Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Anne Hathaway Can’t Win: The Problem With Anne Hathaway Syndrome. In Nancy Meyers’ new film “The Intern,” Anne Hathaway plays the founder and CEO of a fashion e-commerce company who agrees to allow a retired senior citizen (Robert DeNiro) intern at her firm. Her character in the film is strong, capable, and in a position of power, but nonetheless suffers for it, just like the real Anne Hathaway, an actress who works very hard and is rewarded for it yet can’t seem to get the public to like her. Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen explores Anne Hathaway Syndrome and how “The Intern” is really a “two-hour meditation” on said syndrome.
You can’t calculate charisma or cool. Both are contingent on the absence of trying, and Anne Hathaway is nothing if not a woman-shaped aggregation of trying. All female celebrities, like all people, are of course trying at something; it’s just that some, like Lawrence, do a (much) better job of hiding the effort. And stardom, like so much of the contemporary manufacture of the self vis-a-vis the internet, is rooted in final products that betray no signs of labor. So Hathaway stopped trying, at least for a bit. She’s had only one starring role — as a scientist in “Interstellar” — since her Oscar win, and she’s maintained a relatively low profile. But in the last six months, The Try has returned: Alongside Kristen Stewart and Brie Larson, she’s the least cool part of Jenny Lewis’ “Just One of the Guys” music video. Her rendition of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” on “Lip Sync Battle” was dialed to 11. Her Instagram is a series of self-conscious selfies, sincere mourning for Cecil the lion, dad jokes, and publicity shots paired with invitations to join her at the Apple Store, and cringe-worthy use of hashtags. But Hathaway’s really not doing anything that different from Taylor Swift or Anna Kendrick, both of whom occupy a similar level of Tracy Flick-ness. But their Try is just slightly less visible and, as such, infinitely more tolerable. Hathaway has checked every box on the “how to be a female celebrity” checklist. What’s frustrating, and maybe even tragic, is that doing so still makes people deeply dislike her. Which is a lesson that can be applied to most women: Success is not the same as likability. In fact, it’s often something that leads to the opposite. The things we value in men (power, drive, decisiveness) become the things we stigmatize in women. That’s nothing new, and women have been railing against it for decades — including women, like myself, who still dislike Anne Hathaway. I can see that it’s unfair, and yet the annoyance still wells up — the urge is to tell her to chill as I read her telling “Refinery29” just how chill she’s been all summer.
2. The Big Flaw in Netflix’s Research Into When It “Has You Hooked.” Though it refuses to release any official viewership numbers, Netflix did release its “data” in the form of infographics on when they know people get “hooked” into a TV show, i.e. which episode is it that will keep people watching until the end. Needless to say, there’s some fishiness going on not only with their research but with their dissemination of it. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff argues that there is one big flaw at work in Netflix’s research.
Netflix isn’t really proving anything with this infographic, unless it aims to confirm that human beings continue to follow the predictable patterns they always have when it comes to viewership numbers. Every time a new show launches, it falls into a predictable pattern well over 99 percent of the time. The pilot has the highest viewership, and then there’s a steady tapering off over the next several episodes, at which point it reaches a plateau where it’s relatively stable. If that plateau is a high enough number, the show runs for years to come. There are, of course, anomalies. “Empire” debuted big in January 2015, and then got even bigger with each new episode. And sometimes shows don’t catch on until late in their first or even second seasons, thanks to time slot shifts or viewers simply discovering them. For a good example from before the era of streaming, think of “Cheers,” which was one of the lowest-rated shows on TV in its first season, then started slowly growing in season two, before exploding in season three when it aired as part of a block featuring “The Cosby Show.” But for the most part, shows debut, then find their level within four episodes. And notice how many of the shows on Netflix’s infographic reach their “hooked” number by episode four? Eight out of 12. Even the shows that take longer to hit their hooked number reflect TV viewing patterns. Take, for instance, “How I Met Your Mother,” which Netflix says takes most viewers eight episodes to get addicted to. Comedies have always taken longer to catch on than dramas, and, indeed, if you run Netflix’s math (at least as I understand it) on the first-season numbers for “HIMYM,” the “hooked” episode was episode 10, not so very long after episode eight. And that core audience stuck around for the show’s nine-season run.
3. “Empire’s” Soapy, Yet Nuanced Take on Social Justice. This week, the hit show “Empire” premiered its second season on Fox. The show reminded viewers what they loved about the series — Cookie, its combustible plot-burning engine, and Cookie — throughout the premiere, but many people were talking about the premiere’s dynamite opening sequence. Vulture’s Jada Yuan analyzes the opening sequence and how it takes a soapy, but nuanced view of social justice.
In its own twisted way, “Empire” manages to both promote the cause of social justice while undercutting it. Lucious Lyon is a vicious murderer who definitely ought to be behind bars, but the numbers Swizz Beatz quotes are also real (even if they’re not quite accurate: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, it’s actually 1.68 million African-American men under what’s known as “correctional control,” which includes the 526,000 in state and federal prisons, as well as those on probation and parole). Just because Cookie is throwing this rally under false pretenses doesn’t mean those alarming incarceration rates don’t correspond with, as John Legend stated eloquently in his Oscar speech, the disenfranchisement of an entire sector of the population. Cookie points out that Bill Clinton is there, too, mainly because he has to be to get his wife elected, so how is anything she’s doing all that different? The show’s soapy lack of subtlety and moralizing serves the larger point better than earnestness can. Cookie and Lucious may have done some terrible things in their lives, but even they can see that there’s nothing right about African-Americans making up 13 percent of the people in this country and roughly 35 percent of people in jail and prison — a statistic that spikes when you just include black men. Just how direct is the opening sequence? There’s Cookie’s youngest son, Hakeem, telling his mom that they ought to be throwing this rally for the unknown number of innocent men and women of color who are currently incarcerated due to systematic prejudices and disadvantages at every level. (“New York” recently spoke to eight of them.) There’s Sean Cross in a hoodie, likely referencing Trayvon Martin, rapping about the #HandsUpDontShoot and #ICantBreathe deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. And most of all there’s that rabid, chest-beating gorilla in a cage that descends from the sky and rips off its mask to reveal Cookie, dressed in Gucci. It’s a baller move, at once re-appropriating both a painful racial insult and slamming a stake through some of the less overt but no less ugly parts of American history — as a direct reference to 1932’s “Blonde Venus,” in which Marlene Dietrich dances in a gorilla costume for Cary Grant at a whites-only nightclub before a line of dancers wearing Afros and tribal face-paint.
4. The Seven Provocations: Gender Equality in the Film Industry. Earlier this month, the ICA cinema in London hosted a panel event entitled “The Cinema Exists to Please Women,” a free-wheeling discussion of how to best achieve gender equality in the film industry. Little White Lies’ Sophie Monks Kaufman acted as a “respondent” at the event who “summarizes key ideas and pulls out the areas of her personal passion.”
Can marginal programming create changes within film education? (Posed by Maria Cabrera). Maria is a film student who is disillusioned and angered by the narrow representation within films shown in the educational canon. She started her own film club, The Reel Good Film Club. A recent example of her work is a screening with Bechdel Test Fest on 13 September of The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye, the first ever film by a lesbian woman of color. This action answers Maria’s own question. She has changed the type of film education being received for everyone that attends her screenings. Perhaps the change is not as formal as she would like but “education” is rarely completed in formal establishments. It’s where you get started and where you do or don’t receive leads or inspirations. At this time, when people curate the news they receive by who they choose to follow online, people are in a position to choose (to a degree) who they listen to. If this all scans as wishy-washy philosophy and Maria has a fire to create systematic changes then she should find a way to issue her very legitimate challenge to the higher-ups.
Do we want mainstream programming to hold more of the ideas of the margin? (Posed by Helen Mackenzie). Absolutely. I’d like to defer to the words of indie animator, Signe Baumane: “If you only consume mainstream entertainment you get fed certain ideas but there is this other space for diversity of thought. I think my films and thousands of other people’s films support that diversity of opinion. I feel that, as a species, we need the diversity of thought because if you have only one way of looking at the world you are not accustomed to being contradicted. When you have contradictions in your life and there are different ways of looking at things you are more capable of managing these contradictory thoughts in your head. And you are also able to find solutions to pressing problems.”
5. ABC’s “The Muppets” Isn’t Perverted, It’s Hilarious. The continuation of “The Muppets” has garnered mixed reviews from fans and critics alike, with many describing it as a cheap imitation of its former self with a “mockumentary” tone that doesn’t fit the spirit of Jim Henson’s original creation. However, some have found some joy in the new “Muppets.” At his blog, New York-based freelance writer William McKinley explains why he started to come around to the “Muppets” when the fundamentalist Christians turned their backs on it.
So that’s where I was, emotionally, as the premiere approached: conflicted, loaded for (Fozzie) bear and prepared to trash the show because these Muppets weren’t my Muppets. Then the fundamentalists showed up. Before the first episode even aired, a conservative Christian advocacy group called One Million Moms condemned the series as “perverted” and launched a campaign to kill it. “Miss Piggy came out as a pro-choice feminist during an MSNBC interview,” they pearl-clutched on their protest page (with more than 21,000 Facebook shares as of this writing). Created by the Mississippi-based American Family Association (deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), One Million Moms insisted The Muppets was going to be all about sex, drugs, promiscuity and abortion(!) and was “not what Jim Henson imagined and created.” (Note that these are the same people who tried to get Ellen DeGeneres fired for being gay.) Nothing makes me want to watch something more than being told I shouldn’t, particularly when the guy telling me is Donald Wildmon. A Methodist minister, notorious homophobe, and the founder of the AFA, Wildmon got his start in hate-based advocacy by boycotting sponsors of “All in the Family” forty years ago (I assume because he shared Archie Bunker’s prejudices). He also penned a letter sent home with every kid in my Catholic school in 1980 warning parents about “Adam and Yves,” a proposed ABC sitcom from “Barney Miller” producer Danny Arnold that would have been the first network TV series with gay protagonists. (Primetime’s only other gay character at that point was Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas on ABC’s daytime drama parody, “Soap.”) Wildmon led protests of Disney (for welcoming LGBT guests to their parks), Madonna (for her blasphemous “Like A Prayer” video), “Three’s Company,” “M*A*S*H,” “Dallas,” and “The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse” alleging that the cartoon superhero snorted cocaine). In short, Wildmon was against a whole bunch of things I enjoyed as a kid, and still do today. If his small-minded cabal was against the series, it was already looking better to me. And last night, finally, it was time for me to meet “The Muppets.”
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— James Urbaniak (@JamesUrbaniak) September 24, 2015