Narrow Roles for Leading Ladies - Saldana Edition

As I said, I loved Guardians of the Galaxy.  My lady and I went together and we both did.  Maybe me a little more, but superheroes and space opera?  Definitely more my thing.

Chelsea had just one bone to pick and it regarded Zoe Saldana.  Nothing bad about her Guardian performance, exactly, but a trend in her career that she finds problematic.  In Avatar, both recent Star Trek films, and Guardians, she seems to play a bad ass lady in very much the same way.  Hair, attitude, personality, gender relations, they all seem to be pretty much the same.  And Zoe Saldana is a traditionally attractive woman.  None of this is bad per say, but it augments a long standing archetype in how Hollywood portrays its few leading women.  Rather than embracing modern popular cinema as an opportunity to broaden how women are portrayed on the screen, the shallow range of leading women advances and cements the same old expectations and pigeon-holes women, young and old alike, into the same old roles rather than let them branch out and—I dunno—maybe flesh out the vast variety of women that actually exist.

Fast forward one week.  We both work in jobs that allow a little spare time on Fridays and she sent me this as illustration of others sharing the same view, specifically in regards to Zoe Saldana.  I rather enjoyed the brief conversation that followed and below is an edited version.

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Me:

Perfect and on point.  The thing about James Cameron asking if people wanted to “do” the Avatar ladies is disgusting but maybe there is some small benefit in his being explicit.  So much of this male gaze crap comes from people who think they’re operating on some higher social plane and then we still only get traditionally attractive bad ass ladies, to say nothing of other female or neuter archetypes.

Orange is the New Black did a really great job with their casting.  Lots of body and personality types and people all over the range in terms of traditional attractiveness.  And everyone loves that show.  I wish Hollywood would tune into our non-reptilian brains and see that we like stories about people, not stories about (and for) dudes.

Chels:

I feel if anything, in playing the same “other” (aka female alien) over and over she has actually LIMITED our view on women, not broadened. Women = hot, feisty, sexualized aliens. You can easily transpose that stereotype with our portrayal as women as witches, bosses, etc. There is nothing new here, and it’s just reinforcing it as we try to change it. I appreciate her enjoyment of the role, but she is not expanding any horizons on the female front.

Me:

Maybe fan conversations can start to change that.  Though, I don’t know how engaged with fan Zoe Saldana is.

Chels:

The other day I was thinking about A Million Ways to Die in the West, and if the story hadn’t been strictly satire of the Western film genre, Anna could have been a legitimate, fully-rounded, authentic female role. She’s not necessarily a tomboy (although they do a lot to make her contrast against Louise), and she’s not necessarily a “girly girl.” She’s feminine and masculine, sweet and upfront, witty and vulnerable. She pairs well with the male lead not because she’s a woman and there, but because they have honest chemistry and develop a realistic relationship over time. It’s believable. I was impressed by that.

Me:

I agree.  She was really interesting and broke my expectations a couple of times.

Now that I think about it, Seth MacFarlane usually does good job at playing with stereotypes and gender expectations to subvert them without relying purely on cheap jokes.  He has good co-writers and works with lots of different people, aggregating their ideas into his very popular style.  It can be hard to see in single episodes of his shows, which often make terribly sexist (or other -ist) jokes without explanation.  Over the arch of his characters, though, he shows a lot of respect for difference.

Not all the time, of course.  There are times when purely sexist or religious jokes go too far without much promise.  It’s really a shame A Million Ways wasn’t a better film because character-wise it was pretty strong.  Only maybe 3 or 4 full characters, but that can be rare for even the best comedies.

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We do women and men alike a disservice by showing either through a shallow, greased lens.  Time and again, media consumers show that they want a plurality of voices and, even more so, that they don’t need their hands held through exposure to new ideas.  Guardians of the Galaxy was great.  Let’s make the sequel even better.  Better yet, let’s apply the women-are-human-beings-too mantra to all popular cinema.  I bet it won’t hurt too much.

Guardians of the Galaxy - The Mid-Movie-Mantra Review

(While I will not technically spoil anything, you are are particularly sensitive to spoilers, I may tread some ground you’d rather leave virgin.  You’ve been warned.)

It.

Was.

Awesome.

As in The Avengers awesome, but with more comic relief.  I really love a series that doesn’t take itself too serious (Nolan’s Batman excepted) so this is a big plus for me.  Maybe I like it more than The Avengers…I don’t know.  Maybe.

I should say that while I have some pedigree as a comics nerd, it’s by no means impressive.  Prior to announcements for this movie, I was unaware of the GotG, so anything here comes from a relative newb, despite a decent knowledge of other parts of the Marvel Universe.

Not to belabor the trailers and similar promotions, the Guardians of the Galaxy are essentially a group of outlaws that band together—on screen rather than before the action—towards a similar goal.  But of course they find a reason to stay together and so on.  Duh.  Much like the Avengers.

So this film centers on Peter Quill of Terran birth, taken just after the death of his mother, Gamora, a modified soldier and assassin, Rocket Raccoon, a genetically modified raccoon badass, Groot, his anthropomorphic tree-humanoid muscle, and Drax the Destroyer, a grieving vigilante looking for justice for his family.  A quick look at Wikipedia says that their back-stories were barely scratched in the movie, yet each was well yet sparingly developed on screen.  There are plenty of other characters besides, but let’s move on in the interest of brevity and…well…interest.

I could give endless synopsis and go on and on, I”m sure, but instead I came up with an idea while watching for cataloging those elements I really enjoyed—somewhat extraneous to the plot at times—and adding to the list as the movie went on.  Find an element, reduce it to a word, repeat the mantra.

  1. Idioms - A lot of the movies humor relies on the fish-out-of-water or stranger-in-a-strange-land schticks.  Idioms don’t work cross culture, especially when speaking to a person whose own culture has no figurative speech, and Star-Lord is unable to learn the lesson.  Lots of funny word play humor to endear you even before you have a reason to like every character.
  2. Sexism - The movie does a good job of side stepping a lot of potentially sexist story holes while maintaining the sexual tension and messiah complexes we expect in heroes.  The scene that first drew my attention was one wherein Star-Lord makes no qualms about fighting an apparently equally matched woman.  Better than that, there is simply no mention of her being a woman.  She is attacking, he fights.  Simple as you like and perfectly done.
  3. Pop Culture - this movie is replete with hilarious references to Western pop culture.  To be fair, a tiny bit of Eastern too.  Laika? (EDIT: Whoops, that was evidently Cosmos.  See, I don’t know this Universe well)  Hell yeah.  And Bacon.  And, well, no more spoilies here.  The cultural references are done one better by being actually relevent to Star-Lord, rather than serving a singular purpose to make characters funny or identifiable.
  4. Infinity - Specifically, the stones.  When Thanos is first shown, I knew he looked familiar without initially knowing the crossover with the Avengers universe.  Of course he is in the post-credit scene in The Avengers and seeks other of the Infinity stones.  What that amounts to is this movie being a non-Earth-centric, humorous, b-class hero Avengers.  I’m all about that.
  5. Groot - As a lover of Le Guin and, further, her particular interest in alternate forms of intelligence and cognition as seen in the natives of The Word for World is Forest and the trees in a short story for which I cannot recall a title, I really loved that Groot personality was collective rather than singular, playful but powerful, and loyal.  Groot, despite a three (or maybe four) world vocabulary was exactly what I’d think a moving, talking tree might be.

There is plenty else to love in Guardians of the Galaxy, not least the amazing actions sequences and well-developed alien worlds and ships, but I’ll leave it there.  If you have any interest in action blockbusters or comics or comedic action flicks, this is definitely one to see on the big screen.

EDIT: Great piece at io9 that elaborates and points to differences in teh book and film canons.

When to Give Up

I have this feeling lately that TV is getting worse (it isn’t) and that writers on many show are relying more and more on terrible cliches and crap groupthink (they aren’t).

I’m wrong.  The sky is always falling except that it isn’t.  So why is so much of the popular genre TV suddenly dissatisfying?  Easy, so much of it is exactly the same as it ever was.  It’s the viewer (me, in this case, but I’m sure this happens to tons of folks every day) who has finally reached a point where they are no longer willing to ignore lazy writing.  And stereotypes.  And common sense/logic/beliefs that just won’t die.  And flat characters.  One could go on and on.

I think what has happened, for me at least, is two fold.  First, I’ve reached a point that I think many, many others beat me to long ago.  I hit a threshold, where I’ve seen and read enough that cliches and tropes and bad writing are utterly transparent.  Once seen, the threshold will not be unseen.

Second, I’ve found elements of genre and storytelling that, for me at least, work really well.  I know what I want or need out of sffh and television in general and I’m unwilling to settle for the crap anymore.

What this has to lead to is tightened strictures around what I spend my time on.  Just as I learned years ago when to call it quits on a book and when to give up on a movie, I may finally have found my way to a working list of reasons to drop a show, even when it promises to get better.

This is by no means exhaustive and the list is sure to grow, but for now, here are sure fire reasons to pull the trigger and drop that tired old crap.

  • Anachronism in period pieces - Period pieces (and to an equal extend history in general) are to be viewed as cultural pieces wherein the present examines the past.  As such, they are necessarily tied to their moment of creation.  It’s a given.  The way that we might depict Christian Bale as Moses must differ to some degree from how Heston portrayed him.  That doesn’t excuse blatant cases of imposing modern thought, intellectual rigor, or worse yet technologies on the past.  Attempts are often flimsy to the point of allowing the whole edifice of fiction to crumble to the ground.  io9 pointed to such a case in the most recent episode of Masters of Sex and while I don’t totally agree with their reading, the arguments are valid and worth consideration.
  • POCs solely in secondary roles - We try to pride ourselves on being a mixed, multinational, equitable, etc society yet the places where the real world has failed to catch up with all this back patting are painfully apparent in contemporary media.  Just as it ever was, yet again, but I am sick of shows and books and films that consign POC (persons of color) to secondary or worse token roles.  Not every hero need be white, male, hetero, etc.  But they pretty much are.  And while on the topic, pulling a stereotype, positive or negative, into a lead role is hardly better.  No, strike that, it’s no better.  POC characters belong, they ought to be characters and if you don’t stop pretending they exist solely in the margins, then I’m done with your story.
  • Propagating bs science or cultural myths - SF is not necessarily predictive just as fantasy is not necessarily historical, yet to some extent we tend to look on both as such.  Whatever, that is a topic for another time.  However, it must be said because there is some expectation that sf will roughly conform to the understood world of the time of release (not so with fantasy and history…).  That usually means that as works age, they cease to agree with contemporary scientific thought.  That is perfectly fine.  What is not fine are lazy and boring stories that rely on long disproved, if still popularly believed, bullshit.  Movies like Lucy and The Day After Tomorrow hinge on completely wrong precepts and thus undermine themselves from the beginning.  The human mind is still largely a memory but we use nearly 100% of it.  The effects of human influenced climate change will be catastrophic but NYC will not freeze in less time than it takes to scale a skyscraper.  Why do people pay to see this crap??
  • Women as background characters - This goes right along with the POC and is fodder for many, many discussions (and is in fact the subject of probably 10000 tumblr posts today alone.  Women are ~50% of the human population.  Anything less that ~50% of proper characters is an insult to the idea of both genre and realistic fiction (discounting, of course, stories in which one sex has been destroyed or selected against.  Have you seen Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women? Not for the faint of heart.)
  • Police procedurals that don’t have a damn good reason to exist - this is a quick point and rests largely in the US.  Most ideas are not improved by turning the story into a police procedural.  MOST.  Stop!
  • Long arch shows that waste too many episodes - This is a pet peeve and I totally understand that some people like these kinds of shows.  However, I could never get into House, despite really liking many of the central characters, because the bulk of the show was a plug and play formula that got tired really fast.  I want a show about House, not one about House performing X, Y, Z.
  • 30+ year old concepts (well past prime) - This is a catch all because I still have a lot of things on my plate and I feel I could give a week to this topic and keep on jabbering away.  Some stories and concepts are timeless while others, like traditional fairy tales on down to Frozen perhaps, need only be investigated through a new lens to remain salient.  Some other stories and concepts, however, are very much set in their time.  Some stories need to be told, but their time may have passed or thus far has yet to come.  How do you know the difference?  Beats me.  Market testing would probably work, but then the market allows all of the above to continue.  Sheesh

What do you think?  This isn’t really a negative.  There is so much out there that finding a way to weed it down is a net positive.  Even so, its a shame to see a show/story/film kill itself the slowest way possible.

What tired garbage sends you running for the remote/keyboard to clear the screen before another minute passes?

So, Dad of the year? Anyone?

Makes me wish I had kids. If I built this for myself, as I’d obviously love to do, my friends and SO would just shake their collective heads at me. Sigh.

Link Bait BS

Not much to say except I have official grown sick pervasive and ubiquitous link-baiting.  This is an evil we must fight and one that won’t go away unless we stop biting.

Vote with your click.  Stop the painful overuse of link-baiting today.

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