Friday, October 30, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Anya Jenkins (BTVS)

Happy almost Halloween, my chickadees! In honor of this most ridiculous holiday, I thought we'd look at a character from a show that feels right at home this time of year. Let's talk about Anya Jenkins, aka the demon Anyanka, Patron Saint of Scorned Women, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer because Anya is super amazing, and because her character arc over five seasons of the show is one of the most compelling in the series. Through Anya we see a meditation on what it means to be human, on what it means to learn humanity and morality and forgiveness, and on what it really means to sacrifice.

I love Anya.

If you don't love her, though, or if you have no idea who I'm talking about, allow me to persuade you. Anya Jenkins (Emma Caulfield) is a character who shows up in season three of Buffy, then again in season four a few times, and becomes a series regular in season five, sticking around until the very last episode. She's one of those characters who goes from villain of the week to beloved member of the ensemble cast, and it's frankly impressive how much characterization they managed to get into her storyline.

When we first meet Anya she's pretending to be a high school student, but actually she's a vengeance demon - as in, she's literally an immortal demon named Anyanka who has devoted herself to casting vengeance down upon unfaithful men. She comes to Sunnydale when Cordelia, understandably angry that she caught her boyfriend cheating on her, wishes that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale. 

Anya grants the wish, plunging them all into a hellish alternate timeline where Buffy never came, Xander and Willow are vampires, and Cordelia dies immediately upon arrival. But it's in this alternate universe that Anyanka is defeated: alternate Giles smashes the necklace that is the source of her power, saving the world and forcing Anyanka to live in it as a human high school student.

Obviously this is kind of a funny punishment for a demon. I mean, she's an eleven-hundred years old and now she has to pass her math class. She doesn't really take to it well, and we see her sort of flit through the background of the next season or so being baffled by her attempts to fit in with humans or get her power back.

But then something funny happens. Anya starts to get the hang of being human. I mean, she never really stops being weird, but she also stops entirely resisting the experience. She helps Buffy and her friends out a few times. She goes to prom with Xander. She and Xander start dating. She even saves him from an evil haunted house one time. Little by little, Anya stops trying to become a demon again and acclimates to being human. Which is where things get really interesting.

See, Anya wasn't always a demon. She actually used to be a nice Scandinavian woman named Aud who was distrusted in her village because she spoke strangely and didn't make sense to anyone - which brings up the fan theory that Anya is on the autistic spectrum, something never officially confirmed but seems very likely. Aud fell in love with Olaf the troll hunter, but when he cheated on her she turned him into a troll in vengeance. It was this act of vengeance that brought her to the attention of the head vengeance demon, D'Hoffryn, and got her a job as the "Patron Saint of Scorned Women".

Now that Anya is human again and trapped in the modern day, we get to see how a millennium of being a demon and ignoring any human impulses has done to her. Because here's the thing: as far as we can tell, being a demon didn't actually change anything about Anya's morality. It just gave her the power and immortality to not have to care about laws or rules or right and wrong. Now that she's human, she's not suddenly a more moral person, she just suddenly has to care about these things again. And that's fascinating.

It's fascinating because of how clearly it doesn't come easily to her. Some things come easily, sure. She gets the hang of capitalism right away and becomes a financial wizard very quickly. Anya ends up helping run and eventually owning a local magic shop. Sex is something else that Anya clearly didn't need help remembering. She shows up out of the blue one day in season four and decides she wants to have sex with Xander, which leads to the two of them eventually falling in love.

But love itself is a struggle for Anya. Sex is fine, but love is hard. It's hard because her instinct is to punish and be vengeful. She's out of practice with the little grievances and frustrations that come along with being with someone for a long time. She's having trouble getting back in the swing of assuming the best of people instead of the worst.

And there are other problems too. Like how Anya is terrified of dying now that she's mortal after so long. Or how her first instinct is always to run away from the danger even though she's supposed to be helping fight the danger off. Or how she has no idea how to give moral support to someone without offering to curse their enemies. Little things like that.

Anya grows over the seasons. She never gets less weird or blunt or funny, thank goodness, but she does grow up. She comes to really embrace getting a second chance at being human... At least until she gets her heart broken again. When Anya and Xander's relationship reaches critical mass, it basically explodes under the pressure of Xander's neuroses and fears about the future. Which is funny, because up until that point anyone would have assumed that Anya would be the one calling their wedding off.

No, in the end it's Xander who can't handle the concept of marriage (for surprisingly understandable reasons - he's afraid he'll turn out like his abusive father), leaving Anya heartbroken and alone at the altar. This is when Anya turns back to the only thing that's ever made her feel better: vengeance.

So she goes back to being a demon, but it's clear that this time mass bloodshed and horrible curses just aren't doing the trick. She's too human now, with too much pent up morality. Killing people makes her feel bad because she's lost the hang of being a demon. So what's a monster girl to do when being human hurts but being a demon isn't any better?

Keep going anyway.

That's seriously the lesson we learn from Anya. She comes incredibly close to giving in and giving up in season six, devastated with her broken heart and unsure if she really wants to bother trying any more. But then she does try. She keeps trying. She and Xander eventually reconcile, but that's not the point. The point is that Anya decides, man or no man, she'll keep being human and making the hard choice and choosing to sacrifice.

Which is what brings us to the very end of her story and why I think she's a perfect example of what it means to "learn humanity". At the very end of season seven, when everything is coming down to a terrifying end, Anya doesn't run away like she did the first time. Instead, she stays and fights even though she doesn't have to. As she explains it to Andrew, 
"Well, I guess I was kinda new to being around humans before. And now I've seen a lot more, gotten to know people, seen what they're capable of and I guess I just realize how amazingly... screwed up they all are. I mean, really, really screwed up in a monumental fashion... 
And they have no purpose that unites them, so they just drift around, blundering through life until they die. Which they-they know is coming, yet every single one of them is surprised when it happens to them. They're incapable of thinking about what they want beyond the moment. They kill each other, which is clearly insane, and yet, here's the thing. When it's something that really matters, they fight. I mean, they're lame morons for fighting. But they do. They never... They never quit. And so I guess I will keep fighting, too."
This is the moment when Anya chooses humanity. For all that it was thrust on her without her choosing it before, for all that she still doesn't really "get it", for all that she's made a lot of questionable choices and done a lot of really horrible things, Anya in the end chooses to be human. She chooses to stand and fight because it's the right thing to do.

And that gets down to something really important: humanity is a choice. It's a lot easier to let go of humanity than it is to grab it and hold on. Because holding on to our humanity means embracing and acknowledging the things that are hard and unpleasant in our lives. It means refusing to run away from our problems and admitting that we have no idea what we're doing.

Anya is all of that wrapped up in a hilarious and cranky ball. 

It's worth noting too that Anya is unique for being a female character doing all of this. We're relatively used to stories about male characters with horrible pasts being redeemed and becoming human, but not so much about female characters. Anya was a vengeance demon for over a thousand years. She has a past. She's scary. She's strong. And yet she chooses to be human in a way that never compromises her strength and past, but instead adds to it.

I love Anya. I love that she never really gets the hang of social interactions but she does come to understand love and family and hope. I love that the surface stuff doesn't matter in the end. What matters is that Anya gives up her own life to save the world. She knows it might not help, she knows that the odds are stacked so far against her. But she chooses humanity anyway.

As Xander says, "That's my girl. Always doing the stupid thing."

Thursday, October 29, 2015

'The Robber Bride' and the Weight of Female Friendship

We’re going surprisingly highbrow today, chickadees, because today we are talking about that classic Margaret Atwood novel The Robber Bride.* Why? Well, because it’s almost Halloween, and in a very weird and roundabout way, this novel is, to me, basically the most Halloween-y thing I can think of to cover.

No, it’s not about ghosts or goblins or ghouls, no there’s no overt horror, and no, it’s not set in the fall or anytime around Halloween. It’s not even very scary. But this novel is Halloween-y to me because it’s about witches. It’s about women in our culture who fill the same role that witches played for hundreds of years. Women who are forced to “do it for themselves”, women who come together in groups to band against the evil forces of their lives, women who live on the outskirts of what we consider polite society and who are not confined by the restraints the rest of us live by.

I mean, in its most basic form, this book is about three women vanquishing a ghost. It's just that the ghost isn't so much a reality as it is a manifestation of their own hopes and dreams that they must confront in order to move on. And that's pretty interesting.

The Robber Bride is about three women who are all connected by a fourth. The three women - Tony, Charis, and Roz - are all middle-aged when the book starts and have known each other for years and years. They went to college together, though that's not quite where they know each other from. They know each other because over the years each of them has had a catastrophic run-in with Zenia, another woman they went to college with. Going through the decades, the book documents each of their battles with and against Zenia, and shows how this women brought them together by ruining their lives.

I find that absolutely fascinating. It's clear from the get-go that Zenia is bad news and that the women are better off without her in their lives, but it's really interesting to me how the book shows us that each women had her heart broken by Zenia but ended up with a much better life. Like, Zenia screwed them all over, destroyed the lives they had, but because of that they ended up with lives that are sweeter and more whole. 

The book starts with the women in middle-age, like I said, meeting as they do once a month in a local restaurant. The three women have very little in common on the surface. Tony is a tiny "bird-like" academic who hides behind her glasses and prefers to intellectualize everything, while Charis is an overgrown hippie, a sweet and loving flower-child who the others worry lacks emotional strength. And Roz is a "ball-buster", a middle-aged woman who runs her own magazine and is very externally successful. They wouldn't ordinarily be friends, but their run-ins with Zenia over the years have bonded them so closely they feel a bit like family.

It's at one of these meetings that the women get the shock of their lives. Zenia, who has been presumed dead for years, is in the restaurant. The women freak the crap out. First off, they thought she was dead. They were at the funeral. Second, what must she want now? What could she be doing back in their lives? What is there left for her to ruin?

Then the story takes us back through each woman's interactions with Zenia in a rough chronological order. Not to go too far into detail, but they go like this:

Tony met Zenia in college and fell quickly in friend-love. Zenia and her then-boyfriend West were cool and charming and the most interesting people she'd ever met. She and Zenia were thick as thieves, and Tony told Zenia all her deepest secrets, about her parents dying and the money she didn't want to spend and all that. Zenia then turned around and manipulated Tony into giving her a massive check, then skipped town, leaving Tony betrayed and West heartbroken.

Now Tony and Wes are together and Tony is pretty happy in her life. But she's terrified that Zenia has come back to steal West away from her. She's so worried that West will go along happily because he never really loved her, he just needed someone to lean on when Zenia went away. Tony is most afraid of abandonment and she's so scared that it'll happen again.

Meanwhile, Charis met Zenia years later when they were in their late twenties or so. Charis was living with a cute draft-dodger from America when Zenia appeared on her doorstep all beat up and needing care. Zenia had cancer, or so she told Charis, so Charis cared for her, kept her safe, and slowly worked her way in between Charis and her draft-dodger boyfriend. 

Like with Tony, Zenia got Charis to tell her all her deepest secrets, like that Charis used to be called Karen and was horrifically sexually abused as a child and that Charis' now boyfriend is a draft-dodger who is wanted by the US government.

Then the other shoe drops and Zenia and the draft-dodger are gone, leaving Charis pregnant and alone.  She has no idea what happened, if Zenia was ever really sick or if she was turning the draft-dodger over to the government or if they ran away together... She never gets answers, but she does get help. Looking for information on Zenia, Charis ends up calling Tony, who enlists Roz to help take care of the pregnant and poor Charis. Charis gives birth to a daughter and suddenly has two best friends to help her through her troubles.

Finally, Roz's story is the most interesting because Roz was so well-warned about Zenia. She knew all of them in college and was aware of exactly what Zenia did to both Tony and Charis. But somehow she can't resist Zenia's allure. Zenia shows up as a writer for her magazine, and Roz hires her because she's so perfect for the role. Zenia's great at it and readership goes up, until one day she defrauds the magazine and runs off with Roz's husband.

Roz is furious, of course, but also sad. It gets worse when Zenia leaves her husband too and he goes a little nuts looking for her. He ends up disappearing from a sailboat on Lake Michigan (if memory serves), and that's the last that's seen of him. But Roz still has her kids and she has Tony and Charis to help bear the weight.

Obviously none of them are thrilled to see Zenia again.

Tony is worried that Zenia is back to steal West; Charis is worried that Zenia is here to destroy her soul; and Roz is terrified that Zenia is here to consume her beloved son like she did her husband. As it turns out, all of them are wrong.

Zenia is here because Zenia is here. It really doesn't end up more explained than that. Each woman goes in to confront Zenia, and possibly kill her, and yet each of them comes out with the realization that not only is Zenia not worth it, she's also not nearly as clever as they'd given her credit for. She was never out to be the malevolent force of their lives, they were all just convenient means to ends.

Maybe one of the things I like most in the book is that Zenia is never explained. The reader only knows what Tony, Charis, and Roz know, and what they know is very little, most of it conflicting. So Zenia exists not really as a character, but as a collection of identities that these other women have projected onto her. She became what each of them fear most and wreaked havoc with their lives. It's just that in so doing, she also gave them lives which were much better.

She is the reason that Tony ended up with West, the love of her life. She's also the reason why Tony became confident enough to assert herself as an academic. She might have taken away Charis' boyfriend, but said boyfriend was a deadbeat who never treated her well anyway and was deeply ambivalent about the baby they were having. And Roz's husband? Was a jerk to her and needed very little incentive to cheat. So while it's too much of a stretch to say that Zenia was doing all of them a favor by coming through their lives like a demolition crew, she didn't destroy anything that was too vital to their survival.

But going back to the point above, I guess I think of Zenia as a witch. Not because she's mean or magic or anything like that, but because she's unpredictable and seems to be playing a game that only she knows the rules of and only she can see the cards. Zenia is a mystery made up of other people's conceptions of who she is, and that's so witchy to me.

I mean, insofar as we all agree that witch is really less a thing about medieval ladies who could do magic and more about uppity women who were burned to death because they didn't fit inside the social order.

Don't get me wrong, Zenia is a horrible person. She's an aggressively awful human being and the things she does to people in this story seem to be just the tip of the iceberg. At one point it's insinuated that she's smuggling cocaine and heroin for a Russian cartel. Like, the woman is terrifying. When the news comes back that she died in an explosion in Lebanon, no one is particularly surprised. And then when she turns up out of the blue five years later miraculously not dead, it's surprising and yet somehow not.

I guess I mean that Zenia feels magical in a weird subversive way. Not a good kind of magical that makes people feel nice, but this perverse magic that helps good things happen by bad means. There's something so fascinating in how Zenia makes their lives better by ruining them. Some weird sort of magic that has to destroy in order to create. And Zenia is never explained, which means you can read into her whatever you want. I prefer to think of her as an elemental force, neither good nor bad, but always bringing balance in her wake.

Or maybe I'm over philosophizing this. Maybe it just comes down to a simple answer: I like The Robber Bride and Zenia makes me think of witches. Happy Halloween.

Yeah, that seems about right.

*We are not going to be discussing the 2007 movie adaptation because I have not seen it and probably won't - just saying, when I picture Zenia, I imagine more of an Eva Green than a Mary Louise Parker type...

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"Not a Ghost Story, A Story with a Ghost In It" - 'Crimson Peak'

What is the point of horror?

I don't mean this question facetiously, I'm really asking. As the genre goes, I've never really gotten into horror. Or, well, I've never much gotten into modern horror. I like me some gothic literature, I really enjoy eldritch horror (Lovecraft, et al), and I think horror-comedy is a brilliant and fantastic invention. But I've never really managed to develop a taste for mainstream horror films.

Now part of this could be because my chief exposure to horror movies came when I was in high school and my then-boyfriend and I would trade movies back and forth. I'd go see Butterfly Effect, he'd sit through Nicholas Nickleby. I watched The Hills Have Eyes, he'd watch Little Women. And so on. I never really watched one of those movies because I actually wanted to, and as time went on I upped the stakes of the game to reach for more obscure and girly films just to counteract the aftertaste of all the gore and jump scares he kept making me sit through.

Also, the first time I saw The Ring was in Austria and it was dubbed into German, of which I only spoke a little at the time, and the whole thing is so much more terrifying when you have no idea what's actually going on.

So I think it's probably not surprising that I never managed to "get" horror films. The majority of the time I was watching a film where the audience was being asked to cheer for the lead characters' deaths. The movies where a lone girl might survive, the "final girl", but only if she was good and sweet and innocent enough to not be killed in a retribution against her promiscuous ways. I wanted movies where the female characters were in charge of their lives and, doomed or not, their fate were because of their own choices.

Which is why I am so happy to tell you all that I've now seen Crimson Peak and it is exactly what I wanted from a horror movie. Full stop. It's also pretty much what I want out of a period piece, though that is ancillary to today's argument. Crimson Peak is great. It's a fantastically filmed and directed bit of gothic horror that manages to completely express how a woman can be both in charge of her own destiny and also caught up in a horror plot.

It's so good. (And this review is full of SPOILERS.)

The film has the sort of pedigree that can make for either an amazing dark horse superstar or a dramatic flop. Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, the movie stars Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing, a sweet bookish young woman in late 1800s upstate New York. Edith is a nerd, simply put, and she wants to be a writer. Her book of choice? Ghost stories. Or, rather, a "story with a ghost in it." Unfortunately, Edith's ambitions are stymied by the sexist publishing industry of her time, so she finds herself looking for more and more complex ways to get a book into an editor's hands.

Her father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), is perfectly happy that his only child would rather read and write than attend balls and flirt. He thinks she's great and they have the kind of relationship you rarely get to see: a healthy and respectful close relationship between father and daughter. Right on!

This is not to say that Carter is the kind of dad who wants his daughter to die alone, however. He does want her to marry, he just thinks she ought to end up with Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), an old friend of the family. Alan has had a crush on Edith since time immemorial, something which Edith appears to know, but has never pressed her or really done anything about it. He's just waiting to see if she's interested.

Into all of this cuteness steps Thomas Sharpe, Baronet (Tom Hiddleston). Thomas Sharpe is an inventor from England who wants Carter Cushing to invest in his new mining apparatus. But while he tries to secure funding, he also appears to fall deeply in love with Edith. He's so handsome and dramatic and romantic and tragic - he's everything your average gothic heroine could want in a man!

It's too bad that his sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), seems to disapprove. But Edith is smitten and not even her father's disapproval can turn her away. Granted, there seems to be a hitch when Carter sets a private detective on the Sharpes and then pays them to go away, but the next day Carter is found dead in a pool of his own blood, so clearly this isn't a real obstacle. Edith and Thomas get married and go away to Allerdale Hall, his ancestral home, and the real story begins.

See, there's another story in here too, one that is easily forgotten in the bustle of the romance and the murder: Edith Cushing can see ghosts. While she never really brings this up with Thomas, she has a long conversation with Alan about it, and even tells us in voiceover that when she was a little girl, her mother's ghost visited her and warned her, "Beware Crimson Peak!" It's just that those words meant nothing at all to her until it was too late.

So our heroine ends up at this ramshackle old manor in the English countryside, only to find that it is nicknamed "Crimson Peak" for how the red mud bleeds through the snow in winter to make the whole hillside look like it's made of blood. Charming.

Obviously Thomas and Lucille have lured Edith here for some nefarious reason, but exactly what that reason is requires more investigation. The bulk of the second act of the film follows Edith as she acclimates to life at Crimson Peak and then her growing horror as she discovers that something is not right and she is in grave danger. It doesn't help that she keeps seeing horrible ghosts everywhere. These grotesque decayed bodies of ghosts - always bright red - that follow her around and reach out their arms to her.

The big turn comes when Edith realizes that the ghosts aren't trying to hurt her, they're trying to warn her. Warn her of what? That she's about to be next.

Now, I won't spoil exactly what the danger is, but I will say that in a weird way, I was impressed by how simple and prosaic it actually ends up being. I was anticipating that there was some kind of deal where the basement of the house led straight to hell or there were condemned souls trapped in the bricks of the manor or everyone who lived there had been dead for centuries or something. But no. And in a weird way that actually makes the story better. Not to give too much away, but just like Edith insisted at the beginning, this isn't a ghost story, it's a story with a ghost in it.

It's also, and this is why I think I like this film so much, a movie where the horror is real and terrifying, but all the characters act in ways that actually make sense. Edith walks blithely towards her own doom because it never occurs to her that something out of a story might be real. Alan pursues her and investigates the mystery because, well, she's his childhood friend and he's worried about her. Thomas and Lucille have sinister motives, but those sinister motives are actually pretty normal and understandable.

In other words, it's the rare horror movie that manages to let all of its characters keep their brains and characterizations, but still is genuinely quite frightening. I appreciate that.

I appreciate that when Alan shows up to save Edith, he does not actually succeed. Not because she doesn't need saving, but because he can't actually save her, she has to save herself. In the end (MASSIVE SPOILERS) she saves them both, not vice versa. It's a movie where the ultimate battle ends up being between two women, with the men both sidelined and considered too emotional for the fight. 

It's just so satisfying watching Edith come into her own, but it's also satisfying because she was never really a damsel. She was a woman who made a mistake and then did something about it.

I guess what I'm getting at is that I appreciate Crimson Peak for not underestimating the audience. It would be easy for a film like that to assume that we all think Edith is stupid for going off with Thomas and Lucille in the first place, but that's not the case. Edith is allowed to be smart and sensitive and very clever and also to make mistakes. She doesn't have to be perfect for us to like her. We like her just fine as she is.

And the movie also doesn't try to tell us that Edith "deserves what she gets" for choosing Thomas over Alan. Alan pretty much steps back and lets Edith make her own choices. He doesn't tell her not to marry him or even say anything rude. He gets a little rough with Thomas only when Edith asks him to, and even at the end of the film he's still unfailingly polite. Alan is a nice guy, not a Nice Guy. He doesn't think Edith owes him crap, and he's happy to let her live out her married life in peace if Thomas Sharpe really is on the up and up.

Furthermore, the movie gets at the complex motivations people can have for doing terrible things. It doesn't let any of its leads become caricatures of themselves. They are all fascinating people with rich inner lives and also a lot of penchants for murder. When the movie has been out a bit longer I'll write a whole article on Lucille Sharpe because DAMN is she amazing, but you get my point.

The real thing here, though, is that this movie more than a lot of contemporary horror films seems to get at the point of a scary movie. Horror movies are about examining our deep fears in a safe setting. They're about exploring and exploiting the things that make us feel unsafe. There's a really interesting article in here somewhere (maybe I'll write it later) about how the things we fear in horror movies make compelling analogues to what we fear in real life, but that's not the point.

Crimson Peak is about how we can never really know another person. Even when bound by marriage or love, how can we actually know another sentient being? The horror here is the unknown of another person's heart, and that's a horror that we all can fear. Crimson Peak works not because the ghosts are scary or the setting is gorgeous or the tone is really great, but because the fear is so human and so real.

Who hasn't worried that a boyfriend or girlfriend was just faking their affection for some unknown reason? Who hasn't wondered about someone else's past? Who hasn't been terrified that they made the wrong choice and will now be punished for it?

Crimson Peak isn't a ghost story because it has ghosts in it, it's a ghost story because it's all about the ghosts of insecurities that haunt our relationships. The past loves and past lives that can bring us down because we're afraid to share them. I just really like that. I really like that Edith is clever but flawed, that she's a brilliant woman who can be brought down by a pretty face, and that she is perfectly capable of picking herself back up again. 

I love that Alan is a good friend and a good man but Edith is never shamed for not loving him. I love that Thomas and Lucille are so dang complex. And I love love love that Edith is the driving force behind all of this. Without Edith there is no story.

Edith is the one who decides to marry Thomas - yes he's manipulating her, but she still chooses. Edith is the one who starts to investigate when things start going strange. Edith is the one who uncovers all the horrible secrets. Edith is the one who saves the day. Edith is the hero of this story and no one else can lay claim to that title. It's wonderful.

I'm not sure if Crimson Peak is a feminist reclamation of gothic horror or if gothic horror was already pretty damn feminist - I'll let the real academics sort that one out - but I do know that it is sublime gothic horror and also fantastically feminist at the same time. Those two values don't contradict.

So good on Guillermo del Toro for making yet another movie that I adore and that goes in a completely different direction from all the other films in that genre*. Given how mainstream critics are responding to the film, however, I have a sneaking suspicion that this movie might be making its way onto The Undies this year. Oh well. If they can't appreciate some subversive horror goodness, that's their problem. I, for one, am celebrating the joys of a movie that refuses to sexualize its female lead, that features complex performances from every character, and that refuses to dehumanize even its villains. More please!

*I mean, Hellboy is completely different from every other superhero movie, Pacific Rim is lightyears away from your average Godzilla ripoff, Pan's Labyrinth has very little in common with either period pieces or children's media, and The Strain is just totally outside of other vampire fiction. Dude likes subverting genres is all I can say.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'A Walk in Wolf Wood'

Today's article is all about on of my favorite stories from childhood, but contrary to what I thought I was going to write, it's not going to be about how this is a great story and clearly child-me had amazing taste in books. See, I just reread the book in question, A Walk in Wolf Wood by Mary Stewart, and now I am pressed with a difficult question: what the hell did I see in this when I was a kid?

Make no mistake here, A Walk in Wolf Wood was one of my hands down favorite books when I was younger. The copy I have is beaten all to hell but still has the sentimental inscription in the back to remind me that this was a present from my third grade teacher at the end of the year. I've hoarded this book and kept it with me since I was eight because I just meant so gosh-darned much to me. And now that I've reread it for the first time in what must be a decade at least, I am forced to admit that I have no idea why.

Seriously. None.

I can speculate as to why I specifically as a child might have been drawn to the story - it's about wolves, magic, time travel, and medieval life - but I don't see why I loved it so much. The plot is almost laughably simplistic: John and Margaret are two nice young English kids on vacation with their parents in Germany's Black Forest when they fall into a magic spell. 

Playing in the woods after a picnic, the kids get separated from their parents and end up wandering around looking for a man they saw crying. And then they run into a wolf. Before you can say "contrived plot device" the children have run back to where their parents ought to be only to find that everything they knew is gone and they're lost in the woods and possible the past. Oh no!

The story goes on and we find that the man and the wolf are actually the same person. His name is Mardian and he's the sort of really really ridiculously nice fictional man who thinks nothing of helping out strange children who walked into his own house and threw things at him because they thought he was trying to eat them. Mardian tells his whole story to them, again because apparently that's just what you do when some weird time-traveling kids show up on your doorstep.

His story is that Mardian used to be an advisor to the Duke, best friends since they were kids, but they had a falling out when the Duke got depressed, and a mean bad rude enchanter in the castle took advantage of this fight. He cast a spell on Mardian to make him a werewolf, then made himself look like Mardian and stole his place. Not sure why he picked such a contrived plot, but okay. He could have just killed Mardian and saved himself the trouble, but no. Instead, the sorcerer, whose actual name is Almeric, took Mardian's life and now is poisoning the Duke himself. John and Mary must help the real Mardian get his life back and save the Duke!

So the real Mardian, who they call Wolf, helps the children into some conveniently placed medieval children's clothing and sneaks them into the castle. He gives John an amulet that he and the Duke had made when they were boys to convince the Duke that it's all true, and then they have to navigate their way through life in a medieval castle to save Wolf. It works out okay.

Actually, it works out improbably well. After less than twenty-four hours in the castle, John has managed to get the amulet into the Duke's hands and told him the story, while Margaret has gotten herself recognized by one person (who saw her out on the road the day before) and captured by the evil Almeric. She contributes very little to this story, honestly.

The whole thing is very anti-climactic, with the end coming as everyone watches Wolf turn back into the real Mardian and Almeric dissolve in a pile of slime at daybreak. That's it, and then the kids walk back to their parents.

Why the hell did I love this so much when I was eight?

I mean, on a purely surface level, it's not a very good story. Everything happens way too easily. John and Margaret happen to find Mardian's little house in the woods with no problem. When they decide to help him, which they do instinctively because they're just good people, he happens to have clothing in their size in his house which is not at all creepy or suspicious. Come on, it even "just so happens" that John is able to get in an audience with the Duke on his first night in the castle. No one works for anything in this book. It's like being told you're steering the train. It's on rails and nothing you do has any effect on the direction it goes.

So just from a storytelling standpoint I'm kind of giving me-from-the-past a sideeye here. But what about everything else? What about the emotional core of the book? Is that good at least?

Simply put, it's not awful, but I'm not sure I would go so far as to say it's good. Parts of it certainly have merit. There's a bit early on when the children ask what they should do if the Duke won't believe them, and Mardian replies, "Then hope is done. If trust dies, and vows come to count for nothing, then I must stay a forest wolf till they hunt me down to death. There will me no more reason for me to stay a man..." And that's some intense good crap! 

I find that bit rather profound, stating that without love and trust and hope, there is nothing human about us all. These are the things that make life worth living. So that bit is really compelling. It is also, however, pretty much the only time things get so emotionally involved. The rest of the time it's just meh.

And the thing is, because there are no hurdles in the story, no struggles to overcome, no obstacles, nothing in the way of this very simple plot and the happy ending, it comes off as cheap. It ends up being frustrating because you don't feel like the ending was earned. It's the participation trophy of book endings. You get it just for showing up, but no work or skill actually went into it.

Hell, from a gender standpoint this book is downright regressive. It gives good lip service to Margaret being a clever and brave little girl, even stating that she's so shocked by how little there is for these medieval women to do and how she hates it there, but in the end she contributes absolutely nothing to the plot. She gets recognized within the first two hours, then she hides all day, then she spies on the bad guy but gets caught and turned into a hostage, and then she's just kind of there for the rest of the book. How is that a good message for little kids? 

It bothers me because the bones of this book aren't half bad. The whole thing with Mardian and the curse - which, like I said above, is classic movie villain logic - is compelling and weird and interesting. The part with the children fitting into the castle life could have been really neat if it had gotten more of a handwave than "and no one recognized them and they were able to completely fake being almost a thousand years in the past without anyone noticing because magic". The emotional story of Mardian's humiliation at being forced to be a wild animal and his relationship with the Duke are both stories that needed more development but had real potential.

Unfortunately, all of that is really wasted here and all that we're left with is a plot that reads like an outline someone wrote before bothering to go back and edit. So, I say again, what on earth did I see in this?

I guess this is the part where I get all philosophical and point out that, a lot of the time, it's honestly hard to say why kids like the things they do. Why, when every adult who can speak is begging them to stop, do children so love Thomas the Tank Engine? Honestly, what is the appeal of Cars 2? There are dozens if not hundreds of children's franchises and stories that I as an adult cannot fathom. I suppose I thought I was above all of that, and this experience is teaching me that I'm not. 

I don't know why I liked this book so much. I can remember the feelings I associated with it. I remember being completely wrapped up in the story, biting my nails as we neared the really obvious ending. I distinctly remember being enraptured by the part where John and Margaret put on their medieval clothes for the first time. And I remember wishing so much that I had a wolf I could play with and hug and save from an evil sorcerer.

But I can't tell you why this book meant so much to me. And I feel like, in its own way, that's a very important message.

See, I talk a lot on this blog about children's media, and I always come at it from the perspective of an adult. This is what's helpful about this story, that's what's harmful, monitor what your kids consume as media, blah blah blah. I don't spend nearly as much time thinking through the logic of why kids like what they like. Probably because, as it is here, so much of that is completely ineffable.

So this is a reminder for me that for all that I can rail and rage about making sure your kids are exposed to good stories and good messages and media that helps them grow into good human beings (which I still think is important), there's another factor at work here too. Your kids are people with opinions and taste and particular preferences. I can't predict them and I can't explain them. I can no more guess if your child will fall head over heels for Bob the Builder than I can tell you what it is that so enraptured me in A Walk in Wolf Wood.

All I know is that personal preference seems to be one of our most human characteristics. Which is probably very good and deep and meaningful. But it's also weird and unpredictable and confusing. So take everything I say with a grain of salt, my chickadees. It's clear to me now that I don't even know my own mind as well as I'd like, let alone yours.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Masculinity Monday: 'Selfie' and the Asian-American Leading Man

Considering that I went to a wedding this weekend (which was lovely), it shouldn't surprise anyone that today's Masculinity Monday is all about love. Well, love and the representation of Asian-American masculinity in mainstream Hollywood, but mostly love.

See, in talking about masculinity, there are a couple of things that it's easy to overlook. First, like I've complained several times, it's easy to ignore how masculinity is frequently associated with whiteness in our culture. Many of our examples of "what it means to be a real man" in film and television are constricted to explicitly white characters, while characters of color are left off the consideration and not seen as "relatable" enough to a larger audience. Which is of course crap.

Most specifically, though, Hollywood has a bit of a hangup when it comes to the representation of Asian men. Black and Latino men are bogged down in racist stereotypes, it's true, but those stereotypes tend to be about masculinity, with the implicit idea that in some weird way black and Latino men are more masculine than white men, to their detriment. And this of course weird and confusing, which we'll get to more another week. But Asian men are often seen as non-masculine, which is also very strange. They are seen as weak and feminine and "not real men". 

This is reflected in the alarmingly low numbers of Asian-American leading men in Hollywood. Seriously, when you sit down and think about it, it's downright shocking how few films and television shows feature an Asian-American man as the hero. Why is this? Because Hollywood is convinced, and therefore our culture is convinced, that Asian men are not masculine enough to be the leading man. Let that sink in for a minute.

The second part we're talking about today is the fact that when we talk about masculinity we rarely use that as a jumping board to talk about how men behave in romance as well. While femininity is often constructed in light of how those women behave in romantic situations, masculinity is seen as separate from love. When a man is in love he is "getting in touch with his feminine side", which begs the question, how is it not masculine to want romance?

The underlying assumption here, which is also crap, is that men are only after sex. Any man who is pursuing romance, then, is behaving femininely, while any woman who pursues sex is behaving masculinely. 

What happens when you combine these two facets of narrowly constructed masculinity? What happens when we get an Asian-American man playing a romantic hero, a character who is really not interested in sex but instead interested in love and romance?

Well, you get Selfie. And then Selfie gets cancelled.

Not to be a downer, but, yeah, that's exactly what happened. While there are a couple of other examples of Asian-American men being given leading roles in romantic stories, this is the most recent and most easily brought to mind, and it was canceled about seven episodes in, with the rest of the episodes being dumped unceremoniously on Hulu by the end of the year. So let's talk about this. Let's talk about Selfie and about Henry Higgs (John Cho), its star, and how masculinity doesn't have to be white and hyper-sexual in order to be real.

So, for those of you who missed it last year - which, given the viewing numbers was apparently most of you - here's the deal. Selfie was a half-hour sitcom based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. You know the story even if you don't know the name, as this play was later adapted into the musical My Fair Lady. It's a timeless tale of man reinventing woman, so timeless that the Shaw play was actually based on a Greek myth about a sculptor who sculpted a woman so beautiful he fell in love with her and she came to life.

Now, on its surface, Pygmalion is not a very empowering story for women. It's about a man who sees a woman on the street and decides that he can turn this horrible street wench into a fine and lovely lady fit for society. So he does. And in the process he falls in love with her, but he really just falls in love with his own ego and how good he is at "improving her". Yuck. The sitcom then works because it subverts this idea and substitutes a much better one: instead of Selfie being about a man fixing a woman, it's about a man and a woman helping each other. Much more evenly split, and therefore much easier to root for. So far so good.

Selfie, then, follows modern day colleagues Henry Higgs (Cho) and Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan). They work at a pharmaceutical company together, him in marketing and her in sales, but they don't know each other well until one day Eliza's worst nightmares come true. See, Eliza is "insta-famous", by which I mean that she's something of an internet celebrity. But when an awful case of food-poisoning brings her low, she discovers that all of the internet fame in the world is no substitute for having actual friends. She's forced to admit that no one in real life really likes her.

And that brings us to Henry. Eliza knows that Henry is a marketing genius, so she comes to him (she takes the initiative and has agency in her life) to ask him to market her better. Make her more appealing to other people so that she can make friends. She's basically never had friends because she went from social outcast to internet famous with no in between period, and she has no idea how to go about it.

That's the basic premise of the show, that Henry, who is persuaded into the idea because Eliza flatters the hell out of his ego, will teach Eliza how to be a better person. What actually ends up happening is more complex.

Yes, Henry does teach Eliza how to be a better person. That does happen. Or, more accurately I think, Henry helps Eliza to be confident enough in herself to show the better person who was hiding inside her all along. But this story isn't a one-way street. Henry helps Eliza, and Eliza helps Henry learn to stop hiding from his feelings and his own desire for a more adventurous life. She teaches him that it's okay to take risks and want big things and that you're allowed to have no idea what you're doing.

Henry teaches Eliza how to grow up, and Eliza teaches Henry how to chill out. And the show deftly manages to avoid falling into manic pixie dream girl tropes by making sure that we're always aware it's a two-way street. Eliza is irresponsible and ridiculous, but she's also savvy and clever and incredibly good at her job. Henry is uptight and controlled, but he's also an emotional mess and very funny and prone to terrible life decisions.

They help each other to become better, well-rounded people. Isn't that what love is supposed to be?

Eliza is a fascinating character and we're totally going to talk more about her at some point (as well as the amazing Charmonique who had one of the most compassionate and interesting storylines about slut shaming I've ever seen), but today is all about Henry. Henry who doesn't get why anyone would actually want to have casual sex. Henry who flounders his way through romantic relationships but clearly wants that level of connection with someone. Henry who is very comfortable telling Eliza what to do but balks when she starts trying to change his life. Henry Henry Henry.

It's funny to me that people claim that characters like Henry aren't relatable to the average man because they aren't white, while characters like Indiana Jones are supposedly universal. Come on. We live in 21st century America (or at least I do), and you're claiming that an archaeologist whose idea of going on a dig is fighting Nazis over precious Jewish artifacts and can use a whip to take down an airplane is more relatable than a slightly neurotic modern man who works in marketing?

Um, no.

Henry Higgs is valuable as a character precisely because he is so relatable. I mea, come on! He's a hopeless romantic with no idea how to relate to women. He thinks he's always right. He can't use facebook without looking like a crazy stalker. He gets uncomfortable as soon as someone tries to talk to him about something other than work. Henry Higgs is incredibly relatable, and the value there is that because he is so relatable, the lessons we can learn from his representation of masculinity require much less interpretation to bring into our own lives.

What are those lessons? Well, for starters, they are that wanting romance is not the same as pursuing romance. Henry wants romance. He likes romantic relationships and he wants to be in love with someone. He wants romance. But he's not actually very good at, or even particularly inclined to, pursuing it. He doesn't do anything about these desires until Eliza and Charmonique push him. And even then, Henry chooses the simplest possible option, dating a woman who is exactly like him.*

So he wants love but he doesn't translate that into pursuing love. I think that's pretty common. The big shift in the show comes when Henry finally realizes that he is in love with Eliza and decides to do something about it. Not something obvious or showy, but simply makes a choice to pursue this love and pursue Eliza's heart when they are both in a good place to do so. 

Along in there, the show is trying to tell us that Henry isn't wrong or bad for being out of touch with his feelings, but he is unhappy. And this is an important distinction. It doesn't say he's a bad man for being bad at feelings, but it doesn't say he's a good man for it either. He's not more masculine because feelings are hard, and he's not more feminine at the end because he's finally self-aware. Self-awareness and emotion are not gendered.

Arguably one of the more powerful ways the show gets at this is by pointing out that both Henry and Eliza are bad at feelings and repressing everything all the time. Neither of them is inherently better at their emotional maturity because men and women are both endowed with an equal ability to understand ourselves.

And it think all of this is made more interesting and complex in the story precisely because Henry is played by John Cho. Henry being Asian-American makes for a better story because it gets at those other stereotypes sideways. While we're examining what it means to be a man and a romantic lead, we're also examining how all those old stereotypes about Asian-American men being weak and feminine can be disassembled. By combining these two tropes, the feminine romantic lead and the feminine Asian man, we can break them both.

Which is, ultimately, what I think the show does. Henry pushes aside stereotypes about Asian men not because he directly confronts them, but because he is so fully characterized that he never becomes a stereotype himself. Yes, he fits the ideas about Asian men being naturally hard-working and studious and "nerds", but he also loves Blues Traveler and isn't good at technology and really likes Gwen Stefani. In other words, he's complex and that takes pressure off of his race.

Similarly, because Henry is a complicated and interesting character, his slowly burgeoning feelings for Eliza never come off as the writers getting desperate or the degradation of his character. He is allowed to be masculine and nerdy and Asian and in love without any of it conflicting because he's a person. And that's all that is actually required.

I've been rambling, so let me sum it up: don't write stereotypes, write people. Asian men are not inherently less masculine than anyone else, but the solution to that isn't necessarily to make a show where every Asian male character is constantly bench-pressing weights or hitting on women loudly or being gruff or driving a pickup truck. The solution isn't to fix the problem by buying into other stereotypes about what masculinity is or is not. The solution isn't to make it so that we don't have Asian-American men as romantic leads because it will make them look weak. 

The solution is to write fully developed and realized characters and a lot of them. The solution is a deluge of complex and interesting Asian men on screen, men who are masculine simply because they are men. Good role models. Bad role models. Men who scream at spiders and men who kill without remorse. We need more data points for this chart. We need to see more Asian men on screen so that we can understand masculinity as more than just a white people thing.

And we need someone to bring Selfie back. Just saying, this show was gold.

*Don't take this as a dig on Julia, by the way. I love Julia and it's not her fault that Henry is bad at feelings.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Amir (A Bride's Story)

How do you reconcile Western cultural expectations with the desire to see non-Western cultures depicted without white-washing or condescending changes made to local customs? How do you deal with a story and a character who makes total sense in her context but feels weird and kind of unsettling in yours? In other words, what do you do when you have a strong female character who feels just a teensy bit...repressed?

These are the questions I've been dealing with since I finally finished reading the first six volumes of A Bride's Story, which is an exhaustively researched and really very fun manga about life and culture in Central Asia a couple of hundred years ago - roughly the 1800s, I think. The manga, which is both written and illustrated by Kaoru Mori, follows the lives of a couple of different families in a region of Central Asia near the Caspian Sea. It's a historical romance and drama, but contrary to a lot of stories like that, this one is focussed squarely on the lives of the women of the area. It's especially focussed on marriage and wedding traditions, which is cool and frankly a little refreshing. Mostly, that is.

Our heroine in the story is Amir, the titular bride. The story starts when Amir, who is twenty, arrives in the village to meet her husband - it's an arranged marriage, as is traditional for the time and place - only to discover that her groom, Karluk, is eight years younger than her. Yup. This story is about a twenty year old woman who has to marry a twelve year old and then defer to him because they have a traditional society which puts him as the man of the household. It's awkward for everyone involved.

Amir handles this revelation with grace and dignity, but it's clear that this is a strange situation to be in. Most marriages of that time feature brides that are slightly younger than the grooms, because it takes the groom time to establish himself in the family and be monetarily settled. Amir and Karluk's marriage has come about for a couple of reasons then. First, because this is a culture of ultimogeniture, which means that the youngest son inherits, Karluk is the "most important" son. And second because the Halgal family, Amir's family, wants to make an alliance with the wealthy Eihon family. At least, at first they do.

If this all sounds kind of complex and dry to you, trust me that it actually works really well in the story. Like I said, this is a manga about women and women's culture of the time, and, well, that mostly revolves around marriages and homekeeping. We're generally socialized to think of that as a dull story, but it's not. It's rich and well-researched and very interesting. To me, anyway.

And this is not to say that there's no external plot to follow. As we get deeper into the story, a couple of plotlines start forming. There's the development of Amir and Karluk's marriage, obviously, where Amir is more of a big sister to Karluk but Karluk feels a need to assert himself because he is the head of the household technically. Then there's Amir's family, the Halgal clan, which is greedy and pretty ruthless and decides very quickly that they regret sending Amir off to marry Karluk and want to annul the marriage so she can be sent off to marry into some other rich family.

This plot is the most intense one, actually, because it features long insights into the fate of Amir's family and how the changing political structure of Turkic Central Asia at the time, as well as incursions by a colonizing Russian force, is clamping down on nomadic herding tribes. Also there are gigantic bloody battles and Amir is torn between her loyalty to her brother and her love for her husband and new family. So that's always interesting.

Some of the plots also take us to different parts of Central Asia, courtesy of our eyes into the story, an English anthropologist named Henry Smith. At the start of the story he's living with the Eihon family as a treasured guest (and sort of a local curiosity), but he eventually sets out on his own, stumbling into a bunch of different cultures along the way. What's cool here is that the writer chooses not to make Henry Smith the focal point of any of these stories, but instead uses him as a tool to examine how women live in each of these situations. Like, how does a widow without any other family survive in such a patriarchal system? How do sisters deal with the prospect of being married off to different people and then having to go live with their husbands and never see each other again?

These are real and interesting questions that the narrative goes into, and I appreciate that. But I want to talk a bit more about Amir because she kind of fascinates me and frustrates me in equal measure.

I find her fascinating because Amir is actually really kickass. Because she comes from a nomadic tribe, she has a lot of practical skills that the Eihon family finds exotic. Like, she's an accomplished horsewoman and can even stand up while riding, which is super cool. She's a great archer and hunter, even managed to kill her own food when she and Karluk are out camping. 

She's a scout and a tracker, she can butcher her own meat, and all kinds of super interesting skills. She's very matter of fact about life but not particularly cynical or beaten down by the world. She's friendly and kind, but also a little bit oblivious, which makes her more compelling. She's terrified of illness, which makes sense given the time period, and she's not great at sewing or at baking bread. 

Amir is interesting. She's a view into a culture that we typically think of as homogenous and monolithic, but her interactions with the Eihon family show us that in all actuality, the culture has more diversity than our own. So all of that is super cool and interesting. What's the catch?

The catch is that Amir never quite crosses over into feeling like a person. At least, she doesn't to me. Other female characters, like Seleke or Pariya (who I love) or the twins do feel like comprehensive portraits of real women, but Amir doesn't. She feels just a little bit sanitized, a little bit airbrushed. And I think a lot of that has to do with her general attitude towards the plot point that was the biggest hurdle for me getting into this story: her marriage.

See, obviously for me there's a little bit of an ick factor involved in a woman marrying a boy. It's weird and it makes me uncomfortable. That is, I feel, entirely reasonable. But at the same time, I do understand that this is a historical thing that did happen. I get that, and it feels stupid to not want to consume a story just because it includes historical details that make me squirm. The problem I have, then, is really with how Amir deals with the situation: she's totally cool with it.

I mean, maybe not totally cool with it, but from all we can tell, Amir is perfectly happy in her life. She likes Karluk well enough, she likes the Eihon family, and by the second volume or so, she's so emotionally invested in them and her marriage that she refuses to go back to her family. And none of it is technically bad, but it feels disingenuous that Amir, who is a beautiful adult woman, is absolutely totally okay with being married to a kid who hasn't gone through puberty yet. And being told she has to listen to him as her chief authority in life. It's weird.

It's confusing for me because I can't imagine her not resenting Karluk. Maybe that's just me projecting onto this character (it almost certainly is), but it's a strange situation to imagine that Amir takes so easily to this bizarre power dynamic and relationship. Especially once Karluk starts puberty. But through it all, Amir is totally fine with everything that's happening (obviously up to this point in the books they haven't had sex, thank goodness, but it's still weird). Karluk occasionally feels strange about the difference, but Amir never does.

It all just feels too easy. That's the problem I have with it. It presents this view of women's culture in a male-dominated society, but it offers no commentary on how the women feel about their position. I'm not saying that the next volume ought to have Amir protesting in the streets of the village or being horrible to Karluk or anything, but I do think it would be more realistic if there were some tension. Some tension anywhere. Because that can't be an easy thing to live with. And I can't imagine that every woman is comfortable with how this society is run. There are always malcontents. Show me some of them.

Perhaps it's not so much that Amir is complacent and content in her life, but more that no one ever suggests to her that she is allowed not to be. That Amir, who is strong and courageous and incredibly competent, is allowed to think that she might be happier if she were allowed by her culture to ride freely on horseback and hunt and explore rather than sit at home and do embroidery.

Embroidery and baking bread aren't bad things, by the way. I don't mean to imply that. I personally sometimes laugh over how well I would fit in a traditional culture considering that my chief hobbies are needlework and cooking and how I used to make a living taking care of children. There's nothing wrong with enjoying domestic work and A Bride's Story does do an excellent job at showing the intricacies and value in such labors. The problem is that it is never even suggested that Amir could desire something else, something more.

As you can clearly tell, I have mixed feelings about Amir and A Bride's Story, but on the whole I think I like it. I think. I don't know... I want to support a story that goes into the realities of the lives of women in Central Asia, because I find that women's history and culture are largely overlooked and because Central Asia doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves. There's a lot of rich and fascinating culture there and I would love to learn more about it. So in that sense, I'm indebted to these books for teaching me so much about the people and events of this time and place I've always wondered about.

On the other hand, I find it troubling that Amir is so unevenly characterized. She never comes together as a character in the story because she's never really given a voice. She just seems to blithely accept the things that happen to her, and that makes for a difficult hero to love. 

I guess, like some of my other articles for Strong Female Character Friday, this article is more of an expression of what I wish were the case than a celebration of a story that really does female characters well. I want Amir to be a strong female character, but I'm not sure if she is. For what it's worth, though, she could be, if only she were allowed a voice.