Sunday, 30 December 2012

Popular - If I don’t laugh, I’ll scream, you know?

Popular: 2x16 Fag.

I don’t know why “It Gets Better” keeps sneaking into these reviews. When I first started these reviews, I had something different in mind from what they actually turned into: I wanted to reference Skins and compare Popular with MSCL, a show that is so radically different aesthetically and still often touches on similar issues (and even also uses magical realism in a key episode). Somehow, this part of the reviews never worked, so I stopped trying to reference other shows. But here’s a fact about MSCL: in 1994, years before Popular ever aired its first episode, MSCL had an openly gay main character. A couple of years later, Popular has one minor gay character who hasn’t appeared in months (Harrison’s mum) and needs to introduce a random new character that hasn’t been seen before (not that I’m not always glad to see someone I recognize from Jamie Babbit’s own But I’m A Cheerleader) for its homophobia-themed Fag. There are things that I genuinely love about this episode: the conclusion that completely avoids the clichéd above mentioned recently widely marketed lie and delivers are blow to everyone who expects a bittersweet moral of the story, a light at the end of the tunnel. The fact that it doesn’t hesitate to call out Lily, the character that sort of leads us through what’s happening, on her faults (assuming that someone is gay based on appearance, taking part in mocking Bobbi Glass, that ever-lasting backdrop of the show that was never before explicitly debated in terms of it being discriminating and hurtful). I think it also does a really good job of portraying different behaviours that lead to a climate of fear – it’s not just the open violence, the actual blows delivered, the bullying in the hallways, it’s also the mindless, seemingly harmless way Josh and Sugar act in front of the new kid, it’s Bobbi Glass’ unwillingness to make her class a safe space (her main argument being that there are no gay kids in her class – the ultimate achievement of institutionalized homophobia, creating a climate of fear that makes it impossible to be out and thereby erasing the possibility of anyone coming forward to claim their rights). 

But on the less bright side, there’s a scene where all of our favourite characters come together in a class that is meant to host a Gay&Straight Alliance, except that issues actual LGBT people face never come up because they are notably absence, so instead everyone speaks about other types of discrimination and ignorance they’ve encountered in their lives. Which is totally what would happen, but it’s also incredibly depressing, because as valid as an episode about different kinds of discriminating and ostracising behaviours is, there are also specific kinds of issues that only apply to gay kids, and by failing to create an environment where they’d feel safe (which is an institutional failure, but the episode presents this as some kind of insight, that everyone is faced with a different face of the same thing, when this actually just deletes all the specifics that are important to devise strategies and understand the issues) and would be able to contribute to the debate. There’s a really important difference between talking with someone and talking for them, and I’m not entirely convinced that this episode of Popular really understands that this is a problem, because the montage of problems being solved (getting racist store assistants fired, world saved!) seems kind of silly in the face of the real world (and more immediate, things happening in the episode). I’ve always felt like Popular was way less naïve (even though it’s the same kind of naivety that Lily has, the kind bred by idealism) when the episodes weren’t so focused on one specific issue facing society today – which is weird, because in many other things, the episode isn’t naïve at all. 
I guess what I’m saying is that I really appreciate the effort, and there are moments in this episode that will stick with me forever, but I can’t shake the feeling that Popular has the tools to do better, and this is also a missed opportunity. 

What happens in this episode: Lily realizes the constant background radiation of homophobia in McKinley  Kennedy (whoops) when she observes how Brian Rose, a new student she assumes is gay, is treated on his first day. She is particularly outraged about Bobbi Glass’ failure to call out Josh and Sugar on using a mocking voice and homophobic slurs in class, a behaviour she justifies by arguing that nobody in her class is gay, and that being different in any way is bad for society.
Bobbi: The homogenization process also mirrors our culture. The more things are alike, the better they work together and the longer they last.
Lily: That doesn’t take into account individual differences, Sir.
Lily decides to fight the system by forming a gay and lesbian student support club and tries recruiting all of her friends, except Carmen is hesitant because “there’s a lot of controversy around these gay groups” (an argument that comes up often: how much are you willing to risk if there is actual physical violence to be feared?), and Sam needs to go shopping with her boyfriend and have her eyes opened about gross people still having issues with interracial dating (this is a lie, by the way: Sam would have gone out of her way to be part of Lily’s project). Harrison’s totally on board with it because he feels terrible about never doing anything whenever he overheard homophobic slurs in the locker room. 
Lily: All we’re supporting is the right to love, the right to find a job without being discriminated against, the right to live without the fear of violence. That’s not a gay agenda, Miss Glass, it’s a human agenda.
Another thing that I genuinely like about this episode: Lily isn’t exactly fighting against homophobia itself. There is an absolutely terrifyingly realistic scene when she and Bobbi Glass get attacked by a group of men and end up in the hospital after vising an LGBT centre, but the main struggle Lily is facing is against Bobbi Glass’ argument, and Josh’s argument, that the fight is too dangerous, that the stakes are too high, that there is too much risk, that she should stop. The stakes are high because only a couple of minutes into the episode, Bobbi Glass mentions Matthew Shepard (who was brutally murdered in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming – and if you haven’t already, I sincerely recommend watching The Laramie Project about the climate that led to his death). Lily struggles against the idea that the fight isn’t worth fighting because it’s not really about her, personally (Lily is happy with her boyfriend, after all), that it won’t change a thing and only hurt her and the people she loves. 
But there’s also the fact that Brian Rose, the new kid, is solely there to portray the horrible effects of internalized homophobia, and it’s not really Popular’s fault per se, because the main reason why this bothers me is things that happened later. I hate this idea that every single bully who focuses on people he assumes are gay is gay himself. It’s stale, the idea that gay people lashing out to protect their safe place in the closet is such a major part of the problem that they need to be featured in every single special interest episode. Brian Rose spraypaints “Fag” across Lily’s locker. Bobbi Glass does everything in her power to make it impossible for Lily’s club to succeed. The solution: peacefully cleaning the locker together to remove the word Brian totally hates, agreeing to escape the limitations of high school and have the club (that will surely never be mentioned again) meet at Brian’s house. Having a sincere conversation with Bobbi Glass about fear, an apology for calling her “Sir” and contributing to the very atmosphere of fear Lily intends to battle. Offering Bobbi a chance to talk openly about her feelings. 
Lily: Miss Glass, I know that you pride yourself on being a private person but if you ever wanna talk about anything relating to this, you have my complete confidence.
Bobbi: I can’t talk about this with you.
Lily: You can’t talk about it because you’re afraid of getting fired, right? Or maybe because you’re scared someone will scrawl something about you across your blackboard, something mean and hateful like what’s on my locker? Well, anyway. Keep on trucking. Miss Glass.
Bobbi: It’s pathetic, isn’t it, Esposito, that even at my age I don’t know what I am other than a teacher of chemistry. I know there’s more to me. I just think I’ve buried things so deep… so okay. You’ve got me. I admit, I maybe have questions.
Lily: Well, then we need to get you more information.
It’s a great moment, because finally Lily’s project is helping the designated demographic. This is what the club was meant to be about, even though Bobbi isn’t a student. She does her best, but just when things are starting to look better, they both get beaten up by a group of men specifically for walking out of an LGBT centre. I love that Lily later explains to Josh that she wasn’t really afraid, but “shocked and angry”, mainly. 
Josh: You are the bravest person I know. Were you afraid?
Lily: At first, yeah. But when I got hit I was just so shocked and then I got angry. This is the first time I’ve really risked something for what I believe in.
Josh: Maybe risking a little too much here.
Lily: It’s too dangerous not to take that risk, Josh. That’s what they want, don’t you see? If sticks don’t work then some of these haters will start using stones. They want to keep their world homogenised and I don’t wanna live in that world.
I love that this horrible experience isn’t used for a sweet resolution where everyone feels a little stronger and a little better because of all the things they learned – Bobbi doesn’t feel stronger, or more equipped to handle her own situation. She’s terrified. She’s too terrified to continue and help Lily. 
Lily: This isn’t funny.
Bobbi: Yeah, but if I don’t laugh, I’ll scream, you know?
Lily: I have some great ideas for the next club meeting.
Bobbi: I won’t be sponsoring the club, Lily.
Lily: I don’t understand.
Bobbi: That’s probably because you’re seventeen, and wonderful, and idealistic, and not forty. You should know this whole thing has changed me. And I have you to thank for that, but the world hasn’t changed enough to have the changed me in it, and I’m afraid, I’m afraid of all the hatred out there waiting for me, stepping out of the homogenized mix is too risky for me. I could lose my job. I could lose the next fight. Now I know you’re probably thinking what a chicken I am, and maybe I am, and maybe tomorrow I’ll wake up and find the courage to fight these battles, but not today, Lily. Not today.
It’s incredibly honest of the show to point out that not everybody is a selfless hero, that the choice between idealism and realism is the hardest to make, that a system that provides no security for people who are openly gay inevitably leads to closeted, unhappy individuals who are doomed to feel out of place. And as much as Lily is sometimes wrong in the episode (and the episode acknowledges some of the things she is wrong about, even though it attempts to minimize it in comparison to what Brian did to her), she is so fucking right at the end. 
Brian: People are scared of stuff they don’t understand, fear of anything different, like being gay.
Lily: Brian, it was wrong of me to ask you this personal question the other day.
Brian: And I was wrong for writing this ugly word on your locker. I’m sorry.
Lily: Why would you do that?
Brian: I just wanted the teasing, and the jokes, and feeling like an outcast to stop. I just wanted to feel like being on the right side for once, to belong, you know. I just wanted the pain to stop. And I’m guessing it’s not going to.
Lily: I’d love to argue with you, but it probably won’t. There are people who will reject you because of who you are and there are people who won’t. And I guess the only way through it is not to face it alone, and nobody has to, not anymore. There are groups, and there is the internet.
“It” doesn’t get better. This is such a cynical message to give to kids who are stuck in impossible situations: just hold on for a bit, when the truth is that not everybody has the resources to escape these little towns and communities, that not everybody escapes, and the issue is that this escape is necessary in the first place. The other side of “it gets better” is that somehow, there is no place for a more activist approach to the issue that acknowledges the incredibly wrongness of places being so hostile and alienating for some of the people inhabiting them. It’s depressing, but that last paragraph is still true now, more than ten years later. 

Random notes:

Too much concerned music in the episode, or at least the first time that I really noticed it? It’s a very Nineties-Early Noughties thing too. 

Nicole Julian’s personal interpretation of homogenization: “So what you are saying is that raw milk is like our culture; the cream always rises to the top.” I don’t know, I can’t help the feeling that this episode would have been way better if it had had more Nicole in it. 

Bobbi: Go crochet a heart to wear on your sleeve. 

Sometimes the show is just so ON POINT, I don’t know. What a perfect sentence to be hauled at Lily Esposito. 

One thing this episode does really well is show all the tiny gross things people do: Josh immediately starts saying he’s straight a lot and whenever he’s given the opportunity, Lily can’t help but really point out that she is very happy with her boyfriend after “experimenting in her head” last year and pushes Brian to admit that he’s “even remotely bi-curious” (Lily is always the best but sometimes she is also the worst). 

Brooke gets tracked down by Jamie, the guy she met at the rapey frat party (which is remotely creepy, no?), and to fit the theme of the episode, he tells her about not being allowed into a fraternity because he’s Jewish. He’s also the kind of hipster who takes a girl to a bar and then moans about everyone there not being alternative enough (ALTERNATIVE TO WHAT??), predicting the beautiful life cycle of hipsters whining about Yuppies and Yuppies immediately commodifying everything hipsters love because they can never shut up about it). 

“Everyone finds their own way and their own path in their own time.” I don’t know, I just don’t know. 

Brooke, to Jamie: I’ve been sort of hiding who I was to fit in and this year I’ve decided that I wasn’t interested in playing that game anymore. 

“There was also a lot of corduroy going on in there which I enjoyed.” 

Sometimes Bobbi totally reminds me of Ron Swanson and it’s the weirdest fucking thing. She could be his older sister?  


Julipy said...

"I can’t shake the feeling that Popular has the tools to do better, and this is also a missed opportunity."

I remember thinking the same after watching this episode last summer. First of all, I think I hadn't watched it ever before and I was a little bit shocked. It impressed me how the show dealed so directly with the topic. But then...the approach was kind of superfluous. As you said it could have been better.

(Or worse... you just have to watch Glee and see how melodramatic these things can get)

And you have a point. It would have been interesting to add Nicole Julian to the mix. Even Mary Cherry... (I can't help it, I would make a whole tv series for her)

"I love that this horrible experience isn’t used for a sweet resolution where everyone feels a little stronger and a little better because of all the things they learned"

I love it too. But not because I considerer it more realistic. I "liked" this ending because it wasn't a cliché.

And for the first time I have to disagree with you.

"“It” doesn’t get better. This is such a cynical message to give to kids who are stuck in impossible situations"

It's horrible to think that. But the truth is... I understand your point but I don't want to agree. You can't let the pessimism win. You can't just accept that there are situations in which you can't do anything. There must be hope in a better future. If not, people would stop fighting for these causes. Agh... I hate to deal with serious topics when I'm not speaking spanish. I can't write good arguments. I quit!

(And, once again, great review!)

(And also... Ron Swanson! I've recently started to watch Parks & Recration! :D)

cathy leaves said...

You make we wish I spoke Spanish!

I actually agree with you, I do like the ending because it isn't a cliché. I was definitely expecting a different ending, and very likely because we've seen it all before so many times.

And I should have explained my issues with "It Gets Better" in more detail, I realize now. I'd argue that it's not pessimism necessarily. To me it seems incredibly accommodating somehow to conservatives to say that things will change over time (that attitudes will change over time, that systematic discrimination will grow less severe) and as you grow older, you'll be able to make choices to be in a better situation (move away, meet different people. I'm not saying that this isn't happening - of course there's progress, institutions become more inclusive etc - but there's still the fact that up to 40 percent of homeless youth in the US are LGBT? And kids are still bullied and beaten to death for being gay. I'm not a proponent of violence but as necessary as a message of hope might be, what I profoundly miss is an expression of how utterly unbelievably terrible and unfair and angering these conditions are. And maybe I am cynical, but it feels to me like It Gets Better (the campaign itself - the videos) is deliberately designed to be as inoffensive and non-threatening as possible to attract celebrities, which is a valid choice but also miles away from what I'd imagine would have helped me if I hadn't been as fortunate in my surroundings. Does that make any sense?

I'm going to miss writing about the show, and reading your comments! Plus these last two episodes were such a weird way of ending the story...

Julipy said...

Gah! I'd love to get into detail but my lack of vocabulary is starting to threaten my patience, hahaha. But I definetly see your point.

Also... If ten years ago someone had told me that I would be discussing these kind of topics with an austrian girl BECAUSE OF POPULAR...

God bless you, internet.

cathy leaves said...

The internet ♥