Books Make Me Happy. Movies, Not So Much.

These days, for me, the news has become suffocating. Scarcely a day goes by that I don’t see at least one item about a woman, or women in general, being abused, mistreated, disregarded, or underestimated. If it’s not a story about a convicted rapist getting off with a wrist-slap, it’s an expose’ on a proposed federal government appointee who claims women shouldn’t play or announce or referee sports (unless they live up to acceptable halter-top standards of hotness) because sports should offer men a “vacation from women.” If it’s not an eleven-year-old girl potentially forced to give birth to her rapist’s baby, it’s a well-known talk show host mocking women as “basic” and “primitive.” We’ve been putting up with these and similar stories in a seemingly unending flood ever since the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse scandal broke, and with each one, I lose a little oxygen.

Stories about women are the fresh air I need — about women saving the day, fighting for change, helping those in need, creating great art, exploring new territories, making discoveries, devising new inventions, curing the sick, and in general being active and awesome in a variety of ways. I long to see women making a difference, both in real life and in fiction. I long to see them as the heroes of their own stories, vital as who they are in and of themselves rather than just as the wife, mother, daughter, or love interest of some man or other. Thankfully, we see more women-centered stories now, particularly in print fiction. In my favorite genre, SFF, at least 174 books with female leads or co-leads are scheduled for release in 2019, and every year brings more. Some 2019 releases near the top of my To-Read list are Samantha Shannon’s Priory of the Orange Tree, Mark Lawrence’s Holy Sister, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Virtue and Vengeance, Zen Cho’s The True Queen, Django Wexler’s Ship of Smoke and Steel, Michael J. Sullivan’s Age of Legend, Max Gladstone’s Empress of Forever, Juliet Marillier’s The Harp of Kings, and Tessa Grafton’s Lady Hotspur. Once I factor in those books that caught my attention some while ago but I haven’t gotten around to reading yet, I should have plenty to keep me busy.And I couldn’t be happier about it. As long as I have a long reading list, I need not fear suffocation.

I only wish other media were equally obliging.

To be fair, television does a decent job. I have quite a few woman-positive shows to love, including Supergirl, the recently returned iZombie, and on Netflix, Jessica Jones and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. DuckTales, one of the most feminist shows on television (more on that in a future post), just finished its second season and has a third on the way, and new seasons of GLOW, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Orange Is the New Black are in the offing. It’s hardly the fault of these shows that right now all everybody wants to talk about is Game of Thrones, which just wrapped up its final season. I haven’t watched that show since its fifth season, when it chose to kill off a particularly innocent and sweet-natured character, a girl whose gender made her expendable, in a gruesome and gut-punching way. But I know, whether I want to or not, that the show’s last season centered on yet another of those “girl-can’t-handle-power” story arcs that writers can’t seem to get enough of. (I’m even less enthused about Dark Phoenix now than I was before.) Plenty of fans are outraged, but it mightn’t have been so problematic if the TV landscape included a few more female authority figures who use their power with wisdom and justice. Few things are problematic in isolation.

Take Avengers: Endgame, a movie with so much going for it — very little of it involving female characters. All the satisfying girl-power moments — Valkyrie joining the climactic battle on her flying steed, Scarlet Witch taking on Thanos, Captain Marvel going meteoric — are confined to the three-hour-plus movie’s last forty-five minutes. To get to them, you have to wait through a loooong stretch in which the only proactive and successful thing a female character does is die. In and of itself, it might inspire only mild disappointment rather than teeth-grinding frustration. But it becomes one more on the list of Marvel’s team-up movies (the first Avengers being an exception, maybe) that have not known what to do with the women. A single “power shot” in the final battle sequence serves as a signal that better days are coming. But I’d really like my oxygen now, thank you very much — and between the release of Jordan Peele’s Us back in March and the release of Booksmart on Memorial Day weekend, not a single well-reviewed mainstream release has featured a female protagonist (except maybe Long Shot, but in that, glamorous Charlize Theron has to share protagonist status with shlubby Seth Rogen in this bit of shlub wish-fulfillment fantasy in the Knocked Up mold). Movies I’d kill to see, like Fast Color and The Souvenir, remain out of reach in (very) limited release, so that often I don’t even hear about them until too late. The case of Fast Color remains a sore point for me, as the oxygen quotient in that one might well have been off the charts.

Booksmart, at least, is a bright spot, despite problematic elements that have been pointed out. For a film about teenagers, it’s surprisingly good natured, with few stereotypes left untweaked and no complete villains (with the exception of a veeerrry minor character who is not a teenager); its heroines are allowed to be flawed as well as smart and funny. I’ll admit the character of Molly won me over the minute I got a look at the decor of her bedroom in the very first scene, and I enjoyed watching her make mistakes and then learn from them. It also centers on a strong friendship between two girls, something I can’t see often enough. So I got some good deep breaths out of this one.

Unfortunately, to get to it, my husband and I had to sit through a series of trailers, the cringiest ones being for Child’s Play (a remake we were all desperate for, right) and The Good Boys (it’s like Stand By Me, but with misogyny!), that served as a reminder that, despite the movie we were about to see, Hollywood remains indifferent to me as a prospective audience. I’m not sure just when I’ll find myself at the movies again, unless an opportunity to see a limited-release movie like The Souvenir or The Third Wife presents itself.

But I’ll always have books.

 

 

 

 

Wanted: More Female Animals in Fantasy

My life as an adult fantasy fan began when I read Lord of the Rings near the end of my undergrad years, but I first dipped my toes in the water of the genre much earlier than that, with a different kind of story. The first books I recall reading and loving were those Little Golden Books in which the main character was something nonhuman — Scruffy the Tugboat, The Poky Little Puppy, The Saggy Baggy Elephant, Little Cottontail, and more. As my fascination with nonhuman protagonists matured, I moved on to the big classics of the “animal fantasy” subgenre: Winnie-the-Pooh (yes, they’re toys, but they’re animals nonetheless), The Jungle Books, The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down.

I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for my favorite childhood reads. From them I learned how much fun the fantastic can be. Yet they taught me something else as well, something I like far less — the concept of “male as default.” In all these books, characters were only female when and if the story demanded it. Characters whose gender wasn’t central or crucial to the plot were always male. The few female animals that did show up always played roles consistent with the gender stereotypes we find in human society, e.g. the mother (Kanga in the Pooh stories, Raksha in The Jungle Book), the damsel/bride (Hyzenthlay and the other Efrafan does in Watership Down). For the most part — exception: I always liked Hyzenthlay, even though she didn’t show up until the book’s last third — I ignored them and focused on the male characters, who were much more interesting and who played much bigger roles. I expect most readers did as well.

Yet still I adopted that character-gender-flipping habit I’ve discussed in previous posts. I now suspect this was my earliest rebellion against “male as default.” Even then, though I couldn’t have articulated it, it felt wrong to me that a nonhuman character could only be female if she was playing a specifically “female” role.

When I was young, “male as default” seemed generally accepted. No one questioned it or tried to change it; it was simply how things were. Yet it kept female characters confined to the least interesting or engaging roles. My tween years saw The Smurfs arrive on the scene, and of course it’s the show from which the “Smurfette Principle” takes its name. Smurfette, the only girl character, plays the typically female role of getting into trouble and needing to be rescued. Not only do the more active and resourceful characters default to male, but her being the sole female, being defined by her gender and little else, is an actual plot point. In the years that followed, other and better shows adhered to the Smurfette formula, as if the writers were not even conscious of it. As if the tendency to write characters as female only when they had to be weren’t even worth thinking about.

In more recent years, thankfully, some writers have started to think about it, and we’ve seen some steps forward. For example, Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, returned to the world and characters of his most famous novel in 1998 with a collection of short stories called Tales from Watership Down, in which he deliberately gave female characters bigger and more active roles to play. (Sadly, these stories don’t come near the original novel in terms of quality.) Brian Jacques’ enormously popular Redwall series of animal fantasies centered on male heroes for its first three books, but in the fourth, Mariel of Redwall, a female hero appeared at last on the scene, and other significant female characters have followed, including my favorite, Dotti the haremaid in Lord Brocktree. Other female-centered animal fantasies have also emerged, some of my favorites being Diane Duane’s The Book of Night With Moon (cats!), David Clement-Davies’ The Sight (wolves!), and Dorothy Hearst’s Promise of the Wolves (more wolves!). Those who, like me, enjoy female nonhuman characters should check out this Goodreads list.

Yet with these signs of progress we also find evidence that some folks just don’t get it. In June of last year, Christine Michaud Woods published an article in the Washington Post: “Children’s Books, give me a female squirrel, a female duck, a female anything.” “When the characters are not human, as is often the case, females are often strangely absent,” she points out. Her opening example: in a 2010 book called “Chick ‘n’ Pug,” every single character is written as male, including a chick who wants to escape a routine of laying eggs all day — reminding me of those horrible udder-baring male cows in the animated fiasco Barnyard and the masculine hens in Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo. The comments are particularly telling, a classic case of Missing the Point. In an effort to prove that the problem Woods describes is not that bad, posters list lots of female characters from children’s literature (as if pointing out that such characters exist disproves the notion that there’s an imbalance), and half of them are human. Human female characters, awesome as they might be, are nearly always female because the story insists upon it. Bringing them up as examples ignores the heart of the problem, “male as default.” That they just don’t see it offers a reminder that we haven’t come as far as we need to.

Even stories that often get labelled as feminist suffer from Default-Male Syndrome, including some of my favorite Disney movies. In The Princess and the Frog, two characters who are naturally animals offer to help the transformed humans, and both are male; only humans, transformed or otherwise, get to be female. All the animals in Tangled are likewise male. In Frozen, apart from the two sisters and a couple of trolls, everyone and everything is male. Even in Moana, perhaps the most feminist-friendly of all, the not-all-there chicken and the super-cute pig are both male, as is the villainous sea turtle. Then there’s Beauty and the Beast (animated version — haven’t seen the remake), with its roster of inanimate objects. Three are female, but all play gender-coded roles. Mrs. Potts, the most important of them, is a mother. The wardrobe talks like a gossipy hairdresser. The feather-duster is around to give suave candlestick Lumiere someone to flirt with. I love these films, but I can still love them and wish they’d had at least one or two more female nonhumans. Among all Disney’s nonhuman characters since the “Disney Renaissance,” the only females I can think of that didn’t really have to be are Shenzi the evil hyena in The Lion King and Terk the chimpanzee from Tarzan — until Zootopia came along, but even that delightful movie doesn’t quite make up for the earlier lack. When The Lion King was adapted for the stage, it took a step in the right direction by taking a male character whose gender wasn’t dictated by the story — the wise mandrill shaman Rafiki — and rewriting said character as female. Yet in the big-screen remake coming this summer, Rafiki is once again male. Darn it, couldn’t Disney have let that one positive change stand?

Default-Male Syndrome needs to be challenged more often and more consciously. As long as it’s in play, male characters will outnumber female, perhaps not in every single story but in stories in general. Unconscious adherence to the Smurfette Principle will continue, even though we ought to know better. Worst of all, it will be difficult to impossible for girls like I used to be to find female characters whose identity isn’t linked, either loosely or tightly, to their gender. It’s time to see more female squirrels, female ducks, female everything.

 

My “Please-Be-Good” List of Post-Endgame Movies

The wait for Avengers: Endgame, the wrap-up film for this set of the Avengers, is over, and I have seen it. That’s all I mean to say on this particular movie at the moment, since plenty of other writers are taking it apart, Spoiler warnings dutifully included. But since Endgame‘s release marks this year’s opening of the “summer movie season,” I’m wondering what not only the summer but the rest of the year might hold for me, movie-wise. Most of the big blockbusters in the offing do nothing for me. So which films am I hoping like hell turn out to be good, as they seem very much like the sorts of stories I can enjoy?

  1. Fast Color (directed by Julia Hart). The female-superhero-movie-with-a-difference starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw already has a 79% critical score and 92% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. If only its release were not so painfully limited!
  2. Bolden (directed by Dan Pritzker). I first heard about jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden on PBS’s Ken Burns’ Jazz, and I’m glad to see the cinema is telling his story.
  3. The Sun Is Also a Star (directed by Ry Russo-Young). I usually ignore teen dramas, but the director and cast for this one have me curious.
  4. The Third Wife (directed by Ash Mayfair). The 19th century Vietnamese setting of this drama is a draw for me; I love period dramas in any case, and I don’t recall having seen one quite like this.
  5. Booksmart (directed by Olivia Wilde). A movie centering on a solid friendship between girl-nerds — how could I not be on board?
  6. Late Night (directed by Nisha Ganatra). Emma Thompson makes me happy.
  7. Men In Black: International (directed by F. Gary Gray). Did I say I wasn’t interested in the big blockbusters? This one is an exception, thanks to Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth; this one feels more woman-friendly than most of this summer’s action films.
  8. Wild Rose (directed by Tom Harper, written by Nicole Taylor). Will this movie about a country musician be one of those movies about creative women I so love to see?
  9. Downton Abbey (directed by Michael Engler). Sure, it’s a September release, and September tends to be one of cinema’s “dumping grounds.” But hey, it’s Downton Abbey, so I’m interested.
  10. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (directed by Marielle Heller). Having seen last year’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I really, really want Tom Hanks to hit a home run with his performance as Fred Rogers.
  11. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (directed by J.J. Abrams). Suck it, haters.
  12. Little Women (directed by Greta Gerwig). Lousia May Alcott + Greta Gerwig + decent reviews = me in the theater seat.

So what’s on your “please be good” movie list?