Sunday, February 26, 2012

Linksgiving! (Sex in Comics, Star Wars, and Other Stuff)

1. Sexualization of women in comics has been a problem pretty much since there have been comics, so it's no surprise that people are talking about it now.  What is a surprise is that they're managing to have something new (and interesting to say).  Check out these articles,  When Over-Sexualization Kills the Story and  The Five Most Ridiculously Sexist Superhero Costumes (and this documentary trailer, for the awesome new WONDER WOMEN!), for a new view on sexuality in comics.

2. If you're a nerd between the ages of alive and dead, then you probably have a soft spot for Star Wars.  If you're a woman, though, you might have noticed that there's really only one female character.  At all.  Fortunately, it seems the larger world has noticed too!  See this hilarious video tear Star Wars apart on Cracked!, and read this cool article about a five year old reacting to the films.

3. Felicia Day and some other women I'm not as familiar with have started a book club to talk about vaginal fantasy (fantasy books with strong female heroines that are written primarily for women).  Their next On Air Hangout is TOMORROW at 8pm PST, so I highly recommend you check it out.  You can catch last month's video and the details of how to see tomorrow's here.

4. And finally, STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS from Hark! A Vagrant!
Click it.  You know you want to.

And that's all for this week's Linksgiving.  Enjoy the Oscars!


Saturday, February 25, 2012

Guest Post: Video Game Heroines Who Don't Suck

Today we have guest writer Dan Ingram of Fear the Cacti popping in to give some thoughts on women in video games who don't suck, and who make us actually want to play videogames.  Take it away, Dan!
Video Game Heroines

A lot can be said about female video game characters; then again, a lot can be oogled when it comes to female video game characters. A large majority of female characters are anatomically on par with most female comic book characters. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Power Girl is not the only person with a boob window.
But this article isn’t about the exorbitant amount of cleavage, side-boob and under-boob some characters are forced to reveal (sometimes all at once). Instead this is about women characters that have actually progressed the video game image of females. A lot of female characters become a weight that the player is forced to carry around or protect while their counterpart stands by and observes your utter annihilation. If you haven’t witnessed this first hand, take some time to play Prince of Persia for Xbox 360 or Ico. So let’s take a look at the women that don’t idly stand by and let their male companions/eventual love interests do all the heavy lifting.

1. Samus Aran – For years, the Metroid franchise has profited on one of the strongest female protagonists in the history of video games. Having arguably paved the way for female lead characters (you’re welcome Lara Croft) Samus was kicking alien ass before most of us could speak. I myself was fresh out of my womb apartment when Samus busted onto the scene. In fact, I didn’t even know Samus was a girl for a good portion of my early gaming years because I missed out on the glorious unveiling at the end of the original Metroid. 

The Chuck Norris of the video game world.
Samus spends her time as a bounty hunter, flying around in her ship to try and take down the generically named “Space Pirates” all the while avoiding the energy draining parasites that give the franchise its name. Here’s something to wrap your brain around, Samus was hired to kill the Metroids, simple enough right? Well, Metroids are an engineered species, thought up by the Chozo race to eradicate another parasite that they couldn’t kill with conventional weapons. Think about that for a second . . . Samus was hired to kill probably THE MOST DANGEROUS organisms in the galaxy. The Metroids are created to kill the most dangerous thing imaginable, effectively making the Metroids the most dangerous thing imaginable, and they are captured or killed by Samus. And she’s been doing it for 26 years.

Not to get too carried away on the major badassery of Samus, the series has fallen victim to the very idea first described in the article, and that has come about with the addition of the “Zero Suit”, which is essentially the bio suit she wears under her armor. While more effective and practical than most female characters attire, it still leaves little to the imagination, and I’m sure was invented on the basis that giving a teenager something to FAP to just by hitting the pause button was better than him walking away from the game to Google poorly drawn fan art. However, I’m taking a different stance on this. I find the lack of the armor MORE empowering in the sense that Samus is still able to be a formidable bounty hunter even when stripped to her most essential and necessary equipment. That means she’s a more competent bounty hunter than Master Chief from Halo and Bear Grylls combined.

Also this because shut-your-mouth-it’s-adorable.
2. Princess Zelda – I’m going to stop you before you even start and I’m going to throw your argument right back in your face; “She gets kidnapped every game dummy!” Your astute observation will not go overlooked. The flip side of this coin is that unlike some princesses, Zelda doesn’t make your sorry ass search through eight effing castles to find her, systematically having one of her fungus-headed servants tell you that jumping over pits of lava and smashing wildlife doesn’t impress anyone.

And blue shell Koopa’s are now an endangered species because of your plumber antics!”
First things first on Zelda: the franchise is named after her. If it were supposed to be about Link, they would have called it that. And the reason you’re searching after her isn’t just because “she’s so pretty” (which I’m pretty sure is an actual quote from several Mario games), it’s because you NEED her. That is a two-fold scenario; Link obviously needs her because anything without a romance in the B plot is a waste of money. Along with Link’s desire to find the girl he’s crushing on, Zelda wields a third of the Triforce. Bestowed upon her by the gods, Zelda was selected to bear the piece of wisdom because she was foreseen as a great leader. She does need Link’s help to come rescue her, but lest we forget:
Beam me up Sheik!
Zelda wasn’t just lying around waiting for Link to show up. She borrowed her (presumably dead) bodyguards’ armor and went out and did something about the shitty attitude that had fallen over Hyrule. Without Zelda, Link wouldn’t have learned the integral magic spells to play on his ocarina after arriving in the future. I distinctly remember learning the Bordello of Fire from Sheik not too long after going up Goron Mountain. Now that I’ve just nerded all over the joint, let me clean up and wrap this.

While Link deals the final blow to the main villain in 90% of the games, he does it with direct assistance from Zelda more often than he does it on his own. Windwaker is certainly a testament to this fact; without Zelda’s arrows, Link CANNOT attack, he’s physically incapable of it. And she doesn’t yell annoyingly obvious information at random intervals like Link’s AI counterparts. Give me Sheik over Navi any day of the week.

3. Cortana – I don’t want to go on too much of a streak of “non-playable females” but come on, it’s Cortana. Plus, she was created based on the neural mapping of a real person, so that has to count for something. Having originated from Dr. Catherine Halsey, Cortana comes from the woman that developed the Spartan program. So to start, she’s sort of Master Chief’s digital aunt that lets him do whatever he wants.

She even lets him borrow the car as long as he fills the tank.
There’s a lot of canon material out there concerning Cortana and the Chief and it implies that there’s some sort of romantic relationship between the two, however weird that may be. My personal stance is that this is simply a translation of whatever maternal feelings John (Master Chief) had for Cortana’s creator. Besides the logistical problem of being in a romantic relationship with Cortana, John first met Halsey as a child, shortly before he was taken from his home and forcibly enlisted in the Spartan training program. The dude was turned into a 7-foot, cybernetically-enhanced-alien-killing-machine and the only mother he ever knew has now (literally) become the voice in his head.

On top of assisting with the destruction of the parasitic Flood, Cortana also manages to play their centuries old hive mind like he’s some chump. The Gravemind overbid on the car on the Price is Right and Cortana wisely said “one dollar”. She turned herself over to the Flood leader and managed to outsmart one of the oldest and most intellectually comprehensive organisms in the galaxy. And she did it without a gun. See how far you make it in Halo just by slap fighting the Covenant; let me know how that turns out.

This theme of the empowered female artificial intelligence constructs is actually prevalent throughout the Halo universe. In Halo Wars the main ships A.I. acts similarly to Cortana. To some degree, the A.I. women in the Halo universe are the intergalactic Sacajawea’s that the United Nations Space Corps follow in their fight against the Covenant.

A digital construct that goes toe to toe with two invading alien races and helps defeat both of them? Yeah, that’s pretty badass.

4. Lara Croft – Another situation where more of the argument leans toward the over-sexualized character, but hear me out on this one. Besides being the spokeswoman for porn star cosplay crossovers, Lara Croft also laid the groundwork for a lot of female protagonists to come in the years after her. There’s a good chance that characters like Faith from Mirrors Edge may not have ever existed if Lara Croft hadn’t been created before them. A couple of Ms. Croft’s features overshadowed any semblance of intelligence or empowerment she had when the series debuted (and floundered for a long time) but at her core, Lara Croft is a strong and smart woman, in a lot of ways the female equivalent of Indiana Jones. And the argument could be made that she’s a realistic match for Samus Aran. See what I did there? Bringing it back around.

Something else to consider is that the incarnation of Lara that most people are familiar with is not how she was originally envisioned. In fact, the first designs of Ms. Croft more closely resembled Tank Girl. So instead of an overly-busty Cindy Crawford and James Bond mash-up, it would have been something closer to Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass. Somewhere along the line, and I have no idea who this could have been, the ball was dropped on being you know . . . coy about boobs, and we got this:

No joke about her appearance is more ridiculous than this bra stuffing.
The two movies somehow managed to turn a profit and represent the franchise at it’s most gratuitous. Hot, sweaty Angelina globe trotting with a terrible accent looking for artifacts so ancient and mysterious they were called things like “the Triangle of Light” . . . Okay, not the best example. I’ve never seen the movies, but that was my half assed attempt at summarizing them. The games are at least making an attempt to retcon the series by rebooting it in 2012 with “Tomb Raider”, bet you didn’t see that title coming did you? They sure did trick us there.

The new game promises a complete revamping of the series, rather than being a straight up action adventure 3rd person shooter, the upcoming release will be a survival action game more in the vein of Resident Evil, which will surely allow the character to be showcased in a much more positive light.

And by positive I mean “she has on pants”.
I have to admit the game looks pretty awesome, and the anatomical reimagining of Lara Croft is something to be applauded. Who’s to say that this is the desire of Core (the games original developer), or of SquareEnix, which inexplicably acquired the property recently. Apparently the 7,000th installation of the Final Fantasy series wasn’t enough work for Square? If Lara somehow ends up on a Chocobo however, I will recant every bad word I ever said about the Final Fantasy games.

5. Claudia Auditore da Firenze – There are quite a few options I could take for this last one, but honestly, every time I try to research the topic, I keep seeing names of characters that I have no basis for talking about. Obviously there are many other contenders for the list, but I wanted to be able to speak confidently about the characters I put on here. So to round this out, I present sister of Ezio Auditore from Assassin’s Creed II thru Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.

In a lot of ways the Princess Leia of hairstyles in AC.
I think this characters “inciting incident” of sorts is when Claudia hears that her fiancé may be cheating on her. In her sadness, Ezio (eventually her only surviving brother) goes and beats the shit out of the dude, proving that violence is a true answer to any problem.

From there, Claudia witnesses her mother get attacked (and presumably raped) by Pazzi guards, then learns that her eldest and youngest brother along with her father had been hanged. She went with Ezio into hiding at her uncle’s plaza.

Not the most heroic move ever, but because of her accounting abilities, Claudia helped restore the plaza to its former glory . . . until it was completely blown to shit when the Borgia came knocking on the door. When they made the move to Rome, Ezio and Claudia systematically took back the city and reestablished the local Assassin’s order. Claudia herself took control of the Rosa in Fiore: the bordello.

Brace yourselves, because shit just got crazier from there. After proving herself to Ezio as a capable fighter, she became the first inductee into the new Assassin order, the first female Assassin that is seen in the series.

Searing flesh is symbolic of being a fucking hoss.
Not to waste too much on the abridged history of Claudia, she did go on to control the Assassin’s Order in Rome while Ezio was gone looking for the Masyaf library.

In the face of her family’s murder, her brother killing the fuck out of everyone he went up against, she proved herself to be a brilliant financial mind and eventual tactician that was worthy of keeping order over the entire Assassin group her brother had built over the years. If this game would have been made 10 years prior, Claudia would have been the shop keeper you go to for the occasional refill on arrows and a place to sleep before setting out across the Italian countryside, but thanks to the progression in gameplay and the ability to tell a compelling female story, she became much more.

Okay, if any cops ask, I was with you not being an Assassin’s sister.”
The Point - The good news for future female video game characters is pretty bright. Female protagonists are more and more prevalent every year, even female super villains are becoming more popular to a certain degree (see Metal Gear series' Boss). Letting players choose whether or not they want to play as female characters is also a growing option with games like Halo: Reach and Mass Effect. I personally think that the gaming industry is finally opening their eyes to the growing female market and making it more accessible to them. There's even a couple of all women Major League Gaming teams. Once the ratio of male to female gamers equals out, the only thing that women will have to worry about is the amount of Mountain Dew Code Pink will be relentlessly marketed toward them, but that's a different article altogether.

*

Dan Ingram works in television and has his Master's in Screenwriting from New York Film Academy.  His blog, Fear the Cacti is hilarious and you should read it. He likes video games just a bit.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Once Upon A Time: I'll Take It

It's taken me a while to work my way back to this show, probably because I burned myself out on tv shows earlier this year. And I have to admit that if I'd watched it back in September I probably wouldn't like it nearly as much. Well, it's February now, and Once Upon A Time is kind of ringing my bell.

Here's the thing. It's kind of crap.

Well, maybe crap is overstating.

But it's not great television, let's get that clear. It's not terrible, but the writing is pretty consistently on the nose and a little awful, the plots are easily predicted and very lowest common denominator, and it suffers heavily from "cute child syndrome". So really, I should hate this show. But I don't.

It's campy and the effects are terrible, the writing's horrible, the characters are cartoony and their motivations are overly simplistic. But it's fun.

More relevant to our purposes here, however, it's also full of female characters.

That's not a super-interesting statement on its own. I mean, most shows are full of female characters. We are half the population, after all, and people gotta breed. Romances must be had. No, what's interesting about Once Upon A Time is that of the main characters, almost all of them are women, and only one of those women is a traditional romantic heroine.

Let's break it down.

Strong jaws. Respect.
Emma Swan, our protagonist, played with frowning mediocrity by Jennifer Morrison, is a bailbondsman turned small town sheriff. She's tough, a touch grim, and committed to doing the right thing, a concept that might have evaded her for the first 27 years of her life, but is sticking pretty hard right now. The best thing about Emma, though? Her main love interest is her son, Henry. Put up for adoption immediately after birth (Emma wasn't in the best place to have a child--prison, and all), he finds her on her 28th birthday and recruits her to save his town from the Evil Queen, also known as his adoptive mother.

Henry also insists that Emma is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming (which makes him their grandson), and that she was sent by them from the fairy tale world into ours to keep her safe before the Evil Queen's curse hit. Emma doesn't believe him, because she's still got a brain. But she loves this kid, who she barely knows, enough to want to stick around in town and protect him from his overbearing, unloving adoptive mother. And that makes her rock.

There are worse relationships to have.
Mary Margaret, or Snow White in the fairy tale world, is a lot more a regular romantic heroine. She's a schoolteacher who can cajole birds to perch on her finger. Well, she is a Disney princess come to life. She happily offers her spare room to Emma and they bond, though both are a little weirded out by Henry's theory that they're mother and daughter. She dates, she flirts, and she pines. Oh does she pine. Because in this world, Prince Charming is an amnesiac trapped in a loveless marriage, and she's the woman he actually loves. So she pines.

But as Snow White, she's actually pretty cool. She defies the Huntsman, and eventually he lets her go. She lives in the woods as a bandit until she robs Prince Charming's carriage and he chases her. Their relationship is built on mutual respect and a little bit of distrust. She's a bandit and he's an unhappy noble. I can dig a fully self-sufficient woman. You go girl! But not your real world version. She's a little emo for my tastes.

She has the best wardrobe. Ever.
And finally, on our main characters list, there's the Evil Queen, aka Regina King. Yes, she's sociopathic, crazy, and pretty much full on evil. Sure, she cast an entire world of people into a living hell so that she could feel better about herself. And, fine, she's a really awful mother. But isn't it refreshing to watch the good guy and the bad guy trade barbs without any testosterone involved? Just nice, healthy doses of crazy-making estrogen.

Regina's evil, a particularly prancing, mincing kind of evil, but it's nice to see a female character take this on for a change. In fact, I think that's my overall point. No, the characters on this show aren't nuanced. At all. And the show itself is really only so-so, addictive though it may be (and it is).

But the lure of watching strong women go up against each other every week? Not for the love of a man (though a little bit for the love of a small boy), but in a good old fashioned fight between good and evil.

I can dig it.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Music Video Monday: Sexualization Isn't Just a Pop Phenomenon

I hate to boil things down to their most simplistic form (oh who am I kidding? I love doing that!), but I've found there to be two predominant trends in pseudo-feminist pop music.  Either the singer is all about girl power and wants everyone to know just how sexy and awesome she is (The Spice Girls, Madonna, Britney Spears, most of the early 00s), or the singer is all about how she's just as good as a man (Salt-N-Pepa, Nicki Minaj, and, well, most female rap, to be honest).

But here's the thing.  Both of these types?  Well, they kind of end up having the same message.  Ultimately, especially if you watch the videos, all you come away thinking is, "Gosh that pretty woman feels strongly about women or something."

That's it.

Call me cynical (my camp counselor from 1997 would agree wholeheartedly), but I think this is a bad thing.  If the message of the song is all about independence from social norms, then why the hell does the video go so far to remain within them?

Basically, if you want to be taken seriously, women, why are you writhing around in your underwear?  Put on some pants and sing like a normal person!

So I thought we'd start off with the two primary examples from their categories.  Enjoy thinking about the deep social implications, or just take a deep breath and enjoy the music.

Glee, "Run the World" - Originally by Beyonce



It's light, it's fluffy, but it's got just enough of a dose of "Yeah, women power!" to keep me interested.  In fact, I quite like the message of the song, and the video does make me want to put a fist in the air, until I notice that the singer's wearing a modified cheerleader uniform, flashing her crotch while she sings about independence, and basically wearing bondage gear.

Riiiiight.

Jessie J., "Do It Like a Dude" - NSFW



It's pretty much the exact same video, right?  This one just has a lot more grit, like someone smeared the camera lens with a hippie's towel.  And while I think that it's an interesting video, seeing a pop star gyrate while clothed in something comes out to about a bathing suit doesn't really make me think independence.

Or at least not independence from the male gaze.

But then again, I could be being too sensitive.  It's not like nearly every music video produced these days has some form of female exploitation in order to gain more male viewers.

Oh wait.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Joss Whedon's Waif Fu

Waif.

Joss Whedon is cool. I mean, my last two posts have literally sung his praises, and I'm positive I'm going to sing them again in the future. But I have beef. Specifically, I have beef with Joss Whedon's constant use of Waif Fu.

What is Waif Fu? Well, it's when a young girl, small, slender, pretty, miraculously kicks the ass of man much bigger than her. Maybe she's mystically strong, maybe she's just really good at judo, maybe everyone she beats up secretly has brittle bone disease. Whatever. It's when you see a tiny hot chick beating up Rambo.

And Joss Whedon pretty much invented it.

I mean he didn't actually invent it. Men have been writing about weirdly unmuscled superpowered women who can beat up men (until the women inevitably need to be saved) since the beginning of time. Just take Athena. Or Wonder Woman. But Whedon's really made this genre his own. How? Well, look at pretty much everything he's ever written.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
While its ratings weren't actually all that great when it aired, no one can really deny now that Buffy was an important cultural moment. And why wouldn't it be? A cool show about high school kids fighting evil in their hometown, full of quips and realistic relationships and a very healthy sense of irony, it was always destined to be everyone's favorite thing.

The problem with Buffy came from, well, Buffy. She was really tiny. I mean really, really tiny. And it was funny at first, a good joke like when Ms. Calendar said, "Buffy's the slayer? But's she so little!" Or how she constantly was being underestimated. Some even posited that that was the point. That slayers had to be tiny women so that they would be underestimated. Sure. I can kind of buy that.

But here's the thing. Muscles aren't meaningless. I could buy that Buffy was mystically strong and that size didn't matter, and that this was a riff on normal horror archtypes, if it weren't for this.

Take a good look at those women.

Notice anything?

Maybe the height?

After Cordelia left the show in Season 3 (and Charisma Carpenter is by no means large), the largest female character, and I mean physically largest, was Tara, who is, at most of average height and below average weight. And Whedon himself has commented that he originally did not want to cast Amber Benson as the shy and retiring witch. He was leaning towards finding an actress who was more, you guessed it, waify.

Buffy's small. Sure. Willow's little. Whatever. Kendra had muscles, even if she was a tiny person. Faith was almost buff. Anya? Okay, starting to see a trend here. Dawn...well, at least she started getting taller. All those baby Slayers? Things are starting to get a little weird.

Again, there could be an explanation for any one of these castings. But put enough of them together and you seem to see that Joss Whedon has a thing. Specifically, a thing for tiny women kicking ass.

Which is a little weird. Not exactly bad, yet, but weird.

Firefly
Yeah. I totally buy that.
Now, Firefly was Joss Whedon's passion project after Buffy, and it remains my favorite thing that he's ever done. It's a brilliant portrayal of a dystopian future, a beautiful space opera, contains amazing developed characters, and had a...Slayer?

Okay, River's not a Slayer. But you can forgive the comparison. She's amazingly strong, despite having nearly no muscle tone (or rather, she has as much muscle tone as a ballerina, which is nice, but not enough to kill a man), she's deadly accurate with a gun, and she's a sleeper agent for a shadowy pseudo-governmental agency who experimented on her and drove her crazy. Well then.

While Firefly is a great show, the sudden appearance of River's Waif Fu didn't go very well with the story. It felt tacked on. Here we are, following some space thieves and their relationships, dealing with the fact that River is basically a really smart child, which was cool and pretty compelling, when all of a sudden she's laying waste to a room full of men.

Summer Glau is a dancer, and a damn good one, so while that fight is gorgeous to watch, and very well choreographed, it's not very believable. Buffy at least had mystical superpowers. River Tam had mental programming. I'm not saying brainwashing isn't strong, I'm just saying I don't think it lets you ignore biology. Muscles still matter.

And she doesn't really have any.

Yeah, super buff.
Dollhouse
At this point, I think we'd all noticed a pattern. By far the most creepy of Joss Whedon's shows, Dollhouse continued his trend of having implausibly small women beating up much larger men with increasingly flimsy reasons. Buffy had superpowers. River had brainwashing. Echo had...what? Enhanced reflexes?

They tried to explain it here, with the computer wizard capable of programming any personality or physical characteristic into the "dolls"* noting that he could open up more reflexes in her brain to make her more receptive and better in a fight. Sure. But that doesn't explain why 100 pound Eliza Dushku was supposedly fighting the NSA trained secret agent and winning.

I say it again, because it's true. Muscles matter.

So, What is this, Some Kind of Fetish?
As I said before, I really love Joss Whedon. I think his shows are great, and I think that he has a real talent for talking about issues that matter to women. I also, however, think that sometimes, he doesn't quite hit it on the target.

I miss Faith.
Look, we've all got baggage, and we've all got our things. Apparently Waif Fu is his. While he's amazing at creating strong female characters, like Zoe and Cordelia and Faith, what he's not as great at is understanding that there's a little more to it than just grabbing a hot chick, giving her some ass kicking ability and throwing her into a story. We have to believe that she can really do it, that she can really fight and that she should really fight.

Half the time I do with his stuff, and half the time I don't.

But I don't mean this as a discouragement to Mr. Whedon. I think it's amazing that he writes about women at all. That out of the shows he's made, two have centered on women and two on men, I think that's phenomenal. I think it's great that his passion project is to someday direct Wonder Woman on the big screen. Rock on, brother.

I just hope that when he does, he remembers that Wonder Woman is supposed to be strong. Not a tiny person and strong, just strong. She's an Amazon. Don't let me see any of that Waif Fu, okay?

Otherwise, carry on.

No. Nononononono. No.
*Living people whose minds have been wiped so that they are just a shell into which an entire life can be downloaded. Which is a cool idea that the show didn't really explore fully.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Real Women Kick Ass 2: Kick Assier!

Borderline.
Surprisingly (or not) there were a few complaints about my last Real Women Kick Ass list. Not because of the content, mind, but because of the women I left out. (If you haven't read it, SHAME ON YOU!  Or, just read it here.)

While I didn't agree with all of the new suggestions, there were a couple of gems in there that made me think that I probably should make a new list.

So, here you go. Real women who kick ass, the sequel.



Katee Sackhoff, Battlestar Galactica
I genuinely don't know how I missed putting Starbuck on my list. I have no idea. But I'm here to make up for that.


Katee Sackhoff's role on Battlestar was originally written for, and in the 1970s (terrible) series performed by, a man. Starbuck, her character, is essentially an air force pilot. She's one of the original space marines, engaging in daily space battles with a deadly robot enemy, and always working to come out on top. Reasons we love her? Because Katee Sackhoff, for the run of the show, really looked like a soldier. No soft arms or pretty curves, this girl was all muscle. She looked like she could bench press her ship. Her character was a tough, flawed, and intensely emotionally scarred woman and Sackhoff made sure that her performance realized all of that. Oh, and a reason we loved the show? Because Starbuck was never the token girl, or even one of the guys. She was just a soldier, like everybody else. Gold freaking star.

Gina Torres, Firefly
I noted Gina Torres last time as an honorable mention, but she really does deserve her own entry. As the deadly Zoe on Firefly (and the Serenity movie, which wasn't as bad as people keep saying it was, shut up), Torres managed to convey both strength and a beautiful femininity. She was always a warrior, but also a wife. Her marriage to awesome husband Wash (played by the amazing Alan Tudyk) was an example of how two people can come together without gender boundaries getting in the way. She's a badass. He juggles geese. They're both competent, wonderful people who love each other very much. She's just a lot better at fighting. And Torres performance really sold it. In every frame she exudes strength. When she wields a shotgun, you know she knows how to use it, and when she punches someone, you feel kind of bad for the extra.

Now just take a minute and imagine Gina Torres playing Evelyn Salt in Salt or starring in Columbiana. Aren't you a little more scared now? Good.

Michelle Rodriguez, Everything she has ever done.
This one's kind of a gimme, I'll grant it. Michelle Rodriguez is legitimately crazy, arrested multiple times for assault, drunk driving, and other various anti-social behaviors. So maybe my ability to believe her when she plays out of control badasses is a little tinted by the fact that I don't think she's acting very much, but still. Damn do I believe her. In Girlfight (pretty decent movie, worth a watch, way better than Million Dollar Baby), she's a very believable boxer, all muscles and mean. In Fast and Furious, you can see her doing jail time and coming out just fine. In Avatar she makes a damn good space marine.

Sure, she plays a type, but at least it's a cool type, and at least we believe her. And by her own admission, she plays badasses because they're the most interesting characters. When interviewed about her acting choices (and why she keeps dying in her movies), Rodriguez explained that she didn't want to play the girlfriend, or the funny sidekick or the best friend. And really all that was left was playing psychos.

Fair enough.

Katey Sagal, Sons of Anarchy
Short story: I love her.

Long story: I saw Katey Sagal on the street once and genuinely wondered if she was packing heat. You just never know.

Sagal is one of those cases where you can think you know an actress, and then all of a sudden they do a new role, and you realize that you never knew them (or their range) at all. From Peg Bundy to Gemma Morrow, there's a hell of a switch. As Gemma Morrow, I entirely believe that Sagal is a biker momma who can beat me half to death with a skateboard outside a grocery store if I looked at her husband funny. I would not ding her car in a parking lot. And I would definitely not ever badmouth her motorcycle club. She's brawny and brainy and all over sex appeal. But most importantly, Sagal managed to play a badass woman who went through something horrible*, dealt with her feelings of vulnerability and rage, and came out much stronger on the other side. How can you not want twenty more of her on tv?

Carrie Ann Moss, The Matrix and Memento
This one's a little more simplistic. Remember Carrie Ann Moss? Remember Trinity? Yeah, she was ripped. Fantasy world or not, that was a chick who I was pretty sure could beat me up. I knew she could beat Neo up. Moss looked like she could eat Keanu Reeves for breakfast. In Memento, it's even more noticeable. Though playing an unstable bartender trying to get one over on Guy Pierce, Moss still comes off as cool and hardcore. Probably because she's so physically strong, it informs the physicality of her characters. They don't just walk, they stride. She never floats. She damn well marches. If there were a real cyber-revolution out there, I'd follow Moss anywhere, because I'm pretty sure the alternative wouldn't be worth living with.

Maggie Q and Lyndsy Fonseca, Nikita
As I mentioned last time, Maggie Q is a tiny person. But, as we (or the internet, at least) know, she's also a martial arts expert, and really really good at making people bigger than her beat up. So she at least gets a mention for that. While I wouldn't ever look at her and think "Ooh, scary!", now that I know, yeah. She kind of freaks me out.

Lyndsy Fonseca, on the other hand, I actually think looks pretty buff. Not hardcore buff like some of the women on this list, but as far as the "women on television who I think could probably kick my ass and/or play Wonder Woman" list goes, she certainly gets a spot. Her takedowns on Nikita don't use too much movie magic to make it look real. She struggles, she sweats, she make unattractive grunting sounds, and when she manages to get him down, I buy it. Fonseca is one to watch.

Maybe next time I'll come up with a list of women who I don't buy as action heroes, but for now I think I've spent this topic. LIke I said, I don't demand that everything I watch be completely and utterly feminist at all times. Hell no. It's more that sometimes, every once in a while, I want to watch a movie and actually believe that what's happening could happen, without the help of special effects and wires and cgi. I want it to be real. Because if it's real, then that means that I can do it too.

And that's what I really want.

I would also like to be able to field strip a gun blindfolded, but we all have goals.

*SPOILER: In the beginning of Season 2, Gemma was gang-raped as a scare tactic to break the club apart. By choosing not to say anything and only reveal what had happened at the right time, she was able to bond the club together closer than ever, and destroy the men who hurt her. So, yeah. Badass.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Joss Whedon Gets a Gold Star

Shut the front door!

After years of being off the air, and a few years of moderately successful but not exactly "culturally relevant" comics, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is finally doing something interesting again.

I mean, interesting to me.*

So, brace yourselves for some epic comic book SPOILERS, because Buffy Summers is getting an abortion.

Hoo yeah.

Now, I'm not saying this is magical and wonderful and daisies, because abortion isn't really the type of thing I'm cool with us being daisies about.  Choices like that don't get to be easy.  But with all of the media hoopla in the past few weeks about Susan G. Komen going after Planned Parenthood, the constant whittering of Republican Presidential candidates about how Pro-Life they are, and the way that Knocked Up didn't even say the word abortion, well...

Color me thrilled.

It's an important issue, and it's really good to see it being dealt with by a writer who I can trust to do so well.  Not to mention, the way he shows the decision process makes it clear that this is not a simple, easy decision.  It's hard.  It sucks.  But sometimes it's what you've gotta do.

So, I guess what I'm saying is, hell yeah, Joss Whedon.  You write that abortion story.  I'll even hold up an umbrella so the tomatoes from the disapproving politicos don't hit you.

Read the full story, complete with interviews with Joss Whedon and Andrew Chambliss here.



*I read the comics, but up til now they haven't given me as much material for thought as the series always did.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Complicated Feminism of River Song

Yes, those are Roman Centurions. Keep up.
For the 3% of you who've managed to be on the internet and not know what Doctor Who is, it's like this. The Doctor is a 900 year old time-traveling alien who looks quite human, he likes to pick up human companions to come with him on his adventures, and he goes around the universe righting wrongs and mucking up the timeline in his TARDIS (a spaceship that just happens to look like a 1960s police public call box). Got it? Good.

The thing is, the Doctor's always a man, and his companions are pretty invariably young, impressionable women. While this makes for pretty great television (next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the first episode), it doesn't really make for great feminism. We've got an old white man swanning around the universe, fixing everyone's problems, telling people what to do, and bossing around his young, pretty female assistants, who always look at him like he hung the moon.

Now, please remember that I like this show. More than like. I love it. But I do have some problems with it, and only recently has it started to address those problems. (Apparently all those letter writing campaigns have finally paid off.) For instance, in the more recent seasons, the companions have been more active, more equal, and generally more interesting.

But most importantly, we've gotten River.

Hello, Sweetie...

Who isn't on board with this?
As someone who has long watched Doctor Who, and long longed for more feminist characters on television, I greeted the arrival of Dr. River Song on my idiot box with something akin to miraculous wonder. She was just so damn...cool. She was a Doctor in her own right, of archaeology, sufficiently badass to pass any of my silly tests, and the Doctor clearly trusted her--there were even hints that she might be the Doctor's future wife! I was very, very much on board with River.

I continued to be on board with River for a long time. I mean, she's really, intensely awesome. Give her a chance to sass the Doctor and she will. She can drive the TARDIS on her own, and even manages smoother landings than he does. She's a femme fatale with a quick wit and a quicker gun, and I loved her.

Until we got to Season 6*.

Again, don't get me wrong. Season 6 is awesome in its own right, and well worth watching if you haven't already. But Season 6 got us deeper into River's backstory, and I'm sad to say that I'm not totally cool with what we found there.

SPOILERS AHEAD

I could go through all of the details of the events of the season, but if you already know then you understand, and if not, go wikipedia it. I'll wait.

Okay, the problem with River in Season 6 is simply that none of the decisions she makes are her own. Think about it.

She shows up in Utah because a mysterious card summoned her. She goes to Demon's Run because the Doctor asked her. She kills the Doctor because her orders tell her to. She kills the Doctor again because he tells her to. And so on.

Look at her. Smiling at a man. How dare she?!
In fact, the only two independent actions she takes in the whole season are to save the Doctor. And the second time he neither thanks her nor even really acknowledges it. He goes so far as to marry her to get her to kill him again properly, which some might call a little excessive.

And what we find out about her parentage and background makes her even more of a frustrating figure. Being Rory and Amy's child (two of the Doctor's companions) means that she has literally been on the Doctor's radar since before she was born. In addition, she's a time-traveler. He knows her future, just as she knows his. While this should give them some sense of parity, it doesn't, since he is much more likely to act on his knowledge than she.

But most importantly (to me), I hated Season 6's River because suddenly everything she did, everything she was, was all about the Doctor. Everything. I have nothing against love, but it felt excessive, forced, and kind of...freaky.

She wasn't my badass Dr. River Song anymore, she was River, the Doctor's Wife. And I'm not cool with that. The River I love doesn't need anyone else to define her, not even a man as awesome as the Doctor.

I hold out hope for the future of this character, that we can move away from her all-Doctor all the time persona, but I have to say that it left me disappointed and cold to see her painted this way. Love is grand, but obsession less so, and I want an awesome woman to look up to who doesn't need anyone else to know how awesome she is. Is that so much to ask?



Note: This article is a birthday present for the lovely and kickass Amy Gentile, who really wanted me to write about River Song. Amy, I'm sorry I ended up being so hard on River! I really do love her! Honest!

*The season count reset in 2005 when the show came back from a 15 year break. This is known as the start of New Who, though the continuity remained largely the same. There was a 1996 made for TV movie, but we don't like to talk about that.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Sorority Boys: Excuse Me, I Have to Punch Something


Normally when I write an article, I get fired up about something and sit down pretty quickly at my keyboard to vent. But in the case of this article, I actually came up with the topic a good five months ago and am only now writing about it. This movie is one of the reasons I wanted to start this blog. And the reason I'm only now writing about it?

I think I've finally cooled down enough.

Okay. Deep breaths.

The movie in question is a little seen early 00's comedy called Sorority Boys. It's very much in the vein of The Hot Chick, another comedy with positively dismal messages for women. The plot is simple enough. Some misogynistic frat boys get kicked out of their frat and have to dress up as women and join a sorority in order to clear their reputations. In the process they learn how hard it is to be a girl, and everything gets better. Blah blah blah. Whatever. I watched it because I was bored and I like Michael Rosenbaum. Tell me he wasn't the best Lex Luthor ever? Yeah. I thought so.

Besides, sometimes cheesy comedies like this have proved to be pretty awesome. The potentially terrible She's the Man was surprisingly fun, and Drive Me Crazy remains one of my big guilty pleasures.

This was not the case here.

To start off with, the boys don't just dress up as women, they dress up in ugly clothes, and are therefore mocked by men and women alike. When they are accepted into a sorority, it's the "feminist" sorority that they'd mocked before, where all the girls are kind of freaks, and the feminism is played up for laughs. Thanks, guys.

Furthermore, they make a big point of talking about how ugly they are as women. Michael Rosenbaum's character in particular, Adam, is mocked for having a big ass. So much that he becomes inordinately sensitive about it. This is supposed to be hilarious. He has to wear heels, and falls over a lot. Inappropriate guys hit on him, assuming that because he's ugly, he's an easy target.

Now, I get a little of what the screenwriters are trying to show, I think. I think. After all, women do have insecurity about their bodies, and they are targeted by sketchy men. These are our realities. But I hesitate to think that these are our primary issues. Going on, however, there was a much, much bigger problem.

For plot reasons, Adam has to break back into the frat house. To do so, he goes in during a party, and convinces a young pledge to take him back to his old room so that he can retrieve something. This is pretty standard comedy territory, so it wasn't that cringe-inducing to watch. He set up with his friend, Dave, the main character, ahead of time that they had an emergency signal and everything.

Unfortunately for Adam, Dave spends that night trying to (while in girl drag) get off with their sorority sister. So when Adam discovers that the frat guy has roofied him and tries to escape, there's no one to help him. Adam falls to the ground in the dorm room, with the frat guy standing over him, and the screen goes black.

Yeah.

That really happens.

The next morning, Adam gets up, adjusts his skirt, and has to do the walk of shame out of the house. It's awful. Really, really awful. It's made even more awful because it's supposed to be funny. He gets back to their sorority house, and instead of being sympathetic, or apologizing profusely for missing the emergency signal, Dave blames Adam for being jealous of his prowess with women. Then they fight. And Adam spends the rest of the movie having trouble sitting down.

Seriously.

There are a few other plot points, like where Adam, a football player, turns the sorority into really good football players for the powerpuff league, and them clearing their names and all. But for me, there was really only one moment after that.

At the end of the movie, when they've been unmasked and restored, Adam goes to his frat brother and asks him point blank if anything happened. Adam is nervous, unhappy and clearly still affected. The frat brother winces, and it cuts to a flashback. A flashback of the rape. Which is supposed to be very funny at this moment. And then the frat brother lies and says nothing happened.

I nearly punched my computer.

There are a lot of things wrong with this storyline, obviously, but to my mind, two of them stand out. One, it made rape funny. Rape is not funny. I feel like I shouldn't have to say that, but I do. How many comedies have made jokes about prison rape? Even my beloved Sons of Anarchy had a whole subplot about prison rape that was played for laughs (though they did deal with rape in an incredibly realistic and compelling way in other stories, so I don't totally hate them for it). I don't care if you're Family Guy, intimate violation is not something we laugh at.

Two, it made rape into something that happens to women. Everything that happens to the boys in the movie, from shaving their legs to being hit on by skeezy guys at parties, is put off as "part of the female experience". Well, apparently that includes rape. And, yes, for some of us it does. But by no means does that mean it should. By presenting rape in this fashion, the filmmakers have normalized it. They've also gendered it, as something that just happens to women, or men dressed as women, which we know just isn't the case.

I do not deny that rape is a thing that happens, and I actually think that it has a place in a movie like this. It's like that great Gavin de Becker quote, "Men and women live in different worlds. At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them." We need to deal with this.

What we don't need to do is laugh at it.

If this plot had continued and it had been dealt with as the serious, life-changing event that it surely would have been, this might be one of my all time favorite movies. But it wasn't. Like the experiences of so many real women, it was trivialized and laughed at.

And this is the part where I confess something. When I was in college, a casual friend of mine got very drunk and told me that she had been raped a few weeks ago. She just blurted it out as I was putting a blanket over her, and I had to sit down. It's not something you expect someone to ever say to you. It's not something people talk about. It was a friend of hers, she said. And she didn't blame him. He was going through a hard time. She just needed to tell someone. And then she threw up.

I don't know if she ever told anyone else, and I'm sorry to say, I wasn't much help to her. I tried to talk about it, but she didn't remember telling me, and, well, I hate to say that I left well enough alone. I shouldn't have done that.

Rape is not something to trivialize. It matters. So when I see a movie that takes the same brutal event my friend went through and turns it into a joke about guys dressed as girls getting the "whole female experience?" I see red.

I don't want to live in a world where this is something to laugh about, and I don't think I have to. It's as a concerned citizen that I call out today to all of the writers, directors, the people making music, anyone associated with any cultural conduit: Send a message. Rape is not funny. Rape is never okay. And rape does not have to be part of the woman's experience.

And to my college friend, I'm sorry. You deserve better. I hope you find the courage to speak out again.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Where Have All the Lesbians Gone?

Take a quick second and think of a gay television character. Got it? Good. Now, was that character a man or a woman?

It was a man, wasn't it?

Statistically, it probably was. While the rates of gay male awareness have been rising on television for the past few years (despite a dip after the cancellation of Will and Grace*), the rates of lesbians of television have never been high and have continued at pretty much the same level of barely there as ever, even in this "enlightened" age. The 90s had Xena with Xena and Gabrielle, the early 00s had Original Cindy on Dark Angel and that one lesbian couple on Queer as Folk, and now we've got...What have we got?

Based on even the most cursory analysis of the past 20 years, gay women seem to be criminally underrepresented on television. And, why, perchance, is that?

Well, let's look at a case study. Let's look at Glee.

It's popular to hate on Glee, but think of it this way: Glee's a great concept wrapped up in the most cynical marketing possible. It's also primarily the brainchild of one man, and that man happens to be Ryan Murphy.

Now, I don't mean to imply that because Ryan Murphy is a man, he can't write about lesbians. He has, and I think that his writing has been some of the more interesting work in the area. It's more that lesbianism doesn't appear to be all that close to Mr. Murphy's male, admittedly homosexual heart. No, the character that he feels the most for is Kurt, the male gay character.

Why does it matter? One gay is as good as another, right?

Well, no.

It matters because the level of respect and, dare I say, reverence that their stories are treated with varies wildly. The primary lesbian character, Santana, started out the show as a bitchy minor character and slowly worked her way up to being a bitchy major character. She stood in the background and threw out taunts, seduced other people's boyfriends, and generally was a horrible (though amazingly fun to watch) person.

Even the revelation that she was even a little gay was first given as a sort of joke about how terrible she is: her best friend, the adorably dim Brittany, blurted out that they'd had sex, and Santana immediately implied that Brittany was hallucinating. Later, her former sluttiness with men is explained as her attempts to hide from herself, and her bitchiness as her anger that she can't be straight.

Her outing happens via a local election ad aired on television, she's disavowed by her grandmother, harassed in school, and still stands by her loyal (but still dim) girlfriend, Brittany. Rock on, sister, because that was not an easy road.

By contrast, the male gay character, Kurt, comes out to a completely understanding father who is not remotely surprised and supports him fully. His gayness is treated as something sacred which shall never be mocked, and must always be explained with the utmost courtesy. Even the bully who mocks him is only jealous because he himself is actually gay and wishes he could be that out.

Riiiight.

Both Santana and Brittany think this is bullshit.
It's not that Kurt's storyline is bad (though at times, it really, really is), it's that it's not hard to see where Ryan Murphy's sympathies lie. And along with Murphy are the rest of the networks and executives who are simply better able to identify with a male character, even a gay one, than a female character of any shape or sexuality. And that's just fucking sad.

I think it's really all best summed up by this scene. Kurt and Brittany are running against each other for student body president. They are both white, they are both seniors, and they are both in glee club. Both have, at one time, been cheerleaders. And both of them are gay.

So guess which one of them gets an inner monologue about how important it is that they win because it would be a win for gays everywhere?

You don't get points for guessing. It's a sucker bet.



*I jest, but I sort of don't.

See Naya Rivera perform as Santana here, here and here. Isn't she awesome? She's awesome. Yeah. You're welcome.