Saturday, August 31, 2013

Linksgiving (Anna Gunn, Twenties, Iranian Fashion and More)

Well, my week veered between awful and terrible and okay, so I decided to celebrate it being over today by sleeping and eating and not doing things. Bliss. But on the plus side, the awesome parts of my week (hanging out with old friends in my favorite city, watching Mulan with a bunch of hilarious high schoolers, and sleeping) were pretty seriously awesome. No complaints.

And, in honor of a new week dawning, here are some tasty little links I found this week. Or possibly earlier than this week. Maybe.

As usual, if you have anything you want to add, feel free to pop it in the comments below, or email us at

1. Harry Potter isn’t just a magical series of books and movies that changed our lives and made us deeply happy (and sometimes sad), it’s also a really great example of social justice in fiction.

2. Ever feel like network television sucks and you wish it could be more original? Then stop whining and go read this interview and watch this pilot called Twenties by Lena Waithe, the mastermind behind Dear White People. It’s super good.

3. Anna Gunn would like you to know that she is aware that you hate Skyler White from Breaking Bad. And she doesn’t care, because Skyler is a strong female character of the highest degree, and haters gonna hate.

4. Have some beautiful and interesting pictures of how the Iranian fashion industry is reimagining traditional attire, and what that means for women’s liberties in the country.

5. Wil Wheaton is lovely, we all know this. But did you know he was wax-poetic-about-what-it-means-to-be-a-nerd lovely? Bet you didn’t.

6. Here’s a comic based on a quote by Sophie Scholl, a German non-violence activist during WWII. It’s crazy powerful.

7. And, finally, have a fan trailer for Man of Steel 2. Pretty rad indeed.

That’s it for this week, folks. Tune in tomorrow at 3pm PDT to see Crossover Appeal finally talk about YA Fiction. Maybe. Hopefully.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Strong Female Character Friday: Paris Gellar from Gilmore Girls

Allow me to express my love for Paris Gellar, the queen bitch of Stars Hollow (well, really most of New England), and yet one of the most kind and compassionate characters television has ever brought us with a series of exclamation marks. Like so: !!!!!!!!!!!

In case you couldn’t tell, I like her just a little. She’s pretty awesome.

Paris Gellar (Liza Weil) was supposed to be a one-off character in the first season of Gilmore Girls, a villain to attack Rory and show us that her new school was serious business. But it turns out that viewers liked Paris, and the writers liked her too. She added new things to the show, a new perspective, and a new side of Rory that we’d never really thought about. She was interesting, and so Paris stuck around. And then Paris became a main character. And then somewhere along the way, we (I) realized that Paris was way more interesting than Rory and she became the main character. At least for me.

But I shall back up, since I assume that at least someone reading this has never seen the witty brilliance that is Gilmore Girls. PS, you should really get on that, hypothetical person.

Gilmore Girls is a mostly excellent (ignore the last two seasons) female-centric show about growing up, mothers and daughters, and small town life. It sounds like the kind of thing that would totally make me gag, but it doesn’t, for the simple reason that it is very very good.

The show follows Lorelai and Lorelai Gilmore, a mother and daughter (who, yes, share the same name). Lorelai and Rory, as she’s better known, are the ridiculously close parent-child duo of our dreams and/or nightmares – the kind of people who say without irony that they are each other’s best friends and who can’t go a day without talking. Again, seems like it should be annoying, but it isn’t.

Lorelai (Lauren Graham) is a single mother who got knocked up at sixteen, kept the baby because of family pressure, then ran away when her daughter was a year old and started a brand new life in a small town. Sixteen years later they’re still in that small town. Rory (Alexis Bledel) is all grown up and about to go off to private school, and Lorelai now manages the inn where she first found work as a housekeeper.

Unfortunately for them, Rory’s new private school is hella expensive, and since Lorelai is a single parent, she doesn’t have too many options. But she knows her kid is smart and deserves the best opportunities she can give, so Lorelai sucks up her pride and goes to ask her parents, who are incredibly wealthy Hartford socialites, for help paying for Rory’s tuition. And that pretty much gets the story rolling.

Over the seasons the girls go through love interests like Kleenex, relationships change, drama comes and goes, but at its heart the story is always about mothers and daughters. Lorelai and Rory’s relationship can be amazing or bumpy, and when you add Emily (Lorelai’s mother, played by the awesome Kelly Bishop) into the mix it only gets more interesting.

But we’re not here to talk about the actual Gilmore girls today. I still want to talk about Paris.

So, like I said, Paris showed up as a part-time villain right when Rory started at her new school. Paris was everything Rory wasn’t: a bitchy, rich, aggressive snob who demanded to know why the school was letting in country bumpkins like Gilmore over there. Paris was mean. And we loved her.

Because Rory was so nice, you know? Rory was the small town sweetheart. She liked reading and books and tea and taking care of her silly mother and eating too much junk food while she watched television. But Paris wasn’t any of that. Paris was a poor little rich girl, the kind of kid whose parents barely remember she’s alive, who thrives on competition and rage, and who was so stressed out by the time she graduated high school that she had a life coach on speed dial.

In short, Paris made Rory interesting.

People don’t often like to admit this, but women are competitive too. Sure, society precludes us from expressing this via athletic aggression most of the time, but we need to get our ya-yas out somewhere. Teenage girls especially have to deal with the questions of identity and self-worth, and then how that relates to everyone else in the room. Paris knew that. Rory didn’t. But she quickly found out.

I feel weird saying this, but a huge part of the reason I like Paris as a character is that she made me like Rory more as a character. And she did that by making Rory just a touch more unlikable. If that makes sense.

Without Paris, Rory was the sweet, nice girl. She was never challenged or forced to face her own insecurities. But then in blows Paris Gellar, who thinks Rory is a mess who can’t compete, and all of a sudden that’s what Rory wants more than anything in the world. To compete. To show Paris what she can do.

It’s really good for her. And it’s good for us too. Because without Paris, Rory is perfect. Perfectly boring. She doesn’t get in trouble, she doesn’t discover her own dark side, and she doesn’t ever challenge herself. Rory needs Paris, and Paris needs Rory.

Paris needs Rory for more obvious reasons in the show. She needs her because, contrary to her constant assertions, Paris doesn’t like being the best alone. She would much prefer to be the best because she earned it, not because she terrified all the competition into withdrawal. She likes Rory because Rory isn’t scare of her, because Rory bites back sometimes, and because Rory actually genuinely cares about Paris and her well-being.

I could just end it here on the kumbayas of their epic lady friendship, but I won’t. Instead, I want to talk about the later seasons. Because those are what really sold me on Paris.

Paris and Rory compete their ways through high school, and finally wind up as very good friends, much to both of their surprise. When Rory starts Yale, comfortable in the knowledge that she is leaving high school behind, she winds up walking into her dorm and discovering that Paris is her roommate, because Paris wasn’t actually ready to leave high school behind. Having had a nervous breakdown in senior year, Paris is actually ready to start college as a newer, calmer person.

That doesn’t really work out.

But over time she changes. She learns how to relax, how to control her temper (sometimes), and how to let people in and be vulnerable. Paris learns how to be a human being, not just a competition machine.

When Rory starts to flail and wonder what she’s doing with her life and why she’s even bothering to try so hard, Paris is the one who tells her to buck up cupcake. That she didn’t fight Rory so hard just for Rory to give up now. That maybe Rory won’t always be the best, but that not-trying is far worse than second place.

Paris grows up, and she changes, and she becomes a better person. Not a different person, but a better one. She’s still the same competitive bitch, but now she knows how and when to unleash her crazy. She never becomes nice. And that’s okay.

Really, it’s more than okay. Paris is a type we almost never get to see on TV or anywhere. It’s pretty much Paris and Cutthroat Bitch (Amber) from House standing on that platform alone. We don’t like seeing our female heroes as aggressive go-getters. We call them bitches. A lot. And make fun of them. Suggest they “get a life”. And that’s wrong.

We need Paris Gellar. We are Rory Gilmore, all sweet and nice, and we need a Paris to come in here, tell us that we’re pathetic, and make us work our butts off to prove we aren’t.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Price of Being Queen is Being Queen (Lords and Ladies)

It’s time once again, my dear readers, to stop and appreciate the sheer genius that is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Not only are the books well-written, funny, and carefully plotted, they also contain complex characters, biting social commentary, and footnotes. Truly, they are a gift.

I know I said that in my pompous voice, but I really do mean it. Like I said about Monstrous Regiment and Maskerade, Terry Pratchett is a really fantastic author. And, he’s the rare male fantasy writer that can actually come up with a convincing female character. Doubt me? Well then let’s just take a look at some of his finest female characters: the Witches.

For those of you who aren’t actually into the Discworld books, first off, shame on you, and second, here’s the scoop. The Discworld series is a bunch of loosely interconnected stories that all take place in the same (insane) world: the Discworld. It’s a disc, lying on the back of four giant elephants, which are standing on the back of A’Tuin, the great World Turtle. So, fantasy.

But clever fantasy. While the world is ostensibly a fantasy realm of the swords and sorcerors mode, the stories range from the discovery of guns to an analysis of the postal service to religious treatises to a crazy person trying to murder Santa. Or rather, the Hogfather. Everything is thinly veiled representation of our world, done up with some impeccable wit and a solid dose of common sense. I wasn’t kidding before. You should totally read whatever part of this series you can get your hands on. There are about forty books in all. It shouldn’t be hard to find one.

In particular, though, I want to look Lords and Ladies, one of his middle-era books that features the Witches. The book itself is pretty good. Not one of his best, but he doesn’t really have any bad books, and with so many, it’s only statistics that some of them will fall to the middle. Besides, Terry Pratchett’s “okay” is another man’s “lifetime best”. So there’s that.

Lords and Ladies is the third book in the Witches trilogy, and follows the intense misadventures that happen when the three witches come back from abroad just in time for Magrat, the youngest, to get married to the newly crowned King of Lancre, Verence. Magrat and Verence fell in love in the earlier book Wyrd Sisters, and now they’re getting married. That’s nice.

Except for the bit where it isn’t, because if Magrat is going to be Queen of Lancre, then she can’t also be a witch, and besides, she’s not going to qualify as the Maiden anymore, is she? (Though there is a running joke in the book that she very well might, as neither she nor Verence has much family to explain things to them, and they’re both a little, well, nice.)

Anyway, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, the Crone and Mother, respectively, are at a bit of a loss with what to do now. It seems that they should train up someone new to replace Magrat, but who to train? Oh, and someone seems to have been dancing around the Stones up on the hill, and that can’t be a good thing, since those stones were put there to keep something out, and dancing is just the sort of thing that might let it back in.

That something is elves, and the dancing does indeed let the elves back through. As we’re painstakingly shown, these aren’t nice Tolkien-esque elves. These are the terrifying elves of Celtic mythology, who don’t give two craps about the lives of mortals, and really just like to watch us squirm before they eat us. In two shakes the elves have poor Verence under a spell and in their clutches, Granny Weatherwax on the ropes, the citizens of Lancre terrified out of their wits, and Magrat…well, we’ll get to Magrat.

Like with everything he does, Terry Pratchett starts out his characters for the Witches with easy stereotypes. You have three witches, so obviously you have a Maiden, a Mother and a Crone. They fit their types perfectly, as well they should.


Just because they fit their types so incredibly well doesn’t mean they aren’t also complex and interesting characters. That’s what’s so special about Pratchett. He doesn’t just take the easy road. He takes the easy road and makes it the fricking hard one.

We’ll start with Granny Weatherwax, since she is, arguably, the easiest one to figure.

Granny, whose real first name is Esmerelda, but no one’s called her that in years, is a Witch’s Witch. She likes wearing black, scowling, and sending her mind out to run around the forest in the body of a deer or a rabbit or a crow. She’s not particularly nice, but she is good, and she’s quite content to tend to her bit of earth and stare anything that don’t belong there into submission. She’s also not so hot on grammar.

But Granny, despite all initial appearances, is quite complex too. She isn’t just this all knowing, all powerful force to be reckoned with. I mean, she is a force to be reckoned with, but she’s a force that has its moments. It’s moments of doubt, I mean.

And that’s kind of a big deal. Because we’re all up on the idea of the Witch who’s basically invincible, a sort of wise older woman with no time for nonsense and an iron spine. My high school German teacher, basically. It’s easy for us to imagine Granny this way. But it’s also wrong.

The brilliance of what Pratchett does is he takes this very simple character, one who we like to think of as unshakable, and shakes her. We see her limits, and we realize that there’s a lot more to being an unshakable old lady in a black dress than we think at first glance.

There’s also Nanny Ogg here too. Nanny’s the Mother, and she certainly fits the bill. The books never specify about how many children or husbands Nanny has had, since it establishes that she’s a bit shaky on both. Either way, she’s mother, or, perhaps more accurately, she a mum. Nanny, whose first name is actually Gytha, but only Granny Weatherwax uses that, is a drunken, lecherous, bawdy old lady. And yet, she makes perfect sense.

I mean, who would be a mother witch? You think immediately of someone sensible and clean and tidy, who likes cooking and gently nurtures all those around her. But really, is that actually what a mother, someone who mothers the whole country, would be like?

Heck no! Of course she’s bawdy and lecherous. She’s had who knows how many children – obviously she knows how things work down there. And naturally she’s a bit odd – she has fourteen kajillion children and grandchildren. She’s besotted with her grandkids, never cleans if she doesn’t have to, makes her daughter-in-laws lives hell, and treats all her sons like they’re five, because of course she does. That’s what I mean about the character development in these books. Pratchett took the easy path, of making the Mother really and truly a mother, then made it harder by making her the most mothering mother to ever mother.

And finally, we’ve got Magrat Garlick, the Maiden. I’ll be totally honest and admit that while Magrat gets pooped on the most of all the characters, she’s probably the one I relate to most easily, for one simple reason: Magrat really and truly believes that the world is a good place and that the people in it are nice and kind. And nothing ever seems to manage to dissuade her of that notion.

So as the Maiden, it’s obvious that Magrat can’t have had sex, but Pratchett, like with so may other things, took it much further than that. Magrat isn’t just a virgin sexually, she’s basically a virgin mentally too. She believes in things, lots of things, like the importance of hygiene and the power of fairies and having a holistic understanding of witchcraft. She’s nice. She’s impractical and gets in her own way a lot. She’s grossly inexperienced and that’s what makes her great.

This book, for all that it purports to be an ensemble adventure, is really Magrat’s book. It’s about her wedding to King Verence, her incredibly skill at getting in her own way, and the realization that she comes to at the end. Well, she comes to a couple of realizations, but they’re all good.

Magrat comes to see that if she wants to be a queen, which she doesn’t really, but she also doesn’t want anyone else to do it either, then she has to actually be the queen. She has to step up and fight for her man. She has to strip herself down to the core of her identity and figure out who she is. As it turns out? Magrat is kind of a badass.

There’s a line in the book that really resonated with me, because it’s so ridiculously obvious that it’s never occurred to me before (Pratchett does that a lot, for the record). “The price for being the best is that you have to be the best.”

That’s it. It’s so simple and yet so hard, and it relates to fricking everything.

If Magrat wants to be the queen, then she has to actually be the queen. If you want to write complex, interesting female characters, then write, complex interesting female characters. That’s literally all there is to it.

I love Terry Pratchett. If his books were all just a giant parade of male protagonists and masculine plots I’d probably still love him because they’re that good. But they aren’t. They have female characters, complex female characters, and stories that aren’t about teenage girls learning how to be teenage girls, but about witches learning how to be queens and then learning how to be queens. About female villains and female heroes and female witches and – you get the point.

The point is that I just want to stop for a second and appreciate the Witches. Appreciate what Mr. Pratchett did in writing them, and appreciate the fact that now we have these characters. These characters who aren’t simple, who aren’t easy, and who definitely are not lowest common denominator, but who still manage to be universal. And that he did it because he could do it.

NEWS: James Spader to Play Ultron in Avengers 2

Well, this is...interesting. While we're all still reeling from the (good or bad) news that Ben Affleck will be our next Batman, we find out that James Spader is going to play Ultron in Avengers 2. I won't lie to you and claim that this makes perfect sense to me and that I totally saw this coming, because it doesn't and it didn't, but I trust Joss Whedon and his casting capabilities, for the most part, so I think it'll be okay.

James Spader has shown that he can do wry humor, with his stuff on Boston Legal and The Practice, so I'm guessing that he'll fit in well with the Whedon crowd. And don't try to pretend that the Marvel Movie Universe isn't the Whedon crowd. Puh-lease.

Also, I'm pretty stoked to see what Ben Affleck does with Batman. I have no doubt he'll be an awesome Bruce Wayne, but I'm curious how he'll turn out as the caped crusader himself. I always pegged him as more of a Nightwing kind of guy. At any rate, he is representing for Boston, so I give him love, and he is a crazy talented actor and director. I have faith. Though I am sad that we don't get to see Max Martini (Hercules Hansen in Pacific Rim) give it a try.

Idris Elba would have been cool too.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Big Damn Working Class Heroes (Firefly)

If you’re on the internet, then you probably know about Firefly. We like it. We like it a lot. We like it because it’s the ultimate underdog story: not only is it a story about underdogs, it’s also a story that was the underdog. It was cancelled before its time, but the whole cast and crew and writers have gone on to have fantastic careers, thus vindicating that it was a great show and shouldn’t have been cancelled, etc.

We already know all of that. So what the hell am I hoping to add to a discussion of a show that was cancelled ten years ago?

You already know that it’s a good show, it’s got a lot of awesome female characters, and the storylines are tight and beautiful and gaaaaaah we miss it. Seriously. So, again, what’s left to say?

Well here’s the bit that I don’t think we’ve ever talked about, at least not on here. And it’s pretty simple, but it makes a difference. Did you ever notice that everyone on this show, all the characters I mean, are the best at their jobs? Like, the best ever?

It took rewatching the show just recently (and by that I mean last night) for me to realize that this isn’t really a group of scrappy underdogs saving the day by the skin of their teeth. I mean, they are certifiably scrappy, and I suppose they do save the say with some rather skinned dental work, but they aren’t actually underdogs. They’re just on hard times.

This resonates with me, because the whole scrappy underdog story actually pisses me off. Oh, I love the idea of people not in a position of power getting the chance to show the world what they can do, but I really hate the idea that you just have to “believe in yourself” and you’ll get far. Because you won’t. You have to work hard to get anywhere. And that’s okay.

So the fact that all of the characters on this show are phenomenally talented at what they do but still live in poverty and are marginalized and have crappy lives? I actually find that significantly more powerful. Because these are people who have the skills to pay the bills. They are good at what they do. And they can’t use their talents to their fullest abilities because of the circumstances of life and the vagaries of law and evil corporations that do human experimentation on children. You know, normal stuff.

But think about it. Wash is a horrifically talented pilot. Kaylee has made an engine run on spare parts and prayer, and the thing runs beautifully. Zoe and Mal are both incredibly good soldiers, and Jayne is very good at what he does (hit people). Simon is proven time and again to be one of the best doctors in the ‘verse, and River, terrifying though she may be, is incredibly talented. Oh, and Inara is a well-respected and loved Companion, and Book is generally considered too good for them all.

Let’s face it, these are not incompetent people.

Which makes it all the more touching that their lives are such unmitigated crap. Because that is a hell of a lot truer to life than the whole “believe in yourself” thing. I hate to sound depressing, especially since I’m actually having a very nice week, but it’s true. This story is much more common. Where the people who work hard and put in the time and dedicate themselves to their craft still can’t get ahead. Because they were born in the wrong place. Because they don’t have a support network. Because they chose family over career.

This may make me sound like a bleeding heart liberal (and that’s perfectly fine, let’s be real here), but I really appreciate the show for this. Probably more than I appreciate it for anything else.

Yes, the female characters in Firefly are well-written and fully-realized and just masterworks of acting and storytelling, but so are a lot of other female characters on Joss Whedon’s shows. Buffy actually hits that spot for me better than Firefly does, so that’s okay. And it’s true that this is an amazing show that was tragically cancelled too soon, but so are lots of shows, when you get down to it. There’s nothing new to note here.

This is what moves me about Firefly. That it addresses class issues. It addresses the inherent injustice of our chosen economic system. Not that we are biased against talent, which isn’t true at all, but that we have no in built way of making sure that the talent we find actually rises to the top.

Kaylee is a great example. Here’s a woman who can recognize any engine, probably fix most of them better than the people that designed them, and she’s keeping a bucket of bolts in the air for barely any pay out on the outskirts of society. It’s not that her choices are bad, it’s that you have to stop for a second and realize that Kaylee didn’t really have any choices. She got her job working on Serenity because she had sex in the engine room and happened to fix the engine while she was at it. It was her way off the farm. Literally her only way.

Imagine if Kaylee hadn’t come to see Serenity that day. Not only would the ship not have run nearly so well for nearly so long, but she’d also not have left home. She’d probably have married a nice boy from down the road. And that’s fine. But it’s not what she wanted.

Instead of being used to at least keep one ship flying, Kaylee would have never gotten to see the black. And even when we see her in the run of the show, she doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. Kaylee could be out there designing ships, amazing ships, but she isn’t. Because she’s not educated. Because she was born on the Rim. Because she’s from the wrong class.

Or take Simon and River. They’re probably even better examples because they actually come from a higher class background. They grew up with money. Education. Opportunity. And now they have none of that, because Simon chose family over career. 

It’s not a bad choice, and the show certainly validates him for it, but it is an unusual one. He decided that he’d rather save his little sister than be head surgeon. That’s great. Really. I commend that. And I also commend the story for admitting that this changes his life forever.

We do not live in a society where opportunity is either free or forever. Simon loses his chance to “live up to his potential” when he rescues River. And there’s certainly an aspect of the story that examines how he clearly doesn’t mind. But there’s also another side of this. And that’s the part where we all take it as read that he had to give up his career to care for her.

That’s the part that gets me. Because I’ve been a fan of Firefly for a very long time, and I only just noticed how freaking talented all these people are. Like, I thought about it in passing, but it just now hit me that any one of these people could have had a stellar career, a legitimate, money filled career, had they not been in some way disadvantaged. Lower class. Discriminated against. Chosen a different path.

I didn’t notice it because, well, we don’t, do we? We just figure that’s the way things are. That people born poor will stay poor. That the Kaylees and Jaynes of this world will be lucky to leave the farm. That veterans with PTSD should be happy with the jobs they can get, even if those jobs are out of the way and don’t pay well. That people who choose to take care of an ill family member should say goodbye to having a steady job.

We have been brainwashed into thinking that this is true. And it doesn’t have to be.

I guess, to sum up, let’s call this a reminder. A reminder not to take our lives and opportunities for granted, and a reminder that Firefly is a damn good show.