The Great Relief of The Good Place

Like Eleanor Shellstrop on The Good Place, I am a medium person. I’ve made someone dinner, but I’ve also eaten the last piece of cake without asking if anyone wanted more. I volunteered at an animal shelter, but I’ve also pretended not to see the cat vomit on the floor so I don’t have to clean it up. Eleanor, played equally caustic and sweet by Kristen Bell, continued to buy coffee from a shop whose manager is a sexual harasser. Her job was selling fake vitamins to the elderly as part of a scam. She was selfish, she lied, and she refused to be the designated driver for her office happy hours. She is also someone who has gotten complacent and taken advantage of her privilege without considering she has it. I’ve done this, too. (2017 reminded me every day I have done that.)

Before 2017, to me, a financially stable thin straight white woman, the world felt like it was on the up and up. It was believable to me that the U.S. was heading toward not quite paradise, but some place better than where it was before. My president was black, my nominee female. I believed the lies around me telling me the world was good.

But if I was honest with myself and if I paid attention to the small things that weren’t quite right, I would have realized that perfect world was false. Like Eleanor, I should have realized it sooner, and it was so obvious once I saw it, I could never go back. In this way, The Good Place became the perfect mirror of 2017 while providing the perfect relief from it.

The gist of The Good Place is this: Eleanor Shellstrop dies and meets a person in charge of the afterlife who tells her there is a Good Place and a Bad Place, and she has made it to the Good. But as Eleanor goes about her welcome tour, she realizes she’s been mixed up with another, better Eleanor Shellstrop. They have the same name but different lives. Good Eleanor was good, and this Eleanor was medium at best. In the Good Place, everyone is paired with a soul mate, and Eleanor is matched with the anxious but ethical Chidi (William Jackson Harper). She’s neighbors with the beautiful Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and her soul mate, a monk named Jianyu (Manny Jacinto). (Jianyu is actually another mix-up. His real name is Jason, and he’s from Florida, which is an automatic disqualification from the Good Place.) As Eleanor deals with increasingly complicated and disastrous situations to keep her (and Jason’s) secret from being discovered, she realizes that a place where you lie, cheat, and hurt people is hardly a good place at all: It’s actually hell. Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason are all in the Bad Place. Their tortured interactions with each other were actual torture. When she figures this out, Michael (Ted Danson), the demon architect of this afterlife experiment, erases their memory and sets up the fake Good Place to try to torture them again.

It’s a perfect twist. Once Eleanor discovers the truth, it feels so obvious. In the very first episode, Eleanor makes an offhand comment that bringing terrible people together would be torture. She was talking about her family, but the idea that people can torture each other is laid out in the pilot. There are other clues they are in the Bad Place—the abundance of frozen yogurt instead of ice cream, the pictures of clowns in Eleanor’s house, and the fact that no TVs get NFL RedZone. The truth was there the whole time, just like every horrible thing 2017 has brought into the mainstream. Eleanor’s discovery mirrors my own. Ignoring those seemingly small wrongs was to ignore what the world actually was, like a too-tight new shoe you tell yourself isn’t a big deal. Ten miles later, it hurts like hell. 2017 is that gaping, open blister.

This year watching and reading anything became difficult for me. I was diagnosed with anxiety for the first time, though I’ve experienced those symptoms before without knowing what they were. (2017 was a year of digging up unpleasant truths that have always been there and naming them. My president is a sexual predator, my government corrupt.) I stopped reading books I loved because even loving them felt like it took too much emotional energy. I wanted something easier, something less emotionally taxing. The Good Place filled that gap. It’s funny. It’s so forking funny I could shirt myself. Every week I looked forward to a new episode, and as soon as it was over I mourned for the week ahead without one. It was a gentle respite from the actual hell that was playing out on the news.

You can’t swear in the Good Place, not even the fake Good Place where Eleanor lives. Bell’s line reading of “Holy motherforking shirtballs” when she figures out the truth is something that would play over and over again in my actual Good Place. The way these nonsense words roll off her tongue make it seem believable that she’s actually swearing. Michael’s evil giggle when Eleanor figures out his trick should be exhibit No. 1 in the evil villain’s handbook. The cheerful yet deadpan Janet (D’Arcy Carden)—a kind of digital assistant, a physical form of Amazon’s Alexa—pairs good humor with sharp truth telling as she states the obvious to those who ask her for help. In one scene, Eleanor claims she’s not that selfish of a person as Janet smiles and delivers the cocaine and getaway train Eleanor asked for. The Good Place tells the truth while laughing at it, which is generally the easiest way to get people to listen.

The Good Place’s throwaway lines are funnier than most of what’s on TV because they bring to light small, ridiculous injustices of a privileged life. When Michael is redesigning the experiment to try to torture his subjects yet again, he makes all the coffee from “those little pods.” In one version of his Good Place, there are fountains of clam chowder. In another, the unlimited pizza available to its residents is Hawaiian. His carefully crafted torture machine is death by a thousand tickles.

The great gift of The Good Place isn’t just the jokes or the relief from seeing someone else realize their world is also permanently forked. It’s also excellent, surprising storytelling. The end of Season One provided the best twist of the year. And then Season Two took that twist and made it into a delicious treat—a cinnamon sugar pretzel of TV plots. When Season Two started, I had prepared myself for an entire season of the show repeating some of the tricks of Season One, a slow burn where Eleanor once again got to know her fellow tortured humans and realized they were in hell. Instead, the show had her find Chidi in the first episode of the season. By the end of that episode, she figured out the truth once more. Instead of building to a season finale where Michael realized they knew the truth and erased their memories again, he reset their memories over and over immediately. In a terrific montage full of clever jokes and puns that rewards the viewer the more times they watch it, Michael resets his version of the Good Place over 800 times in just the second episode of the season. Instead of taking an entire season for round two, it takes part of one episode to get to round 802.  (That montage feels like watching one day of news in 2017 unfold in real time.)

By the end of episode two, one of Michael’s henchmen tries to blackmail him, saying she’ll tell Michael’s boss, who thinks he’s still on try no. 2, that he’s actually failed hundreds of times. To keep him from being forced into retirement (where the atoms that make up his being would be divided and then placed on separate suns), Michael offers to team up with Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason. He promises he won’t erase their memory anymore if they help him pretend this last effort of torture is working. In return, he will try to help them all get into the real Good Place. The humans accept his offer—what else can they do—but on one condition: Michael takes the same ethics classes they have all been taking with Chidi, who was an ethics professor when he was alive.

With this deft slight of hand, The Good Place morphed from a show about tricking people in increasingly clever ways into a show about what it means to be good. (I hope America will follow that same pattern.) Eleanor and the others hope that learning to be good will help them get into the real Good Place. Under Chidi’s guidance, they study different philosophers and hypothetical ethics problems to try to make themselves into people who actually deserve to go to heaven.

This belief that I can make myself into a good person gave me hope in the hellscape of 2017. Eleanor and I share the same story of another silly girl too self-involved to be an active citizen. Like Eleanor, I could use a roadmap to find my way out of selfish complacency. I could use the belief that I can get better, and that by doing so I can make the world better. On The Good Place, people found hope literally in hell. And I’m forking grateful they showed me how.

The colors of White Christmas

The opening of White Christmas is like a gray winter’s day. It’s nighttime on a battlefield, and an army unit is celebrating Christmas and the impending reassignment of a general. The men are all wearing dusty green uniforms, and they are so quiet you could hear a snowflake land. Their eyes are focused on a makeshift stage, where Bing Crosby starts to sing one of the most popular Christmas songs in the world. This is when, no matter how many times I’ve seen the movie, I start to cry. Bing Crosby’s voice is just too beautiful, the love he shows these men too sincere for my bruised heart to take.

There are no bright colors on this battlefield, and the only Christmas tree in sight could rival Charlie Brown’s. There is no light except for bombs falling—at first far away, and then close enough to cause destruction that ends the small respite Christmas had provided from the horrors of war.

It’s in this chaos where the friendship of leading men Phil and Bob is solidified. When the bombs cause a wall to fall toward Captain Bob Wallace (played by Crosby), well-meaning goofball Private Phil Davis (played by Danny Kaye) pushes Bob out of the way, injuring himself in the process. In return for saving Bob’s life, Phil asks to be a part of Bob’s show when the war is over. Phil plays up his injury, preying on Bob’s guilt and good nature until Bob relents. With their handshake, the world of the film transitions from a gray winter’s day to the colorful, perfect world of a snow globe.

My favorite part of Christmas is the decorations. Every year I decorate a Christmas tree, loading it up with the most colorful ornaments I can find. I use the tackiest garland and the sparkliest tinsel to make the gaudiest Christmas tree possible. (Did you know that tinsel garland and strands of tinsel are different? Did you know that multiple colors of each can clash so hard it hurts your eyes?) I have some oversized ornaments so big they make my little Seussian tree lean over to one side. It’s loud and crowded and imperfect, just like me.

White Christmas is the opposite of my little Christmas tree. Where my tree is chaotic and overstuffed with clashing colors, White Christmas provides a beautiful, coordinated diorama of glamour. When I pull out this movie each year, I know exactly what I am getting: a perfect Christmas scene, with tiny beautiful figures frozen in time. All you need to do to is shake it up and add some snow.

The introduction of Bob and Phil to the Haynes sisters is the shakeup this world needs. Betty and Judy Haynes (played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, respectively) are another show business duo who sing and dance—just like Bob and Phil, only their act hasn’t quite taken off yet.

The song I constantly get stuck in my head, no matter what time of year it is, is the song the Haynes sisters sing at the nightclub where they meet Bob and Phil. I’ll be walking around my apartment mid-June and suddenly the line “Lord help the mister that comes between me and my sister” will pop into my head and I won’t be able to help bellowing the next line to our pet parakeet who sings along: “And lord help the sister who comes between me and my man!”

They both wear blue dresses, covered in lace, and carry large, feathered fans to use in their routine. While watching the Haynes sisters sing and dance to that song, Bob and Phil become as enraptured as I do. Their eyes are drawn to their true loves, and their fate is sealed from there. After helping the sisters get out of trouble at the club, Phil tricks Bob into following them to Vermont, where the sisters are booked for the holidays in what turns out to be an inn run by their former general. What follows are the adorable hijinks that I imagine all beautiful, talented people in show business fall into when they get together. They sing and dance to solve their problems, and mend hearts and minds with their creative souls.

Like a snow globe, this movie is a time capsule. Not just for the glamorized picture of 1950s show business, but also for my own idealized version of the holidays. When I watch this movie, I am transported back to a couch in my parent’s home, snuggled under blankets with my mom, who watched it with me every Christmas. Every time I think of White Christmas, I think of my mother. To me, she is as inextricable from the movie as Bing Crosby is to the song he sings so well.

This is not a sad story. My mom is alive and doing well; we talk all the time. When I asked her what she liked about this movie, she got so excited she started to stutter. She watched it with her family, she said, and her father sang the songs in his deep voice. Watching this movie around the holidays ties us all together, me to my mom, to her parents, like garland on a family tree. My mom’s dad died before I was born, and her mom died not long after. I don’t have Christmas memories of them, but I have a shared experience of something beautiful we all have watched. We were separated by time, but the movie never changes. I am seeing what they saw, singing the songs they sang, and allowing the colors and feelings of Christmas to wash over me in the same way.

And the colors in White Christmas are beautiful, indeed. The jewel tones of the costumes act like ornaments to the story. The yellows are not just yellow: they are mustard, they are goldenrod, they are citrine. The colors are a little too strong to be real; they take on a hypernatural, saturated tone. Just look at how blue Bing Crosby’s eyes are. Look at how red the velvet is, how luminous Rosemary Clooney looks in her black sequined gowns. I want to dive into those swirling colors and live where things are a bit too bright and a bit too beautiful to really exist.

After watching this movie for the thousandth time one winter—it was gray outside but bright and warm on my TV screen—I researched how they made White Christmas. It was one of the few movies shot in VistaVision, which the movie proudly displays on one of its opening screens. This film process was used by Paramount to create a wider screen, but it was quickly dropped for more technically advanced films that were less difficult to use and had a finer grain. In America, its popularity lasted less than 10 years. But the real star of White Christmas is Technicolor. The same process that made Dorothy’s world come to life in The Wizard of Oz, Technicolor is known for that look of oversaturation. It was often used for musicals, mirroring the exaggerated look of stage makeup to create a not-quite-realistic image that’s visible on the stage from far away. The colors in a movie made with Technicolor are visible from the back of the room—hell, they are so bright you could probably see them from the moon.

The combination of these two processes envelops the viewer in a wide, colorful world. It’s a little fuzzy around the edges, like a daydream, in a way that films made with new digital technology aren’t. One way isn’t better than another—I am not one to say that more advanced technology and more flexibility in which to create “ruins” filmmaking in any way. But White Christmas represents a sliver of time in the life of filmmaking. It is a preservation of a perfect marriage of filmmaking process and subject matter. It requires saturation and richness to live in this world where dancers tap dance on a whim and singers duet whenever they fancy. It requires the viewer to let go of realism and accept the exaggerated fashion of fantasy. It would lose its sheen under the scrutiny of high definition.

The writing and direction, though, hold up under a microscope. Like all fairy tales, it seems like a simple story at first. Chaste kisses stolen in front of a fire while drinking buttermilk and eating liverwurst sandwiches lead to love, which leads to misunderstanding, which leads to reconciliation. A tale as old as time. But not one line is wasted, and all of them are sharp.

On the first night they all meet at the club, Phil asks Judy to dance. They move from the dance floor in the club to outside near the water, where they use boats and a dock as a stage. The camera follows every dip and twist, the same way two new lovers will follow each other into their relationship. They’ve just met, but they step together keeping perfect time, gracefully dancing into love, rather than falling. Judy’s skirt flows around her like a cloud when she spins, emulating the dizzying feeling of a new crush. Their dance is more elaborate than any so far in the movie—Phil and Judy make each other better, more beautiful.

When they get interrupted because of a phone call from Betty and Judy’s troublesome landlord, Phil offers to help. “We like to take care of our friends,” he says. “We’re practically strangers,” Betty says. “Well, we’d like to take care of that, too,” he responds, their conversation flowing just as easily as all of their dance routines.

In one of my favorite scenes, the relationship of Bob and Phil is shown in the way they undress in their dressing room after a show. They are arguing, but while they fight Phil tosses his cane to Bob to put away, and Bob passes his hat to Phil to put in a suitcase. It’s a song a dance of a different kind, one that reveals their familiarity couldn’t be disrupted by something as silly as a disagreement. They’ve helped each other put away their clothes a million times, and have probably had this same argument a million times, too.

An argument with a close friend in real life would send me reeling, but in White Christmas, I know it will be resolved in two hours’ time. That’s why I turn to stories in the first place—they fix what I cannot, offering a perfected image I take comfort in, but that I couldn’t possibly live up to. In stories, arcs make sense, and tragedies have meaning. Colors in fictional worlds coordinate instead of clash. I sometimes worry that I hide too much in pretty pictures of false lives instead of facing my real problems. Instead of sand, I stick my head in books and movies.

My real Christmas with my lovable but fallible family will never match the beauty of a perfect Christmas image in a snow globe. But taking pleasure in small moments of beauty is no small thing—and making something beautiful can be momentous. Every single shot and dance step of White Christmas acts as a tiny Christmas light, adding up to a stunning whole that illuminates those I love in a rosier glow. My own Christmas decorations similarly act as a tangible representation of the love I feel for the world around the holidays. Sometimes the decorations are the point. After all, a Christmas tree with no ornaments would just be an ordinary pine.

The Invitation and navigating grief

the invitation

The opening scene of The Invitation is a perfect introduction to the movie. A man named Will and his girlfriend Kira are driving to a dinner party when they hit a coyote with their car. Will gets out of the car to check on it, and when he sees the coyote is beyond help, he kills it with a tire iron.

When they arrive at the dinner party, thrown by Will’s ex-wife and her new man, Kira tells the story of the coyote. The hosts agree: Will’s actions were a gift, he a benevolent god who showed mercy to an animal who wouldn’t have been able to survive.

But one man’s mercy is another man’s murder.

If the coyote had been healthy, if it were able to speak its will to live, if an emergency vet were on hand nearby, people may not be so quick to call Will’s actions merciful. But the coyote was going to die anyway. Will killed it because he believed he was sending the coyote to a better place—not heaven necessarily, but a state where the coyote couldn’t feel pain longer than it had to. Because of this, the quick finality of death was better than a slow and tortured life.

I had to make the same decision as Will when my cat got sick. A tumor in his throat, Cisco could no longer eat. Treatment options to extend his life would have only meant more frequent visits to the vet, which he hated, before the cancer would come back anyway. For Cisco, I decided that a quick death at home with me was better than a slow and painful life spent on cold metal tables with strangers.

But what happens when death comes quick to the young and healthy? Or to a person who voices the desire for more life? Or to a loved one you couldn’t bear to live without?

The Invitation is the story of people struggling with these questions, as everyone must struggle with them eventually. It began with Will and Kira and their encounter with the coyote. But The Invitation, like all of director Karyn Kusama’s movies, is about a woman.

Will’s ex-wife is named Eden, and she has found a paradise to help her deal with the death of her and Will’s young son a few years earlier. Her relief comes in the form of a cult, called the Invitation. According to the Invitation, negative emotions like pain, grief, and anger are chemical reactions in your brain that are not necessary for living. By accepting the Invitation, all of those emotions can disappear.

I don’t belong to any church, but I understand grief. After I saw The Invitation, I thought about my own small, recent tragedy. I let myself remember the feel of Cisco’s fur, the sound of his meow when he begged for ham from the refrigerator, the way he felt when I picked him up—not when I held his frail body at the end of his life, but when he was healthy and fat and heavy in my arms. And for a moment it felt real. And for a moment I felt happy, and at peace.

Of course, a cat is not a person. A pet cannot love you the same as a person can, it cannot talk back to you and tell you its desire to live or the peace it’s made with death. A cat is not a young boy who was killed in a freak accident at his fifth birthday party, like Will and Eden’s son. The death of a sick cat and a young boy are not equivalent. But grief has never been logical or fair, and depression has never been reasonable.

I fell into a depression after Cisco died and then slipped further when I felt guilty for allowing the death of a pet to hit me so hard. He was not a person. He was not a son I had wished for and raised and tried to protect. He was not a child who told me his plans for the future before that future was cruelly cut short.

But even so, the idea of being with him again was so complete and so real, it scared me. In the middle of my worst days, when I cried for no reason and every reason and hid my tears from the people who loved me, I could see myself wanting that relief. I could see why the promise of reuniting with someone you missed could be enough to make you believe in doing something awful.

The belief system in The Invitation claims that death is relief from pain, and that death will bring you together once more with those you love. After sending something I loved to death, I had to believe that, at least a little bit.

I’ve never let myself imagine Cisco as clearly again, maybe for the fear that I wouldn’t be able to stop. I am not in danger of wanting to die to see him in the afterlife, but I am in danger of remaining forever in that dreamlike state, in between living and remembering the loved ones I miss.

This is where The Invitation takes place—trapped between the present and the past. Eden still lives in the home she shared with Will, but she lives there now with her new partner, David. When Will enters the house for the first time in years, he can’t help but see visions of his past life, as if the ghost of his young son were a guest at the party. The scenes of his memories are hard to distinguish from the scenes of the dinner—they look the same, except the memories of his son and his happy life with Eden swim in a golden, brighter light.

When Eden comes into view for the first time, she floats down the stairs in a long white dress. It calls to mind not the mirth of a wedding gown, but the gravity of a burial shroud, as if she is preparing to be sacrificed. Though she seems calm and grounded at first, as Will spends more time with her, Eden’s unstableness begins to show. Will tries to navigate the woman he no longer recognizes, just as he tries to navigate the house he once lived in. It looks so familiar, but it’s not the same. Walls appear in rooms where he knew doors used to be. Similar to the effects of grief itself, Will can no longer find his way in the life he once knew.

The cult offers Eden and David a way to move forward from this state of limbo. They both used the Invitation to ease their debilitating grief: David had lost his wife, and Eden her son. They feel the Invitation saved their lives, and they use the dinner party to preach its teachings to their friends. When they evangelize their newfound faith, their friends turn skeptic—too polite to openly mock them, too familiar with their pain to fault them for finding a way to manage it.

Eden implores Will to join in her happiness, but he is stuck in misery. Will resents Eden for appearing to move on from the death of their son; his constant pain feels like a monument to the child he couldn’t save. Will’s discomfort with the woman who used to be his wife increases as the night goes on. Will notices bars on the windows that weren’t there before. He sees David lock the front door after a party guest comes inside. He starts to believe that Eden and David are hiding something, that their calm personas belie danger within. Will’s paranoia culminates in knocking glasses of wine out of his friends’ hands, convinced that Eden and David had poisoned them.

He was right. Every single glass that Eden handed to her friends contained a liquid that would kill them with a single sip.

Eden and David had planned the dinner party as a way to kill those they loved most, and then kill themselves. They meant everyone to die together, toasting to life one last time. But when Will interrupts the toast, they go after their friends with guns, knives, and whatever tools they have.

The brutal killings in The Invitation are terrible to watch. Kusama uses whispers and silence here where other directors would use tense music or screams. She does not glamorize death the way other horror movies do, by making each death a contest in increasing outrageousness. Instead, she slowly and carefully shows that victims feel pain and fear because they want to live. She focuses on faces of the people being hurt, and the camera lingers on Eden’s doubts when it doesn’t go to plan. The gravity of these deaths indicates that Kusama has felt the pain and grief of death, too.

The religion in The Invitation leads to disaster because it smothers that pain instead of helping someone through it. Acknowledging someone’s pain is to recognize their humanity; the Invitation instead treats humans like animals. Like the coyote, Eden and David see themselves and their friends as something to be put down instead of truly seen and understood.

The final scene of The Invitation highlights how pervasive this need for recognition is—or perhaps it shows how many of us are broken without it. After the rampage, the survivors leave the house and see a red lantern in the yard. The red light acts as an omen, a signal of the horror that happened within. As the sound rushes back to their ears, the friends hear sirens all around. When they finally look away from each other’s horror struck faces and into the hills of L.A., they see that red lanterns glitter the landscape, each one indicating another house where followers of the Invitation held their own violent dinner parties. The red lights are too numerous to count, sick stars in the night sky that form a constellation of destruction.

It should be hard to see why Eden and David turned murderous toward the ones they love most, but it’s not. They believed death would be a way to bring peace to their friends and save them from the pain they had experienced. It’s easy to see why they made that choice, and why they chose to believe in a religion that allowed them respite from the hell they’ve inhabited, even as it preached of death.

In beginning of the movie, Will chose death for something else, killing the coyote as a kindness. At the end, Will chooses life for himself by deciding to carry his grief with him as he moves forward. He doesn’t let go of or escape his pain, but he is able to make room in his heart for hope in spite of it. Like him, I have chosen faith in life over faith in death. But I can’t help but pray for grief to ebb, and to see those I love again.

What I learned from Ella Enchanted

Ella Enchanted

Ella Enchanted was my favorite book when I was 12, is my favorite book right now, and might be my favorite book forever. As a lover of fairy tales, balls, and evening gowns, every version of Cinderella was a treat, but this one felt like it was made just for me. Because in this version, the girl doesn’t need to be a princess, actually gets to know the prince, and then saves herself.

In the fairy tale land of Frell, there are giants, elves, princes and curses. Magic is real, and so are mean girls. Ella is under a curse to always be obedient, so she has to follow every order anyone gives her. Every “go to your room,” every “go jump in a lake,” everything. She meets a prince, because this is that kind of story, and they fall in love. But she knows that her curse would put the prince and her kingdom in danger, so she gives him up. Her mother dies, and she knows of grief and fear. It is that kind of story, too.

I revisited Ella Enchanted recently and wondered why I ever read any other book when everything I need to know was already in its pages.

This book is what taught me that men will always give you grief if you want to do something all on your own. In Ella’s case it’s when she runs away from finishing school and asks for directions to a giant’s wedding. Upon hearing she wants to walk her journey alone, sometimes at night, the shopkeeper laughs at her. In my imagination, he gives her what I’m sure is the same exact look the guy at work gave you yesterday when you said “No, actually, I’ve got this.” Ella continues her journey and doesn’t think about the shopkeeper again. I think about him often.

Later on, Ella meets a different kind of man. Her father loses all his money when he gets caught trying to swindle a client. To gain back some of their fortune, he decides to marry Ella to a rich old man. He orders her to eat drugged mushrooms (our fairy tale’s version of ecstasy, perhaps) to lower her guard and make her more “flirtatious.” When this skeezy old man, who ends up not being rich enough anyway, learns that Ella is only 15, he says “You have a loving heart. I see that. More woman than child.”

And that is when I learned that gross old men will always make excuses to justify preying on young women.

There are some good guys in Ella’s life too, but while reading her story I learned even the good guys can disappoint.

Prince Char is an undisputedly good guy. He doesn’t fall for evil stepsister Hattie’s shenanigans, and his faults are things like “loves his family too much.” But all it takes is Ella dumping him for him to conjure up names for her that certainly wouldn’t be allowed in polite, princely company. Names like minx, flirt, harpy, siren, enchantress, temptress, and monster. Char is a good guy, yes, but he is also the epitome of princely privilege. When Ella dines with him (this is a fairy tale, remember, so she doesn’t grab dinner with him, she dines with him), everyone in his company waited to eat until Char began eating. “It was so natural to him I doubted he noticed,” Ella thinks. That’s as good a definition of privilege as I have ever heard.

The lesson from Ella Enchanted that took me the longest to learn–that I am still learning–is the one that Ella also struggled with the most. Ella had to follow orders because she was cursed. I follow orders because I am a people pleaser and fixer in a world that teaches women to be people pleasers and fixers. Following the rules is how I made my way through life: I did my homework, I read the directions, I didn’t stay out past curfew.

Ella was my first fictional example of a woman who knew that following the rules wasn’t best for her. She followed orders, technically, because she had to, but she did everything she could to fight back. In my world, doing anything to make yourself more difficult was revolutionary. When her dancing instructor at finishing school told her to raise her feet higher, Ella raised her legs above her waist. When her stepsister told her to clean up a dustbunny, Ella picked it up and then shoved it in her sister’s face. She rebelled in any way she could, over, and over, and over. She was my first rule-breaking role model.

I have had other rule-breaking role models in real life, and they have been invaluable to me. When I see another woman decide she doesn’t have to wear what’s appropriate, or be nice when people are rude to her, or stop everything to answer an email, I get a little stronger, and saying no becomes a little easier. Ella had to learn how to say no to break her curse, but we both had learn how to say no to survive.

I extremely proud that I make my own money and pay all my bills. I work hard, and I’m good at what I do. I am a grown woman, and I can do whatever I what. But sometimes, still, I forget I can say no.

The other day, a complete stranger told me to do something I didn’t want to do to make his life easier. And I, a grown ass woman, said “Do I have to?”

Ella says the same thing, when she wants someone to reconsider their order, if they said something hastily or sarcastically. Ella had to obey. I do not.

I quickly gained my composure and remembered that this man I do not know has no power over me, but it was scary to realize how easily I slipped back into the dynamic of a man giving orders, and me following them.

In the year of Shonda saying yes, I kept the word “no” on my lips. Like many young women in a mostly male workplace, I was often taken for an assistant instead of a peer. Workplace dynamics are tricky anyway, and when you want to be seen as someone who is helpful, it is very easy to end up doing everyone else’s job and not your own. So I said no. No to small tasks that I knew I could do, and to big tasks I knew I couldn’t. Like bullies on a playground, eventually the boys I worked with stopped trying to push me around.

It’s time consuming, to say no. I have to weigh my options, who is asking, if I sound too aggressive, if I really want to do it, what will it look like if this email gets forwarded. Sometimes I thought I would crumble under the weight of saying no, but instead it built me up.

Now I say no, all the time, just for fun. I’m horrible at board games because I never follow the rules, I just make up my own. I don’t participate in karaoke. I don’t answer all my emails or texts. If I don’t like the way someone is speaking to me, I hang up the phone.

I recognize that, like Char, I have privilege that allows me to say no often without real threat to my life or livelihood. I hope that, unlike Char, I notice when others don’t.

Ella noticed. Ella noticed everything. She was kind, but not always nice. Ella broke the rules and broke some hearts. Ella married a prince and then refused to become a princess. In saying no to one happily ever after, she created her own. And that is what I am most grateful for learning.

Why I’m a fan of Star Wars’ Rey

rey and bb8

The complaints have started to come in. So far, I’ve heard the politics in Star Wars: The Force Awakens don’t make sense, Rey is too good to be believable, and that rehashing the story beats from the original films takes away the great experimentation of what people loved about the films in the first place.

First, it should be known that all Raes are exceptionally great at everything they do, so Rey’s skills were no surprise to me. She also lives on her own in a tough world and fights off a gang of men to save herself and BB8 before she even meets Han or Finn, so it’s clear she’s pretty good at fighting for her survival and thinking on her toes. Better than young Luke, even, who had a home and didn’t have to bargain for his food every day. (Luke is also a big whiney baby much of the time, but this isn’t about him.) If you need more convincing, Caroline Framke does a great job of laying out why Rey isn’t a Mary Sue.

As for the politics in the Force Awakens: I don’t care. I got the gist, and wondering about the details of a post-Empire government and why the Resistance is different than the Republic did not impede my enjoyment of this movie in any way. What threatened to derail it instead was being so prepared to be disappointed every time Rey got into a bind. Here it is, I thought. This is where she gets into trouble she can’t get out of, and Finn will need to rescue her.

But that never happened. Instead, she rescued herself and she rescued her friends. Instead, Rey not only fought, but she also survived and excelled.

What shocked me, looking back, is how ready I was for the let down of seeing another woman not get to be the hero. I was hoping for better but ultimately not surprised when Finn picked up the lightsaber. Of course, I thought. Here it is, here’s the part when Finn gets to fight with the lightsaber and Rey has to watch from the sidelines once again. I thought this even as my worst expectations had been disproved not yet an hour earlier when Rey talked herself out of imprisonment and fought back against Kylo Ren’s mindwashing all on her own.

For as predictable the Force Awakens may be, Rey saving herself surprised me. The movie played on the expectation that Rey would need rescuing a few times, and each time she didn’t need a man’s help I was shocked and delighted. Isn’t that the experimentation and subversion of expectations that people loved in the originals? To me, and to many other women watching, that element of surprise was there. If you didn’t see it, maybe it’s because you are not used to bracing yourself to watch women get shunted to the side.

What kills me is how even as I wanted Rey to be the lead in this movie and get to do heroic things, I didn’t truly believe it would happen, not deep down in my bones. I’ve seen popcorn movies before; I know how it goes. Rey gets to be charming and beautiful, but when it came down to it, she wouldn’t be able to come through when it really mattered without a man helping her out. And, honestly, I still would have loved it even then because Rey, Finn, and Poe are so charming and loving, and it was so good to see Han and Chewie again, and because I am so used to the disappointment of not seeing a woman save the day that it hardly would have registered.

That’s the saddest part. Women have been denied being the star and seeing female-specific stories for so long, we’ve become used to it.

I didn’t know I was missing this: This is the refrain I’ve seen from women again and again lately. Rachel Syme said it in her wonderful essay on women making culture:

“And this flash of recognition immediately made me sad: How moving it is to feel like you can meld with the screen, how deeply this mirroring affects you and changes the way you feel for long hours. I realize how rarely I feel this way, the way that men must feel all the time.”

And Jessica Ritchey said it in her great piece on Rey:

“This wasn’t just going to be the story about how Finn and Poe become great heroes, with Rey helping out and minding her place. This was also going to be the story about how Rey becomes a great and powerful Jedi.

I didn’t know how badly I needed to see that story.”

I said it myself in a recent Tinyletter:

“I didn’t know I was missing women-specific stories until I got a taste. I had always felt fulfilled with the stories I’d been given until I uncovered the giant hole that had always been there. Now my thirst cannot be quenched.”

I didn’t know that connecting with a character could feel like this because it’s never happened to me. Never before have I seen a girl who shares my name save anyone. Never before did I know what it felt like to see myself as the lead of a franchise like Star Wars.

I didn’t know, but now I do. It’s been an awakening indeed.

The backlash against Rey isn’t surprising. To survive in a man’s world, sexism mandates that women need to be better than the men. But when Rey has the skills, they change the rules and say she’s too perfect, that she got too good too quickly.

To demand perfection in stories by and about women is, as Admiral Ackbar would say, a trap. When a work doesn’t meet that invisible mark, people who don’t take women’s stories seriously use any flaw they can find to easily dismiss it. But perfect female characters will never exist. Women are complex and varied, and no one story or one character will ever be everything that every person needs–especially if you want your women quiet and compliant.

It’s a familiar pattern now. Book or movie contains a woman lead and some female-driven plotlines like a love triangle or motherhood, book or movie becomes a hit on the back of female fans, book or movie is picked apart and ridiculed endlessly. (The original Star Wars included a love triangle that no one seems to mind even though two of the spokes are siblings, but this isn’t about that either.)

If culture is serious about including women, it can’t dismiss everything that isn’t an ideal example of a woman. (And who gets to decide on the ideal portrayal of a woman? As Rachel Syme pointed out, it’s certainly not women who are making this culture in the first place.)

Rey may be flawed, or not flawed enough, but to me she is perfect.

Twin Peaks pilot sets the tone (Twin Peaks review, s01e01)

twin peaks opening scene

Take a deep breath and think of a nice calm river in the mountains, of machines softly whirring as they do their job exactly as they should, and of evergreen trees so big and full it looks like Christmas. Welcome to Twin Peaks, manufacturer of American dreams.

These images are the soothing pictures that open the show, only they don’t stay peaceful for long. Twin Peaks immediately introduces conflict before a scene even starts by the colors it uses in its opening credits. The words that flash across the screen, interrupting your view of a mountain range and river, are outlined in a neon green that clashes with the leafy forest greens. These outlined letters may as well be a flashing neon sign that says “turn back now.”

When the first scene begins, a beautiful woman in red lips looks at herself in the mirror as she gets ready in the morning. A white-haired man in red plaid gets ready to go fishing and touches his wife’s cheek before he leaves the house. On the edge of the picturesque setting where he sets off with his fishing pole is a bundle of white plastic. That pile of trash sticks out as much to this man as the neon green words in the title cards do to the viewer.

These visual cues add tension to Twin Peaks before any plot twist could. It’s signals like these that make it clear this isn’t going to be a carefree comedy, it’s going to be tense, weird, and full of contradictions.

After this man in the red coat sees that strange object on the shoreline, he drops his fishing gear and carefully walks toward it. The camera view shifts to his point of view as he rounds the corner and sees that the bundle of plastic is actually covering a dead body. This camera angle is markedly different from what has come before and makes it so the viewer isn’t just watching a character find a body, the viewer is actually the one who sees it first. Not only that, it zooms in—as if you lean in for a closer look.

By shifting to this point of view, Twin Peaks makes you feel like you are a part of this town and a part of this mystery. After all, you couldn’t walk away from finding a dead body, could you?

The camera only employs this point of view shot when it has to do with Laura Palmer, the murdered teenager who fuels the plot of the entire show. It makes her the center of your screen and the center of your mind.

When the sheriff comes to find the body he takes a long look—and the camera again shifts to a first person point of view. Everyone’s coats are buttoned up to their necks, including the two glamorous women looking on at the scene in oversized wool and fur coats. Everyone’s jackets are buttoned up because it’s cold, sure, but also because they are covering up things they hope stay hidden.

After Sheriff Harry S. Truman and Pete discover that the body is Laura Palmer, the show cuts to a woman calling for Laura. You already know that she won’t find her, so watching this woman walk through an empty house is painful and desperate. The camera shoots her from below as she runs up the stairs and across an empty floor, playing upon the horror of knowing what’s going to happen and not being able to look away. The angles formed by the staircase and banisters are crossing dynamically, creating more tension in the screen. For a moment, Laura’s mother walks off the screen entirely and the camera stays still on the empty house, echoing the silence she’s hearing in response to calling Laura’s name. As her mother enters Laura’s room, the camera again shifts to her point of view—because she’s looking for Laura—and pauses on an empty bed. Laura’s bed hasn’t been made—it’s as if she just got out of it. The bedspread has soft pink flowers that seem feminine and innocent. The romantic bedspread doesn’t match up with the image of a murdered girl wrapped up in hard, shiny plastic instead of soft cotton sheets.

Twin Peaks uses visual cues and contrasts like this throughout its run, and it’s what makes the show so rich and full of depth. Camera angles alone can elevate a scene so that the horror becomes almost unbearable to watch. When Laura’s mother, Sarah, can’t find Laura at home, she calls everyone she can think of to try to find where she is. She’s on the phone with her husband, Leland, when the sheriff comes to his work to tell him what happened to his daughter. A close up on Leland makes the pain in his face loom large. The camera zooms in on tragedy and isn’t afraid to look away. It filled the frame when Laura is found dead on the shore, when Leland finds out his daughter is dead, and again now when Laura’s mother starts screaming in pain as she overhears the news on the phone. A slow pan down the telephone cord that Leland drops reveals a hanging phone and Laura’s mother’s screams coming through the receiver loud and clear after Leland has walked away and there is no one on the other end to hear her.

It’s not just horror the show pulls off so well. One of my favorite jokes in the premier is when Audrey is introduced. The soundtrack plays a jaunty tune, and the camera pans down on a young girl in a soft pink sweater, plaid skirt, and saddle shoes walking to a chauffeured car. The camera takes a long pause on her shoes—which Audrey immediately changes when she gets to school. She throws those saddlebacks into her locker and replaces them with red pumps. Red heels belong to a troublemaking woman, not a teenage schoolgirl. Behind her locker, Laura’s best friends James and Donna talk about their day. Behind them, another student literally dances away from his locker, and behind him, a few cops walk into the school to investigate Laura’s death. Playfulness on Twin Peaks can only be paired with tragedy.

In another scene, Agent Dale Cooper and Sheriff Truman are in the morgue. They are in a windowless room standing over Laura’s body. The lights are flickering, as they so often do to set the tone in horror movies. “I have to apologize again for the fluorescent lights,” the medical examiner says. “I think it’s a bad transformer.”

Forget dreams, Twin Peaks is selling jokes mixed with waking nightmares.

Plot and characters can’t tell stories as rich as this on their own. In Twin Peaks, the set, camera, costumes, and editing all contribute to make a story that changed the way TV felt and looked, and the pilot managed to set the tone and build a world right away, with just a few key images.

To Do Lists of the Semi-Adult podcast: Episode 18

to do lists of the semi-adult

After some bananas technical difficulties I am finally able to post our newest podcast, even though it’s been out on iTunes, the podcast feed, etc., since last week, so you may have already seen it there.

Jewels and I love TV. Watching it, of course, but also talking about it, which is what this episode of the To Do Lists of the Semi-Adult is all about.

One of our favorite shows is Breaking Bad, even though it got so literally dark it became hard to see sometimes. We tried watching The Wire together in college and had to rewatch the first five episodes 100 times because we couldn’t tell what was going on. Years later I finished the series and liked it a lot, but man was it hard for me to get into.

A show I love is The Good Wife, mostly because I ship literally everyone on it with Alicia. (You can see more of why my fave new sport is shipping, here.) We both have watched and loved Grey’s Anatomy, and one of Jewel’s favorites shows is West Wing.

We grew up on Friends, and to me it is like comfort food–it’s so easy to jump back into when you need a fix. Though recently I saw a rerun of when Monica was with Richard, and I’m feeling like maybe she should have ended up with him instead of Chandler. Another comedy we both love is The Office, of course.

Twin Peaks is another favorite of mine (and it’s coming back to TV on Showtime!), and one of the reasons I love it so much is because it’s so artistic and visually different from anything else out there. That’s another reason I love Hannibal, which I’m reviewing this season for Just About Write, where I also talked about the gorgeous sets. I’m also reviewing Orange is the New Black, which we didn’t talk about, but it’s still really great!

In the lightning round, Jewels recently made this one-pot pasta dish, and I talk about the herbs we are growing in our apartment. If you have any herb-growing tips, let me know! Have a listen and let us know what your favorite shows are!

You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or by using our feed link. You can also always find them on my Podcast page. You can find me right here at Rae’s Days, on Instagram, and on Twitter. Jewels is at Oven Lovin, on Instagram, and on Twitter.

To get more thoughts on things I’m reading/watching/loving, subscribe below to my newsletter, which will go out later today.

powered by TinyLetter

reality mondays

I have been getting VERY into the Bachelor/Bachelorette, and I’m afraid there’s no turning back. I am so interested in what the show says about romance and gender roles, and I really feel for the people on the show–most of them, anyway. So when I saw a commercial for LIfetime’s new drama UnReal, a scripted show about the making of a reality dating show based on the Bachelor, I was hooked before the preview even finished. Lucky for me and you and everyone, UnReal airs right after the Bachelorette on Monday nights. So for three hours on Monday, I am in dramatic reality/really dramatic TV heaven.

Not only is it entertaining, it’s educational! Between the two shows I can finally piece together how real reality shows get made. Maybe. Probably.

So here’s what I learned this week:

the producers are right behind you
Both the Bachelorette and UnReal started with a breakdown. The Bachelorette picks up where it left off last week, with Kupah ranting and raving about how he doesn’t really even care about Kaitlyn but he doesn’t want to go home because they both like movie quotes??? He literally says there’s no connection between them and then gets mad that he can’t stay to continue to date her. (And this is a man on his best behavior, around people he just met and is trying to impress!)

During an interview on camera, Kaitlyn hears Kupah yelling and waving his arms around in a way I assume he thinks makes him look more manly (he is wrong). Kaitlyn, badass that she is, marches out to handle the situation. The camera follows her down the path and then comes across our loud, aggravated suitor–and a mysterious man in a purple blazer who jumps quickly out of the camera’s view.


I see you, producer.

I see you, and I see your work. Who knows what they said to Kupah to get him even more riled up and rant-y, but it worked. And did Kaitlyn go out there because of a little prodding, or because it was highly suggested to her?

UnReal suggests the latter. When producer Rachel comes back to work on a Bachelor-based reality show after having a breakdown on the finale of the last season, she jumps right back into the messy work of drumming up drama for TV. UnReal suggests that the cocktail meet and greets are a lot less fun than they end up looking. Most contestants stand around trying to talk to each other while waiting to get a few moments alone, but actually in front of a bunch of cameras, with the person they are all supposed to be dating. Plus, the producers are crawling around egging people on and manipulating every situation they can so that they can get the soundbites they need.

UnReal is a pretty dark look at what it takes to push people to breaking points for entertainment value. (And except for a tiny thing I have called compassion, I hate to say I think I’d be really good at this job.) The producers are watching and listening to everything, and they know what buttons to push to get the results they need. And they are probably standing just out of sight of every shot.

“It is not my fault that America is racist”
The Bachelor franchise is not exactly known for its diversity, and part of what set Kupah off was his supposed fear of being a token black person they keep around for a certain number of episodes. While it certainly looks like Kupah was sent home entirely for being an entitled jerk, UnReal makes it pretty clear that they don’t expect a person of color to make it to the final rose bracelet ceremony. A producer on UnReal blames this on America not wanting to watch it, but tell that to Empire’s audience, or Black-ish, or How to Get Away with Murder, or Scandal or…. The contestants are entirely chosen by the producers, and UnReal makes it look like they have a large part in steering at least the first few rounds of who stays and who goes. So if anyone wants to look at the real cause of its lack of diversity, they should start with the people putting on the show.

I’m already learning a lot about a (mostly not true) reality show by watching a (definitely nonfiction) behind-the-scenes drama and I can’t wait to learn more (possibly real) facts next week.

There will be a newsletter going out later today on other things I’m watching/reading/loving, so if you haven’t signed up yet, give it a shot by signing up below!

powered by TinyLetter

some housekeeping

Hello! Just wanted to drop a quick note on a few site changes. I updated the look of and also updated some of the backend. If you subscribe, you should hopefully still get posts the way you used to, but please let me know if there’s any issues and I’ll see what I can do. If you want to get Rae’s Days posts delivered straight to your inbox, you can enter your email on the right in the box under “Subscribe to Blog Via Email.”

I also send a newsletter every week or so. To sign up, you can go to the box on the right of the site and enter your email under “Subscribe to Rae’s Newsletter.” Here’s a taste of this week’s, which went out yesterday:

coolest girl in the clique

 T Swift came out with a new video on Sunday for Bad Blood, the not so thinly veiled story of her soured relationship with Katy Perry. I had hoped Tay would be the villain in this one, but instead she is betrayed by her long-time bestie Selena Gomez. To retaliate, Taylor gets together all her badass super friends who look good in leather to fight with her. The coolest girl in this battle of cool girls is def Cara Delevingne, Victoria’s Secret Angel, model, and actress. She is the only one who masters the look of being so cool she doesn’t even care what happens with these nunchucks, probably because she in fact does not really care about this video. She knows she looks good, so she doesn’t sweat the rest of it. (A close second in coolness is Zendaya, who throws a knife through a teddy bear and has legs for days.) I can hardly keep up with Taylor’s best friend hierarchy, I can’t imagine trying to be (and stay) in it.

most middle school

Even though the most popular girl in school posted pictures of all her friends at a party you weren’t invited to and called it a music video, the most horrific middle school call back this week was on the Bachelorette. In the worst twist so far (I’m sure more will come), the dating show where a woman got to be in charge of oodles of men trying to win her affection became a show where two women were competing for the attention of 25 men. The producers supposedly couldn’t decide who to pick as the next Bachelorette, romantic Britt or hilarious Kaitlyn, so they are letting the men contestants vote for who they want to date. So instead of seeing a woman get lavished in attention and command the room and her own future, we saw two women go head to identically hair-styled head to win prom queen. And, sorry, but winning the chance to date 25 24 guys, half of whom wanted to date someone else, does not seem like a grand prize to me. But that won’t stop me from tuning in to find out who the bachelorette will be. (I’m firmly #teamkaitlyn) [ed note: This aired last night, and it’s Kaitlyn! PHEW.]

In an unexpected twist last night one contestant was sent to Chris Harrison as if he were about to get grounded and was asked to leave the show for being a sloppy, rude drunk and–most importantly–not showing up “for the right reasons.” Roughly 5-10 other men jumped at the chance to confront him and save the women from his antics, but they were unfortunately allowed to stay.

Thanks for your patience as I made some changes! And thanks always for reading and keeping me company on the internet, I truly appreciate it.

fashion illustration of claire on outlander

claire from outlander illustration

Much of Outlander’s attention right now is because of its super hot sex scenes with the main couple, Claire and Jamie. But there is just as much to talk about when the characters have their clothes on.

Terry Dresbach, the shows costume designer, talks here about eight of her favorite looks on the show. Not surprisingly, Claire is on that list four times. I drew her in one of my favorite looks of hers, a gorgeous deep teal bodice and plaid skirt.

Claire has so many different looks on the show, but they are only made up of a few different items mixed and matched. The idea is that Claire has limited clothing given to her, and she wears those items over and over in different combinations.

I could learn a lesson or two from Claire on how to mix it up with a smaller wardrobe, and on how to wear a bodice like a boss.

Here’s a video on some of my coloring process.