Blue Spider's Attic

Review: Blue Spider’s Attic (book subscription box)

I love subscription boxes. It’s like having a personal shopper and my birthday at the same time! I’ve never tried a book subscription box before, but Blue Spider Press offered to let me try their Blue Spider’s Attic program free in exchange for (honest) review, and here we are! The concept is really cool — “All the magic of a used book store, delivered.” In each box you get three gently-used books, a sample package of coffee, and assorted goodies. You have the option of subscribing month-to-month at $19.99 per box plus shipping, or you can get variously discounted rates for prepaying up to six months in advance.

I must say the box delivers on its promise, no pun intended. It is like a used book store by delivery. Mine came very well packaged, and I love that the books are individually wrapped too. It prolongs the giftlike excitement and kind of creates that sense of stumbling on books one at a time.

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Initial unboxing.
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Box contents. Cat belly not included.

I got the promised three books, a Fairwinds Coffee sample in chocolate raspberry, a bunch of cool stickers, a bookmark, some coupon codes, and a pretty beaded book spider that Mo (the cat) immediately tried to eat. Fortunately he failed. I’ve tried the coffee and it’s delicious — there’s meant to be enough for a full pot, but I use an espresso machine and it’ll last me four or five cups probably. I also super love the stickers, because that’s not something I see often and I’ll totally use them. I can’t wait to think of the perfect place for that zombie hand.

Of course,  you want to hear about the books. First up, The Ashes of Eden by William Shatner! Read it and love the series but didn’t own this one, so thrilled to get that. Next, Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. I’ve seen the movie, haven’t read the book, but I’ll have to decide just how strong my constitution is before I give it a go. Finally, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. It’s a classic from 1958, but I’ve randomly heard several people talking about it in the past couple weeks and am excited to read it myself. So, two super excited and one not-sure-but-can-always-toss-it-in-a-Halloween-gift-basket, I call that a win. All three were again nicely packaged and in excellent used condition.

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Deciding whether or not Blue Spider’s Attic is for you, it probably depends on your reading habits. Not even counting library stuff, I own several thousand books already, most of which I haven’t read. So, I don’t really see subscribing to a box like this because I really don’t need a random selection of books being added to that list every month. But, if I had the money and time to spend, I’d definitely say it’s worth it. Plus, if you don’t have a local used book store or if you’re not able to visit one for whatever reason, then this could be awesome for you!

Get more info or sign up here. Use code THINGSMATTER15 at checkout for a discount — doesn’t do anything for me, only does something for you!

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Queering the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge

Who else is doing the 2016 Book Riot Read Harder challenge? It’s super fun, 24 book categories to check off, and I’m actually halfway through as I should be. I thought about doing an update post on the books I’d read and still planned to read — and I can totes still do that if y’all want it — but instead I thought, “Hey, a lot of people are trying to diversify their reading. Why not do a list of queer books fitting each challenge?” So that’s what I’ve done. Links go to Goodreads because I tried to minimize chitchat for length. Leave your own recommendations in the comments!

Link to the challenge, checklist, and end-of-year discount reward info!

  1. Read a horror book – Silk by Caitlin R. Kiernan, an openly trans lesbian author, because I wanted to stay far away from “queer people are terrifying” and or “cross-dressing crazy person” horror.
  2. Read a nonfiction book about science – NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America by Constance Penley. The first half is about public perception of NASA, particularly of female astronauts and their own perspectives on that. The second half is about gay Star Trek fanfiction, so there’s that. (Of course, you could always try something more straightforward like Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why by Simon LeVay. But keep in mind you could be reading about gay fanfic. Just saying.)
  3. Read a collection of essays – Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. Humor.
  4. Read a book out loud to someone else – Great excuse for a picture book! I love Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah Hoffman or Donovan’s Big Day by Leslea Newman. (I read a book to my cat, but he didn’t enjoy it.)
  5. Read a middle grade novel – The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister by Charlotte Agell.
  6. Read a biography (not memoir or autobiography) – I loved Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America by Rachel Hope Cleves, but really pick any LGBT person you wanna know more about and there’s probably a biography of some kind!
  7. Read a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel – Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. Reading this one for post-apocalyptic book myself.
  8. Read a book originally published in the decade you were born – This will vary, obviously. Try a “must-read” or “classics” list!
  9. Listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie Award – Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming, which won two in 2015, for memoir and for narration by author. (I don’t know if it’s in the book, but he’s bi. CN for abuse.)
  10. Read a book over 500 pages long – The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities by John Loughery. If you only wanna read one history book, this one is totes suitable.
  11. Read a book under 100 pages – Either of the picture books above, or The Name of Love: Classic Gay Love Poems.
  12. Read a book by or about a person that identifies as transgender – I read Queer Pulp by Susan Stryker and it’s great if you want to know about queer pulp in the 60s or so. She also has a book of general trans history.
  13. Read a book that is set in the Middle East – If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan, a YA set in Iran.
  14. Read a book by an author from Southeast Asia – So I came up completely blank on this one. Help! I did find The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia by Tom Boellstorff, which is at least about Southeast Asia.
  15. Read a book of historical fiction set before 1900 – Actually loads here to choose from. I’ll be reading The Magpie Lord by K.J. Charles, an m/m romance in the Victorian era. To go back further, try something by Mary Renault in ancient times, they’re classics.
  16. Read the first book in a series by a person of color – Adaptation by Malindo Lo.
  17. Read a non-superhero comic that debuted in the last three years – The Wicked & The Divine Vol. 1 by Kieron Gillen.
  18. Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie. Debate which is better. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood and the movie starring Colin Firth. Is best movie, the movie is better!
  19. Read a nonfiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes – Killers of the Dream by Lillian Smith. She was a presumably-lesbian Georgian writer, one of the few white folks to openly fight segregation as early as 1949, the original publication of this book. The book talks a lot about the power structures in the south and how they hurt women, as well as race issues.
  20. Read a book about religion (fiction or nonfiction) – Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire by Jennifer Wright Knust. Or for something less academic, you might like God Believes in Love by the world’s cuddliest bishop Gene Robinson, although I haven’t read it yet.
  21. Read a book about politics, in your country or another (fiction or nonfiction) – Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance by Jakobsen & Pellegrini. I reviewed it here. It’s actually all about structuring political arguments in the US.
  22. Read a food memoir – Cooking as Fast as I Can by Cat Cora.
  23. Read a play – Wit by Margaret Edson. She is openly lesbian, and a lot of the discourse around the play concerns whether or not lesbianism is a theme, but mostly it’s a really intense play about the process of dying. Of course you could also read anything by Oscar Wilde or Tennessee Williams that’s been on your list!
  24. Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness – A Note in the Margin by Isabelle Rowan, or so I’m told. It’s on my TBR list, although not for this.

Enjoy!

The Non-Binary Book Club Reads Swordspoint

I don’t always make it to Non-Binary Book Club, but when I do I’m glad. The books, and the discussions about them, are challenging and rewarding even on topics I feel comfortable with like the term “bisexuality” and what it “means.” (And a few posts ago when I was talking about Swordspoint, I’d been reading it for this.) I’m HG!

The Lobster Dance

swordspoint [Image: Richard St. Vier, looking hella dramatic with flowing cape and sword, on the cover of Swordspoint.] This is very! late! But here it is!

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner. 1987.

On the treacherous streets of Riverside, a man lives and dies by the sword. Even the nobles on the Hill turn to duels to settle their disputes. Within this elite, dangerous world, Richard St. Vier is the undisputed master, as skilled as he is ruthless–until a death by the sword is met with outrage instead of awe, and the city discovers that the line between hero and villain can be altered in the blink of an eye. 

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Epic Feminist Faceoff: Joan Scott vs. Judith Butler

Joan Wallach Scott: Feminist historian and author of the discipline-transforming 1986 article “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” Judith Butler: Philosopher and hardcore influencer in feminist, queer, and literary theories. TWO WOMEN ENTER, ONE WOMAN LEAVES!

Okay fine, they can both leave. But this summer, I’m having my first experience with a directed readings course — a one-on-one discussion series with a professor on a given topic, in this case Gender and Sexuality in the South — and we have eight readings lined up in opposing pairs. I have a lot of thoughts, and since we’re comparing and contrasting I thought it’d be fun to set these posts up that way rather than traditional reviews. Plus I hope you enjoy the look at our topics of Professional Interest.

Books read:

  • Gender and the Politics of History – Joan Wallach Scott, revised 1999
  • Undoing Gender – Judith Butler, 2004

Continue reading “Epic Feminist Faceoff: Joan Scott vs. Judith Butler”

Queer stories can’t have queer fandoms?

Once upon a time on the internet, probably five years ago, I read some kind of post about the novel Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, saying queer people wouldn’t ever be as invested in queer literature as they are in queering straight literature. Essentially that the motivation to create fanworks isn’t there, so the fan commitment will be less. The point, or what I took to be the point, was that stories about queer characters and relationships are less valuable because of that. Every so often, I get to thinking about that statement and what fan culture is like at that moment. I recently re-read Swordpoint, so I’ve been thinking about it again.

Johnlock at the movies
somachiou on DeviantArt

There’s certainly more enthusiasm about shipping Holmes and Watson than George and Jim, for instance, and I’m thinking of the Robert Downey Jr. Holmes movies all on their own to keep things fair. “Slash fandom” as a whole is associated with slashing characters who are by appearances straight, back to the fandom’s Kirk/Spock origins in the 60s. And fanfic is a powerful queer space, where symbols can be modified with literally no limit. I can see how losing a queer space with that level of freedom might be a negative thing, and I suppose I can understand that people are less likely to write a “gay headcanon” if the canon is actually gay.

To me, though, the central issue is genre and popularity. If you don’t like the drama or indie-drama genres, you just don’t have many couples to ship, so you make them. You imagine the representation you want. That’s true for all media types — there’s frequently a weird little queer indie niche, but it’s oppressively difficult to find those characters and stories in the mainstream. Not everyone has the time, energy, money, or locality to access those indie niches, even if you like indie stuff. It should be no surprise that the more popular any thing is, the more fans will create fanworks, queer and otherwise. Some pairings seem to inherently convey a lot of subtext, like various versions of Holmes and Watson, so certain magic combinations of popular media with subtext-heavy pairing create these massive fan followings.

On the other hand, I also see a lot of alienation in the queer community from those kinds of ships. They — we — are increasingly upset that creators use the ships to manipulate fans without actually including out characters. Frequently franchises will tease gay ships (and ONLY gay ships) to appeal to straight female audiences. Actual queer people see right through this, and are less and less willing to put up with it, fanfic or no fanfic. It’s not about entertaining ourselves with unintended possibilities at this point, it’s becoming more and more of an issue that all these content-producing industries are blatantly refusing to make stories about queer people, and if they do offer anything, it’s not for the queer community.

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, coverWhich brings me back to Swordspoint, its cultural bisexuality and the male-male couple at the center. It’s not subtext, it’s text, and that IS the reason people love it. The fandom has persisted for thirty years, and is even growing, due to new installments like Tremontaine that further diversify the world. If you’re queer and into fantasy, Swordspoint is the first book you’ll hear recommended, and there’s basically a secret society of internet denizens who recognize each other with the secret signal “OMG YOU LIKE SWORDSPOINT TOO SQUEEEEEE!!” because there are so few gay fantasy books, and it was one of the first.

And that, finally, is my opinion. A massive shipping community doesn’t mean a single thing when the emotions and attachments of actual queer people are concerned. You can’t measure that kind of personal significance by the number of posts on a message board — especially when the specific book came out before the internet, but also in general terms. We may get a kick out of a crazy shiptease, or we may not, but the point remains: We want queer characters. And we want them in public, not just queer online corners. Because safe spaces are important, but as long as we need them, it means everywhere else is unsafe. If it looks like we’d rather have subtext, it’s only because in public, in the mainstream, that’s all we’ve had to go on.

It might sound silly for me to engage a statement like “We shouldn’t bother making queer characters because the queers like subtext better anyway,” I don’t think many people in the community are saying that, but put in such a condensed form that’s really been the argument from outside. Appease the LGBT+ audience with a tease, but don’t go all the way. That’s not enough. Give us real queer characters, and we will love them!

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Star Trek Computers Aren’t All That Retro

On original Star Trek computers and the history of technology — the remaining points of interest out of that “Star Trek and material culture” paper.:)

Comparative Geeks

leonard-nimoy-obit-videoSixteenByNine540-v2 Spock at his computer station.

Last month we talked about Star Trek: The Original Series miniskirts, how they came to be and what they signified. While researching the paper that eventually turned into that post, I found out some interesting things about technology too. Most sci-fi isn’t actually futurist, meaning it doesn’t actually attempt to predict the future in an accurate way. Most sci-fi is designed to make a social statement by taking a situation to an extreme, or to explore possibilities by asking scientific what-if questions, or both. It’s not meant to be a “history of the future.”

Star Trek did those social things, and fantastically well. It’s famous for them. However, it also turns out that Gene Roddenberry, creator and showrunner of Star Trek, was an enthusiastic futurist who wrote papers on the future of technology and was invited to lecture at NASA as well as several…

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Thoughts on “Art AIDS America”

I know I just said I don’t usually post about art exhibits, but this one’s really everything I’m interested in and it’s timely. Art AIDS America explores American art in the wake of AIDS, encompassing a wide variety of artists and media. I visited at the end of April while the show was at the Zuckerman Museum of Art in Kennesaw, Georgia. This is a no-pictures-allowed exhibit, partly to protect the privacy of visitors, so I don’t have pictures of my own (and don’t remember any details) but have pulled a few promotional images.

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From a museum perspective, the exhibit labels are just fantastic, and that’s no small consideration: art doesn’t speak for itself. Art represents something, whether it be a photorealistic portrait or an abstract emotion.  Most art museums and art exhibits have small labels with the name of the piece, the artist, and maybe the medium or the year, and that’s it. But art is both historical and personal, and without that context, I have nothing! There’s no way to know if my aesthetic impression has anything to do with what the artist actually wanted to say about their life or the culture around them. These pieces in particular were saying things, and I appreciate the care and effort that went into explaining the art in labels without being condescending or overly detailed.

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Deborah Kass, Still Here, 2007. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 45 x 63 inches.

If you know what the artist was saying or referring to, you can react in a meaningful way, not a way you’ve made up yourself. Because the labels ground you, Art AIDS America creates a connection to the material whether you have a personal one or not. “The AIDS crisis” as such was before my time — and after my time, as a historian — but it was a world-changing event in gay history with drastic repercussions, both personal and political, and this art shows those dimensions. The heaviest part was the display of Reagan-era politicians’ quotes and references to AIDS as a judgment or something anyone deserves. It’s not just history, though — the art wouldn’t exist without the context, but it’s also art, creative and curious in its own right. I remember one piece that’s made of a stack of papers and each visitor takes one, representing the spread of AIDS while questioning the idea of “owning” a piece of art in the first place.

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ACT UP NY/Gran Fury, Let the Record Show…, 1987/recreated 2015, mixed media installation.

The central controversy of the show is that in its original form, the two curators (Jonathan D. Katz and Rock Hushka) only included four black artists and a few other artists of color out of 107 total, despite claiming to “explore the whole spectrum of artistic responses to AIDS” and the current disproportionate affect of HIV/AIDS on black communities. I’m sure there’s a lot to say about how and why the exhibit turned out that way, but I’m not the one who knows. All I can say is that the Zuckerman handled it well, and took an opportunity to modify the show and include a more diverse pool of artists, and I appreciate it.

In the last week of its run at the Zuckerman, some local politicians started making noise about it being disgusting. Again, I can’t speak to all the motivations in the background, but I find it strange that the objections came in the last week of something like a four-month run, and I hope the museum isn’t discouraged. They did a fantastic job. I know they felt the need for security in the building (provided by the local police, an awesome outreach opportunity) but according to staff at the time I was there, they had no problems or complaints. From everything I’ve heard, that’s entirely typical. Audiences aren’t as sensitive as we museum people — and politicians — often think they will be.

I apologize to my southern peeps that Art AIDS America’s run has finished here, but I believe the show is headed to the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York next, and then to Chicago!

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Museum Visit: The Walters Art Museum (Baltimore, MD)

I don’t always post about art museum visits, because I generally find art exhibits very subjective and also because photography is often prohibited and that’s how I note all the things I might want to talk about without interrupting my flow. However, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore has a really interesting approach I’d like to discuss.

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Me, Adam, Eve, and… Femme Satan?

I visited the Walters while at the National Council on Public History conference in March, purely because I was with an art historian, she wanted to go to an art museum, and this one was free. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It gave the impression of being quite small, yet boasts “an overview of world art from pre-dynastic Egypt to 20th-century Europe, and counts among its many treasures Greek sculpture and Roman sarcophagi; medieval ivories and Old Master paintings; Art Nouveau jewelry and 19th-century European and American masterpieces.”

At first I was totally unimpressed. Random jumbles of art and objects, without labels except for the odd laminated booklet with diagrams. The more we wandered, though, the more I realized this was intentional. Rooms represent different time periods, and we’d started in the Renaissance period. These rooms were designed to recreate the way gentlemen would’ve outfitted such rooms — random assemblages of strange or unique things, with no direction for the visitor. The host would’ve explained different things, but of course you’d never know if he was telling the truth. Visitors to the museum, on the other hand, have recourse to the booklet (or free audio guide) for these particular objects, without the intrusion of labels onto the scene.

Upstairs, there are more traditional art galleries, interspersed with things like a French royal gallery hung in the traditional style of wall-to-wall paintings crammed together to impress the viewer, or full altars set up as they would be for use. What started as a less-than-impressive old-fashioned museum turned out to be a gleefully immersive experience, and one of the best fusions of art with history I’ve ever seen, both at the room level and in their choice of specific objects to display and interpret.

I particularly love that you can get out of the museum exactly as much as you want — move through quickly and look over the art, or go slowly and read all text, or more likely something in between. And, although I’m an outsider and can’t say for sure, they seem to be doing a great job of engaging with their public through varied exhibitions, programs, and kids’ activities. Highly recommended, and would visit again!

Kingsman, The Man from UNCLE, and Queering the Action Movie

Kingsman and Man from UNCLE are two of my favorite movies from the past few years. They’re both action-spy movies, which means even though they base themselves on pre-existing media, they must reference the James Bond franchise somehow. Any new action-spy movie has to do that, but as comedies (even light parodies), it is absolutely imperative that they interact with the genre instead of just copying it. What I find interesting is both these movies deal with that by gently expanding what’s “allowed” in a Bond-type production.

Kingsman posterInitially I didn’t even want to see Kingsman, because it looked so incredibly white and male. White guy action movies are a dime a dozen, even if this one has that slight parody twist. But I love Colin Firth, (also the star of my very favorite queer movie, A Single Man). And I heard good things about Kingsman after its release, so I watched it. There’s more than meets the eye — it’s a “you’re totes special” story about a white kid being trained by white British aristocracy, yes, but this does not go unexamined.

One scene toward the beginning is representative: Galahad (Colin Firth) and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) drinking in a pub after Galahad has gotten Eggsy out of jail. Galahad launches into a rather typical list of questions about why Eggsy hasn’t done anything with his life, has quit everything he started, etc. When Eggsy makes a reference to his (abusive) stepfather, Galahad says “Oh, it’s always someone else’s fault.” But Eggsy doesn’t let it lie or try to deny it, shift uncomfortably in his seat, double down on his “excuses.” He leans forward and accuses Galahad of not understanding what it’s like to be born in a different class and do things because you have no choice, no other way to get through. And Galahad accepts it, then continues to work for more working-class representation in the Kingsman organization.

Eggsy is set directly against a group of toffee-nosed private school British kids in training, sparking explicit debates about class discrimination. It’s really important here that the discussions are explicit, not subtext, and I love the way Eggsy and the female candidate Roxy become allies against the “establishment” kids. Plus I’m always on the lookout for queer references, and I got more than I bargained for: The three final candidates in Kingsman training all get an assignment to seduce the same girl, and Roxy is totally game! And then there’s the greatest set of lines I’ve ever heard Colin Firth say:

Galahad, for his part, is a lovely inversion of the James Bond spy trope. He’s a badass, but he’s not a hardass. When he and Eggsy are threatened by hooligans toward the beginning of the movie, his quite honest response is “I’ve had a rather emotional day, so … I’d appreciate it enormously if you could just leave us in peace, until I can finish this lovely pint of Guinness.” The whole movie is of course a Bond parody… But a subtle one. You’re meant to chuckle at statements like Galahad’s, because you know the tropes he’s referencing, but you’re not meant to guffaw.

Unfortunately it gets super weird toward the end, including some bizarrely flamboyant gore and the problematic treatment of the Swedish princess, who is literally reduced to a cheap reward for Eggsy. Also, the villains are a black guy with a lisp (Samuel L. Jackson) and a girl with prosthetic feet. Is this supposed to be satire of Bond-type villains, or is it inherently problematic? In deconstructing and reconstructing the spy movie, does Kingsman perhaps reconstruct a bit too much? I loved it, but it’s also frustrating, and queer stuff remains quite subtle.

Man from Uncle posterThen there’s The Man from UNCLE, which is equally awesome-yet-difficult. I’d been saying how gay it looked since the trailers, and wondering if they would dare show queer characters or if it would stay at the level of queerbaiting. I didn’t really expect gay characters — it’s based on an old TV show and was going for “big summer movie” appeal. However, I would argue it’s a little more than jokes.

For starters, the jokes are constant enough that they become part of the movie’s tone, and they’re “in the know” references, not “no homo!” ones. Tearoom and top/bottom jokes, plus the “Are these heels mine?” bit that appeared in a trailer but not the movie proper. Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya (Armie Hammer) engage in all the bickering and one-upmanship that would lead directly to romance if they were male and female, and spend a good deal of time bickering about things like Gaby’s outfits when Gaby doesn’t care at all. There’s the “I’m allowing you to tag along” exchange featured in trailers:

Finally, while I love that Gaby (Alicia Vikander) had about a million times more things to do than the typical Bond girl, she’s also used in a way that’s very typical for setups like this: to legitimize, even distract from, the same-sex intimacy that’s at the core of the story. So as a whole, like Kingsman, it challenges the gender assumptions of the James Bond “ideal,” but doesn’t go so far as to include any out characters. (There’s more to say about Bond, the franchise is utterly fascinating as a cultural artifact and showed some hints of opening up in recent movies, but as of Spectre it’s once again a resolute symbol of emotionless heterosexuality).

I said in my post on the Man from UNCLE trailer that the action movie would be the very last space to be queered, and maybe that’s true, but I’ve seen the film since then. Man from UNCLE and Kingsman both expand the space in ways I hadn’t even thought about, especially in terms of class. Neither goes far enough, but just the presence of these movies as hits indicates that popular culture is getting more at home with the idea, so maybe there’s hope after all… Or maybe I should just be grumpy that they didn’t go all the way. What do you think?