movies & tv

Bourdain, Depression, and Work

The first time I encountered Anthony Bourdain’s writing was in his review of Queens Of The Stone Age’s …Like Clockwork.

I was a huge fan of the album, but this send-up struck me because of how much it had in common with Gonzo journalism. I had just finished writing my Master’s thesis on Michael Herr’s Dispatches whose writing style had a lot in common with Gonzo, too. I loved the way he could write decadently and pointedly at the same time, reaching delightfully hyperbolic heights while hitting home hard. But wait — isn’t this guy a celebrity chef?

Parts Unknown hooked me immediately, but not because of the great cinematography or the interesting places they chose to go, and definitely not because of the food. All of these things were great, don’t get me wrong. It was Bourdain’s writing and his willingness to tear away the veil a lot of travel shows keep between the tourist and real life, however, that made me realize there was something special here.

Just look at episodes like the one in Istanbul where he’s partying with young people on a rooftop who say they know a bomb could go off at any moment. And the most astonishing episode I remember: when he went to Palestine, and actually spoke to Palestinians, and stood up for them to an anti-Palestine Israeli. And of course the episode of No Reservations in Beirut where the whole crew was on lockdown as war broke out in the country. What about the episode about the heroin crisis? How about when he talks to Georgians who show where Russia has just surreptitiously stolen their land? The one in Mexico City where he interviews a journalist who can’t leave her house because of threats against her?

This is a food show???

Bourdain was a bad-ass, obviously. But what attracted me even more was that his writing was visceral and real. The intros and outros of shows where he would read his writing were my favourite parts. Unlike most plumped and packaged travel writing, Bourdain vivisected the places he visited and held the innards up for us to see. His awe was never forced; and he never pretended to like anybody who didn’t deserve it. His empathy was real, and he was genuinely humbled by the mothers who showed him how they make empanadas in lived-in kitchens in tiny towns at the end of dirt roads. His respect for humankind was enormous, while his disgust at those who would disrespect it probably even bigger. He worked to make sure nobody ever saw him as a neutral party. He never hesitated when something needed to be verbally gutted and hung to dry.  

He was fiercely loyal and generous to those who deserved it. He was fierce to those who didn’t. I admire the hell out of that. 

When I found out he took his own life, I was in shock. I still am. I cried all day. I’m crying now. My shock doesn’t come from a place of ignorance; I have clinical depression myself, and I’ve been medicated for a couple of years. I’ve worked hard to change my habits so that they help my mental health. Overall, it’s working. But there are still days, weeks, months when things are bleak. My shock at finding out about Bourdain wasn’t related to the fact that he had a “dream job.” Of course, he did have a dream job. But depression doesn’t discriminate. In fact, when things are going well for you in your career, depression can be worse. I don’t deserve this comes across one’s mind more often than I’m not depressed because my life is great. This has been said a million times over on social media, but depression doesn’t only affect those who haven’t got what they want out of life. Depression can make anyone feel like a failure. 

My shock came from the fact that I know how hard he has worked in the past few years to help his situation. He became a competitive Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter (physical activity helps a lot, when you can bring yourself to do it). He had a kid, and even his divorce was amicable. He had a new relationship. In that way, he had “things to live for” and he was taking care of himself physically. He was doing everything someone should be doing in that condition to take care of themselves. But it didn’t matter. 

This is part of the reason why you see a lot of backlash to tweets about suicide prevention hotlines. I called one yesterday for the first time, though I’ve felt suicidal many times in the past. Yesterday, seeing someone I thought was doing everything “correctly” still succumb to it, was what pushed me to give them a call. The person I spoke to was kind and understanding and very obviously had a “if person says THIS proceed to line 22” script in front of them. But that’s understandable; I was seeking help for something acute and we didn’t have time to get into highly important things. I thanked them for calming me down and ended the call. Then I saw this tweet:

Getting help for mental health is not enough. We live in a world where people don't want to live in it anymore. We need to change the world.

-Nikki Wallschlaeger on Twitter

Getting help for mental health is not enough. We live in a world where people don't want to live in it anymore. We need to change the world.

Like a slap across the face this tweet made my conflicting feelings come to a clear conclusion with a ringing in my ears. Seeing how hard Bourdain worked to give people voices when they needed to be heard, and seeing how deftly he tore down those who would silence those voices, leads me to believe that the contents of this tweet were at least part of the reason he made the decision he did in Strasbourg this week.

Bourdain was changing the world. He did change the world. And he still didn’t want to continue living in it. This is a gut punch for those of us with depression and suicidal thoughts. Having our friends reach out, getting treatment and working to change our habits, fighting every single day to stay alive — this is all really difficult when the world seems to be changing for the worse. 

So what can you do if you want to help your friends with depression?

Fight for them. Don’t just check up on them. Get out and work to change the conditions that make life so unbearable for so many. Seeing you alongside me at a protest goes a lot farther than any coping mechanism I’ve discerned. Seeing you vocally engage with those who would vote to strip rights from people. Seeing you use whatever power you have, be it privilege or physical energy to just fucking tweet about this shit again goes farther than a “I’m here for you.”

Be there for us by being beside us, by fighting alongside us and for us, and not relying on the Bourdains of the world to do it all themselves. This world needs change by the many and I’m sick of hearing people’s milquetoast lamentations after the worst happens when they sat on their laurels, comfortable in their complacency. Your friends are suffering. We don’t want your pity. We want your work. 

 

The Strong Woman Superhero

I saw Wonder Woman last night, and I really liked it. And I hate superhero movies, generally. Here are some reasons I liked it. No spoilers.

Growing up fat but athletic (yeah) and not pretty, Femininity has never been a place I belong, if you will. If women in movies are strong and athletic and pretty, they're also sad and damaged. This has never really motivated me to want to relate to women superheroes. I've never related to a woman character in a movie before and i'm not sure if i necessarily do to any in Wonder Woman either, but it has definitely struck me differently.

In my upcoming NetFlakes podcast on The Fifth Element I talk about the portrayal of strong women as being strong insofar as they are sexy, and that once their strength eclipses their sexiness, their womanhood is erased entirely. (This is especially interesting in a movie about a creature that is actually genderless in regards to the concept of the gender binary but stay tuned for the podcast for more on that.)

Fifth Element Case in point: the idea of this woman pretending to be our hero's wife is a joke because despite being strong and capable, she is not sexy. Therefore she might as well not be a woman.

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DBhG1B5VwAAgJ0g.jpgDBhG1B6U0AASjot.jpgOne of my criticisms of Wonder Woman was that I didn't see enough buff warriors but clearly they were there but too briefly. Obviously these women are still beautiful and supposed to look beautiful, but they look unlike other "strong" women superheroines. They're beefier. And they're also happy to be beefier. (I really want the Amazons to have their own movie so these women can have more screen time.)

So the body diversity is better, but can always improve. But what struck me even more was that these characters are proud to be strong. They're kind and compassionate and just happy.

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Diana is unlike all other women superheroes I know of in that she isn't angry or damaged, and her attractiveness doesn't come from being damaged or needing emotional saving despite being physically capable.

Diana's male counterparts quickly realize she's the far more capable fighter and never demean her for it. Her romantic interest respects her; he isn't waiting to show her that she needs him in order to establish a power imbalance in his favour. And Etta, the plus-size non-Amazonian woman, doesn't resent her for being beautiful or strong or capable. They establish a friendship, not a rivalry. This is because Diana is written to be happy, kind, and compassionate, instead of the usual woman superhero schtick.

In every other superhero movie I've seen, the strong and capable woman must also be unhappy. Her strength comes from a traumatic past. I don't want to pity the circumstances that drove a woman to be strong and capable. All that says is that once a man takes care of her, she can quit this life she never wanted. Diana was raised amongst a loving family who helped her become strong and capable and let her choose her destiny and follow her own path. This is way, way way too rare amongst women characters in action movies. Strong women are always strong out of necessity because of trauma and often talk about how they wish their lives were different. Except Diana and the Amazons. Diana chooses to fight when staying home would have been easier. No other woman superhero in a movie that I know of gets to choose. Being proud of strength, choosing her own life direction, and acting instead of reacting are elements that are far too seldom (if ever) equated with femininity in popular media. I talk about this lack of agency in women superheroes in my The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo podcastReacting to harm isn't the same as choosing to fight. 

TL;DR:

Wonder Woman is proud to be and chooses to be strong;

Other women superheroes are strong because something sad happened to them;

More women characters with the agency to choose to be strong without having to be sad/damaged or sexually useful, please.

The Witch isn't Feminist

Spoilers ahead. I'm a pagan witch and I'm doing my doctoral dissertation on nostalgia, gender, and the occult in American literature. Even though I'm a big scaredy cat when it comes to horror films, it's safe to say that I was curious about The Witch. When I read review after review lauding the film for the director's attention to historical detail, lack of cheap jump scares, and even a feminist message, I moved from curious to downright hyped. The movie came out on my birthday, and I took this as another good omen that I had found a new favourite.

What a disappointment.

The movie that I was hoping I'd see would be about a patriarchal Puritan family's psychological dissolution thanks to witch panic motivated by religious fervour, sexism, and desperation vs. the wilderness. I was hoping that the character of the witch was a figment of their imagination -- just like it had been 60-odd years after the movie takes place, in Salem. I was hoping that the foreboding and tense rising feeling of dread that every review told me to look forward to would be thanks to the idea that we, as viewers, aren't sure if the witch is a real threat, or if we should continue to be critical of the Puritan eagerness to blame women for all the ills of the world.

When the movie dashes all these hopes within the first 30 minutes by revealing the monster (isn't there a rule about that in horror...?), I even held out hope that there would be a reveal later that we were supposed to distrust what we saw as being through the panicked eyes of the family.

Nope!

The Witch had a chance to say something interesting about the very real fear that gripped the New England colonies and the innocent people (mostly women) who suffered and died because of it. I've read many articles that cite the director saying that he wanted us to understand that for the Puritans, a witch was a viable threat. Wouldn't it have been more interesting from a place of historical accuracy, a place of questioning patriarchal violence (which would metaphorically help us question the same which remains today), and from, you know, just a scary point of view if the witch was revealed not to be a cheesy bride of Satan monster, but either a) a crone living in the woods and minding her own goddamn business but that the family condemns from fear (often the real victim of witch crazes) or b) not real at all? Why did the movie go to such lengths to show us that there is a real monster in the woods, then attempt feebly to make us worry that Thomasin would be condemned as a witch? Why did the movie decide to reveal the feminine as monstrous after all? And newsflash: Thomasin signing her life/soul over to a man/Satan so that she can become a fictional stereotype in the woods rather than starve to death is not a feminist ending. Sorry!

I was hoping for a movie that was about how horrifying witch hunts -- literal and figurative -- were, and continue to be. I was hoping for a movie that critiqued the idea of demonizing femininity as being monstrous and unnatural. I got a movie that toes those lines in all the predictable and most boring ways and worse yet, is being championed as some feminist horror masterpiece. Put it this way: when you make a movie that Cotton Mather would have been cheering about, screaming "I told you so!!" -- you've probably failed.