Friday, May 30, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Sheriff Jody Mills (Supernatural)

Sheriff Jody Mills has survived another season of Supernatural, and I am overjoyed.

I am also incredibly saddened, however, for the simple fact that this is a statement worth celebrating. Survival is, after all, literally the lowest possible bar for female involvement in a show, and to view this as a milestone feels kind of, well, depressing as all get out. But when taken in comparison to Jo, Ellen, Meg, Anna, Pam, Rachel, Naomi, Tamara, and of course, Mary and Jess, this is good. Great even.

There are relatively few female characters on the show who have now been around as long as Jody - she made her debut in the middle of season five, with "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" - and there are even fewer who are defined primarily by who they are and what they bring to the cases, rather than their sexual agency or how hot they look in a tank top. Which is not to say that Kim Rhodes, who plays Sheriff Jody Mills, doesn't look hot in a tank top, just that this is not why we love her.

We love Jody because she was first introduced as part of a case, but even from the start, Jody was shown to be a character of deep complexity and a lot of layers. When we first meet her, all the dead loved ones in Sioux Falls have gotten up out of their graves and gone back home to their families. The boys of course suspect that this is a terrible thing, not a nice one, and they're right, but when they try to contact the local law enforcement, they get no help. Even less than usual.

Why? Because Jody, the Sheriff, is one of those whose lost loved one has returned. In this case, her young son, who died a few years ago. She and her husband are overjoyed to have their boy back, and are totally willing to not look to closely at the reasons. That is, until he turns violent and deteriorates into being a regular zombie.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

RECAP: Orphan Black 2x06 - You Are My Candy Girl

I don't know if any of you have ever gone camping with your siblings, but I have to say that someone who writes for Orphan Black has. The show opens on Sarah and Helena settling in for the night in their tent, eating cold beans and being a bit silly. There are some serious notes, though. Sarah wants to know where Cold River is, but Helena points out that if she tells, then Sarah will just ditch her. Which is true and they both know it.

Sarah tries to ask what happened to Helena with the Proletheans, but Helena isn't ready to talk about it, and I don't blame her. All of this is so intense and sad and hard. Fortunately, there are silly moments with shadow puppets to break up the misery. And Helena tells Sarah she's a good mom, which is just cute.

Also, Paul, that creepity creeper, is definitely following them. He's lurking in the campsite and going through their stuff while they're asleep. He finds the photo of Swan Man. That's probably not a good thing, is it?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Why Agents of SHIELD Is Worth Watching All the Way Through

If you stopped watching Agents of SHIELD, I can't really blame you. Like, seriously, there were a lot of moments this past season where I wanted to stop because I just did not care. And that's a darn shame. I can't blame you for stopping, but as I've finally come to the end of the season, I have to give credit where it's due. I'm really glad I kept watching.

Admittedly, I watched it sporadically, stopping for months before binging on five episodes at a time right before they were about to expire from my Hulu queue, but I did watch it. I made it. I limped to the end of the season.

I feel like I'm not making a very strong case in favor of watching this. Hmm. Let's try again.

Coming out of the gate, Agents of SHIELD was pretty strongly underwhelming. While it does tie in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it does so in slightly simple and dull ways. Our "tie-in" to Thor: The Dark World was a scene of the characters cleaning up after the movie and moving rubble around, then having to fight some vaguely Norse bad guys. The episodes were, well, episodic, and usually kind of dull.

The arc-plot of the season, at least so far as was evident for the first fifteen episodes or so, had to do largely with Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and how he's not dead, and with the origin of new agent Skye (Chloe Bennet), who is an orphan with a very shady past. That she doesn't know about.

Monday, May 26, 2014

RECAP: Orphan Black 2x05 - Sestra Love, Meathead, and More

Whoops! Last week totally got away from me (though I did end up getting a lot of very necessary things done, just none of them related to this blog). Hence, I hereby now present you with last week's episode of Orphan Black, recapped. This week's recap will be up on the site on Thursday. Probably. You know. Fingers crossed.

The episode opens on Dr. Leeky. I haven't mentioned this recently (nor do I remember if I have ever at all), but the guy who plays Dr. Leeky also played Pestilence on Supernatural. I mean, I'm sure he's a nice actor, but that did kind of color my understanding of him. Also, I can't help but assume that even though his name is spelled differently the name "Dr. Leeky" for the head of a research institute investigating cloning and the genetic cause of life must be a reference to the Leaky family, the family most credited with discovering fossil evidence of our earliest human/hominid ancestors. They're very interesting. And messy. You should read Born in Africa by Martin Meredith. Just generally.

Okay. Back to the show.

Leeky is in Rachel's apartment as the cleaners are removing blood stains from the walls. The stains, we are to understand, left over from Helena's brutal attack on Daniel and "saving" of Sarah. I mean, one can assume that Sarah isn't particularly saved, but that's the idea anyway.

Rachel doesn't have to look at the devastation in her home, or at Daniel's dead body, but she wants to. Rachel is a deeply frightening woman. Everyone is clear that Helena is the one that did this, but Leeky and Rachel are both unnerved by the fact that Sarah left with Helena, and now the twins are together. Also Paul is back. Not sure what that means.

In her bedroom, Rachel discovers the tape of home movies that Sarah was watching, and we finally see the ice queen crack a little. She's clearly upset that her inner sanctum was violated in this way. Leeky tries to point out that all of this is happening because Rachel was so heavy-handed with the other clones, and she's not in the mood for a lecture. "Trust me, Aldous," she says, "I've only just begun." Well that's terrifying.

Mystique Isn't A Robot, Stop Making Her Into One (X-Men: DOFP)

It's not super on topic, but I've recently noticed that I really have a thing for frenemies in fiction. Like, I would probably totally hate having a frenemy in my life, because I dislike ambiguity in my relationships, but I totally dig it in my stories. Charles and Erik in X-Men. Enjolras and Grantaire in Les Miserables. Jean Valjean and Javert in Les Miserables as well, for that matter. Steve and Bucky. Faith and Buffy. I love them because they're like opposite sides of a coin: pragmatism versus idealism.

Anyway, I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past on Friday, and I would like to discuss it now.

If you want to be totally technical, I could have written this article and posted it on Friday itself, because I saw the movie early enough, but the good friend I saw it with was kind enough to agree to come over to my house and help me clean, and you never decline an offer like that. So I write to you now from my super clean room in my super clean place, and I am very content with this situation. Also, the movie was pretty good.

Maybe even more than pretty good, if I'm being honest. I really enjoyed this film, and I have to say that I wasn't expecting that. I kind of had an inkling going in that this was either going to be awesome and amazing or effing terrible. I was definitely leaning towards effing terrible, just because the previews did not inspire confidence, and it looked so stuffed with characters and feelings - I just didn't know how they were going to pull it off. To be honest, I'm still not sure how they pulled it off, but they did and I appreciate that.

So, for all of you who only read up until the part where I say whether a movie is good and worth watching or not, yes, it is, and you should go see it. This movie is totally rad and you will enjoy it. That doesn't mean I had no issues with the film, because that would be virtually impossible, but merely that it's thoroughly enjoyable and worth the ticket price and fantastically executed.

Okay. Now let's get down to brass tacks. SPOILERS.

A basic recap for those of you who aren't going to see it or have already forgotten: The movie starts out in the future, sometime distantly past the timeline in the regular X-Men movies. Our heroes, the X-Men are a weary and harried group, forced to fight for survival against terrifying giant machines called Sentinels that seem able to anticipate their movements and act against them. Even managing to transform to adapt to their powers. The mutants are fighting a losing battle, and it's pretty clear that they're some of the only ones left: Bishop (Omar Sy), Blink (Bingbing Fan), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Iceman (Shawn Ashcroft), Sunspot (Adan Canto), Warpath (Booboo Stewart), and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page). 

Fortunately, our little group of heroes has a couple of tricks up their sleeves. Namely, that whenever the Sentinels attack, Warpath warns them as quickly as he can, and then Kitty Pryde and Bishop run like hell so that she can use her powers to send his mind back into his body of a few days ago to warn them about the attack before it even happens. Then, when the Sentinels show up, they're gone, because they were never there.

Boom. Time travel. Explained really early in the film. Good job, guys!

The plan is a good one, but you can only run for so long. Instead, they need to think longer term, and Professor X (Sir Patrick Stewart) has an idea. He and Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan) have teamed up (along with Wolverine - Hugh Jackman - and Storm - Halle Berry), and they want to use Kitty's powers for something a little more, well, powerful. Why not send Professor X back in time, to his younger self's body, in order to stop the events that would lead to this horrible dystopian future?

It's a good plan, but it has a small snag. Kitty can't safely send someone back that far. If she did, his brain would shred itself. 

Fortunately, there's a solution for this. We'll send Wolverine back, because he can heal from anything ever, and he had a body in the 1970s, so he'll at least not get confused about how he looks. Far from it, actually. He looks almost exactly the same. Then he'll just have to use the limited time he has - which is pretty much as long as they can spare before Sentinels attack their new hiding place, since this is an all or nothing plan - to convince the younger Professor X and Magneto to work together to stop Mystique from killing this random dude and starting a giant massive war. Simple.

Obviously, nothing really goes according to plan. Wolverine wakes up in the wrong city, has to fight his way out of a mob ambush, steals a car, drives to Westchester, and then comes face to face with a shockingly not blue Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult). Said not-blue Hank/Beast then turns blue and furry and tries to throw Wolverine out of the house. The house that is sad and decrepit and overgrown and like a visual monument to depression.

He's stopped by Charles Xavier, the young Professor X himself (James McAvoy), who is, utterly bafflingly, not in a wheelchair. Also not psychic. What on earth is happening here?

Oh, okay. Apparently Hank has developed a serum that allows him to look normal and Charles to walk, but it does so by suppressing their mutant abilities. So, in human form, Hank isn't very strong, and Charles has no telepathy. Hank takes just enough to look normal most of the time, but Charles takes the stuff by the truckload (in a particularly smack-addict sort of way, too), precisely because it suppresses his telepathy. He's sick to death of hearing everyone's pain all the time. He wants some peace.

I guess what I'm saying is that the movie gets off to a charming and totally not depressing as hell start.

Logan (aka, Wolverine) manages to convince them of his bonafides and that they really do need to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from her mission - which is to kill Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), a weapons manufacturer who has used illegal and inhumane experiments on mutants to create the Sentinels, a weapon designed to target mutant DNA and destroy them all. If Mystique kills Trask, appealing though that sounds, she'll actually prove his point about how dangerous mutants are, and cause the US government to order thousands of the things. So, not really her best plan ever.

Charles agrees to help, not because he entirely believes Logan, but because he wants to save Mystique from becoming a murderer, and it's off to the races. But first they need to make a stop. Future!Professor X and Magneto made it very clear that only by working together could the two of them convince Mystique to stop. So, they have to go get Erik (Michael Fassbender). 

The thing is, Erik is being held in a really, really, really high security prison because the government believes he was responsible for murdering JFK. Because of course they do. The cell is buried one hundred floors below the center of the Pentagon. So, you know, no sweat.

Actually, it really would be no sweat if it weren't for that little thing where Charles doesn't have his powers at the moment. He can't help them at all. They need to go for outside help, and turn to a hilariously terrible and unhelpful teenage contact of Logan's: Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters), aka, Quicksilver.

Peter agrees to help them, and they do manage to break Erik out of jail, though not without alerting everyone in the known universe to the jail break and also there being some emotional fallout, and oh yeah, the single most entertaining scene in the movie that contains the single greatest sound cue you will see in a movie this year. I'm not saying anything more, but yeah. It's awesome.

Blah blah blah, Mystique tracks down Trask and discovers that he'll be making a presentation on the Sentinel program at the Paris Peace Accords (the end of the Vietnam War). She seduces a Vietnamese official, and then takes his place, all with the intention of straight up murdering Trask in public and then running the crap away. Tragically, Trask carries a handy-dandy mutant detector with him wherever he goes, and he finds her. Then Charles, Hank, Logan, and Erik find her before she can do anything to Trask.

And then everything goes completely bonkers.

Mystique gets tazed, Logan suffers a traumatic flashback (it seems Trask is getting some help from a young William Stryker, who ruined Logan's life), Charles has just a second to comfort Mystique before Erik goes nuts and decides that the only way to keep the world safe is to straight up murder his friend. Mystique that is. He shoots her.

Let us all take a moment to appreciate the fact that Erik Lensherr does not make sound strategic decisions. Like, ever. Ever ever. Ever. Shooting Mystique instead of running like hell away from the scene of the attempted crime is not one of his better ones, but it's also not one of his worst, sadly. I think that plan goes to the pile of crap he comes up with at the end of this film, but you know, his idea from X-Men: First Class was pretty terrible too. I'm just going to bomb the entire US and USSR navies - while they're carrying nukes - and that will make everyone leave mutants alone forever. How did this man manage to lead a mutant terrorist organization? I don't even trust him alone with a stapler.

Mystique jumps out a window and tries desperately to get away, but Erik goes after her and like clearly uses his powers, which means that since they're in front of a massive crowd of people, now everyone knows about mutants and also that they are scary and angry, and then Beast gets involved's not a good time, okay?

Everyone escapes eventually, and regroups. Erik is a creepy creeper in his hotel room and plans his next move. Mystique gets her bullet wound stitched up and tries to figure out if she should kill Trask after all. Meanwhile, Charles and crew return to the mansion just in time for Charle's miracle walking drugs to wear off and his telepathy to turn back on. He doesn't like it, but he lets Logan talk him into getting back in the wheelchair and using his mind.

Specifically, using Cerebro to locate Mystique and convince her not to murder anyone. It doesn't work. At first it doesn't work because Charles is woefully out of practice. There's a cool scene where Charles digs through Logan's head until he reaches his present time and has a super trippy telepathic conversation with future!Charles - it's very confusing but quite touching. Then he's back and manages to have a real talk with Mystique (via all of the people standing around her and hallucinations, but that must be par for the course when you grow up with a super powerful telepath). Mystique refuses to be swayed, because they never explain why she should be, and they have to figure out another plan.

Said plan appears to be just sort of showing up at the big White House celebration where Trask and President Nixon are unveiling the new Sentinels that are going to save us all. Sentinels that Trask doesn't know Erik has already infiltrated and filled with metal so that he can control them.

Unsurprisingly, crap goes down. Choices are made. Charles gets hit in the head and stuck under something heavy because he's in a wheelchair again. Erik continues to carry out the dumbest plan in the history of ever, and then Mystique saves the world. By shooting Erik. To be fair, someone had to. 

In more detail, Erik disrupts the unveiling by turning on all of the Sentinels and then hijacking them to start attacking humans, thereby undermining human confidence in the robots. Then he drops a giant stadium around the White House, forces the President to come out and see him, and tries to murder him on live television. The television thing isn't an accident, either. He makes sure all the cameras are watching.


Like, seriously, why? This is the worst plan. Erik is trying to prevent a world war that would devastate all of mutant-kind, and pretty much everyone else. This war sprang up out of human fear. Fear specifically of mutants. How is the solution to that making everyone pee their pants in fear, Erik? Seriously. I wouldn't feel comfortable leaving my cat alone with you for a week for fear that you would decide to stop feeding her so that she learns to stop meowing for food or something.* Erik logic is the worst.

Fortunately for everyone ever, the plan fails, and Mystique becomes known as the mutant who self-sacrificially saved the President. Also, Charles does the unthinkable and takes control of Erik's mind! Juuuust long enough to get the giant piece of stadium off of him, because Erik is a dick. Seriously.

Then Erik flies away, and Mystique limps off, and it's just Hank and Charles again, like usual. Oh, and Logan, but he's sort of busy dying of puncture wounds and drowning in the Potomac. Whoops. Eventually, he wakes up in the future, and the future is much better. He's at the school - there is a school - and Rogue is there and everyone's still alive (we watched them all die in the future), and Jean is there and unfortunately so is Scott... It's a lot to take in. But yay! The whole thing worked!

After which there is some setup for the sequel that makes legitimately no sense (why on earth would Mystique impersonate Stryker?), and lots of fun times.

That was a bit more detailed than I intended to be, but I feel like with this kind of movie you sort of have to get all the plot points down before it's even worth talking about anything more theoretical. Because while this movie was enjoyable and fun and cool, it was also complex as hell. That's not a criticism, by the way, but an observation. This is not an easy movie. And as a result, we kind of have to remember what all happens in order to figure out what to think of it.

Here's what I think of it. I think that it was very fun, and totally cool, and that I am rather insulted by how the female characters were portrayed. So, the usual?

I love all of the references and jokes and the character development. I love the oblique reference to Erik being Peter's dad (comic book canon), and I love pretty much everything about how they played Peter's character, despite being pre-inclined to hate the ever living crap out of it. I love the storyline and the way they handled the time travel. I love the humor and the costumes and the emotional arc. I love the not at all bromance between Erik and Charles and how they're so wrapped up in each other it makes them stupid. I love that this movie dared to make Charles fallible and weak but still right, and I love that it made Erik deal with his crap.

Pictured: my rage.
However. I do not love that this movie, which ostensibly could have been a film about two amazing women doing incredibly badass things, reduced both of those female characters to plot devices. I more than don't love that. I actively hate it.

Both Kitty Pryde and Mystique are central to this whole thing. Kitty because she is the one whose powers make all of this possible, and Mystique because she is the one who must be stopped from killing Trask. On their own, it seems like they are two developed female characters who contribute to the story, right? Well, they don't. 

Kitty exists only as a vehicle for her powers. She is given no character development, no emotions, and no real reason to be in the movie except as a plot device. This is particularly insulting since Kitty Pryde is the one who traveled back in time in the original comics. It makes sense that she doesn't here - since she would be about negative 27 years old, and also she couldn't survive the trip - but that doesn't make it less obnoxious.

This story could have been about two women working together to save the future. Kitty, the one who travels back in time with a message about a horrible future, and Mystique, who must then determine how to prevent that future.

Only it doesn't happen like that because instead of actually giving our female characters emotional arcs or motivation, we got heaps and heaps of man-angst. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the man-angst, just that I think we could have done better. So much better.

For starters, the film ought to have spent more time on Mystique and her actual motivations for killing Trask. From the very little we do see of her reasons, they're actually pretty legitimate. The dude has been kidnapping mutants and experimenting on them, killing many of her friends. Heck, we even see at one point that Trask had Angel's (Zoe Kravitz) wings brutally pulled off. It's horrific. So, I get why Mystique is doing this. But I don't get what I really want, which is Mystique contemplating the moral ambiguities here.

Like, the whole movie, Charles' goal, and therefore the goal of the "good guys" is to stop Mystique from killing Trask. But is that actually the goal we should be supporting? I mean, yeah, killing is wrong, but the movie makes a big deal about letting Mystique make her own choices, and it completely fails to deliver on that. Mystique is never given the option to hear out the future she could help create. She hears about it third hand, from Erik, in very brief terms. 

Furthermore, no one ever bothers to tell her all of the information, they just tell her what to do. Which, if you will recall, was her entire story arc in X-Men: First Class. Getting pissed the hell off at Charles for always treating her like a child.

I want to see Mystique trying to decide how best to build this beautiful future she hears about. I want someone to sit down with her, and give her the option of informed action. I want everyone to stop treating her like a ping-pong ball going back and forth between Charles and Erik, and to actually give her an effing choice.

Just saying.

Also, I didn't appreciate that the only female character of color from X-Men: First Class was brutally murdered and did not appear in this film, nor did I like that none of the even vaguely extraneous characters in the film were women. Like, we got a couple of secretaries, some hookers, a few people in the crowd, and that's it. Which is crap.

Ultimately, though I really did like this movie and enjoy it fully, I wish it could have been more. I wish that instead of giving us all this claptrap about letting Mystique decide, they'd actually been brave enough to follow through. Don't tell me that she's the one making this decision, show me. Give me reasons. Jennifer Lawrence is definitely a good enough actress to give us compelling scenes about the moral consequences of her actions. Give me that version.

I would greatly prefer that, even if you had to cut down some of the Charles and Erik (b)romance a bit to fit it in. I would rather have a Mystique who feels like a real character than this: a film where the only two women who contribute to the plot could be replaced by robots and no one would know the difference.

*I don't actually have a cat at the moment. But if I did, I totally would never let Erik cat-sit.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Crossover Appeal - Episode 84 (X-Men: Days of Future Past)

Sooooo, apparently last week's episode was actually episode 83 (not 82, like I said it was), which makes this one episode 84. Hurrah!

This week it was just Patrick and I discussing X-Men: Days of Future Past and how Magneto is genuinely terrible at strategy, how Charles and Erik's epic love cannot be denied, and why the movie really should have had more women in it. Because obviously it should have.

Oh, and we have a nice long discussion on how timelines work.

Next week we'll be talking about television, so that should be fun!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

RECAP: Game of Thrones 4x07 - Flying Lessons at the Eyrie

Does anyone else feel like it's been way too long since we last saw the dragons? I know that the dragons cost a fair bit of money to animate, so I get why HBO isn't showing them, but I also feel like it's been too long. Just saying. I need me some dragons.


So, Jaime's a little bit miffed that Tyrion decided to throw away that sweet plea-bargain he'd arranged, but Tyrion's resolute that he did the right thing. Yes, he's sad that Shae turned on him. Yes, he's aware that he will probably now be super murdered. But dang was it good to finally tell everyone the truth and the whole truth of what he thinks of them. Besides, Bronn saved his life in combat once, he can do it again.

Unfortunately for Bronn and Tyrion's desires to continue breathing, Cersei has called in Ser Gregor Clegane to be her champion. You may recall him as that dude nicknamed "The Mountain", the psycho so murderous and sociopathic that he burnt his little brother's face off. Said little brother being, of course, Ser Sandor Clegane, the Hound.

Who is riding merrily (sulkily) along with Arya as they approach yet another hut and possible ambush. Still digging the buddy cops vibe from these two. The hut has been destroyed by someone or another before they got there. There's a dying man sitting outside, and Sandor and Arya ask him why he hasn't bothered to kill himself yet. Arya creeps the hell out of the guy with her deep and meaningful philosophizing about death and nothingness. Arya tells the guy who she really is, because who cares? He's dying.

The Hound gives him a drink, and then kills him. It's a mercy. Sort of. Then he uses the death to teach Arya about anatomy before being attacked by some random guy - one of the men who was to take Arya to the wall, and who threatened to rape her. She kills him. Such a happy child.

Up at the Castle Black, Ser Alistair and Jon Snow continue to get on about as well as two girls trying out for head cheerleader in a stereotypical high school comedy. By which I mean not at all. Alistair insults Jon's direwolf, Ghost, so Jon comes back by insinuating that Alistair can't do his job, etc etc etc.

The real issue of the day is fortifications. The army is coming, and Jon wants them to seal the tunnel through the Wall to keep the army out. He's seen it and he knows that they can't hold them off. Alistair is of course going to systematically ignore literally anything Jon says. This bodes well. Eventually Alistair puts it to a vote, and Jon loses. 

The saga of Tyrion and his epic sadness continues. Bronn comes to see Tyrion in his cell and it's pretty clear from the get-go that Bronn isn't going to fight for Tyrion. Cersei's set him up as a match to marry some rich girl. But Bronn does remember that Tyrion offered to double any offers he got. Tyrion can't do that, and Bronn has a better point: why the heck should he fight The Mountain when he could just not fight The Mountain and keep on breathing?

Tyrion begs him to do it out of friendship, but Bronn's retort actually is one of my favorite moments so far this season. "Why should I risk my life for you?" he asks, and Tyrion responds with, "Because you're my friend."

Then Bronn goes, "Aye, I'm your friend. And when have you ever risked your life for me?"

It's perfect because it so thoroughly skewers Tyrion's pretensions. Yeah, he's on trial and he's got the short end of the stick right now. But he still has lived his life in a degree of luxury and protection that Bronn frankly can't even fathom. Tyrion is the hero, so we rarely see things from the perspective of those around him, but between this and Shae's testimony last week, I can at least hope that the writers are trying to remind us that the dominant narrative is not always the correct one. At least, that's what I'd like to think is going on. At any rate, bully for Bronn for looking out for his own interests.

Finally, we get to check back in with Daenerys and her awesomeness. Unfortunately, her awesomeness is faced with a creeper who climbed up through her window and into her room. Not cool dude. Said dude, Daario Naharis, that mercenary who follows Dany around, is there because he really wants to have sex with her and he thinks guilting her into it is the way to go. He seems to have forgotten that Dany isn't a girl. She's a queen.

What follows is one of the most interesting and personally appealing sex/power scenes the show has given us. Why? Because it is a scene explicitly about power, and it's about Dany proving how much power she has in this situation. She has the power to remain completely clothed while the creepy dude who crept into her room strips naked. Rock on.

Speaking of naked people, Melisandre is taking a bath and decides that now is the perfect time to talk to Selyse. One of those nice, "Hey, we're both religious fanatics who are sleeping with the same unsmiling dude," conversations. Super fun times, eh?

Selyse has to get around some complicated doublethink about Melisandre sleeping with Stannis. She's religious enough to think it's all in the greater good, but human enough to be bothered. She also wants to know why the heck her daugher Shireen, who Selyse doesn't like at all, is coming with them when they set sail. The answer is not comforting. "Because the Lord needs her." Historically, that hasn't worked out very well for anyone on this show.

Jorah strides up to Dany's bedchamber to find Daario coming back out, shirt undone. Oh man this must be hard for Jorah "I would do anything for you seriously anything why don't you love me" Mormont. He's quick to state his disapproval to Dany, and she totally doesn't care. She does, however, care about his opinion of what's she's doing next. She's sending Daario and his sellswords back to Junkai, to take care of the revolt there. Her orders are to kill all the masters and free the slaves (again), but Jorah talks her down. Instead, she offers them a choice: live in her new world or die in their old one. She also gives Jorah a little boost by letting him tell Daario that it was him who changed her mind.

Daenerys is very good at making sure that her rival factions keep straight who's in charge. And if she has to set them against each other to do it, she will. I like this about her - that she's willing and able to use her attractiveness as a weapon, and that she is not unaware of how necessary it is for her line of work. I mean, it's sad that she needs to, but I appreciate how good she is at it.

The Hound is trying to stitch up his wound from the skirmish by the hut, and Arya wants to help by disinfecting it with fire. Only The Hound is kind of meaningfully afraid of fire. Also a little bitter about how the Lannisters want to kill him and he's sad he kidnapped Arya. Awww, what a pity. He's depressed that he's gotten into trouble because he kidnapped a small girl. Yeah. I feel super bad about that.

He then gets all deep and personal about that time his brother tried to kill him and how he feels about it. Which is fine and all, but I really do have trouble sympathizing with The Hound. Just, generally. Arya is super nice and still washes out his wound and sews it up for him.

Brienne and Podrick the Inept Squire have stopped at an inn for the night, and Brienne is explaining to Pod how normal people behave. He's still...having trouble getting used to it. Fun moment, though, because this inn happens to be the one where Hotpie (Arya's friend from like season two maybe?) works! And Hotpie is way too eager to talk about his cooking. Like, talk people's ears off eager.

Eventually Hotpie wangles it out of them that they're looking for the Stark girls. But he's spooked (and with good reason, people looking for the Starks aren't usually good people) and he runs. Pod doesn't think they should be telling people they're looking for Sansa, because the Lannisters kill people. And Hotpie does come around. He admits to knowing Arya, and tells Brienne what happened to them. He also gives Brienne a wolf-shaped cookie to give to Arya.

So, point for Brienne on the telling people they're looking for the Starks idea.

Pod happens to know exactly where Arya is being taken - the Eyrie. Which is true. Pod is, as it turns out, very helpful sometimes. And Brienne should probably pay attention to those times, because Pod is useful in precisely the ways that Brienne needs help.

Back in King's Landing, Oberyn and Tyrion reminisce about their brothel moments. Oberyn admits that Cersei is trying to sway him against Tyrion. He also brings up a very old memory - the first time he met Tyrion. Tyrion doesn't remember because he was a baby, but Oberyn recalls how everyone talked about the "monster" that had been born to Tywin Lannister. Only, when Cersei finally showed them Tyrion, the "monster", Oberyn was disappointed. Because it was just a baby.

The story's pretty grim, but it does make one thing clear: Cersei has literally always hated Tyrion. Good to know? 

But there is a larger point. Cersei may usually get what she wants, but Oberyn wants something too. He wants to bring all those who hurt his sister and his nieces and nephews to justice. And all those people happen to be here, in King's Landing, siding against Tyrion in the trial. So Oberyn knows what he's going to do. He's going to kill Ser Gregor Clegane for raping and killing his sister, and he's going to be Tyrion's champion.

Did not see that coming.

Up in the Eyrie, Sansa Stark sees snow for the first time since she left home. She builds a little snow castle, that heart-breakingly resembles Winterfell. Robyn comes out to see her, and they have a cute little weird bonding moment about how many people they want to kill, and how Robyn can throw them out the moon door. The moment doesn't last, but hey. They tried. She slaps him. He deserved it. Ah, what a lovely couple.

Then Littlefinger comes up and in a culmination of the epic creepiness that is his attachment to Sansa, he gives her a long speech about how much he loved her mother, and that's she's more beautiful now than Catelyn ever was, and then he kisses her and it is gross and uncomfortable and weird.

Also Lysa is watching, which isn't exactly what anyone would call "good". She freaks the crap out and suggests that Sansa come have a chat with her. Next to the moon door. She tells Sansa she saw what she did, and Sansa, thinking this is about the whole slapping Robyn thing, apologizes. It's not about the slapping Robyn thing. It's about Petyr. It's always about Petyr.

Lysa tries to toss Sansa out of the moon door for daring to tempt Petyr. Petyr comes to the rescue and tries to talk her down. He at least gets her to let go of Sansa. Then he pulls her close and tells her that he only ever loved one woman in his life. Her sister, Cat. And he throws her out the moon door.

End of episode.

There's a lot in this episode that I do like. I love the scenes with Tyrion. Not just because Peter Dinklage is really lighting it up this season, but also because they were all really interesting scenes. The one with Bronn was well written and acted, and strikes to the heart of Tyrion's main problem: he's so used to being the underdog that he forgets how privileged he really is. And the scene with Jaime is just satisfying because it's out there once and for all that Jaime and Cersei have had sex and Tyrion knows about it. 

But most of all, the scene where Oberyn establishes Tyrion's humanity and his own motivations for helping him is just plain really good. It's always amazing to see a character finally hear the words they've needed their whole life. And this was no exception. Tyrion needed to be told he isn't a monster, because he's never really believed it. Good, good scene.

Also Daenerys is just generally awesome, and I liked that they showed a scene of her allowing herself to be swayed in opinion. The sign of a good ruler is someone who is capable of heeding her advisors. Someone who is aware that she is not always right. So rock on, Dany.

But most of all, of course, this episode is memorable for the scenes at the end, with Sansa and Robyn and Littlefinger (Petyr) and Lysa. Memorable because those scenes are super disturbing, and also because they don't really leave us in a happy place. I mean, it's easy to look at it and say, "Yay! Petyr killed Lysa and saved Sansa, now everything is okay!" But that's not even a little bit true. Now Sansa is stuck in a castle with her cousin, whose mother has just been murdered, and the murderer, who has made it clear that he wants to have sex with her, whether or not she wants it.

Sansa's situation has not improved.

While I like that the writers make Lysa a bad guy for her accusations of Sansa "tempting" Petyr, I dislike that this is even a thing. Like how I feel about Jaime and his being a rapist, that the plot has totally ignored, I find that Petyr is not sufficiently castigated by the show or the viewers for his definite statutory rape-vibe. Because make no mistake, this is very wrong.

And on that happy note, I leave you for the hiatus (at least I leave off recapping Game of Thrones for the hiatus - I'm not actually going anywhere). Let's hold out the dim hope that on its return, the show isn't going to be quite as obsessed with rape and the sexualization of girls. I doubt it.

You use that cunning and ruthlessness, girl. Use it and save yourself.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Lumberjanes

I talk a lot of negativity. I am aware of that. I spend a whole lot of time complaining about what I don't like in culture, and what makes me mad, and how I think that all media, especially children's media, is terrible and being a bad influence on us. 

So, I thought it would be a nice break to talk about an all-ages comic (that means, yes, you can show it to your children) that actually does things right. A lot of things. Arguably even all of the things.

I'm talking about Lumberjanes, the new BOOM!Box comic by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Brooke Allen. You may know of Noelle Stevenson because of her freaking awesome Nimona webcomic, which we'll get around to discussing one of these days. The comic is sort of a friendship adventure story about a bunch of girls (five girls) at a summercamp plagued by supernatural weirdness. Not scary supernatural weirdness, mind you, just...weirdness.

The first issue (there are only two so far, but it just got picked up as an ongoing series, yay!) drops us into the middle of the action to find our heroines deep in the woods fighting a bunch of three-eyed foxes. In the middle of the night. And they're not in their cabin!

The girls (Jo, April, Mal, Molly, and Ripley) are presumably twelve or so and are campers for the whole summer at Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady Types, a camp for Lumberjane Scouts and "Friendship to the max!" They snuck out of their cabin because they heard a bear-woman attacking, and then ended up fighting the three-eyed foxes (which mysteriously turn into a pile of gold coins when you punch them in the third eye), and there was some kind of prophecy about "Beware the Kitten Holy". It's all very whimsical and weird, and it can be hard to figure out what's really going on.

That is not, for the record, a bad thing.

Upon returning to their cabin in the first issue, the girls are caught by their not at all easily duped counselor, Jen, and brought to the camp director, Rosie. While Jen is miffed that her girls tried to sneak out, Rosie is intrigued by their adventures and doesn't punish them. She also kind of suggests that there might be more supernatural stuff going on at this camp, which makes sense, but is still intriguing.

In the second issue, the girls have to contend with a really crazy and scary canoeing trip, as well as a battle a three-eyed river monster. But honestly, you don't end up paying a lot of attention to the exact details of the zany adventures the girls get into, mostly because they're, you know, zany adventures. The point isn't what happens, the point is how the girls deal with it.

And I have to give major props to the writers here: every single girl is well-characterized and interesting, distinct both visually and personality-wise. Also, can you name the last time you read a comic that had literally no male characters? Like, none? I can name about ten off the top of my head that have no female characters, but this is the only one I know of with no dudes in it. Just saying. Not that dudes are evil or bad or anything, but that it is really fun to have a comic all to ourselves.

Sure, we're only two issues in, but it's still really easy to tell the differences between all of the girls. Differences that give a really good representation of all the different ways you can be a girl. This isn't Cars. These characters are all super proud of being girls, but do it in totally diverse ways and that is awesome.

Like, April is super girly. She has Princess Ariel level red hair and smacks evil animals with her pink diary and always does her hair really well and delicately and looks super cute. But she's also very clever, and she's the one who thinks to write down all the weird stuff that happens to them. Then there's Jo, who's tall and lanky and very tomboyish, also of vaguely not-white ethnicity which is rad. She looks like the badass of the group, but actually Jo is the one always remembering and citing the rules and trying to get everyone to stick together.

Molly and Mal are best friends, super close, and just honestly really fun. Molly is a hyper-capable experienced scout. Out of all of the girls, I probably relate to Molly the best inherently, because there's this one moment where she's annoyed because they don't have any life preservers big enough for her, and man do I feel that. I felt like Godzilla until the other kids my age started catching up in high school. (I still feel like Godzilla sometimes, but that's another issue entirely.) Mal is a city girl who watches way too many Discovery Channel shows about river monsters and things that can kill you. It's funny because Mal looks really tough, but spends most of the second issue freaking the crap out.

In her defense, there is totally a river monster. So there.

And then there's Ripley, who is a total bundle of crazy and energy. She's devoted to her friends, a complete spaz, very lovable, and likes punching things. Ripley is the kind of girl who would dive over a waterfall to save her friends (and does), but also the kind of kid who will chase down an eagle because it stole her chocolate bar (she does that too). In other words, Ripley's the wild card.

Oh, and Rosie is basically Ron Swanson only a lady, and Jen is the one sane person in the whole story, which means that most of the time everyone is ignoring or mocking her.

My point here isn't just that Lumberjanes is silly fun and that you should probably read it, though it is and you should, but rather that I like to hold this comic up as a rebuttal to everyone who claims that kids' media has to be sub-par, or that little boys can't get into a story with a female protagonist (or five), or that it's just too hard to make a piece of media that is child-appropriate, feminist, diverse, and still fun.

It's not. Read the comic. It's seriously not impossible. The writers even make it look easy.

Part of the reason I love this comic so much, though, is because it reminds me of when I was a kid and I went to summer camp. It was the highlight of my year. I looked forward to it pretty much from the moment I left to the moment I got to go back. Now, I didn't go to a camp as clearly amazing as the Lumberjanes Scout Camp, but Happy T was pretty cool in its own way, and the memories I have from it are the kind of stuff that make you look back and both cringe and grin.

Let me put it this way: I am still very close friends with the camp counselor I had when I was ten. She's a big part of why I moved to Washington in the first place. At my sister's wedding, I was in a dance group with like seven of my former counselors and a couple of former fellow campers. These people, yeah, they were just people I saw at camp, but somewhere along the way they became a part of my family. 

When I read Lumberjanes, I like the wacky adventures and the way that they all say "What the junk?!" instead of the swearier alternative, and I love how they use feminist icons as verbal punctuation. (As in, "What the Mae Jemison are you doing out here?!") But what I read the books for is actually the relationships. The friendships. I read it and I see myself and my friends and all the people I know who built really strong friendships at camp. Or in general. This book's motto is "Friendship to the max!", and that totally shows.

Ultimately, I think that's why I want to recommend this book to everyone I meet. When you get an all-ages comic like this, usually it goes one of two ways. Either the story is light and fluffy and nothing really happens, or it's dark and depressing and hard. It's pretty stinking rare to have a book that's all about girls being friends and going on adventures. The adventures aren't without stakes - Mal gets pretty badly hurt in the second issue, and it's actually a little concerning for a second - but they aren't big balls of angst either.

This isn't Supernatural. Sure, we've got protagonists hunting down weird supernatural stuff (and why do all the creepy animals have three eyes, huh?), but they're not upset about it. They're excited! This is camp and they're having an adventure and doing it with their friends. 

I mean, isn't that the kind of message that you do want to send to children? That the world can be big and scary sometimes, and that we don't always know what's happening, but that if we work together we can make it good. And that as human beings we have a duty to make the world suck less for the people around us, because we're all in this together.

Basically, friendship to the max!


Monday, May 19, 2014

Ms. Marvel and Kamala Khan: On Race, Passing, and Representation

When I was in college I majored in philosophy. Because I am a giant nerdface, I happened to complete almost all of my major requirements before the end of my second year, as well as all of my core requirements (which were minimal because my college is super rad). This left me with two whole years where I could take whatever classes I wanted. I mean, I had to take one philosophy class per semester to stay in the program, but that's still twelve classes that were totally up for grabs.

Needless to say, I took anything and everything that sounded remotely interesting. It's why I am now weirdly well educated about the Bollywood film industry, Chinese propaganda films of the 1960s, vampire lore, Afrocentrist Egyptology, and a lot of other stuff that is incredibly interesting but not super relevant in my day to day life.

One of the classes I took though has turned out to be useful and meaningful in my daily life. That class was Introduction to Islam.

Yup. It's gonna be one of those articles. Couldn't you tell from the title?

Having grown up in a town where religious differences meant being Protestant instead of Catholic, I didn't really know anything about Islam going into the class. And I wouldn't say I'm an expert now. I definitely know enough that news reports about the Muslim world are no longer impenetrable to me, and I get the larger theological differences between sects, the basic tenets of faith and all that, but honestly the biggest and most important reason this class has been helpful to me is because it introduced me to a single book: How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? by Moustafa Bayoumi.

This book pretty much changed my life. We read it as part of our section on modern Muslim culture, and that's what the book covers. But it's more than that. The book itself is a series of profiles and interviews of seven (I think it's seven) young Arab-Americans living in Brooklyn. They're all in their teens or twenties, each of them representing a wildly different subset of the Arab-American experience. Not all of them are Muslim, even. So why did we read this book in a class on Islam?

Because the interviews in the book center around a very specific topic. What is it like to be a young person of Arab descent in modern day America? By which we mean post 9-11 America. What's it like to grow up in a world that views you as not just Other, but so dangerously Other? What is it like to be a problem?

These are questions which, by virtue of my birth, I've never had to ask. I'm white. I glare in the sun and I've never faced religious persecuttion or racial discrimination or anything like that. The only times I get screened by security at an airport are when I forget to take the bobby pins out of my hair (which is more often than it should be at this point). Reading this book made me realize that there is a whole world of experience out there that I don't understand. More importantly, it helped me see that the fact that I couldn't see how privileged I am was another part of my privilege itself. 

This has had a huge impact on my life. Finally seeing and being able to react to my own privileged status in the world has changed who I am. It's changed how I go through my daily life. And it's deeply affected how I view media. Now, this wasn't the only book in college that did this for me. A lot of credit has to go to my advisor, who taught me about race and passing and Franz Fanon and Frederick Douglass. I took classes that taught me to value the importance of African history, and I took other classes about modern African politics that made me question America's choices in international relations. But this book is really what I'd point to as the thing that made it all stick.

So. Let's talk about Ms. Marvel.

That may seem like a topic shift, but it's really not. While Ms. Marvel as a title goes back to the 1970s, the current incarnation of the character isn't Carol Danvers (she's Captain Marvel now, and also in space, which is cool). No, the current Ms. Marvel is a nerdy teenager named Kamala Khan. She's the daughter of Pakistani immigrants to the US, a writer of fanfiction and a total Avengers groupie, and a Muslim.

Kamala is a pretty normal teenager, but she's really not one we see very often in comics or television shows or movies or anywhere in pop culture. She loves her family, but she's annoyed by them too. She feels a connection to her cultural heritage, but she still likes standing in a deli smelling the bacon until she's told to leave. She's never had bacon, because she's a good Muslim, but she can tell it's delicious.

In short, she's pretty much like every other teenager I've ever met. Her parents drive her nuts, because they won't let her go out to parties and they never let her wear anything even remotely revealing and they are obsessed with her getting good grades and doing something useful with her life. Her older brother is very devout, but also still lives at home, which causes tension in the family because seriously when is he going to get a job already?

Her best friend, Nakia, is a Turkish Muslim who has recently become more invested in their culture and decided to wear a headscarf. It's her personal choice. Kamala doesn't wear a headscarf. She's not sure how she feels about Islam - not that it's a terrible bad thing or anything, but because it's her parents' religion, and she doesn't know yet what she herself believes.

So, basically, Kamala is me as a teenager. Complete with writing really embarrassing fanfiction. I get this girl. I relate to her super hard. The only difference is that I don't have superpowers.

And neither does Kamala at the start of the story. When the story begins, Kamala really is just a normal teenager. Her experience is pretty typical of a second generation kid or a "third culture" kid. But then she sneaks out to go to a party one night, because Kamala desperately wants to be cool and "normal", and while she's out the city gets taken out by a weird gas. The gas makes her hallucinate and then it gives her superpowers.

Specifically, Kamala hallucinates the Avengers, with whom she is obsessed, and Captain Marvel specifically, with whom she is super obsessed, talking to her. They ask her what she wants, and she tells them:

When "Ms. Marvel" asks Kamala what she wants, her response is both unsurprising and heartbreaking. Kamala wants to be "normal". She wants to be blonde and pretty and strong and popular and cool. She wants to fit in. She wants to be someone else.

Her superpower turns out to be shapeshifting, and it first presents when Kamala wakes up and looks exactly like Ms. Marvel. Old school Ms. Marvel, with the thigh-high boots and the wedgie-giving unitard, actually. She's skinny and blonde and gorgeous for once. And all of a sudden, none of that matters. Because her friend is in trouble and needs help.

The story doesn't gloss over this plot point. It would be easy to look at the book and be like, "Oh, so she's just this nerdy girl who turns into a hot blonde when she rescues people. Whatever, I guess you're trying to sell books." But that's not what this is about. This is about Kamala, and who she wants to be. Like any teenager, that's a shifting target. And like any teenage girl, it's a target that has a lot to do with how she looks and how she feels about how she looks.

When Kamala first gets her power, she's thrilled by the idea of for once looking the way she wants. And when Kamala transforms into what she considers her ideal self, there's one very simple thing we should not be ignoring: her ideal self is white. When Kamala imagines a her that is cool and powerful, she pictures a skinny white girl.

More than that, she transforms herself into a walking pinup. Here's this sheltered teenager who's now walking around in a pair of thigh-high heeled boots and a leotard. At first she likes it because she gets tons of attention this way. People stop and stare at her, and not like they're afraid of her because of the color of her skin, like they want to have sex with her. She likes it. At first.

And then she doesn't. Because it's not useful and it's kind of scary and the heels hurt her feet and it's so hard to run in an outfit like that. But more importantly, Kamala doesn't feel like herself.

It's that old saying, "Be careful or you just might get what you want." Kamala wants to fit in, and she gets shapeshifting powers. Tell me that's not a pointed comment.

This story, for all that it's about a teenage girl stopping crime and saving the city, is more about self-image and race and "passing" than it is about superheroes and powers. Kamala's story is about her trying to figure out who she is, and it's a lot harder when you can suddenly change everything about yourself and be whoever you want. Without those external signifiers of race and class and religion, who are you? How much of who you are is determined by how other people see you?

Now, I should point out that we're still only in Issue Three of the comic (three of eight for this first run), so I can't say with assurance where the story is going, but I think I can give it a guess based on where we've been. And even in these three issues there's been a very strong topic that keeps coming up: how Kamala herself feels about her race.

Like I said above, when she pictures her ideal self, she imagines a white girl who really looks nothing like her. To Kamala, that is desirable. The white skin, the blonde hair, the bikini body. That's what she wants to look like. She doesn't want to look like she does (in the beginning). She wants to erase herself.

Oh hey, there's a quote from Moustafa Bayoumi about that: "But the loudest silence in the book concerns those young Arabs, a minority, who have abandoned their ethnic roots or religion out of either shame or fear or both. They have changed their names and try to pass as other-than-Arab - Latinos most often. Perhaps it is fitting that "The Biography of the Ex-Arab Man or Woman" is present here only by its absence."

Before anyone screams to the comments to tell me so, yes, I am aware that Kamala is Pakistani and therefore not "Arab". But the point stands. Kamala represents a story that doesn't often get told by virtue of how impossible it is to tell: that of the person who abandons their past in order to preserve their future. 

One of my professors in college - not one previously mentioned, another one, because I had lots of professors - told us a story about how growing up she lived on the border of two different gangs. There was a Latino-American gang on one side and an African-American gang on the other. And since my professor is a woman of ambiguous racial background, she would get harassed by both sides when she walked to school. Her solution was to simply identify herself with whichever side was harassing her at that moment. If the Latino gang was bother her, well then she was Latino. If the black gang was bothering her, then she was black. She could pass, and so she did.

Kamala feels disconnected from her ethnic and religious heritage because of the treatment she faces both at home and at school. At home her family doesn't understand her because she's too American. She spends hours online and wants to go to parties and would love to someday try bacon. At school her classmates don't understand her because she's too foreign. She's Muslim and she doesn't drink alcohol and her parents are strict and she's never had bacon

She feels like an outsider wherever she goes, so is it any wonder that she would want a quick and easy solution to that? The thing is, it's not actually a solution. Her superpowers only raise more questions.

What on earth is the point I'm trying to make with all of this? That's the question I assume you're all asking by now. Well, I'll tell you. Kamala Khan is a funny and relatable teenage girl. She is also vastly important. Why? Because this comic, Ms. Marvel, has the opportunity to do for hundreds of thousands of readers what How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? did for me. It has the opportunity to actually bring the issues of race and passing and self-image to the forefront of people's minds. Don't tell me that's not important.

It's important in two ways. First, for all of the many, many people who see themselves in Kamala it's amazing to actually see a character like her taking center stage. To see a brown, Muslim girl with a religious family struggling with questions of self-expression and identity, all while fighting crime and being super kickass - that means a lot. I've mentioned before that I nanny for a couple of not-white kids, and when I showed the girl (she's eight) this comic, her first reaction was, "She looks like me!" It matters, okay?

Second, this comic matters for all of the people who don't see themselves in Kamala, and who have never seen themselves in a character like her. It matters because for the first time possibly, they get to see a story about a minority character dealing with the majority. We never hear stories like this, about Muslim girls who long to taste bacon (not letting that one go - I love bacon) and who wish they were white. Reading this book and sympathizing with Kamala is the first step towards being able to understand the world better. To being able to understand other people more fully. And to being able to respect their experiences.

Ms. Marvel happens to be a really good comic, and for that I am incredibly grateful. Can you imagine if I had to read something like this, that touched on all of these super important topics, but that sucked? That would be terrible. It doesn't even bear thinking of. But this isn't terrible. It's great. And it's important.

I couldn't not post the bacon scene. It was memorable.