Scorching.

scorch trials(Image from Box Office Democracy)

Of the three dystopian franchises aimed at teenagers that are about at the moment, The Maze Runner is my least favourite. I think it is largely because its world is much less well developed and less coherent than either The Hunger Games or Divergent but also it is, in part, because it is so much less progressive or interesting in its depiction of female characters. In the original film there are essentially only two in the whole film, Teresa, who turns up half way through, and the evil character Ava Paige, and neither is more than two dimensional. The Scorch Trials has more women on screen, but it still barely scrapes past the Bechdel test (I think there is about two sentences exchanged between Ava and Teresa). It is interesting that a film which so studiously ensures it has a beautifully multiracial cast (even if it is the South Asian who is the first to die), still can’t manage women and girls in a particularly effective way. Yes, Brenda is an interesting addition who is smart and capable, but, like Teresa, she really only is defined in terms of her relationship to Thomas. And it is great to put two girls with guns and the ones who find the gang, but it might be nice to give them some sort of personality or role in addition to the guns. While it is true of pretty much all the characters that there is little to them and less reason to care, it feels particularly acute with the women – they are all acting out some archetype or another. To be honest, I liked this more than the original film which was terribly predictable, and at least we got a bit more insight to what is actually going on, but it might be nice to develop some characters who actually have depth.

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Evil blondes from the future

Since the inception of film as a visual medium, blonde women have played important signifying roles. Femme fatales of film noir, the victim in horror films, the highly sexualised dangerous  woman – it has often been easy to chart the path of the character by one of her key signifiers, her hair colour. There are notable differences – Hitchcock made Grace Kelly a very different blonde in his films and she was never a victim while Joss Whedon chose to deliberately subvert horror tropes by making Buffy small and blonde. Nonetheless, there is generally a consistent archetype to the televisual blonde.

An interesting new archetype I have noticed in a number of science fiction films recently is the powerful, older,  evil blonde. Dr Ava Paige in The Maze Runner, Secretary Delacourt in Elysium and Jeanine in Divergent all exemplify this archetype. Powerful, manipulative and indifferent to the fate of others not of their caste. Willing to sacrifice anyone, Delacourt and Jeanine, in particular, aim to support and improve their own hegemonic privilege while Paige tortures children for apparently scientific purposes. Both Jeanine and Paige are closely aligned with science, while Delacourt is enmeshed in the use of technology. These women are technocrats, using science and technology for evil purposes and using need to be overcome by “good hearted” people with access to lower or no tech approaches.

These depictions are ideological from a number of viewpoints. Firstly, they posit the political and hegemonic power in the hands of women, concealing the general reality that these levers tend to be held by men. The societies in which they operate do not seem to have radically overturned gender norms to achieve this position where women are placed with power, in fact most of the gender relations within the films seem to indicate the reverse, that in general relations are not much further advance. All three of the women (and noticeably two seem to dress primarily in white), wear the feminised clothing, and, if anything, their privilege and separation from those required to do actual work is symbolised by their impractical shoes and tight skirts. In the world of Insurgent Jeanine’s main political rivals are men, and the leaders of the Factions she has assist her are also men – she is unusual in being a woman.  Similarly Delacourt is chastised by a male President and deals with a male CEO. These women are still exceptions, but they are the powerful evil centre. Inherent is an implication that women with power exploit it to maintain their own power and privilege, which, it could be argued is what male powers structures actually do.

Their close alignment with science and technological advance also serves to undermine the importance of scientific progress . In these films the heroes are all on the side of the low tech, with limited access to anything other than their own resources and ability. It is technology which serves to enslave in both Elysium and Divergent and the characters in the Maze Runner are trapped apparently in the service of science. The dystopic futures all three are set in seem to make the power of science enslaving and dividing, something the human spirit must fight against. The idea of the immaculate blonde serves to reinforce the rigidity of science and its danger. In Divergent this science-based approach is directly contrasted with the “humanism” of Abnegation, whose selflessness, low tech public service is pitted against the science-based command-and-control approach of Jeanine and her allies.

Whether this depiction of the middle-aged blonde as dystopian killer technocrat will continue remains to be seen, but it is interesting that it has emerged in three different movies made within a year of each other. As much as I like to see women in science fiction films, and older women who are smart and powerful is doubly terrific, it would be nice if they weren’t the evil one from time to time.

 

100 sci fi women #84: Gamora

Gamora Guardians of the Galaxy (film version)

guardians-of-the-galaxy-gamora-101682-101718Gamora is the last of her species, adopted by the evil Thanos, responsible for the deaths of her family and race. She has superhuman strength and agility and is a highly skilled warrior and martial artist, but more importantly she is enormously clever and patient. She is willing to wait a long time to take her revenge on Thanos and his lieutenant Ronan, who she hates but masks this hatred in the role of the dutiful daughter and warrior. Having spent so much time amongst people she does not like, Gamora is slow to trust and to form friendships. Nonetheless, once made, she is a loyal friend with a strong sense of righteousness. She cannot let Ronan and Thanos destroy an entire world, and is willing to fight this even if the odds are hugely against her. When she sees Peter being affected by the Infinity Stone, she does not let him die alone; she is the first to take his home. She may be a warrior and assassin, but eventually she is willing to learn to dance.

I have lived most of my life surrounded by my enemies. I would be grateful to die surrounded by my friends.

I am going to die surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy.

Six sentence review: Pacific Rim

pac rimYes, it is noisy, yes the Australian accents are (predictably) terrible and yes it massively fails the Bechdel test with only one woman character who even really talks. But it is such fun, as well as being intelligent and that one woman character is an excellent one – non-white, smart, strong and capable. It knows its audience and it caters to them extremely effective with well staged giant scale fights and clever touches (and a Star Wars reference in the first ten minutes will always guarantee my attention). It actually had some quite strong performances from quality actors like Idris Elba and Charlie Hunnam, even if I couldn’t help giggling at Stacker Pentecost’s inspirational speech (and you have to love the name). I also thought that it had moments of great beauty – in particular Mako’s memories are beautifully shot and composed with really effective use of colour and constrast. Hard to beat though for its giant machine on giant alien monster action though.

Reclaiming a sparkly story

On a plane back from Perth, I was lucky enough to see The Sapphires as the in flight movie. It isn’t a perfect movie-it certainly conforms to many of the tropes of rise-to-success and Benedict-and-Beatrice romances. But there a couple of things about it which stand out. It shows indigenous women with agency, women who are determined and make their own opportunites. Proud, black Australian women who are strong, talented, beautiful, sexual and unapologetic about who they are. They are fun, they are happy. They face institutionalised racism and individual racism, and there are struggles with their own cultural and historical legacy. But mostly it is about strong women who have fun, have choices and make their own way in the world. At the end of the film we learn about the real women the film characters are based on – women who have spent their lives making the world a better place.

So, given this, and the fact I was already intending to write about this film for this reason, imagine my total horror when I see the television commercial for the film with the voiceover: they had talent, but one man gave them soul.

Rubbish.

The attempt of this ad is really to take the agency from the women. Sure, Dave teaches them Motown, but other than that, their success is generally in spite of him, rather than because of him. And they certainly had “soul” in every other sense of the word well before they met him. The stars of this film are unabashedly the women. The value of this film is its treatment of the women. And yet, and yet, the television ad tries to make it about the man. Does the producer of the commercial think that audiences need the reassurance that there is a white man in charge of these indigenous woman? How offensive is this characterisation, this assumption. But am I suprised? Not really. Disappointed, but not surprised.

But do go and see it – the opportunity to see four indigenous women on a big screen together in a positive powerful way should not be missed.

 

100 sci fi women #75: Dejah Thoris

Before we start – here is a view on Women Writers of Dystopia – with two writers I have noted I should read. And as we love a list, here is the Penguin Books list of Books You Must Read Before You Die – a list which could keep you going for many many years. And finally, in a similar vein, the 1960s science fiction novels everyone should read – I must admit I still have about eight of them to read (although in some cases have read other things by the author).

Princess Dejah Thoris John Carter (movie version)

Dejah is a scientist on the verge of a brilliant discovery which will help her people. She does not expect men to save her, but looks after herself – whether it is by fighting like any other warrior, or planning how she can save her people. While she respects and loves her family and her people, she is not willing to meekly submit to a horrible marriage in order to sav them, but looks for other options and alternatives. In the end though, she submits when she feels that her choices are exhausted. Dejah will accept the unlikely and even the seemingly unbelievable when presented with evidence – she is rational and open to new ideas. Brave, intelligent, beautiful, resourceful an even a bit cunning, she is the kind of princess we don’t mind having around.

I want no playfulness from him. I want his help. Explain to me how you do it. If it’s a skill, teach it to Helium. Name your price.

 

Cultural round up: April and May

So yes, I have been quite slack. But I will try and make up for that now. And to start, some fun links. Here is the wonderful Lego on Hoth sequence, which manages to be both poignant and funny, as well as clever. Here are some random Star Wars mash-ups, just for fun. For the Quentin Tarantino lovers amongst us, some thoughts on how his worlds fit together, and what that means for the meta world of his movies. And last for this month, an entertaining look at how self-hating genre fans make things worse for themselves.

Now for the things I have been doing…

BOOKS

Lia Weston The Fortunes of Ruby White I was half way through the first chapter of this and dreading the effort it was going to take to finish it. It was all a bit too trite and straining to be funny but not quite making it. However, pleasingly, it became more engaging as it went along, and I actually finished it fairly quickly. It is an entertaining enough read, and certainly not taxing, but that being said, it was still a bit all over the shop with tone and approach and motivations. Without wanting to be too spoilery, there are things that the book didn’t seem to have quite worked out – was it all a con, or did people actually have powers; was Ruby doing something sensible and logical, or was she being manipulated? To me these things seemed quite confused and not in a mysterious and intriguing way, but rather more like the author was trying to have it both ways. I think taking a firmer decision about these kinds of things and being clear would have actually made a much stronger story. There was also a lot of coyness about some sex related issues – implications of things happening which lent rather a darker tone to the book, and perhaps because of this it was really ambiguous in an annoying sort of way. Mostly I think the book needed a really good editor who could have sorted things out and pushed the book in a clearer direction. A light-hearted comedy probably doesn’t need all these dark implications of prostitution and forced sex, but a darker book probably needs to be actually more explicit. This was a first novel for Weston, and while it would seem to indicate some potential at writing romantic comedy type chick lit, perhaps a bit of tougher editing next time might bring that out a little more.

Raymond E Feist At the Gates of Darkness Sometimes I think I should just stop reading Feist before I destroy all my affection for Magician and the memory of finding it a revelation when I first read it in my early teens. I think the persisting is that I might find some of that magic again, and it is true that a couple of books over the last few years have shown some sparks of it. But not this one. It isn’t a terrible book, it is just not that interesting. Some of the odd inconsistencies bothered me too – Pug can destroy building and build bridges between worlds, but he can’t do the magic to make himself invisible? I also think that the book spent most of its time setting the scene for future adventures (which I am not entirely committed to reading) and therefore was just a bit dull and expositionary. And while I really like the fact that much of the book focuses on Sandreena a powerful woman fighter, I’d like it a bit more if she didn’t spend so much time being moony about someone who treated her badly romantically. On the up side, this was short and easily read, so I didn’t need to spend too much time being irritated.

Alan Hollinghurst The Stranger’s Child This was a beautiful book to read – lovely writing, interesting and detailed characters, all with their own flaws, and a shifting perspective which allows one to see a rounded story. The prime story it seems to tell is the one of the history of homosexuality over the last century in the UK in a microcosm of the interactions of different gay men to a particular locus – a minor poet killed in World War I. It is also a story of privilege and money and the literary world and most importantly of memory and rembering, demonstrating the idea that we remember and reframe the past in a way which is most useful to us at the time. The sustaining stories within the novel are enough to get one past the disjointed nature of the narrative and the fact that some of the mos interesting parts of the story occur off-stage. The nature of a narrative which explores the challenges of memory and remembering and our own perspectives on the world means that at times there are unsatisfying gaps in explanations of characters and their motivations, but I think that needs to be embraced. The intense descriptions of the vignettes of story in each section of the book do however leave one feeling surprisingly close to the characters, and hide how little we actually see of their lives.

MUSIC

Groovin The Moo Canberra University The day didn’t start too cold but certainly ended up that way – the Old Person in my wondered how all the young women (and a few young men) in the minimal clothes would cope. But enough of my motherly concern about the cold.  The line up for the day was quite mixed, and we weren’t entirely sure what to expect early in the day. We started with Hermitude who were pretty awesome even for someone like me who doesn’t mind their style of electronica-come-hip hop (whatever the technical term may be) but wouldn’t call it my first choice in music. There were a few stand outs over the rest of the day. Parkway Drive confirmed for me that death metal is really not my thing, especially song after song of it. The Hillto Hoods had the audience on their side and were generally good, except that they totally over-played the sing a line and then stop approach. Once worked, twice was a bit ho-hum but when they were doing it for the fourth or fifth time it really made them seem like a one-trick pony performance wise. And then there was Andrew WK. My goodness. He was entirely freaky – and pretty much seemed to be playing the same song over and over again. We could only watch in fascination. The two stand outs for me were Public Enemy and the Kaiser Chiefs.

I have wanted to see Public Enemy for more years than I can count and they didn’t disappoint. They have ther performance and the music and still conveyed the energy and politics that has always been part of their music. They really are a posse – with the dudes on the stage who don’t seem to have a role other than some random crowd encouragement still seem to be a part of the whole. It was worth the cold to hear them, and they did play all the songs one hoped. At the end also they made a strong statement about tolerance and inclusivity.

The Kaiser Chiefs were also excellent – great stage show and again playing all the songs one wanted to hear. Lots of energy and an impressive display of barely missing a beat while spinning upside in the side show ride next to the stage. It seemed that some of the crowd had retreated to the tent for Digitalism (and warmth) but I thought that the Kaiser Chief were absolutely worth the frozen feet.

MOVIES

The Avengers Let me start by saying that, while this is a good super hero movie, it is still a super hero movie. Certainly not a genre buster or a radical interpretation of the notion of superheroes or anything like that. Fortuntely, I quite like superhero movies, and I like Joss Whedon’s writing, so over all this was a pleasant couple of hours. There are some definite highlights – Robert Downey Jr is in an acting class of his own in the film, possibly helped by the fact that he gets most of the best lines. If Iron Man was missing, this would not have been anywhere near as enjoyable. Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner also got some of the good line action, and Banner and Stark together were a great combination. I also found the self awareness of Captain America about his potential lameness quite good. In less impressive things, the story arc was just a touch too predictable, though I did wonder whether this was a deliberate Whedon ploy to make the most super hero-est of all super hero movies. I also found the destruction of New York just a tad distasteful – I know it has been ten years and all, but the relish with which is all got destroyed just made me feel a touch uneasy. Anyway, worth the time and money for those who like a super hero.

Monthly cultural round up: March

BOOKS

Siri Hustvedt The Summer Without Men This is quite a pleasant read, though in part I think that the various storylines don’t really gel, or at least do not coalesce in a way which makes thebook more than the sum of its parts. The most interesting parts of this for me was the contemplation of how close we live to our own insanity, when our expectations about the world are suddenly transformed, sometimes there is no place to go but insane. As the story of a woman finding her way back from this kind of traumatic break, it holds some interesting ideas about how one negotiates the world and the future. And then it wanders off into twee storylines about making teenagers like each other more through poetry. There are some interesting vignettes and some nice characters, but overall it doesn’ t quite hang together as well as it could and occasionally seems like a lot of fragments of Good Ideas have been smooshed together. But then again, maybe that is supposed to reflect the disorder of rethinking one’s life.

Alastair Reynolds The Prefect This starts of seeming like a much more straightforward novel than many of Reynolds, but this impression does not last. Beautifully rendered with textured characters, The Prefect is a clever mystery, but it also involves layers of complexity and concepts which make it on a par with other novels. It is fascinatingly dark and raises philosophical questions about what is right and reasonable and how one serves justice, and what justice even is. While it helps to have read other books in the same universe, it isn’t necessary. The world(s) of the Glitter Band are beatufiully thought out, and the book touches briefly on some of the concerns which Iain Banks’ Surface Detail explores in more depth – when should people be saved from themselves? Well worth a read – I am still yet to find a Reynolds’ which is disappointing.

FILMS

Hugo Another 3 D children’s movie – I nearly groaned. But I obviously hadn’t paid enough attention to the director (Martin Scorcese, so a favourite) or the plot. Actually, the publicity about the plot indicated “story of boy living in the walls of a train station in Paris” when in fact the film was really about film itself, but particulary the story of George Melies, the man who gave us the iconic early film image of a rocket smashing into the smiling face of the moon. While it started a little Disney-like with swirling snow and oafish authority figure chases rascally child through train station, it quickly became more interesting. It is clearly made by a man who loves and treasures the history of film and the scenes of Melies at work as a director are delightful. Beautifully cast and acted, it could occasionally have been a little faster paced – though it didn’t lose the attention of the small boys accompanying me.It provide nice vignettes of characters – and the slightly predictable or stereotyped nature of the charaters and their interactions seemed to be more about the exercise of film archetypes than a lack of originality. In fact, much of the film is a tribute to these tropes of film – the dream-within-a-dream, the dangling from the hands of a clock – the film is imbued throughout with clever little tributes to films. Even the use of iconic actors like Ben Kingsley and Christopher Lee seemed to be for their role as a symbol of film history rather than merely their acting skills. Enjoyable for the non-film lover, those who love this history of films will especially enjoy it.

MUSIC

Duran Duran Sydney Entertainment Centre I last saw Duran Duran 29 years ago when they first toured Australia. I thought it was completely amazing, my first experience of live music, so while I was very keen to go and see them again, there was a small touch of trepidation that all my teen memories would be crushed if they ended up being a bit lame. Interestingly, they referenced that tour 29 years ago – they had been the act to open the Sydney Entertainment Centre (I saw them in Adelaide at Memorial Drive). Anyway, there we were in a very diverse crowd, even if the majority were women about my age. They opened with a song from their current album, but it was soon into the old favourites.  They sounded tight, well rehearsed and professional and their multimedia show was enough to be interesting and entertaining without distracting from the band itself. It was definitely a music concert, rather than a visual spectacular. The pace in the first half of the show was a little slow and a bit stop-start and didn’t manage to carry the momentum it potentially could have. Everyone was up and dancign for old favourites, but with slightly too long/many pauses in between songs, the enthusiasm dropped for the newer, more unfamilar songs, and much of the audience was seated for these. This was overcome in the latter half where the songs flowed together better and kept you going through the newer ones. Practically all the old favourites were played, and I think there was a song from every album. There was a huge amount of energy in their performance, and some terrific versions – Wild Boys is one of my least favourite songs recorded, but the performance was fantastic. They closed with Girls on Film and Rio, and it seemed like they had enjoyed the show as much as we had. So I’ll definitely be back if they are. And the 30 year old crush on Simon Le Bon has been somewhat revived, made worse by the fact he is on Twitter.

Women of sci fi #72: Arwen Undomiel

Arwen Undómiel Lord of The Rings film trilogy

Arwen (in the films) is brave and bold and intelligent. She rides a horse expertly, fights off looming horrors, out runs them and rescues small male hobbits. She is also breathtakngly beautiful with the most fabulous of dresses. She also loves with a quiet passion, one which is so strong she is willing to sacrifice her immortality for that love, to leave her family and protected life behind to have a life of love, even where there is the potential for hardship. She does not give up hope that her life can have a happy ending, and is willing to trade a shorter time in the world, for a life of true happiness and family. And swords! And frocks! And fabulous horse-riding!

I would rather share one lifetime with you than face all the ages of this world alone.

Monthly Cultural Round Up: January

So, how long ago was January? Yeah, yeah, let’s just get on with it…

BOOKS

Red Mars Kim Stanley Robinson

So sure, it might turn out that I am the only science fiction fan on this planet who had not read this book, but see, I have caught up now. Anyway, I thought it was a fascinating depiction of the colonisation of Mars. It was a very thoughtful book, and the approach to issues such as terraforming (is it environmental vandalism?), socialisation, and the role of multinational corporations and conglomerates I found genuinely thought-provoking. I found the second half of the book a bit hard going at times, but this is because it is so relentlessly depressing. That does not, however, make it bad. The depictions and characterisations of the various key players were excellent, and I particularly liked the way the switch in the narrative viewpoints demonstrated how frequent it is for people to have different viewpoints and perspectives and understandings of the events around them. Engaging and fascinations, it is definitely a must read for any hard core sci fi-sociology fan.

The Hobbit JRR Tolkien

So, challenged to a Hobbit-off by my 9 yr old, I embarked on the reading of my very beautiful The Annotated Hobbita lovely birthday present from long ago. I used to lust over the book found in a tiny bookshop where my best friend worked for a time, and our other wonderful friend who hung out with us there ended up buying it for me. But that was a long time ago, and enough reminiscing. Needless to say, it has been a long time that I have owned this book, and even longer since I read The Hobbit in full. I am pretty sure I have read The Lord of the Rings twice in the meantime. Thus the humour in The Hobbit is a little surprising, particularly given the large amount of grand seriousness in LOTR. I know that LOTR is not without humour of its own, but it doesn’t infuse the whole book quite as it does The Hobbit. The Hobbit is also a much simpler tale and it is interesting to see the extent that the elves, for instance, have morphed between the two books. I must say I enjoyed The Hobbit quite a lot, and found that it moved quite quickly for the most part, although towards the end it did take a bit of time to come to a resolution. Rather like LOTR, just when you think the main action is done, a whole bunch of other things happen. Well worth revisiting, it is also a relatively quick read, worth catching up on before the film comes out at the end of the year. By the way, I did defeat the 9 yr old in The Hobbit-off.

MOVIES

The Adventures of Tin Tin

Confession: I am not really a Tin Tin fan. I was always an Asterix girl. And I have been known to wince in horror when my small boys demand that I read various Tin Tins aloud. Especially when I get to the cringe-worthy depictions of “orientals” and the like. This didn’t mean I wasn’t interested to see the film, but it gives you a perspective on my view of the film. And actually, I rather enjoyed it. I found it pleasantly entertaining, without being word changing. It also wasn’t offensive. I am no fan of 3D, but I actually found the use of 3D quite good – not just annoying and gimicky, but well and cleverly used, and quite beautifully rendered. There are some fantastic scenes – the car chase and the crane fight in particular, and during these in particular the 3D really shines, as does the clever animation. The story could have been paced up in parts, but, really, it is Tin Tin, so how much can you do. For reasonably inoffensive family entertainment, I think Tin Tin meets the ticket quite well. Just don’t expect anything world-changing.

Footloose

So I guess I only saw this because I was on a plane. But hey, for a remake it isn’t bad. The young people are pretty and relatively competent in their roles, the dancing and the music are good. It does not stray far from the original with some scenes, particularly the dance ones, being almost shot for shot (not sure how I remember this after all this time). But the changes I don’t quite understand. HOW CAN IT BE FOOTLOOSE WITHOUT THE CAR SURFING SCENE?!? I kept waiting, but it disappointed me… Oh and I think the lead is better looking than Kevin Bacon, in a bland sort of way, but I am not sure he will ever achieve the same cult status.

Moneyball

For all the talk of this being an Oscar contender and Brad Pitt’s performance being outstanding and blah blah, I just didn’t see it. To me this was your stock-standard hero journey – hero takes chance, no one understands!, encounters setback, fights through and YAY wins. No surprises at all and utterly formulaic. You could pretty much predict every twist. With cute father-daughter relationship thrown in for extra pathos (Daddy, will you lose your job? *cue tear). The thing about the film I found most interesting, and also disturbing, was the entire discourse about baseball players which was interestingly taken for granted by the narrative. There was absolutely no compunction about the treatment of these people, because they are people, as tools or chess pieces, which could be traded, sacrificed or just thrown away. In fact the entire film revolves around the idea of treating people just so. Athletes as widgets in a factory process. Slightly horrifying really.