freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)


2016 continues to deliver, in the sense of delivering pain and loss and the removal of hope. I am surprisingly devastated by the death of Carrie Fisher: I hadn't realised how much her role in Force Awakens had meant to me. Her feisty princess was, of course, integral to our investment in the original Star Wars trilogy, and her role as a female character was uncommonly powerful for the time - the antithesis of a passive damsel, she had both the personality and the political/tactical power to hold her own against the men. (Also, as I persist in thinking of Trump as Jabba the Hutt, there is considerable vindictive satisfaction in imagining her choking him with a chain, the action which was the archetypal denial of the chain-mail bikini and the female role it attempts to define).

But it was the mature Leia of Force Awakens who was most interesting, and whose loss I really mourn. The film created a powerful narrative place for her - a woman who has lost everything, home and family and political hope, and yet who continues to fight. We are given precious few female cinematic icons who are permitted to be experienced, mature, battered by life, wise, flawed, powerful, authoritative, instrumental - defined, in short, by something other than their sexuality. But the role worked because of who she was outside it - a gutsy, unabashed, irreverent older woman who had no truck with societal expectation, who called out misogyny and objectification, and who was frank and unashamed about her own struggles with substance abuse and mental illness. There's a lovely quote from her in The Princess Diarist in which she says about Star Wars that “Movies were meant to stay on the screen, flat and large and colorful, gathering you up into their sweep of story, carrying you rollicking along to the end, then releasing you back into your unchanged life. But this movie misbehaved. It leaked out of the theater, poured off the screen, affected a lot of people so deeply that they required endless talismans and artifacts to stay connected to it.” In a lot of ways she could have been talking about herself.

I am sad that she has had her life prematurely ended, because she was making a marvellous and inspiring thing out of her own difficulties. I am heartsore that we have lost both her real-life presence and voice as an anodyne to Hollywood stupidities, and her character in future Star Wars films. If we ever needed an icon for continued resistance against fascist, misogynist systems in the teeth of the odds, it's now. Fuck 2016.

(My subject line is from one of Carrie's own autobiographical books, in which she describes George Lucas's insistence that she not wear a bra with the white dress because "there's no underwear in space" and with weightlessness your body will expand but your bra won't, so it'll strangle you. Which is terrible science and everything you need to know about justifying objectification by mansplaining right there, but the point is that Carrie wanted my subject line to be her obituary, so it is.)
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I did not expect to wake up this morning to a Trump victory. I also did not expect to have that victory hit me like an actual punch to the gut, since which I have been in on and off in tears. Even before reading Tumblr, with its intimate window into the pain and fear of the very liberal-skewing American bloggers I read, I was wandering around the house mumbling "But how could they do that?" in betrayed disbelief. What does it say about people that vast swathes of American voters can put any kind of stamp of approval onto that man and all he stands for? A ranting, blind, profoundly stupid, narcissistic and sociopathic man-child whose message is all about bigoted, divisive, ultimately venal hatred? Brexit was a faint shadow of this. Beyond any implications of the profoundly broken state of democracy in a media-driven world, I want and need to be able to believe better of people. But I can't.

And make no mistake, this is not just a crippling blow to values I hold very dear, decency and thoughtfulness and empathy. I am feeling it personally because this is also a particularly cruel and dismissive assault on women. Trump is a joke candidate: it is basically an insult to Hillary Clinton to be considering his "qualifications" in the same breath as hers. She is a mature, hyper-intelligent, accomplished and hard-working politician whose experience and skills have been honed across the entire course of her life to the fine point required by the presidency. If she were male, I think she would have won in a landslide. Her unpopularity, the media play with her "scandals", the characterisation of her as cold, or driven, or ambitious, are all the direct and instrumental result of her gender. If she were a man, her "scandals" would be negligible and her "flaws" would be strengths. It is beyond ridiculous, given her clear competence, that she should be so unpopular. It is sheer misogyny, woven into the fabric of media portrayals and voter responses. And to elect a shameless misogynist instead of her is a slap in the face to women.

Clinton in the White House would have been the rational choice, but also the hopeful one for more than feminism. It would have rejected the vile, destructive and asinine flailings of Trump, and it would have affirmed the idea that society is growing and maturing, that we are addressing racism and sexism and bigotry and unthinking greed, that we have learned. I don't even want to contemplate what it's going to do to our world to have a climate change denier as the American president at a crux point where we have an imperative and fast-closing window for instrumental change. We're fucked in that sense alone, even without the likely regression of American sexual and racial and economic politics and their knock-on effects in the global zeitgeist, and the non-zero chance that he'll nuke someone in a fit of pique because they insulted him on Twitter. Possibly it's a good thing I've been playing all this Fallout, I may yet need the skills.

But we can't have Clinton, because too many people voted in fear and hatred and ignorance. Which brings us to Terry Pratchett, the archetypal humanist, whose sense of humanity's failings is clear-eyed and acute and ultimately more forgiving than mine. He says it all in Night Watch, really. "The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn't that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people." Trump is a debased and dangerous idiot, but the wrong kind of people elected him.

One of the drawbacks of over-active empathy is that I need to feel connected to the world. I cannot imagine feeling connected to people capable of deliberately electing Trump, and it hurts. It means I am not part of the world. More than that, if this is what a significant portion of our world does, and wants, I do not wish to be.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
oh god I can't believe it, the evil magic of Tumblr has ended up addicting me to an online webcomic about cute American college boys playing hockey. The American version of hockey, i.e. on ice. Ngozi's Check, Please! is weirdly poignant, bizarrely socially aware and basically adorable, mostly because Bitty (small cute gay Southern boy who bakes), and because of the locus of well-intentioned awkward anxiety that is Jack. The comic and fan responses to same have inexorably infected my Tumblr feed over the last couple of months. The fanfic is lovely. Of all the things I ever thought I'd find myself doing, enjoying web comics about cute American college boys playing hockey significantly doesn't make the list in any way at all.

As revenge, because it's my only defence against this sort of thing, I shall proceed to dissect it ruthlessly, and with maximum use of polysyllables. I think the thing appeals not just because it's well written and beautifully drawn, but because it self-consciously appropriates and subverts the classically heteronormative and traditionally ideologically ugly setting of the frat house. The male sports team/frat house is a homosocial space whose construction generally implies sexism, toxic masculinity, profanity and all-out grossness, but Ngozi's version of it is resolutely and redeemingly utopian. There's enough grossness and profanity to be vaguely realistic, but the stereotypes are lovingly deconstructed: homosociability is mutually supportive, socially aware, irreverent without being destructive. This reaches its apotheosis in Shitty, the team's Gender Studies wonk and part-time nudist, because apparently "Every hockey team should have a hipster who wears floral snapbacks and shouts about the ironies of male sexuality in the American collegiate Greek system while waiting in line for the pong table to free up." Characters rip into each other cheerfully, both on and off the ice, but the teasing is free of malice. Bitty's gay identity is open, and unquestioningly supported by the team; his endearing personality, which is approximately what you'd get if Tintin embraced the twink stereotype slightly more flamboyantly while more or less continuously baking pie, exists in beautiful relief against the far more macho vibe of the rest of the team.

Part of what Ngozi is doing here, I think, is to present as primary text something which has the sensibility of fan fiction straight off the bat; like slash fic, it posits male relationships in an idealised mode, one in which homoerotic elements, whether literal or subtextual, are celebrated rather than being denied, by the characters and setting as well as the writer. (The college setting is the fictional Samwell, presented as being the most queer-friendly campus in America.) The comic is thus inherently self-aware, existing in dialogue not only with its own raft of external texts (character Twitter feeds, the writer's blog with additional comics, headcanons and occasional character Q&As) but with the whole fanfic paradigm itself. Quite my favourite bit of the series is Johnson the existential goalie, who's a minor character whose hobbies include "breaking the fourth wall": anything he says is metacommentary on his own and the other characters' existences as comic book characters, and he cheerfully acknowledges his own purpose as a device for furthering various narrative arcs. The really good fanfic has him popping in to comment on the difference between his own characterisation in and out of canon. It makes my narrative-fondling toes curl in girly glee.

So, weird but true: I have to admit to enjoying web comics about cute American college boys playing hockey. Because life's odd like that. In a good way.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
This is my second favourite thing about Star Wars: The Force Awakens so far. (My favourite thing about Star Wars: The Force Awakens is Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Have you noticed how they mix up and re-allocate gender stereotypes? Rey is geeky, technical, efficient, goal-directed. She drives. Finn is emotional, empathetic, nurturing. He heals. They both fight; they both care; they rescue each other. Also, Tumblr is erupting fairly inevitably into Finn/Poe, which is simply charming, or Finn/Poe/Rey, which is also cute.)

Anyway. Inevitable and beautiful mash-ups R Us. This was, as far as I can work out, perpetrated by Tumblr user starwarsheckyeah.

furioser and furioser

Friday, 22 May 2015 11:57 am
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I am suspicious of Mad Max: Fury Road. Deeply, deeply suspicious. And I've thought about this rather hard, but I don't think I'm simply reacting with sheer bloody-mindedness against the contextual responses - the buzz, the expectations, the claims of feminism, the gender slapfights. If half Teh Internets hadn't tried desperately to claim this as a Feminist Masterpiece, I might be less inclined to see its "feminism" negatively, but I don't think so. On the whole, panicked MRA horror at the thought that Girl Power Cooties might have got all over their cherished Man-Genre is largely irrelevant, if only because one shouldn't trust MRA insights with a ten-foot electric cattle prod1. And I'm not really swayed by the acclaim of a lot of female viewers who share my desperation for representation in a male-dominated Hollywood. I don't want to negate their responses, but I think they could stand to dig a little deeper. I don't think this is a feminist film masterpiece. At best, its somewhat self-congratulatory attempts at feminism are deeply, deeply flawed.

They're also part of the overall sense in which this is a very loud film, both literally and in its fumblings at message. I saw this in a cinema which had the sound turned up so far that it was itself an assault - the war rig engine note made my breastbone vibrate, and I emerged at the end of the film battered and literally shaking. This is not, however, an inappropriate response to the visual and conceptual assault the film offers. It's very much about violence, a far-future scenario of desperation and conflict, in which violence is both normalised and religiously ritualised. It's beautifully shot. The landscapes, the rolling sand and twisted rocks, the sense of desolation, are exquisite. The action choreography is breathtaking. A lot of it takes place at high speed, aboard fleets of perverse and unlikely vehicles speeding across the landscape - it's viscerally exciting, unexpected, demented, desperate. I liked the world-building, the random inexplicable detail, the bizarre social codes, the sense of all-out crazy as an up-yours in the teeth of despair. Why the hell there should be a rig specialised to a rack of giant kettledrums and a guitarist whose sole purpose is to supply a war-fleet soundrack of riffs from a flame-thrower guitar is anyone's guess, but it fits right into the post-apocalyptic aesthetic and it's effective as all get-out. In action-movie terms it's a hell of a ride.

This bit is spoilery, so skip it if you haven’t seen the film. )

Overall, as an action film it's pretty darned good: it gets additional points for (a) not chopping its action sequences up to hell and gone with delirious camera movement so you can actually determine tactical cause and effect, and (b) doing it mostly For Realz, with minimal CGI (apparently about 90% of those sequences were actually filmed, they had Cirque du Soleil performers and Olympic athletes in there doing those crazy stunts). You can tell. It feels very real.

But really feminist? not so much. Let's, children, let's talk about representation.

So. Misogynist post-apocalyptic dystopia. Men are In Charge, women are "breeders" if they're attractive and not deformed, and mostly ugly extras if they're not. Until we meet the Vuvalini towards the end, Furiosa herself is the only beautiful, damaged and kick-butt exception. Which is, if you think about it, itself a problem. You can't say that instrumental femaleness resides entirely in your ability to be Charlize Theron, it kinda dooms the rest of us who weren't actually born in Bloemfontein. (Nor, in fact, should it reside in your ability to perform the hackneyed male genre role of violence, much less violent protection of helpless women). While the Vuvalini are less stereotypical and allow a sort of grizzled middle-aged agency, it's fairly limited: they're depicted as marginal in both the world and the plot, generally sliding into a decline and resurrected only by Furiosa's and, ultimately, Max's leadership.

There's a weird body-sense driving the film in some ways: clearly the frantic desire by the warlord for non-deformed babies is because of high radiation, mutation, the usual post-apocalyptic nastiness. But there's no attempt whatsoever to rationalise the fact that almost all of the men in the film are damaged or deformed in some grotesque way, while the rescued "breeders" are model-beautiful, unblemished, firmly within the contemporary media ideal. Even Furiosa herself is disabled (and that's nicely done, a kind of by-the-way normalised representation we don't see often, as this response notes) but still beautiful, and her departure from the media body ideal is in terms of absence (missing arm) rather than impurity - missing arm or not, the rest of her is still very much Charlize Theron. The only non-deformed instrumental male character in the film is Max himself, whose damage is psychological; the icons of masculinity (warboys, warlords) are weird-looking or actively monstrous. The instrumental female characters are at worst aged, and a very high proportion of them are beautiful bodies. At the heart of the film is an unquestioning conformity to the old, ugly assumption of patriarchal Hollywood that only male viewers are important, and male viewers don't like to look at ugly women.

The cinematography is at least partially to blame for the weird beauty messages, because it works flatly against the film's superficial message of "woman are not things" to be ultimately objectifying. That initial scene with the escapee women, where they're gratuitously wasting precious water by hosing each other down, is shot and posed like an advert for, I dunno, boho punk clothing, or shampoo, or possibly girly hygiene products. Those are impeccably tanned, lithe, skinny bodies, their clothing a well-judged combination of revealing and femininely filmy and flowing. That camera gaze is as male and objectifying as hell. There's the same problem with the pregnant girl displaying herself to inhibit her pursuers - they try to co-opt the patriarchal objectification, to use their value as "breeders" against their pursuers, but as a feminist technique that's dangerous, running the risk of conformity to the tropes they're trying to subvert. It's a flawed strategy because in that moment, your gaze as audience is that of the girls' owners and rapists. Ultimately, it's difficult to see these as empowered women when the camera is complicit with their oppressors.

And the problem is that the narrative ultimately supports a view of women as reductionist stereotypes - not just the "breeder" trope it tries to overthrow, but both the "woman as visual object" and "powerful woman" images. Their power is either co-opted stereotypical male violence (Furiosa) or it's stereotypical female "power" which perceives their value as in their healthy bodies - their procreative ability and thus their sexuality. Hell, even the Vuvalini is a matriarchal all-woman group who stands for and holds the generative powers of seeds/life/birth. It's basically reductionist: the various women in the film are mostly rushing to embrace something that's simply another facet of the gender essentialism they're trying to escape. I invoke my patron saint, Angela Carter, to mutter "all myth is consolatory nonsense! Mother goddesses are just as silly a notion as father gods."

It really doesn't help the essentialism, either, to have a random romance flung into the middle of it all - mercifully they didn't try to ship Furiosa with Max, but apparently you can't have an action movie without someone getting a girl, however temporarily. It seemed to me to be utterly problematical to have one of the fleeing women suddenly turn around and romance, in terms of the visual and narrative coding of their interaction, a representative of the masculine war-cult which is out to capture her. If that was meant to be an attempt at exploring the damage of a misogynist war-cult does to its own male participants (which is itself a perfectly legitimate goal), it happened too suddenly and with too little scaffolding to be valid or likely.

This was not, I reiterate, a feminist film masterpiece. This was an extremely entertaining action film, which was self-conscious enough to try and subvert some of the gender poles of the genre by by surfacing and attempting to combat the idea of woman as object, and by inserting a woman into the classically male role. But not, you note, as the main character, a point this article makes at rather more length. I don't want to take away from the film's success as action movie, as spectacle, as aesthetic - there were many ways in which I thoroughly enjoyed it. But it's not particularly subversive. I don't think it's more than the sum of its parts, and its parts, while they've been creatively re-arranged, have largely been hauled intact out of Hollywood's misogyny vault.

1For those of you who have been blissfully unaware of the recent cultural shenanigans in netspace, Men's Rights Activists, an icky, icky bunch who are doing their utmost to spoil notions of masculinity for the remainder of their (comparatively) innocent gender.

NOTE: I have mildly edited at a couple of points after mature reflection (hence strikethroughs), and to address the inherent problem in attempting to dictate what "feminism" is for anyone other than me. I think you can read feminist elements into this film, for a given and somewhat simplistic definition of "feminism", and it's certainly a hell of a lot better than the average action film in its positioning of women. But it's definitely not a feminist masterpiece, and it's definitely still problematical in a lot of ways. It's dangerous, I think, to accept its ideologies uncritically, and to think that that's enough, because of all the misogynistic baggage that's accepted in the process; and it's very sad to think that female viewers are so starved of representation that they'll swallow it whole.

grrr, aargh

Tuesday, 12 May 2015 02:57 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Last night was deeply annoying, because (a) lights, none, and (b) so many legs! As well as (c), residual Age of Ultron grumps.

I am narked with the City of Cape Town because they confirm a load-shedding session so much at the last minute. I checked the loadshedding page four times yesterday, and every time it was "load shedding suspended until further notice." Then they cut us off at 8pm, at the point where I'd assumed we were safe for the day, right in the middle of the first episode of Daredevil, which is a new Netflix series which is doing a slow build thing that definitely doesn't need to be arbitrarily suspended. Although, in retrospect, having to feel my way across the living room in the pitch dark was at least thematically appropriate. (I'm reserving judgement on Daredevil for the nonce, I kinda like what they're doing, it's gritty and real and Charlie Cox is marvellous, but it's currently moving very slowly and I hope they sort the pace out a tad).

"So many legs!" is a quote from Cole in Inquisition upon meeting the giant albino spider which lives under the Crestwood keep. There was a sudden, huge and inexplicable spider in the corner of the bathroom last night, just above the shower. Arachnids are clearly evil because they choose to manifest (a) in the moment when the room is illuminated by flickering candlelight which most efficiently conceals them in shadows until you're really close, and (b) in the room in which you are most likely to be wandering around naked, and thus unprotected from arachnid multi-hairy-legged scuttling by any form of civilised armour. Bastards. Having stripped completely and wandered towards the shower, I spotted the spider, thought, "Hell, no", backed away slowly and went to bed unwashed, shutting the bathroom door behind me so the wretched thing couldn't infiltrate the house. It was gone this morning, hopefully out the window rather than into a dark bathroom corner from whence it can more unexpectedly pounce. I am a wimp, but somehow it all seems more horrible when you're trying to eject spiders without the benefit of electricity.

I have worked out why Age of Ultron annoyed me so much. It's not actually because of the final, headcanon-ruining upshot of the story. It's because absolutely none of the narrative and character arcs which led to that outcome felt earned, deserved or properly explored. I could adjust my headcanons if the film gave me any bloody grist whatsoever to my imaginative mill. But it doesn't: the romance isn't substantiated, the death isn't justified in any thematic sense, the departures are glossed over, the whole thing feels like random events cobbled together randomly, rather than an actual plot. Joss can do so much better, and I tend to agree with this article, which argues that the Marvel meta-marketing drive has constrained the director to the point where he is completely hamstrung in trying to give the story any sort of satisfying shape.

Also, while Joss Whedon is definitely still my master now, I can't help thinking that his particular brand of feminism, which resides mostly in strong female characters, is in a weird sort of way slightly out of date. He was groundbreaking at the time with Buffy and Firefly, but levels of feminist awareness have overtaken him - simple strong female characters simply don't cut it any more, we need a more pervasive critique which the Marvel straitjacket certainly doesn't permit. (See: leaked CEO email giving a demonstration of beautifully spurious logic: bad female-led superhero movies bombed, therefore all female-led superhero movies are bad and will bomb. To which we answer, succinctly and pointedly, "Ben Afflek's Daredevil". Because really.)

In other news, my mutant foot has died down to its usual shape and is only rather red and mottled. Antibiotics and two days with my feet up have settled its hash onetime quick. Now all I have to deal with is the nausea occasioned by the antibiotics...

We Can Do It!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014 05:44 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
It may have come to the attention of my more alert and observant readers that I am a happy, geeky bookworm and have quite a lot of books. Really, rather a lot. Enough that, despite the fact that I moved into this house with eight tall bookshelves courtesy of a munificent Evil Landlord and subsequently imported another courtesy of Pam, I still had seven boxes of unshelved books piled in my study. This, too, after a relatively ruthless weeding process chronicled in these very pages. As far as books go, I am unashamed to admit that I have a Problem.

Fortunately, for such problems there are benevolent friends like Jo, who enjoys, by her own admission, a Project, and who possesses not only power tools and the will to use them, but considerably above basic cabinet-making expertise, an actuary's numerical precision, and more organisational skill and energy than is strictly fair or necessary in this imperfect world. As a result of which there has been, of an evening over the last few weeks, a sort of blur of activity in my living room, resulting in piles of planks, a small cloud of sawdust, and a satisfying and slightly bewildering tendency for bookshelves to arise, phoenix-like, from the whirlwind at a rate a smidgen in excess of half a bookshelf per hour. It has also revealed my own predilection for Handmaidening, if there is such a word: I derive an unholy kick out of facilitating efficient systems, and if Jo behind a power drill is anything, it's an efficient system. By the end of the process the balletic precision of our movements would bring a tear to the eye of efficiency experts. It really makes things go a lot faster if there's someone anticipating the process to hand the cabinet-maker tools, nails, planks, pencils, screws, gin-and-tonic, and that vital bit of stuck-together wood she was using to space shelves, so that she doesn't have to stand up or climb down ladders every two minutes.

It made, I have to say, my feminist wossnames incredibly happy. Not just the self-determination of bookshelf building - and I will look at those shelves for ever after with nostalgic joy because Jo built them and I helped - but something about efficient women with power tools. All Rosie the Riveter. Definitely speaking to that bit of me that's only mostly heterosexual, possibly because the patriarchy.

So I have five spanky new bookshelves, and my books are Housed, dammit, and all we have to do now is work through the mutual and perfectly symmetrical guilt feelings that have arisen because Jo feels bad about me paying for the materials for her Project, and I feel bad about all the time she's spent building me bookshelves. We freely admit that these are entirely irrational feelings that have nothing whatsoever to do with the considerable pleasures and achievements of the process, and that the two impulses do cancel each other out. The gin definitely helps.

And, look! Bookshelves! All full of books! (or, to be perfectly accurate, books and DVDs. I have a DVD problem too. Memo to self: Go digital. But not too digital. Because some things need to be tangible, and you can't help friends make furniture for your Kindle files.)

Photo0094
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Today's favourite quote about slash fan fiction:

"A woman ... has published a sexual fantasy about men for other women without a single care for the hurt feelings of the patriarchy’s death-grip on pleasure."

Part of the reason why I love this stuff is because it's so deeply, radically subversive. At the most fundamental level, slash permits a conceptualisation of sexual experience which is intrinsically shifting, free of the inbuilt assumptions about power which bedevil even the most utopian and egalitarian heterosexual encounter. Good slash is based in fluidity. It contradicts the drift towards active male, passive female which is the reductionist extreme of conventional male/female relations, but which is woven into the basic fabric of our patriarchal culture. Slash fic watches two men in a sexual encounter: neither is necessarily dominant, and the writer is free to conceptualise the power relations as she sees fit.

But if this were the only point, there would be far more femmeslash on the net than there is - it's actually a tiny fraction of the whole. That's because slash isn't just a celebration of fluid power roles, it's explicitly and deliberately a subversion of the heterosexual status quo. It's a giant up yours to the patriarchy, in fact. Watching two women addresses the desire for equal power, but femmeslash also takes place in a space outside the patriarchal order - it provides an alternative without actually threatening the patriarchal assumption of male dominance. Slash is as threatening as hell. It says, hello, patriarchy! we appropriate your dominant, heterosexual male characters, the ones which are so much more central and better-developed than the women in so many of our popular mass texts, and we rewrite them in a sexual image we prefer. Also, in sharp contradistinction to the largely male-owned and male-oriented porn industry, we're girls doing this. Sucks to be you.

Which, of course, also goes some way to explain why I seriously do not enjoy the locked and exaggerated gender roles of the Omegaverse, which in political terms is entirely vindictive: it assaults patriarchy by rewriting male characters as caricatures of female biology. I find it uncomfortable and cruel and lacking the potential for subtlety of more fluid slash.

(It also explains why the frothing homophobia of the religious right is so much more strongly directed at gay than at lesbian partners. Lesbians escape the patriarchal order. Gays deny it; in fact, their existence actually assaults it. I am a wholehearted supporter of LGBT rights because that's the only possible human, moral or intelligent stance, because I'm proudly South African in the constitutional sense if nowhere else, but also because the damned patriarchy should be assaulted early and often and anyone who's doing it on any level deserves my support.)

The subject line is David Bowie, because who else could it be given the topic of the post. "Boys keep swinging" is one of the great parodic takes on machismo.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
The weather is officially absurd: Cape Town traditionally does February heatwaves, but usually not for so long, or so hot. It was pushing 40 for a couple of days, and I survived the weekend only by spending a portion of it submerged in jo&stv's pool, sipping champagne. I'm insomniac and headachy and stressed and tend to lie awake in my superheated bedroom panting gently and wishing for a nice comfortable death, preferably by hypothermia or freeze-ray. It's like the sultry heat before a highveld storm, only continuously, relentlessly, and without the catharsis of the actual rain. Am not happy. Am clearly on the wrong continent. I know the northern hemisphere is having a horrible winter, and I'm sorry if you're frozen or flooded or snowbound, but honestly, this is its own kind of unspeakable.

I shall proceed to avoid the horror by somewhat belatedly chronicling our last Movie Club, which was the weekend before last. Jo's choice: theme, Abused Sexualised Girls Strike Back And Kick Butt, although to variable effect. The films, in a classic whiplash configuration, and encompassing frankly improbable extremes in terms of thoughtfulness and political acumen: Sucker Punch, and Hard Candy.

Sucker Punch is a terrible film. I'm really glad to have seen it, because as a pure distillation of ingrained Hollywood sexism and exploitation it's an extremely powerful document, but it's an astonishingly bad piece of storytelling. I have to admit it has a certain amount of visual style and the germ, somewhere in the putrid depths, of a potentially interesting idea, but it's otherwise without redeeming feature. The most terrifying thing about it is, I think, the fact that watching it gave me the sneaking, inescapable fear that Zach Snyder, its perpetrator, is actually under the delusion that he was celebrating female empowerment. Which he really wasn't. The premise involves skimpily-clad girls incarcerated in a variety of institutions under highly sexualised threat, and escaping from it into layers of fantasy in which they fulfil video-game-style quests with the maximum possible amount of stylishly-shot action sequences, guns, swordfights, leering villainy and massive explosions. Given that the film skips between giant samurai statues, Nazi steampunk zombies, orcs, dragons, planes, zeppelins and Bioshock-style Big Daddies, the whole thing boils down to what Stv defined as "MashCeption: The Music Video". Or, possibly MashCeption, the Video Game. Something entailing lots of mash-ups and multi-levelled dream sequences and loads of visual style at the expense of plot, at any rate.

And in the final analysis it's about absolutely the opposite of female empowerment. It does no good whatsoever to take abused women and give them big guns and swords and allow them to kick butt if (a) all said women are vacant, childlike blanks whose abuse at the hands of lecherous monsters is dwelt on with slavering fascination, (b) they're all hyper-sexualised and skimpily if not fetishistically clad, (c) their every move in the "empowering" fantasy is dictated by benevolent, rescuing male figures, (d) the bulk of them end up dead, and (e) the whole thing is shot like a particularly hyperactive and clichéd wet dream. It's ultimately a deeply ugly film that spat me out the other end in a state of stunned disbelief. But also with a sort of horrible satisfaction, because after all the film simply takes to the logical extreme the kinds of objectifications and exploitations which are actually at the heart of a frighteningly high proportion of Hollywood blockbuster movies, in which women are ravaged, empty things splayed across the screen for the gratification of a gaze which is assumed to be entitled, unconstrained, heterosexual and male. Our cultural systems are pretty broken; this film should not be excoriated as an aberration but as a symptom of a system whose darker corners, thus mercilessly exposed, are nauseating.

Hard Candy is a very good film. We watched these in the right order, because after Sucker Punch it was a bracing blast of fresh air. Its take on the theme highlights Sucker Punch as the bizarro mirror world thing it is: Hard Candy is still about male sexual predator versus pubescent girl, but the power poles are ruthlessly dissected, examined and reassembled. I'm not going to talk about the film's plot detail, because its effect is very spoiler-vulnerable, but it's exquisitely cast, shot, paced and constructed. Compared to the gratuitous CGI sprawl of Sucker Punch it's a minimalist work of art, effectively two characters and one set. Ellen Page is revelatory (also, mad props to Ellen Page for her recent coming out as gay, both a brave and an important thing), and Patrick Wilson is as good as he always is, which is very. The cinematography is amazing: the house which forms the set is all clean lines and modern, blocky colours, and the camera lingers on these for moments of full-screen primary colour which punctuate and pace the action, underlining the film's overall mood of analytic contemplation. It's also a very tense viewing experience, full of build and shock and horrified expectation and, I have to say, a fair amount of vindictive satisfaction.

Watching it in tandem with Sucker Punch highlights the differences, particularly the extent to which Page's character is almost entirely unsexualised, with a matter-of-fact thoughtfulness about her which undercuts potentially flirty moments and allows her to swing between childlike innocence and tomboyish determination. But the juxtaposition also demands that the film be subjected to the same questions: is this about female power? does it escape the exploitative presentation of women seen in the blockbuster? And of course you have to be aware that the highly-charged power relationship the film depicts is fully capable of being sexualised even given Page's performance; of mining the young body under the lens for purposes of titillation rather than thought. It also, despite the film's plot twists, runs the risks of demonising the victim, presenting her as damaged and inhuman: the film's violence is both more restrained and more real than Sucker Punch's. But on the whole I think my vote is for success rather than failure on political grounds. It's an uncomfortable watch, but for the right reasons - because it shakes up your assumptions, explores and redefines rather than adopting, externalises the rot in our cultural constructs rather than either eliding or exploiting them. I'm not sure "enjoyed" is the right word, but this is a good film, and I respect and admire what it achieved. Although, my pervy fairy-tale fancying heart being what it is, they could have done a lot more with the Red Riding Hood motif. I'm just sayin'.

My subject line is from the Eurythmics, "Wide Eyed Girl", mostly because I automatically think of Annie Lennox when I think of women kicking butt. Also Buffy, River, Phryne Fisher and Captain Marvel, but song lyrics are traditional.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Much-Ado-About-Nothing Branagh Much-Ado-About-Nothing Whedon

We have this rather erratically-implemented movie club thing, where we select two movies with a related theme and watch them back-to-back, with a break for food, traditionally something on rolls. (In this case, chicken prego, and a dashed good thing too). Finding thematic links between films is actually ridiculously easy, on account of (a) humans are pattern-recognising animals, but mostly (b) there is nothing new under the sun, particularly in Hollywood. This time my choice cannot be said to have stretched our comparative ingenuity to the utmost: we watched the Branagh version of Much Ado About Nothing, mostly for nostalgia, kicks and to establish a baseline, followed by the recent Joss Whedon version of same. It was a deeply Shakespearian afternoon, and a fascinating juxtaposition which achieved in spades the kind of enriched viewing through comparison and emphasis which is the whole point of the exercise. (Although, note to self: I possibly need to invest in a hearty supply of toffees for our next movie club, I can't seem to stop myself from commenting out loud while we watch and it has to be maddening to my co-watchers. Gluing my jaws together probably beats an actual gag.)

I adore Shakespeare because of his language, which practically defines the category of "the good shit" for my dodgy getting-high-on-words proclivities. Much Ado is simultaneously one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, because of the hyper-linguistic relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, and one of my least favourite, because that flow of (slightly undergraduate, insult-based) wit isn't ever quite enough to mask the brutality and basic misogyny of the Hero plot. To a greater or lesser extent both the Branagh and the Whedon versions modernise the play, but there's no updating that beastly subtext of women as objects of exchange whose value is in the male perception of their virginity. For a comedy the play is surprisingly cynical about romantic love: Beatrice and Benedick's re-negotiation and rediscovery of each other is drastically undercut by the absolutely superficial nature of the Hero/Claudio relationship, which slides continually in the language of its representation into purely venal images of value and wealth. And that aborted wedding scene is simply brutal.

It feels more brutal in the Branagh version, I think perhaps because it's such an exuberant film and the contrast in tones is thus particularly cruel; Whedon's film is moodier, not just because of the black-and-white, but because of slightly darker undercurrents of unease and unhealth in the relationships, and less emphasis on the spark and snap of the language. If nothing else watching the two films together made me realise how utterly, beautifully trained British actors are - they inhabit and embody the words in a way that even brilliant American actors don't. American mumbling is probably more naturalistic, but I'll take enunciation any day. The tonal contrast is very strong in the different settings as well - the Branagh has that idyllic pastoral thing going and a strong sense of relaxed, exuberant peasantry as backdrop, whereas the Whedon is a tighter, smaller, rather restrained setting, more mannered and less earthy. Whedon's black-and-white format is effective, as is the weirdly unspecific periodicity - it often feels 50s in costume and manners, but there are cellphones and very modern cars. We decided in the end that the hints were towards a sort of Mafia setting, which is a nifty interpretation of the names (Don Pedro etc), but also one of the few modern Western milieus in which that nasty feudal-structure / violence / women-as-objects vibe is realistically present. Also, it has to be said - I covet Joss Whedon's house, which is where the whole thing was filmed. Beautiful spaces. Jealous.

It's very telling, to watch not just two different directors' interpretations back-to-back, but two different sets of actors in the roles. High points: both Beatrices are amazing, with enormous emotional strength which made both Benedicks feel weaker by comparison. On mature reflection I don't think that's entirely to do with the actors, though, Shakespeare's play simply constructs Benedick as a bit of a twit, a resonance which both versions pick up on with rather entertaining slapstick elements. (Although I have to say Amy Acker is also very good at these). I loved Clark Gregg's Leonato, but Whedon's film gives him comparatively less to do (although he was particularly great in the Hero denunciation scene). Nathan Fillion's very funny Dogberry was a far more restrained and nuanced interpretation than that egregiously horrible Michael Keaton one; the security guard schtick was fun, as was the presence of those two lads from Britanick (they do Eagles Are Turning People Into Horses and Trailer For Every Oscar-Winning Movie Ever), who appear to have a mutual fanboy thing going with Joss. Hero doesn't have much of a presence in the play, but Kate Beckinsale's version (wtf? Kate Beckinsale? Good grief, I'd completely forgotten this was her first big role) is far better acted than Jillian Morgese's, which was a complete non-event. Sean Maher's Don John is beautifully, slitheringly evil and makes you realise how utterly dismal poor Keanu was in that role, my peculiar fondness for the match between the character and the actor's tongue-tied physicality notwithstanding. (I also really enjoyed the gender-swapped Conrade).

I love both these movies, enough that my feminist spluttering at its nastier bits doesn't overcome my simple joy both at Shakespeare's language and wit, and at the directors' and actors' enjoyment of same. It was lovely to see all the old Whedonverse favourites trotting out their Shakespeare stuff, it gave the play an intimacy and immediacy which was very effective. But I came away from the watching experience mostly with a sort of nebulous wish for a time machine and a cohort of RADA trainers, to spirit Whedon's cast away for some forcible re-education in diction and emphasis for about a year before they actually filmed. Shakespeare's language is brilliant, but archaic and at times convoluted; you have to spit it, not swallow it, if you want to convey its nuance to a modern audience. Half the time I had to seriously concentrate on making sense of it, to an extent where I wondered sometimes if the actors themselves were making sense of it, and that's not a feeling the Branagh version ever gives you. I fear I'm still a pervy Brit-fondler at heart.

Subject line is obviously Much Ado, Leonato describing the Beatrice/Benedick relationship. Shame on you if you didn't recognise it.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
sherlock irene

The new season of Sherlock starts on 1st January, and the BBC has just released a new, longer, interactive trailer that's pretty spanky and all. Tumblr is having hysterics, predictably enough. I must confess to a certain excitement. (Although, warning, that trailer made me exclaim "Sherlock, you bastard!" at least twice. They're interpreting the two years dead in the way the bulk of the fanfic does, which is to focus on how brutally the deception affects Watson and how emotionally detached Sherlock is from it; he's not going to be likeable this season). But I watched the trailer, and in particular the bit with the Stephen Moffat interview, and something crystallised for me, possibly because Moffat in interviews comes off as slightly smug.

See, my love for the narrative elegance of his early Doctor Who episodes notwithstanding, I still can't forgive Stephen Moffat for what he does to women across Doctor Who and Sherlock alike. He's not an enlightened thinker, certainly not a feminist one; his female characters tend to slide back into reactionary gender roles to a somewhat worrying extent. They wait. And have babies. Or unrequited crushes. Or are royally screwed around by circumstances. They're quite often passive in one or another way. They're almost always reacting to men, rather than having their own goals and agency, which means that ultimately any power that they have tends to reside in their sexuality.

And what he did to Irene Adler is the single thing that most annoys me about Sherlock. I've always vaguely assumed that it was because he insists on bloody well sexualising Sherlock, which I think is flat against both the letter and the spirit of Doyle's character. But today I realised it's not that, or at least not just that. It's also about the way he sexualises Irene herself. In the Doyle story she's "The Woman" because she's an intellectual equal to Sherlock: she doesn't seduce him, she out-thinks him. She's a sexualised figure in that she's beautiful and adored by men, but in fact she's characterised as a spurned woman more than an adventuress, and she doesn't randomly focus her sexuality against Sherlock himself: she triumphs over him in the story because of her intelligence, not her looks. The story takes for granted that Holmes himself wouldn't be susceptible to seduction anyway, it has to be a intellectual tussle. (In the original story Sherlock is actually fooled into not recognising Irene while she's disguised as a man, which I think is an important index both to how little her power is about her sexuality, and to how much Doyle equates her with Holmes himself - disguise is his own skill, after all). Moffat's Irene Adler is a complete reversal of this: the assumption in the episode is that she only prevails over Sherlock because her sexuality attracts, confuses and distracts him, which rewrites both of them.

That would be annoying even if Moffat hadn't gone the whole hog and made her into a dominatrix, which I find to be quite one of the most unpleasant symbolic sexual roles for women. A dominatrix, in the sense of a woman for hire as Irene is (I don't mean women in consensual BDSM relationships), is not about female power. The encounter is not about her desire to dominate: it's about the customer's desire (and that's usually male desire) to be dominated. She's a commodity, very much a sexual object whose apparent power is entirely illusionary. Irene Adler in Sherlock is thus neatly undercut in the same way that Molly's technical skill is by her infatuation with Sherlock, or that Donovan's strength of personality is by her affair with Anderson. Moffat can't think of women separately from men, and very often he can't think of them separately from their sexual identity. Even Mrs Hudson, apart from revolving around Sherlock, is tied to him through his past interference in the case against her husband. Irene Adler is the most extreme example of a worrying trend. (She's characterised as a lesbian who's helplessly attracted to Sherlock, for fuck's sake. Good grief. Sexist clichés much, Moffat?)

I love what Sherlock does to the canon, its creative re-interpretation of the characters, its updating of the narrative arcs. It's an amazing piece of adaptation. But it's also flawed, and a lot of what flaws it is Moffat's ideological ineptitude. It's doubly saddening, because I adore the elegance of structure of "Blink" and "The Girl in the Fireplace", but now I re-watch them with a critical eye for their women, and ultimately their women are sad.

(And it's only tangentially related, but while we're on the subject of women trapped in and punished by their sexual identities, you have to read this on the Susan/Narnia problem. It made me cry, and not so much forgive CS Lewis, as realise he's actually irrelevant.)

Subject line from "A Scandal in Bohemia", naturally: Watson talking about how alien the concept of romantic love is to Sherlock. I want to rub Moffat's nose in that paragraph.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
thor-dark-world

In the Department of Trundling Off Happily Alone To See Sunday Morning Movies (it's a thing), I saw THor: THe Dark World on Sunday. (For some reason those Hs really wanted to be capitalised so I'm allowing them to kick up their little heels). It was really rather a lot of fun, rating highly enough that it's probably not a bad film even given my superhero-metre's embarrassingly low threshold of enjoyment. The fast-becoming-traditional random observations follow, suitably vague so as to avoid spoilerage.

  • This is a particularly loopy mix of science fiction and the purely fantastic, but it pulls it off mostly by not quite taking itself seriously - there are some lovely moments of humour in the film, it's far less straight-faced than the first one.
  • There are enough plot twists in this that I rather enjoyably didn't see all of them coming, although to be fair it was a Sunday morning before my first cup of tea. (A deliberate strategic choice on account of how I hate having to duck out of today's really long movies because of a tight bladder).
  • The film offers, thematically, a complete mirror inversion of the Thor/Odin set-up in the first film. It's surprisingly thoughtful and makes interesting points about power and war. Also, I like both how Thor is being characterised, and how Chris Hemsworth plays him. He's kinda sweet and, like Riley, something of a doofus.
  • Is it just me, or does some miraculous Bechdel-test-passing miasmic force of not-actually-conventionally-awful-gender-roles somehow cling to the Thor franchise? It's by no means perfect, we still have Jane Foster being damselled all over the show, but she does continue to kick science butt and trade sarky dialogue with Darcy, and it was enormously refreshing that the only really gratuitous, lingering, objectifying camera shot in the film (apart from the Mercedes ad which preceded it, in which I disgraced myself with a fit of the giggles because, really, overcoded car porn) was the one of Thor's naked, glistening biceps. If we have to live in a media world given to objectification, at least it can damned well be equal opportunity objectification. Also, Sif. And Frigga being a warrior queen.
  • Loki is simply delicious. I do not at all get Tumblr's preoccupation with Loki as a desirable romantic option (because honestly, mass-murdering psychopaths are even less redeemable than most of fanfic's bad boyfriend choices), but he's trickster god to the hilt in this and has some really good sarky lines. Possibly I might be tempted to attempt to redeem a mass-murdering psychopath if he's sufficiently linguistic.
  • Extremely cool dark elf spaceships, interesting space-warping grenades, Christopher Ecclestone chewing evil scenery with commendable restraint, Heimdall kicking arse and taking names, incredible floating things, gravity inversions, and an extended action sequence which gives free play to the bastard offspring of a dodgy threesome between a superhero showdown, an Elder God summoning and a game of Portal.
  • A perfectly, deliriously wonderful cameo of Chris Evans doing an impression of Tom Hiddlestone's impression of Loki doing an impression of Chris Evans's Captain America. That man's actually a sneakily good actor, particularly when taking the mickey out of himself. (Still love his turn in Scott Pilgrim.)
  • It's worth sitting out the credits, because there are two easter eggs - one fairly standard just after the main credits, and one right at the end which gives a wonderful, whimsical, random closing image which kicked me out of the cinema in a happy state of giggle. As did the film, actually. Not profound, but fun is likely to be had.

Subject line is, of course, Buffy, about Riley, circa Season 4, "Something Blue", which is coincidentally quite one of my favourites because Buffy/Spike.

bump and grind

Wednesday, 22 May 2013 02:52 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
So, Jo and I had one of those Girly Movie Evenings last week, wherein, in the absence of stv, we watched Magic Mike. I am compelled to admit that, on the evidence, we probably don't get this Girly thing in the terms in which we possibly should. Because there we were: us girls together, a movie about male strippers, a bottle of wine, appropriately phallic hot dogs for supper, a general predisposition to giggle, and a completely unblushing tendency to pause the movie frequently at precise psychological moments in order to ... seriously discuss the implications for gender politics in the scene. As in:

"Gosh, the body language is interesting..."
"Yes, watch the women: open mouths, hands over mouths. They're shocked at themselves, caught doing something they shouldn't. Totally different to men at a strip show."
"It's still about male sexual dominance. Look at how often they use the women in the audience as props."
"I don't find them attractive. Should I be finding them attractive?"
"They're still filmed like sex objects."
"It's not about the sex. This is a sad movie."
"Millennial generation, it's all about drifting without meaning."
"Stripping is actually just a metaphor for empty display."

I found it very odd to watch: the cultural coding of almost naked men on display for a female gaze is radically different to that of men watching women strip. (We conducted further research by digging up clips from a bunch more male stripper movies, and they're all pretty much the same). It's not actually subversive of a gender paradigm in any way, because there is a clear sense in which the male stripper is getting off on the attention: that is, he's a subjectivity more than he's an object. As Jo pointed out, he has none of the subtext of shame which attaches to a woman in the same position, and a very clear sense that attention paid to his sexual flaunting is somehow his right. (Which is probably why I am profoundly not turned on by the display). The ramifications of this in the overall plot, and the development of the character called the Kid, were bloody terrifying.

Charming Potato, however, is moderately endearing in the actual story part of the lead role, and he's clearly a dancer - he moves beautifully. Matthew McConaughey made my skin crawl, as did the character development of the Kid. But it's not a bad film.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Scene: the local mall, wherein is showing Iron Man III, the which I trundled off to see this morning bright and early on the grounds of lesser crowds. (Result). A slightly fey little COSMETIC SALESMAN accosts me as I drift vaguely past on a superheroic high, and thrusts upon me a small sample sachet of lotion purported to contain diamond dust. (Which, I'm sorry, is just silly).

SALESMAN (scrutinising my countenance intensely): Can I just ask what make-up you're wearing there?
ME (beatifically, on account of aforementioned superheroic high): Oh, I don't wear make-up.
HIM (patiently): Well, what do you have at home for when you do wear it?
ME (with reciprocal patience): I don't wear make-up at all. For any reason.
HIM (with definite sales glint in the eye): Oh, that's so sad, what is it, allergies?
ME (bugger, he asked): No, I have ideological problems with the whole idea.
HIM (slightly flabbergasted): Oh. (Slight pause). May I ask what?
ME (slightly vaguely): Only women wear make-up.
HIM (indignantly, pointing to his own definite state of mascara, at least, and probably something very expensive and foundational): Hello!
ME: Yes, but you wear it for different reasons.

It degenerated a bit from that point, as I'm not up to snappy feminist rejoinders post-superhero-movie, early in the morning and on only one cup of tea. But, in l'esprit d'escalier, what I should have said, after thinking about it: actually, there's a weird sort of kinship here. He may not articulate it in precisely the same terms, but to some degree he wears make-up for exactly the same reasons that I don't: as a giant up-yours to the heteronormative tenets of our culture and its base and highly gendered assumptions about beauty and desirability. Because fuck that noise.

What I did manage to say, even through the haze, was that I'm completely comfortable with my ideological choice here, thank you, and it's not simply a matter of meeting the right make-up: I am not going to be converted by his fabulous samples. But I did see him waving his arms around as he clearly described the whole encounter to his glam little lady assistant (he was pointing at me as I drifted away). Clearly I'm a strange and fabulous creature quite unlike any he has ever seen before. Possibly mythical. I'm okay with that.

Oh, IM3.
  1. This film did neither what I expected it to, nor much of what I rather formlessly wanted it to do, but I thoroughly enjoyed it nonetheless.
  2. Damn good script, much of it out of left field.
  3. Music was all wrong. I never thought I'd mourn the lack of AC/DC.
  4. Fascinating stuffing around with the comics canon, plot-wise, about which I shall burble at length in a subsequent post. It's still percolating.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Skyfall

Now I'm wishing I hadn't used the e e cummings quote for yesterday's subject line, because I should have used it for today's. Because, what the hell is going on with Skyfall? I finished watching it last night, having been distracted the night before at the point where the train comes through the ceiling by the sudden arrival of [livejournal.com profile] herne_kzn, and it left me with a rather scattered set of impressions mostly along the lines of "WTF??" WTFs elucidated under the cut on account of spoilerage. )

I can't say I hated this film; it was an entertaining few hours, and Daniel Craig is always watchable (although he also always reminds me of my dad, which is simply weird). But it's not a good sign, when I found myself doing a lot of this analysis and deconstruction while I was actually watching. Action movies should blow you away sufficiently that their flaws only occur to you once you've emerged, quivering and energised, from the showdown. Not so much.

not cricket

Tuesday, 15 January 2013 08:49 am
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I caused the Evil Landlord to look at me funny on the way up to campus this morning by collapsing laughing at a newspaper billboard. This was not, for once, the result of clever wordplay, but of a rather classic instance of a headline-writer simply failing to do some quite important research. The billboard reads:

SMITH IS SOUTH AFRICA'S CAPTAIN MARVEL

- referring, of course, to Graeme Smith, captain of the SA cricket team, currently slaughtering New Zealand.

This is Graeme Smith:

GraemeSmith

This is the current Captain Marvel:

ms-marvel

She used to be Ms. Marvel, but took over from the very straightforwardly masculine Captain Marvel in recent comic runs. (I know all this because she's next on my list of interesting Marvel superheroes to pursue, there's some surprisingly positive gender stuff going on there).

I love the way that our particular cultural moment has weirdly mainstreamed superheroes as symbolic touchstones, but now my wayward imagination cannot stop picturing Graeme Smith in Captain Marvel's costume. Even better, this relates beautifully to the other link that came across my Twitter feed yesterday, about Sarah Taylor, English women's cricket star, who is in talks to join a men's team. Watch out, Graeme Smith!
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
I seem to be going through a stage of oh-god-I'm-tired-and-I-hate-work. The important thing with this, I've realised, is the focus on "going through a stage". This is a phase. It too shall pass: the brain chemistry or the hormones or the sleep cycle will re-synch, motivation will wake up from its cave, and life will be liveable again. It will probably pass more quickly if I eat chocolate, hit a lot of niskaru very hard with a prismire sword (yup, replaying Amalur), and browse the internet for interesting kipple.

But I've also realised that the nub, the locus, the emblematic pivot of the state is my bloody inbox. The email inbox is the curse of the modern age. It's particularly pernicious, because in the abstract I rather like words, I write with a great deal of facility, I'm murderously fast touch-typing on a computer keyboard, and at base I rather enjoy the sense of achievement that comes from answering all a student's possible questions ever and spreading sweetness and light in three short, pointed sentences and a link. But the damned things keep coming. The end of term is in sight, and I'm seeing probably fifteen or twenty queries a day about admissions, incoming exam angst, course-dropping and the generalised existential panic which is the default state of the student under stress. No matter how torrid my love affair with words and how boundless my sympathy for the common or garden student in its natural habitat, there comes a point where typing another sentence is not something into which I spring with glad cries.

My backlog of unanswered mail goes back three weeks. It'll take a day of intense focus to clear them all. And clearing a backlog is not without its own horrors, mostly due to my dual overabundance of empathy and guilt, as a result of which I read a month-old plaintive plea for help and immediately feel like the Worst Person Evah for not having answered immediately to put this poor fellow creature out of their pain. Because the reality is that, while to me the individual mail is merely one of a shoal of its fellows which circle my hapless form nibbling like goldfish (some of which are piranha because it's All My Fault), to the writer it's a huge chunk of concern and fear which occupies their personal horizon like a stormcloud of doom. I have the power to make it go away. I haven't exercised that power because I'm tired, or busy, or overwhelmed, or cruising the internet, or they asked me to "kindly" answer at once. I am a Bad Person. There will be coal in my stocking.

This is thus, like the majority of blog posts in the history of ever, not a post so much as it's an avoidance, a bizarrely counter-intuitive retreat from text into text as I try to reassert my ownership of, and investment in, the process of writing. In this act I insist that writing is not always about someone else: sometimes it's about me. I wave my tiny flag defiantly. It's been scribbled on extensively. It's distracting me from my bloody inbox.

I also bring you the results of the aforementioned internet-cruising. I stumbled across this old but kick-butt series of posts on The Awl, about women and power in the images of geekdom and sf. Bits that struck me: killer robots are women, or, perhaps, women are killer robots. "They're servants that won't serve, beings that we let into our homes because we thought they'd regard us as their superiors, whose compliance we took for granted until it vanished." It does explain the backlash. Also, a love song to Ripley and Buffy and River Tam, women who fight back. And feminist utopias: "Speculative fiction is sociology's dream journal; nerds want a place to belong; on the Enterprise, nobody cares if you're into space travel." That last statement made me strangely happy.

taking it personally

Monday, 2 July 2012 01:29 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Circumstances of late have conspired to give me a sudden need to be Randomly Feminist. This is mostly about a confluence of recent articles bouncing hither and yon across the 'net, but last night I also dreamed I had a massive argument with Tony Stark about my complete refusal to wear high heels, so there's that.

  • This is Bruce Sterling's Alan Turing Centenary speech, which boingboing linked to in a general "hooray Bruce Sterling Seminal SF Writer" sort of way, thereby causing me momentary insecurity and confusion. Because, while I kinda see what Sterling is trying to do there in terms of his address to Turing's marginal identity and the complexity of identity in the context of the Turing test, I also spent two days going "Huh?" and trying to work out what I was missing that boingboing obviously got. Boingboing is usually pretty sussed on gender issues, and it weirded me out that they linked without comment when I found Sterling's argument so problematical in its unthinking assumption of pretty reactionary ideas about gender identity.

    On the whole, I think I blame boingboing for not being more alert. You can't ask the question “can a computational system be a woman?” without first asking the question "what is a woman?", i.e. addressing the issues of stereotype and patriarchy and acculturation over biology and what have you. This is, I think, what Sterling is really trying to do, in suggesting that you can't expect machine consciousness to develop without lived experience, but he signally fails to do it in any sort of way which shows awareness of his own limited sense of "feminine identity". The paragraph which really got my goat:

    The two women are going to feel deep sympathy and solidarity with this tortured, alien creature who so much wants to be a woman, while having zero chance of ever having a woman’s lived experience. This entity is a woman who will never be beloved, was never a daughter, sister, wife or mother. This woman never nurtured anyone, never had so much as a pet cat. She never danced, never sang a song, never felt the sun on her skin, could not comfort a weeping child, could not weep at the graveside of her parents, never got a smile, a compliment, never saw her own face in the mirror…
    Because clearly women are all about emotion and nurture and beauty and mirrors and an experience of marginality. Only women are wounded, and might therefore empathise with a subject machine intelligence. And more horribly, only women have "identity" which is separated in some sense from intelligence or cognition - i.e. highlighting the importance of identity in cognition is done by talking about female identity, not male, because male cognitive identity is naturalised. In his efforts to problematise the idea of identity, Sterling basically re-enacts the "men do intelligence, women do emotion" trope as an extremely troubling binary assumption.

    And who the hell is Sterling to start defining "a woman's lived experience"? Why is a woman's experience necessarily about dancing and mirrors and comforting children? Can't our experience also encompass joy in simultaneous equations and running a business and driving fast cars? The world at large has never paid attention to the "woman" part of Turing's question because it's either, if you address it as Sterling does, a bloody stupid question, or, if you address it properly, it requires that you identify a machine intelligence by its ability to imbibe, digest and construct itself via about two thousand years of global culture and power relations shaping biological function as they impact on its moment of creation as a consciousness. Which may have been Turing's point, and is certainly the point Sterling is trying to make, but I don't think Sterling actually gets why it's such a tricky one, or why his own blithe assumptions about identity (and gender and hormones, oy vey) are so incomplete.

    Also, to assume that a gay man is necessarily either "feminine" or "effeminate" is quite horrifyingly unthinking. And appears to have no real point. Honestly, as [livejournal.com profile] pumeza and Confluency pointed out on Twitter, the main problem with his speech is that its argument is completely incoherent.

  • So, to balance things out a bit, have Nora Ephron's 1996 Wellesley commencement speech. Which kicks butt, or more specifically, stomps blinkered post-feminism righteously into the mud. By way of an antidote paragraph:

    One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don't take it personally, but listen hard to what's going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: Get back, get back to where you once belonged. When Elizabeth Dole pretends that she isn't serious about her career, that is an attack on you. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you—whether or not you believe in abortion.
    When a highly-regarded science fiction writer, a member of a usually thoughtful and politically aware group, makes stupid stereotypical assumptions about gender identity, it's a kick in the damned teeth, is what it is. Kick back. Also, mourn Nora Ephron. She knew.


(Edited 2/07 to clarify a couple of points in which my own incoherence was annoying me.)

Jade Lady

Tuesday, 17 April 2012 09:39 am
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Lo these many moons ago, [livejournal.com profile] strawberryfrog introduced me to the Phryne Fisher mystery stories by Kerry Greenwood. A couple of years later, after some slightly addictive behaviour involving Loot, my credit card and my burning desire to read more, I have the whole collection, or at least those that are still in print. In my usual spirit, i.e. with my apparent and not particularly subliminal need to infect those in my immediate vicinity with whatever cultural effusions currently grab my attention, I shall now proceed to babble about them.

Kerry Greenwood is an Australian writer and the books are set in Australia, mostly Melbourne, which is a city I loved utterly after a two-day stay. And they're period pieces, 1920s, mid-Wars, which you can gather from the beautiful artwork here reproduced. (I love their covers. Striking, and minimalist, and absolutely atmospheric). Also, the books are well-researched: I am always obscurely cheered by an author who lists her references at the end of her novel. 1920s Australia is fascinating, both in comparison to the 1920s literature I'm more familiar with, which is very British (P.G. Wodehouse et al), and in its identity as a colonial space with resonances with our own South African history and experience. And the setting is shown with some really quite acute and occasionally nasty political realism. They're never actually gritty, but the stories dally repeatedly not only with murder but with abuse, rape, torture, poverty, back-street abortions, child slavery and the occasional severed ear.

Phryne herself is a beautifully-constructed icon, offering a fascinating balance between the above grittiness, and wish fulfilment (she's young, beautiful, rich, aristocratic, efficient and Bohemian). I like her because she's kick-butt effective at what she does, but also because she's a poster kid for various political manifestations of which I heartily approve. There is something of a Utopian gloss on her activities, which don't really have the serious social repercussions they ought to have, but they're nonetheless heartwarming. I think the Australian context is possibly less repressive than it would be in England, but there is still enormous prejudice against the Jews, Chinese, Socialists, prostitutes, anarchists, homosexuals, Bohemian poets, circus folk and various other categories of individual she cheerfully associates with and, in many cases, has ecstatic sex with. In the 1920s, Bohemianism notwithstanding, she's doing it all in the teeth of considerable social disapproval, which she either blithely ignores, or the perpetrators of which she confronts head-on in order to wrest them to less bigoted behaviour by sheer force of personality.

Above all, Phryne is a feminist icon. Not only does she represent agency and political awareness, but her sexuality is defined in terms which are directly appropriated from a particularly male stereotype which affirms the value of pleasure without either exclusivity or attachment. The stories are well-written detective pieces - and the Wodehouse echoes are in more than the setting, there are occasional phrases which, if not quite in the Performing Flea category, are neat and witty enough to make me laugh out loud - but they also chronicle Phryne's unabashed and wholehearted dalliances with a long string of beautiful young men. She's a vamp, and proud of it. The vamping doesn't in any way impair her intellectual and physical efficiency: she's a very cat-like creature, selfish, fastidious and hedonistic at the same time, and capable of being absolutely merciless when appropriate.

This multivalent strength, while rather rose-tinted, is also nicely rationalised. One of the huge attractions of the setting to me is the way in which it weaves the First World War into Phryne's life. Her origins and childhood are in lower-class Australian life; the wholesale swathes the war cut into the British population raises Phryne's family to nobility and wealth by dint of killing off all the other heirs. But she's an extremely reluctant aristocrat in many ways, and runs away from suitable marriages in order to, at the age of seventeen, drive an ambulance in the trenches. The blood and slaughter, and her need to deal with it in order to do an essential job, tempers her: she's a sprung steel construction in many ways, and you can see how she's earned that strength. She then refines it by hanging around Bohemian Paris for a couple of years as an artists model, while incidentally being taught street-fighting by Les Apaches. When she roughs up Australian wharfies who deserve it, you don't feel that it's too far-fetched.

This is not serious reading; it's detective pulp, and proud of it. But it's enormously pleasurable reading, not just because of the appeal of its main character and the rag-tag band of eccentrics which make up her world, but because of its unexpected historical and political layering. The feline creature which these novels represent may be unrealistically beautiful and effective, but she has teeth.
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I've spent the better part of the last two weekends marking a Masters dissertation. It's on modern fantasy, specifically Stephen Erickson, who I hadn't read before and am very glad to have read now. (Probably more on him in a future post, when I've ploughed through more Malazan). The thesis makes some good points, but its sense of contemporary fantasy is rather limited; it argues that Erickson's gritty, realistic, non-romance-based world and plot is a ground-breaking departure from the classical fantasy genre.

The thing is, it isn't. The epic fantasy genre has been breaking madly away from heroic stereotypes for decades. Stephen Donaldson does it. Terry Pratchett does it. George R R Martin does it. There's a whole new crop of fresh works by China Miéville, Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, Lev Grossman, which are gleefully standing the genre and its heroes on their heads. These days there's a well-defined and vociferous sub-set of epic fantasy which is resolutely postmodern, dammit.

And I find myself looking at that list and thinking, hang on, those are all men. What's with that? Is the postmodern mickey-take on heroic fantasy strictly a masculine thing, or am I just not thinking of the examples of female writers who do it? I suppose you could count Elizabeth Bear's Iskryne, but it's not strictly epic. So either there's an intrinsic testosterone component to postmodern deconstruction of heroic tropes (or, in fact, there's an intrinsic testosterone component to heroic dudes swinging swords on an epic scale) or my memory is playing up even more than usual. Who am I not thinking of, female fantasy-deconstruction-wise? Help out my fatigued and rapidly deteriorating brain.

Subject line, of course, courtesy of Goats. Read Goats. It'll put hair on your chest. Surreal, wayward hair.

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