Welcome to Digestable, your thrice-weekly mouthful of things happening in the world.
Today’s news, fermented:
Hello friends! It’s been awhile. We’re glad to be back in your inbox.
It’s a new year, but so is every day, and the Gregorian calendar doesn’t work super well, and there are lots of other opportunities to acknowledge a year milestone.
I’ve had a break from work for the last little while, which means that I have not been reading too much news, but have been watching many movies. As it “happens,” or maybe something else acknowledging my inability to turn away from world building, many of these movies have been dystopian/set in a strange future or past/in a different world.
Here’s a short list:
Before I get into the Very Common Themes, it’s worth noting that 3/4 of these stories are written by white people, who love to imagine the end of the world in a very particular way. Two important elements of this way, I think, are
Failing to acknowledge the presence of white supremacy in current societal structures and the fact that this power structure is what will likely bring about the apocalypse (see: the fossil fuel industry, “sacrifice zones,” the treatment of humans as property for labor).
The unavoidable fact that, if we are to generalize, white people are probably least equipped to survive the ~end of the world~ if it requires any skill other than killing and stealing resources, which it may or may not.
Onto some other central themes: water is scarce, violence is abound, fossil fuels are often affiliated with a steam-punk, savior-believing, overworked populace, and also rogue power.
And, gender essentialism—the idea that there are things essentially “female” or “male”—is abound. This is a terrible concept that I hate, both as a genderqueer trans person and as someone who appreciates nuance. Yet, in all of these stories, men do Man Things and women do Woman Things.
Last but not least: simple machines. From the elegant rigging of boats in Waterworld to the mechanics that allow Charlize Theron to fix her war truck while continuing to drive it, an understanding of how things work is essential.
The superstructure of all of these movies—the universe umbrella under which all these worlds exist—suggests that actually it is communication and negotiation that take precedence. Think, systems of trade and creating mutual understanding so as to build coalitions. At too large a scale, this can become politics—which points to the need to keep organizations of humans relatively small. Limited by the radius that a human can travel on foot in one day…or something like that. Bioregionalism, if you will.
That’s all on this for now, but hoping to get our publication schedule back to a bit more regular. As we enter our third calendar year of Digestable: do you have ideas? Anything you want to see? What did you miss while we were on the unspoken hiatus that occurs when everyone is burnt out beyond a capacity to make plans? Reply to this email and let us know.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
Christmastime means that our benevolent content overlords Netflix get to add new installments to their Vanessa Hudgens saturated collection of Christmas movies: cheap cheesy holiday flicks that attempt to one-up Hallmark with a winking self-awareness. Part of their intrigue is that all Netflix’s Christmas movies take place in the same cinematic universe (the NCU as the fans have branded it), a universe in which Vanessa Hudges has no less than four look-alikes.
The primary thing connecting these movies is their shared geography of made-up European countries. The Princess Switch movies take place in Belgravia and Montenaro and A Christmas Prince takes place in Aldovia and involves characters from Penglia. These ambiguously European countries are clearly a nod to or rip-off of the Princess Diaries’ setting of Genovia, evoking a Europe that's a little bit alpine, a little bit Mediterranean and still very monarchical without the empirical implications of actual monarchy. A fictional European nation also pops up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the form of Sokovia, Marvel’s attempt to create a contemporary Soviet state without harming their profits in Russia and eastern Europe by referencing actual politics.
We can see what these changed countries do in the narrative by looking at what parts of the Cinematic Universe still reflect our own. In Netflixland, Princess Diaries, and Marvel’s Universe, the United States is the point of origin for all the characters and has no recognizable changes aside from bad film sets. Netflix also has in-universe Christmas movies that take place in England and Scotland. On the map shown in the second Christmas Prince movie, we can clearly see Italy’s boot. So it’s clear that the bits of the world familiar to Americans (London, Tokyo, Paris, let me update your status) remain intact. The Europes of any cinematic universe only reinterpret the parts of central and eastern Europe more hazily understood by an American audience -- specifically former Yugoslavia and the former USSR.
Some more notable messiness is that the monarchy of Penglia is played by East Asian actors, which feels like a weird erasure of… the rest of the landmass since Penglia is essentially Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Sure they’re fun fluffy movies but the way these fictional universes erase (or in Marvel’s case, play up) histories of conflict in favor of snow-covered monarchies speaks to the magical-whiteness of Europe in the American imagination and kind of feels like its own form of fictional colonization. Is that too much of a stretch? Anyway if you’re not done with Christmas content, I’d recommend the Crackhead Barney Universe’s Christmas special on the worker-owned streaming service Means.TV.