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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a game like Transistor.

As fellow Promethean Stewart wrote,

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

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

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

…Cue Dramatic Irony

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

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

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

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

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Valar Morghulis: Images of Death in Sci Fi and Fantasy

Valar Morghulis: “All men must die.”  All of human culture grapples with this unavoidable fact, from Game of Thrones to millennia-old world religions.  Death looms large in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic. Wars, executions, gods of death, and even the walking dead  all play key parts in the drama.   Martin’s  infamous for killing off beloved central characters, which instills a unique sense of realistic danger into his fantasy.

But Martin is definitely not the first to seem to fixate on death in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy.  The genres have a preoccupation with death.  This is seen most clearly in the sub-genre of apocalypse.

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day

In the modern era, sci-fi took over the religious genre of apocalypse to give us pictures of global disaster that come not from divine wrath, but from human hubris.  The Day the Earth Stood Still and Terminator 2 are classic examples.  But the fear of death is most perfectly reflected in the sub-genre of zombie apocalypse.  The living are pursued by the rotting corpses that they will inevitably become.  In succumbing to the zombies, our heroes become death personified.  In defeating them, they defeat death itself.

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The Walking Dead

Fighting death itself provides a world of thematic possibilities.  Dawn of the Dead shows us how human will can be deadened by consumerism; The Walking Dead asks us to examine what makes life worthwhile in the face of hardship; farces like Zombieland provide us with the catharsis of seeing death defeated in increasingly bizarre and sadistic ways.

“All men must die,” the zombie apocalypse reminds us through a  horrific vision of  the rotting corpses that we are all destined to become.

But another fantasy genre asks, “Must they?”

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True Blood

The vampire is the other side of the coin.  It personifies our fear of death not by showing us a horrifying, walking corpse, but by fulfilling our death-denying fantasies.  The vampire is eternal youth and beauty.  And the vampire is always seductive.  They tempt us because we too have a desire to cheat death.

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Dracula

Yet vampires are horrific because their immortality and beauty is ultimately a lie.  They have not escaped death, but in fact thrive on death.  In order to live forever, the vampire mythos tells us, we must become death.  There is still no escape from the reality of mortality, and to attempt escape is to become a monster.

This is all quite grim, and makes it seem like sci-fi and fantasy don’t have a very healthy relationship with death.  But I would argue that the genres also provide us with beautiful pictures of the inevitable. “After all,” says Albus Dumbledore, “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter does not give us answers to what lies beyond the veil, but it shows us that the preoccupation with escaping death leads us to miss out on life.  In the wizarding fairy tale “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” we see that it is impossible to escape death, but that we can find peace in being able to “greet Death as an old friend” when our time comes.

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The Lord of the Rings also provides beautiful imagery.   In the film version of The Return of the King, Gandalf says:

The journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it…White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

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The Return of the King

But for my money, the most creative picture of death comes from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.  In his graphic novels, Death is personified as a friendly goth girl.  

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This unlikely picture of Death fits so perfectly because she is both older than the universe and as young as today, she simultaneously personifies the final End to all things and a mysterious beginning to what may or may not be Beyond.

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In volume 7 of the series, Brief Lives, Death encounters a man named Bernie, who has magically lived for thousands of years.  She tells him something that gets to the core of her character, and  humankind’s experience of her.

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“You lived what anybody gets.  You got a lifetime.”

Death isn’t something to run to, or to run from.  But she’ll be there for all of us.

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Sandman doesn’t give us easy answers about death, but it shows us that it’s not something to be afraid of.  She greets us not with a hood and scythe, but with black eyeliner and a friendly smile.

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All men – and women – must die.  But first, we get what everyone gets.  We get a lifetime.   

Did Han Shoot First? The Question of Canon

Recently Harry Potter creator JK Rowling made big headlines in both the geek and mainstream press for this controversial statement:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron…I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility.”

Needless to say, Rowling’s remarks inspired rage, fury, and heartbreak in thousands of Harry Potter fans who believe that Ron and Hermione belong together, this blogger included. But on the other side of the coin, thousands of Harry/Hermione shippers have found themselves vindicated by the most authoritative voice in the Potter fandom — the creator herself.

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Which raises the question: who is right? Do the Ron/Hermione shippers win the fight because their version of events is printed in millions of books that will be read for generations, or are the Harry/Hermione shippers right because of the fact that the creator of these stories would change the outcome if she had it to do over?

Another Rowling revelation some years back created greater media frenzy, but was for the most part accepted as canon by the Potter fandom: Dumbledore is gay. This character detail, while never explicitly stated in the text, makes sense of Dumbledore’s complicated relationship with the dark wizard Grindelwald. Since this extratextual detail complements the  existing canon, it was accepted as canon by the readers. So the authority to declare canonicity seems to rest not on the voice of the creator, but on the consensus of the fans.

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When the creation becomes bigger than the creator, the question of canonicity becomes complex. One fandom perfectly illustrates this complexity, and the push and pull between the authority of the creator and the authority of the fans can be succinctly summed up in three words:

Han shot first.

The abominable quality of the Star Wars prequels aside, George Lucas created rage and frustration by altering the content of the original trilogy. Like Rowling, he realized that if he had it to do again, there are things about his movies that he would change.  Unlike Rowling, he did go back and make those changes, and he refuses to release the original theatrical versions of the films, making dusty VHS copies of the original trilogy the only way for fans to enjoy the unaltered movies that they love.

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A new scene featuring a CGI Jabba the Hutt is one of the many alterations made to the “special edition” re-releases of Star Wars

In case this is your first day on the internet, the most controversial alteration in Lucas’ “Special Edition” re-releases of Star Wars happens in Han Solo’s introductory scene. He’s confronted by the bounty hunter Greedo, who makes it clear that he’s going to kill Han to redeem the price on his head. In the original version, Han shoots Greedo under the table and coolly walks away, establishing his character as a charming but cutthroat rogue. In the altered version, Greedo shoots at Han first, missing at close range, and Han immediately fires back, killing Greedo. Fans argue that this alteration completely ruins Han’s character arc. If he is not first established as something of a selfish cad who will do anything to protect his own hide, his growth into a hero who will risk his life to save his friends has no meaning. What on the surface appears to be a minor CGI alteration is in fact a major change to the story.

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Frame from the altered “Greedo shot first” version of Star Wars

Fans claim that the true canon of Star Wars is made up of the three original, unaltered films. But they concede that they have little power to wrest creative control from Lucas, even if he is violating the canon.

But sometimes fans do gain control.

Some stories in the nerdverse have long outlived their creators. The best examples are DC and Marvel superheroes. Since some of these characters have been around for close to a century, the people who now write their stories were once the fans who idolized the characters. The fans have literally taken over creative control of the canon.

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A character’s look and personality can change significantly as creative control changes hands over the years

And yet this doesn’t end fan dissatisfaction with new developments in the canon. The need to cater to these fans, along with the unwieldy nature of storylines that span multiple decades, have resulted in the ability to completely erase canon with the universe retcon.

A controversial universe retcon recently took place outside of comics in the world of another character who has been entrusted to multiple creators, Doctor Who.

Warning:

In the 21st century, the character of the Doctor has largely been defined by the fact that he is a remorseful war criminal, having been forced to destroy his homeworld of Gallifrey in order to save the rest of the universe. This was undone in the 50th anniversary special of the show, when the Doctor, with the help of his previous regenerations, is able to save Gallifrey. While the episode was a fun excuse to get David Tennant back on screen, fans argue that this retcon cheapens the Doctor’s character and robs the show of much of its philosophical depth. While they are willing to go along with new developments that new creators bring to the story, fans feel that the canon is insulted by creators who undo things.

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Retcons provide a “big friendly button” to creators who want to rewrite canon

Perhaps the best way to understand the slippery nature of canonicity is to look to a book that has generated a more hardcore fandom than Star Wars and Doctor Who combined: the Bible.

The Bible has dealt with all the canonicity issues at play here. 1 and 2 Chronicles are the “Special Edition Re-release” versions of 1 and 2 Kings, with alterations that seem to do nothing but make the story less interesting. The New Testament is to the Old Testament as new Doctor Who is to old Doctor Who; a fresh spin to an old franchise that messed with the original series but managed to attract a whole new group of fans. The Book of Revelation is the series finale that disappointed all of the fans, who have been writing re-interpretive fan fic ever since.

The lesson is that every fan creates their own canon. The original creators provide the material, but we pick which parts are most important to us. It’s what makes the geek community beautiful — we don’t just love a movie or book or TV series; we let our imaginations run wild in the playgrounds that the original creators provided for us. We’re not just observers; we’re participators, co-creators. Our passion gives the creation of one person a life far beyond what they intended. For better or worse, when Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker and the Doctor first made their ways outside of their creator’s minds and into ours, their worlds became something that we all share ownership in. Hopefully, taking a cue from the Bible fandom canon wars, we will learn to play nice.

But seriously, Han shot first.  

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.”