Tag Archives: Women in Fiction

But What About The Men??? 2: Sexy Lamps

Back at a con panel in 2013, Kelly Sue DeConnick (writer of Captain Marvel, Bitch Planet, etc) coined the Sexy Lamp Test. Its rubric is that if you can take a female character out of a story and replace her with a sexy lamp and your plot still works, then “you’re a [beeping] hack.” Like all tests used to judge stories (ie: Bechdel), it’s not perfect – mostly because it’s a little too vague. But it still provides a good starting point to examine fiction.

Like I love The Dark Knight, but Rachel in the movie is very much a sexy lamp. She doesn’t do anything that affects the plot in a major way. She’s there for Bruce and Harvey to pine over and then to be ‘fridged and give Batman some angst. Still a great movie, but there are issues with how the film handles women.

Conversely, Star Wars aces it. You can’t replace Leia with a lamp that goes along for the ride, she does way too much – her first appearance is giving the Death Star plans to Artoo and setting the movie’s plot in motion. Throughout the film she does stuff, she has agency, she makes things happen.

You with me so far? Because here’s where we’re gonna talk about Wonder Woman. And dudes.

Steve Trevor is The Male Character in Wonder Woman. Sure, we’ve the villain and the other soldiers, but Steve Trevor is The Guy. He buddies up with Diana early on in the film and they go out and Do Things. Given that Diana is the protagonist of this movie, Steve becomes, quite naturally, the deuteragonist of the film and fulfills what in any other movie would be the ‘girlfriend role.’

This is one of Wonder Woman’s acts of brilliance: the film flips the roles. Steve is the one who buoys Diana’s force of character, he’s her tie to the real world, and he’s the one whose main role is to support her and her arc. Like I said, he’s the girlfriend.

Consider Peggy Carter in the first Captain America. Though this was later remedied in her tv show, she doesn’t really affect the plot much in the movie. She supports Steve Rogers and helps out here and there, but at the end of the day doesn’t really change the plot much more than a talking sexy lamp would. Oh, she’s still a really great character, but the plot doesn’t position her in such a way that she does stuff. This is one thing the Sexy Lamp Test exposes: cool characters who don’t actually have much agency or effect on the plot. Like Boba Fett, who outside of going to Cloud City offscreen, has no more narrative impact than a lamp in dope armor. Except Peggy is actually one of the main characters of The First Avenger.

Steve Trevor of Wonder Woman, however, does quite a bit in the movie; considerably more than your typical ‘superhero girlfriend.’ Without spoiling too much of the film, it’s his actions – particularly one he does of his own volition and not under orders – that set most of the plot in action, and in the final act he gets to make a Big Choice that changes the course of the climax.

A sexy lamp Steve Trevor is not. And maybe that can be chalked up to good writing, but I’m gonna blame it on Steve being a guy. Imagine this; it’s the climax of the film and the main male character does nothing. Maybe he drives a car so the main female character can go save the day, but elsewise he watches. It’s basically unheard of, and uncommon at best (look at how much Peeta and Gale get to do in the climaxes of The Hunger Games movies). But it happens all the time for female characters. It’s what Peggy does in The First Avenger. It’s what Pepper does in Iron Man 2. Sexy lamp or not, it’s easy to cast aside the supporting female character, the ‘girlfriend role,’ at the climax. But Steve Trevor still gets to Do Stuff, and Important Stuff Of His Own Accord at that.

For all its subversions of norms, Wonder Woman doesn’t neuter the agency of its male lead. Which, woo, equality! But at the same time, it shows how unfair the treatment of women in blockbusters – especially superhero films – is. We’ve got the first female-led superhero in over a decade and we still have a dude who goes around saving some of the day. Oh, it’s still Diana’s movie; but Steve gets an arc just about any other female character would kill for in just about any other film. Even in a movie about Wonder Woman, the dude still gets special treatment.

Which in this case means fair treatment.

And therein lies the problem.

 

For the first But What About The Men???, go here.

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*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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This is why we can’t have nice things, JEB!

I don’t really talk about politics on this blog…ever. Well, aside from, y’know, the historical or entries on diversity or women in fiction. But every now and then something shows up that’s nonpartisan enough but still related enough to what I usually write about for a good discussion.

An interview with Jeb Bush (Or JEB) has been making the rounds lately, wherein he’s asked who his favorite superhero is. This alone is worth noting because we’re at the point in where a presidential candidate can be asked about superheroes. Yes, this is a part of nerd culture becoming mainstream, but it’s also a reflection of superheroes forming a new mythology. They can be discussed as a cultural touchstone no matter who you are. Point is to say that the fact that he was even asked this question is remarkable in and of itself. Superheroes have become a new pantheron, to some extent; though decidedly fictional, they are a sort of example of humanity in all its forms  (which, y’know, is all the more the reason to have a more diverse lineup, but I digress). There’s probably a whole other paper in that idea, but not here.

Anyway, after mentioning that watching Marvel movies makes him wish that he owned the company — which I’m not even gonna touch here — he decides that Batman may be his favorite, albeit a dark choice. But he’s aware of Supergirl being a thing, courtesy of the new advertising blitz, and thinks she’s hot.

Okay. He could have answered the question one of a dozen very neutral, safe ways; but he chooses to bring Supergirl up… because she’s hot? Dude, no. It’s fun that this is the sort of question we can ask a presidential candidate, but at the same time, but why does one of the more serious presidential candidates think it’s okay to talk about her looks as a defining factor? Even if a question like this takes center stage, a female hero still gets the short end of the stick. Yes, she got mentioned — that’s great! But she gets mentioned only to be reduced down to a pretty face. He could have mentioned that she could fly — that’s in the marketing too! — but nope, she’s hot and that’s key.

“But Josh,” you say, “you’re making way too big a deal out of this, it’s just one guy’s opinion!” Well, straw man, remember what I said earlier about superheroes being a new mythology? It goes with it then, that the perception of them is a reflection of culture as a whole. And Jeb’s comments reflect a culture that still judges a woman by her appearance rather than her abilities.

Which is really frustrating, because there’s a steady cultural shift away from female superheroes defining characteristic being their looks and related attributes. Carol Danvers got a new outfit and is firmly regarded as Earth’s Mightiest Avenger. I can’t speak for the show (having not seen it), but it looks like Supergirl is doing something similar, for starters by giving her a costume that’s more practical than titillating. Going beyond the world of comics, Fury Road mad us like Furiosa because she was badass and capable, not because she was ‘hot.’ Furiosa, more so than Carol Danvers or Supergirl, has been recognized for this in a big way.

In the movie/TV world characters are idealized, and this means prettified, but while handsome male characters can still be interesting, the pretty women are often there just to be pretty. While kick ass grungy women are awesome, to really even out the gender imbalance we need to allow for attractive women to be interesting and valued for qualities beyond their looks. Because it’s not fair when a male character needs no justification, but a female one does — and it’s her looks.

In any case, we, as a culture, from presidential candidates on down, have gotta stop defining women — in fiction or not — by how attractive the are. In the meantime, we should at least talk a lot more about how hot the new Batman is. But especially the new Aquaman.

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Obligatory Fury Road Entry

I haven’t seen any of the old Mad Max trilogy, more for lack of bother than anything. Pop culture osmosis ensured I knew what it was about, though; post-apocalyptic wasteland, lots of leather, cars, machismo. So Fury Road flew below my radar during much of the lead up to its release. That is, until the press surrounding it started to discuss how it was surprisingly feminist and was pissing off a lot of Men’s Rights Activists.

That got my attention.

Fury Road, despite seeming a super-macho movie by way of its car chases and apocalyptic grit, features Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa as the film’s de facto protagonist with Max essentially falling in to her quest to escape the Citadel with five of the villain’s wives. Furiosa is fantastic. She’s introduced as an elite in Immortan Joe’s army, one with enough sway that when she serendipitously changes course during her mission, no one in her escort questions her. And of course she kicks ass. Furiosa goes toe-to-toe with Max when they first meet and continues to prove herself plenty capable action-wise throughout the film.

But as unexpected as it is to see a woman headlining a Mad Max film, it’s expected that she would be plenty capable in the world. After all, she’s a fighter, someone hardened to the film’s post-apocalyptic setting. Where Fury Road gets really interesting with its character portrayals is with the wives. By all rights, these five should be damsels, albeit ones rescued by a woman instead of a man. They’re not fighters, not drivers, not politicians. In a world like Mad Max’s Australia, what use are they?

The film gives the wives a surprising amount of agency. We, as viewers, are first clued into their escape when we see their empty room in the citadel, “We Are Not Things” scrawled on the walls. This is the central thrust towards them: the wives are not things; they are people.

So they aren’t the load, and they aren’t just Furiosa’s cargo. When the raiding party catches up with Furiosa’s War Rig, one of the villains steadies a shot at her. In response, one of the wives, Splendid, opens the door and places herself — and Immortan Joe’s unborn child — between the gun and driver. It’s an epic moment, one of those big reversals in an action scene that cause a shift in how it all plays out.

Splendid’s actions give credence to their manifesto of not being things. When she puts herself in the line of fire, she’s doing so of her own accord; neither Max nor Furiosa tells her to do it, she makes her own choice. Furthermore, her actions indicate that she knows her own value; she knows how she can be useful in a battle despite being a noncombatant. It’s also worth noting that Splendid’s not out there alone; the other wives are helping hold her to the side of the vehicle speeding through the desert, thus showing that all of them are in this and they all know what they can bring.

Much of Fury Road plays out without dialogue, with visuals being as, if not more, important to storytelling as words. This also makes it a big teacher in the lessons of showing instead of telling: we’re not just told the wives don’t want to be considered things anymore, we see them actively fighting for and using their own agency. We’re not just told that Furiosa’s demanding of respect through others’ reactions, we’re shown it again and again by how she handles herself. With it, the film lets its female heroines make interesting choices. One of the wives loses hope, another one has great faith in their journey.

In other words, Fury Road has a surprisingly feminist bent by writing its women as people.

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Let’s Talk About That Whole Black Widow Thing

People are mad on the internet. As usual. The hubbub recently, though, is about choices made regarding Black Widow in Age of Ultron. Now, I’m a big fan of Black Widow. I’d really like her to get her own movie and Nathan Edmonson’s run on the comics has been fantastic (issue #13 is framed on my wall). And I’ll be the first to admit that a character beat in Age of Ultron did throw me off for a bit. But I didn’t realize the furor until I started reading up on it.

Mild spoilers for the film from here on out.

Most all of it seems to boil down to one particular piece of characterization: In a quiet moment, Natasha reveals to Bruce —who she’s debating entering into a relationship with — that she was forcibly sterilized and she laments being unable to have a normal life. It’s clear what there is to take issue with: The one female Avenger is preoccupied with romance, babies and the lack thereof. It doesn’t matter how badass Black Widow is, Natasha’s life is still incomplete without a man and children. Hence the death threats against writer/director Joss Whedon.

The beat did get a knee jerk reaction from me, but it made sense enough given her characterization. Natasha’s something of a reformed assassin and her past missions haunt her (as we see in her interactions with Loki in Avengers). Along with that,  she’s never had a proper childhood, let alone any semblance of a normal life. We also see that she’s good with Clint’s kids and close enough to the family for the kids to call her aunt. Her attraction to Bruce makes sense, then: Both are damaged people who are trying to atone for their own inner monster. We can also see in it her desire for normalcy (and with it, motherhood). This all makes Natasha a very complex character. She’s torn between the normal life she could never have and atoning as an Avenger. There’s tragedy there too; while Thor enjoys the thrill of the fight, Natasha’s ultimate fantasy is a normal life. She’s forced to make a choice by the end of the movie: continue fighting or run off to find a sort of normal life.

It’s a shame that all of that gets forgotten in light of her grief about being unable to have kids. I’ve seen some people defend the scene by saying that what really was affecting her was that she was denied the choice of being able to have kids — she was denied her agency. Whether or not that’s the case, I don’t think her wanting kids necessarily diminishes her character. If anything, it added the depth detailed in the prior paragraph. There’s a beautiful dichotomy to the cold-blooded assassin wishing she could have a family.

So why the controversy? Are strong female characters not allowed to want families too? It seems male characters are — no one’s complaining about Clint Barton having a wife and kids (except those of us who wanted a Hawkeye Netflix series about him in Bed-Stuy like in Matt Fraction’s comics). Even though his personal life could easily be described as traditionally masculine — what with the farm, wife and kids and, always fixing stuff around the house — he doesn’t get any flak for it.

Ultimately, the issue is that it’s the one female Avenger. Since she’s the only one, she’s going to come under closer scrutiny. There are a host of narratives for the male Avengers, meaning that Clint could have his farm and Bruce be hesitant towards action without undercutting The Manliness as we had characters like Thor and Steve (that and, y’know, 70% of movie characters being men). Criticism is inevitable no matter how unfounded if the only female Avenger’s narrative contains shades patriarchal femininity. We need more good stories about strong women so we can have different sorts of strong women. Give us moms, scientists, and fighter pilots saving the world. Black Widow can’t be the only female superhero.

Which is why we need Captain Marvel next year and not in 2018.

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A Manic Pixie Dream Problem

You know the story. Boy’s stuck in the doldrums of life. Girl shows up. Is quirky. Her quirkiness brings boy out of the normal world. They fall in love. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has done her job. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a term to describe a female character archetype whose purpose is to bring a male character into a more interesting existence. Also they usually fall in love.

But this is a little broad. Is Wyldstyle from The LEGO Movie a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, then? For starters she’s Emmet’s love interest, should he be able win her away from Batman. Then her arrival brings Emmet out of normalcy into a life of adventure and she supports his transformation into the Chosen One. And she’s very different from anyone Emmet’s met, with her DJ-esque name, dyed hair, and rebellious nature. She seems to fit it to a T.

Thing is, Wyldstyle doesn’t only exist for Emmet. She has her own goal and arc. Wyldstyle wants to save the world, that Emmet is the Chosen one is more disappointment than cause for celebration. Over the course of the movie she learns to be vulnerable and to believe in herself.

Ramona, from Scott Pilgrim vs The World; however, is. Though a well-rounded character, her purpose in the plot is to be Scott’s prize and the catalyst for him to self-actualize (that is, realize that self-respect is necessary for love). Yes, she has baggage, but the movie doesn’t afford any runtime to developing it. And yes, she’s quirky: dyed hair, infinitely cooler than Scott, and is from New York. She’s that dream-girl who comes along and makes and makes the male character’s life better.

But Summer, from (500) Days of Summer, isn’t. Though Summer is someone a lot of people jump to when they think of this term (seeing as she’s quirky-ish and portrayed by Zooey Deschannel). The film, on the other hand, takes apart the notion of the dream girl. Tom expects Summer to ‘fix’ him and make his life better, but she doesn’t fit into who he expects her to be. Most notably, it’s only after they break up that Tom gets life together and gets out of his rut. Essentially, the movie breaks down the Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy, saying that someone else isn’t going to save you, you have to do it yourself.

I realize I’m using a lot of non-examples as a way of defining the term, but I owe that to my own unfamiliarity with a lot of the movies usually associated with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. So why even talk about it?

In the years since coining the term, Nathan Rabin has distanced himself from it. Way he saw it, the term had almost lost reason; it’d become a trope unto itself rather than a symptom of problematic portrayals of women. It became easy to just say that a character was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl rather than it fostering discussion.

Because the term isn’t a way to demean women or to pigeonhole them, rather it should make writers and viewers conscious of women existing solely in relation to men. Though archetypes can be good, sometimes, like damsels in distress, they not only become emblematic of lazy writing, but also perpetuates a less-than-healthy view of reality (especially given how prevalent this one can be). That’s why I love using (500) Days of Summer as an example here, since though Summer very much fits the archetype, the film shows the consequences of the mindset.

In any case, it’s time to write better characters. Give a character depth, depth beyond “being quirky,” and give her life.

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