Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Ex Machina: Failing the Bechdel Test, But Not Feminism

So I realize I'm a little late to the whole Ex Machina conversation. For months, I was convinced that a film that was ostensibly only about AI was not for me, and that I would be much more content watching Amy Schumer fall in love with a kooky, good-natured guy instead.

Boy, was I wrong. I was speechless for at least an hour after the credits stopped rolling. The following hour consisted of me yelling "but what even ARE humans," and scaring the neighborhood children.

I love a good ethical debate--Alex Garland, writer/director of Ex Machina was not afraid to confront hard-hitting issues such as "is it moral to imprison a machine that has the possibility of consciousness?", "are we entitled to play God? What happens when playing God leads to our ultimate demise?", "do machines deserve equal rights to humans?", and "why is Norway so pretty?"

There were so many moral/ethical issues, it took me a full day to even consider the notion of feminism in this film, not to mention the fact that narrow gender roles is one of the primary themes. What took me by surprise, however, was Angela Watercutter's Argument that Ex Machina is an anti-feminist film.

I have no problem being skeptical of so called "feminist" films. Almost everyone who'd seen Mad Max raved about how progressive it was to see a woman with more than one line--unheard of! And *gasp* she could both plan ahead AND stand up for herself! Surely not!

But I digress. My ambivalence towards Mad Max is for another time.

Ex Machina may seemingly fail the Bechdel test* (in which two female characters have to discuss something other than a man), but that doesn't mean it fails women completely. If anything, Garland makes his audience question our preconceived notions about the role of women, and what men are actually entitled to.

One of Watercutter's primary arguments is that Ava falls into the stereotype that women use seduction to get what they want, and that she is defined by her sexuality. Watercutter states, "Ava does prove to be the smartest creature on the screen, but the message we’re left with at the end of Ex Machina is still that the best way for a miraculously intelligent creature to get what she wants is to flirt manipulatively" (Wired).

Yes, Ava objectively uses her sexuality to get what she wants, but Watercutter fails to understand that while Ava plays into female stereotypes, she does so with an ulterior motive: to achieve complete autonomy, to escape the "male gaze" that she has been trapped in for so long. Ava's goal isn't to win over Caleb so that she can be his perfect lover; she is toying with Caleb's most prominent vulnerability in order to win independence. The ultimate hero is Ava alone. It is also important to note that Ava is not a one-dimensional sex machine--she is simply skilled at noticing others' weakest traits. Ava could have easily tried to seduce Nathan in order to escape, but she realizes those attempts would be futile. Thus, Ava takes a more violent approach when dealing with Nathan. If stabbing someone in the chest and watching them bleed out isn't strong-willed, nothing is.
Her evil plan is working

Watercutter is immediately defensive when we see Ava from the male gaze, and while it's uncomfortable to watch, that's Garland's point. It's not exactly feasible to discuss the problems with oversexualizing women if you fail to show the problem at hand.

One of the most troubling things about Ex Machina is how it tricks the audience into believing that Caleb is a heroic, reliable character. In the beginning of the film, he garners information and processes everything at the same speed/level as the audience--consequently, we begin to trust him, to root for him. However, just because Caleb is a good guy (which, by the way, we never get confirmation from Ava if he's telling the truth about being a good person), and, in comparison to Nathan, treats Ava like a princess, he is entitled to "trap" her into a romance. "He's such a nice guy," we argue, "he deserves her!"  We expect the "happy" ending to consist of Ava escaping one form of imprisonment, only to enter another.
A perfect depiction of "the male gaze"

Garland takes that expectation and smashes it with a hammer. Or, better yet, stabs it with a knife. 

So maybe it was a little extreme of Ava to let Caleb slowly die in Nathan's office, but she has to go to extreme measures to extricate herself from imprisonment--whether it be physical or emotional. The lasting message that Ex Machina leaves us with is that this is Ava's story. She doesn't need anyone to rescue her, or even to accompany her. She doesn't stop fighting until she can reach a place where she can solely rely on herself. In the end, the male gaze is shattered. She is free.

*Just a small technicality, but we don't actually know if Ex Machina passes the Bechdel test or not, seeing as Ava whispers in Kyoko's ear, presumably about strategizing Nathan's death--not exactly the same as talking about how cute some boy is, n'est-ce pas? 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Your "I'm Not Homophobic, But..." Argument Doesn't Fly.

I don't usually post such blatantly angry blogs, but I felt that this had to be said. Just be warned, this is a full-fledged rant, so if that's not your thing, please click away and enjoy some cat gifs. Cat gifs have never failed me.

My homophobic friend, however, has (oooh a transition; she must be a writer). 

The other night, a few friends and I wanted to go to Chumley's--Penn State's sole gay bar. I'd gone once before, and practically died of deliciousness when I tried their Rumchata and alcoholic frappacinos. Those of that had gone before maintained that we'd had quiet, pleasant experiences there, and those of us that hadn't were soon on board after hearing "chocolate and alcohol" in the same sentence.

Except for one friend (we're using that term verrrry loosely here). As soon as he learned that we were taking him outside of his "comfort zone," he very loudly asked "who here wants to go to a gay bar?" To which my friend and I very enthusiastically raised our hands, because if somebody was about to take us away from our Rumchata, there was going to be a problem.

This post is for "that friend" who "isn't homophobic, but..." 

That question is inherently bigoted and hateful, as it holds the implication that there is something undesirable about stepping foot into a gay bar. It makes about as much sense as hearing a gay person refuse to go into literally any other bar in State College because it is a "straight bar." My friend was under the assumption that, because he did not fit into a specific minority, it was scary, or unappealing somehow--which, by that logic, means that he can't be around women or racial minorities as well.

As if that wasn't hateful enough, my friend continued to assert that he would refuse to walk into Chumley's, that we'd "found his breaking point." He stated that, instead, he would "awkwardly hit on girls at Indigo," a MUCH more dignified way to spend your time, if you ask me.

This is where shit gets real. If you claim that you are not a homophobe, that you're really, deep down a nice guy, then proceed to deny the fact that gay people are humans too, you need to do some serious self-reflection. Then get a serious education. You may not be beating anybody up or setting anyone's houses on fire, but refusing to acknowledge a certain minority as worthy (or even tolerable) is, guess what, just as hateful as any act of violence. It is perpetuating the systematic intolerance that gay people have had to fight for literally hundreds of years. It is re-defining white, male, straight privilege as "normal." It is stating that objectifying and dry humping women at a club is a perfectly respectable activity, while having a conversation with a fellow human being is reprehensible and not worth any straight person's time.

It's laughable that there's still controversy over setting up ONE establishment where gay people can feel safe and secure. It's even more laughable that you've probably had conversations and, dare I say it, pleasant interactions with gay people without knowing their sexuality, but put a label on them and all of a sudden they're threatening you with their appletinis and penises.

You know where I've seen grossly oversexualized, animalistic behavior? At "straight" dance clubs. Which you seem to have no problem glossing over, since it benefits your straight male needs.

What gets me is that you think that this form of intolerance and discomfort is deemed more justifiable, more acceptable than other (more logical) forms of discomfort. If, for instance, you took your gun out and started waving it around me, chest puffed out and testosterone levels through the roof, I would begin to feel a little uncomfortable--justifiably so, seeing as GUNS FUCKING KILL PEOPLE. But if I were to say "raise your hand if you want ____to put his gun away," or simply asked you to put your gun away, I would be "stripping you of your rights as an American citizen," or deemed just plain crazy (which in itself is a problem that perpetuates sexism, but that's for another post). I'm not saying that every homophobic person has a gun, but my point is that other people's discomfort is seemingly illogical if it fails to benefit you as a privileged straight, white man.

Your life is not in imminent danger at a gay bar. Your sexuality is not in imminent danger. The only thing you are in danger of is seeming like a class-A asshole.

No one's asking you to be gay. No one's even asking you not to be proud of your sexuality. You must be very brave, stepping into a world that pours privilege on you and benefits you every single day. But what we are asking you to do is realize that this is the 21st century, you've already lost your homophobic battle, and that you can spend an hour in a room with people who are different from you. You might even learn something about the world.


Saturday, September 5, 2015

Anorexia Triggers: How to Stop

It's been ten years since I was diagnosed with anorexia. Having had only a brief flirtation with this illness--although it didn't feel very brief at the time--I can easily make the distinction between a "past life," something that hardly feels connected to me anymore, and who I am at age twenty-two. However, despite being technically free of anorexia for eight years, I still battle with disordered thinking--something that, no matter how irrational it may seem, will never completely go away. Not a day goes by when I don't think about my weight, or compare my body to those around me. While I rarely act on it, I have consistently wished I was twenty pounds thinner, regardless of my weight at the time.

It's exhausting. It's infuriating. And for those of us who aren't on the brink of death, it's seemingly ignored. 

While there's a lot more awareness about how we can actively combat anorexia, we seem to forget about the long-term recovery process. I'm lucky enough to be surrounded by supportive friends, family, and cake, which has helped me become as fully recovered as possible (especially the cake). But I've noticed, that on any given day, there are multiple trigger warnings for anyone with disordered thinking/body image issues.

It's easy enough to pinpoint the sickly skinny models, the weight loss commercials, the "pro-ana" websites. Those, while deeply concerning, have been covered to death. I'm talking about more personal trigger warnings, something that friends and families of recovering anorexics should be aware of and make an effort to stop.

I live in an apartment of four girls. At this point, it's almost expected of us to make generally negative comments about our bodies. One of the first things we bought for our apartment was a bathroom scale. And when one of us makes a disparaging comment about her body, the rest of us infer, "well, if she hates her body, I must be a disgusting, horrifying creature." And then we throw out all our cupcakes, which is just sad, since cupcakes make everything better. But there are days when we seem to engage in "who can hate her body the most" competitions, with weight almost always being the winning argument.

I'm not saying we can feasibly live in a world where we stop talking about our weight or bodies in general. That's unrealistic, especially in good old 'Murica. But there's a difference between working towards health and obsessively measuring. And while everyone's experience is different, I've noticed that when others begin obsessively comparing/measuring, I think I'm at fault for not doing the same thing.

One of the least helpful things you can do around a former anorexic is count calories. Especially when you go out to eat. I just want to eat my burrito in peace. The caloric content in a given food does not connote its nutritional value. If I had to point out one thing that perpetuates obsessive disordered thinking, it would be calorie counting.

Barring the point that it's exceedingly boring to hear someone else's food intake of the day, it's also exceedingly risky. Again, it perpetuates unhealthy comparisons. Among girls, the "oh my gosh, I ate so much," complaint is oftentimes a humble brag about how little food they can survive on. When I hear a friend complain about being full from smelling a pancake, I can only conclude that I am the scum of the earth for needing three complete meals a day (ice cream not included).

If you do not want to hear my stomach imitate what can only be described as the mating call of a killer whale, don't talk to me about how you "ate so much."

I know these triggers aren't malicious, and nobody wants someone they love to suffer through an eating disorder. These comments, in most cases, go unnoticed, but it affects us more than you may think.

(Also, I'm aware that somewhere in the middle of this post, I went full-on sarcastic on you guys. My apologies for the change in tone. Apparently I'm not able to cover serious topics without throwing in a burrito reference or five. Let's chat about my sarcasm problem over a burrito).


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Formal Complaint: Where Did Interest in Professors Go?

So I realize I could be particularly sensitive to this issue, seeing as I am the product of academia, but I've noticed a trend among many college students: they'll talk about what fantastic classes they've taken/are going to take, but cannot remember the name of the professor. In my creative writing class, a student mentioned having taken that class before, but failed to remember if her professor was male or female. In a course as subjective as creative writing, and at a time when need for letters of recommendation (*cough cough*) is fast approaching, it is essential that you work with a compatible professor.

I've certainly been guilty of this in the past. My parents, if they knew of a highly regarded professor, would encourage me to take a class with him or her, only for me to respond with, "you don't know my life or my schedule!" which resulted in too many English classes entirely devoted to vampires and indie video games.

I understand that it's unrealistic to only seek out the highest quality professors throughout your college career, but this lackadaisical approach to college professors doesn't only hurt the people who spent weeks slaving over a hot syllabus for you, but it hurts you as well. Yes, your class may be required, or the course topic may interest you so much you think that the professor is irrelevant, but what we fail to see is that these professors tweak their classes to match their areas of expertise, their interest.

To illustrate, let's look at an example from my spring semester English course. This course was advertised as Engl 490: Women Writers. I was led to believe I would be reading some Virginia Wolf, some Brontes, some Austen--however, my professor's area of expertise was in the study of the young girl. As such, this class quickly transformed into an experimental women's studies class in which we read about *warning, gross* anal fissures and bands called "Pussy Riot." Which would have been fine, had I signed up for a women's studies class.

Ironically, I've learned the importance of researching my professors just in time to graduate. But it's so much more refreshing to take my major courses with a yoga-loving, memoir-writing professor than to suffer through what can only be described as Dracula fan-fiction.

I've taken course where I felt like my professor didn't care to get to know our names or stories, and I can confirm that its a pretty shitty feeling. However, it's more justifiable, seeing as, in the course of a semester, an average professor has 75+ students, and the student has 7 professors at most. Professors are *gasp* human, and are therefore not immune to feeling un-appreciated or undervalued. And when it comes time to write your letters of recommendation, they will certainly remember that feeling.

I know this is nothing profound, but it was just on my mind. For the most part, your professors work hard. They're basically the celebrities of the world of academia. Treat them as such.*

*I may be exaggerating a leeeeetle bit here, but seriously. I've met some professors who might as well be rockstars. They're that cool.


Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Lipstick Yogi

I rolled out my yoga mat, as I had done a million times before. Sitting in the corner of the yoga studio, I had gotten into the pattern of allowing myself the luxury of maintaining a healthy distance from my classmates, while still being able to observe their practice. It was the voyeur's dream. 

I had just settled into a stiff, creaky half lotus, when a classmate rolled her mat beside mine. I peered up at her--she greeted me with an uninhibited smile. 

"I just wanted to say, I love your hair," she said, gesturing to my newly-red locks. "Is that henna?" 

As far as I knew, henna was that stuff that I had tried to slap on my body five years prior that made me look like I had rolled around in dirt. 

I shrugged. "Just regular hair dye." I grew increasingly self conscious, and tried to discretely rub off my violently purple eyeshadow. What was perceived as a great investment in my self-esteem amongst my roommates seemed a terrible felony at the yoga studio. You mean to say you paid money to pour chemicals on your head for the sake of your appearance?? The horrors!

"Oh, you should really look into henna. Nature's pantry. It's amazing stuff." 

I wasn't sure when nature got a pantry, but I had the sinking suspicion I was terribly un-enlightened for lacking this knowledge. Perhaps if I used organic lotion and put wheatgrass on my head, I would be able to do a headstand by now.  

Somehow I doubted it.   
I have been doing yoga for about four years. It's been a positive constant in my life--I love the feeling of complete surrender after falling into that final savasana. I have learned to better express gratitude--both for myself and others. It's an added bonus that I can stand on my hands and make people go "oooh." But, paradoxically, with that ability to finally maintain some level of ease, I also have that nagging feeling that I don't quite fit. I smile and nod when my fellow yogis discuss homemade lotion recipes and kambucha. I've had fleeting desires to rid myself of superfluous material goods, only to realize that Ulta is having a sale, and that red lipstick makes me forget that I'm not actually queen of the universe.

I know I've written about this before. One of my first posts addresses the internal struggle of finding the balance between "fashionista" (meaning I bought a pair of jeans once) and "spiritual being." Since then, I've realized that my own inner peace has nothing to do with the type of jeans I'm wearing, and if anything, exfoliator does wonders for that third eye chakra. It took an embarrassingly long time to realize this, but enlightenment is not a "one size fits all" formula. What strikes me, however, is that--at least from the outside--one size seems to fit most. It's like the yoga pants debacle of 2014, only with more chanting, but equal amounts of spandex.

Although I've technically been going to yoga since senior year of high school, I hesitated to call myself a "serious yogi" until this past fall--part of this was an excuse to laze around my apartment for months on end and completely avoid physical activity of all forms--but a major factor was that I feared letting go of my casual yogi status, as in my mind, that required forcing myself into a mold that I knew I could never fit myself into--I'm not nearly flexible enough.

There was a particular quote from Erica Kaufman, the owner of Lila Yoga Studios, that resonated with me: "yoga doesn't change who you are. It frees who you are." I certainly see how this would be true--reducing my anxiety has allowed me to focus on more meaningful, deeper aspects of myself. Yet I still struggle with the concept that so many yogis' "selves" align with one another. Yoga class is quite possibly the most open, least judgmental environment on this planet, yet there are times when I wonder if I'm doing something wrong, that I can't be taken seriously as a disciple or teacher.

Which brings me to my next point. As someone who is studying to become a yoga teacher this coming school year, I am volunteering myself to "fit the yoga mold," at least in the most abstract sense. I've struggled between the desire to fit in and my need to be true to my most authentic self. Which is really a bummer, since I was told I should have gotten past this struggle like, five years ago. I'm still waiting on that whole self-acceptance badge I was told would be waiting for me at the finish line of my teenage years.

It's quite possible I'll be able to just rock the "lipstick yogi" look and make it a trend of sorts. But seeing as my middle school attempts to initiate the jeans/skirt trend flopped, I don't have high hopes.

Excuse me while I go buy organic everything.


Sunday, August 2, 2015

I Sing the Body Electric: A Review of Urban Decay's Electric Pressed Pigmment Palette

So I'm trying something new here at Coffee, Yoga, and Life's Other Necessities and delving into the world of makeup reviews. Which probably means I'll write this review, forget that I ever made this commitment in the first place, then in five months go "oh my gosh guys, I'm so sorry it's been so long since I've posted a review!"

And so it goes.

This whole review thing is convenient for two reasons: 1) It gives me an excuse to fawn over colorful, shiny things without seeming mentally insane, and 2) It gives the illusion that I am actually skilled in the art of makeup application. Spoiler alert: I'm not--though I can now do my water line without crying. Does that count?

So the other day, I thought "what's better than saving money for rent/groceries/adulting? I know--spending $50 on eyeshadow I could never wear for said adulting!" And thus the Ulta splurge began.

Outrageous expense aside, this palette is PRETTY--pretty enough that I can't contain my excitement in lowercase letters. I spent about a week going online and staring at pictures of this eyeshadow. Then, when my order finally arrived, I spent about a week opening and closing the palette, reveling in that magnetic click, and occasionally squealing at the colors.


This palette is not for the faint of heart (additionally, those with real, grownup jobs). Once that color goes on, it shows. Once it seemingly comes off, it still shows. I've had pink eyelids for about two weeks now. But if you're like me and want a bold look for watching Netflix and reading books a night on the town, Urban Decay has got you covered. Thus far, I have used Jilted and Urban and not ended up looking like the Joker. It helps to invest in a roommate who will yell "Kira! You look like a clown! Where is your blending brush?"

It's also helpful to invest in a blending brush. There goes week #2 of groceries.

"Sunset," and other pretentious names

  For my fellow brown eyed girls, I would strongly recommend avoiding the pinks and reds such as Slow Burn and Savage. However, blues and purples go on beautifully. I still have no idea what yellow is doing there. Yellow looks good on approximately 0% of the population.

As I've learned from experience, if you want to look like you've spent more than two minutes putting on eyeshadow, you should spend more than two minutes putting on eyeshadow. But you should also blend these violently colorful shades with more neutral tones such as brown (this is turning into a $100 investment--funny how that happens).

If you blend some brown into your crease, magic will happen. And by magic, I mean the roommate you've just invested in will squeal, "your eyes look so pretty! I was beginning to lose hope in you!"

Also, for the shimmer obsessed, Revolt is pretty much the best thing that has happened on this planet. Every other makeup guru seems to dismiss Revolt as un-interesting and useless, but I've also lived by the school of thought that your look is not complete if you don't look like you've got some glitter glue stuck to your eye.

But seriously, it's a lovely addition to the palette.

Fringe is probably my favorite shade here, but I have yet to find a way to apply it without looking like I've got a bruised face. After a few more hours of experimenting in my room, I'll let you all know how it works out.
"The lizard"

As a whole, for the broke college student, this is probably not a wise investment. For the average, normal adult, this is also probably not a wise investment. But I invested anyway.

And for those of you who are looking for actually skilled makeup gurus, HAH, joke's on you! But also, here's a look done by Jaclyn Hill that (supposedly) the average woman can emulate:
Enjoy your face eyes.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Write On: How Real Should Interpersonal Hardships Be?

The other day, a friend and I were talking about how to fictionalize personal struggles. I'm not shy about my preference for stories about people and their lives, so it's no surprise that a great deal of my material comes from my own struggles with growing up, family, and friends. During overly hormonal particularly difficult times, my stories ended up sounding like a 150 page whine-fest about how a boy who talked to me twice didn't like me. That's some serious literature right there.

Since then, my writing has progressed, but my basic sources of inspiration have stayed the same. I have no trouble painting the characters who I associate myself with in a negative light, but it gets tricky when you start to reveal unflattering truths about those who are closest to you. Especially when the best writing typically stems from tumultuous relationships with said close family/friends.

Having experienced this moral dilemma, I can't say there's an obvious right or wrong answer. I once wrote a piece that centered around a very dark period between me and my mother, and quality-wise, it turned out to be some of my best writing. I soon learned that my mother was not comfortable with sharing that piece of her life in the context of my piece. While I was annoyed that I would have to re-write an essay that could affect my grade, I realized that keeping a positive relationship with my mom was worth more than a shiny GPA. In that case, the answer was obvious--I was writing a non-fiction piece, and I'd gotten very explicit lack of consent. Non-fiction is a little more black and white. If you're writing entirely about a real person with real issues, they always have the right to veto that piece. That's not censorship--rather, that's protecting another person.

However, fiction is where interpersonal drama often becomes more ambiguous. My friend brought up an excellent point when he was discussing his own writing project. He mentioned the fact that while his writing is far less autobiographical than my own, he focused on troubled family dynamics (particular parental pressure) because of his own relationship with his mother. He noted that if someone ever wanted to buy his screenplay, he would jump at the chance, but there was still that nagging concern about what his family would think if they read his screenplay or watched the movie. Coming from an exceptionally supportive family, I immediately assumed that his parents would realize that his own happiness and success was the most important, and they'd be proud. However, this isn't always the case. Oftentimes this is why some of the best writers are the most isolated (also, alcoholism. But that's for another time).

I'm normally an advocate for being overly careful not to step on anyone's toes, in the case of fiction writing, I'm still a firm believer in facing hard, unflattering truths. I'm not saying you should go spouting out your best friend's deepest, darkest secrets alongside their name and address, but limiting one's creative outlet in fear of hurting someone's feelings is, in its purest form, censorship. You shouldn't walk up to your father and say "hey look, your emotional unavailability made me unable to form meaningful relationships!" (think how awkward THAT Thanksgiving would be), but on paper, that's free game. Not only is this creative freedom therapeutic, but it's real. More often than not, the reader can tell when you're trying to tip-toe around the core issue, and it makes for a very artificial, very dull story. In most cases, poignant trauma and distress seamlessly translates to poignant fiction.

It's also important to realize that fiction--at least, good fiction writing--very rarely features one-dimensional characters. Just because a certain character seems more troubled than others, that does not mean that she is the clear-cut "villain." Exhibiting flawed, complicated moments just shows that the world is full of flawed, complicated people--which family dynamics often enhance.

The moral of the story is not "I hate my mom," or "life would be so much greater if my great Aunt Tina stopped chugging bottles of wine and calling me fat." Stories that expose troubled family dynamics do more than simply point fingers. They make us realize something about human nature, about growing up, about ourselves.