Monthly Archives: September 2010

Another reason to live in L.A.: Vietnamese Films come to L.A. for “New Voices from Vietnam”


Vietnamese cinema gets the spotlight in Los Angeles at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences  and the UCLA Film and Television Archive in November. This is really a great line up of films and directors, both the canonical (Dang Nhat Minh), and the new, from both Viet Nam and the States. If you’re in L.A., you have to see this. If you’re not in L.A.–more reason to come live here!

See the full site announcement here (with pretty pictures), or read for more details below.

An Academy Salute to Director Dang Nhat Minh

Presented as part of the “New Voices from Vietnam” Screening Series

PRESENTED IN ASSOCIATION WITH THE UCLA FILM & TELEVISION ARCHIVE AS PART OF THE FILM SERIES “NEW VOICES FROM VIETNAM.”

HOSTED BY PHIL ROBINSON, ACADEMY GOVERNOR AND INTERNATIONAL OUTREACH COMMITTEE CHAIR.

Featuring an onstage conversation with Dang Nhat Minh and discussion with visiting Vietnamese directors Phang Dang Di (“Bi, Don’t Be Afraid”), Nguyen Quang Binh (“Floating Lives”), Bui Thac Chuyen (“Adrift”) and Stephane Gauger (“Owl and the Sparrow”).

American film audiences have grown used to seeing films set in Vietnam, though the story is invariably told from the U.S. side of a conflict the Vietnamese call “the American War.” But Vietnam has a long, rich history that transcends those two decades of war (in fact, Hanoi is celebrating the 1,000-year anniversary of its founding this month) and the rapidly developing nation has a bustling population of 88 million, the majority of whom are under 30 years old.

Now, an exciting group of creative and technically innovative younger filmmakers is emerging, finally able to tell their own personal stories free of the legacy of war, while some of the pioneering directors of the recent past continue to expand the range of their work. Vietnam’s filmmakers are poised to take their place among the world’s fascinating cinematic storytellers.

As a continuation of the Academy’s International Outreach Program of ongoing educational and cultural efforts in Vietnam, the Academy is partnering with the UCLA Film & Television Archive to present a series of new feature films, shorts and documentaries from these exceptional filmmakers.

This Academy Salute will include selected film clips from among the feature films being screened in the series “New Voices from Vietnam,” as well as providing the opportunity to hear from several of the directors of those films, and the legendary Dang Nhat Minh, in person. He is the acclaimed director of such classic Vietnamese films as “When the Tenth Month Comes” (1984), “Nostalgia for the Countryside” (1995), and Vietnam’s 2009 entry into the Academy’s Foreign Language Film Award competition, “Don’t Burn.” In addition, Minh served as second unit director for Phillip Noyce’s “The Quiet American” (2002), one of the first American productions to shoot in post-war Vietnam.

The panel discussion will be followed by a screening of

“The Guava House” (2000)

Directed by Dang Nhat Minh

A middle-aged man whose emotional and mental development ended at adolescence becomes obsessed with a guava tree in the yard of his childhood home. When he is arrested after scaling a fence at his former home, he forms a unique relationship with the daughter of the powerful civil servant who now lives there. 100 mins.

Check back for event updates.

Tickets

General Admission – $5
Academy members and students with a valid ID (limit 2) – $3 

Tickets on sale October 1.

Event Information

When
Wednesday, November 10, at 7:30 p.m.
Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Where
Samuel Goldwyn Theater
8949 Wilshire Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90211
Directions, Parking & Theater Policies 

All seating is unreserved.

Contact Info
(310) 247-3600

The Guava HouseThe Guava House

New Voices from Vietnam

Screenings at the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Billy Wilder Theater

“New Voices from Vietnam” is presented in association with the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution and the Vietnam Cinema Department. Special thanks to Mike DiGregorio, former program officer for the Ford Foundation’s media program in Vietnam.

Friday, November 5, at 7:30 p.m.

Fading Light (2010), directed by Thien Do. 20 mins.
Bi, Don’t be Afraid (2010), directed by Phan Dang Di. 90 mins.
In person: Directors Thien Do and Phan Dang Di.

Saturday, November 6, at 2 p.m.

Documentary Film Program:
Mother and Daughter (2010), directed by Phan Huyen My. 23 mins.
Thanh Cong Ward (2004), directed by Phan Thi Vang Anh. 32 mins.
Grandfather and Grandson (2006), directed by Nguyen Thi Tham. 28 mins.

Saturday, November 6, at 7:30 p.m.

Dog Day (2010), directed by Phan Xine. 21 mins.
Floating Lives (2010), directed by Nguyen Quang Binh. 100 mins.
In person: Directors Phan Xine and Nguyen Quang Binh, and actor Dustin Nguyen.

Sunday, November 7, at 7 p.m.

The Moon at the Bottom of the Well (2008), directed by Nguyen Vinh Son. 121 mins.

Friday, November 12, at 7:30 p.m.

New Year’s Eve Has Passed (2006), directed by Bui Kim Qui. 9 mins.
Adrift (2009), directed by Bui Thac Chuyen. 101 mins.
In person: Director Bui Thac Chuyen.

Saturday, November 13, at 2 p.m.

Documentary Film Program:
Daddy’s Home (2004), directed by Doan Gia Man. 25 mins.
I Dream To Be a Worker (2006), directed by Tran Phuong Thao. 47 mins.
My Apartment Block (2009), directed by Trinh Dinh Le Minh. 56 mins.

Saturday, November 13, at 7:30 p.m.

I Love Vietnam (2009), directed by Nguyen Tien Dung. 7 mins.
Clash (2009), directed by Le Thanh Son. 90 mins.

Sunday, November 14, at 7 p.m.

The Terrace (2006), directed by Nguyen Ha Phong. 11 mins.
Owl and the Sparrow (2007), directed by Stephane Gauger. 98 mins.
In person: Director Stephane Gauger

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DVAN and Asian American Theater Co. host Andrew Lam reading


The Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network and the Asian American Theater Company of San Francisco present Andrew Lam, reading in just a few days! With special guests Daniel Nguyen and Vanessa Ta also reading, and Chanh Pham singing cai luong. Don’t miss it! 5-8 PM, Sunday, October 3rd. See flier for more details.

Also, we’d like to point out that the venerable AATC, which pioneered Asian American theater, now has some Vietnamese representation, too: Duy Nguyen is the co-artistic director and our own Nguyen Qui Duc is on the advisory board.

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Love Like Hate


The poet Linh Dinh has written a novel.  It is a poet’s novel.  Listen to the title: Love Like Hate.  How has that not been a proverb for 500 years?

The novel’s most attractive character is such language, dealing from the old Anglo-Saxon and cherry-picking gaudy gems from all the other registers.  Nobody talks like that and I can listen to it forever.

If Linh started cranking out novels one would speak of P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler and Henry James, the writers you read to learn the chord changes in English.  I don’t think he will become a novelist because you don’t read this one for the genre conventions.

Every character does have an arc, a mild one.  There are a mother and daughter and the men in their lives, all in Saigon since about 1950.   They go through a lot and notice it somewhat.

If you want a plot summary, god help you.  The life of the book is in noodling around like Tom Robbins and in marvelous cameos, with their right names, of contemporary Vietnamese authors.

Let Wikipedia sort it out.  I have known  and read Linh Dinh for twenty years and want to tell you what he’s up to.  Linh Dinh is a disillusionist and a Vietnamese nationalist.

Linh Dinh is here to tell you that life in the United States is not rich and Vietnamese culture is nothing much.   He mocks superstition and  insists that the observable daily round is greed and lust directed by stupidity.

As he writes he teaches a patriotic creed that you aren’t going to get from the loudspeakers in the Socialist Republic, from foreigners who feel sorry, from exiles who yearn, and travelers who gawk.

It is the way of thinking that motivates my work.  It is what is interesting about Viet Nam.

The Vietnamese at home are more gangsters struggling over a state.  Vietnamese Americans are more Italians, Napolitani and paisan such as I grew up with New Haven, dropped into the black and white race war here.

What is interesting is a perspective from a solidly successful anti-colonial struggle that was nonetheless a disaster.  Irony right down to the smallest details of daily life.

That quality of history is why I call myself a Vietnamese nationalist as well as a Southern liberal and a French republican.  It has powered  Linh Dinh through a career of solid intellectual accomplishment which we have made as accessible as we can through his  Wikivietlit entry.

That accomplishment is characterized by Linh’s discomfort and ferocious competence in both English and Vietnamese, by his Poundian advocacy of the new and devotion to his colleagues, surging protean productivity, by compassion, by anger.

Since writing the novel he has been roaming the streets of the United States, taking pictures of the abject poor who live there, the working poor who walk there, and the illusions we post on the walls and in the shop windows.  Take a look at his State of the Union.

from State of the Union

The work of Linh Dinh for the common reader is a pedagogy in realism, in life for most people most of the time.   The Vietnamese-language author he most reminds me of in subject, intellect and compassion is the comic novelist Nguyen Ngoc Ngan.

Linh is after all a literary man and Ngan is emcee of Paris By Night so I don’t expect either of them ever to take that comparison seriously.   The Vietnamese author in English whose concerns seem to me closest to Linh’s is Bich Minh Nguyen.

Her essays and her novel Short Girls come out of Linh’s Saigon, in the flint tones of a Balzacian Middle West, with characters scrambling for the money and love they need in the grip of illusions about what they want.

Bich does write in generic convention, with strong arcs, so I expect she will crank out novels if she wants to.  What she and all literary professionals can get from Linh, the amateur, the translator, the poet is what the whole world of trans-Atlantic moderns got from Pound.

Linh is the man who knows what it all means, where it all comes from, what everyone is saying, who is stupid and who is smart.   I think he gets some things drastically wrong, as Pound did.

But you can go to school with him and make up your own mind.  I really think you should read the poems and short stories and the translations and the criticism and look at the photos but if you are in a hurry it is all in Love Like Hate.

Dan Duffy

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Monique Truong reads at Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network event in the Bay Area


Don’t miss it! Monique Truong reads from her new novel, Bitter in the Mouth, at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, TWO DAYS FROM TODAY!

Sponsored by the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (who also created the diaCRITICS!)

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An Interview with Musician Michael Nhat


Earlier this summer I took a sleeper bus from Nha Trang to Sài Gòn , reclining as best I could in those “bed” seats made for people 5’2” and shorter while watching miles of rice paddies, motorbike repair shops, and graveyards roll past. On this Sunday return trip from the beach, our bus hit late-afternoon city traffic, so our driver cranked up the volume on the radio to help make the last stretch of stop-and-go on a twelve-hour bus ride as bearable as possible. The DJs were counting down the week’s top forty requests, and, while a third of the hits were in the vein of traditional Vietnamese songs lamenting lost loves, the majority were American pop imports—Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Usher, Kesha, among others.  I was struck by the polarity of the tunes and how the flagrantly stereotypical American values (casual sex at clubs, wooing a desired target with diamonds and champagne, etc.) embedded in the lyrics of the Gaga and friends were being imposed upon people who, as I could see through my window on the bus, ride four to a motorbike and wave to the bus that drives through their towns daily but which they will probably never be able to afford to ride themselves.

This is not a diatribe on the globalization of American culture, but just an observation that, on the bus, the older men would sing along with the traditional hits and the younger girls and kids would tap their feet or clap to the Western beats.  As a Vietnamese-American traveling in Việt Nam , I wondered if there exists a happy medium stateside for my generation—those of us who grew up listening to the monk’s chants at temple during Tết and the longing croon of cải lủỏng singers, but also to battered cassette tapes of The Ramones, Oingo Boingo, and Run-DMC.  So, when I got back to the U.S., still in the throes of love with my family’s home country but also eager to satiate my debilitating cravings for a sauce-laden burrito, I began my search for Vietnamese-American artists who are making music for those of us residing in between these two worlds, making our own. And I found Michael Nhat.

I first listened to Nhat’s self-titled first album while driving from San Diego to Los Angeles. I don’t remember this drive at all. The reason is because I spent that two-hour drive leaning into my steering wheel, an ear cocked to the nearest speaker, confused and fascinated by Nhat’s music, for which I’ve yet to find an appropriate analog in hip-hop, rock, or any other genre of music. His voice is a little raspy, deep, and often breathily urgent; the beats he samples range from cartoonish to dreamlike and lovely in “Ponds and Lakes,” and are punctuated with the inclusion of often humorous voicemails, interviews, or sound bites; his lyrics tackle race and being an outsider, rejection of mainstream hip-hop and club culture, unrequited love and sexual desire, and other things whose purpose or connection aren’t as immediately clear—after all, do you know why werewolves kill or which KKK member raped Bettie Page? Intrigued with Nhat as an artist, I decided to interview him via email on the eve of the release of his second full-length album, Swimming to Cambodia.

The Cover for Nhat's Swimming to Cambodia Album

In a track titled “Burn Out Your Eyes” on Swimming to Cambodia, Nhat shares—interestingly, via the voice of a guest female singer—the story of his journey from Việt Nam to the United States:  “Michael Nhat, originally named Van, was born on November 12th, 1974 in a village outside of Sài Gòn in Việt Nam . There is utterly nothing known about his mother, Minh Nhat, or his father. On April 30, 1975, Van and Minh were in an airplane crash from Việt Nam to San Diego, California. Van was sent to an orphanage in Sài Gòn  and adopted by Frank and Beverly.” This autobiographical bit about Nhat’s origins is immediately followed by narration about the first musical recordings he completed. It is through this juxtaposition that it becomes clear Nhat is an artist creating music for generations of Vietnamese-Americans—or any individual, for that matter—who are not or do not want to be defined by the struggle for identity or overburdened by the past, because it is okay, if not important, to express who they are today.

Nhat, though, is certainly aware of the unavoidable struggles of being Asian in America: “Asians like me,” Nhat writes to me, “are the prototype for Asians in the future. We’re the ‘Niggers’ of the Asians, we’re the ‘Gooks’, we do not know how to speak our language, we do not practice or even know any of the culture’s traditions, we get viewed as inferior by Asians who were born into their heritage, e.g. ‘He’s not really Asian he’s white to us!’, and we only speak English. Stripped of our background like African slaves’ descendants, by default, we become ‘Americanized’ and as time goes by, we become more accepted in American Mainstream and begin to see lead parts for Asian males in big budget films that will give younger Asians something to feel proud of and not grow-up seeing themselves as something undesirable with an accent due to an absence of Asians, especially Asian males, in American Culture. We’re currently unmarketable they say.”

Because Nhat creates his art from this space outside of mainstream culture, he also relinquishes the obligation to conform to pre-packaged categories like “hip-hop artist.” In fact, lyrics from “Photos of a Klansman Raping Bettie Page” (yes, not exactly a track for your grade school kids) directly address a renunciation of popular hip-hop radio stations and the label of “rap” in general. When I ask him if his music is a direct response to the über-masculine, misogynist “toot it and boot it” tendencies in mainstream hip-hop, he writes, “I really don’t sit down and write my songs as a ‘Dear Hip-Hop’ letter. Once in [a] blue moon I will write something directly like ‘Don’t Forget to Water the Radio’, but, I think I just allow myself to be myself. A majority of mainstream rap is made by self-obsessed juveniles. I am an educated grown-up, so by default my music will be a far cry from the former. Ninety-nine percent of the time I never take into consideration what mainstream rap’s community will think of me, I don’t even expect them to know I exist and I am absolutely fine with that.”

Ironically, yet fittingly, it seems to be this flying under the radar of mainstream American and hip-hop culture that is granting Nhat a measure of freedom with his art. “No one cares about Michael Nhat right now,” he writes. “Swimming to Cambodia is my White Album. [The Beatles] recorded many pop song albums then did experimental pop and the change didn’t go well with everyone that followed them because of their expectations. I decided to put Swimming to Cambodia out now instead of 5 pop albums later to prove I like, I can and I will make stuff like this, so when I do years from now, fans won’t get upset and say, ‘I don’t like his new stuff it’s too depressing.’ I defeated that.” While Swimming to Cambodia is undeniably Nhat’s style, this sophomore release does feature tracks showing more range in terms of tone—from somber to dancey—and musical influence—the title track sounds inspired by Southeast Asian music, and the opening of “The Spider that Named Himself” is reminiscent of songs from performances of Vietnamese songs at Paris by Night variety shows, while “Throw” samples the 1960s pop hit “My Boyfriend’s Back” by The Angels.

When I ask Nhat if he has any overarching goals in using his experimental album to contribute to music as a whole, he responds, “I do not have a goal in changing music creatively. I have no interest to influence people to write or record anything differently or like me or start a scene which leads a bunch of watered down versions of me. In fact I’d be very upset if people started sounding like me.”

Nhat Performing at Echo Curio on September 8th

In line with Nhat’s refusal to use his music as a means to enlist listeners as consumers or clones, he says that he approaches the concept of audience openly: “I have noticed my audience ranges from intellectuals to American Apparel models to musicians I look up to like Noh Mercy and even 13 year old girls in Iowa. […] I think I make music for people who want to hear rap they can play it around their 4.0 GPA Art School Grad partner in the car, while shopping for easels and hi-bias blank cassette tapes to record onto on their 4track for their experimental band ‘Hi My Name is Church’ and not feel embarrassed or stupid. There’s a market for advanced thinkers who like ‘hip-hop’ music’s production but could do without the ultra-masculine, he-man, jock turned poet vocals that reigns. I think I am a part of that evolution or maybe not and that’s okay.”

Likewise, when I inquire about whether or not the “you” in many of Swimming to Cambodia’s song titles refer to his audience, Nhat replies, “‘You’ is more often than not, a general setting I treat like we’re conversing on a distorted phone line on Mars while wearing white bed sheets and pretending we’re ghosts. ‘You’ is indeed my audience, my ex-girlfriends, my crush, my parents, my neighbors, my co-workers, my disliked, my oppressor, and my heroes. I can promise you the list goes on.”

On Wednesday, September 8th, I was able to witness Nhat in action with his audience at his record release party held at Echo Curio in Los Angeles. Prior to his performance, Nhat says, “I do not get nervous before shows. I do not freestyle aka make up crap off the top of my head to prove anything to anyone or make fun of other musicians for sport aka battling. I take myself more seriously than that. I like to watch Joy Division, Little Richard, Jackson 5, Otis Redding, Mick Jagger, and Karen O, to name a few, perform in videos online or at locals shows with bands like Mae Shi, Mika Miko, Health. This inspires me as opposed to Lil Jon or Jay-Z wanna-be standing on stage grabbing their crotch and waving their arms around inarticulately, insincerely and ungracefully making it an uncomfortable bad joke to watch.” And, indeed, Nhat is all business on stage, powering through songs and, at the end of each, thanking the audience, who seems to have created a genuine sense of community (commendable in a world where many indie music events are tainted by a Zoolander-esque feeling of being at an absurdly competitive fashion show) and share an enthusiasm for Nhat. Notable, too, is Lis Bomb’s performance with Nhat. Her singing is clear and sweet, offering a nice complement to Nhat’s voice and indicating that Nhat definitely has a knack for drawing together differing voices and beats to create a sound all his own.

Nhat Performing at Echo Curio on September 8th

Lis Bomb’s beauty also graces the music videos featured on www.michaelnhat.com, which are simple, yet humorous and oftentimes visually lovely. When I ask Nhat what his level of involvement in this visual aspect of his work is, he writes, “I went to school for film. […] I am very influenced by cinema like Woody Allen, Eric Rohmer, Jean Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, Louis Malle, Pier Pasolini, Kurosawa, Park Chan Wook, and other ‘Boring’ filmmakers most people in Nebraska wouldn’t appreciate because it has subtitles, isn’t famous, or is too cerebral, original and creative for them to grasp, I did say the word ‘most’ not ‘all’, it’s a generalization based on my experience for anyone from there [sic] reading and is appalled by my prejudice. In fact, I take it back there [are] a lot of morons in LA, ever see footage of how these Los Angelinos act after the Lakers win or lose the NBA Finals?”

In regard to the role that Los Angeles—as a city, community, inspiration, etc.—plays in Nhat’s creative process, he makes a meaningful point about how space can stifle or nurture identity: “I was raised in the land of the mediocre and bland [referring to the Midwest], no matter how creative I was, there was nowhere to express it and if there was, I don’t think they would ‘get it’. Instead I’d get laughed at for my authenticity, my race, and non-conservative and non-traditional lifestyle. Los Angeles has inspired me to be myself and not be ashamed of who I am, what I desire and what the meaning of ‘Choosing’ means.”

Keep an eye (and an ear) out for Nhat’s third album, titled Just Plain Dying, to be released on December 21st as one hundred limited edition cassette tapes by I Had an Accident Records. He has also started recording his new album, Insomnia, to be released by Paramanu Recordings in 2011. Until then, you can learn more about Nhat, listen to his work, and view his music videos, at www.michaelnhat.com.

– Jade Hidle

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Andrew Lam and Monique Truong read in Orange County


SANTA ANA – Pioneering Vietnamese American writers Monique Truong and Andrew Lam visit Southern California to celebrate the launch of their most recent books Bitter in the Mouth (Random House) and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres (Heyday Books), respectively. The reading and discussion will take place on Tuesday September 21, 2010 from 6:30pm – 8:30pm at the VAALA Cultural Center located at1600 N. Broadway #101, Santa Ana, CA 92706. The event is free and open to the public.

Following their readings, the two authors will join UC Riverside Professor Mariam B. Lam and writer Ky-Phong Tran in a discussion exploring diaspora, theme, craft, and the writer’s life. A wine reception is to follow.

About Monique:
Monique Truong was born in Saigon and currently lives in New York City. Her first novel, The Book of Salt, was a New York Times Notable book. She is the recipient of the PEN American Robert Bingham Fellowship, the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton for 2007-08, and a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship.

About Bitter in the Mouth (from Publisher’s Weekly; starred review & pick of the week): “Linda Hammerick has a special yet burdensome gift–she experiences words as tastes. Woven into Linda’s story is the history of her home state, North Carolina–slaveholding days, the first airplane flight, and local Indian lore. But when a sudden tragedy brings Linda back home from New York City, she finds answers to a life that has been made up of half-finished sentences, as the secret of her origins and the clandestine histories of those around her are revealed one by one.”

About Andrew:
Andrew Lam was also born in Saigon. He is an editor and cofounder of New America Media, an association of over two thousand ethnic media outlets in America. His essays have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country, and his short stories are anthologized widely. Followed by a film crew back to his homeland, Vietnam, he was featured in the documentary My Journey Home, which aired nationwide on PBS in 2004. His book Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora won a PEN American Beyond Margins award in 2006. He currently lives in San Francisco.

About East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres:
From cuisine and martial arts to sex and self-esteem, East Eats West shines new light on the bridges and crossroads where two hemispheres meld into one worldwide immigrant nation. Lively and engaging, East Eats West searches for meaning in nebulous territory charted by very few. Part memoir, part meditations, and part cultural anthropology, East Eats West is about thriving in the West with one foot still in the East.

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Nikita, a show for the “postfeminist era?”


Along my commute on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, there’s an enormous billboard featuring Nikita’s Maggie Q; she’s wearing a clingy cut-out siren-red dress and lying sideways in a provocative pose with machine gun as prop. “Nikita: looks do kill” is the billboard’s tagline. Apparently, “racy” Nikita billboards have stirred up some controversy in LA, Chicago, and New York.

 

Nikita billboard

What I discovered after following the first two episodes of the show is that the billboard really does reflect the sex appeal of the show. At a Comic Con press conference, Maggie Q has said that “Dudes are gonna love it,” when referring to a catfight scene between two female recruits in Division, a clandestine government kill-force gone rogue. What I wondered is if “chicks” would dig it too? If the sex appeal of the show lies primarily in the display of women’s bodies, how will the show be received by audiences at large, not just the “dudes?”

My reaction to the show has been mixed–pleasure in seeing a woman of color in a prominent leading role aligned with a fellow woman to destroy a corrupt male-dominated organization, yet I also experience some discomfort from the hypersexualized images and positions these same women have to assume in order to accomplish their mission. In this age when the media is loaded with confusing mixed messages for young girls–you can be a strong, capable woman and exploit your sexuality to get ahead–this show seems to fit into a genre some have labeled as “postfeminist.”   Postfeminism can mean many things depending on who’s using the term, but in general I understand it to reflect a consensus that we’ve come a long way and no longer need to agressively fight for women’s rights or be so “serious” about gender inequality. Lighten up ladies! Claim your inner vixen and bare some skin–such seems to be the message from the mainstream media. Singing the anthem of my generation’s “feminists,” Destiny’s Child tells “all the honeys making money” to throw your hands up and those Charlie’s Angels show us how to practice girl power in ways amenable to the opposite sex. Win-win? I’m not quite sure.

I have to admit that I now watch television as a mother of a little girl. My guilty pleasure in escaping with beautiful action heroines is often tempered by a concern that these mixed messages will certainly become part of her perception of the world. Given my appreciation for the unexpected casting of a half-Vietnamese actress as Nikita and the collaborative role she has with younger female conspirator, Alex, I try to read the film for other instances of empowerment and resistance.  Yet, the show’s clear norms of heterosexuality and female hypersexualization make it difficult to just sit back and enjoy. I can’t help but compare this show to two others I watch from time to time that feature women in the lead, TNT’s The Closer and USA’s Covert Affairs–a cop series and a spy series starring Kyra Sedgwick and Piper Parebo, respectively. These two shows (granted they are on cable and not network television) offer much more complex heroines and rely more on the characters’ skillsets than their sexual appeal. Of course, Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson and CIA agent Annie Walker are roles played by white actors. Does this have anything to do with the difference in character dimension?  Nikita and Alex (a Ukranian immigrant played by actress Lyndsy Fonseca) are both slightly less-than-mainstream characters and their collaboration to topple “the man” might be read as some new spin on minority resistance across ethnic lines, but I will save that reading for another day.

Lyndsy Fonseca as Alex

As the plot develops in the second episode and we see how Nikita and Alex’s lives intersect, I see plenty of potential for integrating more depth to this sisterhood. Perhaps we will see these characters with more dimension, using intellect and emotions rather than legs and long mane to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of toppling Division. Just like the old adage about beauty being ephemeral, once the novelty of the sexy gun-toting ladies wear off, the show will need a very solid storyline to sustain itself and set it apart from all the new contenders.

~Thuy Vo Dang

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