We all have our favorite websites, and for me no day is complete without at least one visit to Tor.com, where I can find a variety of commentary on SFF books, movies, TV shows, and games, as well as short fiction and excerpts from longer fiction and lists of forthcoming SFF titles. Among the commentary, I especially enjoy Liz Bourke’s “Sleeps With Monsters,” in which she reviews books and raises issues of representation that need addressing. In a recent post she asks a question that’s come to my mind more than once: “Why Can’t More Books Pander to Me?” While I identify strongly with the early part of the article, in which she describes the alienation she as a queer woman feels when confronted with so many, many books that cling to the image of the Hero as white, male, and heterosexual, it’s the second part — her description of how she feels when she encounters a book that welcomes her, in this case Max Gladstone’s Ruin of Angels — that most gets to me. Few joys can match that of finding stories that embrace us, that assign us value and importance.
As a white heterosexual woman, I have my share of unearned privilege. I don’t have to look quite as hard to find books that welcome me. Since January I’ve found welcome in Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves, Brandon Sanderson’s Arcanum Unbounded, Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (a sci-fi treat that would welcome almost anyone who reads it), Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister, Michael J. Sullivan’s Age of Myth and Age of Swords, Mickey Zucker Reichert’s Beyond Ragnarok, Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs, Kate Forsyth’s The Cursed Towers, Leigh Barduro’s Crooked Kingdom, Insitar Khanani’s Memories of Ash, and M. H. Boroson’s The Girl With Ghost Eyes. Books like this thrill me because they show me, not what I am, but what as a woman I could be. They affirm that women can be heroes.
Yet I still recognize the alienation Bourke writes about. As frustrating as it can sometimes be with regard to books, I’ve found it far worse when it comes to movies, particularly in the SFF and action-adventure genres. Occasionally we see a movie in those genres with a female lead, and even more occasionally, that movie will turn out to be good (e.g. this year’s Wonder Woman and Atomic Blonde). But as this list of the Top 25 Fantasy Films of the Last 25 Years makes clear, those few good films are vastly outnumbered by movies about men, made by men and (usually) for men. That majority of movies claims, in implication if not in words, “Ladies, here are your choices: you can be a Love Interest, a Sex Object, a Victim, a Villain, or (if the writer is feeling a bit enlightened) a Sidekick. But Hero? Hands off that one, ladies. It’s for Men Only.”
Of course I have the option of not seeing these films, but I still catch their trailers, their ads, and their reviews, partly because as a participant in pop and geek culture I like knowing what’s out there. And I can feel that alienation start to gnaw at me, that sense that I’m meant to exist only in relation to men and that I can be powerful only if I’m evil. The most recent big release to do this to me, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, is a perfect example. Its predecessor, The Secret Service, featured a female character with the potential to be a hero, but she was under-utilized and her best moments took place off-screen; many of the movie’s fans liked her and were vocal in their hope they might see more of her in the sequel. How does filmmaker Matthew Vaughan respond? By including less of her, almost none in fact, but instead giving us a scene in which the main hero must place a tracking device on the wall of a woman’s vagina, and throwing in a female villain for the heroic Bro Squad to vanquish — nearly point for point everything I do not want to see. Vaughan joins Guy Ritchie, Edgar Wright, and Michael Bay on my list of filmmakers who obviously do not care about me, or women like me, as an audience. If I sound like I take this personally, it’s because I do.
Yet these men keep getting work, and they keep repeating the same old sexist shtick because they know they can get away with it. Despite its being “old-fashioned” in the worst sense of the term, or perhaps even because of that, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a box-office smash. Wright’s Baby Driver is one of 2017’s most highly praised films, yet even the many critics who champion it admit that its portrayal of women is poor indeed. We’re meant to think this flaw is unimportant, something easily overlooked. Comments like, “The movie’s really entertaining, if you can get past the female characters” suffice to spark that sense of alienation in me, and every year I catch myself thinking more than once that I should just write off movies altogether and stick to books.
But I can’t quite do it. Because there are always those movies that welcome me, that make me giddy with possibility. (Spoilers ahead.)
Because of Rey receiving wisdom from an alien female mentor and later calling the light saber into her hand in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
Because of Mercedes, an unexpected hero and a friend to the young Ofelia, firing a bullet into the head of the monstrous Captain Vidal just as she lets him know his baby son won’t follow in his evil footsteps — “He won’t even know your name” — in Pan’s Labyrinth.
Because of young witch Kiki finding her magic again, just in time to rescue her best friend and maybe-sweetheart in Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Because of Judy Hopps discovering the truth about predators “going savage” and racing back to the city to stop the spread of hate in Zootopia.
Because of Diana racing through a hail of German bullets to liberate a captured village in Wonder Woman.
And because of the “moments of awesome” from women in films that don’t fit as neatly into a given genre. Because of Katherine Goble Johnson solving a crucial equation whose answer eludes everyone else in Hidden Figures. Because of Emily Dickinson scribbling poems in the middle of the night in A Quiet Passion. Because of folk artist Maud Lewis selling her first painting in Maudie.
Because of how I feel when I see their triumphs — when I see that female characters on the big screen can be heroes, geniuses, and creators.
And then I’m forced to ask, along with Liz Bourke, Why can’t we have more like this??