Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Feminist Fangirl Has Moved!!!

I've moved to Tumblr because it's format makes it easier for me to post more frequently. I've transferred all my old content. Same blog, new location!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sexism from Both Sides

I've been a devoted reader of The New Yorker since middle school, and I’ve been happy to note that the magazine has been riding a fantastic trend of articles focusing on women in the media.  But I’ve never been a fan of their film critics, who have a tendency to veer off subject.  In the magazine’s March 26th issue, critic David Denby veered off in the wrong direction. He scored double points in sexism for making stereotypical assumptions about “feminine” interests, then went on to inexplicably suggest women who are being barred from expressing their (totally un-ladylike) interests should be grateful for that glass ceiling. Because those interests actually suck! Allow my letter to the editor to explain:

In his critical review of John Carter, (link behind a paywall, grrr), the science fiction film, directed by Andrew Stanton, David Denby unwisely resorts to gender stereotyping in an apparent effort to compliment the tastes of women filmmakers.  Denby identifies Stanton’s childhood enjoyment of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels as representing a “male affliction,” adding “most women directors became obsessed with different books when they were little girls.”
The many women who love science fiction, action and fantasy, myself included, are tired of having to constantly declare our existence before the mainstream film industry.  It’s almost as fatiguing as having to defend our interests against accusations of pointless juvenility, a practice in which Mr. Denby also chooses to engage. I find it particularly troubling when Denby adds “Even if they [women directors] loved action and fantasy they don’t have enough clout to attract large sums, which may be just as well.”

I suppose Mr. Denby thinks women should consider themselves lucky that entrenched inequality in filmmaking is keeping them from making the movies he doesn’t find enjoyable, regardless of whether or not they want to make them. Perhaps he should consider the possibility that adding more women directors to the mix could strengthen the quality of the science fiction, fantasy, and action genres. I am no particular fan of Burroughs, and I believe John Carter is probably a bore, but I don’t believe Mr. Denby needs to resort to belittling my interests and stereotyping my gender in order to successfully review a film.

Ironically, I was already prepared to dislike John Carter because of some sexist things the director said wayback in November.  John Carter is based on A Princess of Mars, the first novel in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ turn of the century science fiction series. Explaining why he changed the title, Andrew Stanton explained, “I’d already changed it from A Princess of Mars to John Carter of Mars. I don’t like to get fixated on it, but I changed Princess of Mars…because not a single boy would go. And then the other truth is no girl would go to see John Carter of Mars. 

Yeah, you see, I’m a girl. I also like science fiction, especially Space Opera. Burroughs’ novels were some of the first examples of the Space Opera genre. So I was interested in seeing John Carter. Until Andrew Stanton told me I wasn’t. Because I’m a girl. It’s revealing that David Denby engaged in identical sexism while trashing the movie Stanton directed. Turns out it these guys can agree on one thing; stereotyping the interests of women is the way to go.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Happy Easter!

I wish I had come up with this, but I merely found it via Her Universe. I threw together a few solid colored eggs at 10pm last night. But one year I made Labyrinth Bowie eggs with my friends! That surely counts for something?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Baby Dragons!

More specifically, Game of Thrones!! I am too excited for this weekend’s season two premiere. Seriously, it’s unhealthy.  The gender issues at play in George R.R. Martin’s novels, and the fantastic HBO adaptation, are super complex and deserve a very well thought out post or two. Or ten. I'm on it! Until then, let’s just bask in the awesomeness that is Daenerys Targaryen. And baby dragons.  

Monday, March 26, 2012

We’re in the Money

So, this past weekend, an action movie with a non-sexualized female lead broke a few box-office records. I may be the only feminist fangirl who hasn’t read The Hunger Games, and at this point I’m in that weird position where, even though the books look good, I’m turned off by the idea of coming late to the party. My loss, I assume. But I am incredibly pleased that the film adaptation became the highest grossing non-sequel and non-summer release of all time, with a weekend take of $155 Million.  I’m usually skeptical about the to-do over box office records. Adjusted for inflation, people still bought more tickets for Gone with the Wind. But studio execs don’t care about inflation, they care about how much money is made. So I’ll take these “record breaking” numbers if only on the chance they might smack some sense into people who think female driven films can’t strike gold.

Of course, female audiences were 61% of the people who bought those tickets, which will maybe help studios start respecting the tastes of women,[1] when fishing for blockbusters. I also would like to point out that men, 40% of the audience, were apparently interested in a story about a woman. Gasp! How can it be?! It can.

So yeah, this is great. I look forward to seeing if it leads to any real change. Though, it would have been nice if The Hunger Games had been directed by a woman. Just sayin’.

[1] “Tastes of women” does not equal “romantic comedies.”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Gender and Television 101: Why I Love Community

NBC’s Community is my favorite show. I’m not a huge television fan, so the shows that make it into my regular routine really have to earn it. And Community surely has.  It’s a rare combination of highly layered post-modernism and fantastic satire with genuinely lovable and nuanced characters. Even in the midst of its one thousand and one spoofs, it manages to keep us emotionally involved with its stories. So, yes I was one of the 4.9 million fans who I hope had something to do with the show’s stellar ratings during its return last week, contributing to a higher chance that it might hang on for a little longer (#sixseasonsandamovie!!!). SO, what do I, die-hard feminist, think of Community’s female characters?

I think they work well as superheroes. But I digress.

Community is a very complex show, its unique tone and refusal to bow to mainstream sensibilities makes it difficult to assess its feminism via the same standards I would use for another show. Community is not like Parks and Recreation, which I also enjoy. Parks and Rec is funny, but it is rarely biting. It is warm and fuzzy, the Pam and Jim of TV shows.[1] Parks and Rec is unabashedly feminist, but in a way that doesn’t really challenge or confront us. It sits comfortably, and only sparks strong reactions from the occasional misogynist idiot.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Parks and Rec, and its consciously feminist stance is a necessary voice in the current television landscape.[2]

Don't worry Leslie, I recognize your contribution to the fight.
But Community is a more challenging show. It’s not afraid of alienating a more mainstream audience with its high concept episodes and story arcs. It rejects and ridicules storytelling cliches and character stereotypes, but it also intentionally includes them from time to time. By lamp-shading these devices, Community asks us think critically about them and why they appear so frequently in other narratives.

Therefore, Britta is both a genuine feminist character and a spoof of “activist” characters. Yet even as aspects of her personality exist as parody, she is herself a complete character, not a spoof. While most of her other activist positions are portrayed with satire in mind, her feminist critiques of situations are usually legitimate, funny, and taken seriously by the show.[3] Furthermore, it is so refreshing to have a female character on television who is sexually liberated, but never subjected to slut shaming in any form. Even though Jeff and Britta continue to sleep together after their “will they or won’t they” plot line is over and done, the show makes very little to do about it.

Annie is a more complicated case. She is ultra-feminine, a controlling perfectionist, and emotionally immature, but she also has wonderful bursts of confidence, humor and control which are all the more wonderful because they are unexpected. There has been a lot of criticism of Annie being sexualized. The two most prominent examples in my mind are in the naming of Troy’s pet monkey “Annie’s Boobs,” a choice which, while reflective of Troy’s immaturity, is not particularly well-explained. Then there is the “Boop-be-doop-be-doop Sex” song from Season Three’s Christmas episode. When I first saw the song, I screamed with laughter and exclaimed “Thank you!” The satire was so apparent as to be obviously critical of infantilizing sexualization.  Specifically, as the remainder of the episode was a spoof of Glee, I saw the song as specifically targeting the sort of sexualization that supposedly progressive show often subjects its underage female characters to.  That instance is the perfect example of how Community’s approach to feminism, or any issue, differs from a softer show like Parks and Rec. Community moves beyond the “Yeah, women are totally equal!” attitude and shoves issues that we often overlook into our faces.

In terms of what the song represented for Annie’s character,[4] Annie grows significantly throughout the series, and while she comes into moments of confidence and leadership, she is also still reeling from her emotionally  fragile starting point.[5]  And before I hear that making a female character a little messed up is sexist, I feel I need to remind peeps that a story’s female characters need not be perfect in order for that story to be feminist. All the characters on Community have problems, it’s really the point. By the time the “Boop-be-doop-be-doop Sex” song rolls around it’s clear that Annie has already begun exploring her sexuality for the first time in her life. That said expression would come out so awkward and misguided is both entirely in keeping with her character AND a perfect means through which to critique infantilizing sexualization.

Of course, any situation in which an attractive female character prances about in a mini dress is at risk of being hijacked by certain fans that miss the point. Another option is fans who get the point, but don’t care, and instead turn a shot of Annie’s shimmying cleavage into a popular online gif. Satire that critiques through example is always a tricky form of comedy, because there is always a risk that it will be misused by the group it is in fact challenging. Personally, I’m glad Community went for it. Any viewer engaging with the show on the level it asks of us got the point. As for those gifs? Well, even a fantastic show like Community can’t be idiot-proof.

Shirley is unique as a fully realized female character who is primarily defined by the duality of her sweetness and her suppressed rage. Rage as a defining emotion is incredibly rare for women on television, specifically as it differs from their usually allotted “sass.” While Shirley’s depiction may not seem particularly feminist at first glance, I’d advise you take a second look. Are you noticing how you never thought of her as “the third woman,” the “black woman” or the “fat woman” before? It’s because she’s not. She’s Shirley. That’s how the show depicts her, and that’s how we see her.

So yes, as a feminist, I’m happy with how Community constructs its female characters. But why listen to me, when you can hear all about it from the women of Community themselves. Please read this interview with Allison Brie, Yyvette Nicole Brown, Gillian Jacobs, and Megan Ganz, one of the show’s writers, because it’s awesome.

[1] Except, it’s not boring and nausea inducing.

[2] Also, kudos for the character of Ron Swanson, who, unlike all those pseudo “personal liberties” conservatives out there, doesn’t compromise his values in order to oppress women.

[3] Exception being her rant against cosmetics companies in Season One’s Football, Feminism and You

[4] Community, unlike Glee, never asks its character’s to behave in a manner contrary to their personality in order to serve a plot point.

[5] Let’s not forget she was in rehab.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Movie Trailer Joy Part 2

I know, I know. I just shared a trailer with y’all yesterday. And trailer freak-outs aren't usually my thing. HOWEVER, the trailer for the upcoming Snow White and the Huntsman is just too amazing! You have to watch this. I have no real investment in fairy tale adaptations,[1]  but the direction in which this film is taking the story looks awesome. To make Snow White’s threat to the queen be based on her being destined to kill said queen, as opposed to her looks, is a fantastic move. And the visuals!!! I could even move past my Twilight related resentment of K Stewart for this. My one problem: the title. It’s another example of clumsily adding a male presence in order to avoid frightening off male audiences.  From completely gender neutralizing titles (i.e. Rapunzel becomes Tangled, The Snow Queen becomes Frozen) or just removing any trace of femininity, in the case of John Carter, this title thing is becoming an unfortunate trend. Is this just the price we have to pay for more female-centric narratives? I hope not. The film industry establishment is consistently certain that while women will watch stories about men and women, men will only engage with stories about men. Hence these shifty, embarrassed titles. I am pretty certain the male movie-going population is not so stupid and narrow minded. But marketing execs have never been known to look for the best in people. Sigh.

[1] I love fairy tales, but most non-Disney adaptations veer towards crap. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Return of the Fangirl

Apologies for the unofficial hiatus![1] I was in a bit of an employment transition, which, while 100% amazing, has really devoured my time.[2] But I’m back and committed to weekly updates on all things feminist and fangirl. So to celebrate, I hope you will join me in gushing over the new Prometheus trailer. Women! In! SPAAACCEEE!

[1] And for leaving y’all on such a bummer note.

[2] Moving from perpetual intern to full time employee will do that.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Ralph McQuarrie: 1929-2012

What always made Star Wars stand out among other science fiction and fantasy films was the atmosphere and mood. George Lucas had the idea to take the aesthetic of Saturday morning Space Operas and make them into something old and mythic. Ralph McQuarrie, the conceptual artist for the Star Wars trilogy, took that idea and made it visible. His concept paintings capture the feeling, somehow even the themes of the story. There is a reason Anthony Daniels decided to take the part of C3PO after seeing a McQuarrie painting.

Even beyond his contributions to Star Wars, McQuarrie is one of my favorite artists. Period. Full stop. If I had never seen a single Star Wars film, his paintings of Mos Eisley, Bespin, the Millennium Falcon, they would all make me want to know more about the story they were telling and the world they were set in. 

I had just shut off my tablet after working on a drawing when I heard the news that McQuarrie had passed, and while I had felt pretty good about what I had done, I was immediately reminded how brilliant narrative art can be, and how far I still have to go. Click through the link and look at the slideshow. Because these paintings deserve better than a dark Google image jpeg. RIP Ralph McQuarrie.

George Lucas remembers Ralph McQuarrie. Gallery of McQuarrie concept art.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Leia is Feeling Murdery

Specifically, she may just have to force choke an evil, misogynistic slug/game designer. Because she's a Jedi now, and she doesn't even need a chain. 

Not that she minds. Chain is handy and effective!

Why is our favorite Rebel Princess so pissed? Because someone is once again contributing to the Star Wars fandom's gross, sexist tendency to turn her character's moment of non-consensual objectification/imprisonment into a fetish. Except, now it's an awkward, peppy, happy, and poorly animated fetish. With choreography. Star Wars fans with any sense of right and wrong, prepare to be disgusted.

That is "Slave Leia" (eww)/Dance Central in Star Wars Kinect. This must stop. Seriously, I know fanboys are not exactly thrilled about this particular game either, but they still don't seem to see the problem with romanticizing Princess Naked. Look, I get it. She has a good body. And I know that whoever put that moment into Return of the Jedi, whether it was Lucas or Kasdan or the f*cking spot boy, they certainly had, "Yeah, boobies!" somewhere on their minds. While I'm sure my mega love of Star Wars is clouding my feminist vision, I do maintain that the moment was handled well in the film, and it's effective for the sake of the atmosphere/events in Jabba's palace. But bogdammit I cannot stand how nostalgically the Star Wars fandom pornifies the costume. 

It's fine to think Leia is hot, because she is. But do we need to plaster her naked, everywhere, to prove the point? Maybe, as a girl, I just wasn't socialized to only respond to a naked version of the opposite sex. Because I don't need some sort of gold speedo get-up to tell me Han Solo is gorgeous. Seriously, fully clothed is all I need. It's not that I don't appreciate the positive effect of minimal clothing on attractive men, it's just that I prefer for the context to be less, well, rape-y.

Whew. So, now that I'm done railing against sexualization, yeah, Kinect Star Wars sucks. I'm mad at it. We're in a fight now. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Oscar is an Old White Man: What Does that Mean for Women in Hollywood?

Originally composed for SPARK

The 84th annual Academy Awards are this Sunday, and if I had been asked a month ago what I would be doing this weekend, I would have happily said I’ll be enjoying my tenth annual day of vegging out in front of red carpet schmoozing and Best Original Song performances. But when the Oscar Nominations were announced in late January, I instantly knew I would not be tuning in. It was a surprisingly easy decision, considering how much I used to love watching the ceremony. The mini Mount Holyoke Oscar parties I threw over the past four years were lovely, and if I was still in college, I wouldn’t turn down a chance to procrastinate with my friends for three hours. But today I have no qualms with letting go of a tradition that I had loved ever since I awoke to my inner film geek in high school. It wasn’t that 2011 was a bad year for film, or even that the nominations were any more lackluster than normal. Some of the films were actually very good, and certainly deserving of some recognition. Others, like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, were not, but neither was The Blind Side (2009) or Crash (2006), the latter of which actually took home the gold. So what was it about this year that made me finally throw up my hands and walk away?

Over the years, my general film geek enthusiasm/naiveté has faded from a tendency to gobble up anything on a critic’s Top Ten list and transformed into a specific understanding of the types of movies I actually like. And it turns out my favorites, Action-Adventure, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Animation, Bollywood, tend to be ignored by the Academy. There is also the fact that the very idea of the Oscars, or really any award that attempts to narrow something so broad as an entire year of film down to one Best Picture, Actor, etc and claim some authority, is silly. But, most of all, it’s the fact that the Oscars serve as a perfect example of everything that is wrong with Hollywood, especially in terms of representation of women and people of color.

Photo of the first meeting of the Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Courtesy of the LA Times

A recent article from the Los Angeles Times shocked no one when it revealed that Academy Voters are 94% white and 77% male, with a median age of 62. This explains why the Academy keeps nominating the same sorts of films and performances over and over again. It explains why, as the latest installment of Feminist Frequency points out, only two of this year’s ten Best Picture nominees pass the Bechdel test for women in film. It explains why The Help was nominated, why Elizabeth Olsen was snubbed, why, back in 2008, Hollywood showered patronizing love on the British made Slumdog Millionaire while ignoring India’s deserving submission, a movie that actually came from the film industry that the Best Picture winner was referencing.  In short, these numbers explain a lot. And they make me wonder why we continue to allow the Oscars to hold so much sway?

The problem is that the demographics that make up the Academy are really the demographics that make up the film industry. Voter membership is gained after establishing oneself in a sphere of filmmaking, and the LA times found that the largest concentrations of women voters were in fields, like screenwriting, where women in Hollywood tend to work. Mainstream filmmaking continues to be a relatively immobile institution dominated by old white men. Women are making films, and that’s fantastic. But some serious change has to take place before we start seeing true equality behind and in front of the camera.  Today, many women directors can be found behind documentaries and small, independent dramas. The experimental and avant garde genres have always had a strong female presence. These areas of film are all well and good, but unless we start to see women gaining a greater presence in the big budget blockbuster sphere, we aren’t going to see much change. 

I’m no fan of mindless popcorn, but I actually like smart blockbusters, with most of my favorite films containing at least one explosion. I think it’s about time women burst into the mainstream of filmmaking, because getting more women in prominent media making roles is the first step towards greater gender equality in storytelling, and ultimately, a more diverse awards season. Kathryn Bigelow winning Best Director in 2010 was a nice step forward, but other recent female forays into the Hollywood director’s chair have taken some unfortunate hits.  Pixar fired Brenda Chapman, its first female director, from Brave, and PattyJenkins left Thor 2. It’s disappointing, because a major animated production and a Marvel sequel would have helped Hollywood envision women in different, less expected roles. In good news, 2011 also saw Jennifer Yuh Nelson become the highest grossing female director of all time, and the first woman to direct a major animated film. Her Kung Fu Panda 2 is, in fact, nominated for an Oscar. It’s a small step, but it’s a start.

The movie was awesome AND passed the Bechdel Test. 

Next week, I will deal with my disappointment with some Bollywood love. 

(Edit: I will cover Bollywood, extensively and soon. However, as you may have noticed, some other stuff came up. My first Bollywood post has been slightly delayed.) 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Gender, Oscar, and the Bechdel Test

I've been experiencing a gradual shift in my thoughts on Hollywood lately. Four or five years ago, I was a starry eyed film geek newb who gobbled up Hollywood nostalgia, best films lists, and the Oscars like so many statuette cookies. Over time, my cinematic tastes became more developed and focused, as did my feminism. This year marks the first that I have decided not to watch the Academy Awards. More to come on the subject, but Feminist Frequency hits on many of the problems with Hollywood, all while addressing the nuances and complications of the handy dandy Bechdel test.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy GALintines Day!

Because, as much as I love Amy Poehler, I have to disagree with my beloved Parks and Rec on one point. Valentines day and GALintines day are both on February 14th. Because Valentines Day should be about loving your friends as much as it is about loving your honey. That's why I've always loved the holiday, relationship status not withstanding. Also, I'm a geeky romantic. So for all my fellow musical geeks, this one's for you.

And for all my fellow Star Wars geeks, this one's for you.

Yes, I own these. My amazing sister got them custom knit on Etsy. Because she loves me. And they love each other! D'aww!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sherlock Goes Sexist: Arthur Conan Doyle is Very Disappointed

This piece was originally composed for SPARK.

Sometimes when I’m watching a movie or television show, or reading a book and I really dig the narrative, I come to a moment where I can suddenly, vividly picture the story going in a direction that would ruin the whole darn thing. As someone who tends to have feminism on the brain, this imagined turn for the worse involves doing something pointless and stereotypical with a previously well done female character. Luckily, I rarely see my fear realized, not because TV, movies and books aren’t often sexist, but because I’m pretty picky about what I view/read in the first place and most well constructed narratives don’t suddenly spring sexism on you. So I found myself feeling particularly betrayed when a TV show that I trusted recently went all out ridiculously sexist on me, and that it dared to do so via an “adaptation” of one of my favorite proto-feminist narratives of all time.

The show in question is the BBC’s Sherlock, an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, re-set in 21st-century London. It’s a miracle that I was actually a loyal viewer of the show in the first place, because I am a huge fan of the original books, and I tend to be the pickiest of super fans. I have never liked an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and that is saying something, because they are the most frequently adapted stories in Western media.  I initially bristled at what seemed like a gimmicky re-boot, but when I actually watched the first season, I loved it. This was 90% due to the brilliant casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular detective. He looked the proper age for the actually quite young detective, he had the height and the hair, and he played the role perfectly. The show also hit on the thematic/character arcs present in the books but lacking in most adaptations, and the mysteries seemed written by Doyle, with just the right balance of mood, action and intrigue. I was hooked, and when I heard that series creator Steven Moffat would be moving the show in a new direction in the second season, forgoing original mysteries for more direct, albeit expanded adaptations of actual Doyle mysteries, I was cautiously optimistic. Overall, I was looking forward to what they would do with the season two premiere, an adaptation of A Scandal in Bohemia, Doyle’s wonderfully feminist short story. After all, with the show’s solid record, I could trust them with the amazing Irene Adler, right?

Wrong. It seems that with “A Scandal in Belgravia,” Sherlock decided that it couldn’t continue that whole faithfulness and respect for the source material thing, because that would just be boring. After all, what does A Scandal in Bohemia have to offer but a brilliant, competent, and aloof heroine in Irene Adler? And we all know that women who are simply smart and powerful just don’t fit in on television. They need to be incredibly sexy too. Let’s make Irene Adler a dominatrix! What a great idea! This is of course, my imagined writing room dialogue as season two was being put together. I have a feeling it’s pretty accurate.

Okay, some background. 1891’s A Scandal in Bohemia had Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson trying to retrieve a photograph from a Miss Irene Adler. Adler, an American adventuress and acclaimed opera singer, is using the photo to blackmail the King of Bohemia, who is by all evidence a jerk, and probably deserves it. Holmes, prior to the story, harbored some pretty sexist ideas regarding the intelligence, or in his opinion, lack thereof, of women. He thinks the case is open and shut and comes up with a foolproof plan to get the photos back. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t account for Miss Adler being brilliant; smarter than him, actually. With some clever gender bending undercover work, she beats Holmes at his own game and wins the day. Holmes is impressed, relinquishes himself of his sexist assumptions, and ends up as close to in love as his personality could ever allow. It’s pretty awesome.

Sherlock, upon being outsmarted, mentally transitioning from shock to appreciation. 

Now, let’s examine the way Moffat & Co. have adapted the story. Ms. Adler is no longer American, which I’m okay with, but she has also gone from an adventuress and the toast of La Scala to a dominatrix. Now, before anyone jumps on me for being anti-sex/sex work, let me assure you that I have no problem with a real woman choosing to be a dominatrix or anything else for that matter. But this is a work of fiction. And the person or people who decided to make Irene Adler a dominatrix may hide behind the excuse that she is an “empowered woman using her sexuality to her own advantage,” but they honestly chose to do it because it means leather and lace and the chance to sexualize Irene. Also, the chance for her to introduce herself to Sherlock in the nude. That was a nice touch.

"But, she was just trying to distract Sherlock! He reads things from people's clothes." Yes, Holmes gathers information based on a person's clothes, but he also reads the rest of them to. The show was clearly trying to go for that tired cliche of a woman gaining power by flabbergasting a man with her sexuality. The original Irene easily defeated Holmes with her clothes on.

So, once the show takes Irene Adler and has her wear nothing or next to nothing and make awkward sex noises, how much worse could things get? Much worse. Irene seems smart, but it turns out she is mostly dependent on her employer, Moriaty, for her success. (What is with this trend, also seen in the recent Sherlock Holmes film, of making Miss Adler an agent of Moriaty? Why can’t she be an independent force?) Furthermore, Irene doesn’t in fact win in the end, because all her delicate lady emotions get in the way. She’s just too in love with Sherlock! There is also a very damsel in distress rescue at the very end that is just all around terrible. Let’s not forget that while she is flirtatious in the original story, Irene never falls for Holmes. She goes off to America and gets married, and the detective is the one with the swoony disposition and her portrait on his mantelpiece.

I understand that sexualized female characters on television are a dime a dozen, and for a viewer not familiar with the original source material, the amount of character assassination at work in A Scandal in Belgravia might just go over their heads. It’s a shame, because the fact that the series chose to take its first major departure from Doyle’s characters with Irene says a lot about what our current media expects of women. Yes, women can be powerful, but that power must be expressed in an inherently sexual way. Yes, women can be smart, but they are also more emotional than men and therefore not equally brilliant. And they usually need some rescuing. It’s pretty ironic that these antiquated messages are actually a revision of a text from the 19th century! I gather from his treatment of Irene Adler, as well as the many other smart, capable, and badass women who appear throughout the Holmes stories, that Doyle had progressive ideas regarding gender. What does it say about our current media, that our narratives are taking a step back?

If this is such a pervasive problem, why am I signaling out Sherlock? My being an SH fangirl is a contributing factor, but I find that this instance of sexualization is a particularly helpful example of where the problem lies. As an adaptation, one can compare both narratives side by side and see exactly what the writers thought needed to be changed about Irene. She had to be sexier, more emotional, and she had to lose. That’s our current culture’s expectations of women and girls in a nutshell. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Nerdy Narratives: Or, the Reason LEGO Struck a Nerve with Me in the First Place

Part 2 of Feminist Frequency’s examination of LEGO is, like Part I, one of their most well-researched and well argued looks at the LEGO fiasco that can be found. But it also raises some questions for me as to the types of narratives that are being marketed to children in general. LEGO is falling into stereotypical traps when they market battle/conflict/ammo oriented narratives exclusively to boys and nurturing, friendship-oriented but otherwise banal narratives exclusively to girls. As a little girl, and now as a young woman, I have always preferred my narratives to have an action-oriented, adventurous edge. I think that explains the persistence of my “geeky” interests in Star Wars, LOTR, Quentin Tarantino films, etc. Therefore, I always get a little miffed when 1) Media and society tells me and other women and girls that stereotypically “male” interests aren’t for me, and 2) When women and other feminists dismiss those interests as “testosterone” fueled, violent and stupid. I spend a lot of time within the happy community of geek women bubble, where we can all bond over the new Hobbit trailer, and other amazing things, and frequently rage against sexism. But sometimes, when I step out of the happy bubble, it seems like my interests are getting hostility from both sides of the camp.

So of course, when LEGO’s focus on Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, and some sort of Ninja story was brought up in this video, as it has been brought up before, as evidence of LEGO excluding girls, this feminist fangirl was ready to see gender stereotypes at work. Because there is nothing to say that girls “naturally” should feel put off by action oriented narratives.

But then I took a closer look, and realized that the narratives being sold in toy aisles, and the narratives frequently enacted by boys and girls at the school where I work, rarely resemble the narratives that I love. Feminist Frequency points out that boys are sold violence and conflict, while girls are sold love and nurturing and relationships. But the best narratives are when both components come together.

In Star Wars, there are exhilarating battles and explosions and action sequences, but there are also vivid characters, (I’m talking original trilogy, of course), an emphasis on family, friendship, love, and strong human connections, a sense of good and evil and moral ambiguity, and the insistence that war and conflict are not the natural order of things and that peace is the ultimate goal. Same goes for The Lord of the Rings, which is also anti-war, pro-humanity, pro-environment and pro-love. And Harry Potter, while also chock-full of awesome action, is all a massive love-fest in the end. That’s because all of these narratives are built around classic mythic structures that have been humanity’s go-to narrative for millennia. And for good reason! The actual purpose of myth is to examine universal themes of life and love, and there is no better background for such an examination as a trying conflict between good and evil.

All three also get my feminist stamp of approval.  

Meanwhile, with products like Beyblades and Pokémon,[1] narratives that emphasize battles with no rhyme or reason or hope for peace, boys are getting all the conflict and none of the pathos. And with LEGO Friends and other residents of the “pink ghetto,” girls are getting a whole lot of beauty and love and no challenges or conflict. Either way, we are emotionally shortchanging the next generation, narrative-wise.

Sure, Star Wars remains incredibly popular with boys, but I doubt they get it, especially with their minds so pumped up on ammo. The Clone Wars television series is incredibly popular with youngsters, mostly boys, but it seriously goes over their heads! I recently watched some of the series for the first time, curious about these new Star Wars narratives that were playing out without me, and I was struck by three things. 1) The show is MUCH better than the prequels, though that’s not difficult. 2) The stylized animation looks less weird in motion, and 3) The show is incredibly political and ultimately carries a timely message about the corruptive power of corporate/military systems.  I see a lot of first grade boys running around the playground during recess making “pew-pew” noises and spouting words like, “Separatist warship” and “Republic army” etc. without understanding that the “good guys” in the Clone Wars are going to be the Empire in the trilogy, and these battles they are playing out are a farce. Star Wars itself is very thematically aware of the cynical fact, kids are not.

But that is not to say that they are incapable of grasping the deep, life affirming themes that mythic narratives have to offer. A parent who waits until their child is seven or eight, sits down and watches Star Wars with them, and allows them to absorb the narrative with some thought and discussion, will have successfully introduced their children to a timeless story for any gender.[2]  Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings should be approached in a similar manner. Last summer, working as a day camp counselor, I actually told The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a story to a rapt audience of seven year olds, four girls and two boys. It took two weeks, included all the scenes and most of the dialogue, and it was a huge hit. Boys and girls equally loved the Nazgul and the Orcs and the Riders of Rohan, but they were mostly moved by humanity’s struggle to survive great evil, the bravery of the Hobbits, the last march of the Ents, and the triumph of peace. It was magical to see a myth affect an audience so deeply. It transcended any presumption of what boys and girls were supposed to like, it was the transformative power of narrative in action and it was beautiful.

I have always considered my self-given titles of geek and fangirl to be a casual way of explaining a much deeper feeling. Because the narratives I love have given so much more to me than my shallow expressions of fandom could ever hope to approximate. It saddens me that our current consumer culture reduces the value of those narratives to pointless explosion fests for boys and puppy parties for girls. The real stories are there, but for ad-drenched kid brains, they are becoming increasingly hard to find. If we’re not careful, the nuance will disappear for the next generation. Cue Imperial March.

[1] Sorry adult Pokémon fans. All nostalgia aside, I have yet to hear a good argument for the narrative values of Pikachu.

[2] Episode IV comes first. It’s just good parenting. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Marketing sexism! I should have known you were holding merchandising’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I walked into Toys R' Us.

Many of you may have stumbled upon the fabulous work of SPARK and Powered by Girl through my frequent shout outs. If so, you might know that they've started a great Toy Store Action that focuses the conversation sparked by the LEGO Friends line towards larger issues of gendered marketing. Basically, the action consists of going into toy stores, taking pictures of Post-Its that question some of the limiting gender roles being promoted by toys, sharing the pictures online, and then removing the notes to make sure no hard working employees have a crap day. The first crop of pictures has been popping up, and this one caught my eye.

It’s something called a “Battle Pack.” It features three action figures labeled “Rebel Heroes.” It’s been awhile since I ventured into the world of Star Wars action figures, although I still have the box containing my relatively small childhood set under my bed.[1] So maybe my memory is fuzzy, and the packaging logic on these toys has always made little to no sense. There is no logical reason why Darth Maul is all over this design, for example. But can someone please explain to me why C3PO is a “Rebel Hero” and not Leia? C fucking 3PO?!

I’m not sure if Hasbro is aware of the fact that Leia was one of the three founders of the Rebel Alliance.[2] I think that qualifies her as a “Rebel Hero.” She is also always packing heat, good action figure selling point there. And, as a human, she should probably get hero priority over an appliance.[3] I went on Hasbro’s website to do some back up research and found that while Leia is fully represented in action figure form, she is pretty difficult to search, (I only found two action figure incarnations.) Meanwhile, I discovered a side bar that allowed me to narrow down my Star Wars product choices by “Gender.”

The options:

Boys (693)

Both (92)

Products listed under “both” were decidedly less awesome than those under “boys.” Examples; a very weird, Barbie-esque Aunt Beru doll, (who designs these things?) vs. LEGO Millennium Falcon.

Look, I can’t say for sure what is going on here. I wasn’t at the store when this photo was taken.[5] For all I know, there was a whole shelf of badass Leia action figures right around the corner. But I have a baaad feeling about this. Something here screams sexism. Why else would marketers assume a kid would prefer this in a “Battle Pack”:

The best 3PO could do in a battle was pull a "Merry and Pippin." And his rendition was more awkward. 

As opposed to this:

Seriously, who looks more battle-ready to you?

[1] Most of the main characters, three incarnations of Leia. Mostly my sister and I just mooched off of our cousin’s massive collection.

[2] Along with her dad, and Mon Mothma. Another lady. Han and Chewie were pretty late in getting on board with that particular insurrection.

[3] All my love to the droids, but let’s be honest.

[5] I will be hitting Target this weekend, camera in hand. Stay tuned.