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Image made by Laura Elizabeth Hand, CC’19

Content Warning: sexual assault

As everyone reels from the news about Harvey Weinstein, the question of inequality for women in Hollywood finds itself once again at the forefront of conversation. Behind the camera, women are coming forward with stories of sexual assault, and we’re finally engaging in a conversation that should have begun years ago. But… what about in front of the camera?

In her acceptance speech at last month’s Emmys, Best Actress winner Nicole Kidman explained that she and Reese Witherspoon produced Big Little Lies to create “more great roles for women.” She was met with thunderous applause acknowledging her role in Lies as “great.” But I was lost.

Over the summer, I binged-watched probably hundreds of episodes of television and saw every movie in theaters. And there were, indeed, great female roles. Elisabeth Moss’s Offred was a strong feminist, Kimmy Schmidt made her way to college, Wonder Woman dominated at the box office, Anne of Green Gables made a triumphant return to television, and the women of This Is Us, Veep, The Crown, and so much more were complex and inspiring.

But when I turned to Kidman’s Big Little Lies, I couldn’t help but gasp at the tireless repetition of sexist tropes and same old plotlines. For those who don’t know, Big Little Lies follows four different mothers in an upper-middle class suburban town. Madeline, played by Reese Witherspoon, is the town gossip and an overbearing and self-centered mother. Jane, played by Shailene Woodley, is a single mom, new in town, with a troubled past. Her son, Ziggy, gets into trouble with Renata Klein, the hard-working businesswoman whose daughter claims Ziggy hurt her. And Kidman’s character, Celeste, is a stay-at-home mom who’s hidden the truth about her abusive husband for years.

If you look at the logline, you may buy Kidman’s claim about “great roles for women.” Save for perhaps Witherspoon’s one-dimensional character (who’s literally portrayed as if Elle Woods just grew up a tiny bit), the rest of the women indeed seem complex. But rather than focusing on the crux of the women’s troubled stories, the show spends the bulk of its time rehashing the fight  fight between Jane and Renata’s children. While the fight begins with a serious accusation, before long it becomes clear that Ziggy didn’t hurt Renata’s daughter, and that the fight has spiraled into an all-out war over who works harder: the working moms or the stay-at-home moms. By the end of the first episode, everyone in town has taken sides, and suddenly it’s like you’re watching a glorified version of a middle-school cat fight, but with birkin bags instead of friendship bracelets.

The subplots are equally uncompelling, and wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test if you gave them all the leeway possible. Madeline can’t seem to get her new husband to get along with her old one, or convince the town to let her put on a production of Avenue Q. These are ridiculously privileged problems, yet the show makes them out to be as dramatic as the abuse Celeste is experiencing at home. Madeline finally connects with her teenage daughter by admitting that she cheated on her new husband. Oh great, isn’t that wonderful motherly guidance? Meanwhile, Renata doesn’t have sex often enough with her husband, and her poor daughter can’t get enough kids to come to her million-dollar birthday party.

But while all this is happening, the only two characters with the possibility for a compelling subplot also fall short. A few episodes into the series, we learn that Jane was raped and she fears that Ziggy will inherit his father’s violent tendencies, but this intriguing storyline barely gets any airtime. Celeste finally works up the nerve to go to a therapist, and the show’s only truly “great” female moments are in Kidman’s painfully accurate portrayal of a woman struggling to come forward about abuse. When Celeste finally decides to leave her husband, the depiction of women on the show finally feels empowered.

But within one episode, everything swings back again. In the final scene, at a ridiculously over-the-top school function, Celeste’s husband discovers she’s leaving and starts to hit her. Coming to her defense, Madeline, Jane, Renata, and one other woman hit him back, and we learn that Celeste’s abusive husband was the man who raped Jane all those years ago. Finally, the women accidentally push him over a cliff and kill him. It was an act of self-defense, and the audience breathes a sigh of genuine relief and hope for Celeste’s brighter future.

But then, they deny the murder. In talking to the police, not one woman comes forward with the truth. He simply fell, they say. In talking to the police, not one woman comes forward with the truth. Why? I’m not sure. In their silence, the women of Big Little Lies end their show not with a message of the importance of speaking out for victims of abuse, but of the harmlessness of staying silent. Suddenly, everything about the showKidman’s character and even Jane’s intriguing subplotseems far too convenient. For Jane, the question of her own PTSD and her son’s violent tendencies are suddenly resolved. And true, it seems like Celeste was about to finally stand up and leave, but by choosing to kill off the abuser, the writers eliminate the incredibly difficult period abused women struggle through, physically and emotionally, to take that step away. If this were a real woman, Jane’s and Celeste’s  struggles would not be over with a timely shove off of a cliff and a promise to never speak of it again. Abuse lives with people forever.

The show ends with a reconciliation. Like they’re in middle school again, Madeline, Jane, Celeste, and Renata are suddenly friends, joined together with a secret. But let me put it plainly: abuse is not a cute little secret you share with your friends. Abuse is not a problem that deserves less screen time and the same dramatic emphasis as does the question of whether to put on Avenue Q. Abuse is real, abuse is terrible, and abuse doesn’t resolve itself that easily.

Big Little Lies took home five Emmys this year. In her acceptance speech, Nicole Kidman said that the show helped “shine a light” on abuse. Maybe, but the small light the show shines is not enough. The women in the show aren’t “great”: they’re simple, naive, entitled, and don’t reflect the true complexities that women like Celeste and Jane (or even real-life Madelines) face every day. And in an industry where actresses experience sexual harassment every day and a world where men like Harvey Weinstein find success, Hollywood needs to do better.

So yes, Ms. Kidman: you’re right. Hollywood does need more great roles for women. But I’m afraid this wasn’t it.

Video made by Soorim Lee

The Columbia community goes all out for the holidays, and Halloween is no exception! Learn about all the events around campus that you can take advantage of this spooktacular weekend.

  1. CU Dining: Pumpkin Carving
    Time: Friday 10/27, 5pm-8pm
    Place: JJ’s Place
    Exactly what it sounds like: stop by and carve your own pumpkin!
  2. A Very Potter Spooktacular
    Time: Friday 10/27, 9 PM
    Place: Wallach 3 Lounge
    About: Every Flavor Beans, Chocolate Frogs, and the House Cup! You don’t want to miss this!
  3. CMTS Presents: The Rocky Horror Picture Show
    Time: Friday 10/27, 9 PM – 11 PM
    Place: Diana Event Oval
    About: For those with a CUID, tickets are available for $2 online and at the TIC in the lobby of Lerner Hall OR for $5 at the door. Non-CUID tickets are $5 online and at the TIC or $7 at the door. Bring your best Rocky/Halloween spirit and grab a prop bag at the door for $3! Doors will open at 8:30 PM and the show will begin at 9:00 PM in the Diana Event Oval.
    Facebook Event
    Buy Tickets
  4. Hallowien
    Time: Saturday 10/28, 2 PM – 5 PM
    Place: Wien Hall
    About: Wien will be celebrating ‘Hallowien’ this Saturday so come through for insomnia cookies, pumpkin painting and a screening of ‘Hocus Pocus’
    Facebook Event
  5. The Shining: Free Halloween Screening!
    Time: Saturday 10/28, 10 PM – 1 AM
    Place: Lerner Party Space
    About: Join Ferris Reel Film Society and Columbia Undergraduate Film Productions (CUFP) for a fee late-night screening of the classic Kubrick thriller, The Shining! We will be having candy and Halloween-themed food at the screening, so come with a sweet tooth and an empty stomach!
    Facebook Event
  6. LLC Trick or Treating
    Time: Sunday 10/29, 7-9 PM
    Place: Wallach and Hartley
    About: Stop by the RA rooms to collect candy!
  7. Self Care Night
    Time: Monday 10/30, 8-10 PM
    Place: John Jay Lounge
    About: Take care of yourself during this weekend of celebrations. Come make lotions, listen to music, color, and other relaxing activities! There will be snacks!
  8. LLC and John Jay Hall Councils present… HALL-oween
    Time: Tuesday 10/31,  9-10:30 PM
    Place: John Jay Lounge & Wallach 1st Floor Lounge
    About: Ready for Halloween? LLC and John Jay Hall Council are collaborating to make your Tuesday night fun and spooky! Come by John Jay lounge for a spooky movie night and costume party and then continue on to Wallach main lounge for donuts, cider, pizza, pumpkin decorating, competition, and much much more!

 

Disclaimer: Blurb descriptions were mostly taken from event pages and newsletters.

Know of any other events around campus that we missed? Email us at submissions@thecolumbialion.com

Do you believe in magic?

Regardless of if you do or don’t, the show “In & Of Itself” at the Daryl Roth Theatre will convince you that you do in 75 minutes. Executive Producer Neil Patrick Harris presents a unique theatrical experience that blends illusion with a narrative of identity. Derek DelGaudio, the sole actor, does a fantastic job crafting an authentic performance, taking audience members on an emotional journey that explores identity, memory, how others perceive us, and what is meaningful in one’s own life.

Walking into the theatre, guests are presented with a standing board of “I am” cards. Guests are invited to choose a card that will later be used throughout the show. I chose “I am a ray of sunshine.” Why? It spoke to me. But they had a wide range of options, from alien, to C.E.O, philosopher, accountant, and troublemaker. Identities one strives to be are paired with true identities, such as occupation or family titles. You pick one that speaks to you, whether accurate, funny, or fictional.

The theatre is small and intimate. Perfect for what unfolds next. Delgaudio combines magic and storytelling seamlessly, leaving audience members in awe not only of the tricks he pulls, but also at the story he seeks to tell. Both personal and relatable, the story brings up our own memories and experiences – forcing us to confront who we are and how we identify.

The interactive element of the show is what really allows for the human quality of the production to come through. Each night something different occurs on stage because of the unique audience members present, who each bring with them their own identities and perceptions of themselves. Delgaudio forces you to question your identity labels and reminds you that sometimes people will never fully see you and your experiences for what they are – but that’s okay.

You will ask: Who am I? How do others perceive me? How do I perceive myself? Does it even matter? That’s the point of the show. Delgaudio reminds us to be cognizant of the fact that people are more than what they appear to be (just as magic is more than what it appears to be!). Dig a little deeper and you’ll see more and more of who a person is. It’s a glorious thing to dig below the identities we assign to ourselves and allow others to assign to us.  

If you want a different theater experience that is both intimate and beautiful, then see this show. Keep an open mind and go with someone you care about. It’s an experience worth sharing.

 

“In & Of Itself” runs through May 6, 2018 at the Daryl Roth Theatre. Tickets can be found here.

Illustration made by Laura Elizabeth Hand, CC’19

Why are we all so unsatisfied? It’s both an existential and practical question, facing down administrators at colleges across the country. As diagnoses of mental disorders have skyrocketed and the palpable aura of discontent has began to seep into millennial spaces, especially the college campus, most experts are left wringing their hands without explanation. While hundreds of think pieces have been written about the existential dread of the modern world, very few have wondered if our brains themselves may be incompatible with the society we’ve made.

To understand where the disconnect between brains and our society comes from, it’s worth focusing on biology. Humans have evolved our complex brains over millennia to do one thing better than other species — to reduce uncertainty. We do this by predicting the future based on our past experiences, and then adjusting those models when they’re wrong. We call this process learning.

The neurons in our cortex and hippocampus, two areas essential for learning and prediction, are especially wired for these tasks. These neurons have two kinds of channels at their synapses that bind to glutamate, the primary excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. The simpler channel opens up whenever glutamate is around, causing quick but fleeting pulses of activity. The more complex one needs a lot of glutamate to open, but when it does, it triggers a host of structural changes in the neuron to make it more responsive in the future.

This process is called long-term potentiation, and it is the molecular basis of learning from sea slugs all the way up the food chain to Homo Sapiens. But one innovation made by mammals is the addition of dopamine to the picture. For us, whenever something unexpectedly good happens that doesn’t meet our predictions, our brains send those neurons a pulse of dopamine. This cements those molecular changes of LTP on a scale of weeks to months, and makes sure that the association is learned.

This process was ideal for the hundreds of thousands of years humans spent as hunter-gatherers. We lived in an much more uncertain world, where many of our predictions were wrong and small unexpected pleasures (such as finding berries where there were none previously) abounded. Our brains would frequently receive small pulses of episodic happiness through dopamine. Learning based on rewarding prediction errors to motivate similar behavior in the future works only when those prediction errors are common.

While the world may seem uncertain existentially, in the most basic of ways it is far more predictable. That lack of constant, small pulses of dopaminergic inputs may be the root cause of many modern issues. When most of our material comforts are taken care of by technology, we turn elsewhere to find those hits of dopamine our brains are wired to crave. Whether that be through an alert notification on our phones, a pint of ice cream, or forcing a dopamine rush through  alcohol, opioids, cannabinoids, or other substances, we increasingly engineer artificial means of dopamine release — sometimes to addictive and destructive ends.

So what can be done to alleviate the issue? Instead of turning to massive and artificial methods of dopamine generation, re-introducing small and, more importantly, surprising pleasures into your life can provide a brain evolved to learn through unpredictability those necessary reward prediction errors. Eat a new food, explore a new place downtown without an agenda, have a conversation with someone unexpected. Our intelligence is how we’ve made it this far — maybe we can think our way out of this one.

 

Full credit for this conceptualization goes to Peter Sterling. For a more detailed elaboration on this idea I wholeheartedly recommend reading his essay “On Human Design” or his book Principles of Neural Design, specifically Chapter 14

Uniquely Human is written by Heather Macomber and runs every other Monday. To submit a comment/question or a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

Photo from the 2014 film Güeros.

There is a moment in Alonso Ruizpalacio’s 2014 film, Güeros, that has stayed with me since my first viewing: following a confrontation with an angry neighbor, the film’s trio flees the scene by car, and Sombra, the protagonist’s older brother, lies in the backseat undergoing what is clearly meant to be an audiovisual representation of a panic attack.

The scene owes much of its haunting memorability to its experimental track. A selection of ambient sounds—an eerie screech, a low rumble, and an incessant beep—intensify in sync to Sombra’s deteriorating mental condition, blurring his vision and muting the pleading voice of his younger brother (shown above) until his whole existence is reduced to the mere sound of frantic breaths against the backdrop of perilous sonic waves, which are evidently threatening to overtake him.

The reason this scene continues to leave such a lasting impression on me is simple: I, too, suffer from anxiety, and the scene’s mise-en-scène (everything that physically appears before the camera) seamlessly blends with the avant-garde dreaminess and apprehension of the score to elicit a convincing and uniform reproduction of my mental affliction.

In fact, when I first saw this film, two years ago, I was in the midst of my own personal Crisis. This took place seconds after I realized it was mathematically impossible for me to pass one of my CS classes, and that, consequently, I would be unable to graduate from Columbia within the traditional four-year span. Suffice to say, this colossal failure (“colossal,” insofar as it was the only notable one in my life thus far) amplified my anxiety-inducing imposter syndrome to the point where I physically couldn’t leave my room; the specificities of what followed, however, are for another time.

For now, I wish to briefly ruminate on one of cinema’s most sacred, primordial powers, illustrated by the aforementioned example: its ability to instill in the viewer catharsis (Greek: “katharsis,” meaning “purification” or “cleansing”) through poignant verisimilitude, especially as it relates to life’s immanently tragic nature.

As Aristotle teaches us in his seminal work on tragedy, Poetics, this experience is marked by a profoundly satisfying purgation of “negative” emotions, especially those characterized by fear and pity. In the end—if all has gone well—the viewer reemerges with the consoling reaffirmation that, despite one’s misfortunes, they will be able to cope nonetheless; in other words, that everything will end up okay.

But, on a more primal level, why do we experience catharsis at the movies at all?

Here it is helpful to quote the German Continental philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, who is best known for his 1960 work on hermeneutics, Truth and Method, in which he writes:

“What is experienced in such an excess of tragic suffering is something truly common. The spectator recognizes himself and his finiteness in the face of the power of fate…To see that ‘this is how it is’ is a kind of self-knowledge for the spectator, who emerges with new insight from the illusions he, like everyone else, lives.” (132)

The first step in reaching catharsis, “recognition,” is not to be misunderstood as something immediate, for this is the process by which the artist aims to get the viewer to empathize with the protagonist on at least some level (this implies neither likeability nor relatability—think Walter White from Breaking Bad). Neither should it be seen as “contextual” recognition: after all, who else has ever found themselves literally trapped by a boulder in a remote slot canyon in southeastern Utah (127 Hours)? The recognition, then, is a thematic one: to use the previous example, the viewer is familiar with the general feeling of being suddenly pitted against a formidable obstacle which, despite your initial off-guardedness, will come to test the limits of your resolution.

The instant of catharsis occurs when the character’s suffering reaches its crescendo because it is here that the “power of fate” is most viscerally felt. Having been emotionally “led on” by the artist, the character has become us in the abstract sense, so that their trials and tribulations are likewise our own. Hence, we too are subjected to the great emotional weight of intense suffering when the crescendo arrives. It is here that the recognition realizes its consummate form as an utterly affective phenomenon.

It is the aim of the artist to lead the viewer to this step of “affective immersion,” without which the next step is not possible: the acquisition of what Gadamer terms “self-knowledge,” or “new insight.” This is the most important stage of catharsis, for it is here that art fulfills its primordial power: the viewer can now walk away with a rejuvenating, newfound emotional clarity. All that is left is the dissection of this clarity and the study of its personal implications.

For me, after watching Güeros, this meant sitting in shock for several hours, letting the weight of time slowly crush me as I slowly accepted the terrifying reality of my situation: I was having a chronic panic attack, fueled by a feral wave of anxiety, and was caught up in a truly desperate situation which seemed to have no end in sight.

Finally, cinema’s greatest gift: the capacity to incite radical change in the viewer, for the betterment of his or her situation, or those of others.

For me to get up and say:

“Hm…Maybe it’s time I got out now.”

 

The Seventh Art is written by Juan Gomez and runs every other Sunday. To submit a comment/question or a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.