Things I Liked – January 2019

Happy new year! I kind of eschewed doing an end of year wrap up for 2018 because, well, I had other things on my mind and I really thought it was the last thing the universe needed.

However, I’m glad to be starting 2019 with yet another list of stuff I’m into.

Company (at the Gielgud)

Sondheim is weird. Like, there’s no two ways about it, Sondheim is weird. Things he has written musicals about include, a fictional Victorian serial killer, real 19th and 20th century murderers, pointillism, and fairytales. In some ways, Company is one of his oddest musicals because, to paraphrase his own description of it, it’s basically a musical about the sorts of people who go and see musicals. Which is to say, middle class people in their 30s who aren’t quite sure what they want from life, but have a nebulous feeling they’re doing it wrong. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of dated. The original story about a man in his thirties who isn’t married but has a broad and eclectic group of friends who are is still sort of relatable in some ways in that, in any given friendship group, there’s going to be one person who’s the last to get a partner. But culturally-speaking we’re a lot less concerned with being settled down by 28 than we were in 1970, so the show loses quite a lot of its emotional force because instead of thinking “I wonder why that nice man isn’t married yet” you’re thinking “I wonder why that nice man hangs out with these bizarrely out of touch people.”

Anyway, the shtick with the current Gielgud Theatre revival (which I think is running til March now, so if you’re in the UK, and like going to the theatre, and particularly like Sondheim, which I’m very aware is an acquired taste, you can still check it out) is that they’ve re-gendered the central character, and made a couple tweaks to the friends so that their relationships feel a bit less, well, mid-20th century (so a few of them are interracial, one of the couples have had their genders flipped, and another couple is same-sex now). And it works amazingly well. So well, allegedly, that one crew member who was unaware of the original genuinely didn’t understand how it made sense with a male central character.

To use a phrase I have no doubt I’ll get letters about out of context, I feel quite ambivalent about gender-flipping things. This isn’t to say that I never think it’s good, or interesting, or worthwhile, and I’m not one of those people who gets on their high horse because A Woman/Black/Gay Couldn’t Do That In The Historical/Cultural/Original Context. But sometimes gender-flips get done naively and in a way that just flat out doesn’t work. And, obviously, this depends a lot on what you’re flipping.

To get needlessly pseudy for a moment and work with purely Shakespearean examples, gender-flipping, say, Prospero (which has been done) is basically a totally neutral call because, unless you want to pull some kind problematic bullshit about how a woman would have a harder time surviving alone on an island, it’s not really a gendered role. I mean, yes, technically a woman would never have been Duke of Milan but the political reality of 17th century Italy is just not at all relevant to The Tempest. Conversely, if you wanted to gender-flip Taming of the Shrew, you’d need to do a lot more heavy lifting because it’s an explicitly (and unpleasantly) gendered story. And there are things you could do with it—weirdly you could argue that gender-flipping it might enable a modern audience to see it as the light-hearted comedy it was always intended to be, rather than the harrowing tale of domestic abuse it tends to read as these days. But you can’t re-gender the characters without utterly changing the way the narrative comes across.

From this perspective, Company is in a really weird position. On the one hand, the protagonist’s gender is a massive part of how the story works. On the other hand, our cultural expectations for men 30s (and, for that matter, women in their 30s) have shifted such an enormous amount since 1970 that gender-flipping the show is in some ways much less of a problem than updating it. Strangely, gender-flipping the character of Bobby actually goes a long way towards helping Company stay relevant, despite its somewhat outdated mores. Because while you would no longer look twice at a 35 year old man who was refusing to settle down and spending his evenings hooking up with hipsters and hot stewardesses, a 35 year old woman who tried to live the same way would, well, probably get looked at twice.

And, obviously, it’s not as simple as standards for 30-something women today aligning with standards for 30-something men 50 years ago. But the show also does a really good job of making the changes it needs to turn a story about the latter into a story about the former. It’s unexpectedly more tragic with a female central character because, ultimately, the original—for all that Bobby comes across as fairly sympathetic and has some really moving songs and is portrayed compassionately—is about an immature manchild who is scared of responsibility. The re-gendered version is more complicated than that because it’s set against, and I appreciate this is an unhelpful shorthand, the “having it all” narrative. Even in 2018 marriage for men is pretty much a flat bonus. There’s no implication that a 35 year old man who gets married is going to have to sacrifice anything except for things he should probably have given up on at least 6 years ago (see: stewardesses, hot). Whereas in 2018 (and I’m conscious I’m quite a long way outside my lane here) marriage for women has gone from “the only thing you’re expected to aspire to” to “one of several possible aspirations that are assumed to conflict with one another.” And, actually, one of the things that makes this version of that story interesting is that, because it started out as a story about a bloke in the 70s, there isn’t any particular implication that Bobbi has remained unmarried because she wants to focus on her career or because she has particularly strong objections to marriage as an institution. Instead, she’s restless, and nebulously discontent, and under increasing social pressure from her friends to resolve that restlessness and discontentment by doing something she knows may change her life in ways she doesn’t want and doesn’t seem to be offering her what she’s looking for.

I’ve now written over a thousand words about this show so I’d probably wrap it out. But basically everything about it is awesome: the casting is excellent, the staging is amazing, Patti LuPone is in it and I’d say she’s fabulous but she’s Patti Fucking LuPone, of course she’s fabulous. I think there are two ways to tell that you’ve really enjoyed a show. The first is if you come out and immediately want to see the show again, which is the feeling I got from Hamilton and Les Miserables. The second is if you come out and never want to see another production because you cannot imagine it living up. And that’s what I got from this version of Company.

The Musical Drinkingware Game

One of the items of merchandising you can purchase from the current production of Company is a mug that says “I’ll drink to that.” I really wish I’d bought one, but I didn’t, and anyway I kind of have too many mugs already.

It did, however, mean that we got to spend the entire interval playing the Quotes From Musicals You Could Put On Drinking Vessels And Sell As Merchandising For That Musical game (or the QFMYCPODVASAMFTM game for short).

Here are some of our favourites:

  • A mug with ‘Drink with me to days gone by” from Les Miserables
  • A pint glass or tankard with “Would you like a drop of ale” from Sweeney Todd
  • A set of six shot glasses, saying severally “I’m”, “Not”, “Throwing”, “Away”, “My”, and “Shot” from Hamilton. (And, incidentally, I’d be amazed if this didn’t exist already)
  • “No more notes, no more ghost, here’s a health, here’s toast” from Phantom of the Opera, on any kind of drinking vessel or, indeed, a notebook.

Do feel free to play in the comments.

Dragon Quest XI

The thing about Dragon Quest games is that they’re always exactly the same. This is what I love about them, and DQXI is, by definition, no exception. I think what I find really engaging about them is that they’re designed along different principles to games that are big in the west: they’re the gaming equivalent of a book you read before bedtime. Every session is designed to be pretty, gentle, engaging, and satisfying in about twenty minutes. You’ll fight a few adorable monsters, you’ll get a bit of story, you’ll wander through the gorgeous countryside, you’ll giggle at the puns, you’ll chat a bit with your charming companions. And then you’ll stop, quietly looking forward to picking the game up again, but feel no particular pressure to carry on right there and then.

The problem with being a grown up is that fitting gaming into your life is actually quite difficult. Wading through 100 hours of densely plotted, strategically complex, lore-heavy drama is all well and good, and I’ll always love that stuff, but, honestly, by the time I’d finished The Witcher III (and, for that matter, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey) I’d forgotten what had happened at the beginning. And, actually, I’ll probably spend about 100 hours playing DQXI as well but the difference is that big AAA games expect you to put a 100 hours into them in exchange for the narrative or mechanical experience you get, whereas Dragon Quest expects to get 100 hours out of it in low investment twenty minute bursts.

DQXI has successfully managed to modernise itself in small quality-of-life type ways (there’s hardly any loading screens, you get a horse to gallop around on, the map notes points of interest for you) while remaining completely true to the core values and general style of the Dragon Quest series. Being the smoothest, and glossiest, and shiniest it’s a really good starting point for the series if you’re happy to engage with it on its own terms, instead of looking for something it’s never been trying to be.

It’s made me very happy. Also it’s got one of the most explicitly and positively queer companions I’ve seen in a JPRG so far—and by explicit, I mean, nobody ever talks about it, but he’s terribly, terribly fabulous, has a harem of beautiful boys who follow him around adoringly, and, despite all of his special moves, involving dancing and blowing kisses, he’s an interesting mixture of hyper-feminine and quite macho. He was raised to be a knight, so he approaches the world with a set of very traditional knightly virtues, he just chooses to express them in an outrageously flamboyant way. And, obviously, the conflation of male queerness and femininity is problematic, but it’s one of the few times I’ve seen a game inviting you to admire and be charming by this sort of character’s approach to the world, rather than laughing at it.

PS: if you’re interested in DQ or this DQ in particular, there’s a great Kotaku video about it from a self-confessedly raging DQ fanboy. But I find his understanding of the core values of the series, and this enthusiasm for them, really endearing.

The Hbomberguy Donkey Kong Stream Thing

This was honestly just the nicest way to start 2019.

Probably the best way for me to explain the background to this for those who don’t know is to link you to his original video but basically the story was like this: Mermaids is a UK charity that works with children and young people with gender dysphoria, they got a small grant from the UK National Lottery, and this made a minor celebrity really, really angry because apparently we shouldn’t be using the funds from the spurious legalised gambling that is run by a state approved but ultimately for profit company to help children. Said minor celebrity got on Mumsnet, and orchestrated a series of letters of concerns to someone at the lottery regulator and got the whole grant put under review. In response to this, Hbomberguy (who is a left-wing, Youtube essayist whose videos I’ve been following for a while) organised a nonstop livestream of Donkey Kong 64 with the aim of raising about £3000 for Mermaids.

It wound up raising $340,000.

Basically, it felt like the entire internet (and, with my humility hat on I should point out that what I really mean is the subset of the internet that happens to agree with me on social issues) turned out for this, including Chelsea Manning, Mara Wilson and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

And, obviously, it’s complicated because when this kind of thing goes high profile it can just entrench culture war narratives and lead to greater polarisation on both sides. But, you know what, it’s a nice thing. A charity that I happen to think does good and important work in an area that I support got a lot of money and publicity as a consequence of somebody who I would interpret as mean spirited trying to mess with it.

So. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a positive. And, actually, it was really nice watching it happening.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I’m terrified that I’ve reached the stage in my life that the majority of my TV watching is me re-visiting shows that I remember from twenty-plus years ago. But, hey, Buffy’s on Amazon Prime now, and so I’m watching it.

It’s really weird feeling. It’s about one half joyful nostalgia and things actually being as good as or better than I remember them being, especially the episodes that I remember kind of sucking, which are actually usually perfectly serviceable. And one half excruciating awareness that things have changed quite a lot.

Perhaps I just have a distorted perspective on this, but what really impressed me was how not-dated a lot of it seems. The show seems to have made a deliberate strategic choice to try and evoke a fairly non-specific sense of teenagerness, which means that—looking back on it—it doesn’t look like a show set in a high school in the 1990s. It just looks like a show set in a high school. The way the characters talk is unique to them (and was famously so at the time—I seem to recall you could buy guides to Buffyspeak), the way they dress was mocked 20 years ago for being nothing like any sensible teenager would dress but now looks, well, still nothing like any sensible teenager would dress but not in a dated way. Even the music in the Bronze isn’t iconic 90s music. It’s random Indie bands that give the show its own bespoke soundtrack. As long as the characters aren’t talking about, or using, computers you could genuinely forget that it wasn’t set in 2018. Or maybe I’m just one of those old men who assumes that stuff from his youth is still bang up-to-date and down with the kids.

I think where it’s aged less well, ironically, are the areas where it was progressive or mould-breaking in its time. Not to put too fine a point on it, the notion of a high action show with a female protagonist who gets to fight monsters and kiss boys is no longer radical. For all the reasons, I hesitate to give a cisgendered white man credit for altering the way women are portrayed in popular culture but I think it’s quite hard to deny that Buffy’s effect on that particular subgenre of television was similar to The Matrix’s effect on action movies. You could see its fingerprints in everything that came out for about five years afterwards, and for a long time “conventionally hot kick ass heroine” was kind of the gold standard for a certain kind of pop culture, hence Alias, Dark Angel, Charmed, Veronica Mars, etc. And gradually that evolved, especially post-Twilight, into shows that put a lot more emphasis on the kissing and less on the punching (True Blood, Vampire Diaries and so on). And then, of course, you got the shows where people appeared to have watched Buffy and said, “you know, I like this chosen one fights monsters thing, but wouldn’t be a cool twist if the protagonist were straight white men”, hence Supernatural and Grimm. Point is, the ideas that were laid out in Buffy have been thoroughly explored since from a variety of different perspectives and this has rendered strangely archaic in retrospect.

I think also, just social attitudes have moved on quite a bit. So, for example, Xander’s persistent unwillingness to accept that Buffy just isn’t into him for about two seasons, and his deeply toxic hostility towards Angel that we’re just kind of supposed to accept as normal behaviour for a guy who likes a girl, reads as way more problematic than I remember it doing it in the late 90s. On top of which it’s a bit weird that this show as such a reputation for and was so explicitly designed to centralise (terrible phrase alert) strong female characters arguably does a better job with its beta male everyman than it does with basically any of the women in it. And, don’t get me wrong, I love Buffy (the character), especially in the early seasons when she still had interests other than making speeches, but I think it is noticeable that the show still comes from a time when the only character traits women were allowed to have on TV boiled down to “accepts or rejects stereotypically feminine behaviour.”

The impression I get looking back is that there were just so many more tools to use in the late 1990s for rounding out the character of Xander than were for rounding out the character of Buffy. It is, I think, noticeable that Xander is the only character who gets a whole episode (The Zeppo) highlighting his perspective on and his feelings about his role in the Scooby gang and how that interacts with his self-perception and self-identity. Cordelia comes close in The Wish but she actually gets killed about halfway into the episode and, at the end, the whole thing is erased from her memory so she gets zero character development from it. Buffy is obviously at the centre of all the major story arcs but they almost always focus around her role as the Slayer and when they don’t they’re contrasted against her role as the Slayer (like The Body, where she has to deal with the fact her powers won’t let her save her mother). Basically, Buffy is always a superposition of two archetypes (teenage girl and vampire slayer—the clue is very much in the name of the show here) but Xander gets to be an actual person, with hangs ups and neuroses and feelings and motivations that are consistently explored.

Also he gets with, like, everybody. Apart from Buffy, he dates, kisses or has sex with pretty much every single recurring female character who isn’t over thirty, under fifteen or a lesbian. What’s with that?

And finally…

I just really enjoyed this.

As ever, tell me what you’re liking in the comments. Or, y’know, don’t.

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31 Responses to Things I Liked – January 2019

  1. Ellie says:

    I’m glad you have so many things you enjoyed in January. I have to admit I am not familiar with them, I don’t know if I missed Buffy on TV here or they didn’t show it at all.
    I had the most difficult January starting with a book slump, overall burnout to the point that for the first time I worried I might be experiencing depression and it all culminated in the kids and me getting sick last week 🙁
    Husband and I did see Bohemian Rhapsody which we ended up enjoying a lot. Rami Malek is amazing in it. So, there at least this one thing I liked this month.

  2. Peggy Collins says:

    I loved Buffy and bought every season on DVD. Yeah, Buffy was out there kicking ass and agonizing; but it was remarkable how many times Zander saved the day without any supernatural powers. And never seemed to receive any accolades for doing so.

    • I think the thing that, in retrospect, slightly bothers me about Xander is that the show pushes (and to some extent the community pushed) the ‘xander is the unsung hero’ thing so hard that it feels to me almost like it genuinely undercuts the show’s central premise.

      I mean, I’m being partly facetious here but, given that the whole idea of the show was to challenge gender stereotypes, it is from a certain perspective not unproblematic that all the women in the show have actual super powers and this makes only slightly more effective at the stuff they do than a completely ordinary man who doesn’t even put particularly much effort into being good at fighting evil.

  3. BookGeekGrrl says:

    They absolutely have a Hamilton shotglass that says “I am not throwing away my shot” on it because I have it and I use it for non-alcoholic purposes whenever possible. 😀

  4. Nikki says:

    I’m impressed you know who Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is. Or perhaps I underestimate how much American news is world news. If so I apologize for both.

    • Ros says:

      Englishwoman here, following A O-C on twitter. It was the dancing thing that did it. But she is amazing, and gives me hope for this world x

    • Much as I hate to admit it, I think American news is very much world news, especially at the moment. I think you might have to pay a bit more attention to international politics to know who AOC is if you’re not from the US but only a tiny bit more. Also, frankly, I’m looking for anything to distract from Brexit.

  5. Anne says:

    Ooh, musical drinking quote game!

    Okay, not to Hamilton out, but a tankard with “Raise a glass to freedom!” definitely.

    Absinthe glass set with “have another drink of green elixir” from Wicked etched onto it.

    A whiskey tumbler with “Into the fire!” from Scarlet Pimpernel (too niche? I love that dumb show)

    And surely there’s already a set of beer glasses out there somewhere with “something to think about/something to drink about/ drink l’chai-im, to life,” on them.

  6. Kamala says:

    Two things:

    1) perhaps I should actually watch Buffy since been hearing all sorts of things about it since it was aired and it’s on Amazon prime.

    2) when I followed the Dragon Quest XI link, one of the “recommended for you” videos was Hugh Grant reviewing his iconic roles. That seemed appropriate. I haven’t watched it (yet). Herethe link if you haven’t either and would like to.

    • Thank you for the Hugh Grant link – oddly enough, it pops up in my recommendeds a lot as well 😉

      As for Buffy, I’d be genuinely interested to see how someone who didn’t watch it in the 90s reacts to it because it’s one of those things that it’s just impossible for me to view without putting it on the context of when I originally saw it.

  7. EmmaT says:

    I was talking last week about not knowing much about many older musicals, and Company is one that I have never even heard of until now, but the way you described the gender-flipping in it makes it sounds especially interesting. I’m all for a Bridget Jones-gotta-get-a-man-storyline in certain doses. But how refreshing to have a storyline that puts a woman in a character role that, say, Cary Grant would have played at his height, or even when he really was a bit past the prime, and no one really blinked an eye.

    So many thoughts on Buffy, and Xander (who I just wanted to punch), and how it works for current times but then I’d end up writing my own blog post in your comments.

    • I’m glad other want to punch Xander. I quite clearly remember not wanting to punch at the time and, like a lot of fans, feeling he was kind of underrated and didn’t get enough credit. Its only with the benefit of some decades hindsight that you recognise that being constantly reminded somebody doesn’t get enough credit is, in fact, a backhanded way of giving them an awful lot of credit.

  8. Katrin says:

    I’ve started to declutter my home and I really was inspired by the Netflix show Tidying Up. It’s fun to see results. And I’m looking forward to finding out if this time I’ll keep my home in shape – I really hope it works! So, that’s what I liked this month.

  9. Alice Everafter says:

    The Kate Bush sheet 🙂

  10. Erin P says:

    Watching Rent Live right now, so here are a couple ideas for drinkware…

    “Wine and Beer!”
    “We raise our glass, you bet your ass!”

  11. Sophie Hammond says:

    That production of Company sounds really amazing—I definitely appreciate them making Bobby/i a nebulously discontented woman. I do think that, especially nowadays, expectations for marriage vary a lot by place/social milieu. Rather than the “several possible aspirations in conflict” narrative, I’ve always been taught, and it seems my female friends have been taught, that marriage should be your main life goal, though not your only goal, and that sacrifices will likely have to be made for it, though hopefully not.
    Your QFMYCPODVASAMFTM game is really clever. And after a quick Google search, I actually couldn’t find shot glasses with that exact design, so I think you have a viable product idea there. 😉 My uncle, my sister, and I play a similar and very specific game where the goal is to twist the lyrics of as many famous musical songs as possible into odes to Chipotle Mexican Grill (“Tomorrow” from Annie works particularly well).
    I’m really glad the flamboyant knight is there to be admired and charming. And a female protagonist fighting monsters and kissing boys still feels pretty revolutionary to me, but honestly that’s probably in large part because I haven’t actually seen any of these shows in the first place. I should really get around to watching Buffy sometime, if only so I can be frustrated with Xander too.
    I hope your February is as full of things you like as your January!

  12. BBell says:

    For a weizen glass (because, curves):

    Auntie needs fuel.
    -Auntie Mame

  13. willaful says:

    That “Company” sounds amazing. I hope it’ll be filmed.

    Let’s see… “A glass of wine, a fast embrace” on a wine glass, of course. “Pajama Game.”

    I feel like something fun could be done with “if you want me, satisfy me” from “Once”…

    I’ve been liking (at least some of) the novels of D.E. Stevenson. Very cozy.

  14. Margaret says:

    A Starbucks cup with “What do you do with a BA in English?” (Avenue Q).

  15. Alice Everafter (again) says:

    Great post again! and well i’m going to put this here because we’ve been rewatching Buffy over Xmas with my 13 yr old and it’s just too much of a coincidence sir, even though i probably missed the blog boat again (aside from the Kate Bush thing. Time flies y’know). Please don’t berate me for bad parenting – it’s pretty tame in the 15 age rating stakes (heh stakes, geddit?) but i did suddenly recall with oops-like clarity how Angel (spoiler alert?) eventually gets his soul back later in the series,so we’re putting the rest of Buffy on hold for 2 years. I was shocked at the disparity between how funny i remembered it being and how funny it was not, revisiting it from S1. Spike pretty much carried the later series for comedy, but the lack of datedness is a fair point – same, as an old lady i’m impressed by the still current look of it and my 13yr old hasn’t made any derisory comments about Xander’s terrible white jacket, or coloured shirts, or tweedy Watcher-wear. The only terribly dated things so far i’d say are shoes (oh those heels Buffy) and Angel’s and whatever-Spike’s-gf-was-called mock-Victorian vampire look but maybe that was still coooool. I can’t actually remember. The Lost Boys were pretty much my go-to Vampire chic back then. (Update -13yr old informs me it all looks really old and dated and nobody wears boot cut jeans anyway, which just goes to show what i know)
    Your take on Xander is interesting. I still don’t see him as anything other than a bit immature re the ‘why Buffy isn’t in to me’ thing and Angel just provokes a ‘grow up you’re 241 and why are you dating 16 yr olds?’ rage in me so maybe i’m biased. But i think that Xander is the Watson character in this – the everyman’s portal into the story, and as such has a peculiar role leading to him being more fleshed out. Willow could have been this character but this is still a male story because it relies on the shock of the cute girl operating in a traditional male protector role, (who has no particular powers to be the slayer that i can see other than a great line in martial arts, and a terrible tragic sense of duty). Later episodes with Willow’s storyline and thingy the blonde vampire Xander ends up with – Anja? go belatedly towards making it more of a ‘female’ story but i think there was a lot of testing of the waters in the beginning and relying on stereotypes (to make it safe and approachable for a male audience?) And he’s a fairly sensitive male teen – i don’t think there were too many of those around on 90s tv? I was mainly in nightclubs and writing essays – i have no idea tbh.
    By the by, I think mom is a great character in this (mom goals yay), and is pretty empowered and positive without rejecting anything, with her Gallery and the great way she champions her kid. Go Joyce.
    Buuuut we’re putting Buffers on ice for a bit – 13 yr old has discovered the Monty Python box-set.

  16. Darian says:

    I have been really into LibraryThing all month. I have maintained an account there to catalog my library for almost ten years, but I am doing more with the rest of the site now. Like the discussion forums, including various silly games and reading challenges, and learning more about how the site works (I’m now in library school, so the organization system is starting to make more sense.) And I have started trying to list as many as possible of the books I’ve read in the past but don’t own, which is difficult since I haven’t kept a record of my reading until now. (Goodreads has far more members, but I am almost more shy of huge crowds online than I am in person, which is very weird.)

    Next time I want to play a new game, I might try DragonQuest. It looks fun. I don’t have time for games right now, unfortunately, unless I stop doing something else. Except D&D of course, I always have time for that.

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