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Clean Your Plate

Picture yourself in a restaurant.

The server hands you a menu and lets you know they’ll check back in a few minutes to see if you’ve decided on what to eat. You look over the available options and make a choice.

When the server returns to your table, they ask if you think you’re ready to order, but then offer you an additional menu. Specials the chef thought you might enjoy, they say.

Do you stick with what you picked from that first menu, or would you rather take a moment to see if there’s something better available on this new list?

Now imagine that server returning every few minutes with another supplemental menu. Each one unique. Each one with at least a few options you might enjoy.

You start thinking about if you need to come back to this restaurant again soon, because you can only eat one thing tonight, and you’d better make a decision soon, because you’re only getting hungrier.

But there are just so many choices, and the server refuses to stop providing you with more options.

Picture from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie with quote from the blog post

It’s absurd, right? Total Buñuelian nightmare. You’d never go to that restaurant willingly.

But you might be doing just that, except it’s not with what you eat. It’s with the other things you consume.

What is your intention with your attention?

You make choices, moment to moment, about how to spend the finite amount of attention you have. When you choose to act based on your intention, you need to navigate the pathway between that intention and satisfying the desire that lead to that intention.

Let’s say you want to watch a movie, the movie is on Netflix, and you have a Netflix subscription. What greets you when you load Netflix?

First, you get an ad for whatever movie or tv series their algorithm thinks you’re likely to enjoy right at the top, filling most of your screen. Then you get a set of similarly-formatted lists; rows and rows of colorful pictures to entice the eye.

While the top one is most likely the list you populated with choices you intend to watch, you’re also presented with an array of options aside from what you told Netflix you have an interest in.

This is a design choice. Your interaction with Netflix is not crafted with the purpose of helping you follow through on your intention. It’s designed to lead you toward discovery.

You know what’s on the menu. You know what you want. But why don’t you look at our specials, just in case there’s something else you might enjoy?

Compare this to the actions that went with watching a movie on DVD. The advertising, selection, and viewing processes had more distinct separations.

Maybe you went to the store, or to a video rental outlet, and made your choice about what to watch. When it was time to watch the movie, you put the disc in the machine, and only that movie was available to watch.

When the disc would first load, you’d see trailers. Sometimes you could skip them. Sometimes you couldn’t. But one thing you were never able to do was switch what movie was about to play. The advertisement wasn’t linked to the immediate act of consumption.

You were still going to watch the movie you intended, even though you had to see trailers and commercials first (just like at a movie theater, where you lock in your intent with the purchase of a ticket).

Think about the goal of each distribution mechanism. A movie theater wants you to pay for one movie and stay for its duration (and maybe buy some snacks and drinks). A video rental store wants you to pay per movie you watch and bring them back in a timely fashion (which encourages you to watch the movies promptly).

Most streaming services don’t charge you based on how much you watch, and there’s no physical media to return. Their interest is in keeping you paying a regular subscription fee, and the best way to ensure that you want to stay subscribed is to create the feeling that you will continue to find new content worth watching.

A digital service has more interest in helping you discover new menu items, than it does in making sure you clean your plate because you loved what you ordered.

This push toward discovery over intention also holds true with the shift from physical media to streaming media in music.

Open up a music app and check to see if the first screen is your saved library, what you last played, or if you see suggestions of other artists or playlists you might like.

Sidebar: This also relates to the promotion of The Playlist over The Album, because it’s a way of rapidly introducing you to more artists instead of focusing you on any particular musician or group.

Now look at a news site. Individual articles still have a prominent place, but there’s often a sidebar with popular links, or links to additional articles interspersed with the text. You may read your way through a single article, or you might wind up with 18 open tabs and no time to scan them all.

There are tools to combat this, like Reader View in Safari or services like Instapaper and Pocket, that remove extraneous links to aid you in focusing on what you intended to read.

But these are additional tools on top of what was designed and presented to you by the news source. These are workarounds to assert your intention instead of the default.

These design decisions are about fostering hunger instead of enabling satisfaction.

This is not to say “DIGITAL BAD!”

There are some amazing things that have happened due to the proliferation of new distribution methods and channels. In particular with video streaming services, there are new outlets for a more diverse set of storytellers and types of storytelling.

And the ability to access this material easily, quickly, and (relatively) cheaply is a boon for many reasons.

But the design decisions behind how we interact with these services are antagonistic toward user intention. These interfaces can easily turn you into a digital hoarder, always hungry, and rarely satisfied.

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Stranger Things. Visual Echoes. Missing Pieces.

NOTE: I finally finished Stranger Things 2, and there are some light spoilers in this post. This warning is here in case you’re late to the party like me.

But like the saying goes: If you’re going to be late to the party, make sure you bring some good guacamole.

Spoilers beyond this point.

At the end of Stranger Things 2, the main characters get to take a brief victory lap at the school’s Snow Ball dance. There’s one dance floor pairing that stands out: Nancy and Dustin.

There’s plenty that could be said about the relationship between Nancy and Steve, and how Dustin is now trying to emulate Steve, but I’m not interested in that aspect. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Instead, let’s look at two moments, one from season 1, and one from moments before this dance, and what connects them.

 

Nancy and Dustin Dancing

So much of Stranger Things 2 is about the past bleeding into the present, worming its way back and refusing to be forgotten.

Nancy starts out Stranger Things 2 dealing with the guilt of Barb’s death. It creeps up on her at odd times. She can’t escape Barb’s memory.

Nancy Hears Barb's Voice. Caption: Nancy, this isn't you.

Nancy sent Barb away so she could be alone with Steve, leaving Barb vulnerable to an attack from the Demogorgon.

Nancy could have no idea she was sending Barb to her death, but she carries the weight of being one of the few people in Hawkins who know the full story. Her knowledge and guilt separate her from most of the rest of the town, leaving her conflicted and angry.

Nancy Says Everyone Forgot Barb

But let’s go back further, to before Nancy knew definitively what happened to Barb. Back in season one, Nancy caught a glimpse of the last moment anyone saw Barb before she was pulled into the Upside Down.

MCU Nancy Sees Photos of Barb

CU Jonathan's Photos of Barb

POV MS Nancy Poolside Through Jonathan's Camera

Through Jonathan’s pictures, Nancy sees Barb’s sadness and isolation. This was Nancy’s fault. Nancy brought Barb to a place she didn’t want to go, then ditched her to canoodle with Jean-Ralphio’s dad. (This is canon.)

The memory of this image matches up with what Nancy sees when she looks at Dustin after he’s been rejected by the girls at the dance.

MCU Nancy Looks at Dustin.png

MCU Dustin Cries at Snow Ball Match Shot.png

MCU Barb Poolside Match Shot.png

Yes, when she brings Dustin on to the dance floor, she’s trying to make him feel better. She knows what they’ve all been through (twice now). But this is just as much about her trying to deal with her guilt over Barb.

Seeing another friend having that same moment of isolation, she chooses to reach out instead pushing them away.

And the show, using the positioning of the actors and framing within the camera, as well as Nancy’s gaze, tells us these moments are all connected.

There’s no Justice for Barb. Not really. And Nancy can’t directly make reparations for the harm she’s caused others through her indifference to her friend.

The show deals with trauma as an absence. A lack. Like a missing puzzle piece that keeps you from seeing the whole image.

But there’s no bringing Barb back. No finding the missing piece. The best that Nancy can hope for is a substitution.

What Nancy wanted, at the start of the season, was a way to make amends for letting Barb go of alone and get killed by the Demogorgon. What she needed was to learn to have more honest connections with the people around her. To bring people in instead of pushing everyone away.

And it doesn’t just go for Nancy. The whole cast of characters, from Eleven, to Joyce, to Hopper, are all cobbling together a new whole, pooling together the pieces they each have left.

 

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In Praise of Bash

A closer look at a supporting player in GLOW

The Netflix cast and production team of the series GLOW have created some layered, dimensional characters with efficiency and humor. The show’s deep bench gives every cast member at least one moment in the spotlight over the first season’s ten episodes.

For the moment, I want to single out Bash, played by Chris Lowell.

Why Bash?

Looking At NEON.png

Is it missing the point when talking about a show focused on women’s wrestling with so many standout female performances to turn my attention to one of the male leads?

Maybe. But this isn’t just about him.

In fact, that’s the point I want to make about Bash’s character: This story isn’t about him.

He says that Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling is his idea, and he maintains that he wants to make sure the execution matches his initial premise.

Gorgeous Ladies PAUSE Wrestling.png

With the plot elements involved, this could easily have been Bash’s story: The highs and lows of a trust-fund goofball who finds purpose by putting aside his selfish antics and maturing as he builds a tv show.

But that’s not this show’s story.

Bash is a supporting member of the cast, not only by the entertainment awards definition, but in how supportive he is of the other characters.

Like Max in Fury Road or Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman, Bash is an example of how to depict a man being supportive of a woman or group of women. He’s another reminder that gender dynamics in storytelling aren’t a zero sum game.

The Heel-Face Turn

Patron Of The Arts.png

When we first meet Sebastian “Bash” Howard, he’s doing all the things that would lead us to believe he’s going to be an antagonist or obstacle in the vein of a classic 80s villain.

  • He showed up in a helicopter, suggesting he’s totally out of touch with the other characters who are desperate for work.
  • He’s telling a personal anecdote about Ronald Reagan, further aligning himself with conservative, monied interests in a series focusing on a diverse group of underdogs.
  • He interrupts his introduction to ask that he be called by a nickname that he probably gave to himself.
  • He cancels rehearsal to invite everyone to a party at his mansion, which features an actual Lichtenstein and a working robot with a secret drug compartment.

It’s a clever ploy to play off of the audience’s expectations based on both Bash’s behavior and our genre savvy. This makes his sudden turn that much more satisfying.

What Bash Does for the Athletes

At the rehearsal, Bash listened to the women read through a script written by the director, Sam Sylvia, that featured a post-apocalyptic setting and roving gangs of women fighting for the right to breed with the last surviving man on Earth. The read-through goes unenthusiastically as the performers grapple with a thin sci-fi narrative held together by Sam’s sexual fantasies.

Bash confronts Sam about this, saying that when he asked for a different kind of wrestling show, this isn’t what he had in mind:

Ms Pac Man.png

Bash invites the women up to his costume room and tells them to explore it and try things on.

Inspire Your Characters.png

Bash is inviting these women to take an active role in the construction of the narrative they’re going to play out. He talks about Sam’s script being too complicated, and he wants to see something still heightened and fantastic, but grounded in some aspect of the women themselves.

Let me be clear: Bash is not doing this just because he has a desire to empower these athletes. His suggestions involve leveraging regressive stereotypes that he justifies by saying that they need to play to the viewpoint of the audience.

With Our Eyes.png

These Are Eyes.png
Bash wants to make sure you know what eyes are.

Ethnicities are shifted or amalgamated. Tammé, whose son goes to Stanford, gets re-christened as Welfare Queen. Everything is done to better label these women according to a generalized white, male gaze instead of Sam’s hyper-sexualized, exploitation film mindset.

And this is where it gets more complicated.

Early in this sequence of scenes, Bash starts speaking with Carmen, who will eventually take on the character Machu Picchu. Sam has cast her as the villainous Ogress, but Bash takes one look at her and sees her smile. He knows she’s not right to play a heel, and helps her find an identity more suited to who she really is.

And while so many of these wrestling aliases are created based on stereotypes, that initial spark kindles something in the women. A “So this is how you see me?” anger helps them find their enthusiasm for the entire project. It unlocks and directs a layer of rage and creativity.

Going off of this setup, one of the most memorable scenes of the entire season comes when Cherry and Tammé convince their tag team opponents to dress in Ku Klux Klan costumes. Cherry and Tammé are very aware of how their roles as Welfare Queen and Junk Chain have attached stereotypes that will play negatively to the audience. So they find a way to turn themselves into the heroes of the match.

They have a degree of control over the narrative, and they’re trying to leverage what they think the audience sees.

Aside from setting some key points about the world of wrestling and its expectations, Bash also has several direct interactions that support the wrestlers.

In working with Carmen throughout the season’s arc, he helps her to build her confidence and live up to the reputation her family’s wrestling dynasty.

Bash sits with Carmen in the parking lot while an EMT confirms that she’s had a panic attack after she runs from the ring at an early match. He recognizes how important this is to her, and wants to be supportive.

When she starts to feel the fear again at a match being taped live for the pilot of their tv show, one of the things that helps her find her strength is Bash, acting as the ringside announcer, turning her anxiety into part of her character.

Peruvian Fever.png

And when she pulls through and wins her match, Bash is one of the primary focuses of the camera. His enthusiasm for her victory reminds us that he didn’t just invest money in this wrestling show, but that he truly wants to see these athletes succeed.

Speaking of money, at a key moment when Bash’s mother cuts him off, everything is in danger of falling apart. The team needs to find the money to secure a venue for their live taping of a pilot episode.

Bash finds a solution, but he can’t do it alone.

Bash brings the women to crash his mother’s fundraising event for Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign. He pretends that they’re from an organization called Wrestlers Against Drugs, and interrupts his introductory toast of his mother to step aside and let the women tell improvised stories to the wealthy donors.

The key here is that Bash isn’t the one making the big speech to get the money and save the day. He’s offering these women the opportunity to succeed on their own merits. He creates space for them to succeed where he failed, and he trusts that they’re capable.

And the women do not disappoint, coming up with stories of drug addiction and salvation through wrestling so compelling that the donations pile up, and even Bash’s mom sees that her son has partnered with some amazing women.

What This Means to Bash

But Bash isn’t just some Yuppie Yoda, helping women find their inner power through the drama and athleticism of professional wrestling. He gets something out of all this, too.

There’s this one scene near the end, and it’s why I focused so much on Bash after this first viewing of the show.

As everything comes together at the last minute, Ruth tells Bash that he needs to act as their announcer for the live taping of their matches. Bash says he was born for this:

Brought My Tuxedo.png

While everyone’s getting ready for their on-camera debut in the ring, Bash gets a quiet moment while he prepares.

Bash Mirror 1.pngBash Mirror 2.pngBash Mirror 3.png

Bash Mirror 4.png

Bash has spent a lot of time before this point helping other characters find strength and express themselves. We’re shown this one moment that shows him stepping in to character.

It’s a suggestion that Bash, too, feels that the spectacle allows him to re-craft his identity; to tap into something inside himself that normally stayed buried.

How To Show Support

GLOW is a show mainly populated by women, but unlike Sam’s script, there’s not a lack of men involved. Along with the recurring characters of Sam and Bash, several other men play a role in the story.

When characters are dimensional, treated with respect and dignity, and given solid, selfish motivations, there’s room for everyone.

Bash is an example of a well written ally. He’s imperfect, and his faults and mistakes provide conflict for the story. But his desire to help others comes from an expressed and understood need to fulfill his own goal.

That’s a key to strong supporting characters: They don’t know they’re a sidekick. Somehow their actions supporting the protagonist(s) should fulfill whatever desire drives them in the version of the story where they’re the lead.

The opening scene of the series features Ruth on an audition for the role of a secretary who interrupts her boss in the middle of a dramatic monologue to say his wife is on the phone. It’s making a point about the dearth of good roles available to women, and does so by highlighting an audition for a minor supporting character.

It highlights not only why Ruth and the other women of GLOW would latch on to the opportunity to take charge of their stories and shape this wrestling program to give themselves an opportunity to shine, and it also highlights what happens when writers create characters who act as punctuation.

Somebody has to come read for the role of the Nameless Interrupting Secretary. Somebody has to hope that they’ll get that three line part, because they’ve got rent to pay. Somebody spent years training themselves and honing their craft to prepare themselves to be on camera.

Does it honor that person’s effort to give them so little to do?

Does it show respect to the people who actually inhabit these positions in real life to depict them as functions of someone else’s story?

The story as a whole is richer from making sure every role feels lived in. Every person feels true, and not just a plot device.