Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Female Super Hero is Missing: Musings on Sheena, Wonder Woman, Xena, and the Academic Enterprise

Before there was Wonder Woman and Xena there was Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Sheena, a kind of female Tarzan, appeared in comic book form in the United Kingdom in 1937, four years before Wonder Woman. She migrated to television in 1955 running in syndication for 26 episodes and to film in 1984. Another syndicated version of the Queen of the Jungle hit the airwaves in 2000 running for two seasons ending in 2002.

Though Wonder Woman (ABC and CBS, 1975-1979) and Xena: Warrior Princess (Syndication 1995-2001) have garnered a lot of critical attention in the Television Studies world Sheena seems to have garnered little attention from academics and one cannot help but wonder why. Like Wonder Woman and Xena, Sheena centred on a female hero. Like Wonder Woman and Xena, Sheena fought for what she cared about and often, like Wonder Woman and Xena, got the best of men. Like Wonder Woman and Xena, Sheena was smart. Unlike Wonder Woman and Xena, Sheena had an ethnically diverse cast that included Sheena's teacher, the shaman Kali. This, along with the fact that Sheena focused on a female hero, would, one would think, garner Sheena a least a bit of critical attention of academics obsessed with comic gooks, gender, and representation. You'd think there would be more than a passing reference to Sheena in the academic literature and at least a few academic papers on subjects like Sheena and the male and female Gaze, Sheena feminist or anti-feminist, and Sheena and the Shamanic Tradition in Africa.

The fact that there is so little of an academic nature on Sheena raises questions about the enterprise of Television Studies itself and leaves one wondering whether it is much beyond fan boy and fan girl stuff. And this leads us back once again into the labyrinthian world of the social and cultural construction of the academic mind.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Poor Edith: Fear and Loathing on the Melodrama Trail...

I have said this before and I am going to say it again, I am fascinated by what I see as the irrational hatred and fear of film and television melodrama or soap operas out there in film and television critic land. The reasons for my fascination are simple. Just as there is great drama, great tragedy, great comedy, and great detective shows, just as there is good drama, good tragedy, good comedy, and good detective shows, just as there are middling dramas, middling tragedies, middling comedies, and middling detective shows, just as there are poor drama, poor tragedy, poor comedies, and poor detective shows, and just as there are awful dramas, awful tragedies, awful comedies, and awful detective shows, there are great, good, middling, poor, and awful melodramas.

So why the irrational hatred and fear of melodramas? Historians, sociologists, cultural anthropologists, and psychologists want to know. Some commentators attribute the irrational hatred and fear of melodramas to paternalism. Melodramas are often, as a number of critics have pointed out over the years, often centred around and oriented toward women. Even if this is true, so what? Others attribute the irrational hatred and fear of melodramas to the perceived hyper or over the top "nature" of melodramas? But are the narrative forms and acting styles of melodramas any more or any less over the top than the narratives and acting choices of American situational comedies?

These questions about melodrama came to mind this labour day weekend thanks to a discussion on melodrama I had with a colleague and thanks to the fact that this labour day weekend in the US PBS reran the popular melodrama Downton Abbey. Though I have seen each and every episode of Downton Abbey at least once I did, I have to admit, peak in on the Downton marathon several times this long weekend. Binge watching Downton Abbey made clear several things I already knew or suspected about the show. The cinematography, sets, and acting of Downton are superb. It is the writing of Julian Fellowes that is the achilles heel of the show. Downton Abbey is, in my opinion and generally speaking, a middling or mediocre show at best. Series 1, 2, and 3 of the show are the best. Series 4, 5, and 6 are the weakest and repeat some of the things during the first three years of the show suggesting that Fellowes had run out of ideas for the show. Rematching the series also foregrounded the silliness of some of the arcs of the show as written by Fellowes. There's the I can't marry William arc, the can Matthew or can't Matthew walk and have little kiddies arc, the Lord and the parlour maid Jane arc, the I'm Patrick arc, the trails and travails of the possibly murderous Bates's arc, the I'm a socialist no I'm a capitalist thanks to wonderful America where social mobility is possible Branson arc. And then there are all those deus ex machines that seem to be Fellowes too much stock in trades.

None of these failures and the others that populate the show are the products of melodrama. They are down to the middling writing of Julian Fellowes. The reason the show is as watchable as it is, is down not only to the quality of the cinematography and the quality of the sets, but also to the quality of the ensemble acting in the series. Lady Sybill's death scene is superb. Thomas's destruction of the World War I rations he has been conned to buy is superb. Maggie Smith is always superb. Without here Downton Abbey wouldn't be nearly as watchable. If not for the quality of the acting and how devoted one becomes to the characters the actors play, Downton Abbey might almost be unwatchable. All this is rather sad since Fellowes seems to have put so much of his ideological self in the show.