A Genesis for Generation Y

I’ve said from time to time that I think we would be better off if we could just stop using the word “Millennials” to describe my generation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that word written down where it wasn’t meant disparagingly, and it often comes with very little other information to describe what it means.

So, for a bit of background, let’s learn about Generation Y (which is a boring term, but so far doesn’t carry the weight that “Millennial” does) in America.

We are the generation born from around 1980 to around 2000. We were all children when 9/11 happened, and the “post-9/11” global politic has been the one that has shaped us most into adulthood. We are the first generation to have “grown up” with the internet, and we respond quickly to technological advances. We are, generally speaking, more politically liberal than our parents. We are less religious than previous generations, and we are often anti-religion. We have (or had) great expectations of educational and economic success, and have been characteristically disappointed by the world we found ourselves in after school. We also had great expectations of our impact on the world, and have met with frustration over perceived inability to affect change.

I’m sure you can quickly find out more about us, but this paints a broad-stroke picture of the generation of people I believe the graphic short-story Genesis (created by Nathan Edmonson, Alison Sampson, and Jason Wordie) was written for.

The comic is bookended with the simple phrase, “They said I’d change the world for better or worse.” This is an idea that has been offered to the members of Generation Y since the beginning of our education. We were told the stories of Martin Luther King Jr., of John F. Kennedy, of Mother Theresa, even Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. We were told all of these stories and then we were told that we could do so much more!

These were the kind of expectations with which we approached adulthood.

In the comic, the main character becomes a priest, determining that religion was how he would make a difference, but he quickly discovers that — despite the fact that he is speaking to people, and they seem to be listening — nothing is changing.

I can identify with this sentiment, partially as a preacher and partially as a member of this generation. I value words, partially because I was taught that what we write and what we say matter, but also because most of my work as a preacher is centered around words. Words spoken in worship, words in lessons, words in sermons. But at the end of the day, saying something is not the same as doing something, and speaking about change is not the same as seeing change happen.

In the comic, by means of some mystical encounter, the main character gains the ability to change the world just by imagining something. He can create with mere thoughts.

Suddenly his perceived impotence to change the world is gone, and he sets about “fixing” the world. He makes food grow where people are hungry, he provides shelter for victims of a hurricane. He provides for the world in the best way he can imagine, and the world loves him for it.

Then, in an act of selfishness, he changes his wife’s body and it results in her death.

From that point on, his imaginations are dark and twisted, and he is afraid of his own mind. He curses the being that gave him his powers over reality. In the process of trying to undo the damage that he’s done, he learns how his abilities are limited. He can manifest things from his imagination, things that already exist somehow, but he can’t create from nothing.

Eventually, through effort and wrestling with himself he comes to realize the following: He has the power to destroy, the power to change the world, and the power to hurt people – all powers he already had before the mystical encounter.

Without spoiling the rest of the comic, I believe this is the crux of what we are meant to read in this book. It’s the message that Generation Y has to hear, so that it doesn’t get bogged down in the places where it feels like the world is out of its hands. Generation Y needs more than words to take advantage of its power, but the power is still out there.

And like another comic we all know and love told us, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

Friday Feature: Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man

DC’s massive “New 52” reboot has been met with, we’ll say, a mixed response. Of the 52 books originally launched with the reboot, a few didn’t make it past their 6th issue, others have lost creative teams, and others just never had the stuff to grab new audiences the way the relaunch was supposed to.

But Jeff Lemire’s relaunch of Animal Man was one of the books that gained critical favor relatively quickly and managed to retain it throughout its run.

With the exception of a few hiccups and minor missteps, Animal Man has been the book to read from the New 52. The title ceased as of March this year when Lemire said he felt like he had finished the story he wanted to tell, and, according to his blog, appreciated that DC let him end the story on his own terms.

My process of mourning the end of one of my favorite comics came as soon as I opened the first page of issue #29, the final issue, and I’ll miss the Animal Man solo title until DC decides to bring it back to life. Animal Man is currently represented in the pages of Justice League: United, but if I’m being perfectly honest, that’s a book with more shortcomings than positive traits.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, Animal Man shouldn’t be a cool character. He’s a celebrity actor, a family man, he has a dorky name, his power set is just described as “animal powers,” and he has a confusing back story (that maybe involves “aliens”), but in the hands of a good creative team, he is unquestionably my favorite hero. Good writers can tell very potent stories about Buddy Baker and his family. Lemire is one of those writers, from book one, Baker’s driving motivation is his children and his wife.

Because of this, his heroics are often reluctant. While it seems like Buddy gets some pleasure out of his powers, he would give them up in an instant if it meant his family would be safe.

A-Man and his family…

In Lemire’s storyline, however, Animal Man learns that he and his powers play an important role in the cosmic makeup of the earth. He is the Avatar of “the Red,” the aggregate of all animal life, is is responsible for defending it from the other kingdoms of life: “the Green,” plant life, and “the Rot,” decay. Each kingdom has an Avatar, which are responsible for keeping life in balance.

So Lemire sets a cosmic stage in which to tell an intimate story: the story of Buddy Baker’s relationship to his family. If this sounds like your cup of tea, there’s nothing to wait for! Hit up your nearest local comic shop and pick out as much as you can of Lemire’s run on Animal Man. Then when you’re done, go back and read Grant Morrison’s run, from which we get my favorite single comic chapter ever: The Coyote Gospel.

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Women and Geek Culture or Why the Fridge Has to Go

I grew up reading Green Lantern. Much like Doctor Who, there have been multiple Green Lanterns in the lifetime of the comic, and you always have your favorite (The 10th and Hal Jordan.) Yet, Hal wasn’t my first. That honor goes to Kyle Rayner.

I could go into the backstory as to why Kyle got the ring, and who his predecessors were, and why Hal came back; but none of that really matters. All that you need to know going in was that when he took the mantle of GL, he was the only one and he loved it. Kyle was young, reckless, and took his role with little seriousness.

That was until this happened…

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…yeah, that’s his girlfriend.

Long story short, she thought Kyle should take things more seriously; but he wasn’t the listening type. Unfortunately, one of his villains (aptly named Major Force) was, and decided to kill and stuff her into above fridge. The ensuing guilt propelled Kyle into being the hero that he was destined to be…

…and it also was the first instance of “fridge-ing”

Congrats, Geek Culture! We helped create a terrible narrative trope!

Unfortunately, things haven’t really gotten that much better as the years of have gone by. Female characters in comic books, games, and television have been mishandled, mischaracterized, and all together misused since then. For every Orange is the New Black, there are multiple shows, games, and comics that just do everything wrong.

Examples, you ask? Okay.

Game-wise, the two most recent offenders are Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes and Watch_Dogs; which both use “fridge-ing,” as a narrative technique to motivate their respective heroes.

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In MGS: Ground Zeroes, Big Boss/Snake is required to rescue former associates Paz (a female officer) and Chico (a young male soldier) from a government run facility. By the end of the game you have rescued them both, but it’s found out that Paz has had a bomb placed inside of her. So, in one of the most gruesome moments put to gaming, the male characters dig into her abdomen, un-anesthetized, and rip the bomb out.

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It’s gross, over the top, and not the worst part.

After the bomb is removed and she comes to, she relates that she has a second bomb placed inside of her as well; and so she jumps out of the helicopter to save the rest, exploding mid-air. It is not revealed unless you go through some of the side content where the other bomb was hidden…

…her vagina.

Within the audio logs you find, you discover that Skullface (the villain) had not only his men rape Paz, but he had Chico rape her as well, and THEN placed the bomb into her. The audio logs are long, uncomfortable, and disgusting. There’s no narrative or gameplay value to their existence in the game outside of shock value and as a means to motivate the player character to revenge in the upcoming sequel.

Though not as graphic, Watch_Dogs is just as bad.

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In the game, there are two main female characters, Clara (a hacker who befriends the player avatar) and Nicole (the player’s sister.) Suffice it to say, both ladies have little to no story arc simply because they exist only to continue to push the main character forward.

Nicole’s only contribution to the plot is to be captured, held hostage, and kidnapped multiple times over and over again to bring the player character to action. At multiple points in the game, the player has to hand hold her through an action filled situation, because she is unable to defend herself on ANY level.

Ironically, her subplot ends with her leaving her ENTIRE LIFE behind in Chicago, taking her son with her; as the player character realizes that her continued existence within the gamespace (Chicago) would only result in her getting kidnapped, killed, etc. over and over and over again.

(Did I mention that she had a daughter that the main character got killed because she was in a car with him when he was attacked by thugs? Yeah, that too)

Clara might be the bigger problem. She is introduced as a competent rival hacker, but soon afterward she just becomes an objectified character model walking around the hideout of the player. Unfortunately, this is not out of the ordinary for most video games. Because of her lack of development and any story arc to speak of, she becomes less a character and more a piece of set dressing.

(Oh yeah, there’s also the fact that her model is actually based off a well known porn actress too…which has very little to do with the argument above, but it sure doesn’t necessarily help matters either.)

The icing on this terrible cake is that she ends up being “fridged” as well by the end of the game. It is revealed that she had a hand in some of the events leading up to the game, which tangentially led to the death of the Aiden’s (the player’s character) niece. While visiting the grave of the girl, she is gunned down as the player is trying to rush forward to save her in real time gameplay.

This, of course, is followed up by the player having to listen to a 2 minute long voicemail she left, just before she died; apologizing for her involvement and wishing to “just disappear…”

…which in turn motivates Aiden into the final act of the game.

It’s all very frustrating, to say the least.

Yet, much like you see in other forms of media, there is a silver lining, a ray of hope that shows things are changing; if only ever so slowly.

Take a game like Transistor.

As fellow Promethean Stewart wrote,

Transistor is a beautiful story about a woman whose voice (literally) was taken from her. It’s about her lover. It’s about a city that they both love deeply, but isn’t what it used to be. It’s about change, and remembering the way things were without ever being able to go back.”

Most importantly, it not only stars a female (Red) as a lead, but it gives her a complete, well written, and genuine story arc. She is not used, she is not thrown around by events in the game space, she is the one CREATING those events. In other words, she is a fully realized character.

Red has more of a voice without having one, has more of a message without saying a word, than any of the previously mentioned examples above….

…Cue Dramatic Irony

Joss Whedon, known for his work on Buffy, Angel, The Avengers, and much more said in an interview once,

“When people say to me, ‘Why are you so good at writing at women?’ I say, ‘Why isn’t everybody?’ Obviously there are differences between men and women – that’s what makes it all fun. But we’re all people.”

It’s a pretty straightforward sentiment, but one that geek culture is now just starting to embrace, albeit slowly. Hopefully as we all continue to move forward, and as the medium continues to mature, we’ll see more games like Transistor, Gone Home, or Mirror’s Edge.

Geek culture has to come to terms with the fact that sexism and misogyny are deeply ingrained, and figure out what we can do to excise that cancer from our favorite hobbies. I’d like to believe that we are all better than this…

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The Power of Rage: Death Proof and Feminist Catharsis

In light of the recent massacre by a violent misogynist in Santa Barbara, I find myself full of rage.

I have every right to be angry.  I should not have to live in a world in which 1 out of 6 women has been the victim of sexual assault, a world in which 1 out of 4 women will experience domestic violence.  I will not stop being angry until this reality is acknowledged by all people. I will not stop being angry until women are no longer the targets of male violence.

In the face of a society that seeks to ignore, dismiss, and minimize my anger, I need spaces where it’s safe to express my rage.

Fiction provides just this sort of space.  And in fiction, our anger about the epidemic of male violence against women can be expressed in ways that, in real life, are problematic.

I believe that we should seek nonviolent solutions to social problems.  But I also believe that members of oppressed groups sometimes need the catharsis of fictional revenge narratives to sustain their strength.

The truth of the matter is that in the real world justice comes slowly, if it ever comes at all.  So sometimes we need stories in which justice comes swiftly and unrelentingly. And when it comes to swift, unrelenting justice, there’s no one better than Quentin Tarantino.

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Tarantino’s last two films, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, are violent fantasies that imagine historical evildoers – slaveowners and Nazis – getting what they deserve.  They don’t reflect reality or morality and they aren’t meant to; these are highly emotional stories that offer viewers the satisfaction that we are denied by the complexities of real life.  Tarantino’s first venture into this kind of story was in the 2007 movie Death Proof.  In Death Proof, the archetypal villain who gets his comeuppance is a misogynistic murderer who preys on women.

(Warning: Spoilers to follow.)

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Kurt Russell as “Stuntman Mike”

Death Proof is a story in two acts, depicting the fates of two groups of women who are hunted down by the villain “Stuntman Mike.”  Mike kills the first group of women, but the second group of women take him by surprise by fighting back.

The movie dramatically realizes a fear that all women face: at any given moment in our daily lives, we may be the target of violence.  In Death Proof,this haunting fear is symbolized through Stuntman Mike’s titular “death proof” car, which he uses as a weapon to kill the women he targets.

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Throughout the movie the car elicits an eerie sense of fear in the women who see it.  Like the real-life threat of violence against women, it is always on the periphery, always in pursuit of  women who are just going about their ordinary lives.

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Jungle Julia, Arlene, and Shanna are the first women hunted down by Stuntman Mike

Stuntman Mike’s car functions as a perfect symbol for male violence against women.  It’s a stunt car built to protect the driver from dying in a crash, allowing Mike to survive a head-on collision that kills the women he targets. Similarly, the culture of violence against women is harmful to men, but is only fatal to women.  The “driver” is cushioned by the benefits of male privilege.  As Stuntman Mike tells a woman sitting in his passenger seat:

Hey, Pam, remember when I said this car was death proof? Well, that wasn’t a lie. This car is 100% death proof. Only to get the benefit of it, honey, you REALLY need to be sitting in my seat.

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Abernathy, Kim, Zoe, and Lee are hunted by Mike in the second act

While the violent male is “death proof,” even the strongest women find themselves vulnerable to male violence.  The group of women in the second act articulate the reality of the ever-present threat of violence in this true-to-life scene:

Kim: Look, I don’t know what futuristic utopia you live in, but the world I live in, a bitch need a gun.

Abernathy: You can’t get around the fact that people who carry guns, tend to get shot more than people who don’t.

Kim: And you can’t get around the fact that if I go down to the laundry room in my building at midnight enough times, I might get my a** raped.

Lee: Don’t do your laundry at midnight.

Kim: F*** that! I wanna do my laundry whenever the f*** I wanna do my laundry.

Kim’s rejection of patriarchal norms prepares us for the turn in the plot to come.  When Stuntman Mike attempts to drive Kim, Abernathy, and Zoe off the road, we anticipate another grisly death scene.  But instead, the girls make a narrow escape.  And rather than running away, they turn the tables on the predatory misogynist.

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In the amazing car chase that ensues, we get to see three women in a position that they rarely play in action/horror films: as hunters rather than hunted, as empowered actors rather than passive objects to be acted-upon.  In a thrilling, unexpected reversal, the male predator becomes the objectified prey.

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Kim rams Stuntman Mike’s bumper and drives him off the road

The final scene of absurd and joyous violence shows the women beating up Stuntman Mike as he cries and begs for mercy.  As he falls to the ground, the women cheer and the scene ends with a victorious fanfare.  It is violent, over-the-top, and oh-so-satisfying.

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More violence is clearly not the answer to the real-world problem of male violence against women.  What we need is a societal shift away from patriarchy and sexism.  This will be a complex and multi-faceted process, but part of the process is showing violence against women for what it is: a reprehensible crime.  It will also involve reframing the way that we see women — not as passive targets, but as active agents.  So while Death Proof does not provide a blueprint for social change, it does contribute to a positive cultural shift.  Images of women standing up and fighting back help real women to harness their own anger and use it in constructive ways, to fight back against patriarchy and sexism with nonviolent resistance.