Fleabag 2nd Season even better than 1st. An indelible portrait of toxic femininity. No accident that the brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge also wrote Killing-Eve featuring a different female killer but in male style and fantasy form rather than the more mature & realistic Fleabag.
Not everyone understood the tweet and some were confused. How could Fleabag be about toxic femininity when Waller-Bridge is a feminist? Fleabag is misunderstood because people try to frame it in terms of victimhood and Waller-Bridge is having none of that. Her method for illustrating the equality of the sexes is to show that women can be just as evil as men. Fleabag is much darker and more religious and mystical than most people realize.
I have written somewhat elliptically in what follows so as not to give much away but….mild spoiler warning. Herewith some observations.
Killing Eve features the serial killer, Villanelle. In one episode, she kills her lover using perfume. What could be a better metaphor for toxic femininity than that? Although they appear very different, Villanelle and Fleabag have much in common. Both of them, for example, are sociopaths.
Fleabag says as much herself, “I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman.” But even more telling is that the other characters tell us that Fleabag is a sociopath. “You know exactly what you are doing,” “You only do what you want,” “You know what you are going to do,” or words to that effect are said many times. To understand Fleabag the show, you need to take these words seriously and backcast them to the events that happened before Season One. Namely, in a fit of sexual jealousy, Fleabag decided that if she can’t have what she wants then no one will. She wills it. It happens.
In doubt? Consider the scene at the funeral of Fleabag’s mother. Is she upset? Distraught? In tears? No, she looks radiant. She is more beautiful, more composed, more at peace on the day of her mother’s funeral than any day before and everyone tells her so. “I have never seen you looks so good,” “You look glorious,” and my favorite, “Gosh, grief really agrees with you.” Her body tells the truth. It is a mistake to wish this away.
In Season One, Fleabag is only just realizing the power that her sociopathy and sexual charisma bestow upon her and at first she is frightened. By S2, however, she is in command and we see her using her intense sexual charisma to bend men to her will. Men worship her and she treats them like objects and playthings. In one case, she literally has her boyfriend on his hands and knees scrubbing the floors. It’s hilarious.
FB is not the only example of toxic femininity in the series. The stepmother is an older version of Fleabag who also uses her sexual charisma to get what she wants. She has Fleabag’s father by the balls and to prove it she hangs them on the wall (I am not making this up). Fleabag cannot defeat the passive-aggressive stepmother because her sexual powers work only over men (notice the Kristen Scott Thomas scene and recall that FB didn’t get what she really wanted pre Season One). The stepmother is in fact a kind of witch who uses words to destroy those around her even though the words themselves are pleasant sounding. The stepmother also fashions a voodoo doll, a statue of Fleabag’s mother–whom she has replaced–that is notably beheaded.
The real plot of Season Two is that Fleabag is bored by how easy it is to control men and so she goes after bigger game. Can she top her pre-Season One triumph? Can she steal a man from God? Priest and witch enter into a battle of wits and wills. The Priest thinks he is going to exorcise her demons. This is a feminist show. He doesn’t.
The priest is a very interesting character. He is specifically introduced as a new priest, i.e. a new church, and he is young and cool and sexy. He is also a complete failure. Is Waller-Bridge, who was schooled by nuns, saying the new church fails or the church in general? Either way, despite being celestially warned, the priest fails God, he fails the Church and, perhaps most of all, he fails Fleabag. To be saved, Fleabag needed to find an incorruptible man, one who truly believes that there are bigger things than sex and dominance and worship of self. Instead, she finds in the church nothing but hypocrisy. In choosing sex over God and devotion to others, the Priest violates a sacred trust just as the pedophile priests violated their sacred trust (and Waller-Bridge makes clear the family resemblance). It does not take much imagination to see that the Priest will soon meet his fate in an alcoholic stupor (many hints are given).
In the final scene Fleabag walks into the sunset contentedly, like a talented Mrs. Ripley. The priest leaves in the opposite direction pursued by a demon symbolizing his failure to guard his flock.
Addendum: By the way, we never learn Fleabag’s name. She is a temptress who kills. Thus, another good name for Fleabag would be Killing Eve.
One of the most widely used screenplay programs in Hollywood has a new tool to help with gender equality and inclusion.
In an update announced Thursday, Final Draft — software that writers use to format scripts — said it will now include a proprietary “Inclusivity Analysis” feature, allowing filmmakers “to quickly assign and measure the ethnicity, gender, age, disability or any other definable trait of the characters,” including race, the company said in a statement.
It also will enable users to determine if a project passes the Bechdel Test, measuring whether two female characters speak to each other about anything other than a man. The Final Draft tool, a free add-on, was developed in collaboration with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media at Mount Saint Mary’s University, which has been at the forefront of studying the underrepresentation of women on screen.
Here is the full Melena Ryzik NYT story.
She requires no introduction, this conversation involved a bit of slapstick, so unlike many of the others it is better heard than read. Here is the audio and transcript. Here is the opening:
COWEN: Just to start with some basic questions about Canada, which you’ve written on for decades — what defines the Canadian sense of humor?
MARGARET ATWOOD: Wow. [laughs] What defines the Canadian sense of humor? I think it’s a bit Scottish.
COWEN: How so?
ATWOOD: Well, it’s kind of ironic. It depends on what part of Canada you’re in. I think the further west you go, the less of a sense of humor they have.
ATWOOD: But that’s just my own personal opinion. My family’s from Nova Scotia, so that’s as far east as you can get. And they go in for deadpan lying.
COWEN: In 1974, you wrote, “The Canadian sense of humor was often obsessed with the issue of being provincial versus being cosmopolitan.”
COWEN: You think that’s still true?
ATWOOD: Depends again. You know, Canada’s really big. In fact, there’s a song called “Canada’s Really Big.” You can find it on the internet. It’s by a group called the Arrogant Worms. That kind of sums up Canada right there for you.
The burden of the song is that all of these other countries have got all of these other things, but what Canada has is, it’s really big. It is, in fact, very big. Therefore, it’s very hard to say what is particularly Canadian. It’s a bit like the US. Which part of the US is the US? What is the most US thing —
COWEN: Maybe it’s Knoxville, Tennessee, right now. Right? The Southeast.
ATWOOD: You think?
COWEN: But it used to be Cleveland, Ohio.
ATWOOD: Did it?
COWEN: Center of manufacturing.
ATWOOD: When was that? [laughs] When was that?
COWEN: If you look at where the baseball teams are, you see what the US —
And from her:
ATWOOD: Yeah, so what is the most Canadian thing about Canada? The most Canadian thing about Canada is that when they ran a contest that went “Finish this sentence. As American as apple pie. As Canadian as blank,” the winning answer was “As Canadian as plausible under the circumstances.”
And a question from me:
COWEN: But you’ve spoken out in favor of the cultural exception being part of the NAFTA treaty that protects Canadian cultural industries. Is it strange to think that having more than half the [Toronto] population being foreign born is not a threat to Canadian culture, but that being able to buy a copy of the New York Times in Canada is a threat?
In addition to Canada, we talk about the Bible, Shakespeare, ghosts, her work habits, Afghanistan, academia, Peter the Great, writing for the future, H.G. Wells, her heretical feminism, and much much more.
This is only one estimate, from Gregory J. Martin and Ali Yurukoglu, but nonetheless it is backed by a plausible identification stragegy and this is very interesting research:
We find that in a hypothetical world without Fox News but with no other changes, the Republican vote share in the 2000 election would have been about half a percentage point lower. By 2008, the effect of there being no Fox News rises to more than six percentage points – a result of the channel’s increasing viewership and increasingly conservative slant over this period.
Unfortunately, that is followed by a real clunker of a paragraph:
All of these results suggest that citizens and regulators have reason to be concerned about media consolidation and the non-market objectives of media owners. A hypothetical monopolist controlling all three channels and interested in electoral influence would have enormous power over election outcomes.
How many things are wrong in those two sentences? How can a profession supposedly devoted to rigor allow such sloppy thought to continue? Here are a few of my objections:
1. The real story in this paper is about Fox News, and Fox — whether you like it or not — is very much an alternative to the mainstream media approach. If you don’t like Fox, you might have preferred the “bad old days” of three dominant and pretty similar networks.
2. Do the authors have any argument that “the non-market objectives of media owners” are bad? No. In fact, there is a longstanding literature that “the market objectives of media owners” are bad, whether you agree or not. Do they really just mean to say “I don’t like Fox News”? Just say it. Don’t worry, I don’t think most authors, especially of media studies, are objective to begin with.
3. Don’t the results suggest we should perhaps be worried about polarized news rather than consolidated news ownership?
4. Is it possible to consolidate news ownership in a world with so many cable channels and so many news alternatives to cable? I strongly doubt this, but in any case it is not something the authors have shown. Instead, they have shown that a renegade news channel can rise to a position of great political influence.
5. Might it have been better simply to have written?: “I am really worried that Rupert Murdoch, in the absence of regulation, could buy up all the news channels and implement political outcomes I do not like.” That is an entirely coherent argument, and I wonder if it isn’t what the authors were getting at but couldn’t bring themselves to write it and thus were forced into the most illogical two sentences I have read this week.
6. By the way, Murdoch owns a lot of media properties and most of them have political stances, and most of all tones, fairly different from that of Fox News. Worth a ponder.
For the pointer I thank the excellent Samir Varma.
I interview Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, not a Conversation but nonetheless a conversation, they were both in top form. Here is the link.
Bohemian Rhapsody—you already know the plot and it’s a tad long but the music is great and Rami Malek is fabulous as Freddie Mercury. The movie culminates with a virtually shot-by-shot recreation of the legendary Queen performance at Live Aid, considered by many to the greatest live performance in all of rock and roll. A little puzzling why they didn’t use the original. Worth seeing in the theater, if you don’t have a home theater.
Crazy Rich Asians – the all Asian cast made it notable and the shots of Singapore are great but it’s only average as a romantic comedy. The leads lack chemistry.
The Last Kingdom (Netflix)—I’ve watched all three Seasons and enjoyed them. Season 3, however, is beginning to lose its legs. The on-again, off-again love affair between King Alfred and Uhtred has worn its course and I swear I’ve seen the jump in the boats and row away under falling arrow scene more than once before. Still, it’s not boring.
Bodyguard (Netflix) —taut British thriller. I enjoyed it and at 6 episodes it’s less of an investment than some series.
Homecoming (Amazon Prime)—sold as a Julia Roberts endeavor. She’s fine but the real star is the mysterious atmospherics and unusual shots and edits. I didn’t realize till the end of the first episode that this was a Sam Esmail show. Ah, now it all makes sense. If you liked Mr. Robot, give it a shot. I haven’t finished the first season and I may not, so I can’t say for certain whether the investment is worthwhile.
Daredevil (Netflix) I have already mentioned. Now cancelled, despite a great third season.
The Man Who Would be King (Amazon Prime) – a John Huston classic featuring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. One of my favorites. Based on a story of Rudyard Kipling which was based on the true story of Josiah Harlan, Prince of Ghor.
At Eternity’s Gate: A stirring and powerful performance by Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh. Directed by Julian Schnabel, himself a noted artist. The camera work–meant to convey a “you are there” point of view and also the sometime madness of Van Gogh–was disconcertingly jumpy at times. Schnabel would have done better stepping back and placing more trust on Dafoe’s performance and also the cinematography of Benoît Delhomme. Oddly, Schnabel insists Van Gogh was murdered when suicide is the accepted account and one that rings true, even to the film itself.
Machines (Amazon Prime)–an excellent documentary illustrating a day in the life of a textile factory in Gujurat, India. The pictures do the work, very little commentary. Dickensian. Especially striking to an economist , how inefficiently the factory is being run. Quality control, inventory management and maintenance are clearly atrocious. I am reluctant to claim something is inefficient but we have strong experimental evidence that management quality in these firms is very low and that better management could more than pay for itself.
While some say wisdom comes with age, younger Americans are better than their elders at separating factual from opinion statements in the news, according to a new analysis from Pew Research Center.
And the gap is noticeable:
About a third of 18- to 49-year-olds (32%) correctly identified all five of the factual statements as factual, compared with two-in-ten among those ages 50 and older. A similar pattern emerges for the opinion statements. Among 18- to 49-year-olds, 44% correctly identified all five opinion statements as opinions, compared with 26% among those ages 50 and older.
When looking at the 10 statements individually, younger adults were not only better overall at correctly identifying factual and opinion news statements – they could do so regardless of the ideological appeal of the statements.
Maybe social media aren’t so terrible after all. And maybe cable TV is less than perfect?
Why might observers label one social actor’s questionable act a norm violation even as they seem to excuse similar behavior by others? To answer this question, I use participant-observer data on Los Angeles stand-up comics to explore the phenomenon of joke theft. Informal, community-based systems govern the property rights pertaining to jokes. Most instances of possible joke theft are ambiguous owing to the potential for simultaneous and coincidental discovery. I find that accusations are not strongly coupled to jokes’ similarity, and enforcement depends mainly on the extent to which insiders view the comic in question as being authentic to the community. Comics who are oriented toward external rewards, have a track record of anti-social behavior, and exhibit lackluster on-stage craft are vulnerable to joke theft accusations even in borderline cases because those inauthentic characteristics are typical of transgressors. Vulnerability is greatest for comics who enjoy commercial success despite low peer esteem. Authenticity protects comics because it reflects community-based status, which yields halo effects while encouraging relationships predicated on respect. In exploring accusations of joke theft and their outcomes, this study illustrates how norms function more as framing devices than as hard-and-fast rules, and how authenticity shapes their enforcement.
That is from “No Laughter among Thieves: Authenticity and the Enforcement of Community Norms in Stand-Up Comedy,” by Patrick Reilly, from the American Sociological Review.
For the pointer I thank Siddharth Muthukrishnan.
…contemporary Americans are watching a record number of entertainment TV programs emphasizing “rags to riches” narratives. Using detailed Nielsen ratings data and original content analyses, I demonstrate that such shows have become a ubiquitous part of the American media landscape over the last two decades. In three national surveys…I find that exposure to these programs increases viewers’ beliefs in the American Dream; for heavy viewers this effect is as powerful as that of having immigrant parents. In experiments conducted both online and in a lab-in-the-field setting establish that these media effects are causal, and stronger among Republicans.
Substitutes are indeed everywhere:
This paper examines the association between television ownership and coital frequency using data from nearly 4 million individuals in national household surveys in 80 countries from 5 continents. The results suggest that while television may not kill your sex life, it is associated with some sex life morbidity. Under our most conservative estimate, we find that television ownership is associated with approximately a 6% reduction in the likelihood of having had sex in the past week, consistent with a small degree of substitutability between television viewing and sexual activity. Household wealth and reproductive health knowledge do not appear to be driving this association.
That is from a new NBER paper by Adrienne Lucas and Nicholas Wilson.
1. The roots of American greatness.
2. The importance of “will” in building a succcessful career.
3. Toleration and individualism and respect for children.
This has to go down as one of the better documentaries, and it seems Mister Rogers was a better and more important thinker than many of the intellectuals of his time. I had not known that Rogers had been trained and ordained as a Presbyterian minister.
On top of all that, the film is Straussian throughout. Definitely recommended. By the way, the documentary doesn’t mention this, but the show actually had its origins in Toronto on CBC.
Let’s say more of the world moves to a Netherlands-style euthanasia law. While euthanasia is at first based on individual consent, it usually evolves into a “in unclear cases your spouse or guardian has the actual say.”
How will this affect bargaining power within the family? Here are a few options:
1. Family members will be much nicer to each other, ex ante, so they will be kept around for longer if they come down sick.
1b. Because of time consistency problems, family members won’t be much nicer with each other.
1c. You fear that family members aren’t willing enough to pull the plug on you, so you become actively less nice.
2. Family members will be much more anxious with each other, because they will so often be wondering how the others will wish to dispose of them, and when.
3. Some family members will make explicit ex ante deals, such as: “You can send me to my doom when the time comes, with a clear conscience, but on Tuesday nights we’re going to watch my game shows, not your reality TV.”
4. “It stresses me out that you are stressed out over my dying, so I will apply for euthanasia right here and now, even though I still have nine months to live with my cancer. Except I will tell you that I just don’t want to live any longer, so you don’t feel bad about why I am doing this.”
5. You have no family and given your illness you are a net revenue drain on your nursing home. If you go back to live out your final days, you’ll end up with the worst room and less spicy food and no private TV. You agree to euthanasia, granted that they send $20,000 to your favorite charity. You leave this earth with a warm glow, feeling that 20k probably saved at least one life. In reality, with p = 0.68 it subsidized someone’s overhead.
I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is part of her Wikipedia entry:
Elisa New…is a Professor of English at Harvard University. She holds a B.A. from Brandeis University (1980), as well as a M.A. and a Ph.D from Columbia University (1982 and 1988, respectively). Her interests include American poetry, American Literature-1900, Religion and Literature, and Jewish literature. Before moving to Harvard, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania.
So what should I ask her?
I’ve learned a lot about industrial organization watching The Profit, a reality-TV show on CNBC featuring businessman Marcus Lemonis. In each episode Lemonis buys into a failing small-to-medium-sized business and works to turn it around. Lemonis doesn’t invest in a random sample of businesses nor even in a random sample of failing businesses. Nevertheless, the lessons that The Profit teaches are consistent with the new literature on management which has increased my confidence both in the show and the literature.
In the perfectly competitive model, price is equal to average cost and firms operate efficiently at minimum cost. Yet, Syverson finds that in the typical US industry a firm at the 90th percentile of the productivity distribution makes almost twice as much output with the same inputs as a firm at the 10th percentile. It’s not easy to measure inputs or outputs, of course, but even firms producing very uniform products show big productivity differences.
How can firms that use inputs so inefficiently survive? In part, competition is imperfect which gives inefficient firms a cushion because they can charge a price higher than cost even as costs are higher than necessary. Another reason is that small firms eat their costs.
A typical firm on The Profit, for example, has decent revenues, sometimes millions of dollars of revenues, but it has costs that are as high or higher. What happened? Often the firm began with a competitive advantage–a product that took off unexpectedly and so for a time the firm was rolling in profits without having to pay much attention to costs. As competition slowly took hold, however, margins started to decline and the firm found itself bailing. But instead, of going out of business, the firm covers its losses with entrepreneurs and family members who work without pay, with loans which grow ever larger, and by an occasional demand shock which generates enough surplus revenue to just keep going.
The correct metaphor for competition isn’t a boxing match that knocks out the inefficient firm. The correct metaphor is a slow tide. Inefficient firms must scramble for a bit of high ground but as the tide ebbs and flows they can occasionally catch a breath when their head bobs above the profit line. An inefficient firm can survive for years before it inevitably sinks.
The second lesson from The Profit is that management matters and it matters in systematic and fairly easy to replicate ways. If mis-measurement explained productivity differences, Lemonis would not be able to successfully turn firms around. But he can and does. How?
One of the first things Lemonis does in almost every episode is get the numbers right so he can calculate which products are selling and which have the highest price-to-cost margin. Concentrate production on high-margin, big sellers. Drop the rest. Simple; but many firms don’t know their numbers.
Second, in episode after episode, Lemonis cleans up shop. Literally. He cleans the shop floor and gets rid of inventory that isn’t selling. He then arranges the floor to improve process flow (made easier by concentrating production on fewer products). He then creates an inventory system, tracks orders and the inputs needed to create those orders, and takes advantage of costs savings through economies of scale in input purchases.
Can it be so simple? To be sure, Lemonis is a smart guy but very little of what he does takes genius. We know this because we now have robust evidence from India and Mexico that better management increases profits and productivity and that such increases can be sustained over the long run. In the studies from India and Mexico, randomly selected firms were given access to a “management intervention” and their productivity and profits improved and stayed higher for years after the intervention ended.
Moreover, what were these management interventions? Did some bright Harvard grad recommend a complicated swap-options deal? A new chemical process? A new management form? No. By and large, the interventions were simple. Just like the Lemonis interventions.
Here, for example, are some pictures of the storage systems used in the Indian textile firms which were part of the management study (from Nick Bloom’s slides). This is exactly the kind of thing one sees on the Profit and the recommendations to create an inventory control system are exactly the same. Management 101.
This is the sense in which the lessons of The Profit are consistent with the new literature on management and increase confidence in both.
Another lesson from The Profit is that firm problems are personal problems. The son who can’t step out from the shadow of the father and the father who can’t let go. The two brothers who haven’t gotten over the death of their father and the problems this creates in the firm they have inherited. The siblings who are still fighting to get their parent’s attention. If Lemonis has a genius skill it’s in keeping his temper and working through bullshit problems to get to the real festering issues that are at the root of inefficiencies.
Now, in this case, there is surely some selection going on. Personal drama makes for good television but the general point strikes me as true and correct and important. It’s difficult to run a business like a business. The analytical mindset that can separate business problems from personal problems isn’t natural. Many people cannot separate business decisions from their own preferences and emotional biases, which is one reason why great business leaders are rare.
I’ve learned a lot about IO from watching The Profit but could business people learn about running a firm by seeing more reality-TV? Robin Hanson argues:
If one can learn….from just watching the inside story of real firms over several years, that suggests a big win: record the full lives of many rising managers over several years, and show a mildly compressed and annotated selection of such recordings to aspiring managers.
I agree with Robin, Reality-TV MBAs could offer a lot of value. The Profit is a good place to start.