Favorite Female TV Characters

One of the main things I love about television is that it gives us far more diversity, in both characters and creators, than the big screen, where over 80% of widely publicized mainstream releases are made by and about white men despite illusory “gains” in inclusiveness. In particular, TV is a more woman-friendly medium, with more opportunities for female writers, directors, and showrunners (though it could still be much better) and intriguing female characters aplenty. Here are a few of my favorite ladies on currently-airing shows.

  1. Amy Santiago, Brooklyn Nine-Nine

When the show began, I wouldn’t have imagined writing this. Amy looked like the character we were meant to hate, the uptight, ambitious, and humorless foil to the fun-loving, take-life-as-it-comes Jake Peralta. I expected she’d be either the show’s main antagonist or the love interest liberated by Jake from the burden of her own personality. Had either of those things happened, I wouldn’t be watching the show now. But Nine-Nine had different, far more interesting plans for Amy, plans better suited to the talents of actress Melissa Fumero. Still fairly early in the first season, the writers began to deepen her character, at times with strokes so subtle you’d barely notice what was happening. She remained uptight; she remained ambitious; but less and less were these qualities cast in a negative light. They became endearing, as we began to see them as part and parcel of her idealistic and basically decent nature. Yes, she and Jake fall in love, but while she does loosen up just a tiny bit under his influence, he also comes to appreciate, right along with the rest of us, the Amy-ness of Amy. She’ll always be the perfectionist who loves paperwork and would find a visit to a museum exhibit of office chairs a fun way to spend an afternoon — and I wouldn’t want her any other way.

2. Webby Vanderquack, DuckTales (2017-2018)

This show is so much fun it justifies the existence of reboots, and Webby, very much a bland “token girl” in the original show from the late 1980s, is the new show’s breakout star. A key difference between original Webby and new Webby lies in the voicing, which lets us know what kind of character we’re getting: the uber-girlish baby-talking lisp of Russi Taylor vs. the sharp hyper-kinetic sass of Kate Miucci. Miucci’s Webby can break out of captivity in less than two minutes and can keep the gang from getting into trouble by virtue of her readiness to read everything that falls under her eye (how else would she know it’s a bad idea to accept a ride from ponies with wet manes?). “Everything’s about learning!” she tells us, having owned Louie Duck with a practical joke after he’d made fun of her geekishness. But for all her capability, her frenetic eagerness to please makes her funny and endearingly flawed. And darn it, my heart breaks for her whenever she’s hurt.

3. Kara Danvers, Supergirl

This show has had its ups and downs over three seasons, but it’s still one of the too few shows on TV that centers on a female superhero doing her thing, and this core character keeps me tuned in; Melissa Benoist’s likable performance definitely helps. Kara/Supergirl makes mistakes. She may try too hard or try the wrong thing. She may be prone to misjudgments of certain people and things. Yet those mistakes only make it more satisfying when she learns, comes through, and saves the day. Plus, it’s hard for me not to embrace a superhero who is seen kicking bad guy butt one minute and Netflix-and-chilling on her couch in her pajamas the next. Watch, baby, watch.

4. Kimmy, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

As those familiar with Netflix’s sitcom are well aware, Kimmy has spent her formative years shut away in a bunker by a wacko cult leader, which makes her very much the fish out of water in contemporary New York City. But Kimmy is determined to make her way in this weird world, and it’s that determination, which rarely falters and never fails in the face of repeated missteps and misfortunes (hence the show’s title), that makes me love her and root for her even when she might be wrong. Certain episodes touch on her trauma and its effects, and these glimpses make her resolute optimism all the more admirable and endearing. Plus, her kind heart goes out to nearly everyone she meets, even when they don’t deserve it. (A side-note: I didn’t really care for this season’s inclusion of an “incel”-related plotline, in which a new cult of disaffected men forms around Jon Hamm’s despicable “Reverend.” I understand that laughing at evil is one way to cut it down to size, but I have a hard time finding incels funny. Still, I’m here for the next round.)

5. Liv Moore, iZombie

When zombie Liv eats the brains of murder victims, she takes on their memories and their personalities, and in doing so helps nab their killers. For the show’s first two seasons, Liv spent so much time in the personalities she absorbed (giving actress Rose McIver the opportunity to deliver one tour-de-force performance after another) that we didn’t get much chance to know Liv herself. But in recent days the show has given the real Liv a chance to come to the fore, to make herself and her ethics and values known, and to become a hero in her own skin as she takes a stand against the injustices around her. No longer do I merely admire McIver’s ability to adopt new personae each week; I admire Liv the person, as she strives to do the right thing. I really wish more people were aware of this show.

Runners-Up: Jessica Jones (Jessica Jones); Rosa Diaz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine); Ruth, Carmen, and Tammie (GLOW); Alex Danvers (Supergirl); Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Orange Is the New Black); Jemma Simmons (Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD); Veronica Lodge (Riverdale, my guilty pleasure); Demelza Poldark (Poldark); Patterson (Blindspot).

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“Never Read the Comments”

In vino veritas, the old saying goes — in wine, truth. The idea is that when we drink, our inhibitions drop and we lose the ability to curb our impulses. With our capacity to guard our tongues so compromised, we may let slip an unpleasant truth about how we feel about something or someone, and such slips as these ostensibly reveal our “true” natures. I don’t know how much I subscribe to this saying. On the one hand, if the side someone shows when they’re tipsy is too ugly, I’d be inclined to keep them at a distance thereafter. (Mel Gibson, whose drunken anti-Semitic tirade killed my taste for his films except Gallipoli and Chicken Run, is my go to example here.) Yet on the other hand, all of us have some ugly side, and our efforts to keep that side under control are a sign of our values and ethical code. With in vino veritas, we get only half the truth, and usually it’s the worst half.

The Internet, I’ve found, functions a lot like the vino in the old saying, in that our inhibitions are lowered and our self-control mechanisms may be compromised when we’re online. Yet this effect isn’t wrought by chemicals we ingest, bur rather by the seductive comforts of distance and anonymity. And as we see all too clearly when, despite the best advice, we give into the temptation to “read the Comments,” there are very few happy Internet-drunks.

We’re not face to face with the people with whom we talk online. We don’t hear their voices. We don’t see how their expressions change as they take in what we say. All we know of them are the handles they use (rarely their actual names) and the words they write. As such, we may find ourselves forgetting that they are truly people. And since they don’t have the means to hold us accountable, we feel we can say whatever we like to them. If they should disagree with us, we’re free to be as hurtful to them as our facility with language will allow, with no stings of conscience. After all, they are only their words, and that means their opinions — opinions we hate.

Examples of the swift descent into meanness when disputes arise are absolutely everywhere, from Twitter (a hotbed) to the Comments sections of articles linked on Facebook. I stumbled onto one instance in a place I wasn’t quite expecting, via a YouTube video. It was an episode of Hollywood, a documentary series on American silent films, and I’d thought the people posting in the Comments section would be at least somewhat united in admiration for this stunning series, sadly unavailable in a proper DVD or Blu-Ray release. Yet an argument came up, and out came the meanness.

At the crux of the debate was whether contemporary Hollywood actively promoted atheistic views, with Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous as an example. One poster argued that critics and Hollywood’s intelligentsia embraced Maher’s exercise in anti-Christian mockery, while another poster pointed out that the overall response to the film was in fact lukewarm. Poster 1 grew angrier and angrier, while Poster 2 tried to counter with detailed evidence until finally he/she realized that wasn’t working and announced he/she was pulling out of the debate. In response Poster 1 wrote, “Kill yourself.”

“Kill yourself.” Let that sink in.

Given the number of people who suffer from clinical depression in this country, “Kill yourself” is just about the most dangerous thing you can say to a stranger online. If there are any words less Christ-like, I don’t know them.

This is far from the only noteworthy example of online meanness, but it stings me a bit because I too consider myself a woman of faith. I don’t care for Bill Maher, with his stock-in-trade smugness. (He’s a misogynist, for one thing.) I can recall reading a few reviews of Religulous which suggested the movie attacks not so much hypocritical believers as belief itself. According to Maher, faith is just stupid. So I have avoided him, on film and TV. Why court rage? It’s not as if, should I meet the man, I would have any hope of changing his mind.  He can stay on his side of the pop culture world and I will stay on mine.

Yet this poster is just one of too many people who call themselves “Christians” who, whenever they perceive their faith under attack, choose to respond in the least Christian way possible. In sending the other poster a message to “kill yourself,” he/she isn’t contradicting Maher, but proving his point.

When we’re posting something online, we ought to consider that in the eyes of others, we are defined by our handles and our words. If we’re having a really, really bad day, as this person on the You Tube message-board might have been, those reading our posts don’t know it. So we ought to consider just what the words we choose are saying about us. Instead of letting ourselves get Internet-drunk, we should think when we’re writing online, just as we would if we were writing anywhere else. Will anyone be wiser or better informed as a result of this post? Will our words do good for anyone or change anything for the better? Let’s think of those who loved us most when we were growing up, who taught us right from wrong. Will our words make them proud?

Drive the Internet sober.

Book Report: Recent Reads

The Queen of Blood

Cover pic Queen of Blood

I’d been told by those I trust that Sarah Beth Durst’s high fantasy novel about a realm plagued by malevolent spirits only a Queen can control was good. If I had imagined how good, I might have read it much sooner.

Or maybe not. With all the new books that come to my attention on a monthly basis, I can’t be sure. Suffice it to say that The Queen of Blood was exactly the book I needed to read at the moment I was reading it, a moment when I was feeling even more than usually disheartened by the ongoing flow of “Me, Too” stories coming out of creative communities. Hearing about so many women victimized by powerful men in Hollywood and elsewhere, I needed (and continue to need) stories about women who claim power for themselves and don’t have to smash their moral compass against a rock in order to do so. I couldn’t help but get a thrill from seeing Durst’s hero, Daleina, forge forward and refuse to listen to anyone who tries to tell her “no” — including herself.

Through Daleina, Durst plays with the fantasy genre’s traditional trope of the Chosen One, the protagonist from humble beginnings appointed by Destiny to save the kingdom and take the throne. Guided by some unseen hand of Fate, the Chosen One magically overcomes any obstacle in his (it’s usually “his”) path. He’s meant to be King because Destiny says so, though very often we’re not sure why. The triumph of the naive Everyman over and ahead of those outwardly more suited to success has a certain appeal, and Durst manages to keep what works about the trope while subverting its problems.

Like most Chosen Ones, Daleina is the one you wouldn’t look at. She does have a gift for controlling spirits, but her gift is much less pronounced, less remarkable, than the other girls training along with her for a chance to become the next Queen. Others are more obviously up to the task. But when Daleina does win the throne, it isn’t thanks to the hand of Destiny showing itself by the sudden appearance of a surprising ability; if you’re waiting for her to miraculously become the Best At Everything, you will wait in vain. Instead, she succeeds because she knows her weaknesses and is determined to get better. She takes responsibility and pours every ounce of effort into developing her skills. The keys to her rise are not inborn talents but determination, imagination, and resourcefulness. Many of the short-sighted people in her orbit actually look on her hard work as a weakness. But Ven the legendary Champion sees it for the virtue it is, and he takes her under his wing to train her to be the next Queen.

The idea of training to be Queen is another thing I love about the book. In this world, the royal title is not inherited and passed on through a bloodline. Rather, it is earned. The girl who proves herself the most adept at thwarting the spirits’ murderous impulses becomes Queen. Daleina works to achieve the title not so much to win personal glory as to keep the country safe from the tragedy her home village suffered when spirits raged out of control. Her concerns aren’t limited to the well-being of family and/or a few close friends. She thinks bigger.

Also noteworthy is that only girls and women can harness the power to control spirits, and therefore only a woman can rule. This might seem like the seed for a knock-down drag-out battle of the sexes, with men fighting to claim power and women determined to keep them in their place. Yet to my immense relief, nothing like this happens! We may seen tension between individual characters, but gender-based hostility is all but unknown. All walks of society and roles other than Queen are open to all genders. The men accept the authority of a Queen rather than feeling emasculated by it, and we meet men and women who treat each other with respect and forge solid friendships.

The Queen of Blood is not, in an obvious sense, a feel-good book; look at the title, after all. The threat of violence is everywhere, in the very air and wood and water, and the novel includes many horrifying scenes of nature turning against humankind. Characters die, and many of them are people we like. The country Daleina earns the right to rule has been badly shaken, thanks to the hubris of the previous ruler, and she must take charge of rebuilding even as she mourns the loss of so many friends. Yet still, the book affirms hopeful truths we need to hear in these frustrating times. Women can claim power and lead well. Men and women can support and strengthen each other. We just need to make up our minds to do so.

A big Thank You to Durst for giving us this book.

What’s Making Me Happy: July 2018

  1. Ross and Demelza

Since 1995, when my new kitten TZ (short for Twilight Zone) came with me to Auburn University at the beginning of my doctoral work, pets have been a part of my life, to the point where I have trouble conceiving of a daily routine in which no animal plays a part. Few things make me smile as readily as watching cats and dogs at play, and few things rouse me to fury as quickly as stories about animal abuse. Never in my life has that been truer than now.

Back in March, the last of my three “Auburn cats,” Gandalf, succumbed to heart failure at the age of sixteen. For the first time in over twenty years, I didn’t have a beautiful cat to climb up on my lap whenever I stretched out with a book. My husband and I agreed we should fill the gap by adopting a pair of kittens, but we made up our minds to wait until July. In the meantime, we had our sweet Winnie Dog. I can’t quite put Winnie into words. Here’s her picture.

Winnie on Couch 1

Then, at the very end of June, the worst happened. Winnie, too, we lost to old age and declining health. For a couple of weeks we were without a pet, with memories of Winnie and Gandalf haunting every corner of our empty house. Those memories are with us to stay, and we’ll carry them with us even when we move to a new house where they’ve never lived.

Yet we proceeded with our original plan, and on July 3 we went to the Hall County, GA Animal Shelter to pick out two kittens, a boy and a girl. Matt was the first to notice a black-and-white pair housed in the same cage. This housing indicated they were litter mates, so they would already be used to each other. We took them out of their cage and into the “play room” where we could set them down and watch them entertain themselves (and us) with a set of toys. An hour later, they came home with us. We named them Ross and Demelza, after characters from PBS’s adaptation of Winston Graham’s Poldark series.  Ross’s nose is the whiter one.

Ross Demelza 2

Ross (l), Demelza (r), with their daddy.

Since then we’ve been getting used to them, and they’ve been getting used to us. They’ve curled up to snooze on our shoulders, chest, and lap, in between periods of chasing each other around the room at Mach 2 and engaging in toothy-clawy wrestling matches and scaling the heights of their scratching-post tower. With their energy and curiosity, they make the whole house a happier place. We still miss our Winnie Dog, and still wonder how she would have reacted to them; I like to think she would have looked on their antics with Maggie Smith-like bemusement. But it’s hard not to smile when we look at them and imagine them growing into cathood under our eyes.

Ross Demelza 1

2. YouTube commentary on SFF: Book reviews and trope analysis.

Much of what you find on YouTube, just like any Internet site, is garbage, but it can also be a repository of riches of many kinds. Here are a couple of finds I’ve enjoyed recently:

The Authentic Observer takes on Cassandra Clare’s incredibly popular Shadowhunters series, in ways that remind me a bit of Mark Twain’s classic take-down, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

Jenna Moreci shares her views on the Ten Worst Fantasy Tropes, and she doesn’t mince words.

3. A Song in the Dark

Song in the Dark

Even though I’m a fiction addict — perhaps because I’m a fiction addict — I venture into nonfiction territory from time to time, not least because some tiny seedling I find in a true story might take root and grow into an idea for a fantasy. Plus, uncovering information about something you love is always a treat, and one thing I love, almost if not quite as much as I love fantasy fiction, is “classic Hollywood,” the works and the history of cinema from its inception through the early 1960s. Any study of the films of this time period will attract my attention, whether it’s voice artist Mel Blanc’s charming autobiography That’s Not All, Folks! or Richard Barrios’ examination of the earliest musicals both good and bad, A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film. Just how did the Hollywood musical evolve and manage to survive near-extinction? Barrios shows us, with an ample helping of detail spiced with dry wit.

4. Season 2 of GLOW, on Netflix

My only problem is that Matt and I binged this one way too fast. Not our fault, really; we couldn’t help ourselves. But now we have to wait a whole year for more. I can remember a time, not that long ago, when I thought a show subtitled “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” had no business being any good. Yet what other show presents us with such a diverse array of female characters, all funny, all flawed, all working their hearts out? The closest the show has to a central protagonist, Ruth (Allison Brie), is so wonderfully real, with her problems and her perseverance, that she’s become one of my favorite characters on television. GLOW joins Brooklyn Nine-Nine on my short list of Shows Everyone Should Be Watching.

(And speaking of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Matt and I are forever grateful to NBC for renewing the show for a sixth season.  Alas, we have to wait until mid-season to catch up with Jake, Amy, Gina, Rosa, Boyle, Terry, and Captain Holt.  But their story will continue as there’s still one good season left…)

 

My “Yes!” List

Lists of forthcoming SFF releases, complete with nutshell synopses/descriptions and hopefully an advance review or two, can never come out soon enough to suit me. If a new book has some combination of the following qualities, it goes at once onto my To-Read list; certain combinations propel it into the top ranks.

A second-world or historical setting.

If I click on a title and its description includes contemporary character or place names, more often than not I’ll click away from it without exploring further, unless it’s by an author whose style I admire (e.g. Patricia McKillip, whose contemporary take on Arthurian legend, Kingfisher, delighted me last year). When I read, I want to dream myself into a time and place removed from the ones I physically inhabit. New York, Chicago, and/or Atlanta with sorcerers, vampires, or werewolves thrown in just don’t have the same appeal for me as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Sanderson’s Cosmere, Wexler’s Khandar or Vordan, Pierce’s Tortall, or Bujold’s Chalion.

An active, capable female lead.

I’ve said it before, but I’m fond of repeating it: I avoid damsels, I admire heroines, but I adore female heroes. I may relish books in which the female hero is one of multiple protagonists (e.g. The Stormlight Archive and The Shadow Campaigns), but I have a soft spot for those books or series which feature a single central female hero who drives the plot (Bujold’s Paladin of Souls being one of my favorite examples), and I wish with all my heart we could see more such books and series outside the subgenres of urban fantasy and YA.

Multiple important female characters.

The Smurfette Principle — the trope of a sole female character surrounded entirely by boys/men — isn’t an automatic “No”; I don’t find it quite as abhorrent as the Not-Like-Other-Girls “girl-on-girl hate” feature I mentioned in my previous post. But whenever I read such a book, even if it’s well-written and the female character in question is dynamic and powerful, I come away feeling disappointed, as if the story were not quite complete. Unless said story is set in some rarefied environment such as a monastery, it doesn’t make sense for women not to have a noticeable presence in that world, in both background and foreground. One thing that helps a great deal–

Gender-egalitarian built worlds.

It gladdens me no end to read about societies in which men and women are shown at every level and in a variety of roles in society, and in which female and male characters do not have to jump over mile-high hurdles reading “SEXISM” in order to accomplish their goals or save the day. For some good examples, see this Goodreads list.

Friendships between women.

Not only are such friendships an effective antidote to the poison of girl-on-girl hate, but they also serve as pushback against the notion that the only relationships of any value or importance in a woman’s life are those that involve sex and/or romance. Our lives are much too full and complex to be summed up by whom we fall in love or have sex with, and I hope to see the day when as many SFF novels center around “womances” as around “bromances.” Here, for your perusal, is another Goodreads list.

Friendships between men and women.

Can men and women be “just friends”? Absolutely. In fact, the ability of men and women to interact in ways beyond the sexual is a key component of social health. The idea that men and women need and value each other only for sex lies at the heart of society’s darkest and most toxic corners, from homophobic hate groups to the “incel” movement. Children benefit when they see male/female friendships modeled as they grow up, and teens need to experience such friendships as they navigate around the land mines of adolescence. So every time I read a book like Ben S. Dobson’s Scriber or Curtis Craddock’s An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors or Sarah Beth Durst’s The Queen of Blood, in which a male/female friendship occupies a central place, I feel a little better. Another Goodreads list.

“Slow burn” romantic plots/subplots.

I have little to no patience with the type of romance commonly referred to as “insta-love,” the trope that has two characters lock eyes and immediately decide they are Meant To Be Together even though they’ve never even exchanged words. What sort of love blossoms between two people who know nothing about each other’s characters, values, ambitions, or interests? A shallow one, of course, based on nothing more than looks and sexual attraction, that in the real world would fall apart inside of a month. I might be able to suspend my disbelief for a fairy tale, but not for a novel where at least some measure of detail and development is expected.

I like a good love plot, but I want to see it built on a foundation of respect and understanding. However they start out, I want the delight of seeing them develop, surely and steadily, an appreciation of each other as individuals with unique minds, hearts, and souls. I want to come away from their stories with a strong sense they will have something to say to each other when they’re not kissing and cuddling. If I get a whiff of a book with such a plot, developed with feeling and skill, into my TBR it goes.

Kindness portrayed as strength, not weakness.

Some writers refer to showing a tough character’s kind-hearted side as “softening” that character. Why, exactly? How is kindness “soft”? Isn’t stepping in to help someone in trouble a brave and heroic thing to do? Isn’t allowing yourself the vulnerability that comes with “giving a damn” an act of courage? Kindness is tough. It’s often hard and frequently inconvenient; it’s so much easier to care solely about ourselves and about those whose “friendship” can benefit us in some way. But kindness changes hearts, and by extension it can, if given a chance, change the world.

A few new and recent titles near the top of my To-Read List, that are not the next novels in series I’ve already begun:

Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver

Rachel Hartman, Tess of the Road

Elizabeth Bear, The Stone in the Skull

Sam Hawke, City of Lies

Justina Ireland, Dread Nation

K. Arsenault Rivera, The Tiger’s Daughter

S.A. Chakraborty, The City of Brass

 

My “No” List

Goodreads’ “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2016” has 424 titles listed. “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2017″ lists 307 titles, while the list for 2018 names a whopping 491. Factor in all the SFF titles published  Herover the past four to five decades, and you have more books than anyone could possibly read in a single lifetime, even if one had no other responsibilities beyond reading. In short, no one can read everything. Not only word of mouth from friends whose opinions we trust but online resources like Goodreads, LibraryThing, Tor.com, and The Illustrated Page can help us decide which books to put on our to-read list, which ones to move to the top of said list, and which ones we might just as well leave unread. It helps tremendously to have a “Yes!” List, characteristics in a book most likely to appeal to you, and a “No” List, qualities you find off-putting. My own personal “Yes!” and “No” Lists have helped me maintain control of my reading life, even if my to-read list is, dare I say, unwieldy.

I’ll get the negative out of the way first. If I hear or read the following, or some paraphrase of the following, in multiple reviews for a stand-alone book or a series, I probably won’t read it.

Women are either love interests or villains.

A Tor.com review/discussion of the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child led by Emily Asher-Perrin points out that while the adult Hermione and even Ginny are given somewhat decent roles, the rising generation of female characters doesn’t include anyone who might be the next Hermione. “Practically all other women in the story are either fridged or irrelevant, except where they apply as love interests or villains,” the review tells us, and that tells me all I need to know. Cursed Child can win all the Tonys it wants, but I won’t be reading or seeing it. I’ll stick with Rowling’s original seven books, thanks, unless somebody wants to write a spin-off revolving around the adventures of the grown-up Luna Lovegood.

Girl-on-Girl Hate.

Few things put me off a story with a female protagonist, particularly in YA, faster than this phrase. This isn’t to say I can’t accept any scenario in which two female characters loathe each other. The mutual detestation between heroic grandmother Ista and monstrous “mother” Joen in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls, for example, is very apropos. Yet for me, this enmity works partly because Bujold includes a strong friendship between Ista and the young courier Liss, so we see the unique female hero doesn’t view all other women as her natural enemies. If a book paints every interaction between a female protag and another female character as hostile, as if catty jealousy and suspicion were somehow the norm for relationships between girls and women, that’s a hard pass. I’ve read such books before, so I know from experience that my frustration with this kind of thing is bound to rage-blind me to whatever other virtues the book might have.

The female characters are the book’s weakest link.

There are two ways I spot this in reviews. The first is when positive reviews praise the male characters to the skies and decline to mention a female character even in passing, while negative reviews complain bitterly about how weakly the women are written. The second is when it’s stated outright, with words like, “I like this book, except for (insert female character’s name here),” or “If you can overlook the female characters, you’ll enjoy this book.” Since overlooking female representation is a little outside my skill set, I save myself the trouble and avoid the book in question.

“Rapey.”

I have read some excellent fantasy fiction centering on a victim of rape; Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace, and Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld spring to mind at once. I acknowledge this kind of story may be (and dare I say it, needs to be) well told. But the term “rapey” in reviews of certain books gives a warning light, more often than not, to a phenomenon I’ve heard called “Rape as Wallpaper,” in which the prevalence of rape is baked into the world-building and instances of rape are so thick on the ground — the victims often being either minor characters in which we make no emotional investment or one-scene wonders who may as well be named “Rape Victim #44” — that readers cease to feel shocked or disturbed by them. Writers whose works are “rapey” like to claim their heavy use of rape is “realistic” in view of the historical period they’re drawing from in their built worlds. But in this case, I feel, realism is overrated.

Unleavened despair.

In a story that features rape, what happens to the victim? Is she destroyed by the experience, either dying of her injuries, perishing of a broken heart, or going irretrievably mad? Or does she find a way to survive and make the slow, steady march toward recovery? I may not be very keen on rape plots in general, overused as they tend to be in fantasy fiction, but if the latter is the case (as it is in the titles I mention above) I may give it a shot, particularly if I admire the author. But the former is a deal-breaker, as such a thing often serves as a sign that the book as a whole holds out no hope to its characters or its readers.

I don’t mind stories with deeply flawed characters, or stories that veer into dark or even disturbing territory, but I will shun any book that depicts life as little or nothing but a continuous downward spiral, a long, pitch-dark tunnel with not a glimmer of light at the end. If I wanted to spend time in a world where kindness is viewed as weakness and compassion is all but unknown, I’d watch the evening news.

Coming Next: The “Yes!” List

Crafting Femininity: The Coveting of Characteristics

I’ve noticed in recent days a growing number of attacks on the “strong female character” trope, most of them focusing specifically on the “action girl,” and a common complaint seems to unite them all: the “action girls” aren’t feminine enough. They succeed by displaying traits society deems masculine, such as aggression, ambition, and the drive to win. They are reportedly “men with boobs” who dress in trousers and chainmail, carry swords and know how to use them, and shun such girly things as dresses and jewelry and gossip and romance (though they often end up falling in love). The proliferation of these sorts of characters, critics argue, undervalues femininity and contributes to masculine privilege. One particular example comes from a YouTube commentator called “The Authentic Observer,” which I link here.

I’m of two minds about such criticisms.

On the one hand, I disagree vehemently with the notion that fighting skills automatically make a female character “masculine,” as if all the girls and women who take karate classes were selling off their femininity one lesson at a time. (Kameron Hurley has some wise words on the subject.) On the other hand, I can see where the idea of the badass female warrior character as an attack on femininity comes from. Many action-girl heroes, in YA especially, are written as “not like other girls,” contemptuous of softer, more traditionally feminine characters. In some works, such as Ann Aguirre’s Enclave, the action girl’s disdain for softer girls/women is shown in time to be misguided. In others, such as V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy, the narrative implicitly endorses her prejudice by depicting the more overtly feminine characters as shallow morons deserving of the action girl’s scorn. This tendency to tag the dress-wearing, non-fighting ladies as “lesser” can indeed come across as dismissive of femininity in general. It’s a big part of the reason why I love to see solid friendships between action girls and girlier counterparts, such as Starhawk and Fawn in Barbara Hambly’s The Ladies of Mandrigyn, Cat and Bee Barahal in Kate Elliott’s The Spiritwalker Trilogy, and Senneth and Kirra from Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series. In these stories, both the fighter and the “girly girl” are drawn as competent characters, and the reader sees in them that there’s no one right way to be a woman, no single unchanging blueprint for femininity.

In the final Twelve Houses novel, Fortune and Fate, Shinn presents the most warlike of her action-girl heroes, the Rider Willawendis, Wen for short. In Wen’s story Shinn addresses, point for point, all the problems I have with too many writers’ characterizations of warrior women. First, Wen isn’t depicted as an anomaly, the only woman who can fight. Other female Riders exist, and there are women among the bodyguard trainees Wen whips into shape in the course of the book. Second, Wen, like Senneth before her, forges a bond with a more ladylike character, in this case the young noblewoman Karryn, and at the climax, in a delightful twist, the two women rescue each other. Finally, the fully fleshed out and three-dimensional characterization of Wen herself thwarts any attempt to dismiss her short-sightedly as a “man with boobs.” What we have here is not an attack on femininity, but a celebration of the many ways of being a woman.

Books like Fortune and Fate show us there is room for many kinds of female heroes, with a variety of strengths. Yet in its critique of the female fighter as a “masculine woman,” the Authentic Observer’s video also brings up the question of whether violence and aggression are “masculine” traits that the girls and women who consume SFF should covet for themselves. Do we female SFF fans really daydream about riding into battle and killing people? The popularity of characters like Wonder Woman would suggest that yes, we kind of do (although Wonder Woman’s foremost impulse, at least in the 2017 film, is to protect people). But what “masculine” traits, or characteristics most often assigned to men, do I personally covet? If I had the power to craft a new understanding of femininity — and to some extent I do, as a writer — what would I change?

  1. Men travel and explore, while women stay home. This idea of the man who wanders and the woman who functions as a stabilizing force within the home is everywhere; in a recent example, it’s the driving force behind the plot of Pixar’s Coco. (Disney’s Moana, Best Animated Feature Oscar winner the previous year, happily subverts this idea.)
  2. Men define themselves by their work and achievements, while women define themselves by their relationships. Just how many “The Male Professional’s Female Relative” titles are out there? Here’s a Goodreads list with just a few: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/3705.The_Female_Relative_Phenomenon#18619684
  3. Men fight to save the world, while women fight to save their families. As Susan Isaacs’ Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen (a book that could really use an update) notes, “For many wimpettes, the world stops at the white pickets of their fences; they lack the curiosity to look past the spaces between the pickets at the world beyond. . . Larger causes — racial equality, justice — are left to the guys” (7). Today’s writers scramble to create the female Indiana Jones or the female James Bond, yet where is our female Atticus Finch?

I’ll start with these three things, and see what happens later.

My ambition is, over the course of my writing career, to create female characters who want to see the world, maybe even the universe, and aren’t talked out of it. I want to write about women who explore, who discover. Maybe they have a home and a family to which they return from time to time, and a spouse who helps keep things stable. But maybe they don’t.

I want to write about women who love their work as much as I do, and take pride in their accomplishments. I want to write about women who perceive the wrongs and injustices in the worlds they inhabit and decide to do something about them, even though it might be dangerous.

I’m just getting started, and thankfully, I’m not doing it alone. Writers like Shinn, Hambly, Elliott, Tomi Adeyemi, Sarah Beth Durst, Kate Forsyth, Curtis Craddock, Cass Morris, Django Wexker, Max Gladstone, and many more are working on it too, offering us new and greater possibilities of what female characters should be and do.

(Isaacs, Susan. Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen. NY: The Library of Contemporary Thought, 1999.)

 

 

My Mid-Year Recap: June 2018

Here at the midpoint of 2018, I sometimes feel myself sinking in a sea of bad news, as if the very air I breathe is poisoned with the stink of meanness, vulgarity, ignorance, and irrationality. Three things help me keep my head above water. The first is, always, my husband. Next come the rest of my family and friends. Last, but far from least, are stories — creating them, consuming them. We can’t ignore the state of the world, nor should we. But stories can give us the hope and the wisdom to imagine things can be better. In the stories I love best, flawed and complex characters may struggle with their meaner natures, but also display courage, insight, and empathy. We need all the models and reminders of these qualities we can get.

So far, 2018 has been a good year for stories. In particular, it’s been a happy reading year. More than once I’ve experienced that giddy rush of “where have you been all my life?” as I’ve dipped into a good book. Among the books I’ve reviewed on Goodreads this year are Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, Ken Liu’s The Wall of Storms, Curtis Craddock’s An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (a reread), N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Django Wexler’s The Infernal Battalion, Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch, Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns, John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, Anthony Ryan’s The Waking Fire, Sarah Beth Durst’s The Queen of Blood, and Sharon Shinn’s Fortune and Fate. I’ve loved some of these more than others, but all have had at least something to recommend them.

Most Pleasant Surprise: The Queen of Blood, a fresh breeze of a book. Expect a Book Report on this one soon.

Favorite Female Hero: The competition is stiff for this one, but after some deliberation, I’m going to go with the brilliant, resilient Isabelle des Zephyrs from An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors.

Favorite Male Hero: Dalinar Kholin, Oathbringer.

Saddest Good-Bye to a Group of Heroes: The Infernal Battalion, the last of Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series.

Best Catch-Up With Old Friends: It’s been at least five years since I read Reader and Raelynx, the fourth of Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series. Now I’ve finally gotten around to reading Fortune and Fate (perhaps because I didn’t want the series to end), and it’s so good to spend time with this set of characters again.

Best First Volume of a Series I’ve Newly Engaged With: A tie between The Fifth Season and the aforementioned The Queen of Blood. Close runner-up: The Waking Fire.

Best “First World Problem” to Have: No matter how good the first volume is, I rarely read straight through a series, because there are just so many other worlds and casts of characters I want to wade into. But Ryan’s The Legion of Flame, Durst’s The Reluctant Queen, and Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate are already on my shelf.

Though books have given me the most “story joy” this year, I can’t omit a few highlights from movies and TV as well:

Most Heroic Superhero Movie: the MCU’s Black Panther. When the misogynistic vitriol that infects the commentary on Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi starts to get me down, I remind myself of how fans welcomed this movie, and its cast of awesome female characters, with open arms.

Most Feminist Movie of 2018 So Far (even more so than Black Panther, and that’s saying something): A Quiet Place. I won’t Spoil by giving details, but even if you don’t like horror, this movie is worth a look.

I Had Issues With It But Still Enjoyed It: Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War.

Best TV-related News: Fox cancelled the wonderful Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but NBC heard the outcry and promptly picked it up. The prospect of more Captain Holt is always a good thing.

Worst TV-related News: The delightful The Librarians, after being cancelled by TNT, failed to find a new home. This show deserved so much better.

Actors I Wish Could Be In Everything I Watch: Andre Braugher, Melissa Fumero, Emily Blunt, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira, Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman, Zoe Saldana, Melissa Benoist, Clark Gregg, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Zazie Beets, Morena Baccarin (come on, Deadpool 2 writers, you know darn well this actress deserves better than what you gave her), Lindy Booth, Ming-Na Wen, Jaime Alexander, Rose McIver, Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Stephanie Beatriz, Carey Mulligan, Sally Hawkins, Aidan Turner, Eleanor Tomlinson.

 

Book Report: Recent Reads

Spoiler Alert as per usual

Children of Blood and Bone

Children Blood Bone pic

In the second-world kingdom of Orisha, magic has been brutally suppressed. Its king, Saran, lives in perpetual fear that it will rise again, and he persecutes all those who would have potential to practice it — diviners, as they’re generally called, or “maggots,” as bigots call them, distinguishable from ordinary people by their white hair. He has found a scroll that may hold the power to bring back magic, but he has to conduct a test to see what it can do. To that end, he orders his daughter’s white-haired maidservant/companion, Binta, brought to him under guard. Once she’s served her purpose, he kills her without hesitation. She’s collateral damage, and the fact that she’s very dear to his daughter, Amari, means nothing to him. She’s only a “maggot,” after all.

This is what evil looks like in Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone — raging hatred borne of fear, an “us” vs. “them” antagonism that tags “them” as subhuman. The central protagonist is Zelie, a diviner who remembers seeing her mother slaughtered by the king’s soldiers, and the memory nourishes her own rage. Thus hatred begets itself.

But hope is not lost. The princess Amari, broken-hearted by Binta’s murder, steals the scroll from her father and flees the palace. She and the fierce, bitter Zelie forge a tenuous alliance and embark on a journey to resurrect magic and overthrow the king. They’re pursued by the prince, Inan, his father’s favorite and quite the slave to his father’s good opinion, determined to retrieve the scroll, despite being a secret diviner himself.

Of the three main characters, Zelie is the easiest sell for me, a tough, outspoken risk-taker whom we first meet at a fighting lesson. When she learns of the possibility that magic might be restored to her country, she leads the leads the charge in that direction; here we have a flawed but on-the-whole good character who actively seeks to become empowered rather than feeling frightened by the prospect and wishing she were normal. At the same time, she recognizes the dangers inherent in magical power. She knows that she and her fellow maji must not become the very thing their persecutors fear.

While I expected I would like Zelie and was not disappointed, Amari surprised me. In the course of my reading I lost patience with her more than once, but having finished the book I can appreciate her as the one whose rebellious action sets the whole plot in motion and who does the most growing throughout the story. She engages my sympathy as someone who, at the book’s outset, loses the only person who has ever shown her kindness or love. She’s a naturally loving person who wants to be loved and valued in turn. Thankfully she finds Zelie and her brother Tzain, and earns their affection and respect. The friendship that grows between Zelie and Amari is the book’s most satisfying relationship.

What I disliked about the book can be summed up in a single word: Inan. His situation as someone who loathes and fears magic despite (or perhaps because of) his own powers is an interesting one. He seeks to destroy that part of himself that would divide him from his father and his people, and as such he could have made a compelling villain, the kind you can’t help admiring even while you root for him to fail. Unfortunately, what we end up getting is a drawn-out bad boy/good girl romance between him and Zelie. If at times it seems like it just might work, his weather-vane loyalties — and the way he falls for his father’s mind tricks every single time, even after he’s seen the man torture the girl he supposedly loves — make him the worst love interest imaginable. His act near the end of the book is so clearly a deal-breaker that I found myself frustrated at the amount of page time devoted to this ill-advised relationship.

All the same, I liked the book far more than I disliked it. It sticks its landing, letting the readers see both Zelie and Amari at their most powerful at the climax, and thus making us anxious to learn where they will both go from here. I’m already impatient for the next book in the series.

 

Avengers: Infinity War — What I Loved, What I Loved Less

Warning: Spoilers! Lots of them!

Confession: I hated Doctor Strange.

My chief reasons center on the movie’s last fifteen minutes or so. The wizards of the New York sanctum, headed by Wong, are preparing for battle with the villain. These wizards are a diverse lot, plenty of POC and women, and I smiled to think of them all kicking butt at the climax. But the scene cuts away, and when we rejoin Wong, and Strange asks where his team is, he answers with a shrug, and without the slightest hint of grief, that he’s the only one left. All those people have just disappeared, without a tear shed on their behalf. This is bad enough. What makes it worse is that the gender-flipped (cool), whitewashed (not cool) Ancient One has already fallen victim to Mentor Occupational Hazard, and once the villain’s two henchwomen are duly dispatched, female wizards have effectively been wiped from the face of the earth.

The only woman of significance left alive at the end is another underwritten Little Miss Normal, who in this film exists primarily to get treated like crap by the hero. With only a tweak or two, Dr. Christine Palmer might have been awesome. After all, her primary action is to perform a very difficult operation successfully and thus save the hero’s life, all while supernatural eruptions are happening all around her. But instead of highlighting her courage at this moment, the movie chooses to put tight focus on her tremulous confusion, and to play it for laughs, so that when she should have been seen as most bad-ass, she comes across instead as ineffectual, a crushingly ordinary woman who couldn’t have a place in the extraordinary life the hero must now lead. Most of the movie’s champions don’t hesitate to name her as the weak link.

All in all, I’d call Doctor Strange the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most dismal failure where gender representation is concerned, even worse than Thor: The Dark World (in which Jane, despite being helpless for most of the film, at least gets her chance to be heroic in the final act). Yet I accuse the MCU here not of malice, but of misjudgment. Those in charge doubtless felt that by making the Ancient One a woman, they would satisfy the audience’s desire for an awesome female character. Yet frankly I’d rather Wong have been gender-flipped (though not whitewashed) instead. Then at least there would have been one female wizard left standing at the end.

What does this have to do with the MCU’s newest blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War? Simply that it didn’t make the best impression on me, despite the praise it received from friends whose opinion I trust. Doctor Strange and Wong are among the first characters to appear (after a prologue that slaps a grim coda onto Thor: Ragnarok‘s hopeful finish), and residual ill feeling from Strange’s solo film spilled over onto this one. To make matters worse, the first female superhero we see, Gamora, doesn’t show up for over thirty minutes into the movie. Up to that point, except for the brief appearances of a lady super villain and Iron Man’s anxious significant other Pepper, it’s all dudes, all the time.

Thankfully, things get better.

Gamora shows up, and afterwards, Scarlet Witch gets a cool action sequence. Then, at last, Black Widow appears on the scene. No longer distracted by excessive testosterone or residual Doctor Strange-hate, I could settle in and enjoy the new movie. And I did enjoy it, overall. There is much to like, as our multitude of heroes unite to defeat Thanos, a villain who believes he’s doing good by culling by half the population of every planet where he sets foot. The fight against Thanos, the King of Collateral Damage, is everyone’s fight, and all our favorite MCU heroes — even Mantis, who disappointed me bitterly in Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 — get at least one chance to shine. The latter point is, for me, the film’s chief virtue.

A few more things I loved:

  1. The action rarely lets up. I was never bored.
  2. Captain America: Civil War badly underutilized Scarlet Witch, but here she gets a bigger share of the action and a chance to show how deadly she can be.
  3. Everything Wakanda is full of win. I have high hopes that General Okoye of the Dora Milaje will carve a more substantial place for herself in the MCU as a whole. As for Black Panther himself… well, his ending isn’t happy, but unless Black Panther 2 turns out to be a prequel, we know he’ll somehow be all right.
  4. Speaking of the deaths en masse at the end: even though our common sense tells us most of them are only temporary, they still carry emotional weight. The MCU would be insane to kill Spider-Man, the comics’ most popular character, for good when they only recently won the rights to use him. Yet still, Peter Parker’s terror at feeling himself on the verge of turning to dust — “I don’t feel so good” — is absolutely heartbreaking.
  5. Captain Marvel is coming! Good signaling, movie!

But I did have problems, which, like my issues with Doctor Strange, spring more from misjudgment than from malice. Avengers 4 will have some things to prove.

First, while nearly all the characters get their chance in the spotlight, the white male ones do seem to dominate. The movie leads with them, as Doctor Strange, Iron Man, and Spider-Man get the first big action sequence. Also, in bringing all the MCU’s important figures together in one film, we get to see them interact with those outside their own sub-groups of friends and allies, yet while we get lengthy sequences of Iron Man and Doctor Strange bantering (a “goatee-off,” as NPR’s Glen Weldon calls it) and Thor traveling through space with Rocket Raccoon, the female characters interact only briefly with those outside their group. We do get an awesome scene of female solidarity in which Okoye, Black Widow, and Scarlet Witch team up to take down a villainess, but they exchange very little dialogue. Gamora, arguably the movie’s most important female character, exchanges only a few short words with Thor, and afterwards never interacts with any of the heroes outside her accustomed sphere. My hopes for face time between her and Black Widow, or Doctor Strange and Scarlet Witch, went unfulfilled. On the whole, this lack serves as a reminder that the MCU’s women haven’t really had a chance to carry the action independently of their teams.

Second, it’s obvious the bulk of this movie was made before anyone had much of a clue that Black Panther would become the phenomenon it eventually did. T’Challa had already intrigued me in another big-team film, Captain America: Civil War, so even if his solo film hadn’t happened yet, I would still be disappointed with how little screen time he gets.

Third, I know Captain America and Black Widow are in this movie, but beyond Widow’s helping Okoye and Scarlet Witch dispatch the evil Proxima Midnight, I couldn’t tell you what they do. Blink and you’ll miss them.

Finally, while again I know most of the people turned into dust will come back, here are a few stats I find bothersome:

  1. The Guardians of the Galaxy now consist of Rocket Raccoon.
  2. Both major heroes of color, Black Panther and Falcon, are gone.
  3. Black Widow is now once again the Avengers’ Smurfette.

True, Okoye remains, and with very little training she could easily take up a superhero’s mantle. Since we didn’t actually see Black Panther’s sister Shuri turn to dust, I insist she’s still alive and could become Black Panther, at least until her brother’s resurrection. (Or maybe they could both be Black Panther?) If I see these things in Avengers 4, that will salve the ache. But in the next film, Cap and Black Widow had better get some meaningful screen time, and we’d better see what was so conspicuously absent from Doctor Strange — mourning for the fallen.

And a Starbucks sign being raised in Wakanda.