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…

Fridge

…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.

MGS1

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.

PazGZ

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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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.

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.

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?

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*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).