Fridge

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.

Watch Dogs

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.

Yorick Brown and Women After Mass Descruction

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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.

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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:

Friday Feature: Garfunkel and Oates

I love funny women – as everyone should.

I also have a weakness for really weird bands – a slightly more niche interest that keeps me squarely qualified as nerd enough to write for this blog. I was introduced to this nerdy genre by Lemon Demon, the one-man project of geek icon Neil Cicierega.  I’m also a huge fan of Wizard Rock (Harry and the Potters puts on the most punk rock show ever), and I routinely blast “Ira Glass” by nerdcore rapper Adam Warrock when I’m driving around in my Nissan Sentra.

My love for funny women and weird bands is united in the comedy super-duo, Garfunkel and Oates.  Ever since we heard their new song “The Loophole,” my friends and I can’t stop belting out the chorus at inappropriate moments – check out the video below to see what I mean (NSFW or those with delicate sensibilities – which applies to most of their songs).

Garfunkel and Oates, made up of Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome, sing songs that are both supremely clever and exuberantly immature.   Some are sharp social-political satire like “The Loophole,” “Save the Rich,” and “Sex With Ducks,” while others, like “Pregnant Women are Smug” and “I Would Never Have Sex With You” take off on the absurd banalities of everyday life.  Some are even surprisingly sweet, like “Silver Lining.”

It’s always great to see women being unapologetically crude, and doing it so well.  Growing up, girls are conditioned to be polite, sweet, and inoffensive.  While boys get to grow out of this “seen and not heard” period of childhood, women can get perpetually stuck there because of all the societal pressure to please others, especially to please men.  Garfunkel and Oates totally reject the expectation to be “ladylike,” and are freed to make some great feminist observations about sexuality and male-female relationships (in the midst of all the dick jokes).

If you’re already familiar with Garfunkel and Oates’ discography, the great news is that they have a new TV series coming out on IFC in 2014, with promises of new songs to come.  I can’t wait.

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).

Diversity, Queerness, and the Muppets

I don’t think the Muppets could have been created anywhere but America. As bizarre as their universe is — where tiny little bunnies and 7-foot tall monsters and ordinary looking humans all coexist without comment — it is at the same time very familiar. Our country at its best is all about the intersecting and blending of different cultures and diverse people. The Muppets represent the ideal America: everyone getting along and working together no matter how different they are; thriving not in spite of, but because of their diversity.  

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Created at around the same time, the Muppets give off the same utopian sense of optimism that the original Star Trek series does. But the Muppets are even more effective because they are not quite as consciously political. On Star Trek, we’re occasionally hit over the head with the idea: “If we can stop all  this war and prejudice nonsense, we can all get along — Soviets, Americans, aliens, everybody.” It’s heartfelt, but a little ham-fisted.

But with the Muppets, we’re asked to accept without question the idea that a bear and a frog are friends. And we do. And that’s awesome. At the heart of this quirky little puppet show is the idea that difference isn’t a barrier to love.

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Which points towards the fact that the sensibility of the Muppets is more than just multiracial and multicultural — it’s queer. I do not use the term to mean (necessarily) gay — to be queer is to subvert heteronormative behavioral expectations, whatever your gender or sexual orientation. And the Muppets do that all the time.

Take the off-beat relationship between Gonzo and his girlfriend Camilla the chicken. Or the familial structure of the Muppets — living together in a big community house, in a family that is structured by mutual affection and shared values rather than genetic ties. Most obviously, take Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy — they are one of pop culture’s most recognizable couples, and yet they subvert gendered expectations at practically every level.

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Against gender stereotypes, Piggy usually pursues Kermit. She is outspoken, physically imposing, and independent; he is soft-spoken, gentle, and community-minded. They manage to embody hetero norms while simultaneously contradicting them.

I may be accused of reading too deeply into children’s entertainment, but I think the fact that this subversive diversity is present in children’s entertainment is what makes it so significant.  While so much of children’s media is conventional in its gender and sexual politics, the Muppets provide an alternative glimpse into a positive, family-friendly portrayal of queerness.  

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The first television show that many of us ever saw was Sesame Street. From this incarnation of the Muppets we learned not just numbers and letters, but the multiplicity of forms that family can take — families on Sesame Street are multiracial, inclusive of people with disability, bilingual, headed by women, families of choice — all forms of family that subvert patriarchal norms.

Of course, in the utopian communities portrayed in the world of the Muppets, we see America through rose-colored glasses. This is satirized in the musical Avenue Q, where Muppet-like characters have to face the problems embedded in the real world — racism, unemployment, homophobia. It points out that our world isn’t quite as nice as what Sesame Street prepares us to expect.

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However, Henson’s creations are not meant to reflect society’s realities — they are meant to reflect our aspirations. As Henson himself said, “I’ve always tried to present a positive view of the world in my work. It’s so much easier to be negative and cynical and predict doom for the world than it is to try and figure out how to make things better. We have an obligation to do the latter.”

And so even as we live in a country where people of color are still systematically oppressed, where religious minorities are persecuted, and where queer people are murdered, our hopes are raised by the dream of a better world. We attempt to form communities that go against the grain and create spaces where we can be our full selves. In these “queer” spaces, we are liberated from society’s expectations.

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As even the ever-optimistic Kermit points out, it’s not easy being green — to be “other” because of our skin color or gender or sexuality. But when we learn that our difference is what makes us beautiful — individually and in community — we realize that “it’s all we wanna be.”