So Sherlock is good: well written, extremely well directed, clever and entertaining. But that doesn’t mean it is without fault. The gender politics are abysmal: not only are the women almost exclusively minor or secondary characters, they are almost entirely foils or mistreated beyond all measure. And sadly I think Steven Moffatt has taken Sherlock into a very (recent) Doctor Who-ian space – with the bad guy so uber-powerful and the need for Sherlock’s response to be so extreme, that you wonder how the next series can be anything but anti-climatic. However, one can hope. But sometimes one wishes one had seen how he had solved all the mysteries that get referred to in passing!
I never read Puberty Blues nor have I ever seen the film. I am not entirely sure how I missed both of these. Of course, I knew what the book was about broadly – girls in the surf culture of Sydney in the 1970s and the implications in terms of sex and other things. Nonetheless, it means that coming to watch the series I have very limited preconceptions.
The series was beautifully acted and directed for the most part and I thought the writing was very strong. I really enjoyed it. But that didn’t mean that it was without its moments of discomfort. In fact, the moments of discomfort were its strongest feature. Puberty Blues confronted the sexism and misogygy face by women of this subculture – particularly young women, for whom joyless sex was a compulsory rite of passage. One had sex because it was the entree card to being cool – as long as one didn’t do it too soon, or with too many different people. And this role of women to be used as objects for sex in order to gain acceptance, was reflected in the ways their mothers acted – except in the case of Debbie and her mother the school principal.
For me, the characters one really feels for in Puberty Blues are the girls on the periphery – Cheryl and Freida in particular. Cheryl is the chief “mean girl” dictating permission to enter the “cool” group. But her role in this group is tied in a complex way to her relationship with the boys. For most of the series she is not “going round” with anyone, but she is expected to provide sexual services to the boys, while they also dismiss her as a “moll” when she engages in what the boys deem is socially transgressive behaviour such as getting drunk. Meanwhile Freida is repeatedly gang raped by the boys, and then is shunned socially when not being used sexually. Freida’s plight is ultimately what moves Debbie and Sue to act decisively against the established social order.
What is interesting though is the timing. A version of Puberty Blues has not been made since 1981. It is thus possible to see the production of Puberty Blues at this time politically, particularly given the bleak depiction of teenage sexuality and the treatment of girls and women. To me it says that the debate about the treatment of women has been reopened in this country – before Julia Gillard made her speech about misogyny, before Jill Meagher’s murder sparked Reclaim the Night marches, before we looked on in horror at the recent events in India. The way Puberty Blues approaches these issues does not indicate to me a view that these are closed topics or the past. The series calls into question the treatment of women, the dismissing of their sexual needs and the exercise of power that is involved in the sexual degradation of women. Puberty Blues is about power relationships, and the exercise of power, and speaks to the need for women to work together to support each other and increase their power.
There has been a fair bit written about Brave and how it provides us with a princess character who is active, who guides her own fate and who is shown fighting and doing other things. It has led me to think a bit more about Once Upon A Time and how it presents strong women characters guiding their own destiny. I still haven’t finished season one, and I haven’t watched every episode, so my analysis may be bounded by this. However, there are some key aspects of the show which make it an interesting addition to both the “princess” genre, and also mainstream television in general.
Firstly, this is the story of three women. Overwhelmingly, the story is about the SnowWhite/Mary Margaret – Evil Queen/Mayor – Emma relationship and the struggle between the three women. While Prince Charming/David gets a look in, his character is more about enabling the Snow White/Mary Margaret story than being important in his own right. In fact, his Storybrook character is actually unconscious for the first few episodes. These three characters are the heart of the story and the conflict between Emma and Regina the Mayor/Evil Queen is the driving narrative force. Even when Rumplestiltskin/Mr Gold is about, he is usually enabling or assisting the main characters.
Secondly, all these women are strong and active. While Mary Margaret in Storybrook can be a little on the passive side, in her alternate and original life as Snow White, she is a skilled archer and fighter who can look after herself, trade with trolls and generally make a life for herself in the forest. She seeks solutions to her own problems and certainly does not sit around waiting for a man to help her. She and Prince Charming trade rescues and assistance – she is definitely not always on the receiving end.
Emma is central character of the show and she is definitely not a passive princess. As someone who has had to tke care of herself all her life, she presents a strong, independent character who will fight for what is important to her. As Henry’s birth mother she is intially reluctant to bond with him, but she manages to combine maternal ferocity with single independent woman strength. As Snow White’s daughter, she demonstrates the same characteristics as Snow, resilience and determination, a fierce sense of right and wrong and ability to fight for what she believes in.
While Regina is definitely evil, she still represents another strong woman character. She does not rely on men – in fact she is more likely to kill them off if they get in her way. She knows what she wants, and while what she wants is pretty awful, she works hard to achieve it. Her evil does not make her bereft of maternal instincts and she cares for Henry her adoptive son. She does show a determination which is admirable, even if we can’t admire the ends she strives to appear.
Interestingly, some of the other female fairy-tale characters who pop up have been rewritten to take on much more active characteristics than they have had traditionally – Red Riding Hood is a werewolf who learns to control her powers while her Granny wasn’t eaten by a wolf – she was the wolf. This retelling of fairystories to children who haven’t necessarily been exposed to the traditional versions of these tales as thoroughly as generations before them could help to reset ideas about princesses and women characters more generally. Once Upon A Time may not be Game of Thrones in terms of televisual and narrative quality, but it is a program one can watch with one’s children and which can promote an idea of woman characters as strong and self-determining. I’m hoping the rest of the season doesn’t change this.
Reading this reminded me there was one Firefly woman we hadn’t covered yet…
River is both fragile and powerful, vulnerable and kick-arse. She is intellectually brilliant, but brain damaged. The government of the Alliance attempted to turn her into a weapon, and in so doing both damaged her possibly irreperably, but also made her capable of extraordinary feats. She inspires great love and commitment in her brother and, despite her unusual nature, the affection of those around her. Her damaged state sometimes lets her see the world more clearly, to question things that other take for granted and to see what make happen. To see her find joy in the vastness of space as she clings to the outside of a spaceship, hiding from those who wish to harm her further, inspires hope. When she really needs it, she finds her strength and her power and can destroy the enemies around her. River is brave but scared, a character who you hope for, but you know ultimately, can probably take care of herself.
River: So we’ll integrate non-progressional evolution theory with God’s creation of Eden. Eleven inherent metaphoric parallels already there. Eleven. Important number. Prime number. One goes into the house of eleven eleven times, but always comes out one. Noah’s ark is a problem.
River Tam: We’ll have to call it early quantum state phenomenon. Only way to fit 5000 species of mammal on the same boat.
Tonight’s contribution is from a new visitors/contributor to the site Elveray. Thanks so much, and here’s to further collaboration. She is filling a gap I have long been aware of.
Captain Kathryn Janeway Star Trek:Voyager
Captain Janeway is a unique phenomenon in the Star Trek Universe. There were female captains and even admirals in ST before her – but, you see, they never had enough appearances to get noticed. The very fact they finally give us a main character female captain is an improvement. Perhaps the idea doesn’t always work smoothly. Perhaps the show’s authors just can’t handle it sometimes. But let’s get to Janeway.
Kathryn Janeway finds herself in quite a difficult situation: on her very first mission as captain her ship is captured by a mysterious alien force and taken to the other side of the galaxy, thousands of lightyears from Earth. Under the circumstances that would make almost anyone give up, she is not only ready to take one-of-the-million chance to get her ship and crew back home, but she also is quite determined to keep the highest ideals of the United Federation on her ship. As she travels through an uncharted part of the galaxy and faces challenges the Federation doesn’t even know to exist, she shows herself as bold, intelligent, determined, resourceful and able to handle all kinds of emergency situations. She also shows excellent diplomatic skills, making contacts and negotiating treaties with alien races. Her interaction with her crew is also remarkable, even though she can sometimes give you an impression of a “mother” (remember me saying that the authors of the show do not always handle the idea of a female captain very well? That’s it.) but still, she does her best to keep them from going awry. She can manage battle too: she defeats enemies as deadly as the Borg or the Species 8472 and she is very good with a phaser rifle. (An interesting fact about Janeway: she actually managed to take out the Borg, while the male captains Picard and Sisko were only lucky to escape from the Collective with their lives.) She gets her heart broken when her husband unscrupulously dismisses her as missing in action, but she won’t let this break her will. She has complexity, she faces hard choices, demonstrates remarkable compassion and understanding, and as far as I am concerned, she represents a positive depiction of a woman in SciFi.
And she is by the way the first explorer of the Delta Quadrant. Or, at least, the first one who actually came back in one piece.
There are three things to remember about being a starship captain: keep your shirt tucked in, go down with the ship, and never abandon a member of your crew.
before we start, two more lists to add to list-mania. First, looking somewhat to the past, Ten Legendary Bad Girls of Literature looks at women who wrote on the edge of acceptability for women, and were awesome for it. Secondly, looking more to the future, is 13 Fantastic Female Comic Creators of 2011 demonstrating that female creativity is alive and well in the world of comics and genre. Worth making space in our reading lists…
Dr Elisabeth Shannon Terra Nova
In a show where the male characters are annoying and frustrating in their overt patriarchal masculinity, Dr Elisabeth Shannon is a wonderful breath of fresh air, a woman of colour who is intelligent and capable and a leader in her community. Stunningly beautiful, intelligent and articulate, she is passionate about her family and her work. Willing to break the law to have give birth to her youngest daughter, after two years of sole-parenting, she is also able to mastermind breaking her husband out of gaol and into the distant past so that they can live as a family again. Elisabeth is a talented doctor and a leader in her field and this is why she is recruited to go to Terra Nova and, once there, takes over the medical facilities. She is intensely loyal to her husband, but sees his faults and balances his overly masculinised approach to parenting with her own sensible one. She does not lack courage, nor intelligence and is incredibly resourceful. She is a dedicated mother, but also a dedicated professional and articulate leader. If only women like her could lead Terra Nova!
Before starting, for 2012 you might want to consider the Australian Women Writers Challenge – reading and reviewing books by Australian women. I will have to try hard to work it into my roster of reading.
Trading In Danger Elizabeth Moon In an attempt to shake up my science fiction reading I decided to randomly choose a book by a female author with a woman as its central character from the roster at Book Depository. So I choose this one. From now on, I will stick to recommendations and not go for random. This was a very ordinary book, on pretty much every level. The future it imagined was pretty pedestrian – it is hard to imagine barges still in a future which does inter-stellar travel, but there you go. It was also not well realised or depicted, and many of the details just weren’t clear. I wasn’t sure whether this was because the universe had featured in other books, but as this was supposed to be the beginning of series, it seemed still to lack something. And the plot and characterisations were just dull. And predictable. And while it tried to make some kind of feminist statement about the central character, it was very confused. I do not think it is at all likely I will bother to read further books of the series.
Puss in Boots One of the entertaining characters from Shrek gets his own back story. Overall, Puss In Boots is pleasantly entertaining and reasonably engaging, without hitting any of the heights of the best of animated children’s films – like the first two Shreks. We learn about Puss’ youth and his code of honour and then there is this whole segue into Jack and the Beanstalk territory, and it is relatively well rendered and paced and the small boys enjoyed it, but ultimately relatively forgettable.
The Hour Well cast and beautifully acted, this was a very enjoyable television experience. Romola Garai and Dominic West are a fabulous and sexy couple and were really well supported by a fantastic cast. While the parts of story about Cold War intrigue and the tension between the media and the political establishment are interesting, I particularly loved it the depiction of the relationship between Hector and Bel, and her position as a woman with a career in the mid 1950s. I thought the way this was developed and characterised was really well done, and not over-stated. In all, I am not sure whether the intrigue spy-story completely worked, but I didn’t think that detracted overly from the enjoyment of the whole. Well worth watching.
Another lean month. It is rather annoying that life has been getting in the way of enjoying culture. But so it is.
A link for your viewing pleasure, if you happen to like Daleks.
By Light Alone Adam Robert I finished this book about three weeks ago now and I am still not entirely sure what I think about it. Its premise – that the world has been radically divided between rich and poor following the invention of some sort of biological-nano-technology which turns hair into a photosynthesising mechanism allowing people to live on sunlight alone is interesting, but it is not entirely clear how the world became quite so radically divided. I don’t demand that everything is explained, but I was a little unconvinced that the premise led to the world. Putting that aside, the book seems to be permeated by a deep disgust of humanity and particularly men. At both ends of the spectrum, without the need for work, Robert seems to envisage men doing nothing but indulging themselves, while women work on. I think it is this contemptuous view of people which ultimately made the book a bit hard at times. I think the second half is more interesting than the first, as one gets to see and understand a little more of the world, and Issa’s character has a strength which is heartening. For all that though, I am still not sure.
Contagion I liked this film. I liked the characterisations, I liked the little vignettes, I liked the developing drama. I particularly liked the music which really underscored the action. I thought the envisaging of the world where these things happened, how it is the panic and reactions that cause the problems, well beyond the disease itself, was well done. I liked how the film used elements and tropes of disaster films and played them down and gave them a more subtle treatment, while not feeling the need be too clever. There was probably a subplot too many, with maybe the Hong Kong/China one being the most superfluous, although it did have a point to make. And the film did peter out a little bit at the end as I have heard others criticise, however thought that was not out-of-line with the film. Overall though, it kep me engaged, it was well directed and acted and scripted and filmed, and is certainly more interesting and thoughtful than your average big ticket movie.
Walking Dead Season 2.1 If the characters would talk less this would have been an awesome season. It is a bit like watching films scripted by George Lucas – the story itself it quite interesting, but the dialogue makes you want to punch someone. Admittedly, the final two or three episodes suffer less on this score and the final sequence of the mid-season finale is quite stunning. Characters develop quite significantly in these episodes, particularly Shane, Andrea and Daryl and the texture of the plot becomes quite interesting. They still don’t really know what to do with T-Dog who has virtually no role in the action, but at least Glenn stereotypical Asian-ness gets played off a little when he gets referred to as Short Round, before moving into a more interesting position in the drama. It is Shane though who makes one nervous, and he is powerfully played by Jon Bernthal. Maybe it helps that he has the fewest painful monologues as well. Worth sticking with, even if at times the dialogue makes you want to stick out your eye.
The way that the past is remembered and presented for our consideration is influenced by the present in which that remembering and representation is done. The relationship between the past and present is not straightforward or simple, and can be interrogated, but there is undoubtedly a relationship and an influence.
Underbelly Razor has been interesting in a number of ways, particularly in its depiction of women. All the Underbelly series have had a slightly tortured relationship with their female protagonists, with a tendency to the exploitative – more breasts than one would have thought strictly necessary. Razor however focuses on two female leads who have real power within the criminal environment.The most interesting depiction of women has generally been, however, of those participating in law enforcement – the police. The powerlessness and challenges faced by women in these situations has been an ongoing theme of the Underbelly series.
Nonetheless, I think that Episode 5, The Darlinghurst Outrage was a particularly unusual and special piece of television, centred as it was on a complex rape case. It raised a number of scenarios – woman crying rape because she was paid to do so; woman crying rape because her husband found out she was a prostitute, straightforward rape of a woman dragged off the street. The “truth” of the episode was more complex – a wife and mother, forced by poverty and her husband’s unemployment, engages is some casual prostitution. After consensual, paying sex, one of the men involved wants to go further – she does not consent to this, and is anally raped while being held down by the two other men.
Attitudes within the police are made clear – senior officers only want to pursue the case when she is a respectable wife-and-mother; we hear that they have been unwilling to bring forward a number of cases of the rape of prostitutes. A male policeman argues that the case is unwinnable – it is the word of one woman against that of three men. So when the female officer, trying to make some headway in the prosecution of rape, finds out that prostitution has been involved, she ignores this fact and allows it to remain concealed. Ultimately, the prosecution loses. It is then that we see what Kate Leigh says she’d pay a lot of money to know, the truth according to the show. Ida Maddocks is held down and raped, screaming no.
What makes this depiction most compelling is the current media, judicial and social discourse around rape. One could almost imagine the same conversations being held by the police now. Rape against prostitutes is still, sadly, seen as a less awful crime. If there has been some form of consent given to some form of sex, public discourse often extends that consent to all forms of sex and any number of partners. The events in which football players, in particular, seem to find themselves embroiled often entail similar levels of complexity, and as often as not, this complexity is part of the tactics used to escape conviction. As is the woman’s sexual history.
Against this background of the current discourse around rape, what I think makes this an excellent contribution is that the message is clear, Ida Maddocks said no. Ida Maddocks was raped. And one of the men knew this – he was identified by the markings on the back of his neck because, while he held her down for business purposes, he knew what was happening was wrong.
Thanks Underbelly for acknowledging that, whatever our sexual history of previous consent, no means no.
Before getting to the topic above, a quick bit of link action. Den of Geek have come up with a list of 10 sci fi performances worth of Oscars. As they note, anything in the sci fi/fantasy type genre is sorely under-represented in any type of award action – generally genres is not weighty or worthy or something. So, worth taking a moment to celebrate some of the performances which really are up there.
Nan Flanagan True Blood
Nan is a women for the modern moment. That she is, no doubt, extremely old, has nothing to do with it. As the face of the American Vampire League, Nan has been at the forefront of making vampires respectable, bringing them out into the open and introducing them to the world. Nan is articulate, intelligent and very skilled at putting fanatics like Rev Steve Newlin in their place. Rarely appearing ruffled, Nan presents a professional ‘human’ face of vampirism to the world. But she is a politician, not entirely truthful, though she is clearly committed to ending the more brutal practices engaged in by vampires, recruiting Bill Compton to this program when she sees that his nature is less savage. She understands spin and the importance of image as she fights, not always entirely fairly, for tolerance and equal rights for vampires. Often she is more worried about the PR damage of an incident, than the actual damage…but then, she is a vampire – and a media hack. She has a whip-like tongue and knows her own power and how to wield it. An episode of True Blood is usually well improved by her presence within it.
(clip contains season 4 spoiler)