Enjoy fantasy? And female protagonists? Make this your next vacation read.

Sabriel Cover

It took me about 18 months to give in to my boyfriend’s suggestions and read Sabriel, by Garth Nix.

I don’t know why I was so reluctant — he has good taste that’s similar to mine, and I enjoy a good fantasy novel, especially with a female protagonist. (I think actually it took me a while to discern the bust on the cover figure, and so I assumed it was about some medieval version of an ’80s skater boy).

But, thankfully, I eventually relented. And when I mentioned enjoying it on facebook, numerous friends chimed in saying they’d been fans for ages! Apparently I missed the boat back in 1995, but I’m on it now.

The map presented by Nix in Sabriel’s inside cover

Sabriel is actually the first book in a soon-to-be-quartet by Australian author Garth Nix, which takes place in a fantasy world which includes both the magical “Old Kingdom”, and (on the other side of The Wall) a non-magical society called “Ancelstierre”, which seems like early 1900s England. (While the non-magical part of the world has telegraphs, automobiles, and tanks, they lack many other modern-day accoutrements).

In the Old kingdom, magic can still function, but anything machine-made crumbles. It’s a place of monarchy & magic, and it has little to do with the people on the other side of it. To the south, a different government rules, magic doesn’t work, and some people there think all the magic is really just scientifically-explainable phenomena.

Those who live along the wall know otherwise. Soldiers guard it day and night to prevent unauthorized crossing in any direction (you need an official letter from both sides’ governments to cross) — and they use both magical and man-made weapons.

Sabriel, knows all of this — her father is the “Abhorsen”; a title claimed by one woman or man each generation in her family. The Abhorsen is a necromancer who returns the dead to where they belong, instead of raising them for evil & manipulation. He or she is responsible for protecting the people of the Old Kingdom from undead-making necromancers, and for banishing them and their possessed dead back through the seven gates to true Death.

The Abhorsen accomplishes this with 7 bells which can control either the dead or the living — making them walk, speak, be silent, or even go straight past the 7th gate on the river of death. As a necromancer, the Abhorsen must travels through the gates along the river of Death in order to find or fight other necromancers & the dead while avoiding the traps that each gate inherently holds.

Sabriel easily checks off the must-have qualities of a good fantasy novel — it’s well-written, dramatic, suspenseful, and each page leaves you hungry for more. The world is beautifully concocted and rich in detail; I was especially intrigued by the concept of the “Charter”, from which all “good” mages get their power. More power-hungry folks (like other necromancers) will instead try to tap into Free Magic, which the Charter was designed (in part) to constrain. Its power is drawn upon through runes, engraved or visualized, and it relies on the existence of engraved Charter Stones to keep it attainable by the mages. I found this concept to be very creative and distinct from magic in most fantasy novels, which is quite an accomplishment.

Once I got started, I couldn’t put it down — and then I couldn’t wait to get the next two from my local library!

via Flickr user Alastair Crompton: https://flic.kr/p/dqGgt7

via Flickr user Alastair Crompton: https://flic.kr/p/dqGgt7

In a delightful way which reminds me of Tamora Pierce’s books, the character development — especially of the female protagonists — is realistic & interesting. Throughout the series, we get female characters with aspirations and conflicts and problems that are multi-dimensional. And they’re not supposedly thinking about how their breasts feel against their tunics all the time, either (ahem, George R.R. Martin).

But, they’re also teenagers. And, you know what? They act kind of like real teenagers do — they can be short-sighted, ungrateful, grumpy, easily embarrassed, and reluctant to take advice. But they can also be brave & interesting & conflicted & are usually trying to do the right thing.

The comparative literature major in me also enjoyed the revelations over the 3 published books of conflicting moralities, shades of gray between wrong & right, and debates about whether anything can be truly, inherently evil (and whether attempts to restrain something dangerous can go too far).

(Oh, and did I mention there was a talking cat named “Mogget”? Yeah, he’s pretty cynical & awesome).

While the first book centers on Sabriel, the 2nd and 3rd are one long (and addicting) story arc following Lirael, whose life does eventually intertwine with Sabriel’s, though many years after the first book takes place. While this isn’t a common structure for a quartet, the books were so exciting that I didn’t care at all. I was glad I’d picked up #2 and 3 from the library on the same day so that I could move onto Abhorsen as soon as I finished Lirael.

There are elements in Nix’s series which remind me of the Gemma Doyle trilogy (Libba Bray), the Lioness Rampant quartet (Tamora Pierce), and even the Foundation trilogy (Isaac Asimov). (That last one is less obvious of a connection, but I personally got a similar feeling from the two books in how they tell stories of multiple generations & the passage of time).

They’re all quick reads, too (but so exciting that you might pick ’em up just a couple months later for a re-read!). As summer (and hopefully a vacation or two) looms closer, I heartily endorse picking up Sabriel, and seeing if you don’t get pulled along for the rest of the series!

 

Yorick Brown and Women After Mass Descruction

031512-y-the-last-man

So, I was a little late to this game.

Nearly 12 years late, to be more precise.

But I finally was introduced to Y: the Last Man, a comic book series that follows the story of Yorick, the last man on Earth after a mysterious plague wipes out every other male on the planet in an instant, and his Capuchin monkey (also a uniquely surviving male), Ampersand. He’s hoping to find his fiancée who was in Australia when the “plague” hit, but before he can get there, he’s obliged to let top scientist & cloning expert Dr. Allison Mann trace what might’ve made him & Ampersand immune; and secret agent “355” is assigned to help them get from D.C. to Mann’s lab in California.

The comic (created by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra) is apparently was originally released as monthly & bimonthly serials from September 2002 through March 2008. But, I blazed through the 10-volume edition in about 2 days.

(This would explain my initial confusion over the pacing — it takes place over the course of about 5 years, but it took me a little while to grasp that).

The series is referred to throughout the interwebs as “beloved”, and mixed sighs of relief & groans of despair emerged this January when the years-long attempt to turn it into a movie seemed to have officially failed. It has a strong, loyal following, and many fans have since endorsed Vaughan’s current series, Saga (including our very own Stewart Self).

However, I was completely unaware of its fan following, reputation, or that Vaughan was at all involved with Saga when I picked up Volume 1 last week. My boyfriend had been suggesting it for months, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

The scenario propelling the story really is fascinating — it asks us, what would literally happen to modern society if all the males died? As the kind of “foreword” to Volume 2 points out,

  • 495 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are now dead
  • 99% of all mechanics, electricians, and construction workers are now deceased
  • Israel is the only country with a wide range of skilled soldiers still alive (none of the US army’s 200,000 female troops have ever participated in ground combat, and only 13 nations besides Israel trained them to see any)
  • Worldwide, 85% of all government representatives are now dead
  • Though 51% of the planet’s agricultural labor force is still alive

In the series itself, these statistics & the “plague” create some interesting specifics:

  • The new US president is the former Secretary of Agriculture — everyone above her in the line of succession was male
  • Supermodels have found new jobs — one is a mortician & body collector for the government
  • The US congress is now suddenly almost entirely Democrats (though the wives of deceased Republican congressmen want to change that by succeeding their husbands’ seats)
  • Geopolitical power is determined almost entirely by what military roles women happened to be allowed into before the plague
From p. 48 in Volume 6

From p. 48 in Volume 6

I was intrigued, for sure. The first volume piqued my interest, enough even to carry me through some eye-roll-inducing moments in 2 & 3 (“[Motorcycles] are tougher to score than Double-A batteries for your vibrator, lady.”) and straw-man feminists (the Daughters of the Amazon cult is especially noxious, but in hindsight maybe it’s realistic & interesting that terrorists would co-opt such a loaded title).

Even with the eye-rolls I endured at moments in Volumes 2 & 3, I was hooked by the end of Volume 4.

Despite the comic’s title, the story isn’t really about Yorick, the “Last Man”. And, to be honest, he isn’t even the most interesting character (I rank him at #4 on my personal list). In this way, he reminds me of Piper Chapman on Orange is the New Black — he & Piper are the trails we follow as the reader (or viewer), but they really serve as a conduit to introduce us to other, more interesting characters’ paths along the way. The series is really about women; not men, or even one man.

And what a well-developed, complex, and compelling bunch of women they are!

My top “interesting character” is Agent 355, a sort of extra covert agent from a historic government security ring who is escorting Yorick & Dr. Mann in their journey. Through multiple flashbacks sprinkled believably throughout the 5-year story arc (and this is another way it reminds me of Orange is the New Black), we come to understand a fair bit of what made Agent 355 who she is today. Her personality and her motives are not neatly packaged & served up as an inevitable product of her experiences, however — she has her own agency and makes her own choices as an individual, not just as an agent, nor just as a woman. We see her character turn from reluctant to willing killer, and then in a way circle back again.

355

Next on my list would be “Alter” Tse’elon, an Israeli Defense Forces Colonel who becomes the de facto Chief of the General Staff, and appears up throughout the series, across multiple continents. Her motivations are mysterious; she makes up her own moral code and refuses to deviate from it, to the point of becoming a very flawed character (but flawed is real; realer than the Strong Female Character Trope, I’d say). And I think she is her own unique, complex brand of disturbed. Think Dexter Morgan or Macchiavelli’s Prince, perhaps.

Alter discusses her plans with her compatriot Sadie on page 61 of Volume 3.

Alter discusses her plans with her compatriot Sadie on page 61 of Volume 3.

Third, I choose “Beth #2” on my “interesting character” list. She’s a determined survivor, and uses her well-honed savviness & empathy to successfully interact with potential threats & allies around her. She’s a former flight attendant and a lapsed Catholic, yet she shelters herself in a church through most of the series. And, honestly, she just seems cool.

Beth isn’t exactly religious these days, but she isn’t ready to dismiss everything the Church ever stood for.

Beth isn’t exactly religious these days, but she isn’t ready to dismiss everything the Church ever stood for.

There are other characters I found fascinating — Dr. Allison Mann, who was on the verge of cloning a human when the plague struck and may be the only way to figure out what spared Yorick; Yorick’s confused, angry-yet-penitent sister Hero; a lesbian Australian spy named Rose, and even the aforementioned ex-supermodel-turned-mortician, Waverly. But those earlier three are at the tip-top of my list.

Yorick himself is not a flimsy character, I should point out. Yes, he can be immature & annoying at first (he is just a 22-year-old when it starts, after all), but if you read further into the series (ahem, Volume 4…) you realize this is an intentional and temporary choice by the creators.

An element I find fascinating about Y the Last Man is how humans need to find a cause & reason for this “plague” — to the point of even creating a new mythology to explain it.

The Daughters of the Amazon (my least favorite part of the series, as I found them to be rather straw-man feminist-y with weird, brainwashing/predatory lesbianism aspects) have concluded that Mother Earth saw fit to purge herself of the mutant males. The newly populated “Sons of Arizona” believe it’s a conspiracy by the Federal government in order to usurp states’ rights, and that a shadow government is lying in wait. A tiny, ancient Vatican order believes God wants the church to pull the world out of this new “dark” age through a second Virgin birth.

The remaining populace seems desperate to find a way to explain, and maybe even justify, what has happened — and to justify their own responses to the crisis.

355 trying, unsuccessfully, to reason with the new “Sons of Arizona”

355 trying, unsuccessfully, to reason with the new “Sons of Arizona”

The way women choose to react — or react despite their best efforts — to this new world varies widely. Looting & pillaging is rampant at first across much of the world, but some communities (like the released convicts from a women’s prison) shape a successful society almost immediately. Many women turn to self-medicating or suicide. Some attempt to (almost literally) fill the exact roles that men filled (like the women joining the “Sons of Arizona” or the Republican congressmen’s wives who want to take over their seats). Others proclaim to reject everything about patriarchal society, but seem to fail miserably at doing so (the Daughters of the Amazon). Still others are content to take what they like from the old world & abandon what no longer works, without worrying over anything but what feels right to them in this new time.

Waverly, the supermodel-turned-mortician, decided to create new traditions for her new job & society.

Waverly, the supermodel-turned-mortician, decided to create new traditions for her new job & society.

What I appreciate about Y: The Last Man is that the comic doesn’t say that there’s a “right way” for women to respond to the tragedy, nor a “right” way to shape the new society. We don’t get the answers to all our questions in the end, and therefore we don’t get the easy out of knowing who to blame. Life was complicated before all but one of the men died, and it stayed complicated and confusing after. Everyone is still a little bit right and a little bit wrong (well, maybe some people are a lot a bit wrong) yet it’s clear how everyone can believe they’re the hero of their own story — not just Yorick. He’s just the vehicle to let them tell their stories.

“Anti” matters — “Veronica Mars” had to answer its own call for complex female leads

Veronica Mars: The Movie

Kristin Bell as “Veronica Mars”

The Veronica Mars movie makes its debut in theaters (and for instant streaming) this Friday, March 14.

Fans of the show, many of whom contributed to its record-setting funding on Kickstarter (the project reached its minimum $2 million goal in under 11 hours and had raised almost $6 million by the end of the funding period), couldn’t be more excited — including me!

In preparation for the big day, I’ve been rewatching the series with my boyfriend, who’s never seen it before. And it is still excellent.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, “L. Hamre” on IMDB summarizes it thusly:

The murder of high-school student Lily Kane shook the seaside town of Neptune, California to the core. For once popular girl Veronica Mars, it meant the loss of her best friend, and being ousted from the affluent crowd that she once thought were her friends. Her father, Sheriff Keith Mars, found himself voted out of his job after making some unpopular accusations about the murdered girl’s family. In response, Keith opened his own private detective agency. Now, Veronica, with her sardonic wit and a few new friends, works as his assistant while also navigating life as a high school (and later college) student.

We’re about halfway through season 1, which aired on UPN in 2004-2005, and we’re both loving it.

For me, it’s especially fun to watch it with my significant other because he’s a filmmaker who’s actually dealt with actors, scripts, lighting, editing, all that good stuff — and, most fun of all, he’s a fan of classic noir (which I knew little about when I first watched the show).

Veronica Mars sits squarely in the noir genre — it’s got the traditional dens of corruption, questionable authority figures, greed and excess at the expense of the downtrodden, extreme wealth disparities, long dark shadows, rainy streets (sometimes — I mean it is Southern California), snarky private investigators and seedy underbellies.

There’s one major element that makes it different from most noir stories, though — its protagonist.

Can you guess? Here’s a clue – below is how tvtropes.com describes the main character in noir:

“The Anti-Hero is the most common protagonist of the Noir — a man alienated from society, suffering an existential crisis. Frequently portrayed as a disillusioned, cynical police officer or private-eye and played by a fast-talking actor, the Anti-Hero is no fool and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He faces morally ambiguous decisions and battles with a world that seems like it is out to get him and/or those closest to him.”

Yep, in Veronica Mars, our anti-hero ain’t a “he”.

Unlike the majority of noir stories (think of The Maltese Falcon, Touch of Evil, The Big Sleep, anything else written by Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler), Veronica Mars features a female lead as its hardboiled detective.

And this is pretty cool — not only because there’s still a dearth of shows with female leads (even more so back in 2004), but also because of the roles women are normally confined to in noir — the “femme fatale”.

The “femme fatale” is a villainous woman who may pretend to be a damsel in distress, but actually uses feminine wiles to ensnare, manipulate, and harm male characters. This traditionally included the anti-hero, who sometimes does, and sometimes doesn’t, resist her charms — but even if he does become entangled with her at one point, he always repulses her in the end.

From the beginning, Veronica Mars upends this convention simply through the gender-swapping of the protagonist. (And no, they didn’t swap Femme Fatales out for Phallic Fatales, either — though it’d be fun to say). Rob Thomas, the series creator, knew this going into it:

“Thomas initially wrote Veronica Mars as a young adult novel, which featured a male protagonist; he changed the gender because he thought a noir piece told from a female point of view would be more interesting and original.” –Wikipedia

But what makes this switch so successful is that, in every other way, Veronica truly embodies the traditional anti-hero. She isn’t a typical female character given a different label but with the same ole’ character traits still clinging to her.

Veronica certainly fits the cynical, disillusioned bit — she was abandoned by her mother, unraveled a murder mystery involving some of Neptune’s most “upstanding citizens”, saw her supposed friends abandon her in a time of need, and is now determined to see the world in black & white — and refuses to forgive.

Veronica does things no well-adjusted, reasonable person would do. She isn’t above running a background check on her father’s girlfriend, asking her best friend to risk expulsion for swiping students’ files from the school office, manipulating her new police officer boyfriend for access to evidence, or stealing her ex-boyfriend’s medical history from his doctor’s office.

And yet, we still root for her. She’s still the protagonist and viewers can still empathize with her. But we can also tell that her life — one that’s lived with gritted teeth and with a chip on her shoulder — isn’t something we’d really want to be living.

In fact, her father — the “official” private investigator who, on the surface, perfectly fits the noir protagonist role — is often a voice of stronger caution & morality. He’s the one who cautions Veronica that there are boundaries she shouldn’t cross, that there truly are shades of gray, and that most people still have some good in them. Veronica, of course, doesn’t listen.

Veronica has problems, and sometimes makes bad decisions. A lot of us would be justifiably leery of being her friend or dating her. In addition to smart, resilient, insightful, and funny, she can be weak, vindictive, petty, and foolish — like any male anti-hero (just think of Sherlock, Dexter, Tony Soprano… even Tony Stark will do).

But boring? Clichéd? One-dimensional? Most definitely not.

Veronica is an anti-hero first, and a female lead second. But this is why it’s important that she’s a “she” — Veronica Mars proves that a character doesn’t have to be simplified, flattened, or dumbed-down because the character’s a woman. Veronica doesn’t settle for being the “Strong Female Character” trope (she’s more than a princess who knows kung-fu). Instead, she’s still just as complex and flawed as the traditional male anti-hero.

Rob Thomas didn’t decide to have a female lead and then pick what her character could be from the existing pool of “women’s roles”. Instead, he started with a nuanced, complicated, challenging role, and then challenged its tradition by casting a woman in that role — to see what would happen. He thought it would be more interesting & original, and it was.

Unfortunately, few writers seem to have believed him & stepped up to the plate.

In fact, I tried to come up with more examples of female anti-heroes, and this is what my google search turned up:Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 9.29.18 AM.png

Though there have been a sprinkling of post-Veronica female anti-heroes (Nancy Botwin on Weeds, Olivia Pope on Scandal, anyone from Girls [though their anti-hero traits are largely reviled]) this list is cosmically dwarfed by the crop of complex male anti-heroes who have appeared since — just think of the likes of Walter White, Don Draper, Dexter Morgan, Dr. House… or the male lead of pretty much any HBO show. (Did you even need the names of their shows, by the way? Probably not, because they’re insanely popular).

The desire for these characters is clearly there, as is the frustration with their still-miniscule presence.

But ten years after Veronica Mars first aired, one of the most exciting anti-heroines to succeed her is, well… herself. The relative dearth of suitable successors is likely one of the reasons fans have clung so fiercely to the original, and why they were so eager to support her return to the silver screen.

Veronica Mars the TV show proved that the character could be built, and built to last through hundreds of storylines. Veronica Mars the movie, whose crowd-funding was so successful that Zach Braff shamelessly swiped its strategy for his own film, proves that viewers will pay to see them.

So, screenwriters: step up your game. Rob Thomas already showed you that it’s possible to cast a woman in a complex role. $2 million in 11 hours showed you writing her can pay well. So, what exactly are you waiting for?

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References & Further Reading:

Panem: A Land Without Sexism?

Extremely few spoilers — really, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’re gonna be fine.

Have you seen the latest installment in the Hunger Games film adaptation?

I caught it on Sunday, and hot damn, was it worth getting out of bed even while I was sick! It was exciting, it was thrilling, it was poignant, it had great action sequences and acting, and the special effects were top-notch.

But what I think is most important about “Catching Fire” is what it’s missing.

I’ll explain in a moment.

First, an explanation for those of you who aren’t familiar with the series:

In Panem, a post-nuclear-apocalyptic rearrangement of North America, a dystopian society reigns. The land was divided into 13 districts and the Capitol, and 75 years ago the districts rebelled against their government. After regaining control, the Capitol instituted an annual competition to remind the districts of the price of the peace they now “enjoy”; each year 24 teenage tributes (a boy and girl from each remaining district) must fight each other to the death. Only one is supposed to win, but in the first installment Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark from coal-mining, poverty-stricken District 12 outwitted the Game Master and managed to win the Hunger Games together, by play-acting a sympathetic love story.

The residents of the Capitol, extraordinarily decadent and oblivious to the despair and poverty most of the districts live with, consider the pair their darlings, and they are forced to act out their romance even after the Games end, much to the chagrin of Katniss’s childhood companion Gale, who harbors his own romantic feelings for the heroine. The people of the districts, however, don’t buy the love story and see their defiance of the Hunger Games as inspiration for a rebellion against the capitol — the manipulative President Snow then must try to turn the pair, and all other previous winners of the games, into a warning instead of a symbol of hope.

(On the same page, now? Great!)

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Gender-Neutral War

On the surface, this series could be very similar to a lot of action movies with female leads. We’ve got a love triangle. We’ve got an oppressive government trying to keep whole sections of the populace down. And we’ve got a woman warrior.

But in “Catching Fire”, there’s a notable absence that distinguishes it from many of these “Strong Female Character” films:

Katniss’ gender is not one of the film’s fixations.

“Catching Fire”, therefore, becomes refreshing in one of the same ways that “Parks & Recreation” is: yes, Katniss is very different from most female characters (even protagonists) we see today, so it’s a big deal to us. But her casting-off of feminine stereotypes (and the complementary peeling away of men’s as well) is not an issue within the film itself at all.

It is not startling to anyone in Panem that she is a female who behaves this way. She does not have to prove to people that she deserves to be taken seriously (as a hunter, as a warrior, or as a rebel) despite her gender. She is not held up against a bar of femininity that she must either measure up to or karate-chop out of the way.

Yes, the people in the Capitol want to mold her into something she isn’t, but the mold is based on classist perspectives, not gender stereotypes.

It’s nice to see that even Gale, the brawny, more traditionally masculine type in the film, doesn’t expect Katniss to do anything especially feminine (by our standards). Nor does he try to change her to be so. He never begs her to stop getting herself into trouble, nor is he frustrated that she won’t let him protect her from the harsh world (ahem, Twilight).

Pleasantly, the inverse is also true: men in Panem don’t seem to be held to any traditionally masculine standard of physical strength, aloofness, or anger.

Gale does not express any embarrassment at being physically rescued by Katniss. No one mocks Peeta as being “soft” or “girly” because he’s a mediocre fighter, bakes shortbread cookies, and is essentially Katniss’s movie girlfriend.

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I’ll take a pass on saucy wenches, thank you.

Not even the slimy, nefarious types like the career tributes, President Snow, or Game Maker Plutarch make any easy jabs at Katniss’s femininity or stereotypes of women or men.

And this is what makes “Catching Fire” stand out — it would have been so. friggin’. easy. to just follow that tradition. A script hatched in the more traditional bowels of Hollywood would’ve taken many more cliché opportunities:

Career tributes could have made some snarky comment to Peeta about being protected by “his girl”, and then we could’ve spent part of the film worrying that it was going to bother him and that he was going to do something foolish in an attempt to prove his masculinity. (Bo-ring).

Or we could’ve seen President Snow, in the scene where he taunts Katniss in her own home, say with a sinister smirk, “You’ll be much more content as a happy wife and homemaker back here instead of stirring up trouble.” He could’ve tried to put her in her place not only as poor person from District 12, but as a woman, too.

Of course, then Katniss could’ve made some saucy retort… which would have gotten laughs, but would be trite and insipid compared to what the absence of such an exchange signifies.

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What a b****?

The absence of cheap sexist pandering is carried even farther in a notable absence in the villains’ treatment of Katniss:

No one ever calls Katniss a “bitch”.

It would even have been easy for people to disregard this gender-based slur if it had been in the dialogue. Had the writers tossed it in, I doubt many people would have commented on it, and those who did would have been quickly shut down: “Of course they called her a bitch; they want to kill her! That’s the least of her problems.”

But the decision not to use it means so much more than its presence would have meant.

“Catching Fire” makes the choice to pass on the opportunity to drop this word, in even the villains’ speech. To use it would have been a cheap way to convey their hatred to the audience, and implied that her gender inspires part of their hate. No one, not even President Snow, considers her gender when evaluating her, whether as a threat or a hero.

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A sexism immunity incubator?

But even if someone did try to hurl “bitch” at Katniss, I don’t think it could have carried the weight it usually does.

Because, in order for such an insult to wound, there must be a fear within the victim that it might be true.

Calling a female character a “bitch” can be a harsh, wounding thing to say in most stories — because the women in them have learned to harbor fears that they really are nothing more than “some bitch”. This fear is often deeply-ingrained in both fictional and real women, and it’s this fear that makes us vulnerable to that word’s power to do harm.

Yet, Katniss harbors no such fear or self-doubt. Katniss has such a sense of self-worth, of identity, and of strength that she could not be stricken by such a ridiculous attempt to hurt her. There are of course other things that can hurt her, or make her doubt herself, but it takes much more than sexism to do it.

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Catching on?

By never even considering how her behavior, decisions, or actions would be viewed through a sexism-supporting paradigm, I think Katniss does much more for women’s self-esteem and confidence in their individual identity than a character who constantly brings up how stereotype-defying she is. As in “Parks and Recreation,” it’s the absence of sexism that makes the loudest statement.

(And the men in the film do much for this goal as well, though as secondary characters this absence cannot be as strongly felt).

Katniss is a character that’s invulnerable to sexism. Not because she had to choose to fight it, but because what it entails is so absurd to her that she could never be vulnerable to it. Even the villains treat her as an individual, rather than as a tired stereotype. There is no part of her that could worry that sexist critics (if they existed) would be right about her or about her value as a human being.

This lack of sexism, both internal and external, is perhaps the only redeeming quality of the dystopic Panem society, which otherwise turns a magnifying glass on the rest of our own society’s flaws: extreme wealth disparities, a lack of resources for the mentally ill, willed ignorance, consumerism, gluttony, and the inescapable cycle of poverty.

So while people are out and about getting excited about Catching Fire-themed makeup selections (ugh), the part of Panem I think we should really apply in our own world is the characters’ invulnerability to the pressures — and sometime cruelty — of sexism and gender stereotypes.

And who knows, maybe one day Hollywood can actually make money off that.

(Oh wait, it did).

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For further reading:

NPR: “What Really Makes Katniss Stand Out? Peeta, Her Movie Girlfriend.”

RogerEbert.com review of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

Ms. Magazine blog: “‘Catching Fire’: Positive Fuel for the Feminist Flame”

Reel Girl: “‘Catching Fire’ torches Hollywood’s gender stereotypes”

(BTW — don’t read the comments. They’re dumb).

Does it matter if Amy Poehler doesn’t wear makeup?

Have you ever watched videos on Amy Poehler’s vlog channel “Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls”?

If you haven’t, block out some time after school or work, and hunker down with your laptop because you’re in for a treat.

There are a bunch of sub-series on the channel, like “Smart Girls at the Party” where she and other co-hosting women interview really cool girls who do amazing things like being a firefighter or blowing glass or volunteering at an animal shelter. There’s also “Operation Nice” where watchers come up with good deeds to do in their neighborhoods, and “Boys Minute” and “Girls of the World” and even “Meow Meow Music”.

But my favorite sub-series is — by far — “Ask Amy”.

Not only because I think Amy Poehler is great and I love basically getting virtual 1-on-1 time with her.

And also, it’s not just because of the fascinating topics she covers, like inspirations of female empowerment, Anxiety, Bodies, and (most recently) Title IX.

Yes, it’s wonderful that someone with her level of popularity and popular culture leverage is doing something to bring discussions like that into the mainstream, and that she’s so personable.

But you know what I find most revelatory and intimate about those videos?

It’s that she doesn’t always wear makeup.

I don’t mean that absolutely — sometimes it does seem like she’s wearing makeup; whatever. And sometimes she’s got her hair in a ponytail and sometimes it looks very purposefully styled, other times not.

The exact level of “done up” she is exhibiting from one video to the next is not the point here.

It’s just the overall impression.

Sometimes Amy Poehler looks tired in the videos. Sometimes she’s wearing sweatpants, and other times adorable dresses. They’re filmed quickly, closely, comfortably with her computer’s camera or maybe her cell phone. She makes sure her face is visible, and sometimes she’s by a window that’s very flattering, but there’s no fancy lighting setups. She doesn’t always sit or stand with perfect, tummy-sucking-in posture.

This makes you feel like you’re just skyping with a friend who knows that you care more about what she has to say than about how she looks.

A friend who has let their guard down because they’re not worried about you evaluating how they look, even if they spent the whole day in delicately arranged makeup and high heels.

And Amy Poehler definitely spends a lot of her days looking carefully (and attractively) put-together with hair, makeup, and wardrobe. Just take a look at any Parks & Rec episode.

I’m sure it’d be easy for her to record all of these videos while she’s still in full hair and makeup for the day. With little to no effort, she could take the safe, traditional route of making sure she looks “pretty” before exposing her face and her body to the public eye.

For women, the default asked by society when you’re in public is an effortfully-created “pretty” — truly natural appearance is not average, but rather sub-par.

For female celebrities, it’s an even more strongly enforced standard — just google “female celebrities without makeup” and see how much pops up.

(No equivalent for male celebrities that I know of).

We’ve all noticed this, right?

I’m not even a big make-up person myself, but if I’m going out for more than a grocery run — or heaven forbid there are going to be pictures taken — I definitely feel like I ought to “at least” put on some mascara and make sure my hair is smooth just to “clean up” a bit.

(Clean up from a clean face??? What? This sounds ridiculous to me when I think about it).

But even I — not someone in the public eye, not someone who’s super into makeup and hairstyles these days — feel the pressure to sculpt myself up to a “bare minimum of put-togetherness” if I’m going to expose my appearance to other people.

And yet somehow Amy Poehler manages to confidently, without comment or fanfare, not really give a f***.

I never even catch her looking at the miniature version of herself on the screen instead of looking into the camera — something everyone I Skype or FaceTime with does constantly (including myself to a shocking extent, and including men I know, too!)

You could easily say that it’s not a statement, she doesn’t skip makeup on purpose, and it doesn’t mean anything… yadda yadda yadda.

But I don’t really believe that.

I think Amy Poehler knows how important it is to be open with how she looks at all different times of day and after all different types of days and purposefully choose to show that it is not a problem to look less “put-together”.

And another thing.

During this whole post, I’ve shied away from saying that she ever doesn’t look “attractive” or “pretty.” This is ostensibly to avoid suggesting that not wearing makeup or doing your hair or having flattering posture makes you less attractive. Because I shouldn’t ever say that a woman isn’t attractive — that’d be body snarking, right?

But the flip side of that is that I realized I am wholly giving in to the belief that calling a woman “unattractive” would be one of the worst things I could say about her. Say what she said was dumb, say she isn’t funny, whatever, but never say that she isn’t pretty unless I really want to insult her!

Am I serious?

So yeah, Amy Poehler does not look especially attractive all the time in those videos.

And that matters.

Because even if she doesn’t look attractive, that doesn’t matter at all because what she’s saying, how she’s saying it, and why she’s saying it means so much more than what her appearance happens to be for those 2 minutes.

So, the next time I hesitate before I accept someone tagging me in a less-than-flattering photo on Facebook, or I put on jeans because I’m too nervous to wear shorts after not shaving for 2 weeks, I hope I can think of “Ask Amy” and:

Just.

Not.

Give a damn.

And maybe some other woman or girl will see me and not give a damn the next time she’s worried about how she looks… and on and on until people are only getting dolled up because they want to, not because they’re afraid of being shamed if they aren’t.

How Miley Cyrus Gave Me Thicker Skin

I almost didn’t write this blog post.

I was actually scared off from writing it, because it’s such a polarizing issue, and I discovered in just about 3 seconds of google searching that you can get a shocking, overwhelming amount of hate for voicing your opinion on this.

I wanted to say something positive about Miley Cyrus.

Yeah, that’s it.

I just wanted to say something not negative about her recent music videos/performances.

It wasn’t even going to be entirely positive, either! Because there are some really good reasons to be displeased with some of her recent comments and performances. And also, I don’t really think she’s that big of a deal. So I wasn’t going to devote more than a couple of paragraphs to those musings.

Basically, it was gonna be something relatively lightweight about how after I watched her “Wrecking Ball” video on her VEVO channel, it auto-played this wicked old video of hers called “Fly on the Wall” from when she still had long curled brown Disney Channel hair and baby fat and her sexydancing was way awkward.

And when I saw them juxtaposed I was like, “WHOAH! Her sexy moves in the old video are much less resemblant of actual sex moves than in her more recent videos! Maybe she had only seen sex in movies or something when she filmed that first video, because she looks super awkward and kind of like she doesn’t know that isn’t what real sexy stuff looks like. Or maybe she’s just not self-confident enough at that point to let her real understanding of sexuality be revealed on-camera, because then people would’ve thought she was a slut and she actually cared about that then.”

That was the tack I was going to take. I mean there was probably still going to be some exploration of how the fact that her dancing now kind of admits that she’s got real-life sexual experience nowadays is what’s really upsetting people. (Because if her sexydancing wasn’t so realistic it wouldn’t be a big hoopla, I bet).

But when I write a blog post about someone I don’t feel like I know a lot about (and I know extremely little about Miley Cyrus), I try to do some research to make sure I’m not missing anything that everyone else knows that’ll come back to bite me in the butt.

So I did some googling on Miley Cyrus just to see what she had said about her “Wrecking Ball” video and what other people had said about it, for frame of reference.

And I was shocked.

I felt appalled, sickened, and wanted to curl up in a ball and pretend I hadn’t read the things people had said about her.

“DISGUSTING.”

“WHORE.”

“PITIFUL.”

“PROSTITUTE.”

“DUMB.”

“SLUT.”

And on and on.

All because she wore a bikini on-stage and danced like every high schooler at prom (or college student at a kegger) since 2001?

There are plenty of other reasons to have issues with Miley Cyrus and her performances.

There are racial implications of her use of twerking and women of color as dancers in her performances. She’s clearly not well educated about nor empathetic to people suffering from mental illness. She is not as good a dancer as Beyoncé or Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake. (Or, of course, plenty of famous people from before I was 13 years old, but I’m going to stick with what I know best).

But most of these commenters aren’t hating on Miley Cyrus for any of those completely serious and understandable reasons.

They think she’s “disgusting” because her performances have been so sexual recently — and because she seems to be doing it on purpose, and because she wants to.

It would be one thing if she said afterwards that she’d felt uncomfortable during the VMAs performance. That her manager had forced her to do it, but she’s a good girl and she didn’t want to, but she felt like she had to if she wanted to have a career, but now she’s wondering if it’s even worth it if that’s the price you have to pay for something as temporary as fame.

But that’s not what she’s saying.

Miley Cyrus wants to show how sexy she is. She wants to show that she likes sex. She wants to use that to get publicity. She wants to make money and be famous. She wants to have fun. She wants to do over-the-top things.

Why?

Because she can. Because she’s 20 years old, and 20-year-olds want to do crazy stuff! (I mean, what would you have done with all her money and fame when you were 20?)

And because she’s a human being with a sex drive. Because she doesn’t have a problem showing naked ambition.

(Pun not intended, but now that it’s on the page, I’mma embrace it).

Miley Cyrus doesn’t give a f*** what advice those people have for her. She isn’t a helpless little girl. She’s a smart, successful, savvy woman who is happy with her choices right now and when she isn’t, it looks like she can change ’em herself.

She doesn’t look like she needs rescuing from manipulative managers or music execs. She doesn’t need an intervention to rescue her from Hollywood.

She’s living her dream because she has made the money and the friends and the fame to let her do the type of crazy, id-driven stuff that lots of 20-year-olds want to do but usually can’t get away with.

Why should she pretend that she doesn’t want to party? Or be famous? Or have sex? Or make money?

These people whose comments are the most prevalent aren’t mad at Miley Cyrus for being a human who was gyrating on-stage or grabbing her crotch (because, you know, no one has ever done that on-stage before).

They’re mad that she refuses to be ashamed of it. They’re mad that their shaming can’t convince her that her desires need to be hidden and restrained and embarrassing. They’re mad because she’s a female human being who’s unashamed to be overtly, blatantly sexual — and unabashedly fame-seeking, to boot.

No one is saying things this hateful about Robin Thicke for portraying someone who enjoys having a half-naked woman rub up on him. The problem is with the woman who’d actually do it (and might even enjoy it).

She should be properly ashamed to ask for what she wants, just like these hostile critics are. Especially since she’s a woman, who shouldn’t be “overly ambitious” nor “overly sexual”.

Because I mean, WHAT WOULD HOLD SOCIETY TOGETHER IF WE DIDN’T HAVE SHAME???

/facepalm.

So I’mma go back into my internet comment-free life now, and just assume slut shaming is receding and that it’s OK for women to boldly pursue fame, fortune, sex and power.

And in the meantime, I am going to publish this post. Because yeah, it would really suck if all of those commenters from other corners of the internet came here and called me a whore-supporter or a slut or immoral or depraved. But if Miley Cyrus doesn’t let it get to her, then I don’t really need to, either.

In Ms. Cyrus’s words,

“It’s my mouth — I can say what I want to.”

Does TV have to go to prison to give women their own lives?

Most people* who’ve seen “Orange is the New Black” are thrilled with it—the Netflix-only series even got renewed for a second season before the first was released on the site in July.

Based on the memoirs of Piper Kerman, a Smith College alumna who served 13 months in the women’s prison in Danbury, CT, the show’s main character is Piper Chapman, a similar-but-not-carbon-copy of the real Piper, who serves the same sentence in a fictional Litchfield prison.

There are many reasons the show has gained such avid fans: stellar performances, references to the Kinsey Scale, “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan at the helm, the awkward return of “American Pie” star Jason Biggs to something that’s actually popular.

Top among the reasons for its overwhelmingly positive reception is the way that the show uses a white woman (which is pretty typical on tv) as a kind of bridge that exposes viewers to other women’s stories—fully fleshed-out, 3 dimensional stories, at that.

WASP-y Piper Chapman, despite being the “Main Character,” is less interesting and less sympathetic than the women around her, which include (in numbers and heterogeneity virtually unprecedented on television thus far): women of color, poor women, elderly women, queer women, trans*women, and women without her prestigious collegiate degree.

These women rarely make appearances in mainstream culture, so an entire show centered around their lives is brand-spankin’ new to viewers.

However, beyond all these great reasons is one reason I haven’t seen pop up in any articles:

It’s the only show on television that passes the Bechdel Test almost 100% of the time.

Are you familiar with the Bechdel test?

Here’s the definition:

  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man

Now, there are plenty of other shows with lots of female characters – even main characters. Shows like “Scandal” and “Once Upon a Time” and “Girls”.

(I actually haven’t seen “Scandal”, but it was referenced as a rebuttal to that “I Hate Strong Female Characters” article that was floating around a few weeks ago, so I want to open the floor for fans to make its case).

But despite the fact that (for example) “Girls” literally has 4 women as its main characters, most scenes don’t pass the Bechdel Test.

Now, not every scene needs to pass the test for something to be worth watching.

But when it’s rare for most shows or movies to have even one scene that earns it a passing mark, I think the antidote should be something stronger than, “a show that passes it kind of often.”

Just because a show has a qualifying scene doesn’t mean the show is the best it can be, and media is totally on board with the whole feminism thing. I’d argue that a show like “Orange is the New Black” (where nearly every scene qualifies) is much more of a true standard toward which scenes and characters should be aspiring—the Bechdel Test is really just the bare minimum threshold.

Even in shows that have female leads and pass the Bechdel test frequently, there’s a lot left unexplored.

For example, when the women on “Girls” aren’t talking about men, they’re usually still talking about how better to live up to some societal standard or another—how to act at their jobs, what to wear, what their parents expect of them, yadda yadda.

“Orange is the New Black” is different.

In OitNB, the women don’t have an external society whose expectations they have to live up to.

They’ve been removed from traditional society, and placed inside prison society, whose rules are completely different.

And in the prison setting, a new society is built from scratch—by the women themselves.

Of course, the (mostly male) guards have rules they enforce, but those lie only on the surface of prison society, just like the laws in our country are only a fraction of the influences we operate under in the non-prison world.

So when we watch OitNB’s Piper, Taystee, Pennsatucky, Big Boo, Poussey, et al go about their lives inside the prison, it’s a rare opportunity for viewers.

The women’s interactions are calculated exclusively to satisfy their own desires, aspirations, and agendas. They are not performing for the Male Gaze (in fact, it’s all from women’s perspectives). They are no longer conforming to standards anyone else created. They are “free” to create a society that exists only to support themselves, not to keep them down in relation to another, more privileged group.

And the show itself is free to give them the screentime to do this.

Though the women have literally less freedom than female characters in most shows or film, by removing traditional societal rules from the playing field, “Orange is the New Black” gives its female characters fewer limits and more room to portray a wide swath of women and interpersonal dynamics than any other show.

The time the show gets to spend—and the characters & actresses get to spend—purely on women’s stories can now take up almost the entirety of the show, instead of being restricted to just one or two scenes.

That’s progress. That’s what I think the Bechdel test is really trying to achieve.

But isn’t it kinda messed up that, in order to set female characters free from these boundaries, TV had to put ‘em in prison?

.

*Of course, as with anything that’s gaining near-universal acclaim, there are dissenters. There’s even someone who thinks it’s today’s modern Slave Narrative. (But, really, when even Jezebel commenters think you’re overreacting—and you haven’t even watched the whole series—your argument may not be water-tight).