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…

game ad

 

Advertisements

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.

death-proof-poster-artwork-kurt-russell-rosario-dawson-vanessa-ferlito

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.)

Mikebar1

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.

large_dp

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.

tumblr_lrn0x6LwcN1qljzbzo1_500

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.

876102_1339645980048_450_300

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.

tumblr_l5ogm05O8I1qb1zjjo1_500

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.

tumblr_l9bkee1eqL1qbab8zo1_500

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.

death-proof-end-title-still

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.

Why Comics Growing Up Means Universes Have to Die…

Spoilers for New Avengers

What makes modern day comics so interesting in the “gray” areas in which they decide to tread.

In the medium’s early years of “flight and tights” stories, it was all about truth, justice, and the American way. Everything was black and white; you knew who the good guys and the villains were, and you knew the outcome every time…

The heroes would do the “heroic” thing, and win.

There wasn’t a discussion of the morality of the action. There didn’t need to be. Captain America just had to punch Hitler or Superman just had to save Lois one more time. This was the norm.  No one questioned it either. It was a lovely naivete that we all accepted, and we enjoyed the stories that came with it.

Yet, as the years went by, comics grew up along with its readers. Nowadays, things are not so clean cut for our heroes. Yes, there is still Cap, Superman, and all the other classics, but they are put into situations that would never have crossed the minds of their original creators. They force the reader to question their own ethics and morality, and to examine these “heroes” in a different light.

This brings us to New Avengers…

 

New Avengers focuses on the Illuminati of the Marvel universe, a secret cabal formed to take care of the universe ending threats that may come upon Earth. Its membership includes Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Dr. Strange, Black Bolt, Namor, Black Panther, Captain America, and most recently Beast (who took the deceased Charles Xavier’s position.) These men shape the Marvel universe from the background, and safeguard existence without anyone’s knowledge.

Since its relaunch, the group has been dealing with “incursions” into our universe. These incursions are where a parallel universe starts overlapping with our own, and if not stopped, destroys both in the process.

The group spends the first couple of issues trying to find ways to stop this from happening; even to the point of using a reality warping deus ex machina (the infinity gauntlet) to “push” one of the encroaching universes back. Of course, this only works once due to the gauntlet’s destruction, and the Illuminati are left to wonder what they need to do next.  This invariably leads them to a singular conclusion…

Destroy the other universes.

It is a terrifying thought, but a completely rational conclusion. If nothing is done, both universes will be destroyed; so why not destroy one in order to save the other? It is the classic ethical debate, the moral quandary that has been discussed by Ethicists and Philosophers for years.  Do you kill the one to save the many? Do you let some people die, so that not all will?  Yet, instead of reading it in a textbook, we get it played out in our comics…

This type of discussion forces the reader to confront his or her own feelings on the issue. As you read the page, you find yourself naturally drifting to one side of the argument or the other.  As the reader travels deeper into the story, they too find our more about themselves in the reading.

How far would you go to save your planet? What lines would you cross to what you believe is right? We are able to live vicariously through some of our most iconic heroes as they play out their own answers to those very questions…

Sometimes doing things that we didn’t think they would…

This is what differentiates modern comics from most of the Gold and Silver age stories. Those were written to make you feel good, to experience a bit of escapism, and maybe some pro-America propaganda (lookin’ at you, Cap.)

Now, there are many mainstream comics out there that exist not only to tell a good story, but to make you think along the way. This, of course, leads to much more adult and darker story beats; not for the sake of being edgy but for greater narrative depth.

Long gone are the days of yore where your heroes were always the “good” guys. We live in a world where people get their hands dirty when trying to do the “right” thing; where even our heroes are living in shades of gray in the name of protecting all of us. Modern comics have given writers the opportunity to discuss these types of philosophical and ethical issues in a medium whose typical reader wouldn’t be normally interested in such discussions.

Because comics have “grown up,” they have become an open forum to discuss topics like racism, sexism, morality, ethics, sex, philosophy, religion, and so much more. Writers today don’t want your comics to just be about escapism, they want you to use your mind in the process.

The flipside to all of this is the fact that there has been an innocence lost in our comics. Now that we culturally have crossed some line, there is no going back to that old way of doing things.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just means things are different now, and different can be good.

The age of the morally ambiguous hero is upon us, and the stories that will come out of this will be incredibly interesting. Whether it is the questionable actions of the Illuminati, Superior Spiderman’s gang of spider-thugs, or the ENTIRE concept of the Suicide Squad; these stories would have been impossible to tell before; at least in their current form.

Only time will tell if we ever find our way back to the “flight and tights,” days, but until then all we can do is look back, remember who we were and wonder where our heroes are going next.