge. This point in the story is inevitable, really, because now that she is no longer distracted by searching for her biological mother, now that she is even more hardened by that horrible betrayal, she can focus on getting back what she lost. 
The whole thing is also a much more profound debate about feminism, because Bobbi Glass takes the classic approach of demonizing everything that is different from her very own idea of feminism (and honestly, Bobbi doesn’t get to take the moral high road after the last episode), because in Nicole’s interpretation and political philosophy, everything is about her own personal status. I think the episode shows perfectly that Nicole doesn’t derive her power for sex (she wouldn’t be above using sex for power, but it’s not the only source), it’s her ruthlessness and focus, her willingness to put winning above everything else. She’s brilliant at it. She reads people and seeks out their weaknesses with an aptness that is scary and awesome at the same time. And I love that the episode has her quoting Von Clausewitz (Machiavelli would have also done well, but then that mainly applies to people already in power), because she is equipped with theory. She understands that life is a struggle, and it is a classical reading of political struggles, a zero sum game, where someone’s gain automatically means that someone else is losing (Lily would be the theoretical opposite of Nicole in terms of viewing struggles, I think). She is proving a point to Bobbi and everyone else, she is regaining the power she lost when she got kicked off the team, when Brooke McQueen decided to join the sunshine and rainbow teams of everyone’s friends now, and she is proving to herself that she can still play this game, and all on her own, without anyone’s help. 
It’s a tactical game, picking targets, moving the pieces until they fall into place, until the whole game reveals itself. April is tasked by Krupps to kill one of the clubs, but finds it hard to decide and is battling a misogynist vice-president, so Nicole says all the right things about strong women holding together – “Maybe the fates will be kind and you’ll find a powerful woman like yourself, a woman that will advise you on how to behave, because she cares, not because she wants to control you.” – and becomes April’s advisor and eventual vice president. Then she tells Emory that April is planning to cut his club, manipulates him to release a sex tape they recorded to oust her, and finally, in a grand showdown, takes April Tuna’s place at the top of Kennedy High. Her first act is to ban the Glamazons (and Emory’s ridiculous John Travolta appreciation society) – but not before judging the dance off and deciding that Josh Ford is the winner, not fellow woman Lily Esposito.
Lily: Are you so consumed with your own power mongering that you have forgotten about your soul sisters in the movement?
Nicole: What can I say Lily, you just didn’t cut it. For future reference, women with true power never share it with other women.
Mary Cherry: But they always wish they had.  
Except they don’t, because Mary Cherry and Carmen’s plan to stop Nicole goes awry, because Nicole never half-asses a thing, she has all her bases covered. Finally, she visits April Tuna, meanwhile incarcerated for appearing in a sex tape – 
Nicole: I got all my power back, and then some. All at your expense. And all without once using sex.
April: But we’re powerful women. And powerful women stick together. You taught me that.
Nicole: From now on, the only person I look out for is me. Are you familiar with the classic 1974 Elton John title, the one called ‘The Bitch is Back’?
April: Nicole Julian, I swear, when I get out of here in two years, I’m gonna model myself after you. You rock.
And I don’t know, because of course the only way progress is ever going to be made is if there is unity and stuff, but also, the only way that it will ever feel like progress is if someone like Nicole Julian can act ruthlessly, selfishly, exploit the system, game the system, and win, without anyone using the argument against her that the reason why she shouldn’t have done either of these things is because she is a woman. I love Pretty Little Liars for the friendships, but I can’t deny that the other side of the coin intrigues me just as much: Jenna Marshall and Mona Vanderwaal, who know that nice never gets you anywhere at all (and being nice isn’t the same as being kind). Nicole Julian would fit right in. 

Random notes: 

Bobbi: Miss McIrritating, where is you fabulous McSeatmate, Miss McQueen?

Guys, wheelchair jokes aren’t suddenly okay just because the guy in the wheelchair is a misogynist asshole? WTF, show.

It’s also interesting in general that “slut” is so often used to describe Nicole Julian except the only canon relationship she’s ever been in was with Josh, if I don’t misremember? 


The episode also attempted to be about double standards but halfway through I lost interest. So Brookie accidentally sleeps over at Jamie’s, to way less comedic effect than Julie Taylor, adorably asks Sammy to cover for her which goes horrible wrong (since Mike’s detective skills are super honed), whereupon he grounds her for two weeks, an action that is condemned by Brooke, Sam and Jane, who is a very different kind of parent. There’s an argument thrown around about how Mike would treat a seventeen year old son differently that is probably valid, and in the end, he does invite Jamie over to dinner, but basically I am so massively disinterested in Jamie that I don’t care? Sam trying to cover for Brooke and being genuinely excited about her being happy was adorable though.

I another subplot that didn’t quite cut it, Harrison and Josh decide that being part of Emory’s “Staying Alive” club would look good on a college application (because colleges would think it would be about euthanasia, not John Travolta, and Asia is totally global, as Josh points out). The club is in danger of being cut by Emory’s girlfriend, April, but Harrison points out that Emory stepping back would remove this conflict of interest. They decide that Emory’s predecessor will be chosen via dance-off – which is boring until Lily decides to compete, except once the contest rolls around, Nicole’s president and gets to judge (while surrounded by her sexy Madonna background dancers). 

Jane: He may not be your father, Sam, but he is your parent.

This was quite lovely. I wish we’d have a chance to see more of that dynamic, but this was a really nice attempt to portray the difficult decision making processes in patchwork families. Mike grounded Sam for lying to them about Brooke’s whereabouts, and Jane pointed out to him that she would never make decisions like that about his daughter without consulting him. 

April: Wow, you are a veritable Dick Cheney!

Only in 2001. 

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