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January 22, 2013

"Why The Bloody, Sex-Soaked ‘Spartacus’ Is The Most Progressive Show You’re Not Watching"

I am an unabashed fan of the first season of Spartacus, but have not yet had the pleasure of tuning in to the following seasons. I admit, the sudden death of the actor who played Spartacus and his replacement scared me off. But maybe I'll tune back in soon. Why The Bloody, Sex-Soaked 'Spartacus' Is The Most Progressive Show You're Not Watching | ThinkProgress
In that world, cruel abuse of slaves is made brutally rational. Because currying favor and building alliances with Romans who can secure your standing can make-or-break your family’s fortunes, it makes sense (from the point of view of the Romans) to use every tool at your disposal to do so. Slaves are unique in that they are human, and hence can be used to put on glorious, bloody spectacles or to satisfy the most depraved sexual desires without any legal recourse. So when powerful Roman Varis asks that gladiator Oenomaus’ best friend (Gannicus) and wife (Melitta) have sex, the Roman who owns them, Batiatus, has little choice but to accept, as doing otherwise would lose him the favor of a social better. Even if Batiatus cared that he was forcing his slaves to rape each other (though he probably didn’t), the class structure of Roman society forced his hand. By treating oppression as something that’s basically structural, rather than a thing inflicted by individual bad apples, Spartacus gives flesh to a core progressive insight about the power and character of social oppression. Progressives often speak about racism, sexism, and classism as impersonal forces, things that exist in the world independent of how individual people think about them. It can sometimes be hard to connect concrete acts of discrimination and violence to this airier description. But Spartacus is a vivid illustration of how a system founded on a particular form of classism directly, inevitably leads to individual acts of brutality. The social logic of Rome corrupts people’s incentives, giving even Romans capable of extending sympathy to slaves (like Batiatus’ wife Lucretia) cause to treat them in the most inhuman fashion imaginable. Spartacus‘ critique isn’t just limited to class. The show’s Rome is unmistakably gendered: Roman women, denied prestigious posts in the military and the Senate, can only exercise power indirectly, participating in the struggle for social power through behind-the-scenes politicking. These Roman women are by no means helpless damsels — perhaps the two most effective, intelligent operators on the show are Lucretia and the high-born Illythia — but when they attempt to assert equality in familial or political decisions, they run up against the limits of what Roman society will allow them to do. And while slaves male and female are both subject to sexual abuse by Romans, there’s no doubt that female slaves bear by far the worst of it. One of the clearest markers of the rebels’ moral superiority, by contrast, is their comparatively egalitarian approach to gender. The season 3 relationship between rebel gladiator Crixus and Naevia, a survivor of repeated sexual assaults, is an honest, touching depiction of a supportive partnership. The rebel army also allows women to serve as equals in combat, to deadly effect. . . .

January 11, 2013

DJANGO UNCHAINED is a fairy tale, a hero's journey

4thletter! -- Django Unchained: “Jump at de sun.”
It’s hard for me to think of a quote that better defines the experience of being black in America. Growing up, I was taught that I’d have to work twice as hard to be heard, and deal with half the praise. Others would praise me more than my peers, simply because performing on par is exceptional when you start behind the eightball. Either way, I needed, need, to do more than my peers. I need to be better, faster, stronger, smarter, just so that I can be treated as normal instead of a niche. America is short on black heroes. We don’t get to be the princes on white horses and princesses in high castles. When we are the king and queen, it’s in a creative work that people see as being specifically black, rather than mainstream. That’s “a black movie,” that one’s “a black comic.” It doesn’t get to be normal. That’s how America works. White is the default. And once you begin changing up the formula — a black hero here, a spanish hero there — you move away from the default and become… niche. What’s worse? Being invisible or being a curio? One of my favorite aspects of Django Unchained is that it isn’t that black of a movie at all. It’s not a niche story. It’s a classic, an epic. It’s a story that we all know and love. There is a princess in a castle and there is a hero coming to save her. It’s a little different from damsel in distress tales — Hildi is thrown in the hotbox for trying to escape again, not for just trying to escape; she’s a troublemaker — but at its core? It’s the same. The difference? It stars a black man who loves a black woman, instead of a white man who loves a white woman. Dr King Schultz tells the story of Siegfried and Brunhild to an attentive and eager Django not because it’s cute, or because Tarantino wanted you to know the end of the movie before it went down. Schultz, and Tarantino, relate that story to show just how universal this movie, a movie that tells the story of a freed slave trying to rescue his wife during one of the most dismal periods in American history, actually is.