Are Women Taking Over the Multiplex?

May 2015 has been a pretty good month for women in the movies. We’ve seen the release of a number of films with female characters in central roles. There’s Far From the Madding Crowd, which I’m going to see this very afternoon with my husband for our seventh wedding anniversary (and yes, he does want to see it, but I’m going to have to see SPECTRE with him opening night). There’s Pitch Perfect 2, which I have no interest in seeing (it’s not really my genre) but which boasts a range of female characters and a female director. There’s Tomorrowland, which I may wait and see at the dollar theater thanks to lukewarm reviews, but yet again, female lead. Then there’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which I have seen, a cinematic fist-pump which features not just one exceptional Charlize Theron but women, lots of women, in kick-butt roles. This last film represents a triumph I have been waiting for: a critical success which shows women in major roles, from a genre that usually ignores or marginalizes them: the science fiction action-adventure film.

Here’s the trailer:

But one woman’s triumph is, apparently, another man’s tragedy. Mad Max: Fury Road has roused the ire of “men’s rights activists” because it blurs the gender lines they cherish — or rather, it blows those lines away. They’re not upset about Far From the Madding Crowd or Pitch Perfect 2, which they can safely dismiss as “chick flicks” they wouldn’t want to see in any case. (See this article for a good look at that “chick flicks” designation.) No, their rage is directed at Mad Max because it presents feminine incursion into a “masculine” cinematic space. “Get your girl cooties out of our post-apocalyptic road chase movie!” For these activists, this movie poses a threat where the other ones do not.

I can’t take them too seriously, fierce their rhetoric might be. They’re a small minority compared with the men who appreciate intense and well-filmed action movies and actually enjoy seeing a hot Charlize Theron being a major badass. To me, the fulminators come across as little boys who don’t want to share. In innumerable action and sci-fi films, men are the driving force, the only capable and powerful characters. A Smurfette may be included, but she’s very obviously a token, and more often than not a piece of distressed-damsel eye candy designed to titillate the male audience rather than to attract a female one. Yet let one or two movies come along in which women get a substantial share of the action, and it’s Oh, no! Circle the wagons! How can we stop “them” from taking over? Even when they hold fifty marbles, they can’t stand our having one.

Just how much of a threat does the film in question represent? Are women taking over action and sci-fi films? Will we soon find ourselves unable to distinguish between “chick flick” and “guy movie”? To answer this question, I examine four trailers I saw before Mad Max: Fury Road started to roll.

1. Jurassic World

Here we have the tough dinosaur-hunter male protagonist played by Chris Pratt, whose macho badassery is in now way challenged or compromised (in the trailer, at least) by Bryce Dallas Howard’s uptight-scientist Smurfette. Apparently the movie’s only important female character apart from the marauding uber-dinosaur who must be destroyed, Howard’s character apparently exists to express the Wrong Idea, to be subsequently corrected by the tougher, wiser he-man hunter. The Jurassic franchise has never been especially friendly to girls and women (in the second film, the female lead is a screamer, and in the third film, she’s a moron- although Laura Dern’s ever so brief cameo is welcome), but at least in the first film, one of the kids embroiled in the adventure was a girl. In this one, both are boys.

2. The new Transporter film

Are there women in this movie? I don’t remember any in the trailer. This movie promises to be a strong shot of testosterone.

3. The Last Witch Hunter

So, Vin Diesel vs. evil witches. A red-haired woman (Rose Leslie, formerly of Game of Thrones) is hanging around, but I don’t think we hear her speak in the trailer. It’s pretty safe to say Dudes Rule in this one.

4. San Andreas

The trailer for the new Dwayne Johnson movie immediately follows the one for the new Vin Diesel movie, aggravating my tendency to get these two actors confused.  (I just have to remember that Vin Diesel was never a professional wrestler.) This trailer does show a few women, generally running from things, calling for help, or showing off “Michael Bay Wear” (tank top, booty shorts). At least this time around, pretty much everyone is in distress, not just the damsels. But the movie is clearly Johnson’s story. It doesn’t look like any powerful heroines will bring their girl cooties to this party.

Those are just a few due out this summer. Others include Entourage, Ted 2, Magic Mike XXL, Ant-Man, Pixels, Pan, the remake of Vacation, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, and The Man from UNCLE — all guy-centric. A few due out in the fall are No Escape, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, The Jungle Book, SPECTRE, The Martian, The Good Dinosaur, and Kung Fu Panda 3 — some promising to be good, others not so good.  However, each of these films features male protagonists.  The best that girls and women can hope for is a halfway significant supporting role. (At least we’ll get another marble in the form of the final Hunger Games movie, and the upcoming Spy — if action comedies are to your taste — and Terminator: Genisys may be two more, if only they’re well-reviewed.) And lest we forget, previously in 2015 we’ve seen Taken 3, Paddington, The Wedding Ringer, Blackhat, The Spongebob Squarepants Movie: Sponge Out of Water, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, McFarland USA, Focus, Chappie, Unfinished Business, and Run All Night — all movies with male protagonists.

(My husband reminded me that we are getting a Peanuts move in November.  While the protagonists may be Charlie Brown and/or Snoopy, most of the female characters created by Charles Schulz will be represented.  I cannot say “all” because there’s been no confirmation of the little red-haired girl.  However, I had to remind him that the females in the strip are mostly jerks.)

In all honesty, I cannot forget Jupiter Ascending.  But as this Honest Trailer points out, this wasn’t exactly a boon for women seeking active heroines in sci-fi films.

All this serves as evidence that the Big Screen is not an estrogen-poisoned wasteland that leaves male moviegoers without stories in which to engage or male heroes with which to identify, and it isn’t likely to become so. Boys, you still have your fifty marbles. It really won’t destroy you to let us have one, or even four or five.

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Unfavorite Tropes Part 5

A word or two about these Unfavorite Tropes blogs:

A friend of mine who’s been following this series warned me that if I kept listing unfavorite tropes, I would soon run out of things to read. This friend has a point. If each of my unfavorite tropes counted as an automatic deal-breaker, I probably would end up with nothing to read. I’ve mentioned it before and it bears repeating: tropes I dislike may find their way into many books that are, taken as a whole, well worth reading. I may come away from these books loving them, yet still taking some issue with individual tropes. So this series still has a little life left in it, though it’s starting to wind down.

The latest:

Faux Action Girl.

A couple of years ago, Hollywood released two fantasy-adventure films, Jack the Giant-Slayer and Snow White and the Huntsman. The trailers for both films featured shots of the female leads sporting gleaming suits of armor and battle gear. Resplendent in this martial get-up, they looked like warrior women, but the images covered up the truth that neither of them actually does any fighting. The most that the heroine of Jack manages to accomplish is to get in trouble repeatedly and get rescued by the titular hero. The heroine of Snow White, though brave, serves primarily as a figurehead for fighting men to follow. They offer fine visual examples of the Faux Action Girl, a female character who looks tough and may even talk tough, but concealed under that surface veneer of capability is an old-fashioned distressed damsel.

My biggest quarrel with the Faux Action Girl trope, aside from its cheating me out of an actual active and competent heroine, is that it seems to insult our intelligence. Are the writers who create such characters counting on our not noticing the bungler hidden in the suit of armor? Do they imagine that if the damsel is dressed in heroine’s clothing, we will accept her as a heroine and not question whether what we’re being told about her matches what we actually see her do?

The trope is particularly disheartening when we see it employed by those we think would know better. The heroine of Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, for example, is capable and innovative, and her story is enormously engaging. Meyer obviously knows how to create a heroine worth rooting for. Yet the sequel hits us with a Faux Action Girl. The titular heroine of Scarlet packs a pistol and carries herself with determination. Yet a closer look at her reveals a screw-up in perpetual need of rescue, a bitter disappointment after the dynamic Cinder. Peter Jackson added the character of Tauriel to his trilogy The Hobbit because he wasn’t content with the dudes-only nature of the source novel, and in the second film, The Desolation of Smaug, she’s a powerful force, a welcome addition (for me, at least). Yet in the final film, The Battle of the Five Armies, we see her disintegrate from Action Girl to Faux Action Girl, unable to strike a blow when it matters and needing two different male heroes to rescue her. This, after the splendid depiction of genuine Action Girl Eowyn in his earlier Award-winning adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Sometimes a plot may demand some of my other Unfavorite Tropes — say, God Save Us From the Queen! or Babies Ever After or even the much-loathed (by me) Smurfette Principle. But are Faux Action Girls deliberate creations, or evidence of misguided writing? We all know that in order to come across as believable, a heroine needs to make the occasional mistake, but some writers may be so keen to avoid the accusations of “too perfect” and “Mary Sue” that they forget to let her get something right once in a while, and thus, Faux Action Girls may be born.

Unfavorite Tropes, Part 4

6. Female Misogynist

I hadn’t intended to address this one so soon. I’d planned to save it for a few posts down the road. But now and then a real-life incident burrows its way into my thoughts and forces me to change my creative direction. In this case, my Muse took the form of an uncomfortable Facebook experience.

Like many fans of fantasy and adventure, my friends and I have been discussing Avengers: Age of Ultron, and specifically breaking down the strengths and flaws in the character of Black Widow. A good friend posted an article on the subject, and the discussion was friendly at first. I pointed out that the root of the controversy surrounding Black Widow is the despicable Smurfette Principle, possibly my least favorite Trope in existence and one I’ve previously blogged about. I included a link to “I Hate Strong Female Characters” to emphasize my point.

Then one of my friend’s Facebook friends, reacting to the title of my link, posted that she hates almost every single female character and always finds a male character onto whom to latch in any story she reads or sees. While I found this sentiment a little disturbing, I took it as yet more commentary on the slipshod job too many writers do with their female characters, and how few are really worth identifying with. I was ready to shrug my shoulders and sigh, “Tell me something I don’t know, already,” when a braver soul than I replied to this poster directly, stating, “This is sad. You must hate women.” I had so not been ready to draw that conclusion.

Yet the poster’s response was swift and strong: she does hate women, because girls and women have treated her like crap, and this experience has shown her that only guys can be trusted, only guys make decent friends. I read her words and felt her hatred reach through the computer screen to slap me in the face. How should I have reacted to this? Should I beg forgiveness for the sin of having been born with two X chromosomes? I posted nothing, since I doubted strongly that such an attitude could be reasoned with. Very rarely can hatred be talked away.

A person who has been repeatedly bullied and betrayed deserves compassion. Perhaps that should have been my first response. This woman’s abusers probably internalized the cultural suggestion that women are each other’s natural enemies, and any “friendship” between two women — even relationships within families — will inevitably end with a knife in the back. Having swallowed this prescription, they passed it onto her, and thus the vicious circle spins on and on. Why are we women conditioned to hate and mistrust each other? Why do so many of us fall for that conditioning?

The Female Misogynist trope is a corollary of the Smurfette Principle. Such a woman belongs in a man’s world and surrounds herself exclusively with male mentors, friends, and lovers because she sees herself as having nothing in common with other women. Just like the male misogynist, she sees other women as a great big “They” who are All The Same, a hivemind with a single dark heart. This vast “They” is a threat because one of “Them” might just attract the attention of one of her worshipful male supporters. Competition is one of the things a Female Misogynist cannot tolerate. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake is one of the best-known examples of the trope, as the TV Tropes entry points out. Because she’s the protagonist and we’re meant to see her as heroic, her stories depict her misogyny as justified.

If reason could reach her, I might tell this friend-of-a-Facebook-friend that her hatred is a snake that eats its own tail. If you expect the very worst of the women you meet, surprise! That’s exactly what you’ll get. No matter how badly others may hurt us, we hurt ourselves even worse when we allow our justifiable anger at those specific people who have injured us to broaden into an unjustifiable hatred of an entire group. I’m sorry for what you have suffered, by I am not going to apologize for my two X chromosomes. I am responsible for my actions alone, and those actions do not include hurting you. In the words of Depeche Mode, “I’ve never even met you, so what could I have done?”

In my own reading and writing, if the Female Misogynist appears, her contempt and mistrust would be clearly presented as a bad thing, a flaw that a decent character would sooner or later grow beyond. I enjoy stories in which characters learn to overcome and eventually abandon their prejudices. But if the prejudice is presented as something to which the character rightfully clings, I say, “No.”

Here is a Goodreads list for those seeking more positive depictions of relationships between women.

Excerpt from “Sybilla diSante and the Sepia World”

The following is the beginning sequence of “Sybilla diSante and the Sepia World,” published in 2014 by Gilded Dragonfly Books in the collection Haunting Tales of Spirit Lake. It’s my first successful short story and my first ever publication. Needless to say, I am very proud.

The night before my parents were killed in a car accident I dreamed of a huge baby buggy smashing through the window of the twentieth floor of a high rise.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a great talker. My custom has always been to observe, listen, and hold my thoughts inside. People call me “unknowable,” and I can’t say they’re wrong. After the accident I hugged my silence more closely than ever, but in a strange moment when I thought my heart would turn inside out if I didn’t speak, I told Ethan Chance about my dream. Ethan was my closest friend, because among all the kids my age, seventeen, only he shared my passion for black-and-white movies. Even when I don’t care to talk about my feelings or my views on society and politics, I can enjoy a good conversation about Casablanca or Metropolis.

He listened as I described the shattering window and the buggy disappearing over the ledge. Then he told me in an awed hush, “You’re psychic.”

I laughed him off but cringed inside. I might like to tell myself stories about ghosts and imagine that the wall separating past from present from future might be frayed in spots, but to suggest I might be psychic was to drag those gossamer daydreams into the bitter cold realm of reality. I didn’t want to be psychic. If I’d somehow prophesied my parents’ deaths, then the right word from me might have saved them. This I couldn’t bear to think. So I changed the subject very quickly to Dr. Strangelove.

Yet in the days that followed I started to wonder whether my sweet-natured cinephile friend might have cursed me, or if my Creek grandmother had been right when she told me that gifts can be born from grief. My sense of sight began to play tricks. When I walked alone on the edge of the wood that bordered Spirit Lake I would spy a ripple in the air, such as we sometimes see in the thick heat of a summer day. It looked like a curtain moving, and I thought I could glimpse a shadow-scape beyond the lush trees and glassy lake, a scene with the sepia shade of a nineteenth-century photograph. People moved through it in the garb of long ago, going through the motions of working and chatting with each other and not paying me the slightest heed.

Curious? This and other tales of mystery can be found in Haunting Tales of Spirit Lake, available from Amazon.com in Kindle and in print.

Unfavorite Tropes, Part 3

5. God Save Us From the Queen!

Sometimes, even books I enjoy very much include one or more of my Unfavorite Tropes. A good case in point is Cinder, the first book of the Lunar Chronicles, a popular YA science fiction fairytale retelling series by Marissa Meyer. As one might guess from the title, this novel offers Meyer’s take on the Cinderella myth, yet this Cinderella is a cyborg mechanic, a competent hard worker who takes pride in what she can accomplish, unafflicted with the subservience we see in many Cinderellas. Also unlike most Cinderellas, she has female allies, among them a wisecracking but ever loyal AI. Moreover, this Cinderella saves Prince Charming’s life. I won’t give details, lest Spoilers persuade anyone away from the book. It’s well worth a read. Yet even as I enjoyed it, I ran against a trope that makes me cringe.

This first volume sets up the conflict the whole series will cover, the struggle between the heroic Earthlings and the despicable Lunar invaders. Earthlings are as one might expect, salt of the earth. Lunars are dangerously beautiful aliens with dangerous powers of mental manipulation, who in general should be trusted no further than you could throw your average spaceship. Earth’s supreme ruler, the one who must protect the people from the world-devouring Lunars’ atrocities, is a stalwart, upright Emperor, father of the Prince Charming Kai. His advisers are all men. The Council of Rulers under him is made up of men, with the single exception of the silly figurehead “Queen Camilla.” The Emperor’s consort, Kai’s mother, is long dead and not even an afterthought in the minds of father or son; it’s as if she did her job and produced a male heir and then died to get out of the way of the male bonding. On the side of Good, there is not one single solitary woman of power.

Luna, by contrast, is an Evil Matriarchy. Not only is the current Queen a loathsome, venomous woman with designs on both galactic domination and Kai’s hand in marriage, but all the preceding Queens have been similarly evil. Her advisers are women, and likewise evil. Here we have a classic case of “God Save Us From the Queen!” — or, in equation form, “Woman + Power = Evil.”

I have some hope that Meyer may be setting up this equation for the purpose of overturning it in future books in the series, though in the second book, which I liked much less than the first, it remains firmly entrenched. Yet I strongly suspect a good many authors who use this trope are working from an unconscious association of female power with malevolence, fed by centuries of myth and legend and generations of pop culture: the evil witch-queens Morgause, Morgan le Fay, and Nimue from the stories of King Arthur; the wickedly ambitious Queen Medb, mortal enemy of the Irish hero Cuchulain in the Celtic epic The Tain; the countless evil Queens and witches of fairy tales, so horrifyingly visualized in Disney’s Snow White. Female power has traditionally been presented as destructive, with the message, spoken or unspoken, that authority belongs in the hands of men, since apparently only they have the strength of will to resist the tendency of power to corrupt.

Not every writer who employs the “God Save Us From the Queen!” trope is being deliberately anti-feminist. Sometimes the story demands it, so that even an avowedly feminist writer like Mercedes Lackey must employ it (in The Black Swan and One Good Knight). I’ve used the trope myself, in The Challenges of Brave Ragnar, a comic fantasy series of radio plays I wrote for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company; the story needed a tyrannical monarch, and I wrote the character as female solely to give our wonderful ARTC actresses a shot at the role. The trouble comes when sympathetic female authority figures are so hard to find.

Some would say that authority figures, male or female, are usually villains, the good guys being those who defy that authority. But where are the female counterparts to M*A*S*H‘s wry, wise Colonel Potter? Or Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s dour but good-hearted Captain Holt? Or Blue Bloods‘ honorable and uncompromising Frank Reagan? Or the brave male commanders of science fiction television, Captains Kirk and Picard and Sisko and Archer, Captain Sheridan, Commander Adama, Captain Mal Reynolds, and the Doctor himself? My friends might point to Captain Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager when I make this protest, but she is only one drop in an ocean of malicious queens, tyrannical “harridan” commanders, and shrewish, short-sighted boss ladies, the sort for whom the term “ball-breaker” — a term that points up the view of female power as unnatural and oppressive — was invented.

When I come across a book that subverts the usual “Woman + Power = Evil” equation, I cherish it. I recently finished reading one such book: Joan D. Vinge’s The Summer Queen. This book is the successor to her earlier The Snow Queen, which employs my unfavorite trope out of necessity, being a compelling sci-fi retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale. But the courageous heroine Moon Dawntreader who defies the corrupt authority in the first book must be the authority in the second. Moon is a complex character who makes mistakes and often finds herself on shaky ground. Yet she is a principled ruler who won’t back down from a challenge, who will persuade and negotiate whenever possible but can and will kick butt if the need should arise. While I’ve seen sympathetic female authority figures in a few other novels, so far only Moon has served as a protagonist, which means the reader gets her point of view, and through it a detailed look at the complexities of power and how difficult it can be to wield, especially for a decent person like her. Even when we see her at her most flawed, we’re never given reason to doubt her devotion to the physical and spiritual well-being of her people.

What would I love to see in speculative fiction? A few more Moon Dawntreaders.