Saturday, July 23, 2011


More than one reviewer has talked about the fantasy of the beautiful and dangerous man who represents the scary but intriguing side of coming into one's own sexuality, especially when it comes to everyone's favorite punching bag. I don't think this fantasy is a bad thing, especially if put into its proper context, like a villain. And thus, for once we move away from Edward Cullen and come to Jareth, the Goblin King of Jim Henson's late film Labyrinth.

Unlike many girl geeks of my age I do not have fond childhood memories of this movie, although I remember very much remember wanting to see it when I saw an ad on HBO. It never happened until a few weeks ago, and while it probably would have blown me away more back then, it's certainly more interesting to me now.

The film follows Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a 15-year-old girl obsessed with fantasy worlds who is having a hard time with her father's new marriage, particularly her new younger brother, Toby. Told to look after the crying baby for the night, Sarah in a fit of rage calls upon the Goblin King (David Bowie) to take him away. He does that, arriving in a puff of glitter, and when Sarah fails to be seduced by him, he tells her she'll need to complete his labyrinth in 13 hours.

The HBO ad I saw (unlike the trailer I posted above) really played up the "Sarah must save her brother" angle. This intrigued me as a kid, because I'm a big sister with a little brother. (Plus, I remember reading a picture book with a similar plot that seemed more about the sibling relationship.) Yet quest tales are never about the object, but about the journey. Toby will be saved, but he's not the important part.

Jennifer Connelly is a great actress ... now. I loved her in Requiem for a Dream and The House of Sand and Fog and thought she was one of the saving graces of Ang Lee's Hulk. That being said her acting here is kind of rough and somewhat shrill. Of course, she was young, but it makes her performance somewhat distracting. Nevertheless, I did like Sarah, and enjoyed her journey. I liked that she was a protagonist who remained feminine, using her lipstick to mark her path (even if it didn't work).

And of course, Sarah meets very strange creatures and even stranger perils along the way, and makes some friends, as one does on quests. I felt a particular attachment to Ludo, a giant hairy beast who is also an Earth Bender.

Yet the real conflict on a both surface and metaphorical level is between Sarah and Jareth, and about how Jareth tries to seduce Sarah throughout the movie. As a growing young woman, Jareth's seductions upon Sarah are twofold. He tries to entrance her with the delights of childhood. At one point a goblin takes Sarah to her room and entreats her to stay with her old toys. In a scene that probably still makes Harry Knowles cry, Sarah breaks away when she exclaims, "It's all junk."

But there's also the enchantments of adulthood. Jareth, played by Bowie at his glam-rock best and wearing very tight pants that leave little to the imagination, remains a romantic figure to Sarah. He's perfect for the job, of course. Others have spoken about how androgynous males appeal to young ladies because they seem "safer" and less scary, and Jareth walks that scary/safe line perfectly. The sexual awakening elements of the story are left appropriately in subtext, but that makes them no less powerful. I'm by no means a hardcore Bowie fan, but I don't know who wouldn't find this fantasy ball sequence enchanting.

But one can't really give into the sexy/scary type, whatever Twilight tells us. Edward Cullen can raise the spectre of being scary only to has his author forget about it, but Jareth must remain in the realm of fantasy and Sarah must return. Even if Jareth offers to be her slave, she must reject him.

Although perhaps not completely. Even though we must all grow up, one can still return to childhood for visits, as Sarah assures the friends she made in her fantasy world when they turn up in her room in the final scene. Meanwhile a barn owl, the avatar of the Goblin King, remains tantalizingly watching through the window. He's still not Edward Cullen, though. He does fly away.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

RETRO REVIEW: Hellraiser

(Heavy spoilers below.)

One of the many things my high school writing teacher, Mr. Harvey, said that I'll never forget was his criticism of the Tomb Raider movie. Unlike Indiana Jones, who gets knocked about and dirty during his movies, Lara Croft spent her movie clean and things came just a bit too easy for her. There was no sign of struggle. The very opposite can be said for the heroine of Hellraiser, Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence), who fights tooth and nail through most of the movie and ends up dirty but completely successful. Of course, that's not exactly uncommon in horror movies, but it's surprising that movies about superheroines have dragged their feet on this "bloody struggle = humanizing" ideal when it comes to women.

Hellraiser is not a perfect movie. For a movie that's supposed to be about S&M demons it's one of the unsexiest things I've ever seen. (And at the risk of sounding cruel I'll just say Clare Higgins, who plays the femme fatale/evil stepmother was maybe possibly just a teeny bit of a poor choice for her job as attractive seductress. Also, her acting is rough.) Plus it seems to be the product of its time in the effects. The movie is short at a little over an hour and a half but spends a lot of film showing off the reanimation of Frank as a monster, mostly because I think they were amazed they were able to do it. Still, a lot of the scenes that I think were supposed to be scary just elicited a "yuck" reaction from me.

Yet I had to admit Kirsty earned my sympathy far more than heroines of better movies, such as Laurie Strode of Halloween or Nancy Thompson of Nightmare on Elm Street. (And of course she is better than whoever the hell was the "Final Girl" of Friday the 13th but almost all movies period are better than Friday the 13th so that's pretty easy.) The story begins in an unspecific foreign land, where sadist creeper Frank buys a puzzle box, takes it back home, and solves it, which sends him to an alternate reality where he's tortured and killed by Cenobites, the aforesaid S&M demons. Later his milquetoast brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Larry's wife move into the house. The wife, Julia, is still obsessed by her masochistic passion for Frank but the husband is trying to make their sour marriage work. The marriage is bad enough that Larry's daughter Kirsty has moved away, even though dad and daughter still love each other.

It was this part where both the movie and Kristy won me over. Kirsty and her father have a sweet relationship built on mutual caring for each other. For a few brief shining moments I would have said Larry reminded me of my father, but then Larry cuts his hand pulling a mattress up the stairs and almost has a fainting fit and I thought, "No, actually, my Dad is not a complete wuss."

Anyway, Larry's blood drips onto the floor and revives Frank into little more than a talking skeleton with eyes. Julia finds Frank later, and their mutual attraction is enough to convince Julia to go out and find human sacrifices so he can be whole again. Yet Frank wants more of Larry's blood, and while Julia tries to dissuade him, it'll ultimately come down to Kirsty to defend her father's honor, even if she can't save him.

I came into this movie completely blind beyond knowing what the head cenobite Pinhead (Doug Bradley) looked like. The male iconography, while striking, does the movie something of a disservice, because I feel it's essentially the struggle between two women. The movie follows Julia before moving onto Kirsty. Julia is motivated purely by a man, and while it annoys me a bit because I think S&M relationships are more complicated than that, it means something that Julia is kowtowing to Frank while Kirsty's main goal is to protect her father.

Since Kirsty won me over in her first scene I spent a lot of the movie worried she would get killed, and grateful when she didn't. This is a good thing, because a hero looks better if their safety is at first in doubt. Kirsty survives her first confrontation with Frank, even stealing the puzzle box. However, the situation gets worse when she solves the box, not knowing what it is, and unleashes the Cenobites, who will kill her with their games. She offers to return Frank to them if they spare her life.

At this point Kirsty has already fought off Frank the first time and then been chased by a monster through a labyrinth, but she returns to the house and Frank has peeled off her father's skin and is wearing it. In the final confrontation Kirsty not only has to fight Frank-as-her-father, but all of the Cenobites, and while her mostly-a-nonpresence of a boyfriend helps her out a bit, it's mostly her that does the fighting, and she's also the one who solves the puzzle, defeating monster after monster and a collapsing building as she does.

And throughout the fight, she gets messy. Kirsty's a bit more glamorous than the average heroine, but she gets dirty and banged up in a way that's both realistic and not exploitative. And, of course, even with the set-up for a sequel, she still saves the day and comes out with her boyfriend by her side. It's not much, but considering how rough the genre can be to women, it goes a long way.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Why I am Not a Harry Potter Fan ... (A Remix)

In 2007, when I lived alone in a new state where I had almost no friends, I learned what it is to be a geek and be alone: It really sucks. If you haven't gone to a comic book convention by yourself I wouldn't recommend it. Sure, you might pick up nice swag but what's that without a friend to show it to and compare your bounties? Same with going to a showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show without another Virgin to buoy you. Half-way through throwing toilet paper at the screen from your empty row you'll realize you're not having fun.

Still, I have an affection for the night I went to the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at the Borders in Newark, Delaware. Uninterested in any of the contests or most of the rigmarole going on within the center of the store, I hunkered down in the Shakespeare section along with two preteen girls with braces on their teeth and a guy inexplicably dressed in a black t-shirt and red clip on bow-tie getting a backrub from his Goth girlfriend. I drank hot chocolate from the Seattle's Best Coffee and chatted with the girls. After midnight hit I still had to wait until they called my letter (which was J or something) to get in line for my book, and ended up taking a nap on the floor, my head on a copy of The Portable Dorothy Parker that would also be coming home with me. I left that night happy to have experienced a special event the likes of which probably never would be seen again. Okay, so the midnight release of Breaking Dawn quashed that dream, but it was nice while it lasted.

If you actually read the title of that post, I am sure you are confused. I like Harry Potter. I've read all the books and seen all of the movies, about half of them when they came out in theaters. In one memorable instance I went to the movie of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix with my college buddies after an afternoon wedding/civil union ceremony and ended up sitting in the theater in a ball gown. I think the books are a lot of fun and occasionally quite clever. The movies a bit less so (what the heck happened with the sixth?), but I still like them just fine.

Yet I am not a Harry Potter fan. I know Harry Potter fans, I have walked among them. I know who they are and what they do and how they think.

Harry Potter fans hate Harry Potter.

The main focus of the fans' hate is J.K. Rowling, the author and mother of the franchise and Richer Than The Queen of England (TM). Unlike Twilight fans, who are quick to shun any who speak badly of Stephenie Meyer, in the Harry Potter fandom hatred of J.K. Rowling is encouraged if not required.

They hate that J.K. Rowling got it wrong from the beginning, making Slytherin a house that was always more evil than ambiguous. They hate that Harry didn't get together with Hermione, his actual true love, instead dating Ginny, who is a whore because she dated TWO GUYS before bestowing a kiss on Harry Potter's pure lips. They hate Hermione and Ron together, which is sure to degrade into domestic violence for some reason. They hate that the books didn't focus on the true protagonist of the series - Ron, Hermione, Snape, Neville Longbottom or Draco, depending on who you talk to - and instead focused on a rules-breaking athlete who got fame for not dying.

Harry Potter fans hate Harry Potter.

(These excited children are not Harry Potter fans. The average Harry Potter fan is 30 or something.)

Harry Potter fans hate Harry Potter books. They hate that the first book was too reminiscent of Roald Dahl's writing, and believe the increasing size of the books was not due to a world growing more complex, but due to the writer's own increasing ego. J.K. Rowling needed a better editor. Nevertheless, the books could have always been longer, if only to get in all the parallels between Snape, Dumbledore and Tom Riddle. Do you know all the parallels? J.K. Rowling doesn't, and this makes Harry Potter fans angry.

This is the crux of Harry Potter fans' complaints with the series. J.K. Rowling does not understand her own work. Did you know that Blaise Zabini should have been Italian instead of black, and also possibly a woman? Did you know that werewolves are a metaphor for homosexuals? Did you know that when the centaurs took Umbridge out into the woods they raped her? J.K. Rowling doesn't, and this makes fans angry.

Harry Potter fans hate Harry Potter.

There is also material supplemental to the books, and Harry Potter fans hate this too. Why should Crookshanks' origin be revealed in a charity book? Who does J.K. Rowling thing she is, making books primarily to raise money for charity? And don't even get them started on the upcoming encyclopedia, whenever that will come up.

Harry Potter fans hate Harry Potter.

There have also been seven going on eight movies based on the Harry Potter series, and fans hate these too. They hate the first two movies, directed by that over-literal dork Chris Columbus, and that they never got to see Rik Mayall as a ghost. They also hate Alfonso Curazon for putting the kids in street clothes instead of robes, as well as for making it okay to actually cut things. They hate the sixth movie for blowing up the hollow, and the seventh movie for being two parts, and it will probably still not get in all the details that they want.

Also, Pottermore will probably suck.

Yes, Harry Potter fans hate Harry Potter, which of course begs the question: why do they read and watch and consume and write fanfics about Harry Potter? Why the real life Quidditch games? Why the cosplay? Why the bands? Why?

I don't know. Ask a Harry Potter fan. I'm not a fan of Harry Potter.

This post was stolen heavily based on The Complex and Terrifying Reality of Star Wars Fandom by Andrey Summers. I still haven't seen Green Lantern and thought it needed adaptation.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A few belated thoughts on X-Men: First Class ...

I know the comics blogosphere has moved on to bashing/playing apologist for Green Lantern, but work and the odd business that comes with going on vacation has prevented me from being on time and possibly relevant. So let us travel weeks back in time and discuss X-Men: First Class.

First things first, I did like the movie. I've never liked the X-Men movies as much as the majority of the geek community but it was a large step up from X-Men: The Last Stand. What would have otherwise have been a mediocre reboot was elevated by the characterization of the central characters and the performances of James MacAvoy (Professor), Michael Fassbender (Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique) and Kevin Bacon (Sebastian Shaw). I don't think it's a great movie, but it's an enjoyable movie, and considering I had low expectations for this movie given that it takes its title from a solid, unique X-Men comic series that this movie has nothing to do with I was overall pleasantly surprised.

Yet, I always have a certain problem with the X-Men movies ... nay, the X-Men franchise in general, and that's this. Now, let's say you're a preteen girl with limited funds. Let's say said preteen girl is interested in superheroes. She watches the 90s X-Men cartoon but for the backstory largely learns about said superheroes not from comics so much but from the trading cards and profiles she reads on the Internet. Basically, this is how it plays out.

Cards/Profiles: "Hey Kid! Look! We have girl superheroes! Lots and lots and lots of girl superheroes! We have ones that fly and ones that control the weather and ones that make fireworks and ones that fuck your shit up and eat a whole sun! Read us! We are fun! Come play with us forever!"

Actual Stories: "Giant mutant horde fights other giant mutant horde. Wolverine mostly does everything."

That's not to say that I've never enjoyed an X-Men story or never found X-Men stories that didn't follow that formula, but the first three X-Men films, as much as I liked aspects of them, were basically that formula. Also, did I mention Wolverine is my least favorite X-Man and Storm my favorite? Yeah. So I've basically been brokenhearted since 2000.

Still, for all the heavy focus on Wolverine, and as much as I appreciate how this movie focused more on XavierMagneto (they are one word) and Mystique, I still feel like the first three movies had more for my metaphorical preteen self than this one. Did no one in the boardroom go, "Hey, so ... in our metaphor for racism it seems like all the people who end up on the good side are white American males. Should we think about this?"

Granted, I'm far from the first person to complain about this and whatever I write here probably won't be as eloquent as what David Brothers said. But sheesh, we couldn't have even had a good team that spanned the globe, even the white parts of it? I know there were some bad accents in the last films but what is an X-Men story without terrible accents, anyway?

So given that in the end we close with no female superheroes, this is what we do have.

Mystique - Now, despite her small amount of lines, I've always liked the movies' Mystique. I even dressed up as her in high school, which was probably a bad idea given that I was too lazy to add the spines and didn't cut my hair so nobody knew who I was. (Some guys liked my costume, but probably for the wrong reason.) Still, as much as I appreciate what a good sport Rebecca Romijn was for wearing all that makeup and terrible contacts in the first three films, the future Katniss Everdeen was definitely a step up, and her storyline was compelling. It's essentially a tragedy (the girl who could have been good turns evil), although the star of the tragedy doesn't see it as one.

Emma Frost (January Jones) - On the other hand, Emma starts off as a bad girl who is powerful but underappreciated by her boss Shaw, who at one point requests she get him ice for his drink, spends many of her scenes in her underwear and the climax of the movie largely out of the action. In the end she switches to working for the other bad guy, most of her motivations largely unknown. I think the character of Emma Frost has been largely mismanaged in recent years, and this tepid portrayal didn't help. At least she got a decent fight scene.

Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz) - Well, her makeup and the effects for her powers were nice. Unfortunately, as others have pointed out, this was the case of the only black female character turning evil soon after the one black male character is killed, and most of her motivations for doing so are not well developed.

Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) - It's kind of standard that the role of the normal woman is diminished in comparison to the heroes, but despite Moira's importance to the plot in a lot of smaller ways, I came away without much of an impression of her beyond when Magneto choked her. Compared to the work done with Pepper Potts in the Iron Man movies and Jane Foster in Thor, I was rather bummed.

I am aware that a two hour movie isn't the time to have an in-depth exploration of every character's psyche, which is okay, but I do wish these movies ostensibly about teams weren't one-man shows. This movie does improve the formula by making it more of a three-person show, but I think my wish for a glorious team movie where all characters - male and female, all different races - get to shine is still a dream for the future.


By the way, not that this is related to anything said above, but Good God Internet, you are hard on Xavier.

I mean, look, we all agree that the prejudice metaphor has long been a part of the X-Men mythos but as a result of this it occasionally runs up into ideas that are rather retrograde, such as the idea of proving yourself to be the "good type" of minority. It's totally an issue that should be talked about, and is a problem to be expected, given that the principal creators of the franchise were 1960s-era liberal Jewish men and thus saw it through that lens rather than the lens of 21st century progressives. I do think that comics and sci-fi lean on racism as a metaphor in ways that are often uncomfortable and borderline offensive rather than working to make their stories more diverse (i.e. District 9 and James Cameron's Avatar), and X-Men can occasionally fall into the trap.

But are we really going to side with the guy who wants to solve the problem by killing many people and starting a war to kill many, many more? Don't get me wrong, I like Magneto, but the guy's least death-filled plan to solving this problem in the comics is to bring all the mutants to their own island. I do not think the best way to dismantle the kyriarchal system is to kill everybody or take your toys elsewhere. I find fandom painting him as the good guy who knows what's really going on and how to really solve the problems as a bit disturbing.

Yes, I was there when Xavier said things like "We have the chance to be the better man" or "They're just following orders" but Magneto also counteracts this and when he does Xavier has nothing to say. Xavier is a hero who is sometimes wrong, and pays the price for it, losing his best friend and sister. He lives in an imperfect story, but he's an imperfect character who suffers for his beliefs and mistakes, and I don't see how some in fandom seem to not find that compelling.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Just because Twilight is stupid doesn't mean girls are stupid

For a long time I resisted reading the Twilight series, first because I heard it was bad, and then because everyone had read it and said it was bad. What could I possibly add to the discourse that Cleolinda Jones or Stoney or countless other parodies hadn't already said? (This one is the best, by the way.) Yet as I began to listen to the discourse in the geek community around Twilight, I decided I did have something to say: I usually fucking hate it when men/guys talk about this series.

Let me back up. Of course, pretty much everyone knows the story by this point. Sullen average teen girl Bella Swan moves to Forks, Washington and meets a boy named Edward in her class who is really beautiful but is also a vampire and blah blah abstinence metaphor blah blah bad writing blah blah vampire is with her and then leaves her and then the book goes blank and wastes trees blah blah Team Jacob blah blah Edward's back blah blah love triangle goes on forever blah blah Edward takes the engine out of her truck blah blah marriage and horrible death baby scene blah blah imprinting blah blah small perfect piece of our forever.

Okay, look. I have no great love for this series. I think it's problematic on levels of sex and race. Even considering that as a Young Adult novel it is printed in big text and big margins it is still WAY too long for its flimsy content. Stephenie Meyer's plots are incompetent, her sense of suspense nonexistent and she seems to have an allergic reaction to writing anything resembling a fight scene. As a journalist her attempt to write a news article in Eclipse gave me hives. I don't like Edward. I hate Jacob even more. Meyer constantly brings up moral dilemmas ("Is it right to get help from vampires who eat people?") and then cops out on them ("Well, we just won't think of all those people they're killing out-of-state."). And did I mention the length? I know I did, but sheesh that last book was heavier than my copy of Moby-Dick and it's mostly made up of two characters having the same conversation ad nauseum. That's ridiculous.

Still, as bad as the books are, with all their Edward-sneaking-into-Bella's-room-at-night and Jacob-force-kissing-Bella and Bella-turning-into-a-zombie-because-Edward-leaves-her, I don't think they're the world's worst books. They're not even the worst I've ever read. Most people get stuck over the sparkly vampires that don't have fangs, but to be honest there have been so many modifications to vampires I don't in the end think that's a big deal, especially when there's so much more that's discomforting about the series. Plus, there are some genuine high points. I do appreciate how it ends with Bella becoming a vampire and being more powerful than Edward, even if that may be less of a feminist statement and more of me liking girls killing things and getting sick of her whining. Some of the minor characters such as Alice, Aro and Garret are a lot of fun. Finally, when Meyer finally does touch the darker elements of vampirism the book shines. I have to admit when I did decide to read the series I was most looking forward to the terrible vampire birth and in its own way it didn't disappoint. The scene in New Moon when Bella watches the Volturi murder tourists who come into their castle or whatever is another rare moment of powerful writing in the series. There does seem to be something resonant about these books, something that seems to entrance those who love and hate it, in a way that I don't think lesser bad books do.

And, as horrible as these books can be, sometimes people turn the message from "Wow, these books are stupid" to "Wow, girls who like these books are stupid." The commentary thus becomes not how the books fail, but why girls like stupid things. I hate this type of commentary, especially because it comes out as sexism with a feminist mask.

For one, I wish we could just call a moratorium on men whining about pretty boy actors. One because being in a culture where if I complain about sexualized women I'm just jealous and men need their jiggle-vision on video games and sex is awesome if you don't like a woman being sexy get the fuck off this messageboard, but if a guy without a beard takes off his shirt and shows muscles it's giving women unrealistic expectations about men and has to be stopped just makes me want to tear my hair out. Also, I was a teenager when Titanic came out and don't particularly like to feel like I'm back in 1997.

However, more irritating is when commentators take the legitimate complaint of "The romance in this book has a stalkery element" and turn this into "This book will lead girls into abusive relationships," or, worse, "Girls who read this want to be abused." To those who think that, are you kidding me? Did I miss all those news stories in the 1980s where Flowers in the Attic led to an epidemic of girls fucking their brothers? Where is the geek community that rails against how shooting people in a video game doesn't have anything to do kids who shoot up their schools when this garbage comes up?

Look, I'm not saying I'm okay with Twilight's messages. My younger girl cousins read them and the first thing I said to them when I heard was, "If a guy comes to your window at night, he's not cool" but I think they know that anyway. Teenagers aren't always the brightest, but a good number of them know the difference between fantasy and reality, and I think girls deserve just as much credit in this arena. And it is still fantasy. Most of the girls who have a crush on Edward Cullen now aren't going to try to find a guy like him, just as most of the women who like Star Wars aren't going to look for a guy who can crush a man's windpipe with his mind. That doesn't mean that there aren't some fans that take their obsessions to the point where they shouldn't, but I don't think in that respect women are necessarily worse than men.

So some girls like things that aren't very good. If movie grosses have taught me anything, quite a lot of people like things that aren't very good. That's no reason to complain harder about when Twilight fans come to Comic Con any more than when Transformers movie fans come to Comic Con. That doesn't mean that they're both above criticism, or that fans in of themselves can't be criticized, but I think this sort of broad brush isn't fair.

Oh, and guys, please try not to paint a picture of Twilight fans by picking and choosing the worst of what the most disengaged from reality say. You hate that when the mainstream media does that to comic book and video game fanboys. Do unto others.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

I feel for Rosalie and Leah like I feel for characters in a bad fanfic

(This post has spoilers for the later books in the Twilight series.)

For a long time now I've tried to make my way through the Twilight book series, but it's been hard, mostly because I can't stand them. While I could read 100 pages in one sitting I often feel I do not want to do so. As of this writing I'm a little past the second book in Breaking Dawn, the final novel in the series, and while I've long been planning to write on the series as a phenomenon I figured that while I'm not done I'd like to talk a little bit about two characters whose depictions really bother me, Rosalie Cullen and Leah Clearwater.

Rosalie Cullen. You know she can't be trusted because she's blonde.

Most people who read the Twilight series and don't like them focus on the problematic relationship between Bella and her suitors, and while there's plenty to say about that I find Rosalie and Leah's stories more jarring as a feminist and as an aspiring fiction writer. For those not in the know, Rosalie is one of Edward Cullen's "sisters," a vampire created by their "father" Carlisle to be a companion for Edward, except Edward didn't love her that way and now Rosalie has her own squeeze, Emmett, and Edward is the primary love interest of Twilight heroine Bella. Leah, meanwhile, is a cousin to werewolf Jacob Black, Bella's secondary love interest, and the only female werewolf in a pack of mostly-shirtless men.

Both Rosalie and Leah belong to that class of characters that probably have a cute name on TV Tropes but I'll just call them "dislikable allies." Both characters are coded as bitches by not only the viewpoint characters - Bella doesn't like Rosalie because Rosalie doesn't like her, and when Jacob narrates in Breaking Dawn large portions of the narrative are dedicated to how loathsome the both of them are. None of the characters seem to disagree with them, either. Rosalie has a husband but while he doesn't diss her we never at any point in the narrative see him stick up for her. And Leah is apparently so loathsome that when the wolf pack splits into two and Leah joins up with Jacob's pack of him and Leah's little brother, Seth, Seth is disgusted at having to be in a pack with his own sister again because she's just that much of a pain.

What is it that sets these characters so apart? Well, Rosalie doesn't like Bella so she's cold to her sometimes. Also, Rosalie is bitter that she can't get pregnant. As for Leah, she's bitter because Sam, the head of the wolf pack, doesn't love her anymore. And ... that's about it. In paragraphs upon paragraphs in this book, author Stephenie Meyer urges us to hate these characters, loathe these characters, laugh at their humiliations, feel triumph at their sufferings and sneer at their joys, all because they have the gall not to be totally happy with the hand fate has dealt them.

Leah Clearwater. Because she's from the First Nations a werewolf she's forever damaged.

Reading the passages with Rosalie and Leah in Breaking Dawn gave me the odd sensation of reading fanfiction where the fanfic writer clearly doesn't like one of the cast members who were meant in the original work to be protagonists. In this common phenomenon, characters who had once been friends become enemies, what in the original work were annoyances and bad decisions become in the fanfic become cruelties and abuses, and the writer seems hellbent on telling the reader any goodwill they have for these characters is wrong, wrong, wrong and we are meant to delight in their repudiation. (This is a frequent occurrence among both fanfics with original characters AND slash fanfics, and the disdained characters are usually but by no means exclusively female.) For those who don't like these characters, these fanfics can provide vindication, but usually I come away from them feeling sad and pitying the characters no matter how I felt about them in the original work. When the fanfic writer, in this instance the equivalent of God, hates you so much, you're automatically an underdog.

What makes it worse is that Meyer, remembering that even negative characters need reasons for the things they do, gives both Rosalie and Leah tragic pasts. While Rosalie's origin is written with this infuriating rose-colored (pun not intended) view of the past where things were so great back before the Internet and the civil rights movement because people cursed less and wore dresses or something, her essential story is that Carlisle made her a vampire because Rosalie's former fiancee and his friends gang raped her and beat her until she was near death. Since she was dedicated to having a normal life with a family and children, she's not very happy about being a vampire, either. Sam used to be in love with Leah, but after he became a werewolf, he "imprinted" on her cousin Emily, a weird and creepy phenomenon where werewolves become obsessed with their "soulmate" after they meet them and said soulmate, always a woman in Twilight, has no choice in the matter. After Leah also becomes a werewolf, her mind is linked with Seth's and all the other werewolves. So she not only has to hear how Sam no longer loves her and doesn't want her around anymore, but how the other, all male, werewolves, wish she would shut up and go away. Also, she may be infertile because she's a werewolf and the males wish she would shut up about her periods because that's gross.

Of course, one could argue that a bad life doesn't necessarily make one a good person. Yet most of the time being unhappy and voicing their unhappiness is these characters' worst sin. I know many have issues with the second part of Breaking Dawn, where Bella becomes pregnant with a half-vampire baby that may possibly kill her but nevertheless wants to keep it, and see those chapters as implying that women should be prepared to sacrifice it all for a baby. Now, I'm pro-choice and think doctors should have a moral imperative to save mothers when pregnancies become dangerous and should always respect the mother's personhood, but in this instance Bella does want her baby, and Rosalie is the only one who completely supports her in that decision. Carlisle helps medically and Edward worries over her, but Rosalie is the one who acts as 24 hour nurse and does favors for her while Alice, who is coded as Edward's good sister and usually plays the role of Bella's best friend, can't stand to be near her because the baby disturbs her psychic powers. Yet because Rosalie is more invested in the baby and Bella, all that work is considered moot if not actively malevolent. Also, Leah should stop whining about being second in someone's heart because only Jacob is allowed to do that. Although if Leah confronts Bella on stringing him along, that's also evil. Granted, she probably shouldn't have done it when Bella was sick from the deathbaby, but I didn't really want to see two powerful men threatening to beat her up for it.

In fact, only men are allowed to be angry and even vengeful against the ones they love. Jacob can want to kill Bella's baby and Edward can disable Bella's truck, but their acts against the heroine don't count. Even among the minor characters, Sam can disfigure Emily and still be the love of her life. Carlisle can turn a woman who tried to kill herself into a vampire but nobody questions his choice and said woman is now his happy wife. We know their theft of a woman's personhood is just temporary and they know best so it's okay, but somehow a woman being bitter can't be tolerated. It's a frustrating, sexist dichotomy, made all the more frustrating because I had to read more than 200 pages of Stephenie-Meyer-as-Jacob whining about how he couldn't have Bella but talking about how Leah was such a bitch for being upset about Seth, capped off with Jacob being gleeful when he got to beat Rosalie up.

Maybe I'm off-base. Maybe everyone else finds these characters as irritating as Meyer intends them to be and I'm the equivalent of those creepy Harry Potter fans who see the Death Eaters as a noble race of aristocrats who have been unfairly maligned by the bullying Gryffindors and not as a rather-obvious metaphor for Nazism. Yet I can't help but look at these characters who've had a harder time than the main characters, and aren't happy about it, and can't help but sympathize as they rage against their clearly unsympathetic creator who set them on that path.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I enjoyed the ladies of Thor

I'm a little late to the party on this film, which came out in the U.S. last week. Yet last week was also the week that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic ended its first season, and I decided I'd rather be timely on something that was over than something that would be in theaters for quite awhile. The perils of forcing/limiting myself to one post a week, I suppose. I wish I could do more. (I finished the first Portal video game this week and would love to talk about that too. Maybe at a later point.)

Anyway, given that I'm surely not the only person to wait to see a film until its second weekend in the theaters, I'll report back saying I genuinely enjoyed the new Marvel Comics movie Thor. Now, I've read quite a few comics with Marvel's version of the character but very, very few comics where he's the star, something I hope to remedy when I feel comfortable buying new books and comic book trades again (I have about 150 books to read and need to pay penance. No, that's not an exaggeration). So I knew the basics of Marvel Thor's powers and comic-book mythology surrounding him but very little about the specifics, and while I consider myself a comic fan I came to it as an outside observer, I suppose. (I also don't know much about the original Norse tales, for the record, but that may be for someone else to analyze.)

What I'm trying to say is, with few preconceived expectations, the movie is really fun. I know some people had trouble with the first thirty minutes, which largely takes place in Asgard. I don't quite understand this. The CGI renderings of Asgard alone are really impressive (I watched the movie in 2-D), and if they don't replicate Jack Kirby's drawings exactly they have enough of the feel. Plus, I like sparkly rainbow bridges, battles with Frost Giants and Anthony Hopkins' acting as the All-Father. Kenneth Branagh's directing makes these scenes shine.

I also like the beginning because it's a setup for Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) transformation from an arrogant man (or is it god?) into one who is genuinely good. I know some people are turned off by Tony Stark's arrogance in the Iron Man movies, which doesn't go away even after his transformation into a superhero. I think those who had an issue with Tony Stark will find Thor a lot more palatable. He comes off as genuinely interested in people and kind, especially when he smiles.

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Critics seem to have had better things to say about the rest of the movie, where Thor is banished to earth and spends a lot of time fighting hospital staff and acting like what everyone else in the movie thinks is a "crazy homeless person." There is a lot that's awesome about this part. People can debate over whether or not Natalie Portman makes a convincing astrophysicist, but I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised at the movie 1.) creating a scientific team of two women (Portman and Kat Dennings) and one older man (Stellan Skarsgard) and 2.) not having that older man be in charge.

This may be the time to say what I've been trying to say for at least five paragraphs: I really liked the female characters in this movie. I won't say it was so great it completely blew me away or anything like that, but in terms of that it was a solid movie. Portman's Jane Foster may not be my favorite superhero girlfriend, but she's up there. She's charming and funny and clearly feels deeply for Thor even though the movie itself is low on angst. She doesn't fight, but she doesn't have to be rescued, either, which is actually really refreshing. Her assistant Darcy, who also doesn't need to be rescued, provides a lot comic moments in the film, too.

And if you want women battling, there's Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander). Sif doesn't have a lot of fighting scenes, but she has just as many as the Warriors Three, Asgardian male warriors. In fact, while I'm not sure if it's this way in the comics, the movie goes out of its way to make Sif an equal to the Warriors Three, both in her fighting and her attitude.

An aside, one of the Warriors Three (Tadanobu Asano as Hogun) is Asian, and Heimdall (Idris Elba) is black. I have no idea why a bunch of jerks got upset about one and not the other. I have a few theories but it doesn't really matter. Someone always takes the opportunity to act like a complete and total jerk in this situation, whether it's Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin, Jessica Alba as the Invisible Woman or Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury (even if that has a reasoning in the comics), and they should knock it off. I mean, it's just unconscionable, especially because few of the same people who are upset about this were upset about Jubilee being played by a white girl in the Generation X movie (yet they'll always call upon that false equivalency, of course). Asano and Elba are both really good in their small roles and it would be better if the background characters were more diverse, anyway.

I guess if I have any complaint about the movie is that I don't have a whole lot to say about Loki. The plotline of the movie is good, but Tom Hiddleston and the character don't leave a strong impression. That's not to say I hated the character, but he seems rather small scale for a God and pales compared to other Marvel supervillains.

Still, I'd recommend it. Kenneth Branagh did a very good job. The sets are awesome, the main character is likable and the female characters are solid. See it at one point, even if you missed this weekend or the first it will still be just as fun.