The Importance of “Discomfort Reads”

When I first read Octavia Butler’s Kindred, I thought it was one of the greatest books I’d ever read, and I would never pick it up again. I set it on the sell-back table with a shudder of deep respect, knowing the harrowing journey of a modern African-American woman mysteriously transported back at intervals to the antebellum South, with its unrelenting cruelty and injustice, was burned into my brain. Like Orwell’s 1984, it left me feeling I’d been punched in the stomach repeatedly and only after several hours would my normal comfort level reassert itself. And, in both cases, I wouldn’t have traded that feeling for anything.

Some years have elapsed since then, and I find myself revisiting Kindred after all. I picked up a copy at McKay Used Media Store in Chattanooga on Black Friday 2021, thinking I might soon reread it with a teacher’s eye. My decision feels almost prophetic now, for as my holiday break was ending, I got a call from my supervisor at Life University. One of my colleagues was having a surgical procedure in January and wouldn’t be able to teach his literature course, ENG 212 (Identity and Otherness); would I fill in for him? While having to create a syllabus at the last minute is far from ideal, I couldn’t deny a tremor of excitement. Here was the perfect opportunity to teach Kindred. I contacted the friend and colleague from whom I was inheriting the course to find out which books he commonly used, so I could decide which ones I would keep and which I would replace with choices of my own, Kindred among them.

One work I decided to keep was Art Spiegelman’s Maus I: My Father Bleeds History, an allegorical depiction of his Spiegelman’s father’s experiences during the Holocaust.

I have a shameful confession: I tried reading the acclaimed graphic novel once before and couldn’t finish it. I’d chosen it as a leisure read, and after reading almost half the book and seeing no significant female character emerge, I decided it wasn’t working for me and set it aside. But I don’t read as a teacher the same way I read for leisure. Teacher-Me can get excited by works like Homer’s Iliad, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Poe’s short fiction, and Miller’s Death of a Salesman, all dominated by male characters but fun and fascinating to discuss with students. Seeing no reason why Maus wouldn’t join that company if I gave it another try, I left it on the ENG 212 syllabus.

In light of recent events, if I had decided to cut it, I’d feel the need to restore it.

The McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee recently voted 10-0 to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning book from the district’s curriculum. According to, “The district had sought to use the novel. . . as an ‘anchor text’ for eighth-graders studying the Holocaust.” The board, however, decided the book wasn’t fit to teach due to “eight instances of profanity and an image of a nude woman.” (Mouse, actually; the characters are animals in this allegory.) I can’t help thinking back to the time when a Republican U.S. Senator raised a similar hue-and-cry when NBC aired the Oscar-winning Holocaust drama Schindler’s List without the usual television edits. His comments were met with well-deserved mockery, but more than two decades later, a school board comprised of apparently like-minded individuals decided the sight of an unclad mouse was too much for thirteen-year-olds’ fragile psyches to handle — and the most disturbing part of the whole business is that they’re far from alone.

In “The War on Library Books,” journalist Judd Legum describes a proposal in the Oklahoma State Legislature that would prohibit public school libraries from carrying strong sexual themes or content. How strong is too strong? That’s up to parents, and parents alone — many of whom are less interested in their children learning anything than in “protecting” them from any ideas or information that might challenge their world views. The author of the bill, Republican Rob Standridge, told local media that he specifically “wants to empower parents to purge ‘transgender, queer, and other sexually related books’ from school libraries.” So much for A Streetcar Named Desire and The Color Purple. In Virginia, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved is deemed too much for AP English students — for its sexual content, or for its raw, brutal depiction of slavery? Both, I expect. So much for Kindred, then.

An even more disturbing, because more vaguely worded, initiative is being spearheaded by Texas State Representative Matt Krause (R), who has asked several districts in his state “to identify . . . books in their libraries that ‘might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, and any other form of psychological distress because their race or sex.'” The idea seems to be that students should read only what is comfortable — that is, only what affirms what they already know and won’t demand they confront the more sinister aspects of history, society, and/or psychology. They shouldn’t look at the darkness, or swim where they might feel an undertow. They should stay in the shallows of learning, where it’s safe.

But can a good story ever be safe?

In a fun and informative TED Talk I’ve used in my Public Speaking classes, “How to Have a Good Conversation,” Celeste Headlee points out that “listening requires a setting aside of oneself” (emphasis mine). Reading is a form of listening — listening to the author, listening to the characters. A good story, like a good conversation, asks you to set yourself and your own preconceived notions aside and see the world through the eyes of someone else — someone who isn’t like you, who carries the weight of a different set of experiences, who may have values and opinions that challenge or even contradict yours. It asks you to walk in their shoes, to love and fear and suffer as they do, to endure violence and injustice you may be protected from in your own life, but also to feel the elation of triumphs beyond your own reach. It’s not easy or simple. It’s not meant to be. But the rewards are boundless. You become wiser, more knowledgeable, more understanding, more empathetic. It’d take that over being “comfortable” any day.

That’s why I’m reading Kindred again, along with my students. That’s why we’ll be reading Maus later in the quarter, and watching Schindler’s List afterwards. And that’s why all of us who value good stories need to stand up and fight for them, personally, socially, and politically.

For more on recent book-banning initiatives and concern with students’ “discomfort,” see these reports.


Popular Culture I Enjoyed in 2021, Part 3

West Side Story.

The musical has always been among my top five favorite film genres, and 2021 is the year Hollywood at last remembered how to make them.

I will forever contend that the death knell of the movie musical sounded when Hollywood ceased to seek out and nurture talented singers and dancers and instead started to give leading roles in musicals to big name stars, regardless of their ability to carry a tune beyond four beats or execute a simple buck-and-wing. When non-singing, non-dancing Marlon Brando was cast as Sky Masterson in 1955’s Guys and Dolls, and a key song from the Broadway show as cut and replaced with a weaker tune to accommodate the star’s limited vocal range, the downward spiral began, with only occasional bright spots (among them 1961’s West Side Story) popping up along the slow descent. Recent financial successes like Mamma Mia and critical successes like La La Land only serve, for me, to illustrate the depths to which the genre has fallen. In a musical, the songs should be highlights, the moments when an audience’s emotions are most powerfully stirred. But in Mamma Mia, which serves up such horrors as Pierce Brosnan singing (two numbers!) and Meryl Streep frolicking, the numbers only serve to make us roll our eyes, while in La La Land, the songs are the dreariest moments, shining a light on Ryan Gosling’s and Emma Stone’s inadequacy as musical performers. These two films fail to stir the slightest emotion other than cynicism and boredom, because none of the players has the slightest clue how to sell a song. By and large, it’s been up to animated films to keep the musical’s flame alive during this Dark Age.

But earlier this year, just when I was ready to despair of ever seeing a soul-stirring big-screen live action musical again, along came In the Heights, with music and lyrics by Broadway’s wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda. The only widely known name in the cast is Miranda himself, who plays a minor role; even in his case (of course), songs and dances are not sacrificed on the altar of celebrity. Everyone involved with this film, including the cinematographer, knows what a musical should look and sound like, and it is on all accounts a stunning experience. It deserves its own blog post, but it’s been several months since this movie dazzled me, and I would need to watch it again in order to give it a properly detailed review.

Far fresher in my mind is a recent release, West Side Story, which hits some very different notes from In the Heights. While it does touch on some serious themes, In the Heights stands out in my memory as an explosion of joy, a celebration of community. By contrast, West Side Story is a tragedy, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which, as anyone who passed ninth-grade English could tell you, does not end well. With the “houses both alike in dignity” represented by a pair of rival street gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, it asks its audience to make an emotional investment in characters we know to be doomed. If done well, it will break your heart. And this version of West Side Story is, to me at least, done very well.

I am not a West Side Story purist. I like and appreciate the 1961 film, but I don’t find it to be an unassailable masterpiece beyond all possible improvement. It’s a product of its time. Of the three actors who play the principal Puerto Rican characters, Maria, Bernardo, and Anita, only Rita Moreno (Anita) is actually Puerto Rican, and she and George Chakiris (Bernardo), Natalie Wood (Maria), and the other performers playing the Sharks were made to wear the same dark make-up so that all the Puerto Rican characters would have the same skin tone, denying the racial and ethnic diversity in the Puerto Rican community. Granted, Natalie Wood, despite not sharing her character’s ethnic background, gives a strong performance that reaches devastating levels in her final scene, but Richard Beymer’s Tony is so pretty-boy bland that she has nothing to work with in terms of creating chemistry; as a result, the romance that should be the movie’s heart becomes its most underwhelming feature, and Wood, good as she is, is overshadowed by such forces of nature as Moreno, Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn.

Another weakness was pointed out to me by my husband as we were on our way home from seeing the remake. I asked if he’d seen the earlier version, and he admitted he’d never watched it from beginning to end, because he’d always found the Jets and the Sharks too clean-cut in their appearance and movements to be believable as street toughs. I hadn’t considered that before, but he has a point. The actors might have been convincing in 1961, but they’re less so to a modern eye.

Steven Spielberg’s remake addresses every one of those issues.

First of all, from the opening moment we can see the grittiness and the current of violence in the world the characters inhabit. Grime is everywhere; dust permeates the air. The streets down which the Jets and the Sharks dance in the 1961 movie are swept and deserted; in Spielberg’s film, those same streets are choked with traffic, with people constantly knocking against each other. The Jets and the Sharks are of a piece with this chaos, and the actors bring a feral energy to every move they make, even when they’re dancing and singing. “Someone gets in our way, someone don’t feel so well,” boast the Jets. I know I wouldn’t want to get in these guys’ way.

Second, the Puerto Rican characters are all played by Latino actors, which gives them a degree of authenticity the 1961 film couldn’t manage. Moreover, their community isn’t racially homogenized; actress Ariana du Bose, who plays Anita, is black. She’s terrific, by the way, imbuing the character with hope, humor, and fun — which makes what happens to her near the movie’s end all the more devastating.

Then there’s the love story. Some critics don’t agree with me, but I think it works this time around. Tony (Ansel Elgort), so dull in the ’61 version, is given some shading here. He has a backstory to explain his desire to distance himself from the Jets, and it adds a sense of urgency to his love for Maria, since she’s the ray of hope that shines upon him, the force that, as he says, stops him in his long fall off a cliff. Their relationship is his lifeline. It also helps that he shares a good bit of screen time with Valentina (Rita Moreno herself, also an executive producer), who runs the drug store where he works after her husband, Doc, has died. Their scenes together radiate tenderness, warmth, and humor, and they make Tony easier to engage with and root for.

Rachel Zegler, as Maria, has more difficult shoes to fill, but for me, she ends up being the movie’s biggest find. She’s pictorially exquisite, a bit like a young Catherine Zeta-Jones, and she uses her eyes to convey the character’s earnest innocence, as well as the conflict within her between her loyalty to her brother, the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (David Alvarez, not quite as gorgeous as Chakiris but still an intense and powerful presence) and her love for Tony and her desire for a future different from the one Bernardo wants for her. Also, unlike Wood, Zegler does her own singing. Her bright, clear soprano voice rings rich with feeling. She, more than anyone else, will make you never want to hear the likes of Emma Stone or Pierce Brosnan attempt a musical number again.

Sadly, West Side Story isn’t doing as well at the box office as I wish it were; perhaps its bittersweet melancholy and its inescapably gloomy ending aren’t quite what the crowds flooding theaters to see Spider-Man: No Way Home are looking for. But it just might, like its 1961 predecessor, win some love on Oscar night, pointing the way for future musicals with actors skilled in dance and song.

Popular Culture I Enjoyed in 2021, Part 2


M*A*SH* is one of my top five television shows of all time, with The Muppet Show right alongside it, but as a general rule, sitcoms aren’t my thing. I enjoyed them well enough in my youth, but these days, a sitcom has to work hard to win me over. It has to convince me that it’s not following the nowadays-admired Seinfeld/It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia model, by showing me characters who can grow and change and don’t have to be mean in order to be funny. 2021 saw the conclusion of one such sitcom that managed to work its way into my heart, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But no sooner had the lights gone out on that show’s final episode than a new show emerged to fill the void — CBS’s Ghosts, a rare example of an American sitcom adapted from a British original that succeeds on its own terms.

The premise is simple enough: a young couple, Jay and Samantha (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Rose McIver), move into a 200+ year old mansion Samantha has inherited, with an eye to turning it into a profitable bed-and-breakfast. However, the ghosts who haunt the place, a varied lot representing different epochs in American history, don’t like that plan. When one of their efforts to scare the couple results in a head injury for Samantha, she finds she can now see, hear, and interact with the spectral residents, and the ghosts are so thrilled at their new opportunity to communicate with someone living that they drop their objections to the bed-and-breakfast. Samantha becomes a de facto member of the ghosts’ found family. All this is accomplished within the pilot episode. Subsequent episodes show how she and Jay manage to share their home with the eclectic posse of phantoms, and how they forge unlikely bonds, and how, via their new channel to the outside world, the ghosts discover things about themselves and their lives they never knew before.

McIver, whom I loved in the underrated iZombie, is as “normal” as her role demands, yet she’s still smart, funny, and engaging. All the same, the ghosts themselves are the show’s biggest draw — it’s named for them, after all — and every member of this ensemble is an interesting person who is more than they seem. The oldest ghost, tough Viking Thorfinn (Devan Long), has a history of crooning lullabies to the very young children who have slept in the house, including proper Victorian lady Hetty (Rebecca Wisocky); the babes, who are more spirit-sensitive than their elders, are comforted by the warmth in his deep voice and don’t care that his lyrics involve crushing enemies. Revolutionary War officer Isaac (Brandon Scott Jones), with his veneer of stuffy hauteur, has to confront his attraction to the British officer he accidentally killed (John Hartman). Scoutmaster Pete (Richie Moriarty), a genuine straight arrow killed in an archery accident, must move past his anger and grief when he learns that his wife cheated on him with the friend she’s now married to. Roaring ’20s jazz singer Alberta (Danielle Pinnock) is obsessed with fame, but her longing to be known springs less from narcissism than from the earnest hope that she might have made a difference in a racist world. Even Trevor (Asher Grodman), the “most recently dead” who literally passed away with his pants off, gets to be more than just a smarmy corporate lecher, when he shows his fellow phantoms one of his favorite films from his lifetime, Ghostbusters, only to discover the movie lands a little differently if you’re a ghost. There isn’t a single character on the whole show that I’m not eager to see more of.

One more word of praise is due the living characters: I appreciate the way Jay and Samantha’s relationship is handled. The fact that she can interact with the ghosts and he can’t could have resulted in episode after episode of hackneyed tension as he tries to talk her out of her “craziness.” But all this is dealt and then dispensed with in the pilot episode. After that, he simply accepts that ghosts are “living” in his house and Samantha can see them; he comes to like having them around as much as she does. Even though they don’t always agree, these two clearly have a marriage based on trust and respect, and that’s a delight to see.

Popular Culture I Enjoyed in 2021: A Series

I have no legitimate excuse for my failure to post here regularly in 2021. While I have been devoting most of my writing time to a new novel project and to scripts for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, I’ve always been able to carve out sufficient time in the past to keep my blog going, and I need to do the same now. The pandemic and the constant stream of depressing news, from mass shootings to insane battles over reproductive rights to ridiculously light sentences for confessed rapists, have done their bests to compromise my creative energy, and I can’t let that happen. So one of my top resolutions for the coming year is to keep up my posting, even if those posts are only a paragraph or two.

For the remainder of the year, I offer this series of short posts devoted to various stories I’ve loved in 2021, welcome antidotes to the disheartening meanness of the evening news and social media.


Since this is the story I’ve taken in most recently, I begin with it. Its very existence is almost enough to gladden my heart, as it shows that Disney has not, as I’d feared, cast aside new animated projects in favor of live-action remakes of their older material. Those live-action remakes are still ongoing, alas, but at least they’ve taken the time to present us with this cinematic bonbon, full to the brim with magic, color, and life.

Too often, especially in family films, female protagonists in the movies fall into one of two camps: aspirational (super-competent badasses with an abundance of skills) or “relatable” (clumsy, awkward girls with few if any skills, who are Just Like You). To me these feel like opposite extremes of Wrong; the heroines I most enjoy getting to know are those whom, thanks to good writing and development, I can relate to and look up to, and Mirabel Madrigal, the protagonist of Encanto, fits that bill. As the only member of her generation of the Madrigal family not gifted with a magical power, she speaks directly to those times in our lives when we feel “not good enough,” when we wonder if we’ll amount to as much as others around us and fear our wheels are spinning in place. As a woman in her early fifties who once thought I’d be much further along in my writing career when I reached this age, I can identify with the sorrow little Mirabel feels when her “magical door” disappears before her eyes, erasing (or so she thinks) her chance to be extraordinary like her sisters and cousins, and her ongoing anguish when, as a young woman, she finds herself pushed into the shadows of her family’s life while the magical ones dance in the light. But despite the bad hand she’s dealt (“I’m not fine,” she vents in song), Mirabel is no victim. She pushes ahead with reserves of creativity, resourcefulness, and determination to be the hero of her own life. She’s smart, funny, and kind, the trifecta of virtues that win a fictional character a place in my heart. It doesn’t hurt that she’s cute as a button, and Stephanie Beatriz’s vocal performance is delightful.

Yet my affection for this movie doesn’t begin and end with Mirabel. Other elements that win me:

  1. Encanto is one of the very few Disney films to center on the dynamics of a multi-generational family. Mirabel isn’t quite the only Disney heroine to have living parents; Rapunzel (Tangled), Judy Hopps (Zootopia), and Moana came before her. But unlike Rapunzel, who is stolen from her home, and Judy and Moana, who choose to leave home, Mirabel finds adventure within the home, and interacts with her parents and other relatives substantially throughout the film’s run time.
  2. In Luisa, Mirabel’s older sister, we see the first tall, brawny female character in the Disney canon who is not a villain. While I’m still waiting with bated breath for a female protagonist who isn’t tiny, this super-strong but gentle giantess is my favorite character next to Mirabel (and Mirabel’s uncle Bruno, but, well, we don’t talk about him.
  3. While Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs for this film don’t quite reach the bar set by Moana, they’re still catchy as hell. Special props go to Luisa’s number, “Surface Pressure.”
  4. This film has no villain. Every one of its characters is a flawed, complicated person. How they work through their flaws and repair the fractures in their relationships forms the movie’s heart, making it something more unique, and (I think) more complex, than the usual battle of good vs. evil.

October Musings: The Unexpected Feminism of “The Mummy” (1932)

I make no secret of my love for the horror movie classics released by Universal Studios in the 1930s, but by and large they’re the last place to go if you’re looking for active, interesting heroines, let alone any trace of feminism. (The horror classics produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s, particularly 1946’s Bedlam, are far more satisfying in that regard.) Memorable characters abound in these films: Bela Lugosi’s despicable Count Dracula and Dwight Frye’s manic Renfield; Boris Karloff’s poignant Monster, Colin Clive’s haunted Frankenstein, Ernest Thesiger’s sinfully camp Dr. Pretorius, and O.P. Heggie’s gentle Hermit; Claude Rains’ invisible madman Jack Griffin; and Lon Chaney Jr.’s tragic werewolf Laurence Talbot. But none of them are women, unless you count the drive-you-crazy screechers played by Una O’Connor; she’s infuriating but not very forgettable. The female leads are, for the most part, dull damsels easily preyed upon by evil and very given to tears and screams — with one exception.

That exception is Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), the object of Imhotep’s (Boris Karloff) desire in 1932’s The Mummy.

I’ll get the bad news out of the way first: the movie itself isn’t for everyone. It’s a short film, only 73 minutes long, but it takes its time. Even fans of classic cinema, used to the acting styles and black-and-white cinematography that alienate quite a few post-Generation X viewers, sometimes complain of this movie’s slow pacing, with one YouTube critic complaining that too much of its run time consists of “men talking in drawing rooms.” I can’t say these criticisms are unfounded, though I’m fond of it. The most crucial element that carries it for me is Karloff’s Imhotep, a “monster” in a fascinating situation — executed for a crime motivated by love, reborn suddenly into a world he doesn’t understand, wanting nothing more than to be united with the woman he still adores. He’s almost a sympathetic figure, though his actions can’t be condoned. Karloff, one of my favorite actors, endows the role with a darkly charismatic presence, with his deep, resonant baritone voice and his mesmerizing eyes. Helen, the beautiful young reincarnation of his ancient beloved, is realistic drawn to him.

But the second element that draws me to the film is Helen herself, far more interesting than the pallid, weepy damsels we see in the other Universal horror classics. While ordinariness is a feature rather than a bug with the latter women — since they’re meant to represent the domestic normalcy threatened by the monsters — Helen has an exotic mystique of her own. We first see her sitting at a window and gazing out at the pyramids, a look of rapt fascination on her face. It is with the utmost reluctance that she turns away from what she calls “the real Egypt” and toward the dance to which Dr. Muller (every-mentor Edward van Sloan) has brought her. (I have no trouble empathizing with the introvert pulled out of a daydream and encouraged to socialize.) We lean in the next minute that she comes by her attraction to “the real Egypt” honestly, since her mother is an Egyptian with “a family tree a mile long.” This too sets her apart from the WASP ladies we see in the other films. Moreover, this first scene establishes her as someone indifferent to the prospect of romance, since her thoughts, as Muller says, are “far away from the dance and these nice English boys.” We’re led to expect that when it comes to love, she’s not going to be a pushover.

Since this is a horror movie from 1932, however, a love interest she must find, and the bland, callow Frank Whemple (David Manners) is not among the movie’s strengths. Why she would be attracted to so generic a man while all those “nice English boys” at the party did nothing for her is a mystery the movie never manages to explain. But in their opening conversation, she challenges him in ways that again make her unique among Universal’s horror heroines. Trying to impress her, he tells her how he and his team of archaeologists took apart the tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, culminating in unwrapping the princess herself. Yet she reacts not with admiration but with disgust, turning her face away and saying, “How could you do that?” His reply — “Had to! Science, you know!” — is hardly convincing, for either Helen or the audience. She calls him out for cultural appropriation and men’s invasion of a woman’s space long before such things were commonly scrutinized.

Nonetheless, Frank manages to win Helen over, though we’re never shown how or why, and the movie presents him as the “good choice” she must make in order to save her soul from the looming threat of Imhotep, now calling himself Ardath Bey. As the love triangle intensifies, the interesting parts of Helen’s personality start to flatten out; after a fascinating scene in which Bey gives her a glimpse of her past as Anck-es-en-Amon and his own failed attempt to resurrect her after she died, Muller and Frank keep her confined to her house “for her own good” so she can’t respond to Bey’s hypnotic pull, reducing her to a state of protected passivity. But when their scheme fails and she gets away, the stage is set for a climax that first echoes, then subverts the pattern set by Dracula a year earlier.

In both Dracula and The Mummy, the hero and the mentor (played by the same actors) enter the villain’s lair to rescue the hypnotized heroine from his unholy clutches, but at this point the stories diverge. In Dracula, Mina (Helen Chandler) is in a trance, every ounce of her will drained away. In The Mummy, Helen has been drawn back to ancient Egypt, to her old identity as Anck-es-en-Amon, still in love with Imhotep. But her will remains, and when she learns he means to murder her mortal body and turn her into a living mummy like himself, she immediately resists, with all the dignity and determination of a Pharaoh’s daughter and priestess of the goddess Isis. The men burst in, but Imhotep holds them at bay with his death-dealing magic ring and wicked Karloffian glare. They become the imperiled, which gives Anck-es-en-Amon time to pull free from his grasp and raise a prayer that Isis might teach her the forgotten holy spells that can destroy her once-beloved, now enemy. The goddess obliges, the priestess chants, and Isis’ golden statue strikes the menace dead with a lightning bolt. Rather than being rescued, Anck-es-en-Amon becomes the rescuer, destroying Imhotep before he can harm the men. Female magic, the power of the goddess and her priestess, is presented as heroic, in a day and age when it was nearly always framed as evil.

Sadly but inevitably, Helen ends the movie in Frank’s arms; having her leave him to pursue her own career in Egyptology is simply too much to ask of a 1932 film. All the same, the elements of feminism are there, and Helen remains one of the very few horror movie heroines prior to the rise of the slasher film’s “final girls” to deal the monster his death-blow. This alone puts it miles in front of the abysmal 2017 remake, in which a modern-day damsel is reduced to the ultimate passive state while the female “straw feminist” mummy is overpowered by that most egoistic Alpha of all Alpha males, Tom Cruise. (The hope that this film might contain any trace of feminism was pretty much blown sky high the moment Cruise was cast.) So I’ll be sticking with the original, flaws and all.

Villainesses Revisited

“What about female villains?” an audience member asked the panelists leading a DragonCon discussion about female-character representation in SFF. “Do they hold us back?”

How I wished this question hadn’t come only ten minutes from the end of the discussion. There’s so much to say on the matter that it could easily have supported a panel of its own. I would have welcomed the chance to air my complicated feelings about villainesses, previously expressed on this very blog, and to be challenged in ways that would make me think. But the question by itself was enough to give me pause. Is my feeling that female villains might “hold us back” the root of my ambivalence, and is that really fair? How do I reconcile this ambivalence with the delight I’ve taken in crafting villainesses in my own work, such as the venomous Southern belle Liza Twigg in my radio play The Horseman of the Hollow?

Inspired by this question that didn’t get sufficient consideration, as well as the appearance of female villains in a number of books I’ve enjoyed over the past year, from Ifueko’s Raybearer to Clark’s A Master of Djinn to Gratton’s The Queens of Innis Lear to Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series, I’ve decided the time has come for me to revisit my “villainess problem.”

First, where does the question come from? Why might we have the idea that female villains might “hold us back,” when no one to my knowledge has ever wondered if characters like Darth Vader or the Joker or Loki might hold men back? If the world and its popular culture were as they should be, we wouldn’t be asking this question of any gender; the idea that an individual’s behavior might reflect either well or badly on a whole gender or race the individual may be part of is inherently problematic. But sadly, we’re carrying the baggage of centuries of pop culture in which women’s challenges to gender roles have been framed as villainous. In most fiction from years past, as an essay from an old textbook of mine put it, “good women were never powerful, and powerful women were never good enough.” The evil woman either possessed or desired more power — political, magical, and/or intellectual — than was deemed natural for her gender, while the good woman, the passive object of the male hero’s adoration, was content with her subordinate position.

Moreover, the task of defeating and neutralizing female villainy nearly always — with a few exceptions — fell to men. Evil women challenged masculine preeminence, while good women stepped back and let men take care of the problem; this stepping back, this reliance on men to fix things, was depicted as part and parcel of their virtuous natures, the thing that made them “heroines.” An iconic example appears in Disney’s 1959 film Sleeping Beauty: while the damsel sleeps (“Sleeping Beauty, sleep on,” sings a choir), the male hero, with the help of three fairy sidekicks, slays the monstrous witch-dragon and breaks the dread spell with his kiss.

Too often, when villainesses meet their defeat at the hands of men, we see masculine power as a force for good and feminine power as untrustworthy at best, destructive at worst. In another Disney film, The Sword in the Stone, we meet two magic users, one male and another female. The male wizard is wise and good, the witch is spiteful and evil, and when they duel, he shows her who’s boss. It’s not Disney’s fault, since it’s merely drawing on centuries’ worth of Arthurian fiction that has framed its magicians this way; male magic might be evil on occasion, but female magic is always and inevitably so. With this history, some of us might be forgiven for thinking that female villains could “hold women back.”

But popular culture changes with the times, and recent years have seen a growing acceptance of women in heroic roles, women who can be both powerful and good. These days, villainesses are nearly as likely to be defeated by heroines as by male heroes. As female power, drive, and ambition are less often drawn as inherently suspect, the time may have come for the Villainess to rise in all her wicked glory. But it may still behoove us, as we look at villainesses, to question exactly what about them is being painted as evil — specifically, whether their villainy is gender-linked, and in what way.

Elise Ringo’s 2018 essay “Villainesses Required: Why the Dark Side Needs More Women” makes its stance clear in its title: “Sexism, as any systemic prejudice, is a clever animal, and it has coopted the notion of ‘good representation’ to take a strangely regressive shape, insisting that it is bad for women to show women who are bad.” Yet she also calls out as problematic the way female villainy is often presented even today: “When female villains do appear, they tend to be produced from limited molds: the femme fatale. . . the evil stepmother. . . the older woman desperately chasing youth and beauty. . . All of these types, no matter how much fun they are, share a common thread: villains who are women are villains as women.”

Ringo may have an affection for villains in general that I don’t share, but we have a common hope that in the future, female characters might get the chance to be evil in ways that transcend gender roles. Set free from gender essentialism, such villainesses might just become Darth Vader-level icons.

My husband and I have been making our way through the sixth and final season of Supergirl. After a shaky first half that saw Kara trapped in the Phantom Zone for way too many episodes, the show has regained its footing, and all its major female characters are getting their moments to shine. Since it has so many powerful, active women on Team Good, for the most part I’ve enjoyed its bad-news ladies, from Livewire to Lillian Luthor, but dastardly politician Councilwoman Jean Rankin may be my favorite of all of them. Motivated by a desire to clear the neighborhoods of those she sees as “useless,” demolishing low-income housing to make way for condominiums, Rankin is the embodiment of murderous greed and bigotry, qualities that know no gender. Her role might easily have been played by a man, without much alteration in the story. But here she is a woman, and terrifyingly evil.

But the Councilwoman isn’t the only villainess Kara and her friends must contend with. There’s also Nyxly, a female Imp Kara met in the Phantom Zone, who has now gotten herself transported into the “real” world and is determined to avenge herself on Kara because Kara stopped her from murdering her (Kara’s) father. Such an amoral, evil-for-evil’s-sake demon could be a lot of fun. But unfortunately the writers have chosen to give her a backstory to explain her rage: she was screwed over by her world’s “patriarchy.” That’s right — another villainess rendered evil by sexism, who, in her willingness to hurt innumerable people in order to get her revenge, is shown to be much more dangerous and destructive than the oppressive system she defies. She is a straw feminist, a villain as woman, as opposed to the Councilwoman, a villain who happens to be a woman.

I’d love to see the future belong to the villains who happen to be women, as opposed to the villains as women; the straw feminist, in particular, should be relegated to the past. As long as we continue to see so many of the latter kind, I suspect my feelings about villainesses in general may remain ambivalent.

Girls Deserve Better

My question of concern today: why are teenage girls the demographic that visual media most frequently fails to get right?

I’m not taking aim at print media. For all its regularly-called-out flaws, YA fiction offers girl readers a place in popular culture that caters to them. The genre gets a flood of criticism, some have suggested because media critics tend to sneer at any and all things girls love. But the best of Young Adult fiction — whether realistic, like The Hate U Give, The Poet X, or Love, Hate, and Other Filters, or fantastic, like Dread Nation/ Deathless Divide, Seraphina, and Raybearer — offers insight into matters that are on girls’ minds at that vulnerable time of life. Will I be loved? What’s special about me? Where is my power? How can I make a difference? How can I make my stand? Good YA lets girls know that they’re not alone, that someone hears them, and best of all, that someone sees them as worthy to be heard when the world around them often sends the message that they’re of little value. One reason the best YA fiction gets girls right, in all their complicated glory, is that much of it is written by authors who can remember what it was like to be a teenage girl.

Contrast that with something like the animated sitcom Family Guy, which sets up its teenage girl character, Meg Griffin, to be a punching bag for the rest of the cast, an object of general loathing. Sad as she is, the saddest thing about her is that creator Seth MacFarlane wrote her that way specifically because he couldn’t think of another way to write her, because he “didn’t understand teenage girls.” The plural reveals the problem: the idea that there is some universal template of teenage girlhood to be tapped into. In the minds of writers like MacFarlane, teenage girls are “Other,” and the “Other” — the “They” — are all essentially the same, whereas “We” (boys and men, in this case) are distinct individuals. (The idea that MacFarlane and his writing team to identify with an anthropomorphic male dog than a teenage female human will always move me to roll my eyes.)

The issue of the often lacking portrayal of teen girls in visual media came to my mind thanks to a recent article in which journalist Sandra Gonzales asked, “Why are my shows filled with mean girls?” She notes that if shows like Gossip Girl, The White Lotus, and Never Have I Ever are to be believed, “all teen girls are social media bullies, faux-woke hypocrites and downright mean to other people.” While I don’t watch any of the shows she cites, one passage in particular resonated with me: “I thought that if my lineup was any indication, I was the only freak my age not in love triangle, getting into alcohol-fueled car wrecks, dealing with a clique of over-lip-glossed queen wannabees or navigating an unwanted pregnancy.”

These words echo how I felt when I was a teenage girl in the 1980s, looking everywhere on television for a fictional counterpart of myself, who would resemble me in even the smallest way, and finding none until the miniseries Anne of Green Gables turned up on PBS. The sameness of the girls I saw on TV disturbed and at times even demoralized me — all of them focused on popularity and boys, most of them conventionally pretty and the ones that weren’t driven half-mad with desire to be so, and almost none of them ambitious for anything beyond a date to the prom. Where were their interests? Where were their hobbies? Why weren’t they about something? Why did they seem to exist primarily in relation to others, instead of being the heroes of their own stories? Worst of all, was this what the world wanted me to be?

By 1987 I had graduated from high school and lost interest in teen characters and teen-centered stories, but what I noticed from my general looks into pop culture struck me as progress. Whatever else might be said about shows like Beverly Hills 90210, they gave teen characters a place to live beyond sitcoms and after-school specials. A few years later, a teenage girl fronted a critically acclaimed drama, My So-Called Life. While I didn’t become a Buffy fan until the third season — I had to catch up on the first two seasons in syndication — the end of the 1990s saw the appearance of the short-lived but smart and thoughtful drama Once and Again. I started watching for the adult characters, but I stayed for the teenagers, particularly the frustrating but wonderfully authentic Grace Manning, a character I’d want to slap in one episode and hug in the next. Unlike the TV teenage girls I remembered from my high school days, Grace had interests and even a spark of ambition. She would read in bed, like me! Finally, a regularly airing series helped my inner teen feel seen. She felt so again in an episode of Season 2 of Gilmore Girls, when young Rory declared she would rather spend her lunch hour reading a good book than, as she put it, “discuss the euthanasia of homecoming.” In later seasons Rory stopped being someone I enjoyed relating to, but by then, Veronica Mars existed.

Yet for Gonzales, teenaged in the aughts, something was missing. While Veronica was solving crimes and juggling love interests and spacey Joan Girardi of Arcadia was getting messages from God, Gonzales was wondering if the television landscape had any place for a “boring teen” like her. The shows may have changed, but the problem remained: too many real teenage girls didn’t see themselves on the small screen.

Do today’s teen girls feel represented by the sociopaths in lip gloss found in shows like The White Lotus or Gossip Girl? Why do television writers tend to fall back on the old familiar stereotypes, from the Queen of Mean to the Boy-Crazy Fashionista to the Quirky Loner who spends 95% of her time snarking about the Queens of Mean and the Boy-Crazy Fashionistas, when it comes to creating characters in this demographic?

It would be easy to say that the blame lies with creators who, like Seth MacFarlane, have never been teenage girls and perhaps have never even had a substantial conversation with one — easy, but not accurate. Of the shows Gonzales cites as having problematic portrayals of teen girls, only one of them, The White Lotus, is the brainchild of a sole male creator. This suggests the problem goes deeper. It’s not just about how alienated grown male writers feel from teenage girls. It’s about how those girls, and the women who used to be them, have been conditioned to think about themselves and each other. Poor representation is a snake that eats its own tail.

In any case, to the girls struggling through adolescence, figuring out who they want to be, I say, along with Gonzales, “You deserve better.”

As to what “better” might look like, perhaps it’s films like Lady Bird and Booksmart. Perhaps it’s animated shows like the reboots of Carmen Sandiego and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power or fantasy shows like Shadow and Bone. These I’ve seen, and I’ve been charmed by their heroines in all their confusion, resilience, curiosity, and determination.

I polled a group of friends to find out which shows they thought did a good job of portraying teen girls with a measure of empathy and understanding. Some shows they mentioned, which I don’t watch (at least not yet): PEN15, Sex Education, Titans, Motherland: Fort Salem, Stargirl, The Bureau of Magical Things, The Babysitters’ Club (Netflix reboot), Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts, Panic, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Fate: The Winx Saga, Atypical, Teenage Bounty Hunters, The Owl House, Dickinson, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, Nancy Drew, The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Wilds, Infinity Train, Derry Girls, Miraculous, Amphibia, Locke and Key, Legacies, We Are Lady Parts, Just Add Magic, Cobra Kai, Ginny and Georgia, Sweet Tooth, Cloak and Dagger, The Runaways, Invincible.

What are some recent shows you’ve seen that get teenage girls right?

We Need to Be Seen

Tessa Gratton’s The Queens of Innis Lear is a beautifully written book, an intriguing take on Shakespeare’s King Lear with lush, descriptive prose, complex characters, and complicated relationships. Gratton throws out the pure moral blacks and whites of the original and paints her cast in various shades of gray, showing us a Cordelia (Elia) who lacks self-esteem and the courage of her convictions, at least initially — of all the characters, she undergoes the most change — and a Goneril (Gaela) and Regan who have pretty darn good reasons to hate their father. Plus, the sisters’ late mother, scarcely mentioned by Shakespeare, becomes an important figure in this retelling. The book deserves more attention than it has heretofore gotten.

But one element trampolined on my last nerve.

Of all the characters, Gaela, the eldest sister, is the least capable of love, the most driven by hate, the one we’re meant to sympathize with the least. And she doesn’t want children. Regan is desperate for children, and Elia paints them into her picture of her future, but Gaela’s determination never to procreate moves her to undergo a magical equivalent of a tubal ligation. This might not be so bad, if the procedure weren’t described specifically as burning the womanhood out of her body. In seeking to avoid pregnancy, Gaela is turning her back on Womanhood itself, because real women, feminine women, have (or at least want) children.

This started me thinking: how often have I seen, in any form of fiction, a positive portrayal of a woman who says no to motherhood? A woman who knows she isn’t cut out for it and doesn’t end up changing her mind to please someone else?

Among the TV shows I watch, I can think of only one example: Maggie Sawyer, Alex Danvers’ erstwhile love interest on Supergirl. She stated outright that she wasn’t interested in having kids and wasn’t about to change her mind, and she wasn’t demonized for it. Unfortunately, this aspect of her character was used to set up a conflict with Alex that would facilitate Maggie’s (Floriana Lima) departure from the show. Alex, despite an initial effort, in the end couldn’t abandon her dreams of motherhood in order to stay with Maggie, and since Alex, not Maggie, is a regular main character, she gets most of the audience’s sympathy when they break up. Maggie, rather than providing sustained representation of a happily childfree woman, turns out to be a temporary blip on the show’s radar.

Among regular characters, main characters, who is there? Over the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in the number of women who opt out of motherhood, but where their representation in fiction is concerned, we’re stuck in the mud. Creators of art and literature still blithely assume that being a mother is an inevitable part of being a woman — or at least a good woman, as rejecting motherhood continues to be a key component of female villainy. If you’re a fictional woman and you say you don’t want children, you will either “learn better” by the end of your story, be reviled as an ice queen, or, like Maggie Sawyer, get your heart broken and subsequently get kicked out of the story.

Others have noticed the problem and have started asking questions. In “Why Aren’t We Seeing More Child-free Women On-Screen?” Claire Harris opens with the example of the final shot in the movie Notting Hill, which shows Hugh Grant sitting on a park bench reading a book while a hugely pregnant Julia Roberts reclines beside him. “What is effectively communicated in a few seconds is embedded into women by popular culture from when they are little girls: motherhood is the completion of her journey.” She notes that while the demographic of childfree women is growing, “you wouldn’t know it from watching movies and TV,” and cites numerous examples of pregnancy plots thrown into the finales of popular series. “Motherhood is viewed as a moral imperative — which means that women who are voluntary child-free must be selfish, sad, or immature.”

Maxine Trump, in “Notes from a Childfree TV and Film Lover,” opens with its central questions: “If you don’t see us, do we not exist? Where have all the childfree heroes gone?” (I honestly can’t remember there having been any — or at least not many enough to count.) The recurrent pattern with women characters who express reluctance to have children, she states, is to show them rethinking their stance over the course of their narrative arcs and embracing motherhood at the end. “This is something childfree folks are presented with all the time: that we just aren’t in our right mind, and eventually we will come around and change it.” Now that I think about it, perhaps it was better that Maggie Sawyer left Supergirl when she did; otherwise, she might well have gone the same way as Bernadette and Penny in The Big Bang Theory, two women who had previously stated they didn’t want children but end up pregnant at the close of their stories.

Lindsay Pugh shoots from the hip with the title of her article: “Television’s Representation of Childfree Women Sucks.” She opens with one somewhat positive example of a vocally childfree woman who isn’t vilified, Christina Yang (Sandra Oh) on Grey’s Anatomy. Yet Christina is an exception, she notes, while the rule is to depict childfree women as falling into one or more of three archetypes: the “smug asshole” who sneers contemptuously at parents and parenting (e.g. Kim Cattrall’s Samantha in Sex and the City), the “unfit mother” (e.g. Jane Curtin’s Mary Albright in Third Rock from the Sun), and the “successful career woman who is so obsessed with work that she doesn’t have time for children” (e.g. Portia de Rossi’s Nelle Porter in Ally McBeal). “I want society to celebrate unorthodox choices,” she concludes. “Instead of embracing the hive mind, we would all be better off expanding the possibilities of what happiness might look like.” Agreed, Ms. Pugh. Heartily agreed.

Our popular culture needs to reconcile itself to the existence of childfree women. (I say women, because men are not judged for saying no to parenthood to the same extent that women are.) We’re not all child-haters. We don’t all sneer at parenthood. We aren’t all workaholics after big bucks and prestige. And despite what the apparent fear of us might indicate, we don’t threaten the fabric of society. There will always be many women who embrace motherhood of their own will and volition, without the emotional blackmail of movies, television, and books. Mothering and nonmothering women can coexist. It’s past time we started seeing that in fiction.

One of my favorite authors, Juliet Marillier — most of whose novels celebrate women in traditional roles as healers, lore-keepers, and mothers — is at work on a new series, Warrior Bards, the first two books of which are already out (The Harp of Kings and A Dance With Fate). The central heroine, unusually for Marillier, is a tall, muscular fighting woman who also plays a mean whistle. Toward the end of the second book, she tells her love interest that she doesn’t want children. No underlying trauma that makes her unfit, no putdown of motherhood in general — she simply makes it clear that path isn’t for her. I paused in my reading to pump my fist.

Please, Ms. Marillier, in the name of all that is holy, don’t make her change her mind.

A Friend’s Request

One thing all my friends know about me is how invested I am in seeing high-quality female representation in geek media, so from time to time they seek my opinion on the issue or ask my opinion on others’ statements about it. This past week, a friend of mine sent me a link that a friend of his had shared with him, that he thought I might find interesting or provoking — a YouTube video entitled “Everything Wrong with Woke Culture (and its impact on feminism.” The title alone, or really any instance when the term “woke” is used in a dismissive or even contemptuous way, was enough to put me on the defensive. But I watched it for my friend’s sake, and he asked my opinion, and so here it is.

I wish I could simply say, “It’s nonsense,” and move on, but I can’t. At times it feels as if the vlogger and I are on, maybe not exactly the same page, but at least within three pages of each other. She makes sure to let us know she thinks more female representation in movies and TV is a good thing, which I appreciate. The problem, she says, is the kind of representation we’re seeing, and again, I don’t entirely disagree. I’m no more fond of the humorless, one-dimensional, too-perfect “girl power” protagonist, the woman who wins every battle and never makes a mistake she needs to learn from, any more than this vlogger is. The too frequent insubstantiality of the “strong female character” has also been covered in Sophia McDougall’s famous provocatively titled essay “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” which laments the lack of complexity and fallibility that would make these characters as interesting and as indelible as, say, Sherlock Holmes. Both McDougall and the vlogger note the damage done when female characters are called upon to represent an entire gender, something almost never asked of male characters. And again, I agree.

Something else the vlogger and I can agree on: we both love 2017’s Wonder Woman. Some of the most inspiring scenes involve Diana undergoing rigorous training, so that her badassery feels believable and her eventual victory feels earned rather than handed to her on a platter as something she’s entitled to. Would I love to see more screen heroines needing to train hard, even if they are blessed with some supernatural abilities? Certainly. Would I love to see them lose bouts on occasion? Sure. Would I like to see them make mistakes and even (gasp) need help on occasion? Of course. All I ask is that they stick the landing. Few things frustrate me more than seeing a female character act tough and kick butt throughout a story only to be sidelined or rendered helpless when crunch time comes. The writers of such stories have it backwards. What we want is to see the heroines making mistakes, needing help, and working hard in the course of their journey, so that they can shine in all their badass glory at the climax.

On those assertions the vlogger and I can agree. Yet I have some crucial differences with her.

First, she states that “everyone” hates the new female characters that have risen to prominence in previously male-dominated franchises like Star Wars and Doctor Who. Uh, no. The haters have shouted so loudly and disseminated their opinions so widely that it might lead to the illusion their disdain is universal, but it isn’t. I still remember how good I felt after the first time I watched The Force Awakens, and I wasn’t the only one. Likewise, I find Jodie Whitaker’s performance as the Doctor quite charming. Too many of the episodes under showrunner Chris Chibnall’s tenure have suffered from lackluster writing, which the fans have rightly called out, but Whitaker persists in giving it her all, and quite a few fans like her. That use of “everyone” suggests a little too much that if I don’t agree, I’m not only alone in my opinion but categorically wrong.

Second, I can’t help noticing something about the strong women in movies and TV this vlogger actually likes: Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Rita from Edge of Tomorrow, Zoe Washburne from Firefly, and Eowyn from Lord of the Rings. These are all excellent characters, and I admire them — but of all of them, only Wonder Woman occupies the center of the narrative. The others are members of an ensemble (Zoe, Black Widow), or supporting players in a larger male-dominated story (Eowyn),or so-close-but-not-quite-the-protagonist (Rita). I would have loved to hear more about some honest-to-God female leads the vlogger likes…

But apparently they’re a few decades in the past. Third, the vlogger suggests that “woke feminists” are too inclined to ignore or disregard the strides made by characters like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. Really? I’m old enough to remember when these iconic heroines made their debut, and I haven’t noticed future generations forgetting them. Sarah Connor had her own television series a few years back and returned to the big screen in 2019; she doesn’t seem to have slipped anyone’s mind. And Ripley — honestly, who doesn’t love Ripley? I’ve never heard anyone claim she’s anything less than awesome, and as far as I’ve been able to observe, creators of more recent SFF heroines are more than willing to acknowledge their debt to her.

We who lived through the 1980s haven’t forgotten Ripley or Sarah. But we also remember that they were rare. Aside from these two characters, Natty Gann on her journey, Sarah in Labyrinth, and Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone, I’m hard pressed to think of a single female character in the 1980s iconic films of geek culture who was the heroine of her own story. Even when 1980s geek-media heroines were somewhat active and interesting (e.g. Kira from The Dark Crystal, Valerian from Dragonslayer, Isabeau from Ladyhawke, and, of course, Leia from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), they were nearly always sidekicks and/or love interests in male-led stories. Ripley and Sarah were so sadly outnumbered by the Indiana Joneses, the Marty McFlys, the Conans, the Rick Deckards, the Alex Rogans, the Atreyus, the Bastians, etc. that girls might be forgiven for getting the message that women couldn’t really be heroes in sci-fi, fantasy, or adventure movies. Yet we went to see the Indys and the Martys anyway, identifying with the male heroes and relishing their adventures. Because, although it’s taken Hollywood a while to figure this out, women are geeks. We’re interested in geek culture. But maybe, just maybe, we’d like to see ourselves playing bigger parts in it.

The beginning of the 1990s gave us another iconic heroine of geek culture: Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. But despite this promising start, where the big screen was concerned the 1990s weren’t much better than the 1980s, the resurgence of the ripped, tough Sarah Connor of Terminator 2 and the appearance of Disney warrior Mulan notwithstanding. But change was afoot, and it was television that led the way, with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess, an increased female presence in TV science fiction franchises like Star Trek, and dynamic women characters in new science fiction TV shows like Babylon 5 and Farscape. Hollywood creative types were finally starting to come around to the fact that female geeks exist, and that we might like to see ourselves saving the day, rather than simply helping or hindering or comforting the man who saves the day. Now, at last, the big screen seems to be catching up. Where in the past we could count ourselves lucky if we saw one female protagonist in a high-quality adventure, thriller, or SF movie in a given year, nowadays we might see three or four. The year 2016 stands out in my mind as especially good for geek heroines, giving us Zootopia, Finding Dory, Queen of Katwe, Moana, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and perhaps the best of all, Arrival — all heroine-centered, yet not a one afflicted with the stereotypical infallible, invincible paragon-of-perfection “strong female character” the vlogger sees as epidemic.

Where the vlogger sees a ruinous “woke feminism” that came out of nowhere in the 2010s, I see a steady progression from the 1980s, a gradual embrace of the Geek Woman. Can we still do better? Absolutely. We do need more flawed, complex heroines who make mistakes and learn from them, whose victories are inspiring precisely because they are hard earned. But I think we’re headed in that direction. A good direction. Just think of whip-smart, wild, obstreperous, imperfect Webby Vanderquack of the 2017 DuckTales reboot and smile at the thought of what might lie ahead.

Fictional Characters that Gave Me Joy in 2020

  1. January Scaller, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (Alix E. Harrow)

The first-person narration that Harrow employs for much of her novel is a bit polarizing; I’ve heard some readers strongly dislike it. I, however, find it rich in intelligence and humor as it conveys January’s personality and inner life — her energy, her boundless curiosity, and at times her confusion and uncertainty. As I read it, I felt I was making a friend. She frustrated me and tried my patience sometimes, but then, good friends do that.

2. Circe, Circe (Madeline Miller)

To be honest, when I last read The Odyssey I had a feeling the sailors Circe turned into pigs when they landed on her isle must have had it coming; after all, half the trouble Odysseus and his crew get into results from their failure to respect the rules of hospitality. So it delights me to see the story told from Circe’s point of view, and to get to know her as, on the one hand, a badass witch who takes no guff, and on the other, a lonely, longing woman whose insecurities have their roots in an unloved childhood. Her story, particularly its conclusion, is a thing of beauty.

3. Setsuko, The Sword of Kaigen (M.L. Wang)

While protagonist Misaki (whom I also like) has garnered most of her attention, for me her sister-in-law and best friend Setsuko is the MVP of Wang’s breakout success. While Misaki makes her arduous journey, Setsuko is a supportive, optimistic presence, a woman who knows how to love and value herself despite the repressive gender roles of the society she lives in and, through example, helps Misaki learn the same. As Maya Angelou might put it, she is a woman, phenomenally. We should all have a Setsuko in our lives.

4. Jane and Katherine, Deathless Divide (Justina Ireland)

Side by side on the cover of the book, Jane and Katherine appear to be the prototypical “Tomboy and Girly-Girl,” yet their story reveals them to be beyond category. Jane is all uncompromising toughness and hard-edged humor, messy and often unreasonable, yet she’s driven by her strong moral code, and she’s far more capable of great love and loyalty than she likes to let on. Katherine is overtly more sympathetic, often wearing her kind and generous nature on her sleeve. Yet even though, as the cover makes clear, she’s very ladylike in her deportment, she’s every bit as kick-ass as Jane, every bit as active and defiant in the face of evil. The two friends share a spot on this list, because it’s together that they shine most brightly.

5. Tarasai, Raybearer (Jordan Ifueko)

If I had the chance to buy and gift one of the books I read this year to every single friend and follower I have, it would be this one; if it were within my power to make Jordan Ifueko as bit a YA fantasy superstar as Sarah J. Maas, Saaba Tahir, Tomi Adeyemi, and Cassandra Clare, I’d do it in a minute. Her debut novel is rich in complexity of plot, character, and world, and its protagonist, Tarasai, is smart, powerful, curious, courageous, and decent. She isn’t without flaws, but when she makes mistakes, she owns them and tries to correct them. Unlike (IMO) too many YA fantasy heroines, she doesn’t deliberately act like a jerk to the people around her.

6. Csorwe, The Unspoken Name (A.K. Larkwood); Xiala, Black Sun (Rebecca Roanhorse); Shefali, The Tiger’s Daughter (K. Arsenault Rivera).

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: monster heroines — women who are not quite human and at least a little bit scary — are my jam, and this year I got to know three splendid ones: the ogreish Csorwe, with her tusks and her defiance of “destiny” and her slow-burn romance; the merwoman Xiala, with her seagoing swagger and her sea-controlling powers and her slow-burn romance; and Shefali. with her. . . I can’t say too much because I want to recommend the book rather than spoil it, so I’ll settle for pointing out that she ends up being the scariest of all of them and her romance is the stuff of legends. I’m not the type of reader who insists that every book she reads absolutely must have a romantic plot or subplot, but it does make me smile that all these monstrous heroines, in their scary glory, are valued and loved.

7. Angela Abar, Watchmen (HBO)

When it comes to movie and TV characters, my reasons for loving a character may be a bit on the shallow side. In the case of the indomitable superhero protagonist of Watchmen, aside from Regina King’s stalwart, magnetic performance — I just love her crime-fighting outfit! The trousers and boots and long black coat ensemble is my favorite superheroine outfit ever, and perfect for the heroine this dark, gritty, and involving story requires.

8. Sylvia Tilley, Star Trek: Discovery (CBS)

Neuro-atypical heroes of any gender are regrettably rare, though when they do appear, they tend to be male. It’s refreshing to see this kind of character in female guise for a change, but that’s not the only reason that the awkward, over-eager Tilley is precious to me. She reminds me so much of myself as a teen: wanting friends, wanting to fit in yet not quite knowing how. Yet I can only wish I’d been half as brilliant, generous, and open-hearted as she is. She kicks butt and surprises people while doing it. Over the course of three seasons, she’s shown that underestimating her is a bad idea, and has won the respect and friendship of her colleagues.

9. The cast of Hamilton (Disney+)

Calling them “fictional” is a stretch, but I couldn’t leave them out. Watching the film of the Original Broadway Cast was simply too big a highlight of my 2020 for me not to acknowledge it. This one lives up to the hype.

10. Navani Kholin, Rhythm of War (Brandon Sanderson)

I’m still in the midst of the fourth doorstopper volume of the Stormlight Archive series, but my favorite thing about it so far has been seeing Navani, a supporting player in the previous books, step into the limelight as a co-protagonist. Navani is super-smart, endlessly curious, resourceful, and well past her prime — in short, a wonderful heroine for me to spend time with as I face mid-life.