Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Women in Fridges (Or, Why My Daughter Won't Be Allowed Comics)

Okay, so today we're going to take a sec and actually look at the comics industry. Specifically, I want to talk about the issue of violence against women in comics.

Because it happens. Kind of a lot. Kind of a disturbing amount.

So let's dive in, shall we? 

In Issue #54 of Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner, the titular character (and one of the better Green Lanterns), comes home to find his girlfriend has been murdered and stuffed in his fridge. Understandably, this caused some outrage. But the actual problem I had was simple: I wasn't surprised that there was a dead woman in a fridge.
I'd very much like to be surprised by that.

Someday, I want to be able to introduce my (currently non-existent) daughter to comics. I’m a little bit of a massive geek, and I’d like it to be something we can share. How superheroes are the best versions of ourselves, and they show us what we ought to live up to. How cool it is when you do your best at something you're talented in, and the importance of taking responsibility both for your actions and for the happiness of others. I think this is a good thing.  

But if comics don't seriously change in the next however many years until I have that daughter, that's not gonna happen. I refuse to show her the systematic violence and stereotyped behavior that currently runs through superhero comics about women. Because while it seems these days that women are well-represented in comics, in fact, we’re not. I've talked about this a fair amount before, and I think it comes down to one simple thing: writers.    

Due to under-representation of female writers, female comics characters rarely have the depth of their male counterparts, and are frequently relegated to being mere inflated sex toys or male stand-ins, meant more to titillate male readers than reach out to a female demographic. That's kind of an intense way of putting this: we don't got lady writers so we don't got lady superheroes.    


Brutalized and infantilized at every turn, female superheroes are neither considered to be as powerful as the “real” heroes, nor as interesting, while they are sexualized and forced into secondary roles. Beyond that, female characters in general are subjected to a level of brutality that would shock even the most hardened cynic. I’m not letting my daughter see that.  

My first choice of feminist icon should be Wonder Woman, right? She is Wonder Woman, after all, and I freaking named my blog after her.       

Actually created to be a feminist icon by the creative team of William and Elizabeth Marston in 1941, their stated goal was to give young girls strong female archetype. William Marston was quoted in The American Scholar, 1943 as saying, “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power.” All well and good. Wonder Woman was to fight the Nazis, represent patriotic America. She kicked ass.  

This goal, however, was not generally followed through in the comics. Certainly Wonder Woman is powerful, but perhaps a little too powerful. She’s not only an Amazonian Princess from a mystical island of warrior women, she also runs a Fortune 500 company under the name Diana Prince, and is one of the spearheads of the Justice League. She was a goddess for a while. She has the strength of 100 men, can run 80 mph, and she does all of this in a patriotic bathing-suit that only barely manages to cover her rippling abs.   

Talk about hard to live up to.     

In addition, she has a set of unbreakable gauntlets that can deflect bullets, a lasso of truth, and an invisible jet. Oh and a crown.  

If you dig a little deeper, though, you’ll see that Wonder Woman’s problems are even more than just her frightening perfection. A foundational member of the Justice League, written to equal Superman and Batman, Wonder Woman was originally the League’s secretary. For serious. It was the only way they'd let her in. And far from being the superpowered action hero that the Marstons intended, Wonder Woman’s early years were spent mostly being tied up.  It was such a common trope that there is now an entire online archive of old comics demarcating thebondage in old issues of Wonder Woman. (You're welcome.)  

But she also had a history of being beaten up, having her powers stripped away, being killed, coming back, and generally being abused in a way that we can't imagine a male superhero being hurt. And the fans got off on it. 

It’s not just Wonder Woman out there, though. There are other female superheroes, sidekicks, villains, and of course girlfriends and plucky reporters. But in all of these cases, the problems are the same. The women are not characters, by and large (see yesterday's article here). They're caricatures, propelled by their tits into a world of violence and hyper-aggressive male behavior, motivated purely by the male gaze.

Here’s the flip side: Batgirl, aka Barbara Gordon, aka Oracle. Also a DC character, she was introduced in 1967 to balance out the gender ratios of the Batman universe, and to make up for some earlier miss-steps regarding female characters.      

Barbara Gordon, created by Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino, was originally written as Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. Having grown up hearing all about Batman from her father, she decided to dress as a female Batman for a costume party, but along the way ended up rescuing Bruce Wayne from Killer Moth. She got a taste for the vigilante lifestyle, and decided to stick with it, even when Batman told her that she couldn’t fight because she was a woman. Barbara Gordon, it seemed, was one they finally got right.  

I think you can gather that the story didn’t end there.

In 1988, Alan Moore wrote The Killing Joke, a critically acclaimed serial wherein the Joker found an unsuited Barbara Gordon, and shot her. Seriously, it's a great arc, and one of the best superhero stories. Check it out. Anyway, the shot didn't kill her, but it did leave her paralyzed from the waist down.     

More insulting, however, than the injury, though, was the way it was handled. You see, Babs was not the main character of this serial. She was incidental to the action, and thus her crippling injury and the massive effect it had on her life was tangential. She was barely mentioned. Batgirl got fridged.

And then.

She got a second act. Barbara Gordon did not stay down. The writing team of Kim Yale and John Ostrander was horrified by Gordon’s treatment, and decided to fix it. They rehabilitated her character into Oracle, an information-broker for the Bat family, who happened to be paraplegic. She learned to fight using only her upper body, and to live with her disability. Oracle appeared first in Suicide Squad  #23, and was revealed to be Barbara Gordon in #38 of the same line. She continued to appear in comics, and eventually came to be Batman’s main source of information. She ended up running The Birds of Prey, her own superhero team, and mentoring the new Batgirl. It seemed like Barbara Gordon was finally the one character that fridging couldn’t put down.

So, of course, they figured out how to do it.    

In September of 2011 DC relaunched all of their properties: The New 52. You may have heard me ranting about how much I hate this before. Like, a lot. Well, most of that comes down to what they did to Babs: they pushed her story back to several months after her paralyzing accident. Except this time, she got to walk after.    

You might be saying, so what? Good for her. She gets to walk again, isn't that great?  


It’s demeaning to imagine that Barbara Gordon, a woman who has clearly been through so much, and become so very strong through her experiences, has now been robbed of what made her the hero she is. She learned to not just deal with, but own her disability. She became stronger because of it. So to take that away? She’s been fridged all over again.

So what does all of this mean? Well, I think it comes down to the devaluation of women's bodies on the behalf of the writers. It's not that men don't get hurt or killed in comics, it's that it's treated differently. When the male heroes are downed, it's a thing. There is mourning. They make statements. The storyline matters and is hailed as groundbreaking. When a woman dies in a comic book, it's just another Tuesday. If she comes back, cool, if not, whatever.

I'm not saying everyone has this attitude, but it does seem to be implicit in the way women are treated. Starfire's body isn't her own, it's the audience's, so she will display it to the audience so they can admire. Barbara Gordon's body isn't her own, it's the writer's, his to maim and heal as he likes.

And Wonder Woman's body isn't her own either. It's everyone's. To tie up and objectify and make creepy porn of or fantasize about punching. It's not hers. It's ours.

Call me overinvested, but that is not a message I'm willing to let my daughter see.

Big Barda deserved better.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Redeeming Catwoman (I Saw The Dark Knight Rises)


So, yes, I saw The Dark Knight Rises. I liked it. I’ll spare you all the mystery of wondering about that. I was incredibly moved by the film, and I feel like it’s a fitting end to a trilogy that’s really revitalized superhero movies as a whole, along with actually just being great films. Good job guys, you made it.

I could continue on here and just do a pro forma review of the thing, about story and meaning, and I may do that later, but I’m not going to do it right now. If that’s what you’re looking for, read Patrick’s blog here.

No, I want, instead, to talk about ladies, and how to make a female character interesting.

Shocker, right?

The women of the Batman movies have always been a little problematic for me, and for a lot of people. The origin of the character comes from Bruce losing his parents at a young age, but we never really hear much about his mother. Yes, Martha Wayne comes off as a perfectly lovely woman, but we know so little about her. Thomas Wayne, on the other hand, is held up as a beacon of light and forward thinking. He’s everything Bruce should want to be, and it kills him that his father’s not around to see him.

His mother? Not so much apparently. Even Alfred follows this pattern, occasionally referring to Bruce’s parents, but usually leaving out a mention of his mother specifically and choosing to focus on the father. Bruce collects father figures in Alfred, Lucius Fox, Commissioner Gordon, and Ra’s Al-Ghul, but neglects to bond with women in any real sense. But more than this, Bruce’s mother is just that. Bruce’s mother. She has no other identification, and she exists in no other sense. And that’s kinda sad.

This brings us to the only woman who really matters in the first two movies: Rachel Dawes.

Casting discrepancies aside, Rachel is an interesting figure in the Bat-Universe. Not even in the comics, she was created specifically for the movies as a foil and love interest for Bruce. She does a pretty good job of it, too, tugging at his conscience when he’s gone astray with vengeance. She reminds him that there’s good in the world and that it can be reached with legal efforts. She chastises him about losing himself in the mask.

Relationally, she challenges him. Refusing to accept a date with Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy, Rachel understands that Bruce is more Batman than man, and that he needs to reconcile himself before he can be in a relationship. Her maturity is what keeps them apart, and when she moves on, it’s hard to blame her. And then she dies.

I don’t mind the character of Rachel in general. In fact, I think she’s pretty cool. She was smart, sharp, and totally willing to take Gotham on, one case at a time. I like that in a woman.

Except. Everything I mentioned up there is done with a male motivator. Either she’s trying to convince Bruce to let the law handle things, or she’s protecting Harvey, or she’s fighting The Joker. All good things, but all done because of or for a man. She has absolutely no story or arc of her own, she’s just a catalyst and plot point for the men in her life.

Marion is always French and fabulous. Even when she's not.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Marion Cotillard’s role was initially interesting. What she wanted was clean energy, and she insisted on checking up on her Wayne Enterprises investment. Clever lady. Sure she was his lover eventually, but she was also a fantastic businesswoman and fearless fighter. Until the end, when we found out who she really was, and what her goal had been. Not only was she motivated by the death of her father, but she was also running on her relationship with Bane. So two men pushing her along. And, yes, she did call the shots with Bane, but her driving force didn’t come from her.

She was still entirely motivated by the needs and deaths of men.

So this is where Catwoman comes in. Traditionally a character I despise (sorry Michelle Pfieffer fans), due to her use of sexuality and vulnerability to get what she wants, I really didn’t have high hopes for this one. She’s in a leather catsuit. Yeah. No.

Here’s how they made her awesome: they gave her a story. That’s all, really. They didn’t have to throw her out of a building, or give her a cosmetics company job, they just had to give her a motivation and a personality, and I was sold.

I think that’s actually a little depressing, when it comes down to it.

Selina Kyle wants to disappear. That’s her whole thing. She hates her past and she resents the rich, but most of all, she wants to make it all go away, and go somewhere fabulous.

So she steals. She lies. She uses sex to get what she wants. But she does it all for a reason. It’s not just that she wasn’t hot before and now she is so that justifies it. Nope, it’s about power. She doesn’t have it, but any leg up she can manage, she’ll take.

She despises Bruce and all that he stands for, and scoffs at the Batman. She betrays him. She begs him to run away with her. She tries to run. She comes back.

She has her own story, and in it she is the main character. Her actions are not predicated by a male presence in her life, they’re created by her desires. Hers alone. When she decides to leave? It’s because she wants to. When she comes back? It’s because she knows it’s the right thing to do. Catwoman don’t need no man, so it’s pretty cool when she gets one anyways.

Selina arcs like any other character, and that's significant because women don't usually arc that way. In Batman movies, or in any action franchise, the woman is already in the place she's going to stay, and nothing interferes with that. Rachel didn't change, and neither did Talia.

But in this movie, we have a woman who shifts her point of view, who comes to understand that the way she's been viewing the world is wrong and that she should change it. And then she actually does. She changes and grows, and this isn't remarkable at all except in its rarity. Selina isn't here because of Bruce. She's got her own issues and her own storyline to deal with. She's the Han Solo to his do-gooding Luke, and she's going to go on her own arc before she decides to help.

That's what's so awesome about her character. She is her own person, and because of that, there's room for her to change that person.

From a story angle, the ending of The Dark Knight Rises was very fulfilling. The Batman legacy carried on through John Blake (best name reveal ever), Batman recognized as a hero, and Bruce living without the shadow of his guilt. Neat. It’s all very fulfilling and well written and happy. I was happy.

So what do we get out of all this, besides the fact that Christopher Nolan made a really good movie where he managed not to kill off the love interest for once?

Simply this: to make a female character compelling, to make her interesting and viable, to make her sexuality her own, and make her someone that girls will want to be, give her a motivation that’s actually hers. Then let her run with it.

No one should look that fabulous in handcuffs. No one.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Batlinks (Whitewashing is Bad, Game of Thrones is Funny, and More!)

Disgustingly pretty painting of Sherlock's Molly Hooper by Alice X. Zhang. Check out her store here.
Well, I’ve now seen The Dark Knight Rises, and while you’re totally getting a full review/rave on Monday, for now let me just say that it was awesome, precisely what I wanted, and that I now feel a bit smug about predicting some stuff correctly.

But enough about me.

Happy Saturday, folks! Let’s all take a deep breath and have a nice lemonade or something as we chill out from the week. Oh, and have some links. Feel free to post your own stuff or anything you think we missed in the comments below!

1. In obviously-Batman-comes-first news, way back in November last year, Cody over at Cracked! made some pretty accurate predictions about TheDark Knight Rises. I’m not saying he’s a wizard or anything (we can’t prove it), but I am saying he’s spent more of his life on this than I have, and that’s saying something. (Don’t read if you don’t want spoilers). Also, have two different reviews, one from Women in Hollywood and one from Slate explaining why Catwoman was the best part of TDKR. Which she was.

2. In pee-your-pants-funny news, Katrina Lumsden has possibly the best review of Fifty Shades of Grey ever up on goodreads. Like, seriously. It’s hilarious. She goes on to review the other two books as well, and all of her reviews are insightful, funny, and full of incredibly appropriate gifs. Check it out here.

3. In hmm-never-thought-about-that news, writer-director-actress Zoe Kazan has fired back at societal disapproval of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl phenomenon, by pointing out that categorizing women this way is actually really sexist. Now, I come down more on the “male fantasy of what a girlfriend should be” side and I think that MPDGs are pretty sexist, but I see her point, and it’s cool to get another opinion sometimes. Check it out here.

4. In excuse-me-while-I-self-promote news, the Feminist Odyssey Blog Carnival has carried on into its second month (you may recognize this as the thing advertised in my sidebar). The theme this month was Women in Movies, so obviously I contributed. You can check out my stuff, and all the other awesome articles here. Next month we’re doing Women in Education, so I’ll keep you posted!

5. In guess-I-can’t-hate-her-anymore news, author Cassandra Clare has spoken out against whitewashing in cinema, and especially against it in relation to the movie adaptation of her book, The Mortal Instruments. Which is awesome. Seriously. I mean, I always kind of resented Ms. Clare because she got me kicked off fanfiction.net when I was fourteen for “plagiarizing” her (complete crap), but I guess we all have to grow up sometimes. So, Cassie, I’m sorry. Good job on being awesome.

6. In not-sure-about-this news, the LA Times one, apparently has a blog about comic books which makes me wonder what that’s not my job, and two, this week that blog looked at discrimination against women in the comics industry. Except by “looks at”, I apparently mean “tries to debunk”, which is a little weird. According to the article, it’s easier than ever for a woman to break into comics (which I believe) and that we should all stop talking about it like it’s a thing (which we shouldn’t). I don’t know. Check it out here and let me know what you think in the comments below.

7. Finally, in best-ever news, The Key of Awesome is a youtube channel that parodies pop songs by making them into something else. Sometimes it’s a commentary on the song or video or artist, othertimes it’s just funny. In this case, Maroon 5’s “Payphone” has been rewritten to be about Game of Thrones. Worth it.

So, that’s it for this week. Check in with Crossover Appeal on Sunday at 6pm PDT/9pm EDT, when we’ll be talking about Batman in an episode with all of the spoilers. See you on Monday!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Mary McDonnell Has a Type (Of Character. Stop Being Dirty.)

Dan Ingram of Fear the Cacti and Crossover Appeal is now a regular contributor! You can read his previous posts herehere, and here.

There’s a saying that in literature there are only a certain number of stories you can tell, everything else is in how you tell that story. It’s something like that. I’m a “writer” at the moment. Once someone pays me to do this shit, I’ll look into it more.

I’m a continuity nerd. I’m the kid that noticed the strange flip-flopping of Marty McFly’s jacket in Back to the Future. Or that in the end of Across the Universe the cops standing outside the recording studio inexplicably have batons in one shot, then don’t in another. 

Apparently these cops were also magicians.

There’s something else that I’ve noticed though, and it’s the striking similarity some actors have to characters that they played in other films or TV shows. Like freakishly similar.

Take for instance:

Married to Lonestar.


Best President in the history of everything.

Let’s ignore the fact that I somehow managed to find two pictures of Mary McDonnell with two strapping young white males standing immediately to her left. The latter being more strapping than the first because I wanted to look like Jamie Bamber the instant I saw him on this show.

The similarities of McDonnell’s characters, in this case First Lady and President of the Colonies respectively, are pretty apparent right off the bat. Political office, both science fiction franchises, and both are against alien forces that seemingly overwhelm the human population.

Diving deeper, you’ve got to admit that she looks strikingly similar in both pictures. Maybe that’s just a good color for Ms. McDonnell. I mean she’s an older lady I wouldn’t mind having a shot with. And you can’t do THAT much to change your appearance from film to film. I mean, Bill Pullman looks almost identical in every film he makes.

But it’s the characters themselves that seem to be tied on a much deeper level. In Independence Day, she’s a stubborn President’s wife that refuses to listen to her husband despite the impending danger. She stands up to her man basically.

Now, in BSG, she’s a member of the Presidential cabinet that has just found out she’s dying of cancer. When she’s sworn into office, she stands her ground against Commander Adama and tells him basically that even though they’re at war, the government will still exist and will stand up to the military. Again, she stands up to her man.

In both instances, she is a powerful, strong woman that has her own thoughts and will not be overrun by the main man in her life. 

She wears the much more stylish pants of the relationship.

Coincidence? Maybe. Probably. Or just casting a very specific type of actress for a very specific type of role.

There’s one other thing: she dies in both Independence Day and BSG. With her lover by her side. In a way that the doctors try to stop but can’t.

Did the Twilight Zone music just start playing in your mind? Because it should have.

Like I said above, there’s probably a reason that McDonnell ended up as this role in both franchises. Ron Moore has openly said that the roles of Roslin and Adama were specifically written for the actors that portrayed them. So maybe he saw Independence Day and then when writing BSG, Moore couldn’t get the image of her character out of his head.

It is weird that McDonnell could draw some sort of weird continuity line between Roslin and First Lady Whitmore. Somehow they’re genealogically connected and their fashion sense survived the Colonists from BSG integrating into Earth’s primitive culture. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

Then again maybe I have another celebrity crush. That list seems to grow by the day. 

Though her “husband” will always be the owner of my first "broner". Ed. I wish I'd never heard that word.

Dan Ingram works in television and has his Master's in Screenwriting from New York Film Academy. He likes his ladies aged like a fine wine.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Pixar Was Feminist Before Brave (Just Ask Mrs. Incredible)

Look, I’ll be straight with you to get this party rolling. (Not that I’m usually lying to you. You know what I mean.) I still haven’t seen Brave. Now, a lot of this is my own fault, since it did come out before I went to Vietnam, and it was playing in theaters when I got here. But it hasn’t come up, okay? I’m definitely going to see it on DVD.

I have, though, been reading as many spoiler-free articles about the movie as I can, and I think it’s time we discussed a little something.

Merida is not Pixar’s first feminist character. Sure, she’s their first female protagonist, and that’s wonderful and great and super cool. But. She is not the first feminist character that Pixar has ever featured, and this movie did not change the game in any big way as regards their writing tendencies.

Good? Okay.

No, actually, despite their lack up to now in creating female protagonists, Pixar has actually been really good about giving us well-rounded female characters who are, dare I say it, feminist. I’m going to use Mrs. Incredible as an example.

Now, I don’t actually like calling her Mrs. Incredible, because it identifies her as a knockoff of Mr. Incredible, but the name fits and it’s the one she’s best known by. At the start of the movie, she’s Elasti-Girl, a freewheeling superhero who doesn’t have time for marriage and babies. So, when we skip a few years later, and discover that she’s married, living in suburbia and raising three kids while her husband goes to work at an insurance firm, I was totally expecting her to have some pretty serious angst.

Except she didn’t. While her husband agonized over the meaninglessness of his existence, Mrs. Incredible calmly took care of her kids, planned for vacations, and made lunches for school. In anyone else’s hands, this reversal would seem like a sign that she was finally “in her place”, that being a superhero was her fantasy. In coming back down to reality, she discovered that home and children were where her real talents lay.

That’s bullshit, and also not the direction that the movie takes it. Instead, it just shows that Mrs. Incredible is a very strong person. She was strong enough to be a hero, and strong enough to keep going when she couldn’t be a hero anymore.

So when her husband is stupid enough to allow himself to be captured (sorry, but it’s true), she goes after him. Not only does she save him, but she also does it stealthily, effectively, and pretty quickly given the circumstances. She’s not afraid to use the Mom Voice, and when Mr. Incredible tries to leave her behind for the final battle, she reads him the riot act.

Mrs. Incredible isn’t just good at being a hero, or good at being a mom, she’s a fully real character capable of adapting when her life doesn’t turn out the way she planned, or when she really needs to step up her game and go full badass. She’s a badass, in all of the possible ways.

At the very end of the movie, when Syndrome tries to kidnap Jack-Jack, she actually has her husband throw her into the sky to get him back. That’s being a badass.

Merida wasn’t Pixar’s first feminist character, and, really, neither was Mrs. Incredible. Pixar is veritably littered with feminist heroes. From the single mom in Toy Story, to EVE in Wall-E, to Ellie in Up, there are tons of places we can look to see awesome female characters to show our daughters. Mrs. Incredible is just the start.

And none of this is meant to deride Brave or Merida. I’m sure she’s a lovely character, and it really is awesome that Pixar is now making movies with female leads. But to say that she’s the first feminist character from this studio? Well that’s just false advertising.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Guest Post: Slash, the Male Default, and Female Enfranchisement

Ed. Teen Wolf (2011)
Today we have a guest article from Kyla Gorman. You can read her previous guest posts here and here.

There are many reasons to love slash fanfiction (and fandom in general), as I'm sure I've mentioned before. In a previous blog post on GamEstrogen I remember saying something to the effect of, "ask me why I like slash and I'm likely to give you a different answer on any given day of the week." Well, I've been thinking about it again, and the more I think about it the more reasons I come up with. I think a large part of it is tied up in feminism and femininity, and today's "theory-of-the-week" revolves around the idea of the male gender default.

If you're at all up on your feminism, you know that the default gender in this country is male. Women are expected to be able to relate to male protagonists, while men are not expected to be able to relate to female protagonists. (In many children's shows/movies in particular, if the main character is male it's a show for "all audiences" whereas if the main character is female it's for "little girls.") 

Ed. Star Trek (1966)
If you're writing something about a hypothetical person and use the male gender it seems neutral, whereas if you say "she" and "her" it seems like you're calling out the gender of the person specifically. This is a pretty well-known phenomenon and I'm sure if you look it up you'll find other people who explain it way better than I could. I just want to talk about how this relates to slash.

Working under the assumption that the male gender is neutral, slash becomes not a story about two men, but a story about two generalized people. It's almost like there's no gender involved at all, and the focus of the story becomes the emotions and characters and relationships and whatever other interesting stuff about the two characters - rather than the gender of said characters. You're exploring the people, in absence of the influence of gender.

Ed. Avengers (2012)
But if you throw a female character into that mix, suddenly you gender the whole story. Suddenly, whether you want it to or not, the narrative becomes at least in some subtle way the never-ending story of "men vs women" that we're all sick and tired of by now. Both characters become more defined by their genders and less defined by their personalities than they would have been otherwise. 

It's an inescapable trap caused by our culture's overwhelming perception of gender as a major (if not the defining) factor in the personality of any individual and particularly of women. If you don't put women in the story - or at least not as one of the focal characters, then you don't have to deal with this problem at all. The two characters automatically start on an equal footing regarding gender, and so the exploration can go further. If you do put a woman there, especially in contrast to a male character, then gender becomes a factor. It has to.

Taken this way, it might seem like writing stories about two men together and leaving women out of the picture is playing into a negative trend in our media landscape (the trend of accepting male as the default gender), and to some extent that might be true. But consider the nature of the stories being written: these male characters are under female control, and subject to the female gaze. 

These characters are being explored in a feminine context - characters in slash fiction are often explicitly put in scenarios our culture typically considers to be "female" in nature, such as dealing with the threat of rape or worrying about whether it's too forward to make the first move in a relationship. In this way, women use these male characters to explore their own lives and experiences, without the baggage of our cultural perception of femininity. You don't have to answer the question, "How would a woman react in this situation?" because you are instead considering the question "How would a person react in this situation?" or, even better, "How would this character react in this situation?" 

Ed. Sherlock (2011)
It allows us to read the nuances of individuals free of gender baggage, which I believe helps us to imagine and consider real people in the real world more complexly as individuals. It can help teach us to read those around us based on their character, rather than their gender.

Viewed this way, I think fandom and fanfiction, and particularly slash, are a major force for the enfranchisement of women in our culture. And I think the only reason male-focused mainstream media producers are not trying harder to stop us is because they don't understand fandom well enough to get that. Long may that last. 

Or perhaps they're just glad we're filling in our own media gaps so they don't have to. 


Ed. Also Teen Wolf. Because femslash is also a thing.
Kyla Gorman has her Master's in Interactive Media at USC.  You can visit her super-cool blog, GamEstrogen, here!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Princess Problem (A Look at the Economics of Fairy Tales)

I’ve recently started taking an online course on fantasy literature (which is really good, and also free—you can join it here), and our first assignment is to read the Grimm fairytales, and talk about certain interpretations thereof.

For me, it’s a bit of fun, because the version we’re reading is lovely, with gorgeous illustrations, and the stories are familiar, but not wholly known to me. I don’t usually read through fairy tale books for a lark, so I’ve not seen any of this stuff for a while.

And in reading the book, I’ve come to a single conclusion: there are a crap ton of princesses in this book.

Like, a disproportionate amount. If even half the stories in here were based on real events, then either we would have to conclude that no one in medieval Europe was out of the bounds of a story like this, or that the world spun off into some nether dimension where the time of kings and queens spun out for an extra century or so.

But here’s the thing: there are a lot of princes too.

So this got me thinking. Not about whether or not the stories are true, because, seriously? But instead, I started thinking about why a good three quarters of the stories were about low-born peasants tricking their way into the royal bedroom. And the conclusion I came to was simple: prostitution.

Puts a whole new spin on it doesn’t it?

Now, I’m not saying this as some rabid, foam at the mouth, man-hater. What I mean is that in these fairy tales, whenever the young man tricks his way to the princess’s hand, or the fair maiden is discovered and married by the king, it’s not just about romance (in fact, it’s not really about romance at all), but also about money. Cold hard cash. Or, in this case, gold.

When you come down to it, life in medieval Europe was hard. Not as hard as some have led us to believe, of course, with the whole “Dark Ages” myth (check out this John Green video if you don’t believe me), but still pretty difficult. Europe was a cold place, making agriculture a tiresome business. Famines happened, plagues ran through, and sometimes trade from foreign parts of the world devalued the local economy, or, worse, created an inflationary bubble that destroyed cities when it burst (as in Amsterdam and the Dutch Tulip Disaster).

It was not a good time to be poor.

Moreover, it’s never a good time to be poor. Since the concept of money came about (which was not, as you might think, immediate), poverty has implied a lack, and a division between the haves and the have nots.

Well, Grimm’s Fairy Tales were written with a specific audience in mind: the have nots.

Stories about the virtues of cleverness, the importance of hard work, and the ways to work your way into a royal wedding weren’t about little girls and princess fantasies, they were about stabilizing your economic reality. It’s more accurate to think of these marriages as transactions than romances, because in most cases the bride and groom were state unseen. All the have not knew of the royal was that they were rich, and hopefully attractive. That was enough.

So, yes, when it comes down to it. These are stories of prostitution. The bargain of human beings for goods and services. But in the end, it’s not all that bad. Romance wasn’t valued then like it is today. In fact, it was considered largely anomalous. Your job, as a representative of your family, was to marry well enough to better their fortunes. It wasn’t a cruel and money-grubbing thing to do; it was an economic reality.

It’s only in the past hundred years or so that we’ve become rich enough (and I here refer to North America and Europe mainly, because the practice of economic marriage is still held in many places) that we can and do marry for love. So we think that it is the best of all fates.

And we’ve changed the fairy tales so that Cinderella falls in love with the Prince, instead of figuring, “Hey, he’s a prince. Might as well put on some tights and try to dance my way into his bed, because that way I’ll get dinner tomorrow.”

It’s also funny that in the past fifty years or so, feminists have come out against fairy tales, calling them passive, and insisting that women can rescue themselves.

Here is the part they’re missing: in most of these fairy tales, the women are rescuing themselves. Rescuing themselves from lives of drudgery, disease, and hunger. So what if they do it with a pretty face or sharp wits instead of a sword? There is more than one way to be strong.

Disney may have tried to sell us on the idea of the sweet, passive princess, and by all means you can revolt against her, but if you look back far enough, you’ll see that sometimes marrying the prince is a revolutionary act in and of itself.
Incidentally, Alice in Wonderland is not a fairy tale. Stop trying to make that happen, world.

Monday, July 23, 2012

No, the End of Return of the King Isn't Too Long

This is an unpopular opinion: I like the ending of Return of the King. I do not think it’s too long. Nope. It’s just right.

Yeah, I probably lost you there. Let me explain.

I was rewatching Return of the King last week with my friend Duc, and when we got to the end, she got up, because as she put it, “The movie’s too long. It should end after the coronation.” She left, and I stayed through the extra ten minutes or so of story, wondering if she was right.

Spoiler alert: No.

I agree entirely that the film version of Return of the King has a lot of endings. It does feel a bit long. But I argue that every single one of those endings is necessary for some reason. Let’s break them down.

The first ending: Sam and Frodo huddled on a rock on the side of Mount Doom, while lava flows around them, and they reaffirm their bromance.

Obviously, this couldn’t be the end, right? I remember sitting in the theater, and when the screen went black, I screamed because I so mad. They couldn’t end it there! How dare they! While it’s true that at that point in the film nearly all of the storypoints had been finished up, the major issues resolved and the future of Middle Earth determined, there was absolutely no closure.

The second ending: Gandalf comes by and picks up Sam and Frodo with some giant eagles. Whiteout as we fly over the lava.

I didn’t want this one to be the end either, because it felt tacked on. It’s not much more resolution than we already had, just a quick assurance that Sam and Frodo would live, and probably be okay. Yeah, that’s not going to cut it, buddy.

The third ending: After a merry romp of bed-jumping, the reunited Fellowship smiles gently at each other inside Frodo’s room in the Houses of Healing.

Now here, we’re actually starting to get more closure. Everyone from the Fellowship except for Boromir is alive and well, they’re all happy to see each other, and we can tell that the emotional healing has begun. You could leave the story here, and it wouldn’t be awful. I mean, the fans would gut you, but you could. The story would feel relatively wrapped up.

But not entirely.

The fourth ending: Now, this is where Duc says it should have ended. Aragorn is crowned King of Gondor, everyone applauds, he gets back with Arwen, we see that Eowyn and Faramir have hooked up, and the hobbits get their due. It’s sweet, well done, and a fitting end.

This is where things get tricky. You see, I do think that this is where Return of the King should and does end. Everything major from this part of the story is resolved, and we’re not left with any lingering questions.


Return of the King is not a whole story, and, really, it’s not a whole movie. It’s just one part of a three-part film, and that’s what needs to be wrapped up here. Return of the King ends at the coronation. The Lord of the Rings keeps going.

Because, when you get down to it, Lord of the Rings isn’t about a war, or a King, or even a shiny ring. It’s about two little hobbits who go on an adventure. They see the world, many beautiful things, and even more horrifying ones. They go to war, and then they come home.

They come home.

That’s the important part of the story. Tolkien actually made a point in the books of showing that the hardest part of any war isn’t the fighting or even the making peace, it’s the end, when you come home and realize that no one else has seen what you have. They all have their own petty little problems, and they don’t give a crap that you’ve been through hell. The hardest part of war is coming home after.

So, Tolkien made a conscious choice to show that. And, let’s be fair, Peter Jackson cut out a hell of a lot of the end of Return of the King when he made this movie. Believe it or not, but the original version is actually a whole third of the book, where the hobbits come home and find that the war has made it even there. They have to defeat Saruman (again) and retake the Shire. It’s heartbreaking and poignant, and totally not in the films.

Instead, Peter Jackson went with a lighter touch, but one that still conveyed the same message: it’s hard to come home, and it can be good.

So, ending number five: The hobbits return home to the Shire. Nothing’s changed, and they’re still as disregarded as ever. Sam goes after Rosie Cotton, whom he’s been in love with since our story began, and Frodo finishes the story that Bilbo left him. They settle down, and they get back to life as usual.

But it doesn’t end there.

The sixth ending: The Grey Havens. The four hobbits accompany Bilbo and Gandalf to the Grey Havens, where a ship is waiting to take the Ringbearer, Gandalf, and the remaining elves to the West. Frodo realizes that it’s time for him to leave as well, and after a lot of tearful goodbyes, he gets on the boat.

This is important to me, not just because I’m enough of a fan that I would have been outraged if the Havens had been cut, but also because it completes Frodo’s journey. Yes, he came home, but he found that home had nothing left for him anymore. He’d been utterly changed by the Ring, and as much as he wanted to stay in Hobbiton, playing with Sam’s children and fighting with the Sackville-Bagginses, he can’t. He doesn’t belong there anymore. It’s time for a new adventure.

In the end, this is a story of two ordinary little hobbits, who became extraordinary through no fault of their own. There are consequences. They have been changed. And sometimes home isn’t home anymore.

Which brings us to the final ending, my favorite one: Sam comes home.

That’s it. It’s just Sam walking down the path to his front door, picking up his kids and kissing his wife. It’s the most ordinary of ordinary, and after everything they’ve been through, it’s perfect.

Now, in the books, the endings do continue. Aragorn was a great king, and ruled for a very long time. Eventually, though, he died, and Arwen stayed by the side of his grave until she eventually passed as well. Merry and Pippin went on to marry, have many children, and generally be the sort of rascally old men that they were when they were young. Legolas stayed with Gimli for many years, and when the time came, he built a boat and sailed them both to the West.

And Sam. Sam and Rosie had thirteen children (!), and he lived to be extraordinarily old. He finished Bilbo’s book, and was very respected in the Shire. When the end came, he went to the Grey Havens and found a boat waiting for him there. He followed Mr. Frodo one last time.

Urgh. I just made myself tear up there. I really love Sam’s story.

Okay, so what’s the point that I’m making with this? Just that there was a lot more to the ending, and we should be glad we got as little as we did? Obviously not.

No, the point of this is that ending a story means knowing what the story is about. If all Lord of the Rings was about was a Ring and an evil army, then the movie was over when the Ring was destroyed, the army defeated, and all our heroes together again. But that wasn’t the point of this story.

Yes, the movie was long. I remember feeling like I was going to burst by the end of it. (Midnight showings require caffeine, okay?) But movies need to end when the real story is over, when it’s come full circle, when things make sense again.

To this end, I actually do defend the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Yes, that movie was also hella long, and totally, the epilogue was cheesy and badly executed. (Sorry, HP fans.) But it was important. You had to see the world after it was at war, a world starting to heal. You had to see how these kids, with whom you’d just spend seven years, would turn out. The plot of this movie was over, but the bigger story, that needed wrapping up.

“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand there is no going back. There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep... that have taken hold.” - Tolkien, at the end of Return of the King