The Good Feminist

The Good Wife officially transitioned into its post-Will state on Sunday, and followed through on the showrunners’ promise that the next few episodes would not be “all tears—there’s comedy too.” The show is adept at balancing drama and comedy in the same episode, and though it continues to deal with Alicia, Kalinda and Diane’s grief in the aftermath of Will’s murder, “A Material World” has some humorous scenes. Alicia and Diane’s drunken get-together was funny, but the most chuckle-worthy part of the episode comes during Alicia’s lowest moment. Bedridden and in mourning, Alicia watches a detective show that seems awfully familiar.

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Alicia drowns her sorrows in TV.

In it, a couple of detectives run their flashlights over a dead body, while one of the detectives goes on a philosophical rant. “People just think there are black hats and white hats,” the detective drawls. “But there are black hats with white lining, and white hats with black lining. There are hats that change back and forth between white and black.”

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A deep-thinking detective on The Good Wife.

The pontificating detective is a great parody of myriad talky TV investigators, whether it be CSI Miami’s Horatio Caine (never without a pun) or True Detective’s Rust Cohle. The parody further mirrors True Detective through its imagery, the sadly familiar portrait of a brutalized woman strung up to a tree or a fence, on display for the male detectives—or saviors. Image

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Dead bodies on The Good Wife (top) and True Detective (bottom).

Much was made of True Detective’s women, whose frequently naked bodies—dead and alive—were ogled by the camera. The women of True Detective were there to illuminate the male leads: Marty’s mistress was valuable because she proved that Marty was out of control; Dora Lange (above) mattered to the audience not because she was a human being, but because her death offered a doorway into the way Rust Cohle’s mind worked. The Good Wife’s parody is comic relief, sure, but it also places the show’s complex female leads in contrast to True Detective’s flat women. Later in the episode, Alicia Florrick, who throughout the last two seasons has become more and more commanding, finally takes a long-awaited step toward her liberation from the shackles of the Tammy Wynette role: she breaks up with Peter, the husband who forced her to play the titular good wife.

No matter what you think of Alicia lately—the show certainly hasn’t privileged her likability—the character is not stagnant. The recent episode “A Few Words” reminded us of Alicia’s earlier iteration, all bad hair, dowdy suits, pursed lips and wide, nervous eyes. She has turned into a power player, at times a ruthless one. (“Don’t worry, I’m not going to divorce you,” she assures her jilted husband. “You’re too valuable to me professionally, just like I am to you.”)

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Alicia just after the Peter cheating scandal (L) and Alicia in season 5, now a name partner and founder of Florrick/Agos (R).

True Detective rankled some critics, but it was also one of the buzziest television events of recent years. Divergent schools of thought helped drive that buzz—some saw the show as simply a well-executed detective series, using all of the tropes associated with the genre but with snazzier directing and acting. Others praised True Detective for subverting the trappings of genre and offering something deeper. For all that talk, though, The Good Wife is doing something even more revolutionary: working within the confines of a network series, twenty-two episodes and all, and managing to tell a woman’s story subtly and artfully. True Detective created something television viewers love to indulge in: fervor. But The Good Wife creates something much more important: feminist television.

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Why I Think “The Good Wife” Made the Right Call

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“I want to be with you and only you. Forever.”

The Kings have always said in interviews that Will and Alicia’s doomed romance was about bad timing. Alicia’s responsibilities at home got in the way. Her relationship with Peter got in the way. Voicemails were deleted. True feelings were suppressed. Will once likened the relationship to a merry-go-round, but on the show its symbol was an elevator. There are myriad examples: Alicia’s hurried escape into the Lockhart/Gardner elevator after their first kiss; their rekindled flame on the way up to the hotel suite in the season two finale; Will’s longing question, after the romance had ended: “Do you think it was a mistake?”; perhaps most definitively in hindsight, Will’s hand blocking the closing elevator doors in “A Few Words”—an almost-miss. Continue reading

About That True Detective Sex Scene

Early in True Detective’s run, some were rankled by the sex scene in episode two between Hart and his mistress, in which the camera luxuriated in and leered at actress Alexandra Daddario’s naked body. I wasn’t bothered by the scene because, indulgent as the focus on Ms. Daddario’s assets might have seemed, it effectively replicated Marty Hart’s gaze and thus felt understandable. But it’s true, as Emily Nussbaum wrote in The New Yorker after last Sunday’s episode, that as the show has gone on, its women have not been shaded in much. True Detective’s world is populated by, per Nussbaum, “slack-jawed teen prostitutes,” “strippers gyrating in the background of police work,” “the designated put-upon wifely character” and “the occasional cameo hussy.” These women seem to exist in the show’s world simply to deepen our understanding of the two main characters, which is what made the most recent episode so strange for me.

SPOILERS. In episode six, Maggie Hart (Michelle Monaghan) finds out her husband is, once again, cheating on her. In an effort to enrage Marty and send him out of the house, Maggie seduces his partner, Rust, then tells Rust what her plan was and later tells Marty what she has done, effectively blowing up both their home life and Marty and Rust’s professional relationship.

Due to the show’s framing device, viewers knew that Rust and Hart would split as partners in 2002, and to the observant viewer the reason for the impending split was easy to predict (the show’s first five episodes were peppered with Maggie/Rust scenes that crackled with chemistry), so I was not the least bit surprised when Maggie knocked on Rust’s door in the last episode.

The plot wasn’t what threw me; it was the perspective. The sex scene, as Willa Paskin notes in her Slate piece, positions Maggie as the one with agency. “Rust and Marty both became, however briefly, pawns in her story,” Paskin writes. Indeed, just before Maggie arrives Rust is in his desolate apartment trying to puzzle together the Yellow King mystery. He hears a knock at the door, and rather than track Rust as he finds out who it is, the camera cuts outside so that the viewer sees Maggie looking distressed in front of Rust’s apartment.

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By cutting to Maggie before Rust opens the door, the show is placing us outside of his point of view and sending us a message: Rust is not the protagonist in this scene. Next, Maggie initiates contact.
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And then we get a unique shot of the couple framed through the cabinets and counter in Rust’s kitchen. Rust is still hesitant, and in this shot we can only see Maggie’s face as she tries to get him to capitulate. The shot further emphasizes Maggie’s place in the scene’s power dynamic.

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After Rust is finished, the camera lingers on Maggie’s face, asking the viewer to contemplate these events from her point of view.

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And in a particularly great shot, we cut to a close-up of Maggie’s hand delicately pushing Rust away so that she can put her panties back on.

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From start to finish, Maggie is in control. The scene’s writing and direction emphasize her experience of the event at hand, an extreme change of perspective since until now the entire show has been filtered through Rust and Hart’s points of view. The change doesn’t last long, though. A beat later, we fully shift to Rust’s reaction to Maggie’s betrayal. The scene ends with a shot of Rust alone in his apartment, stricken and solitary.

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Suddenly, the scene seems meant to illuminate Rust for the audience. His reaction to Maggie’s behavior—it is presented as Maggie’s behavior—shows him to be a “good man,” a principled man who has had a lapse in judgement because he is incredibly lonely and vulnerable. Similarly, the next 2002 scene is Maggie’s confession. She tells Hart what she has done, and the moment is meant to further clarify that Hart is a hothead with anger and control issues.

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In the end, Hart and Rust brawl in the police station parking lot and ultimately break up. The story is emphatically not of Maggie’s liberation from her marriage, and I don’t think it should be. But why frame the sex scene from Maggie’s perspective instead of Rust’s, when True Detective hasn’t made any other attempts to consider its female characters’ inner lives?

Rust has increasingly been positioned as the hero of True Detective. He may be deeply flawed, but he is also the only character who seems to really want to solve the Yellow King mystery and save the women and children the killer is terrorizing. The show asks us to root for Rust, particularly in the last episode, which featured Rust in multiple face-offs—with our presumed Bad Guy, the hot mess that is Marty Hart, and The Man in the form of his lazy or willfully ignorant superiors at the police station—in which he was in the right. So is it a coincidence that we switch perspectives right when Rust could, by sleeping with his partner’s wife, become the bad guy? By placing Maggie as agent, the viewer is allowed to let Rust off the hook and blame Maggie, who is once again reduced to a stereotype: the sexually manipulative woman.

House of Cards Questions (No Spoilers)

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On kind of a theoretical level, not a plot level.

First, please take this survey:

1. Is one of the following shows the best drama of all time? 

The Wire

The Sopranos

Breaking Bad

Mad Men

a. Yes

b. No

2. Totally love…

a. Hannibal

b. The Following

3. Currently watching True Detective (or waiting to binge it)?

a. Yes

b. No

4. “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”

a. Can’t lose…what? I don’t get it.

b. GO PANTHERS (OR LIONS)!

If your results were a, a, a, and b, we, as television viewers, are on the same page (i.e. we are both probably kind of TV elitists), and so you may be more inclined to agree with me (and many of the critics we probably both read) on some of the things I’m going to basically state as objective truths regarding House of Cards. Like:

  • House of Cards looks great. It does not look “inexpensive” (said in Nina Garcia clipped tone).
  • House of Cards is extremely campy.
  • Many of House of Cards’ happenings defy all logic or reason.
  • Character motivations on House of Cards are often hard to pin down.
  • House of Cards writers do generally frowned upon things like inform the audience that a heretofore major character has been fired in a throwaway line, or baby us through upcoming plot twists through early-episode anecdotes from Freddy the grillmaster that basically scream “PAY ATTENTION THIS IS A METAPHOR PAY ATTENTION VIEWER.”
  • House of Cards is very fun and easy to binge watch.

So, could House of Cards possibly succeed if it were aired week to week? This is a show that pulls you in with a distinct, sleek visual palette, a fun, hammy main character and the promise of plot twists and political machinations. It’s a foregone conclusion that Frank will own everyone (and an all-powerful main character would usually be a problem for a show), so the fun is in watching how he owns everyone and who his casualties are. Sometimes the show is patently ridiculous in a vaguely self-aware way (Frank’s outfit when he SPOILERS SPOILER; the computer hacker with the guinea pig; the shenanigans with the Secret Service agent). Other times, it becomes suddenly self-serious, or maybe self-reflective is a better word (that one Claire scene toward the end of this season).

But these tone inconsistencies never seem like a problem if you digest the whole show in one bite, like an amuse-bouche in television form. When you are clicking through from chapter to chapter, you don’t have the time, or in my case the inclination, to sit down and let the show and its various nonsensical plot mechanics and thin characterizations marinate. It’s an interesting viewing experience in comparison to True Detective, a show that begs to be parsed and re-watched.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the House of Cards brand of entertainment. If anything, I think it’s kind of genius. Here is a show that fuses method of consumption with content, and has gotten awards and buzz out of it. But will this become a trend? As television shows become available via diverse platforms, will the way those shows are constructed change accordingly? Nothing seems to indicate that a Netflix show has to follow the House of Cards mode (I have not watched Orange Is the New Black, but from what I have heard it is better written than HoC), but given its success, I wonder if Netflix will be inclined to greenlight shows that lend themselves to the binging model, even if they aren’t prestige dramas that are going to launch Netflix into the pantheon of greatness alongside HBO and AMC.

And again, it’s kind of fun to imagine how HoC would be different if it were airing weekly. Would it be better? Less addictive? It’s a moot point, I suppose. Frank Underwood once said, “I hate being kept in the dark. Waiting. Speculating.” No such problem for House of Cards fans.

Currently Reading

More accurately, just finished reading. Over the last two weeks, I read My Education, by Susan Choi, followed by The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman. It was interesting to read the two novels back to back because My Education has a female protagonist in her early twenties, and by and large chronicles her love affair with a thirtysomething woman. On the other hand, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. follows a thirtysomething male protagonist as he navigates relationships with multiple women in the Brooklyn literary scene. The books have some commonalities: both take place at least part of the time in New York, both main characters are writers, and I could relate to certain elements of both stories being that I, like Regina of My Education, am in my early twenties and I, like Nate of Love Affairs, live in Brooklyn.

Despite the fact that I probably have more in common with Regina, Love Affairs hit me on a gut level that My Education did not reach. This is how I know: I was devouring the book on my couch while my boyfriend was watching the Super Bowl. Boyfriend Alex decided to cuddle up next to me when the post-game episode of New Girl came on. “You don’t want to watch New Girl, babe?” he asked sweetly, knowing that I like the show.

“No, I’m reading,” I replied without even glancing at the television screen. The book’s main character, Nate, was in the midst of a horrible breakup with his girlfriend Hannah—horrible for her, I should say. I was reading through a scene in Prospect Park where she admitted that it wasn’t working out, to which he nodded his head. I knew, as I read, of the pain of that nod; the night before I’d been out with a girlfriend who had broken up with her boyfriend days earlier. “He didn’t even put up a fight,” she said, somewhat anguished. “I was surprised.”

I was mortified for Hannah, and mad at Nate, and at the same time completely enveloped in Nate’s perspective of the discussion/breakup. The book is written in close third and thus kind of reads like a decoder ringso this is what men are thinking! (I should note, it’s written by a woman. I am reading this blog post to Alex and he is not buying that it could correctly represent the male perspective, but it felt very, very real, and very male.)

Anyway, after I brushed off Alex’s New Girl suggestion, he jokingly said, “I feel like we don’t share anything anymore.” He was not being serious, not at all. Normally, knowing his sense of humor, such a comment wouldn’t bother me, wouldn’t even register for me. I would just smile indulgently. But so disturbed was I by the preceding 200 pages of Nate’s point of view, so wrapped up was I in his stark judgement of women and relationships, so angsty was I over the in-progress breakup, that I set the iPhone on which I was reading down and cried, “What are you talking about? Are you serious?”

Alex was understandably taken aback. He quickly reassured me that he was joking, that it was a stupid joke. I persisted. “Are you sure there’s not some truth to the comment?” I said.

Memories of Hannah and Nate’s fictional miscommunications filled my brain. I thought of how she, in his eyes, became meek and overly emotional, while it was clear to me that she was reacting to his increasing disengagement. She would beg him to tell her if something was bothering him. He, turned off by that very begging, would deny that anything was wrong and continue to shrink away.

“You can tell me!” I nearly shrieked, suddenly irrationally convinced that Alex’s ill-advised joke portended the demise of our heretofore stable, two-yearlong relationship. In a flash, it seemed that our shared cat Chives, Brooklyn apartment not so unlike Nate’s and life together could be on the line.

Alex, remarkably calm, reassured his crazy girlfriend that all was well, and I settled down. I went back to the book. About an hour later, once I’d finished, I admitted the source of my freakout and apologized. Alex laughed patiently. He’s always great, but he was looking pretty damn incredible in comparison to Nate.

It’s not that My Education was bad, or not as well-realized. I fully bought Regina’s progression: her descent into all-consuming love, her deep depression after the breakup, her move into adulthood and motherhood and the professional world. But in My Education men are largely on the periphery; this is a book about two women’s sexual and emotional entanglement, and it looks at love, sex, motherhood, and work from a perspective that I recognized, if not necessarily related to. Nate’s perspective, on the other hand, was quite alien to me, and at the same time particularly affecting because he exists in a Brooklyn that I inhabit. Waldman peppers the novel with images of the gentrifying borough, often through the lens of Nate’s Privileged White Male Guilt Complex. Nate taps away on his laptop in cafes that sprout up like flowers (or weeds, depending who you ask) next to bodegas. Nate hears a cabbie grumble about delivering his passengers to Brooklyn. Nate observes the church across the street from his apartment. I encounter all of these sights and sounds every day, and so it was particularly interesting—and worrying—to imagine Nate-like men just strolling around my neighborhood.

I know assholes exist, but it’s not often I am privy to their innermost thoughts.

I don’t mean to oversimplify Love Affairs, by the way, by making it sound like the white male narrator is such a dick that it’s not worth the read. One of the pleasures of the book is seeing how Waldman manages to keep him likable without giving him some hero’s journey. Alex is saying, now, that he wants to read it to see if it’s “true.” I don’t know if it would resonate with him, though, because his truth is not Nate’s truth (thank God!!!). As I read, it might have seemed like some sort of secret window into the male brain, but maybe it’s not. Maybe it couldn’t be. And nor should it be. Remember when everyone freaked out that Lena Dunham wanted to be the “voice of generation”? (Which she didn’t; her character did, and we were supposed to laugh at that.) People were mad because, here we go, a rich white girl wants to speak for all women. But on a deeper level the notion that anyone could speak for everyone of a certain type upsets people, as it should. (It probably partly speaks to our senses of self; what does it say about my individuality if some voice accurately speaks for me? And if that voice does not represent my experience, what does that say about how society devalues my perspective?) Nate, then, is not any more representative of a certain type of man than Hannah Horvath is of a certain type of woman, but his voice—the voice that Waldman cultivates—is fresh and interesting and, ultimately, enjoyable, even if it did momentarily freak my boyfriend out.

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And a quick currently watching note. Went with the coming-of-age tales this week, with The Spectacular Now and The Way, Way Back. Both bildungsroman, both revolve around young men, both fairly predictable. The Way, Way Back felt like a retread of countless other such tales (mom has a boyfriend, trip to a beach town for the summer, awkward kids gets a summer job, meets older mentor who is also kind of emotionally stunted, but fun—you know how this goes), but it’s breezy and sweet and Allison Janney is great, always. (Also, why does Amanda Peet always get cast in that part?) The Spectacular Now is also easy to call—reminded me of the underrated gem Keith—but Miles Teller gives a beautiful, effortless performance, like he just lives that character. Can’t wait to see his future work.

The Double in True Detective

Dr. Jekyll famously posited that “man is not truly one, but two,” a reference to one of the tenets of Gothic fiction: the double. Page through the genre’s staples, and the sets of doubles are as ubiquitous as stormy weather or labyrinthine abodes. Often, Gothic twinning is representative of the duality within man, or simply put, good versus evil, as with the aforementioned Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Other Gothic pairs include Matilda and Isabella in The Castle of Otranto, Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason, and Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature.

The double was passed down to the Gothic novel’s descendant, horror film. Buffy the Vampire Slayer memorably used the double in the episode “Doppelgangland,” wherein Willow’s vampire doppelganger from another dimension takes a trip to Sunnydale and thoroughly confounds the Scooby Gang, who understandably assume that their good friend has been killed.

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Willow encounters her vampy double.

In Buffy, the double is used for comedic effect, allowing for some great mistaken identity gags. But laughs aside, the episode nicely typifies the double’s place in Gothic fiction. In the episode, Willow is questioning her reputation as a reliable, maybe predictable person. She meets her double just as she’s in the process of reevaluating herself. Horror films and novels are often about subverting our constructions of normalcy (that’s why Michael Myers terrorizes an idyllic suburban neighborhood), and what’s more disturbing than being confronted with your own construction of self? In meeting our doubles, we must reflect on the permeability of our identities.

Fitting, then, that HBO’s True Detective, a show that spends a lot of time considering the nature of selfhood, is littered with doubles. The most obvious pairing is Matthew McConaughey’s Detective Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s Detective Marty Hart, a couple of Louisiana cops tasked with solving a gruesome murder. At first the men seem quite different; Cohle lives alone, and is fairly antisocial and prone to philosophizing, while Hart is a family man who seems to enjoy beers with the fellas and a good dirty joke. As the show continues, though, the characters become more and more complex, and more and more similar. “You’re obsessive,” Hart says to his partner in the most recent episode. “You’re obsessive too,” Cohle replies. “Just not about work.” Even without verbalizing their similarities, the show frames the two men as doubles, dressing them in the same palette or shooting them in parallel, as if they’re two sides of the same coin.

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Doubling can also be found in the form of Hart’s daughters, cherubic blondes who are often dressed almost identically and, in a recent scene, were blocked to move in unison.

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See also: the double date between Hart, his wife, Cohle and his setup. Notice that Hart’s wife, played by Michelle Monaghan, also physically resembles Cohle’s date, creating another visual double. During the date, a thematic doubling of sorts arises during the characters’ conversation about synesthesia. Cohle explains his condition as “a type of hypersensitivity. One sense triggers another sense. Like, sometimes I’ll see a color and it’ll put a taste in my mouth; a touch, a texture, a scent may put a note in my head.” Replies his date, “So when something feels good, does that mean it feels twice as good? Like, say, two different ways?”

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Lastly, Cohle and Hart, while doubling each other, are further doubled by the detectives who interview them in the show’s framing device.

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Even the show’s title, True Detective, can connect back to doubling, for in not pluralizing the noun it’s as if the two protagonists we see on-screen are in some ways one and the same. Toward the close of the most recent episode, Hart, somewhat uncharacteristically, asks Cohle a question about selfhood. “Do you wonder, ever, if you’re a bad man?” he asks. “The world needs bad men,” Cohle replies. “We keep the other bad men from the door.” At episode’s end, the bad man is revealed: a naked figure holding a machete and wearing a gas mask stalks across the frame, ostensibly the killer we and the detectives have been searching for. But earlier Cohle and Hart were established as bad men themselves, and so is this not another metaphorical, monstrous double? Already the lines between “good” and “bad” have been muddied in True Detective‘s universe, but often in Gothic fiction one double subsumes the other. In the end, this may be a story of death, but the mutilated bodies we’ve already encountered may not be the only victims.

The Good Wife Problems

So, The Good Wife. We got off to a great start with Cary and Alicia splitting from Lockhart/Gardner to create their own firm. Things have gone decidedly downhill from there—both for our characters and for the viewers. Not everything is bad, but I, for one, am getting tired of Will vs. Alicia. I loved it at first, but it’s becoming super petty and their rivalry takes away screentime that could be devoted to interesting in-house Florrick/Agos developments (cough cough, MORE CARY TIME). Besides wonky Will and Alicia, the Marilyn pregnancy bit was weird, and Kalinda is being wasted (although I loved that Kalinda/Cary fun in this episode; much better than previous use of Matt and Archie).

All that being said, I am enjoying the overarching storyline about Peter’s ethics violations, and the murky ethical/emotional ground everyone is on at this point. I knew when we saw Melissa George that the Ethics Commissioner would play an integral role this season, and her purpose has come to the forefront with the reemergence of the stuffed ballot box.

Here’s the problem: Who to root for? Continue reading

Is “The Wolf of Wall Street” Sexist?

Margot Robbie in The Wolf Of Wall Street

I just read this piece on Jezebel titled “A Lady’s Defense of The Wolf of Wall Street,” which seeks to defend the Scorsese picture against claims that “the filmmaker was sexist, and the script was sexist, and the portrayal of women was sexist, and this was offensive and bad and we should not give our money to such a heinous endeavor (because, you know, sexist).” Author Sara Benincasa doesn’t really argue whether or not the movie is sexist (although she does helpfully state, “[T]he film is not sexist or misogynist”); rather, her thesis seems to be that the film is drawing the viewers into the hedonistic, misogynistic, sexist, over-the-top world of its characters in order to hold up a mirror to the audience, to prove that we are “desperate, and greedy, and all too willing to be led.”

All this may be true—I have not seen the movie yet, so I can’t say—but I was disappointed that the article’s response to the film’s sexism (or lack thereof) was pretty much summed up thusly: “depiction of bad behavior does not constitute endorsement of said bad behavior.” I emphatically agree, but I don’t think that really answers the question. A piece of art is not sexist because it contains sexism. A piece of art should convey truth, and if sexism is part of that truth (as it was for Belfort and his buddies), then so be it. A piece of art is sexist when its women are not whole.

Case in point: Mad Men. No fan could argue the point that many of the male leads are sexist, but that does not make the show sexist. The show is not sexist—in fact, it’s quite feminist—because its female characters are as well-drawn as its male characters. The women are real people with thought, emotion and depth; they are not the caricatures many men of that era made them out to be.

So, having not yet seen The Wolf of Wall Street, these are my questions: Does it pass the Bechdel test? Is Margot Robbie’s character as human as any man onscreen? DiCaprio’s Belfort may not treat her with respect, but does the camera treat her with respect?

Those questions are not so easy to answer sometimes. If Scorsese is trying to draw us into Belfort’s world, then is it possible to separate Belfort’s gaze and the camera’s gaze? If Belfort sees Robbie’s character as a plaything, then should the film? I would argue no, and Scorsese’s track record gives me some measure of faith. This is a man who loves to explore masculinity on film, but not always at the expense of his female actors (see: Lorraine Bracco in GoodFellas or Cate Blanchett in The Aviator). How much of this is due to the performers, though? Vera Farmiga’s character in The Departed, for example, is paper thin, but Farmiga is skilled enough to create something out of virtually nothing. (Not surprisingly, you can now catch Farmiga acting the hell out of her role on Bates Motel—television seems to be the medium of choice for strong roles for women.)

Speaking of great performances by women this year, I saw American Hustle last night and was blown away by Jennifer Lawrence. I had read the accolades and was skeptical—I sort of assumed that her newfound status as America’s Sweetheart elevated the praise, especially since Amy Adams is the female lead—but boy, were the critics right. Lawrence is hilarious and sad and bawdy, and every other emotional shade in between. Thinking back on this year’s 2013’s films—with Adele and Emma in Blue Is the Warmest Color, Carey Mulligan’s Jean in Inside Llewyn Davis, Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said, Oprah in The Butler, Scarlett in Her—it wasn’t a bad year for women in the movies, with or without Scorsese’s help.

My Best Movies of the Year List*

*Disclaimer: I haven’t seen a lot of the awards show frontrunners, including Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, Stories We Tell, Before Midnight, Blue Jasmine, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street and Her.

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1. Inside Llewyn Davis

I haven’t been able to get the music from the Coen Brothers’ film out of my head, but even more than that, the film’s melancholia has really stuck with me. Maybe it’s because the day after I saw the movie at Union Square, the frigid, snowy New York I had journeyed to onscreen arrived in real life in the form of a snowstorm and freezing temperatures. Suddenly, as I walked through snow flurries with my reddened fingers stuffed in my pockets, my mind flashed to Llewyn. Something about that character has burrowed into me, in a way that feels—like the movie—sort of funny and sort of uncomfortable and sort of poignant.

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2. Blue Is the Warmest Color

The image above is from a scene that is typical of the three-hour love story Blue Is the Warmest Color: the main character, Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos), takes a break from a breach trip with her primary school students to float in the ocean. It’s a scene that is not particularly plot-driven—the camera sits on Adele in close-up as she immerses herself in the water—but that doesn’t make the shot simple. In fact, it’s incredibly layered, and at once challenges and welcomes the audience to imagine what Adele is thinking and feeling. This film, at its core, is the portrayal of a young girl finding and losing love, and in that process finding and losing herself. It’s a beautiful piece with extraordinary performances. When Adele floated in the water, I thought of The Awakening’s Edna Pontellier, so galvanized and subsequently broken by her own sexual and emotional self-discovery. It’s easy to feel an intimate connection with a literary character, whom we can connect with through first-person or close third-person narration. The connection between audience-member and onscreen character can be harder to forge, but Blue Is the Warmest Color’s Adele feels as alive as anyone on the page or in the world.

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3. 12 Years a Slave

My favorite scene in 12 Years a Slave is a quiet one, when Steve McQueen’s camera meditates on Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he sits in the woods, simply trying to convince himself to survive. The moment may be quiet, but it is not a respite. There is no safe space here; the film is full of awful sequences in the most antiquated sense of the word—”awful” used to connote a state not simply of horror, but of awe—of reverence, even. McQueen crafts images that are at once terrible to watch and visually luscious to the eye. There is immense power in that friction, and in the work done by Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupito Nyong’o.

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4. The Great Gatsby

Is The Great Gatsby a perfect film? Definitely not. It has an extremely clunky framing device. Some of its visual interpretations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose are so literal that it’s embarrassing (Leo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby literally reaching for the green light across the bay, for one). Its special effects border on cartoonish. But for me, when DiCaprio turns around as Gatsby in all his glory, framed by fireworks and backed by, what else?, Rhapsody in Blue, it’s a wonderful cinematic moment. Is it over the top? Yes, but so is Fitzgerald’s story; so was the age he sought to capture, and director Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic take on the American tragedy is perfectly fitting of Gatsby. Plus, Leo DiCaprio sparkles in his first role in a romance in years.

5. Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler’s portrait of Oscar Grant, a young black man who was killed by transit police in Oakland, California, features a powerhouse performance by former TV favorite Michael B. Jordan. Jordan is a personable screen presence, but with edge—Coogler and Jordan don’t let Grant become a martyr, and the film is much better for it. It is heart-wrenching because it celebrates something American society often overlooks or demonizes: a young black male’s humanity.

6. Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s winsome comedy portrays a very specific social milieu: the vaguely privileged, vaguely employed, vaguely creative, very white world of young New York professionals. And while the script delights in the specificity of that world, the film—ultimately a coming-of-age story—manages to be universal but not simplistic, quirky but not self-indulgent, romantic but not cliched. Cinematographer Sam Levy sets a high bar by conjuring memories of Woody Allen’s Manhattan with Frances Ha’s black-and-white New York, but the film meets those expectations.

7. Enough Said

Nicole Holofcener’s comedy made me lough out loud more than any other movie this year, and features great insights into the ways we communicate and connect. Her vessels are Julia Louis-Dreyfus, equal parts sweet and salty, and James Gandolfini, all warmth.

“Blue is the Warmest Color”: Food is Where the Heart is

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The best thing about “Blue is the Warmest Color,” for me, was the treatment of food. In most of the scenes centered around socializing, food is an important element: one of our first glimpses of the protagonist is at dinner with her family; Adele’s first date with her high school crush is over gyros; Adele and Emma have an interesting meal with Emma’s mother and stepfather that involves some pointed talk of oysters, countered by a more modest meal at Adele’s family home; Adele cooks for Emma’s friends at their celebration of Emma’s art.

Food represents different character or plot elements in many of these scenes. In the first two scenes listed above, our attention is drawn to the voraciousness with which Adele consumes her food. That voraciousness is a recurring theme in the film and extends to her sex life and the emotional dynamics of her relationship with Emma. The “meeting the parents” dinner scenes highlight class differences: Emma says something like “Simple, but delicious” as she slurps up Adele’s father’s pasta, a hearty, working-class dish that stands in contrast to the expensive shellfish the group consumes at Emma’s family dinner, accompanied by talk of art and wine. In the dinner party scene, Adele makes the aforementioned pasta dish. It’s a hit amongst Emma’s cultured friends; the camera lingers on their enjoyment of the meal, but the scene also establishes the passive, servant-like role Adele has taken on in her relationship with Emma, a role that she relishes but Emma resents.

The food scenes struck me because I think food, and what if signifies, is largely ignored in American film. Certainly, there are memorable food scenes in American films (I always loved the pasta sauce scene in The Godfather), but food is often most prominent in airy montages in Nancy Meyers movies. In those scenes, food is prepared amongst the glistening appliances of sprawling Southern California or Hamptons kitchens, but never consumed. In these rom-coms, the joy is in the preparation, and the food is presented as an indulgence. The chick flick may be the genre most associated with food, but if American audiences equate food with one actor, it has to be Brad Pitt. Many a YouTube montage has been edited to highlight “Brad Pitt eating scenes,” but what is the fascination? The unlikely picture of one of modern cinema’s Adonis figures actually, well, eating onscreen is notable to American audiences because in most of our films, actors shuffle food around on a plate despondently, trying to trick the audience into making it look like they’ve consumed something.

There are obviously cultural differences at work here. “Blue is the Warmest Color” takes place in France, where leisure is valued rather than stigmatized. Indeed, scenes centered around food would seem out of place in certain American milieus; the greatest fantasy in “Sex and the City,” after all, wasn’t Carrie’s wardrobe or Charlotte’s apartment, but the idea that four friends would have time for that many meandering brunches in a city where meals are often seen as a means to an end. But even if American culture deemphasizes downtime to a certain extent, food is still an integral part of our cultural and familial dynamics. It can be a signifier of myriad things, yet it’s often ignored onscreen. Perhaps standards of beauty are partly to blame for the exclusion—do we not want to see our matinee idols stuffing their faces? Do actors and actresses refuse to shoot multiple takes of a dinner scene for fear of loading up on deadly carbs? I don’t know the answers, but I’m certain that for some viewers the most shocking scenes in “Blue is the Warmest Color” won’t be the graphic lesbian sex scenes; they’ll be the scenes of unabashed calorie consumption.