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Non-Review Review: On the Basis of Sex

On the Basis of Sex is a sturdy, old-fashioned awards season film.

On the Basis of Sex is earnest, unshowy and very conventional in both concept and execution. All of its beats are familiar, all of its rhythms predictable. It’s not especially inventive or innovative. It is a meat-and-potatoes awards fare, a fascinating story that is told in an uncluttered manner. While there are still a handful of these sorts of films released every year, it often seems like the ground is shrinking out from under them. As awards season has leaned towards quirky indie films like Vice or The Favourite, it has left films like On the Basis of Sex and Can You Ever Forgive Me? sitting in the dust.

Ruthless litigation.

There is nothing wrong with old-fashioned awards fare, even if On the Basis of Sex occasionally feels conflicted about which particular mode of old-school biographical film it seeks to emulate; it starts like a conventional subject’s-life-in-two-hours piece in the style of films like Ghandi or Patton, and then shifts into the slightly more modern twist on the genre that tends to focus on one formative event like Frost/Nixon or The Queen or Elvis & Nixon. It is a strange shift, with On the Basis of Sex spending half an hour on a general introduction to Ruth Bader-Ginsberg before focusing on the meat of this particular story.

This lack of focus is not a major issue. Old-fashioned awards fare can work reasonably well with the right material and talent, despite seeming quaint by the standards of the time. On the Basis of Sex never stands out from the crowd in the same way as its central character, but then that might be expecting too much given that surprisingly long shadow cast by Ruth Bader-Ginsberg.

Courting controversy.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Rejoined (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

For a show that is supposedly about an enlightened and utopian future, Star Trek really doesn’t have the best record when it comes to gay rights.

Many fans laud the work that the franchise did in popularising the Civil Rights anxieties of the sixties, offering memorable and distinctive parables and the futility of racism while offering one of the first interracial kisses to air on national television. Fans of the franchise are quick to celebrate these triumphs as an example of Star Trek holding up a mirror to contemporary society and championing the causes of equality and social justice. It is part of the mythmaking that Gene Roddenberry baked into the foundation of the Star Trek legend.

A Trill alone...

A Trill alone…

Of course, the reality is more complicated. As important as it was to have a racially diverse crew on the bridge of the classic Enterprise, that idea came from the studio rather than Roddenberry. The show defended and vindicated the Vietnam War just as often as it criticised and opposed it. The interracial kiss in Plato’s Stepchildren might had more meaning if it weren’t an example of telepathic mindrape by sadistic aliens, or if it had aired before I, Spy had broadcast its own interracial kiss.

As much as fans like to believe Star Trek is progressive and enlightened, the franchise does not have as strong a track record as its advocates would contest. This is particularly true of the depiction of homosexuality in Star Trek. In the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, David Gerrold’s script for Blood and Fire was scrapped. Richard Arnold claimed that it was because the script was terrible; but this was the same season that produced The Last Outpost, Angel One and The Neutral Zone. It seems “terrible” is a relative term.

Kiss me.

Kiss me.

There were other examples. During production of The Offspring, there are accounts of David Livingston sprinting down to the sets to stop a shot of a same-sex couple holding hands making it into the episode. When the show finally decided to do an allegory for homosexuality, it was careful to cast a female performer in the role of Riker’s love interest to be sure that the audience did not get the wrong idea. The mirror universe episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine are populated with gay stereotypes and clichés.

No matter how alien the creatures in Star Trek might get, sexuality tends towards heterosexual. In Metamorphosis, Kirk and Spock only realise that the Companion is attracted to Cochrane once they deduce the creature’s gender. Odo’s pseudo-sexual relationship with other Founders is typically expressed in relation to the character known as the Female Changeling. (Chimera does try to fix this.) Although there have been allusions to Andorian marriages featuring four partners, Star Trek: Enterprise presents the relationships as decidedly normative.

Take a bow!

Take a bow!

What little queer content exists seems to have slipped in under the radar. There is a decidedly homoerotic undertone to Amok Time. In The Offspring, Data allows Lal to assign her own gender and Whoopi Goldberg defined kissing as something that happens when “two people” (rather than “a man and a woman”) fall in love. In Rules of Acquisition, Jadzia Dax suspected that Quark’s newest employee had a crush on the rogue trader; Dax was just surprised to discover that the waiter in question was a woman in disguise who was trying to subvert the Ferengi patriarchy.

All of this serves to make Rejoined the most successful Star Trek episode to deal with the topic of homosexuality. This is not to argue that Rejoined is perfect or flawless. It is a science fiction show that aired in 1995, and there are some uncomfortable subtexts to the whole story. At the same time, its heart is in the right place. Rejoined is a beautiful piece of work, because it represents a rare example of the franchise trying to live up to its own publicity. In doing so, it serves to emphasise how frequently (and easily) the property has allowed itself to fall short.

Just Trilled to be there...

Just Trilled to be there…

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The Bechdel Rule – Feminism in Movies

I discovered a really fascinating movie-related concept this week, from my better half, who in turn picked it up from the Irish Times magazine. Basically, it’s The Bechdel Rule. Basically it states that the eponymous author will only watch movies that meet three simple conditions:

It has to have at least two women in it…
… who talk to each other…
.. about something besides a man.

There’s also a suggested corollary (known as the Mo Movie Measure) that the two women must be named characters. I’m dubious about using the test as a measure of quality, but it is interesting to think about how many movies meet that criteria. And which movies don’t.

So, does talking about how crap their lives are because they are oppressed by men count?

So, does talking about how crap their lives are because they are oppressed by men count?

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