Friday, 1 March 2019

Cartoon Male Characterization

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Interesting Hollywood Reporter article on how current animated films are taking on traditional "toxic-masculinity" roles in such films as Into The Spiderverse, Ralph Breaks the Internet and the Lego Movie 2. I quibble with some of what the writer talks about and in fact, I'd argue that she misses the point about what these traditional stories are attempting to explore. In many ways these movies are just  old wine in new bottles and are doing so in a pretty obvious 'of the moment' virtue-signalling way but it's a good starting point for discussions about what makes a 'good man'.

Of course, these (and most) films (animated or not, for kids or not) still feature a male as the chief protagonist having to learn/accomplish something. That to me is more of a bigger issue - not having a diversity of characters at the centre of stories. If that doesn't change, the stories themselves can't change much.

I plan to write more about this some day but at the moment I have to sign off - my cupcakes need to come out of the oven.

Friday, 30 November 2018


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“Lloyd Dobler? All right.”

That line is from the great Gen X teen romantic comedy film, ‘Say Anything.’ In it, good guy optimist oddball aspiring kick-boxer Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) invites the beautiful and brainy valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye) to the high school graduation party – and, to the amazement and respect of all and sundry, she agrees. But more than that, people surprisingly respect Diane for saying yes. Lloyd and Diane go on to have a summer romance which her father (John Mahoney) sabotages as he fears this will threaten Diane’s academic future. Lloyd does not quit but wins her back with a grand romantic gesture.

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When Lloyd is about to give up he gets advice from his best friend, Corey Flood (played by Lilli Taylor):

“The world is full of guys. Don’t be a guy. Be a man.”

Great advice. Be a man. And be a man without apologizing for it. In a time which is rife with such phrases as “mansplaining” and “toxic masculinity” it is important to tell boys and young men that there is value in being a man, instead of a guy or in perhaps its more current form a ‘bro’.  
The question then is what is a man? For me it ties into the meaning of the Yiddish word mensch – a human being of character, rectitude and dignity. Lloyd, for all his goofy uncertainty about what he wants to become or “do” (to the irritation of adults and in particular Diane’s dad), knows more than most – and that’s why he is universally admired by his peers. He is himself. Unapologetically. He is not afraid to be goofy, kind, heartfelt and optimistic – even though the world will continually kick him in the head for it.

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Is it just coincidence that Lloyd wants to be a kickboxer? He will put himself at risk, believing in himself and choosing a ‘profession’ where he is unlikely to succeed and, even if he does, he’ll get the living crap kicked out of him on a regular basis. Throughout the movie, he puts himself on the line for what he believes in knowing it is not the ‘smart’ realistic choice. He knows what is important, he cares for people, and knows what he doesn’t want to be – a consumer, a cog or, in a word which has greater ironic significance in today’s social media world: a ‘follower’.

"I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that.”

He is not just romantic but a Romantic and, in fact, is a Romantic hero. This also ties into what being a man is: being yourself, boldly going after what you want, knowing the risks are great. It is great inspiration for young (and all) men to not be afraid of being emotional, vulnerable and brave. To put yourself out there, risking looking like a fool and probably failing

Diane Court: Nobody thinks it will work, do they?
Lloyd Dobler: No. You just described every great success story.

Why am I going on about ‘Say Anything’? First of all because you should see it if you haven’t already and if you have seen it, you should see it again – it still holds up. Also because you need to know that following the lessons in ‘Say Anything’ can be risky.

Recently my 16 year old son, who plays competitive hockey, demonstrated this. His team is in what we like to call “rebuild mode”, which means they don’t win games though they try hard, get better and come close. You might characterize it as a Romantic endeavour. In fact, though we’re halfway through the season, they only just won their first game. So, when they did, in a bold move, my son grabbed the erasable marker from the game white board, skated over and started to write something on the glass in front of some people sitting in the stands, people who clearly were supporters of the other team. Pandemonium ensued. What was he doing? Writing some taunt? Some vile slander or obscenity in a display of unsportsmanlike conduct? Thing is, he was trying to write it backwards and was struggling to get it right and no one really could tell. Parents in the stands were outraged. Players from the other team wanted to fight him. The referees were screaming at him. So he skated off the ice before he finished his message.

I was boiling mad and embarrassed and concerned what would happen to him. What was this stupid stunt he was pulling? He’s an Alternate Captain for godssake, how is this demonstrating leadership? How is this thinking ahead? Then I looked closely at what he had managed to write and had to laugh to myself. He had written (partially) “Add Me” and then his SnapChat handle. In the stands in the front row was sitting a very attractive young woman of approximately the same age as he. Let’s say my feelings at this point were mixed.

As what he had attempted to write became clear, attitudes in the stands diverged – some were clearly still deeply offended and outraged (some people really enjoy feeling deeply offended and outraged, I think he made their week), others thought it was a goofy and dumb stunt but harmless (I fell mostly in this category) but some were tickled pink. At least one dad was deeply impressed and his opinion of my son actually was raised. I think he took a picture of what he wrote.

One of my son’s good friends and a ‘player’ exiting the change room after the game told me, “Your son is a legend.” I grimaced and told him jokingly I blamed him as a bad influence. He then told me, “I would be proud to take the blame for that move.” I had to laugh again.

Also interesting were the reactions of some of the adult women. One told me, ‘Good for him. He knows what he wants and he goes for it. He’ll do well in life.” She’s pretty hardcore; I like her. Another mum I told about it later actually put her hand to her chest, looked a little misty and said, “How romantic!”

Anyway, he got suspended for three games in a questionable call by the referees claiming he’d made an obscene gesture (?). He felt terrible, apologized to his teammates and personally spoke to the organization’s General Manager to explain the situation, taking full responsibility but hoping cooler heads would prevail. While sympathetic, the GM told him there was likely no hope in reversing the decision - the GTHL ascribes to a 19th century Mitteleuropean bureaucratic model based on arbitrariness and lack of accountability. There was no appeal available.

So, is it my fault? I showed this movie to my sons. Was he led astray by bad advice? One of the interesting things about watching movies (especially old ones that impressed me when I was younger) is my increasing identification with the grouchy old adults. Some of what they tell these whippersnappers is good sense. A weird split personality develops in me where I see both sides now. The world has become more and more like the world Diane’s dad promotes – where you always need to do the safe thing, the smart thing, the calculated thing. Lloyd stands for the world which is about the bold move, the big move, the passionate move – not the smart move.

What my son did was dumb and impulsive and it put his team in a bad situation but my view of it has changed from irritation to amused embarrassment to a kind of pride. He acted from his heart with passion, he put himself out there. It blew up in his face but I hope the lesson he takes from it is not to stop but to keep trying. I hope he keeps going for it with gusto, to create his own life like he dreams for it to be.

He pulled a Lloyd Dobler.

All right.
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P.S. Many people I have told this story to want to know, was she won over, did she add him to SnapChat? Well, he never got to finish his message so, as far as I know, no. But there are other games…

Lloyd Dobler: I am looking for a dare to be great situation.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Had a blast shooting our comedy web series Sherlock@Home

SHERLOCK@HOME: A Stay At Home Dad Who Solves Neighbourhood Mysteries

I had an amazing time shooting our new comedy web series Sherlock@Home, about a former cop now stay at home dad who solves neighbourhood mysteries. We were blessed with an amazing cast and crew. Special shout outs go to our lead actor David Pinard, producer Elena Lombardi and director Jaime Escallon of LuloFilms who made it all happen.

I can't wait to share the actual show with everyone. Stay tuned.


Friday, 17 November 2017

Chris Rock and I Part Ways Over a Bully

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I just saw Chris Rock in concert. It was a great night with some very funny pointed stuff. While I'm a fan of Rock's, I can't speak definitely on the history of his material though one routine about keeping your daughter off the pole being the mark of a good father is a great bit about parenting  delivered in a very funny, obscene way. I found some of his material (particularly about men v. women and relationships) rehashed and, since his bitter divorce and custody battle, more therapeutic ranting than comedy. But  the audience generally lapped it up.

He had this new bit about bullies though that I keep thinking about. Essentially he has put his daughters into private school and when he went to the orientation he heard how the school was proud of its no tolerance of bullies policy. His response was nearly to pull his daughters out of school - they needed bullies to make them tough and ready for the real world where bullies even get elected president. I get it. It was a joke. And kinda funny. But it got me thinking, which is the mark of a good comedy show in my book.

I agree with Rock that we do our kids no favours by shielding them from the real world (the irony of him making this assertion in the context of putting his kids into private school seemed not to occur to him or was at least unacknowledged). But the idea of just throwing them into that situation without support seems wrongheaded. Especially given something I just have gone through.

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My boys play hockey. Two of them now at a (low) competitive level. Recently my second announced that he wanted to try out for the Select hockey team (a team selected from your local hockey club that plays against other club's teams). Honestly, I wasn't keen on the time and monetary commitment this would entail. I told him he'd have to practice more (I thought this would end it - he takes after me, lazy) Fine, he said.  Huh. I told him the only time that worked for me was at 7:00 am on Fridays before school. No problem, he said. I was flummoxed but impressed. Hard-ass.

He worked hard, improved immensely, even being named his house league's team Most Improved Player. Still I wasn't sure he would make the Select team - they were very good, very competitive and a closed shop. Then, a miracle - the entire Select team left to start up a new higher level competitive team elsewhere. So my son tried out and (like every other kid who showed up) he made the team. More importantly, his good friend who lives two blocks away also made the team. Therefore I had a built-in carpool. Which is critical.

"With three boys, I don't care how important something is to them - if there's no carpool it's not happening."
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It's been a happy experience, he's getting a lot of hockey, he gets some cool team swag to strut around in and he has achieved a goal of his through hard work, persistence and a fair amount of luck. The team is actually winning many games, which was an open question given the draft process. There is another kid on this team who lives close to us who needed regular rides to games and practices. He has a single mum and they don't have a car. I can't even imagine trying to swing competitive hockey in that situation so, while I wasn't ecstatic about having to do more driving out of my way, there really was no question about we other two families stepping up and bringing him into the car pool.

Over the last few months I've got to know this kid a little and he seemed super happy to have made the team. He scored his first goal recently. But he started missing practices. And then just the other day I heard from my co-driver that he was thinking of quitting the team. Why would he do that? It turns out that some dirt bags on the team have been bullying him when there were no adults around, awarding him the 'worst player of the game' etc. True, this kid isn't an amazing player but everyone made the team because NO ONE ELSE SHOWED UP. But most of the kids on this team are very well-off, entitled, all go to the same private school and summer camp and this kid doesn't fall into any of those categories - to the degree that, instead of being driven to practices in a luxury cross-over, he often takes the bus. And I mentioned: single mum, reduced circumstances etc. In other words - soft target.

I lost my mind.

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Then commenced some questionable parenting on my part. I cross-examined my son on what was going on. I got the usual dazed look, shrugged shoulder and non-committal grunt most direct questions elicit. But this time I would not accept it. Within moments I had the whole sordid story. Yes, the kid had been bullied by, surprise surprise, one of the entitled in-group. Surely we've seen enough John Hughes movies by now to know the dynamic. My son didn't participate (thank god!) but he didn't stand up for this kid either. I berated him at that moment - how many damn anti-bullying/empathy-building sessions has he had to sit through at school (at times it seems like they have one of these a week) and he does nothing? He was a tearful wreck by the time I finished with him. Then - remorse.

Clearly, though he had sat through these consciousness-raising sessions, they don't help kids with how hard it is to actually stand up and speak up against this sort of bullshit. All it does is impose another obligation on kids. And one most adults fail at, in my experience. Poor kid was just trying to fit into a new team himself and here I was expecting him to take on the whole in-group power structure like some  pint sized Norma Rae. I apologized and I told him I expected him to stand up for this kid and to support him but told him he should find the right way for him to do that. I gave him some ideas. Some were even appopriate and didn't involve swearing.

Now what I needed to do was show him how to stand up to bullies. I emailed the mom and told her we would support her and her kid and outlined what we would do. I contacted one of the team managers, whom I know to be a good man and father, and told him the story. But I heard nothing from the mom. I worried that I had overstepped and maybe she didn't appreciate my butting in. I still felt it needed to be addressed, if only to make sure my son was on a team that was worth being on.

The next day we were all notified that, after the game, there would be a team meeting with all parents and kids. Still nothing from the mom. I fretted. Close to game time she and her son still hadn't arrived - then they rushed in with only a few minutes before game time but didn't have the entrance fee. I paid for them. All I got was a brusque thank you and they rushed off to the changeroom.
I was hurt and felt I'd blundered in and made things worse.
Then I started feeling irritated. Was she actually angry at me? And  no real thank you or acknowledgement that I had tried to do the right thing? Why did I bother with this crap? And I overheard some other parents complaining about having to go to this meeting, "Why do the parents have to get involved? Let the kids sort this out." Now I was really in a bad mood.

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After the game (we won!), the meeting was held and it was handled exceptionally well. No one was centred out but it was made very clear that any more nonsense of this sort would result in real and immediate consequences - less ice time to suspensions to expulsion. Everyone seemed to feel positive (me included) about the meeting and my son definitely seemed glad it had been handled without him. We were joking around when the bullied boy's mom came up to me.

It turns out she hadn't known who I was until she saw me with my son. Ego-check. She thanked me. She was very grateful. She clearly had been at her wit's end and felt alone and unsure what to do. She felt optimistic about the future. I'm sure that there will still be hiccups but I feel we turned a corner. Funny enough, my son, when asked by my wife about the meeting, shrugged and said of course everyone was being on their best behaviour because they knew what the meeting was about - little cynic. But he did say that everyone was pretty keen on playing hockey so, if for no other reason, they'd probably behave. I'm totally OK with that - I'm not expecting these kids to actually get empathetic.

Later that night we got a heartfelt email from the boy's mom - and got a real sense of how they had been struggling, thinking the situation was impossible and ready to give up but that knowing  people were there to help them made a huge difference. Her son is now happy and is eager to play. In her words, we "saved her and saved the dreams of a child". Perhaps overblown but she really meant it. I'm a cynical fellow (no kidding) but this obviously got to me. *sniff

Kids learn how to handle bullies not by preventing bullying (because you really can't) or by throwing them into the mix and letting them sort it out on their own (because they lack the skills to do that effectively) but by modelling behaviour that shows them that sometimes taking a stand and speaking out you can change things in a practical way. And that letting people know they are not alone is huge.

In that vein, I replied to the mom's email that we were all happy to help and reminded her that -
as the old African saying goes, "It takes a village to raise a hockey player."

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