Tag Archives: feminism

*general internet frustrations*

Y’know, I had plenty of ideas about what this blog post was gonna be about. The casting choices in Dr. Strange verses Kubo and The Two Strings (with some Uncharted 4 thrown in) or maybe one about how Silk, a comic about an Asian woman with Spider-Man powers, is not a story about race but still tells a uniquely Asian story.

But then internet people had to be spoiled and cruel to Chelsea Cain because she dared write a feminist comic, to the point where she decided she’d rather leave Twitter than deal with that noise.

So this blog post is about those idiots.

Here’s the quick and dirty recap: the last issue of writer Chelsea Cain’s (and artist Kate Niemczyk) wonderful Mockingbird series (which I love) features Mockingbird herself, Bobbi Morse, on its cover proudly sporting a t-shirt that reads “Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda.” It’s a great cover, adding a nice exclamation point to a book with an already decidedly feminist bent. Over the past week since the book’s release, however, The Internet hasn’t been too happy about it, and subsequently people on Twitter actively have been harassing her for it.

The sad truth is, this isn’t new, neither for comics nor nerd culture at large. Marvel as a whole gets a lot of crap for them “pushing social justice down readers’ throats” (that is, promoting diversity in their recent titles), and there was the horrible attacks on Leslie Jones for her role int he new Ghostbusters over the summer. Ultimately, it keeps coming down to the same thing: more people (especially women and minorities) want a more active, representative role in nerd culture and folks (especially straight white guys) don’t wanna share.

And look, I get it.

I really do.

I’m a lifelong nerd, well before it became cool to be one. I got picked on in real life for reading Star Wars books (and reading in general), being good at schoolwork, and spending my weekends playing video games. Online forums were my social sphere. It’s jarring to see a title and its hallmarks go from peripheral to mainstream. In recent years there’s been a steady merging of nerd culture into popular culture.

And I’ll admit, I bristle at it sometimes; I get protective of these stories: they’re mine! These newcomers just getting into Star Wars and superheroes didn’t have to deal with being weird; why do they get to choose to be called nerds? They’re your toys and you don’t like the neighbors coming over and making Darth Vader team up with the Power Rangers to fight the Decepticons. They’re our stories, we’ve claimed them as our own.

But they’re stories in contention are stories we like (hopefully) because they affected us deeply, why shouldn’t I want someone else to have that experience? Star Wars was for me a galaxy of possibility, where, y’know, things were great even if high school wasn’t. If making Rey and Finn the new face of the franchise opens the door for others to have that experience, I’m down. Mockingbird is a book where a woman can be the badass scientist-super-spy without being objectified (and instead the men are!). This summer’s Ghostbusters let women see themselves as the funny unhinged ghost hunters, like how the original let you do the same, my proverbial straight, white, male straw man.

But when every story used to cater to you, my straw man, it seems like you’re being alienated from the fandoms you sustained when more and more stories don’t. When Ms. Marvel is a Muslim, Pakistani immigrant and Iron Man is a black woman, it’s weird, as a longtime fan, to not see yourself reflected as the main character. But the point is, no one group has a monopoly on wanting to connect with stories — not everyone feeling ostracized is a straight white guy. As someone who is an immigrant, it’s exciting to see elements of my own story pop up in a comic book like Ms. Marvel. There has to be space for stories for everyone.

We need diversity. And I love Marvel for pushing it (and, y’know, reflecting the real world).

What we don’t need is this bullying bs that crops up over and over again. White guys aren’t the center of the world anymore; creators like Chelsea Cain can take a character who’s always been a supporting player and spin her into a hero in her own, feminist right. The stories, all of them, never belonged exclusively to any particular person or group of people, they’ve been ours this whole time. It’s time to share.

I wish I could end this post here.

But there’s the fact that Chelsea Cain is targeted because she’s a woman writing in the comics industry, an industry whose fans will protest and harass at any provocation. There’s no ignoring the repulsive sexism at work here (and, in Leslie Jones’ case, the racism too). It’s abhorrent and disgusting; things shouldn’t be this way. Harassing and attacking a woman just because she enters into a sphere usually dominated by straight white guys is childish. It’s stupid. It’s mean.

I don’t rant about feminism as much as I used to (haven’t you heard? This is the year of diversity at Essays, Not Rants!), but this is why feminism is important. It’s ‘cuz of bullshit like this.

When they announced the cover of Mockingbird #8 a few months ago, I quickly bought my own feminist agenda t-shirt (which I love). And my feminist agenda isn’t just putting more strong, well-written women in my stories and supporting others (and women) who do; it’s not putting up with this crap.

feministagenda

Chelsea Cain responded to this picture on Twitter. But I can’t show you that now because people are awful.

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Jessica Jones: Not Your Victim

I’ve been watching Jessica Jones on Netflix, because it’s Thanksgiving Break and there’s a new Marvel show out so what do you expect me to do? I’m eight episodes and, so this post will contain some spoilers.

Right off the bat, there’s the fact that after Agent Carter, this is the second MCU property to have a woman front and center. And to the sides too. And basically everywhere you look. Jessica Jones doesn’t skimp on filling out roles with women, whether they’re Jessica’s best friends, lawyers, or even annoying neighbors. Female characters in Jessica Jones are given the breadth and depth male characters are usually afforded.

More telling is Jessica Jones’ own subversion of the typical “Strong Female Character” template. As women become more prominent in fiction we tend to idolize characters like Black Widow or Imperator Furiosa; women who kick ass and take names. But characters like Sansa Stark fall by the wayside since they don’t fight back, at least not physically Never mind her steady mastery of politicking, she’s nowhere near as interesting or ‘strong’ as her sister, Arya (I disagree vehemently, but that’s for another day). Now, given that Jessica Jones literally has super strength, it would seem that she would lean towards the action-sort of a strong character. Yet many of Jessica’s biggest and best moments aren’t her throwing a punch. Throughout the show, Jessica will put herself in situations she would rather run from but instead will face up to despite the emotional weight. Whether it’s facing up to a villain she knows will bring up personal trauma or even trying to comfort someone when what happened is still eating her up inside, Jessica shows strength in ways that don’t involve punching thugs.

What Jessica Jones does, though, is rewrite the victim narrative. Jessica spent time under Kilgrave’s mind control and she shows the trauma and PTSD from it. When he comes back, the space exists for there to be a vengeance narrative; where she finds him and kills him. Through a cruel twist of fate, however, Jessica needs him alive. Which means she has to actually confront the man who destroyed her life. When she finally does, she yells at him; explicitly accusing him of rape. Though Jessica was a victim, she’s not the helpless witness while the CSI folks do their thing. The show lets Jessica make a choice about how to react to what happened to her, and she isn’t limited to the traditional revenge thing or running away. She can confront her rapist and prove that she’s more than what he did to her.

Which brings me to one more thing Jessica Jones does so differently from a lot of other shows: its depiction of female sexuality. With the exception of very few, the general consensus of pop-culture is that women aren’t supposed to enjoy or desire sex without being labeled ‘sluts.’ In Jessica Jones however, the consensual on screen sexual encounters — of which there are more than a few — are all either initiated by a woman or ones where she’s enjoying it. Furthermore, there’s a great emphasis placed on intimacy and not just physicality. We see Jeri and her mistress/girlfriend in quiet moments, cuddling in the back of a car rather than as sapphic eye candy. Although there are sex scenes intended for mature audiences, the women don’t seem to be “on display” for the camera and the male gaze. Quite the opposite in fact, since Luke Cage is clearly set up to be a person of desire. It helps that he’s smoking hot, but the show is shot so that Luke is clearly the eye candy for Jessica and the audience, and not the other way round. Of course, Jessica’s relationship with Luke is one of equals and something that I’d need another 800-odd words to get through.

Point of all this to say, Jessica Jones is a fascinating show — and I haven’t even gotten into its plot proper yet. If anything, Jessica Jones does a fantastic job of reworking the typical display of sexual politics in pop-culture. On that show a victim can be strong, women can do or want anything, and, dang, Luke Cage is hot.

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Sorry Nate, There’s No Princess In This Castle

Let’s talk about damsels, because the idea of the damsel in distress goes way back and ‘cuz damseling female characters (especially in video games) kinda has to stop.

So what is a damsel in distress? Anita Sarkeesian succinctly describes it as “a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character…” This has been a staple of video games since very early on. In Super Mario Bros, Mario quests to save Princess Peach. This wasn’t necessarily bad, but it becomes a problem when the save-the-girl trope becomes systemic. It becomes old when I’m still saving Peach again nearly three decades later.

But let’s not focus on what games are doing wrong, since that’s plain depressing. Uncharted, in each of its three games, utilizes the damsel-in-distress trope, but in different ways each time. Given developer Naughty Dog’s near-legendary know-how of storytelling, it should come as no surprise that they know how to use and subvert this trope with great mastery.

The first game, Drake’s Fortune, seems to play the trope mostly straight. Reporter-of-sorts Elena, protagonist Nathan Drake’s sidekick/tagalong, gets captured early on in the story. The first chunk of the main story has Nate trekking to a castle to free Elena — only to get himself captured. It’s then Elena who busts him out, nicely turning the male-hero-rescues-imprisoned-female dynamic on its head. Elena does get captured again towards the end, and Nate sets out after her (and the treasure). It makes enough sense in context — and Elena is far from a helpless hostage, she fights her captors and effectively sets up the final confrontation of Nate and the villain. She’s damsel’d, yes, but she’s hardly helpless most of the time.

Elena shows up about halfway through Among Thieves, the second game; this time she meets Nate gun in hand, on her own (investigative) hunt for warlord Zoran Lazaravic. Not only does she not need saving: she’s now a fighter in her own right. This game doesn’t damsel her, and even getting caught in an explosion towards the end doesn’t make her the villain’s helpless captive.

But Among Thieves introduces a new character in Chloe, an old flame from Nate’s past who constantly  flips sides between good and bad. Nate, feeling like he’s dragged her into this mess, is eager to rescue her from Zoran’s camp. To do so, he fights his way along a train traveling through Nepal (that he got on with Elena’s help, which is also worth noting). But when he finds Chloe it turns out she doesn’t want to be saved: this ‘damsel’ has her own agenda. Nate — and by extension the player — may see Chloe as a damsel, but she’s hardly in distress. Here Naughty Dog subverts the players’ expectations that the damsel awaits the heroes with open arms. Instead, Chloe saves Nate’s ass when they reunite and then calls him out on his stupid heroics. Nate’s princess isn’t in another castle: Nate’s princess plain doesn’t exist.

So come the third game, Drake’s Deception, it’s almost expected that no female character gets damsel’d. And they don’t, at no point is Nate trying to save a captured woman. Instead, his best friend and father-figure Sully is captured. A good chunk of the second act has Nate trying to rescue Sully. Having an older man as the damsel rather than the typical attractive young-woman is a fun twist in and of itself. But Naughty Dog doesn’t let it end there. Nate’s unrelenting quest to rescue Sully gives us a glimpse into his own psyche. Sully being captured doesn’t just serve as an arbitrary goal for Nate; instead his capture forces Nate to confront his own inner demons, demons that only a smack on the head from a father-figure can cure him of. Dameseling a male character not only avoids unfortunate implications, but also lets us a see a more vulnerable Nate.

We need more video games like the Uncharted games. Hell, we need more stories like this. It’s wonderful to see women in an action-adventure genre who aren’t reduced to set dressing. Characters who, like Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark, can hold their own and are fantastic in their own right. What Uncharted does is show that stories with strong plotting and motivation can be written without resorting to creating damsels in distress. It’s time to stop being lazy and to work on storytelling.

Postscript: Gameplay-wise, Chloe and Elena are useful allies in firefights, never becoming a burden. Furthermore, these games fantastic to play and not just for the narrative, they’re solid all around. Also Drake’s Deception is an example of what I was talking about last week, where we have a mixed cast but also bits of intimacy between Nate and Sully. See? It’s doable.

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But What Is A Strong Female Protagonist?

I write a lot about strong female characters here, heck, it was my first post. It’s still something I really care about, seeing how often it pops up in my blog posts here. I’ve got a small list of characters I bring up often: Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Chloe Frazer, Katniss Everdeen, Zoë Washburne, etc.

Thing is, it’s easy to conflate the idea of a strong female characters with that of a woman who kicks ass. When we compare Katniss from The Hunger Games to Bella Swan from Twilight the former is clearly the stronger character. When asked why the easy answer is that she does stuff, herein taking charge and fighting. So does Captain Marvel. And Arya Stark.

We see this particularly in areas which already have a history of relegating women to the back burner, like video games or the action adventure genre. Damsels meant to be saved by strong men, the voice of reason, or to be relegated to being a person of support. Thus being promoted to action hero seems like quite the step up.

So comes the masculinization of women, where women are placed in male roles and can do everything a man can. The new question that comes with this is whether they’re losing depth because they’re becoming less of a woman. After all, they’re pushing for violence, a ‘masculine’ way of problem solving, instead of finding non-violent means of conflict-resolution, like manipulation. But assuming a strong female character must be good in combat is a flawed idea. Women – people – don’t have to go around kicking ass to be a strong character.

Take Zoë and Inara from Firefly, both arguably strong female characters. The former, Serenity’s tough-as-nails first mate, is badass in the more masculine way. Inara, however, wielding diplomacy, is as strong without being masculinized. She’s strong on her own terms, kicking proverbial ass without having to carry a weapon.

So which portrayal is more feministic? Both masculinizing women and confining them to feminine traits run contrary to feminism since it genders a set of actions and traits. Is Zoë stronger since she’s nearly indistinguishable from a man? Or is it Inara, who fights in a more ‘feminine’ sphere.

So now what? Women are, surprise, people; people are, also surprise, different. And people do different things. To say that a man can succeed as a character in both action and drama genres but a woman only truly succeeds if she’s placed in a drama is a terrifyingly narrow view. If we want to advance the role of women in fiction, we can’t limit them to certain roles. We need women doing everything.

This is one of the reasons I love Game of Thrones. There’s a great deal of variety to the roles women play, and a lot of them are wonderfully well written. Ygritte the Wildling archer and Margaery the politicking queen-to-be are very different women and both great characters. Yet neither would work in the other’s roles; they’re strong on their own terms and in their own ways. You can’t discredit Margaery because she’s worming her way to the top of the political sphere because she’s not running around with a sword, likewise with Ygritte for being an archer rather than a politician. This show, known for the HBO-iness of its content, displays a great deal of nuance and variety with its women. Sure, some are problematic and shallow, but there remains the potential for a woman to be strong and badass, no matter her position.

To return to the comparison of Zoë and Inara in Firefly, we need to accept both as strong women because choosing one over the other would confine the ways in which a female character could be strong. Kaylee, the mechanic, though she’s neither forceful nor a fighter, can hold her own and adds necessary element to the crew. Even River, who more often than not seems to fulfill the role of damsel, is fully realized and not just a shadowy archetype.

There is a danger in making all female characters masculine, but the same could be said of making all female characters the same kind of anything; we need women portrayed in every field. Soldiers, spies, engineers, doctors, and so on. A truly inclusive media should be just that: inclusive.

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You Should Really Watch Agent Carter

Peggy Carter was an unexpectedly great part of Captain America: The First Avenger. Beyond being a woman in an otherwise very male-dominated cast, she held her own and served an important role in the progression of the story’s arc. Then a One-Shot on Iron Man 3’s BluRay had her tackling sexism and bad guys in a post-World War II setting. All the while there was talk of a tv show happening, and then it was planned, and then this past Tuesday the first two episodes aired.

And they were fantastic. As in better than the entire first season of Agents of SHIELD and gives the second a good run for its money. I haven’t had this much fun in a long time.

A good deal of this is due to how well it captures the spirit of the Marvel movies proper, just in tv format. It makes sense too, the writers of The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier wrote the pilot and the second episode was directed by one of the brothers who did The Winter SoldierThere’s the now-familiar mix of high adventure with some quieter moments and the ability to get quite dark without getting oppressive.

But where Agent Carter really stands out against similar pulpy shows is in its feminist slant. Like Parks and Recreation, however, it’s not preachy or overly idealized; instead it feels grounded and almost natural. Peggy Carter’s outlook, like Leslie Knope’s, makes sense for the character. As part of Captain America’s crew, she was used to being judged by the merits of her work and being allowed to take part in missions; now in an office she’s been put into the position of a glorified secretary, her previous exploits dismissed as being because of her relationship with Captain America. She has an understandable frustration that colors her actions and immediately puts the audience in her corner as she navigates a male-dominated world.

Here it’d be easy to make her a character of retro-active wish-fulfillment, where she merrily wades true the sexism of the 1940s, men cowering before her and women idolizing her. Rather we see her navigate the system, using it to her advantage when she can while still resisting it along the way. The show presents Peggy as a person of two worlds, those stereotypically of women and men. Enjoyably, Peggy is shown to be a master of both.

Take a scene about halfway through the first episode (which I’m going to spoil for you if you haven’t seen it yet [which you really should]). Having just returned from getting a bomb from a bad guy’s swing club, Peggy, in a fancy and decidedly feminine dress, now has to defuse it. She grabs a collection of household items and ingredients and takes it to the bathroom where she creates a mixture that she then puts into a perfume bottle. She uses a perfume bottle and kitchen supplies, as both things typically seen as ‘feminine,’ to defuse a bomb, an action comparatively very ‘masculine.’ Once done, Peggy reaches for the unused glass and bottle of bourbon she grabbed to pour herself a glass – something that would be called unladylike. Immediately after a villain breaks into her home and murders her roommate and fights Peggy. Peggy fights back and a vicious brawl ensues, which is, again, considered a much more ‘masculine’ thing. What’s really fun is that the fight takes place at home, a supposedly feminine sphere, and she uses elements of it – such as a fridge and stove top – to her advantage. The show plays with gender norms, mixing up the interplay of the feminine and masculine in the backdrop of the 1940s, against which the gender divide is heightened. After the fight, though, Peggy, in a stark contrast to the typical action movie hero, cries for her friend. However, it’s not seen as weak – we’ve just seen her defuse a bomb and throw a bad guy out her window! – rather it humanizes her, reminds us that she’s not all-powerful.

Of course, Agent Carter takes its liberty with the depiction of society of the time. Somethings probably wouldn’t fly and some others would be much harder. But rather the show uses its setting to play up the tension of its protagonist. These elements create a truly great show that works across the board, during both set pieces like infiltrating a factory and smaller moments like two women talking in a diner.
I recommend things a lot on this blog, but I cannot praise Agent Carter enough. Though were only in the very beginning, it’s a solid show that’s a crazy amount of fun. Give it a shot, trust me, you won’t regret it.

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Leslie Knope: Friends, Family, Feminism

I’ve recently begun watching Parks and Recreation, and by recently begun I mean about five seasons in two weeks. The miracle of Netflix.

In any case, the show’s fantastic and I lack any sort of Netflix Binger’s Remorse (and wanna get caught up as soon as I can). One of the reasons it’s so great is its bucking of typical sitcom trends.Parks and Rec isn’t a mean show. Whereas a lot of other sitcoms, including the prior one with Greg Daniel’s name attached: The Office, create their comedic situations through conflict between the main characters, much of Parks’ humor comes from the outside. Thus in The Office you’d have one character trying to con over the other, to much amusement. The Big Bang Theory thrives on the rest of the group trying to get one over Sheldon. The Parks Department, however, is always a team. Sure, there will be parts where they compete, but it’s never malicious. They’re a team, a team against the frustrating citizens of Pawnee, the snooty residents of Eagleton, and other departments in their government.

This teamwork lends the characters a strong sense of family. Now, this isn’t there from the beginning, rather they grow into it — and their roles in said makeshift family — over the seasons. And here’s another thing Parks does that most sitcoms don’t: they let their characters change and develop. All of the main cast is surprisingly well rounded. Sure, some seem one note at first, but as the show progresses we get to know them more and find facets of them we would never have expected. When the gruff Ron shows that he cares, or as Chris grows less self-obsessed they feel more rounded and we can really watch their bonds form. It makes them feel more real.

Neither are the characters forced to remain professionally stagnant. Leslie doesn’t stay the deputy director of the Parks Department, instead the writers let her career progress. See, it’s a risky move, they’ve proved that the bunch of co-workers interacting works, but they’re willing to go past that formula (which also shows in the developing characters). Tom too ends up leaving the Parks Department and tries his hand at entrepreneurship. It’d be easy for a recurring joke to be his constant failures. Instead, we see Tom try his hand, and yes, we do see Tom fail, but we also see Tom make changes to his approach and outlook in order to eventually succeed. It’s refreshing and really cool to see happen in a sitcom.

Parks and Recreation is an inherently political show, albeit on the scale of the local city government of a small town in Indiana. Leslie Knope is very obviously a feminist. Yet the show doesn’t preach it at you. Rather, we see Leslie combatting sexism in the often very out of date systems of Pawnee. For example, Leslie’s approach to the very male gallery of councilmen isn’t to become disheartened renounce it as an Evil Symbol of The Patriarchy, rather she wants to change things by being the first woman on the board. Feminism in Parks is an active thing. There’s no lecturing and posturing about feminism about it, instead we see why we need it and what can be done. Furthermore, the show doesn’t get caught up in its hubris: Leslie may spout rhetoric on occasion, but she isn’t on some sort of a pedestal. She’s not perfect because of her beliefs, rather, she’s a relatively normal, multifaceted human being.

So yes, Parks and Recreation is such a refreshing show. I’d seen bits of it prior, but now I’m finally sitting down and blasting through it. It’s a great show, and I want more shows like it.

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