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.