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Monday, Jan 18, 2010
"Under this roof we are all the same... we are all people color!"

I literally choked when Florida delivered the lines: “What do you mean ‘Our time of life’. You forget: You people don’t never know how old we are. That kills you, don’t it!” Ester Rolle delivers this line so gloatingly that I literally curled over ROFLMAO! Florida had shown up all in sorts of trouble and Maude made it her busy-ness to find out. Maude was constantly projecting her own menopause onto others, and wringing it in to explain what appeared inexplicable to her. Turns out, Florida’s husband had gotten a second job and was keen to keep to his wife at home, like white folks do.


That’s what makes Maude so interesting—the show took every ditch and vibe with its racial jokes as a means to challenge stereotypes. And like this episode, many of the jokes were delivered by whites and blacks, and in mixed company, quite unlike the show’s predecessor, All in the Family, and quite more poignantly than its sisters, the direct spin-off Good Times, as well as The Jeffersons. In so doing, the storylines of Maude really pressed our culture to face some of its darkest secrets around gender, age, and class. As it turns out, these three tropes of modernity are inseparable and must be examined together. Sure, its complicated. Often we talk about race, but what we really mean is class. Or then there’s the very real gender component to everything in modern life, so much so that the reality is that women on Earth are still poorer than men as a whole. Indeed, it’s complicated. Fortunately, shows like Maude made us laugh so hard we cried. We may have even shed a tear or two over our own hypocrisy. And then, well, then there’s Maude herself.


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Thursday, Jan 7, 2010
Before Xena, before Buffy, even before Emma Peel, there was Annie Oakley, TV's first female action hero.

Long before Xena, long before Buffy, there was Annie Oakley. In 81 episodes made between 1954 to 1957, the TV series starring Gail Davis stood in stark contrast both all other contemporary Westerns, all of which starred men, while all other shows with female leads had none who were especially heroic. The show’s Annie Oakley was based only very loosely on the real life Annie Oakley, an Easterner who grew up outside of Cincinnati whose prowess with a rifle gained her a spot as the star performer with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.


The show was actually fairly pedestrian, with stories that never rose above standard Western fare, though in fairness they were no worse than the vast majority of B Westerns. Set in the town of Diablo, the only major recurring characters were Annie, her little brother Tagg, and deputy Sheriff Lofty Craig. Tagg’s main purpose was comic relief and as a catalyst for advancing the plot of most episodes, his mischievousness creating situations where Annie had to save him (think of the famous line from Buffy: "Dawn’s in trouble, it must be Tuesday). The plots invariably consisted of some problem that Annie had to resolve, either a mystery to resolve, or a villain to apprehend, or an innocent to absolve of guilt. The show was targeted at kids so the good guys always won and there was no such thing as moral ambiguity. The series is memorable exclusively for Annie. Without her there would simply be no reason to remember or watch the show.


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Monday, Dec 7, 2009
This episode was played really well -- and played pretty close to the race line. Neither have iconic images as old as the archetypical bi-racial character in Imitation of Life, the 1959 classic with the tragic mulatto, nor has the sheer election of Barack Obama pressed Americans to tackle the race question head on. In the thick of those two eras stands a time when television seemed to have more gall around "difference".

In this episode of The Jeffersons, the tragic mulatto speaks out, embodied in Jenny’s brother who drops in for this episode to trace out the race line more acutely than George Jefferson in his taunts towards the bi-racial couple upstairs, the odd, old-world neighbor. The show regularly shores up ratings via those slapstick/teachable moments when George, Louise, or their maid Florence falter over the class line—they’z done moved on up. Into this steps the half-blood neighbor’s kid returning home from life beyond this culture’s particular color line, and what he says is phenomenal.


According to Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum, the tragic mulatto “is the antithesis of the mammy caricature” who knew her place on “the bottom rung” of the gender, race, and class hierarchy in America. Moreover, in the system of slavery, mixed-race slaves as cotton and tobacco pickers of North America were considered “pure Black”, whereas the cane cultivators of the rest of the New World established a wider, more nuanced racialized gender and class hierarchy. Whatever the case, this new racialized body of the mulatto was ripe for subordination into the sickest of racist fantasies: “All slave women (and men and children) were vulnerable to being raped, but the mulatto afforded the slave owner the opportunity to rape, with impunity, a woman who was physically White (or near-White) but legally Black.” Ferris State’s comprehensive website corroborates an oft mentioned opinion expressed by my own grandfather—a former sharecropper from Alabama—who dismisses the mass worship of fair skin, dismissing tragic mulattos as “symbols of rape and concubinage”. Much of the tragedy around which pop cultural portrayals of mulattos inevitably rotate around tropes of sexual exploitation, and a lack of understanding and acceptance of one’s ordained place in society. It is here where The Jeffersons attempts to dislodge this common portrayal and open up public discourse to own own fantasies rather through allowing the mulatto to speak directly on these issues.


Tagged as: the jeffersons
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Friday, Dec 4, 2009

If ‘80s cartoons like ThunderCats, Transformers, G.I. Joe and He-Man can be said to have one thing in common, it’s that none of them withstand objective scrutiny. If you can still claim to enjoy these or most any other animated series from the ‘80s on anything but the most ironic level, then your nostalgia is far more durable than mine.


To be fair, though, the aim of such shows was simply to sell toys, and in that regard they were indisputably triumphant. Not a single show among them was produced with the expectation that stunted weirdos like me would still be pondering their legacies two decades later; no writer or animator could have possibly anticipated such artistic accountability while preparing the latest episode of Silverhawks.


Still, to cite ThunderCats again, while no reasonable person expects an anthropomorphic lion in a powder blue unitard to seem as cool in 2009 as he (inexplicably) seemed in 1985, I know that I am not alone in feeling disappointed that even the animation in these old shows now seems clunky and inconsistent and mostly embarrassing (He-Man is something of an exception, in that Filmation cut so many corners and relied on stock poses and the like to such an extent that the animation, though minimalist, remains fluid and organic to some degree).


Tagged as: bionic six
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Wednesday, Nov 18, 2009
You can almost sense how self-conscious Scooter felt when it came time to engage in the traditional opening-theme self-promotion; Scooter's entire personality boils down to consumerism: "I've got my computer."

I was listening to the Muppet Babies theme song the other day (don’t judge me!), and I made a point of studying its lyrics. (Surely you’ll concede that somebody has to intently critique the lyrics to songs from Saturday morning cartoons that aired 25 years ago.)


Point being, I noticed something terrible. Note what each of the Babies says in the opening theme:


Kermit: I like adventure.
Piggy: I like romance.
Fozzie: I love great jokes.
Animal: Animal dance!
Scooter: I’ve got my computer.
Skeeter: I swing through the air.
Rowlf: I play the piano.
Gonzo: And I’ve got blue hair.


Now, I admit that Gonzo’s “I’ve got blue hair” is hardly characterization at its deepest and most stirring, but whereas Kermit’s an adventurer and Fozzie’s a comedian and Rowlf’s a musician, Scooter’s only claim to fame is, “I’ve got my computer.”


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