1972, Revisited: Dick’s Feminist Reinterpretation of the Watergate Scandal

Arlene (Michelle Williams) and Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) become new American heroes in feminist revisionist film Dick (1999). Sony.

By Charlotte Turner | January 26, 2022

Most everyone knows what happened at Watergate. After burglars attempted to wiretap the offices of the Democratic Party, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, along with help from the shadowy figure known as Deep Throat, uncovered that President Richard Nixon was involved, leading to his resignation. As one of the major political events of the 20th century, Watergate has permeated the public consciousness for decades. Furthermore, thanks to widespread news coverage, and multi-award nominated films such as All The President’s Men (1976), there now exists an American national memory of the scandal leading to a shared interpretation of the country’s past. This memory dictates that male good triumphed over male evil, and everything was made right again. 

But what if we don’t really know what happened? What if these myths of masculinity and power and men saving the day were wrong? 

Wildly different from the other, much more serious films made about Watergate, the historical revisionist comedy Dick (1999), serves up an alternate version of the events. The film follows 15-year-old girls Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene (Michelle Williams), who through a series of events become Nixon’s (Dan Hedaya) secret youth advisors and eventually become Deep Throat. They’re the ones who reveal the truth, not in spite of the fact but because they’re dismissed as ‘dumb teenage girls.’

Dick reimagines the national memory of Watergate through a feminist lens by making teenage girls the heroes of the story, and by positioning the male characters as incompetent buffoons, whether or not they’re the good guys. It forces the audience to re-examine who is assumed to be capable, and who is remembered by history. 

The premise of Dick sounds laughable. Two teenage girls take down a president? But it’s these exact kinds of assumptions made by Nixon, Woodward (Will Ferrell) and Bernstein (Bruce McCulloch) alike that ensures their success. As Betsy declares near the end of the film, ‘we’re not dumb teenage girls, we’re human beings’. 

Dick creates a new story out of Betsy and Arlene becoming the main characters of Watergate. Thanks to fantastic performances from Dunst and Williams, full of youthful sincerity and optimism, we’re laughing with them, not at them. On the surface, they’re stereotypical ditzes, but the film demonstrates a disconnect between how male characters perceive Betsy and Arlene, and how they actually act. Yes, they may be a little dim, and more interested in teen idols and Nixon’s dog than politics. However, early in the film Arlene declares she loves the singer Bobby Sherman as he cares about ecology, and Betsy implores Nixon to end the Vietnam War over concerns for her recently drafted brother’s safety. 

Betsy and Arlene, aka “Deep Throat”, sick of Woodward and Bernstein’s buffoonery. Dick (1999). Sony.

On the other hand, when it comes to the traditional heroes, Woodward and Bernstein, the film reinvents what we think we already know. These versions of Woodward and Bernstein exemplify the traits Betsy and Arlene are expected to have. They’re childishly competitive, and self-obsessed. They argue with each other about revealing Deep Throat’s identity, Bernstein is always grooming his hair, and they bask in the glory they receive for their reporting. They’re also too embarrassed to admit they were helped by teenage girls, and that’s why they decide to keep Betsy and Arlene’s identity a secret, not out of concerns for their safety. 

In All The President’s Men, a film that has played a major role in developing collective memory of Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein are portrayed as underdogs going up against the White House and Nixon. But in Dick, they’re dumb, mean, and petty. It challenges the male narrative so frequently presented to viewers, and gives space for two teenage girls to be the new heroes. 

Dick does not make fun of, but rather celebrates Betsy and Arlene. Just as the film alters the collective perception of the Watergate scandal, much of the film’s comedy comes from warping expectations of how young women in cinema are supposed to act. Indeed, Betsy and Arlene bringing down Nixon is the most subversive moment of all. When Woodward and Bernstein prove incapable, it is Betsy and Arlene who break into the home of H.R. Haldeman, the White House Chief of Staff, and steal the all-important incriminating tapes. For once, women are the heroes of American politics. 

In a misguided attempt to throw them off he scent of Watergate, Nixon (Dan Hedaya) appoint Betsy and Arlene as his “Secret Youth Advisors.” Dick (1999). Sony.

Richard Nixon is the only president to resign in American history, and only escaped criminal prosecution after being pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford. He has always been the bad guy in national memory, and Dick is no different. In this film he is corrupt, ill-tempered, rude, and antisemetic. He insults Betsy and Arlene’s intelligence, takes advantage of their youthful naivety for his own purposes, and while dismissing the ‘girly’ interests of his daughters, he can’t even remember one of their names. 

The end of the film finds Nixon resigning, and leaving the White House in a helicopter. Flying over Washington, D.C., he sees Betsy and Arlene on the roof of Betsy’s house waving a sign that reads ‘You suck, Dick! Love, Deep Throat’, all while You’reSoVain by Carly Simon plays. Nixon realises that the young girls he constantly dismissed were the ones who destroyed him, and it’s thrilling as any moment in All The President’s Men

By telling a true story that never happened, Dick is able to investigate the inherent masculinity of remembered history much more effectively than if it told the real story of Watergate. The film makes fun of the male characters, no matter what side they’re on, to examine who is allowed to have political and historical power, and celebrates Betsy and Arlene as the true heroes of Watergate. Dick revises history to make space for new voices, places women at the centre of the story, and holds a mirror up to the ideals of masculinity that make us assume we know the truth. 

Charlotte Turner is a writer, artist, and filmmaker from Ontario, Canada. You can find her on instagram @c_turner_art

Opening Yourself Up to Joy: ‘Glee’ and Don’t Stop Believin’ (Part One)

Kurt (Chris Colfer), Rachel (Lea Michele), Mercedes (Amber Riley), Finn (Cory Montieth) and Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) performing ‘Don’t Stop Believin” for the first time on Glee, 2009. FOX.

By Rachel Malstrom | January 3, 2022

Look, I am gonna make a bold claim here, but not one movie or show has changed a group of people’s relationship with a song the way Glee reclaimed and reintroduced Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” to my generation. As New Direction members — the show’s somewhat eponymous glee club — performed the song a total of six times during its six season run, it truly is the throughline of the entire series. The original Glee cover of the song debuted at number four on the Billboard Top 100, and has been a mainstay on the radio ever since. One of my best friends (who is known for hating musicals) told me how her gleek friends in high school would not let her sing along to ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ because, unlike them, “she didn’t watch Glee.” For better or worse, self-proclaimed ‘Gleeks’ claimed the rock anthem for themselves, redesignating a classic as a show choir staple. There is a lot to be said for Glee’s sudden rise to pop culture fame and its subsequent steep decline in critical and audience engagement as the show progressed. However, I would argue that the best way to really understand the show’s charm and unlikely heart is through its various performances of ‘Don’t Stop Believin.’’ 

* * *

The show has many central themes and a lot of grand intentions: It preaches the specialness of being a part of something, the importance of individuality, and the necessity of dreaming big. However, the most important theme the show has to offer also feels like a plea. In the first few moments of the Pilot, the camera pans over a plaque of McKinley High School’s past Show Choir director, Lillian Adler. On the plaque there is an inscription of a quote from said instructor, which reads, “By its very definition, Glee is about opening oneself up to joy.” Glee, when at its best, works as a guide to doing just that. It is a show with its own profound thesis statement, one that is inherent in this plaque, in the very title of the show, “Glee,” and which is never more evident than in the song ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.’ So much so that the song becomes the series’ tentpole, one that the writers always come back to in order to remind the viewer of its gleeful intention. 

Glee, 1×01 (2009). FOX.

Pilot: Don’t Stop Believin’ (Glee Cast Version)

There is a tone established in the Pilot that is never properly recreated by the series ever again. It leans into the show’s satirical premise in a more creative way, and yet the characters ironically feel their most genuine and realized. A lot of the charm comes from its simpleness, void of the flash and glitz of its later musical numbers. However, what is truly great about the Pilot is that it introduces a group of characters that, like the audience, are looking to find value in their lives, and it is capable of communicating these fleeting moments of sublime being that we universally seek through its first performance of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.’ 

In the show’s first moments, as a group of football players toss the school’s resident gay, Kurt (Chris Colfer), into an overflowing dumpster, it is evident that McKinley High School is a place devoid of joy. The pilot episode introduces a lot of unhappy people: unfulfilled popular kids, unfulfilled unpopular kids, discontented Spanish teacher, Will “Mr. Schue” Schuester (Matthew Morrison), who is slugging through an unhappy marriage, and guidance counselor, Emma Pilsbury (Jayma Mays), who is pining for him and dealing with her O.C.D as well. 

Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) and Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) needing a little Glee in their lives. FOX.

Slowly, hoping to provide a trajectory towards happiness in a school filled with kids with absolutely no direction, Mr. Schue gets the glee club started, and aptly calls it the New Directions. Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) joins the Glee club without question. She’s a talented overachiever with the goal of making something of herself. However, the constant online bullying from her peers, especially the school’s elite cheerleaders known as Cheerios, is starting to make her impatient. As much as Rachel claims her dream is to be the best, she also compulsively wants to be valued by others. Rachel compares herself to a shining star, but stars exist out in space isolated, and as much as she wishes she could exist in such a vacuum she cannot. “Being a part of something special makes you special, right?” She says to Mr. Schue in the school bleachers. She’s nearly begging him to confirm that this is the case, and the audience wants to believe it, too. We want to believe that not only will being a part of something will make us special, but it will make us feel less alone, too.

Mr. Schue recruits Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) from the football team by hiding drugs in his locker and then punishing him by making him either join the New Directions or attend detention. Finn, obviously, chooses glee club over the latter. In voiceover and flashback, Finn tells the audience about the first time he “really heard music.” It was when his single mother would hire Darren, a landscaper, and engage in a fling with him. Finn says that he made his mom really happy and he was also cool about letting little boy Finn hang around. As his mom relaxes in a lawn chair, Finn and Darren sing along to Journey’s ‘Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin.’’ Finn says in voiceover, “Man, [the music] set my soul on fire.” This out-of-body musical experience, the feeling of acceptance, is exactly the kind of mission Glee is out to capture. It might have taken a fake drug scandal to get Finn on board, but bringing music back into Finn’s life is definitely a welcome change. 

This gift in disguise comes with a price when, of course, Finn is met with kickback from his teammates for joining the club of misfits. When he is berated for joining the club, and refusing to bully fellow glee member, Artie (Kevin McHale), Finn insists that that everyone in their sorry town of Lima, Ohio, is a loser: directionless. He states that he might be a loser like everyone else but he is not going to quit the one thing that has “made [him] happy from the first time in [his] sorry life.” Finn, being one of the most popular guys in school, can appear outwardly as the happiest student, but it wasn’t until glee that he finally finds recognizable joy, and he starts to embrace that happiness. As he wheels Artie away, Finn sees Darren working on the football field singing along to Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’. Finn smiles as the song infects him with the energy and love of music he felt in his youth. It’s a kind of sign that Finn is moving in the right direction, on the trajectory to feel proud of oneself, to be the kind of guy he can face in the mirror.

Meanwhile, Mr. Schue is married to his high school sweetheart, Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig). He tells Emma that it was love-at-first-sight for him, that Terri “used to be filled with so much joy.” Now she craves a different kind of life, a life that could be afforded if Mr. Schue was to quit his passion of teaching and take up an accounting career. When he is told that Terri is pregnant, he chooses accounting, even though it means losing a job he is passionate about. Emma tries to sway him by showing him a video of his own winning Show Choir Nationals performance from 1993. Emma comments that Mr. Schue is the happiest she has ever seen him in that video. 

Glee’s first performance of Don’t Stop Believin’ sets up the show’s thesis statement: opening yourself up to joy.

Following Emma’s attempt to call Mr. Schue back towards happiness, only one thing is capable of bringing him back to the light, and that’s the glee club singing ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.’ If you think of Glee, you think of this performance. The New Directions in their infancy, wearing red shirts, blue jeans, and black Converse as they sing Journey’s hit in the empty school auditorium. Mr. Schue hears them singing from the hallway after resigning from his position at the school, but is unable to resist the siren call and enters the auditorium. The peppy tune and simple dance moves has Mr. Schue tearing up in the back of the auditorium. 

‘Don’t Stop Believin’s’ introduction to the Glee canon is just about as essential as introducing the three characters primarily introduced in the pilot, Rachel, Finn, and Mr. Schue. The song represents a happiness that can be summed up by the three desires of these characters: Rachel’s desire to be a part of something special; Finn’s desire to be someone he can be proud of; and Mr. Schue’s desire to not give up on the things he loves. In an episode full of dry satire, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ is nothing but genuine. “Hold on to that feeling,” the song demands, that feeling of bountiful joy, that feeling of glee, so Mr. Schue sticks around, and so does the audience, because we could all use a little more glee.

Rachel Malstrom is a writer from Virginia. She graduated with a B.A. in Film and Television Studies from The University of Vermont and prides herself on having seen every Tom Cruise movie. You can follow her on Twitter @teamboby.

Good or Bad, ‘Happiest Season’ is the Christmas Movie I Needed Growing Up (And Now)

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Happiest Season (2020) dir. Clea DuVall. TriStar Pictures.

by Nicole Watlington | December 20, 2020

“Everybody’s story is different. There’s your version and my version, and everything in between.” 

—John (Dan Levy), Happiest Season

Baked goods, princes, small-town charm, Vanessa Hudgens, and Christmas Eve miracles are some of the qualities you can find in any Holiday rom-com. Queer love, however, seems to be missing from those stories…until now? When I was a teenager, my mom and I formed a Christmas tradition called Christmas Rom-Com Nights. Starting November 1st we would pick one or two nights a week to watch any light-hearted Christmas movie — we would wrap up our movie nights around January 15th (we’re from Puerto Rico, the Holidays here last that long). Most of the time, if not all the time, those movies fell within the tropes of romantic comedies. Cheesy, cringey, over-acted, inconsistent, heteronormative rom-coms. Yes, a lot of them were bad films, but it did not matter. We didn’t watch these movies to gain something other than feel-good entertainment and a dose of holiday cheer. Our discourse would go as far as “This one wasn’t as good as the one we saw last week.” Yes…maybe criticizing some of the absurdities and poor creative decisions were the highlight of these nights. But in the end, it was essentially just a way to bond and enjoy the holidays. 

When I went away to college we reduced the number of films we would watch per week. That means that I started to be somewhat selective with what we would watch whenever I came home during Christmas break. I also started longing for representation and stories that could be a little bit more relatable. While I was very fascinated by stories about young adults who leave their hometowns to pursue their dreams, I was also drawn to narratives about young girls coming to terms with their sexuality or those that depicted free LGBTQ+ love. In essence, I was looking for inspiration and hope in the medium that I love the most. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of romantic comedies (especially those released in the aughts) and just about any movie that essentially deals with love. Ask anyone who knows me. However, part of my coming-of-age experience revolved around: exploring all that life had to offer, questioning the politics of representation, and taking comfort in stories that offered me a safe space to introspect about my identity. I wanted narratives that resonated with me on a personal level—I wanted to see myself on-screen…and on Christmas. Love is a universal language, and it is something that we can all relate to. And while many of the streaming platforms have hidden gems, it tends to get repetitive. I mean, have you seen the Hallmark Christmas movie posters? I know you have. Over and over again, they present us with the same clichés of boy meets girl meets Christmas magic. We watch them, we enjoy them, and then we finish by giving them no more than 3 stars on Letterboxd.

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Aubrey Plaza and Kristen Stewart in Happiest Season.

Fast-forward to 2020. I found out that Clea DuVall was to co-write and direct a Lesbian Christmas-themed film for Hulu. I got so excited. DuVall, who has been working in the industry for many years, is a lesbian herself, and the film stars Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davies, Daniel Levy, AND Aubrey Plaza. The perfect cast, in my opinion. “But we already have Carol (2015),” a lot of my friends commented. “Sure” I would respond, but this wasn’t the same. And yes, Carol is a Christmas film, I can write a whole other essay on it. Happiest Season is a fun and cheesy comedy, the perfect choice when curating a Christmas Rom-Com Night. 

Filled with resurfacing exes, family drama, Daniel Levy’s delightful scene stealers, and of course, the main coming out story, the movie, in a nutshell, tells the story of Harper’s (Mackenzie Davis) and Abby’s (Kristen Stewart) journey, as they spend the holidays with Harper’s family. Abby plans on proposing on Christmas, but things go awry when Harper tells her that she isn’t out to her family. They both have to pretend they’re roommates for five days, and that puts Abby’s plans on hold. Everything escalates when Abby starts feeling neglected by Harper and her family. Despite everything, like most romantic comedies, Abby and Harper actually do end up together, engaged happily-ever-after. The film sparked a lot of controversies and had fans engaging in all sorts of discussions: From wanting Abby to end up with Harper’s ex, Riley (Aubrey Plaza) and criticizing the fact that most queer love stories always revolve around coming out to basically just wanting the couple to split at the end. Happiest Season is definitely not perfect, but it’s not like we expected it to be an Academy Award contender from the beginning. There’s always room for improvement, and I absolutely believe that DuVall’s work will help in our fight to get actual representation in holiday-themed films. When I say representation I mean actual narratives revolving around LGBTQ+ folks, not just same-sex couples dancing in the background of a 2-second wide shot. Whether you liked the movie or not, I believe it’s a good step towards expanding the Christmas rom-com formula. Imagine if we got queer seasonal rom-coms every single year? Fun, feel-good, all peaches and cream, predictable yet soothing and heartwarming type of films that will make me want to look forward to the holiday movie nights even more than it already does. The serotonin.

I still partake in the Christmas Rom-Com Nights (especially when there is a bottle of wine involved). This is something that I want to keep doing. After all, we deemed it a tradition. While I did not watch the movie with my mom, I still saw it with someone I love. To me, this film succeeds in little details. Like Abby exclaiming: “I get to go meet the people who made my favorite person,” which translates the rush of excitement you feel when you get to spend a holiday with your partner’s family or you’re meeting them for the first time. Or going from taking the family picture to actually being included in it. It’s a milestone when you go pretending that you and the person you love are just friends. Without justifying how shitty Harper’s behavior was—which is a whole other topic, you can in some measure relate to the protagonists.

Happiest Season christmas body image 2
Mackenzie Davis and Kristen Stewart.

I’ve now seen the movie a total of three times, and I keep thinking about how I would’ve felt at 16 if I had access to a storyline like this. Growing up, I experienced many of the situations that were presented in the film. They’re all very personal, specific, and perhaps not quite the same. I was only a teenager, but they did happen, especially during the holidays. Years will pass by, and I’ll still find the film relatable. Not only because it made me reminisce about my adolescence and the ups and downs of being gay. But also I 100% like being very much in love during Christmas, and I 100% understand the feeling of being free to be myself with the person I’m with. Happiest Season made me laugh, cry, and complain—I mean, how did they not show the proposal?!? I spent 102 minutes waiting for Kristen Stewart to pop the question.

Watching this film reminded me of the importance of sharing these kinds of narratives. Whether you personally relate to them or not, there will always be someone who will. Also, I don’t know about you, but I do want to see happy endings. It doesn’t all have to be heartbreaks, tragedy, angst, or bury your gays. We can allow ourselves some joy. I’m confident that two women can have a happy ending both in fiction and in real life…especially those scenarios that include: Christmas lights, hot chocolate, gingerbread cookies, and coquito.

Nicole A. Watlington-Betancourt is an aspiring culture writer and film scholar from Puerto Rico. She also works as a sound designer and sound editor for film, television, and other media. Whenever she’s not writing, reading, talking or breathing film, you can find her trying new recipes and calling The Great British Bake Off as her healing balm. You can follow her on Twitter @wvtlington.

‘Eighth Grade’ and Puberty with a Divorced Single Dad

Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton in Eighth Grade (2018), dir. Bo Burnham. A24.

by Francesca Hughes | December 13, 2020

Many teen films either depict fathers as absent, unfaithful, or grieving widowers struggling to parent. This trope felt alien to me as a girl raised by a divorced single dad. My experience was much more similar to Kayla’s in Eighth Grade (2018).

The film follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she navigates her last year of middle school, growing up online, puberty and struggling to fit in with her peers such as the popular girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliver). My dad was my rock throughout my adolescence, even if embarrassing at times. He was often the only dad in a room full of mums, as Kennedy’s mum implies when she talks about Kayla’s dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) “being a huge help with the spring fundraiser.”

Unlike Kayla, my mum didn’t leave me. When I was eleven I had to leave her due to alcoholism, emotional abuse, and neglect. My dad’s fifty percent custody was altered to full custody and I started living with him full-time. Although this necessary change made me feel loved and safer, it came in the same year I hit puberty. Usually those who have periods have a mother’s guidance to help get them through it. Luckily my dad has five sisters, and they went to bra fittings with me, while he gave me puberty books and bought period products.

I watched the trailer for Eighth Grade after noticing the buzz around it. The trailer primarily focuses on growing up in the social media age shown through the glimpses of Kayla’s YouTube videos and Instagram scrolling. As someone that has also grown up using social media I was intrigued and had not seen coming-of-age films explore the impact of it yet, so I decided to go watch it at the cinema. Although I appreciated the realistic portrayal of social media, it was the dynamic between Kayla and her dad Mark that has stayed with me. Especially as I watched it in the cinema with my own dad.

Early on in the film Kayla is sitting at the dinner table scrolling on her phone, ignoring her dad after a tough day at school and drowning out her problems with music. He asks her to take out her earphones, pretends to cry, and asks Kayla to listen to him, as she rolls her eyes. Mark then begins to ramble advice at her — an interaction similar to conversations with my dad when I was around her age. Mark tells Kayla, “I think you’re cool and you just need to put yourself out there a bit more…you’re a really special person and I know it’s like all dads think that. Even if I wasn’t your dad I’d still think that.” He preempts Kayla’s reaction with, “Yeah duh shut up, Dad,” an almost identical way to what my dad says when he thinks he is irritating me, which always makes me laugh. In the cinema, I saw my dad smile at me in the dark, as we both thought back to moments like that. When I was fourteen, not much older than Kayla my dad had surgery for stage two bowel cancer and was in hospital for ten days. Thankfully he is in remission. My aunt looked after me, but the house felt oddly quiet without his dad jokes and dances in the kitchen. When he returned I didn’t roll my eyes at his jokes, I was just pleased they were filling the house again. It wasn’t the same over video call and the familiarity was comforting in such a difficult time. Although Kayla is annoyed by Mark’s jokes, they offer her a safe place to land and that is special.

Best Dad Scene In Film. Eighth Grade (2018).

As a wheelchair user it can be hard to use public transport. My dad often takes me to shopping centres to go hang out with friends and shop. The scene where Mark is observing Kayla’s conversation with her new, older friends in the food hall made me laugh, as my dad often sticks around and goes to do his own shopping — meeting with us later when it’s time to go home, the drive is not worth it. However, there have been a few times where we’ve accidentally bumped into him, while chatting about boys, flushed with awkward embarrassment. The glare that Kayla gives Mark as she walks over to him and wills him away is a perfect depiction of a teenager being embarrassed by a parent, when they are just striving to fit in. Mark’s fatherly concern for both Kayla’s happiness and safety as he watches from a distance feels familiar and I am sure most parents naturally feel nervous when they see their children entering a new chapter of life with new people. Unfortunately later in the film Mark’s worry for Kayla becomes a reality, as Riley, a high school senior, attempts to coerce her into unwanted and underage sex.

Sometimes, like Kayla, I felt like I’d be disappointed with a daughter like me — I had been wrestling with my own low self-esteem and was going through a lot of bullying.Thankfully my dad helped me through it. My early teen years did not live up to the expectations my younger self had imagined from watching High School Musical, which often made me feel like a failure. Like Mark, my dad always encouraged me to put myself out there to combat my shyness. In one of her YouTube videos, Kayla talks about how you have to make yourself confident, until you truly feel it. My dad took the steps to improving my confidence by signing me up to a weekend drama class, so I would start to feel less self conscious when interacting with others. Before I felt like Kayla: avoiding eye contact and looking down in the hallway. Slowly I became self assured and confronted meanness. As Kayla did when confronting Kennedy in the final sequence. When Kayla asks her dad, “Do I make you sad?” it may seem overdramatic, but I also felt like this. The neglect and bullying had made me introspective. I sometimes felt like my sadness drained happiness from others. I was not going to parties like I pictured, but instead like Kayla was scrolling through Instagram watching others live the ideal teen life. When Mark says, “Being your dad makes me so so happy, it’s so easy to love you,” Kayla begins to see herself as worthy. Here director and screenwriter, Bo Burnham, highlights how hearing words of unconditional love makes such a difference when you are being made to feel worthless.

When I was younger I envied more traditional family dynamics, but now I’m grateful for our close bond. Families come in all shapes and what matters is having a parental figure that is there for you when you need them most. I left the screening crying and thankful that, like Kayla, I had someone that made me feel loved when I felt most alone. Burnham showed both of us our dynamic on screen for the first time and that matters. Not only to families like ours, but to wider society in creating visibility around single dads and challenging the wrongful assumption that men cannot raise children, especially girls alone. Dads can give the important love and emotional support any teenager could want or need.

Francesca Hughes is a student at the University of Warwick studying Film and Literature. She enjoys writing, quizzes and watching musicals. You can follow her on Twitter @franariella.

‘Selena’ and the Nostalgia of Language

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Jennifer Lopez as Selena. Warner Bros.

by Orlando Mendiola | December 12, 2020

My first experience with grief was when I was around six years old and my parents had to tell me that Selena, the Tejano singer, was dead. It wasn’t on the morning of her death on March 31, 1995. I was born in 1996. This happened after growing up listening to her music and playing the film Selena (1997) on repeat. One day I begged my parents for tickets to see her live and they finally had to break it to me. My child mind couldn’t comprehend the fact that the ending of the film was a tribute to the murdered star. 

With the new Selena: The Series on Netflix, I’ve been rewatching and reconnecting to the original 1997 film, Selena. Early reviews of the series indicated the show isn’t as impactful as the film when discussing Selena’s background as a Mexican-American, something I believe the film does exceptionally well. 

As a Mexican-American born in San Antonio, Texas into a post-Selena world, I connect to the film on a spiritual level. Especially how it portrays Mexican-American life and the inner struggle between owning your heritage while being raised in the United States and absorbing American culture. Early in the movie, Mr. Quintanilla (Edward James Olmos) tells Selena, “You can’t be anything if you don’t know who you are,” when he tells her she has to learn to speak and sing in Spanish to be successful as a singer. This is an important thing to remember when your family has roots in a different place. As a third-generation Mexican-American (Selena was also third-generation) my family is very Americanized. I’m proud of who I am and where we come from and my family embraces our culture, but I’ve struggled with not feeling “Mexican enough” because I cannot speak Spanish.

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From Right to Left: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Marie, Jackie Guerra, and Jacob Vargas in Selena (1997).

Spanish is something that didn’t come naturally to my parents when talking to me at home growing up and I’m assuming this was the case with Selena’s family. In the film, Selena’s Spanish is constantly questioned, especially when Mr. Quintanilla (Olmos) explains his worries about Selena not being accepted as an artist in Mexico because Spanish is not her first language. In the scene, he talks about how we are often not accepted by Americans as true Americans, and by Mexicans as true Mexicans because we are a blend of both cultures. This is a struggle that many people of color face and can relate to when living and adapting in the United States. Being Mexican-American is such a complex identity because it means something different to everyone. Even trying to figure out what to call myself was a challenge at first because Mexican-American, Tejano, Chicano, Tex-Mex, Latino, Latinx, or Hispanic were labels that seemed so intertwined and used to describe anyone with a family heritage south of the border. 

In the middle of the film, when Selena is about to do press in Mexico, her team is concerned the press will “eat her alive,” since she doesn’t speak Spanish well. Rather than avoiding the press conference and not try at all, she wins over the Mexican press with her humility. While the real Selena also made mistakes with her Spanish, she also embraced those mistakes and that’s something I’m doing on my journey with learning Spanish. 

Selena is a film that is nostalgic for me and reminds me of the San Antonio I grew up in since a lot of the movie was filmed there. It was a film that whenever I missed Texas, while I was studying in New York City for college, I’d put on or attend a screening and reminisce about my childhood. With the series now on Netflix, I hope it introduces a new generation to Selena while steering people towards watching the film because Selena greatly influenced the relationship I have with my cultural identity.

Orlando Mendiola is a Mexican-American writer originally from San Antonio, Texas. He is a graduate of The New School, where he studied Journalism + Design and Photography. You can catch him on Instagram @landomend.

Why ‘Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging’ Is Still A UK Teen Cult Classic

Poster for Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (2008)

by Emily Shepherd | December 6, 2020

Cringy parents, embarrassing crush encounters and crazy best friends – the perfect recipe for an iconic romcom. Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (2008) is the Bridget Jones (2001) of teen romcoms. Through it’s realistic and oftentimes awkward protagonist, Angus presents authentic characters, reminiscent to that of Bridget. Whilst this could come off as ‘cheesy’ to some, the realism portrayed is more effective than the new, obviously exaggerated Netflix romcoms, such as To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, which leave viewers thinking: surely that wouldn’t happen in real life?

Based on Louise Rennison’s young adult novels Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging (1998) and It’s OK, I’m Wearing Really Big Knickers (2000), this film has greatly influenced UK audiences and has become one of the most significant teen romcoms of the 21st century. The plot follows the relatively ordinary life of Georgia Nicholson (Georgia Groome) and her experiences of being a teenager, as she tries to make the hottest new guy at school, Robbie (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), her boyfriend and to throw the best birthday party ever.

British humour is what really gives this film the edge; you wouldn’t hear Cher Horowitz from Clueless or Cady Heron from Mean Girls talking to their friends about snogging a boy from “saliva city.” But since its release in 2008, Angus maintains relevance in today’s society by using comedy to give a raw exploration of adolescence and going through puberty.

The film explores how teenagers constantly struggle with body confidence. There are many incidents in the film where Georgia tries to conform to the pretty girl stereotype, like that of the villain character, Slaggy Lindsay (Kimberley Nixon). She accidentally shaves off half of her eyebrow when attempting to make them look neater, and, later in the film, she tries to impress Robbie by fake-tanning her legs – albeit poorly as Robbie remarks they look like “giant cheesy puffs.” At a sleepover, Georgia and her best friends (the self-proclaimed ‘Ace Gang’) play a game called “The Physical Attractiveness Test,” where the girls rate their friends’ different body parts out of ten. The ‘test’ is anonymous, but each girl knows it’s from one of their friends. When Georgia gets a low score of four for her nose, naturally she becomes offended as her friends are supposed to be supportive of her flaws.

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Right to Left: Georgia Groome, Manjeveen Grewal, Georgia Henshaw and Eleanor Tomlinson

The struggles with body confidence is an attribute still relevant with a lot of teenage girls today – most noticeable through social media and the constant pressures to post the perfect selfie. Similar to “The Physical Attractiveness Test,” the “greater usage of social media heightens body dissatisfaction due to an increase in appearance-related comments from friends”and this heightened sense of vulnerability in teenage bodies depicts the reality of the importance of physical appearance in teenage girls’ lives. When exposing their insecurities to their friends, it can be daunting as they want to be perceived as “pretty” and to “fit in” with the crowd.

As with many teen romcoms, Angus explores the teenage fantasy of being in a perfect relationship whilst friendships struggle as a result. For example, Jas’ (Eleanor Tomlinson) obsession with always being with her new boyfriend, Tom (Sean Bourke), and leaving her friends for the “popular” girls culminates in a series of petty fallouts between best friends throughout the film. This highlights the necessity for a strong balance between teen friendships and relationships. Yet, as expected in this genre, the two girls make up at the end when Jas helps organise Georgia’s party and shames Lindsay by ripping her breast pads out of her dress.

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Georgia (Georgia Groome) and Robbie (Aaron Taylor-Johnson)

Similarly, the film highlights the complexities around teenage crushes and relationships – as shown through Georgia as she feels deeply apologetic after testing her “elastic band theory” on schoolmate Dave the Laugh (Tommy Bastow), leading him on, to get closer to Robbie. Following the narrative trope of complicated teenage crushes in romcoms, Georgia feels heartbroken when she discovers Robbie is dating Slaggy Lindsay, and subsequently becomes confused when he later kisses Georgia and doesn’t call her after saying he would.

Today, there is still a stigma around being a “bad kisser,” teen media filled with tips on what a good kiss is, emphasising how teenage girls should conform to a certain standard in their romantic lives. In Angus, Georgia visits Peter Dyer for lessons on how to snog and, following a cringy five-minute scene of them snogging in his bedroom, she declares herself a “snogging sensation.” This scene intensifies Georgia’s fears on being judged, of being the subject of a bad rumour and the importance of reputation among teenagers.

Whilst successfully exploring these traditional romcom themes, Angus alsolooks into the relationship between teenagers and their parents on a more sophisticated level than other teen romcoms where teenagers simply complain about their parents. 

In Angus, Bob (Georgia’s dad) temporarily moves to New Zealand for a work promotion and Connie (Georgia’s mum) swoons over the new decorator she hired. Georgia is left worried about the state of her parents’ relationship, fearing that they may get a divorce. It’s particularly heart-breaking to watch when she visits her dad’s firm to ask if he can return from New Zealand in fear of splitting up the family. With more parents separating in recent years, and up to 2.4 million separated families in the UK alone, Groome’s raw and emotional performance in this scene perfectly reflects the feelings and fears of many other teenagers going through similar experiences.

Overall, the themes in Angus are still relevant to teenagers today and can be reminiscent for people in their early twenties, like me, to reflect on their formative years. The film successfully allures its target market through its comedic stance on topical issues; it’s difficult to forget iconic quotes and phrases such as “nunga-nungas,” and the importance of the stuffed olive costume, which makes an appearance on every university fancy dress social. It’s important that Angus doesn’t become lost in a whirlwind of teen romcoms as its strong message of learning the importance of self-acceptance needs to continue to be reinforced in teenage girls’ lives particularly nowadays.

Emily Shepherd is currently studying a Masters in Journalism in Leeds, UK. When she’s not binging Disney films, you can find her at the theatre or singing musical songs at the top of her lungs. You can follow her on Twitter @EmilyShepherd98.

‘Kajillionaire’ Is A Searing, but Hopeful, Portrait of Parental Neglect

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Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood in Kajillionaire (2020) dir. Miranda July. Plan B Entertainment and Annapurna Pictures.

by Kathy Li | November 15, 2020

“When I was a child, it was clear to me that life was not worth living if we did not know love,” bell hooks writes in the preface of her book All About Love: New Visions. “I wish I could testify that I came to this awareness because of the love I felt in my life. But it was love’s absence that let me know how much love mattered.”

Most coming-of-age stories deal with adolescence — that tumultuous period in a person’s life marked by growth, uncertainty, and lots of firsts. Miranda July’s Kajillionaire (2020) is the rare exception to the rule, a coming-of-age story about a socially stunted 26-year-old woman who spends every waking minute with her parents, but lacks the crucial ingredient that actually holds families together, even across great physical distances: love. 

The love between a parent and a child is rarely eulogized in the same way as love of a romantic nature; we might fantasize about finding The One, but we probably wouldn’t be as forthcoming about our desire for a better relationship with our parents (unless it was the butt of a therapy-centric joke, maybe). Kajillionaire makes the case that the scars of parental neglect, invisible as they may be, are no less formative, or less deeply felt, than any other kind of heartbreak.

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Gina Rodriguez and Evan Rachel Wood in Kajillionaire.

The film revolves around three small-time con artists, Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood) and her parents, Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger), who make their living by stealing packages, entering prize giveaways, and taking on odd gigs, like attending a maternity class for an expectant mother. The latter, incidentally, helps Old Dolio realize the extent of her own mother’s negligence. While on a plane ride to carry out an elaborate travel-insurance scheme, the Dynes meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a retail worker with big dreams who’s not above devising a heist or two of her own. Robert and Theresa eagerly welcome Melanie into the fold (much to Old Dolio’s envy), treating her like a surrogate daughter. However, when even that relationship sours, Melanie and Old Dolio embark on a journey of their own. Melanie goes from Old Dolio’s competition to her savior of sorts, opening her eyes to just how unhealthy her familial environment has been all along.

Kajillionaire is a Trojan horse of a movie, wrapping profound revelations in the easy-to-swallow outer shell of surreal comedy and deadpan dialogue. There’s a subtly anarchist bent to the storytelling, too. Old Dolio’s parents aren’t subpar human beings because they commit mail theft or struggle to pay rent on time, the film seems to imply. These are simply indicators of material poverty, not a lack of emotional acuity. The inability to provide for a child financially isn’t a parent’s fatal flaw. Instead, Robert and Theresa’s worst offense may be their cold, entirely detached treatment of their daughter, who has never so much as received a birthday present or an “I love you” in her 26 years of life. They see Old Dolio as nothing more than a cog in their perpetual machine, and their relationship to her boils down to a business arrangement — she helps them steal, they pocket a share of the profits. When Melanie grills Old Dolio on what it is that makes Robert and Theresa her parents, all Old Dolio can offer is, “We split everything three ways.” 

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Kajillionaire (2020)

In one particularly telling scene, as we watch Old Dolio replicate a stranger’s signature with eerie precision, her father begins to boast about her forging abilities. “Isn’t that amazing?” Robert says, mostly for Melanie’s benefit as she looks on. “Old Dolio learned to forge before she learned to write. That’s actually how she did learn to write.” In his short-sightedness as a parent, Robert fails to see the banality of his statement: all children, in effect, learn to write by imitating others — it’s just never referred to as forgery. Rather than taking joy in the simple developmental milestone of a child learning to write, Robert can only see his daughter through the prism of utility. In his eyes, she is only remarkable because of how she makes herself useful to him.

But Miranda July isn’t a pessimist, and Kajillionaire gets about as close as it can to a happy ending. With the introduction of Melanie the interloper, the film makes the case for the chosen family over the biological one. Old Dolio may have been born to two people incapable of expressing love in all the conventional ways, but the decision to extricate herself from them is all it takes to break the pattern. As we watch her begin to enumerate her own wants and needs, and shed herself of the cynicism and paranoia that shape her parents’ worldview, it becomes increasingly clear that Kajillionaire is the story of Old Dolio’s liberation. 

I watched Kajillionaire in a nearly deserted theater decimated by the coronavirus, and it left me with the sense that the filmmay have (unintentionally) arrived at exactly the right moment. As the pandemic rages on, we are all learning to renegotiate our spatial relationships. What gets lost in the flurry of sobering statistics and the public-health guidelines for quarantine and self-isolation (all extremely vital, let’s be clear) is the effect that confinement can have on the psyche. Data has shown that domestic violence is on the rise, and for the most vulnerable segments of the population, especially those confined to urban dwellings — with just a few hundred square feet to call their own — the distress must be compounded by how much it has gone unaddressed. What happens to us when some of the most basic gestures of intimacy (a hug, a kiss on the cheek) are off-limits? What do we lose when there is an unseen, but deadly, barrier between us and our loved ones, yet we lack the forum to property address that loss? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but it feels like Kajillionaire might offer a blueprint for the way forward. Old Dolio grew up knowing no intimacy and had to learn to articulate love for the first time in her late 20s, but if she can do it, it makes me hopeful that those of us in the real world will eventually find our way back to each other.

Kathy Li is a recent graduate of NYU, where she majored in Media, Culture, and Communication. Her favorite movies include Bend It Like BeckhamLady Bird, and The Talented Mr. Ripley. When she’s not watching movies (or writing about them), she can be found tweeting at @StylishDreaming.

How ‘When Marnie Was There’ Captures Adolescent Depression

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When Marnie Was There (2014) dir. Hiromasa Yonebayash. Studio Ghibli.

by Megan Robinson | November 12, 2020

Studio Ghibli films, especially those written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, focus on the innocence and wonder of childhood. Miyazaki was particularly concerned in creating complex characters for young women to identify with, especially with Chihiro in Spirited Away (2001) and Setsuki and Mei in My Neighbor Totoro (1988), the struggles and triumphs of childhood through a feminine lens define the most seminal work of the studio. On the precipice of a hiatus, Ghibli gave us When Marnie Was There (2014), directed by Hiromasa Yonebashi. 

Marnie marks itself as a film chasing the ghost of its past, an eerie film to end an era of some of the best animated films of all time, films that define joy and imagination in youth. Yet the film also defines itself as a heavier look at youth, a childhood marred by stifled emotions and a struggle to create. Marnie captures the joys of youth, sure, but it’s anchored not by celebration but depression. 

Marnie opens on Anna Sasaki (Sara Takatsuki) suffering from an asthma attack at school, and Anna’s adopted mom notices the mental illness her daughter is struggling with, but can’t place it: “She’s probably a hermit at school… She won’t show her emotions. She used to be more expressive.” This, coupled with Anna keeping to herself at school and putting all her focus into a sketch rather than interacting with her peers, makes it clear Anna is likely suffering from depression, without the language or tools to name it. Even worse, we find out in this opening that she’s only 12 years old and far too young to have a fuller understanding of her mental health. By recommendation by her doctor, Anna is sent on a vacation, staying with her aunt and uncle to rejuvenate.

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When Marnie Was There

Anna’s stay with her relatives is a mess from the beginning, not because of a failure to engage but rather a simple lack of understanding on everyone’s part. Aunt and Uncle Oiwa are friendly, inviting, and warm. They feed Anna well with their own grown food and encourage her to have her space and enjoy the fresh, clean air. They make an environment that’s meant to enrich and empower, giving her independence yet still passionate care. An earnest attempt by the Oiwa’s to have Anna make a friend at a festival is futile, as the girls around her question her ethnic background (we learn Anna is Japanese and white) and Anna erupts, calling one girl a “fat pig.” Even this doesn’t upset the Oiwa’s, as they try to comfort and understand her. Even with this comfort, Anna feels awkward around them, becoming far more curious by the abandoned mansion in town.

This mansion houses Marnie (Kasumi Arimura), a young girl who may or may not be a phantom haunting the house. Her appearance in a window strikes Anna, as she had been told the house was completely empty, and her curiosity compels her to search on her own. The tides prove chaotic and strong, but Anna and Marnie’s first meeting is electric and heartfelt. Both young girls just want a friend, adventure, love. We learn Marnie is the child of rich parents who rarely see her, living under the care of her harsh grandmother and vile maids. Anna, by contrast, suspects her adopted parents raise her to receive government payments, fearing they only pretend to love her. In this common ground of perceived familial apathy, the two find each other. 

Another person cannot cure depression, plain and simple. But in Marnie, Anna finds a listening ear, someone willing to ease her out of her comfort zone, and just talk with her. Marnie has no obligation to, no ulterior motive, she’s just someone equally in need of a friend. Marnie’s extroverted nature provides a wonderful compliment to Anna’s own introverted personality. Anna spends any time away from Marnie by drawing; making wonderful scenic sketches that reflect beauty around her, drawing the homes and playgrounds and seas, each brimming with people that are absent from her sketches. These sketches though, isolate her. With Marnie, she has a friend, but she also grows dependent on her, never wanting to be apart. Depression manifests in ways that keep us from enjoying what we once loved, and when we find something that gives us life, we hold on to it tight, for fear of letting go.

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When Marnie Was There

Anna is never able to pinpoint what her struggles are or how she feels, why she isolates or draws. When delivering mail early on in the film, she actively runs away at the sight of other people approaching her. She actively thinks of her hatred of festivals, and her wish for the traditional Japanese wish tree, used to mark Tanabata or the Star Festival, is simple: “I wish for a normal life everyday.” What does “normal” mean to Anna? Is she currently abnormal? She can barely explain before her ethnicity is called into question, and an element of her desire is clear: whatever “normal” is, Anna isn’t.

Mental illness makes you feel so self-isolated, so insecure, that all you long for is normalcy. The big reveal of the film is that Marnie is the ghost of Anna’s biological grandmother, placing Anna into her memories to form a bond the two never got to have. One would think the supernatural element would frighten Anna, but in reality it gives her normalcy. Marnie is an escape from the depression Anna struggles with, fighting back against how her depression has manifested so far in the film in the form of detachment and angry outbursts. 

Anna’s emotionless as described by her mother, her outburst at the festival, her mixed ethnicity, her avoidance of people mark her as “the other”; her entire identity causes concern and scorn from others, but the listening ear of Marnie, and eventually Sayaka (Hana Sugisaki), whose family is moving into the mansion and whom is trying to discover who Marnie is herself, provides Anna with the love she feels she’s missing.

How can you describe how miserable you feel to your own mother? That you think she doesn’t really love you because she’s paid to raise you? How do you tell anyone that all you want is to be normal? No 12-year old is equipped with the tools to vocalize these feelings; this is the kind of mental illness that afflicts young people who can’t even put into words what they’re feeling. All Anna wants is to be alone until she finds Marnie. Marnie rejuvenates her, but the depression will linger without proper care. When Anna’s mom confesses to the payments she receives by the film’s end, Anna accepts her mother’s honesty and love with her mother’s heartfelt line: “But believe me. Whether or not we receive money, it doesn’t change our love for you.” Anna is slow to hug her mom back, though she now knows that she is loved.

Love is a powerful tool to use when coping with mental illness. It’s something Anna longs for, strives for, until she realizes she is already surrounded by love. It isn’t enough to cure, but when you don’t even know what’s wrong with you, it can be the only thing that curbs your sadness. Anna’s tears are always stopped by love, with hugs and affirmation and warmth. Children everywhere suffer from depression before they even hear and define the word, and many don’t have a support system that will encourage their growth. Education is the second step one must take towards healing, and the loving web of others. The first step is love from others that want to help you heal.

Megan Robinson is a communications student studying in New York. Between watching movies, doing homework, writing film criticism, and annoying her friends she wonders how she has time to sleep. You can follow her on Twitter @hughjmungo_.

Satanic Cannibal Witches: How The ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ creates its own brand of Satanism

Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina Spellman and Tati Gabrielle as Prudence in the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Netflix.

by Elliott Ryan | October 29, 2020

Witches in media are experiencing a renaissance. As we’ve seen in TV programs like American Horror Story, The Order, and Motherland: Fort Salem, the witches on screen closely resemble the witches of old. They’re ruthless, brutal, and ingenious. They use the elements to their advantage. They kill and resurrect. They throw orgies. They eat flesh. And most importantly, they determine their own narratives.

Yes, everything old is new again, and the same can be said of Sabrina Spellman, the plucky sorceress created in 1962 by writer George Gladir and illustrator Dan DeCarlo for Archie’s Mad House. Sabrina’s debut in the comic book series was well received and she has continued to live on in print, film, and television. The most well known iteration is the quintessentially nineties sitcom, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. With its bright colors and moral compass, the show is more of an after school special than a coming of age tale about a young witch. At least, that’s how it feels watching it in 2020. It’s just not right for our current era of ambivalence, image consciousness, and brutalism. Sabrina and Archie remained culturally dormant until 2013, when writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa was tasked with breathing new life into the Archie universe. First, he wrote a comic series about Archie and his pals surviving a zombie apocalypse, à la The Walking Dead. Its success led him to write another series in 2014 titled Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which was popular for its grim re-packaging of Sabrina’s magical life. 

In 2017, Aguirre-Sacasa produced Riverdale, a gritty TV reboot where Archie and his friends are sexually adventurous, full of secrets, and getting murdered left and right. In the fall of 2018, he conjured a spinoff, the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (CAOS), which has become one of Netflix’s most popular teen programs. The show features witches casting spells and fighting demons while wearing vintage couture and patent leather pumps. But it also reveals teenage girls and middle aged women navigating a mortal man’s world. To survive, sacrifices must be made. This is especially apparent in season one episode seven, “Feast of Feasts”, where sacrifice is an explicit, central theme.

In this chapter, Sabrina and her family, the Spellmans, are summoned by their coven, the Church of Night, to celebrate and host one of their “holiest holidays.” Early on in the episode, Sabrina’s aunt Zelda explains that this holiday is similar to Thanksgiving, but has a gruesome and mystical history.

Centuries ago, mortals besieged and exiled witches to the wilderness. Due to man’s careless overhunting, a famine ravaged the region. The starvation was so intense that Freya, one of the youngest and strongest witches of her coven, sacrificed herself to provide for her sisters. According to this oral hagiography, the witches survived off her body throughout the winter until the spring. Ever since, the coven living in the woods outside Greendale have honored Freya by celebrating the Feast of Feasts. To perform this annual cannibalistic ritual, the Church of Night selects fourteen families by nailing lamb entrails to the front door of their homes. The families then choose one female family member to serve as a tribute to Freya. At a selection ceremony, the tributes line up together, pick a piece of parchment, and set them ablaze. Whoever’s parchment burns white is named Queen of Feasts, and whoever’s parchment burns red is made Handmaiden. For a brief period, the Handmaiden is tasked with pampering the Queen and tending to all her carnal needs. Later, at the Feast of Feasts, the Queen slits her own throat and the coven feasts upon her raw flesh.

Prudence being taken care of her maiden (Sabrina). Netflix.

At one point in the episode, Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) and her frenemy Prudence (Tati Gabrielle) are discussing the ritual. Prudence has just been named Queen and believes wholeheartedly in the ceremony while Sabrina, selected to be Handmaiden, thinks the Feast is barbaric. As Sabrina fulfills her maiden duties and bathes Prudence in a warm buttermilk bath, Prudence asks Sabrina if this will be her first time “supping on witch flesh.” Acting as the avatar for us mere mortals, Sabrina disgustedly exclaims that she’s not going to eat Prudence, and then asks her why she wants to sacrifice herself. Prudence proudly explains, “I’m about to be transubstantiated. After the coven consumes my body, I will be a part of every single witch in the Church of Night, forever. And that’s not even the best part. My spirit will reside in the Dark Lord’s heart alongside the other queens, basking in the glow of his glorious fire until the trumpets of the apocalypse are sounded.” 

You see, sacrifice isn’t the only facet of the Feast of Feasts. There is also the consumption and transubstantiation of the Queen.

The writers of CAOS have appropriated very specific ideas from different faith traditions and woven them together to create their own theology of Satanic witchcraft. For example, the concept of transubstantiation is rooted within the Catholic tradition. It originally describes the metaphysical transformation of the Eucharist, the bread and wine that becomes Jesus’s flesh and blood through the consecration of a priest and the consumption by a congregation. These sacraments represent the corporeal sacrifice Jesus Christ made for all Catholics, and are partially why early Catholics were considered by some Roman pagans to be cannibals. Of course, in the world of CAOS, cannibalism is a very real component of their religion, albeit confined to certain ceremonies. 

Since Chilling Adventures also draws heavy inspiration from Satanism, we have to see how closely it aligns with the tenets of the most widely recognized Satanic sect, the Church of Satan, founded by Anton LaVey. This group is distinguished from the other well known Satanic faction, The Satanic Temple, which was in the news a few years ago for suing Netflix over their appropriation of the Temple’s custom statue of Baphomet. According to LaVey’s seminal text, The Satanic Bible, sacrifice isn’t inherently necessary, primarily because witches should be able to derive power from their own selves instead of needing some external force to help them. 

This idea directly contradicts the practices in CAOS, as the witches literally make a deal with the devil to enhance their magical powers. This plot is an important point of contention throughout the first season of Chilling Adventures, as it highlights Sabrina’s autonomy and decision of whether or not to sign her name in the Book of the Beast and submit herself to the Dark Lord. 

Mildred slitting her throat. Netflix.

Back to the Feast! In what turns out to be a twisted knot of a plot, it is revealed at the Queen’s last supper that Prudence was made Queen of Feasts not by the Dark Lord, but by Constance Blackwood, wife of Faustus Blackwood, High Priest of the Church of Night. After unwittingly eating a truth serum cake made at the behest of a suspicious Sabrina, Constance explains that she wanted to kill Prudence because she is the bastard daughter of Faustus. Constance worried that Prudence would pose a threat to her gestating twins and lay claim to the Church, so she hatched a plot to ensure her demise. Because the Dark Lord did not choose Prudence, Father Blackwood decides that she will not be sacrificed, but will still serve as Queen of Feasts and sit on the Throne of Skulls. 

When Father Blackwood informs the coven that there will be no sacrifice, the witches cry out from their black pews, shouting that they’re ravenous from fasting. But then Mildred, a witch who desperately wanted to be Queen, stands up. She praises Freya and Satan, and then slits her own throat, continuing the cycle of consensual sacrifice. There is a moment of hushed confusion until the coven honors Mildred. They pull out their knives and begin hacking away at her corpse, devouring chunks of her flesh. Sabrina watches in horror as her coven submits to their most base animal instincts.

The Church of Night getting ready to eat Mildred.

In the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the Queen of the Feast is the sacrament. Theologically speaking, this is a heretical idea within Catholic canon because it equates the feminine body with the body of Jesus. Both sacrifice themselves so that their community can live on. But in true Satanist form, the ritual is inverted. The depiction of death in CAOS isn’t humble or sorrowful like Jesus’. It’s violent and visceral. And it’s not some edible metaphor that comes in prepackaged boxes, like Eucharist wafers do now. It is a literal human body that is torn apart and consumed by other people. The writers of CAOS have utilized standard religious themes such as holy days, sacrifice, and hagiography to create their own subversive Satanic theology. And they’ve managed to do it while producing an enthralling program that simultaneously feels modern and ancient. There’s no other TV show I know where Satanic witches cast spells in dead languages and complain about dating in the same breath. Who knew Satanism and teen angst would pair so well.

Elliott Ryan is a Queer non-binary academic who writes about new religious movements and depictions of religion in media. They are currently working on their Senior Thesis at The New School about The X-Files’ portrayal of the Satanic panics that swept throughout the United States in the 80s & 90s. They can be found on Instagram @eewryan.

“The Calls Are Coming From The House!”: A ‘Black Christmas Retrospective’

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Olivia Hussey as Jess in Black Christmas (1974) dir. Bob Clark. Warner Brothers.

by Jamie Tram | October 29, 2020

Having been subject to decades of moralistic panic — some of it justified, much of it veiled snobbery — it can be easy to forget that the teen slasher began as an abortion drama.

Typically billed as a Christmas-time slasher, the original Black Christmas (1974) follows a group of sorority sisters who receive unnerving phone calls which precipitate their own deaths. Much of the film’s tension, however, is amplified by the rift between lead character Jess (Olivia Hussey) and her musician boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea, of 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] fame), when Jess finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Jess immediately has no qualms about terminating her pregnancy and is firm in her decision. Peter, on the other hand, is obsessed with keeping it and starting a family with her; when she rebuffs him, he descends into a volatile spiral.

The film comes a year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision Roe v. Wade and reflects that hard-won freedom, while also identifying a persistent, systemic rot. Monsters, real and fictional, often function to absolve terrible real-world violence by representing it as an entirely external force — but director Bob Clark cleverly obfuscates the boundaries between Jess’ harassment at the hands of both Peter and the murderer in order to locate the latter’s transgressions in everyday, patriarchal violence. This is, after all, the film which first coined the iconic line: “the calls are coming from the house!”

Black Christmas doesn’t quite enjoy the widespread recognition that Halloween (1978) or Friday the 13th (1980) enjoys, but it’s arguably the first film to establish the conventions of the teen slasher. By 1974, early slashers in the form of foreign imports and splatter flicks had already taken hold of grindhouse audiences, but Black Christmas carved out its own niche by grounding the subgenre in the lives of young women beset by emerging adulthood. As Richard Nowell points out, its producers hoped to capture the recently-discovered youth audience who flocked to see The Graduate (1967) and American Graffiti (1972), while also appealing to the politically engaged women who had popularised films like Love Story (1970) and The Way We Were (1973).

The attempt at appealing to these specific demographics ultimately failed. Black Christmas was a non-starter at the North American box office, but it paved the way for Halloween to catapult the teen slasher into the mainstream four years later by similarly focusing on younger characters and audiences.

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Black Christmas (2006) dir. Glen Morgan. MGM.

In the years to come, the teen slasher would be steamrolled within an inch of its life, defibrillated, then driven off a cliff — yet, in 2006, Black Christmas returned.

The central problem with Glen Morgan’s Black Christmas reimagining (or spiritual sequel, depending on who you ask) is that it’s considerably more interested in its murderer, rather than its protagonists. One of the core strengths of the original was its distinct cast of characters, where an actor like Margot Kidder (most famously known as Lois Lane in the early Superman films) could eat up the part of a sassy, but self-pitying drunkard. The characters in the 2006 remake, however, are entirely too expendable, deflated by dialogue which replicates the rhythms of snappy teenage repartee but none of the wit.

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Robert Mann as Billy Lenz in Black Christmas (2006).

In the original, the killer (identified as Billy Lenz) was presented as nothing but a spectre of unbridled id, his physical body almost entirely shrouded in darkness. Here, he’s equipped with a backstory, a retelling of real life serial killer Edmund Kemper’s upbringing conveyed in the style of a Jeunet-esque fairytale. The shock factor on display occasionally breathes life into the picture, particularly when we see a younger Billy make Christmas cookies out of his parents. I almost want to recommend the film to fans of Ryan Murphy’s work, but its excesses are rarely inspired, and its provocations (such as an incest plotline) prove tiresome.

In the film’s best moments, the spirit of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava creeps into the picture; certain scenes are soaked in a decadent cascade of Christmas lights, making for some beautifully nonsensical images. It’s a fitting tribute, intended or not, considering a segment (titled ‘The Telephone’) from Bava’s anthology Black Sabbath (1963) shares a similar conceit with the original Black Christmas.

The latest iteration of Black Christmas (2019), directed by Sophia Takal, more radically departed from the source material while attempting to hold onto certain key strengths — namely its memorable female characters, and a defiantly feminist subtext. Which meant, of course, it became a target of our dipshit culture wars online.

This time round, Takal’s film redirects the original’s preoccupation with female autonomy and male rage into an examination of rape culture itself, with mixed results. Neither the choice of target nor its blunt political messaging is the problem here — in the words of co-writer April Wolfe, “fuck subtlety.” Unfortunately, the observation that college fraternities resemble cults isn’t remotely incendiary in 2019. More crucially, however, the film fails to provide insight into how rape culture is perpetuated, or how some men compromise themselves in order to belong to malignant male communities. Rather, we discover that the frat boys killing off all the sorority sisters are merely under the influence of mind-controlling goo. As a visual metaphor for the all-consuming opioid of ideology, you could do worse — but it’s a stunning cop-out.

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Black Christmas (2019) dir. Sophia Takal. Universal Pictures.

Fundamentally, the film feels conflicted about being a teen slasher, and whether you can create a feminist film reliant on images of terrorised and/or brutalised women. Takal demonstrates a command over negative space and pacing when staging earlier kills, even throwing in a cheeky quotation of The Exorcist III (1990) (itself a cheeky quotation of Psycho [1960]). But after only a handful of these traditional slasher kills, the focus shifts onto a cat-and-mouse game at the midpoint, before transitioning into a slow-mo action climax.

Turning the film into a rape-revenge tale of sorts is a genuinely inspired idea, but its execution is kneecapped by the fact that it is, at the end of the day, a Black Christmas movie — and therefore a film built on a foundation of compelling, flawed, but ultimately dead girls. The ending angles for a cathartic fight scene between sorority sisters and cultists — but it tries to do so after killing off nearly every named female character in the film.

I’ve always found it odd how horror remakes are so often treated with contempt, considering they’ve existed for about as long as horror movies have been around. Most of them are outright bad, yes, but there’s still something worthwhile about watching ideas get translated across different cultures and time periods (however lazily). Sadly, neither of the Black Christmas remakes challenge the trend, as close as last year’s update gets — but I still think these movies reveal a lot about the evolution of the genre, and are worth watching on that basis. 

While they may not be outright remakes, we’ve seen countless films from Scream (1996) to Better Watch Out (2016) reinterpret Black Christmas (1974) in fresh and exciting ways, and Bob Clark’s original film will doubtlessly continue to inspire generations of horror directors by being the first, and one of the best, teen slashers ever made.

Jamie Tram is a Melbourne-based critic and screenwriter. His interests include Katharine Hepburn, desktop horror, and UFO sightings in Jia Zhangke’s filmography. Follow him on Twitter @sameytram.