The Magicians on TV…and Julia

The-Magicians-Book-Cover-e1317909429117The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a very cerebral fantasy book. It stands out from others of its genre for its self reflexivity, its almost painful self awareness. Unlike other fantasy authors who quite openly and intelligently engage with the tradition they are part of (notably Samit Basu and Terry Pratchett), Grossman doesn’t use humour to deal with the weight of ‘the canon’ in his writing. Or he does, but it’s not the dominant emotion in his relationship to it. His work is almost painfully earnest in its desire to deal with the question of what an existential crisis would look like for a modern day, culturally aware fantasy nerd, who stumbled onto magic but didn’t have a Dark Lord to fight.

The answer is apparently the existential crisis would just be worsened, because you would realise that ultimately, magic does not give your life meaning and you’re just stuck with having to create one, like everyone else around you.

As you might guess, this is pretty complex stuff. It’s hard to showcase this in a  sexy, appealing manner on screen, and that was why I was a bit worried about the decision to adapt the book into a TV series. Sure, I’ll watch it, but I can’t help but be a little scared that the core of the book, its ‘meaning’ and ‘question’ as critics might call it, would be compromised in the name of entertaining a larger, not so existential-question-loving audience.

quentin

So, worries in place, I watched the first episode of Syfy’s The Magicians. It was entertaining enough—good graphics, some nice showcasing of magic, and quick intros to all the main characters. There were some familiar faces (Ros from Game of Thrones! Ben and little Emma from Gossip Girl!), some sort of surprising changes (since when has pudgy, awkward loner Penny been a Kamasutra sex god? I thought Alice was brown haired and surly quiet rather than obviously Type A fragile quiet…) but I explained these away as either good moves for diversity casting (the former) and need to stick in at least one blonde girl (the latter). The move to age up the characters and have them graduate from college rather than high school before stumbling onto magic was also, I thought, a good one, as it was only after leaving the sheltered environment of undergrad that the aimlessness of existence sort of became obvious to me and several of my friends. Yes, I realise that’s our privilege talking, but since the characters of The Magicians are similarly (if not more) privileged, I thought it relevant to mention here.

What I did not expect, and did not like at all, was the weird scene with Julia.

I should expand on Julia here. She was, hands down, my favourite part of the series, once she came into her own in the second book, The Magician King. I identified with her, to a great extent, and thought it was amazing how Grossman developed her character from, primarily, being Quentin’s unrequited, unattainable love interest, to someone who really goes through a lot to get what she wants: mastery over magic. Julia acts as a brilliant foil to Quentin, making his angst and worries look like the griping of spoiled schoolboy, but still not robbing them of their centrality to the narrative that they hold up together.

In this episode, Julia, who has been turned out of Brakebills but still remembers the world Julia_Wickerof magic, has decided to do whatever it takes to get back the one thing that really means something to her now, magic. She teaches herself spells from the internet, we assume, refusing to listen to a condescending Quentin when he tells her she doesn’t ‘have it in her’ to learn, that Brakebills has not made a ‘mistake’ in turning her away. Julia then gets near-assaulted in a club bathroom, where is forced to reveal her magical abilities and then led by her creepy stalker to what we assume is a hideout and ‘school’ for the ‘non official’ magicians.

So far, so good? No. I did not see why the scene with Julia had to be so, for want of a better word, rapey. Her buttons pop off her shirt one by one, her shirt is stripped off, and she is pinned by an invisible force against what I think are pipes. Then a smiling man approaches her, and it’s obvious to us that he is the one responsible for it all. He asks her how it feels to know that he can do anything to her, to which Julia somehow manages to respond by yanking herself out of his invisible hold and making her hands flare with electrical surges.

I felt really disturbed while watching this. While I understand the writers might have wanted to push Julia into an extreme state of vulnerability in order to showcase her latent talent (a common theme in many superhero/magical stories), I didn’t see why they had to use such an obviously sexual way of doing it. Did she really have to be stripped down and threatened with physical and sexual assault to come out shining? I hate to ask this, but would they have done that if she were a boy? I somehow don’t think the sexual overtones would have been present if that were the case.

Maybe what got to me about Julia’s…experience was how absolutely nightmarish but simultaneously terrifyingly realistic it was. You don’t need to be in a fantasy world to be afraid of something like that happening to you, and I know plenty of people, women especially (me included), who are aware of just how easily that could happen to them. For this reason, I was not able to focus on the ‘magic’ aspect of it, or ‘appreciate’ what it revealed of Julia. I couldn’t wrap my head around why she had to be pushed specifically in that direction, in what felt like a very voyeuristic fashion. And it was quite literally voyeuristic, not inspiring, since her tormentor and near-rapist (though he explicitly disclaims the title) stands around watching with a creepy smile on his face.

Julia goes through some really dark places in the course of the series, but she always comes across as extremely strong. I don’t know if the show is going to explore all those elements (they’ve changed so much already, so who knows), and this may just be their disturbing precursor, but I don’t think that’s really enough reason. I can’t keep thinking this was a Game of Thrones-esque use of rape, or near-rape, to illustrate that this is a ‘heavy’, ‘serious’ show. My point is, you don’t need that to show that a character is releasing energies in a stressful situation. And while Grossman does deal with sexual abuse in his books, he never makes it seem voyeuristic, as the show did.

I hope this was a one-off, and am crossing my fingers that things don’t continue in this fashion further down the line. As we know, the magic only gets weirder here on out.

Why Mindy Kaling doesn’t have to be my pioneer

Written in response to the piece ‘Mindy Kaling is not your pioneer’ by Alex E. Jung in Al Jazeera America. Original article here: http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/1/mindy-project-racetv.html

mindy1‘To be born a woman is to know/That you must labour to be beautiful’

I’m sorry for the pretentious quote (it’s from W.B. Yeats’ ‘Adam’s Curse’ by the bye, for those who are interested). One of my professors gave me a great piece of writing advice in my third year of college: ‘Never open with a quote,’ he said, ‘let the reader hear your voice straightaway.’ Then he paused and added, ‘Also it sounds incredibly annoying.’

I try to stick by those guidelines, but something about the topic today just called out desperately for a quote, and that one has been bouncing around in my head all day, ever since I read this article on how Mindy Kaling, and her on-screen alter ego, Mindy Lahiri, are not/is not a pioneer. The Yeats quote, for some reason, sums up my feelings perfectly, but I would add an extra dash to it:

‘To be a coloured woman in entertainment is to know/ That you must labour to be everything’.

The author of this article has one major problem with Mindy Kaling, and that’s this: she is not a pioneer for Asian-American women. At least, not enough of one. She uses the age-old rom-com formula of ‘ upwardly mobile white Americans whose aspirations are to find love; its women tend to find belonging by marrying the right man.’  And worse, she does this by dating only white men.

Alex Jung (the author) makes a number of good points, I will admit that. He says that Kaling, through this character, is ‘the [perpetuating] the great lie of romance, which suggests that love and marriage are not somehow informed by class, race and gender conventions.’ By dating and settling down with a white man, Lahiri, the character,seeks the ‘ultimate assimilation’ into the American context, a specially white American context.

Mindy and her boyfriend, Danny Castellano (played by Chris Messina)

Mindy and her boyfriend, Danny Castellano (played by Chris Messina)

He points out that we know nothing of Lahiri’s parents, that none of her partners or she herself comment on her Indian heritage (even her very Christian boyfriend, Casey, says the reason he cannot be with her is because she is ‘selfish’, not because she is a Hindu) and that she seems to be a ‘character simply born of the imagined community of lovelorn career women whose identities are defined purely by what they buy’. Instead of revolutionizing and reworking the conventions of the 90s rom com, Kaling has adopted it unapologetically, and simply inserted herself into the lead role.

Harsh.

Kaling’s own response to her success has been double pronged: on the one hand, she has gone on record stating that she ‘embraces’ her position as a role model for younger women, specifically younger Indian-American women. On the other hand, she’s also said that refuses to be ‘treated as an outsider’ and made a token representative of her race. In other words, she seeks to beat the majorly white entertainment establishment by ignoring her ‘otherness’ altogether, and thereby urging others to ignore what many might see as a handicap in their own quest for success.

This deliberate negating of her ‘race’ as a potential issue, and thereby as a constituent of her character’s identity in The Mindy Project, is what Jung seems to take offence at. There is a difference between denying something and ignoring it—Jung accuses Mindy of denying the importance of race in something like romantic relationships or professional dynamics; I think Kaling simply ignores that her character’s race and non-white upbringing might be an issue and thereby, in some ways, presents an even more revolutionary perspective. What would it be like to live in a world where it really didn’t matter if you were Indian-American and are unburdened by societal expectations and cultural baggage? That’s Mindy Lahiri’s world.

Second—on the character’s decision to date only ‘white’ men. Mindy Lahiri is NOT Mindy Kaling. Mindy Lahiri is an overblown, ridiculous, gossipy and extremely selfish character—even her creator thinks so. Lahiri’s life and decisions are not something anyone should seek to emulate, except perhaps for her professional credentials (which, in Season 3, she seems to be really working on). It’s the same way no one can possibly look to Michael Scott, Steve Carrell’s character on The Office, for guidance. Is it not possible that Lahiri is an object of spoof here—that her decision to only date a certain kind of man shows more about her character than it does about Kaling’s racial politics?

Can you take this character seriously?

Can you take this character seriously?

And finally—why does Kaling have to face these questions at all? What sort of responsibility does she have to her audience that someone like, say, Charlie Sheen or Lisa Kudrow doesn’t? Charlie Sheen could play a drunken, debauched man on Two and a Half Men and no one called him out on the terrible representation of Malibu residents. The two were not conflated as the same person (which is funny considering that, based on all reports, Charlie is much more similar to his onscreen character than Mindy is). Kudrow’s character on FRIENDS, Phoebe Buffay, dates a series of men over the course of show, but not one of them is non-white. In fact, the only character on that show who dated anyone ‘not of his race’ was Ross, possibly the least popular of the six.

By expecting Kaling to answer questions that other, non-minority actors don’t have to is a form of discrimination. By asking her work to showcase her ‘difference’ from the run of the mill show runner is also ascribing her a ‘token representative’ status, it is implying that she is not like the others. It’s pretty much the equivalent of someone asking you why you made angel cake when you are Indian—can’t you make halwa instead? Maybe you don’t want to make the halwa. Maybe angel cake is what you love and want and damned if you haven’t worked hard on learning the recipe. If you can make that angel cake better than anyone else in your class can, why not go ahead and do it?

Kaling is an entertainer, a performer, and forcing her to handle the unresolved tensions of an entire society is unfair. She is not in her line of work to speak for the Indian-American community, she is there to make a successful career out of it. Kaling’s fun, smart and she’s certainly broken a number of barriers for women in television, but don’t expect her to be a culture-mascot or a politically-correct watchdog; don’t expect her to be ‘everything’.