Batman v Superman: The Accountability of Heroes

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I’ve written a lot about this movie since it came out, but nothing here because it seems like such a task to tackle and I’m not sure where to start. I came up against a very frustrating reading tonight, though, so it seemed like the right time to crack it open and start to pick apart this truly gargantuan movie. I’ve been disappointed, to say the least, by the critical response and much of the public response to a film that whether you enjoyed it or not will definitely have a profound effect on the genre as a whole. I want to write about this through a feminist lens, but first I want to address that critical response, and a theme I keep coming back to the last couple years in writing critically about the superhero genre- accountability.

I don’t blame people for not seeing the intricate details in this movie the first time through, I’m not remotely bothered by that- I think that hearing people miss huge details- like who orchestrated the senate bombing- or even what purpose the senate bombing served to the plot- is very indicative of poor or lackluster engagement with the film, but I was still picking up the details the fourth time around with this movie. I like a movie like that, I like to be rewarded on repeat viewing, the same way that I like to unlock a novel by reading and re-reading it. What alarms me is the reactions that people have to not picking up these details, because it doesn’t seem like the people who are so ready to drag this movie through the mud ever react with anything approaching curiosity.

There could be a number of causal factors on that trend; maybe it’s just that people don’t go to a movie in this genre to engage on that level, maybe it’s a rejection of the idea that these movies might ask big questions or have literary ambition, maybe it’s simply that the average moviegoer lacks the suspension of disbelief for a Superman movie these days. Whatever it is, I find it pretty alarming, because asking questions and being curious is a basic staple of being an engaged and critical consumer of media.

I had a colleague make some excellent points about racism in comic book movies this week that were buttressed by the argument that Batman v Superman brings up, and then drops the idea of superhero regulation. I am absolutely caught off guard by this reading, because it is so obviously and jarringly false. The only way I could possibly imagine that you could perceive this movie as dropping the subject of accountability would be if you ignored literally every line from both Senator Finch and Lois Lane.

Both of these characters are central to the question of accountability, we have entire scenes with newsreels asking how Superman prioritizes lives, questioning how he might be managed if he were under government control. We have the ironic juxtaposition of Senator Finch taking several stands against unilateral action while our own CIA is setting drones on men labeled terrorists at the whim of a single commanding officer. General Swanwick on one hand, telling Lois that the CIA is pretty certain that Superman did absolutely nothing wrong in the desert- in fact they are pretty sure he was being set up- and then on the other hand we have an entire senate committee spinning its wheels trying to get to the bottom of what happened.

This tangled system, this American government with a long bloody history of atrocities under its belt- that’s the people you want to appoint to have a say in deploying Superman on a regular basis? Are we meant to pretend that such a collection of people would be unbiased enough not to observe the racial, social, and gender hierarchies already in play in their culture? The movie asks these questions. The movie asks Finch- are you responsible when Superman isn’t deployed to save a child in danger? As Steve Rogers points out in Civil War- all we’re accomplishing is a shifting of blame. The movie asks, if you have the power, who lives, and who dies? Who do you prioritize when you have that power? To suggest that this argument is suddenly dropped is unthinkable, unless you were to tune out what results to the majority of the dialog.

I am wondering if perhaps what was meant is that the concept of superhero regulation is brought up, but an answer is never provided. That is true, it’s a big DC question, it’s a big Superman question, but the expectation that the movie offer a concrete answer to such a problem seems like an expectation of pretention, which is interesting, considering that I’ve often heard this movie already accused of pretentiousness. I wonder of the people with this criticism, what this accountability looks like to them. Are we putting that much faith in a Democracy that has failed to deliver justice for certain marginalized populations over, and over, and over again? What answer could this movie have provided that would be satisfactory to such a viewer? It’s easy to point out that a plot lacks answers, it’s a lot less easy to come up with those answers.

What we’re dealing with here, as the movie proposes, does not exist inside our political definitions. We’ve never had a being in our midst with this kind of power, we haven’t been asked to find a way to check that power- Superman’s willingness to show up at the senate hearing- his willingness to be checked- is a statement in itself.  He doesn’t get to speak at the senate hearing because Luthor doesn’t want to give him the opportunity, but he shows up. He expresses a desire to meet the human race on our terms, though he’s never done anything but make his best efforts to help us. We have the opportunity to regulate him, we have the opportunity to demand accountability though Superman is never the direct cause of a wrongful death and plenty of people have already begun to see the puppet strings operating around him.

And that’s really the essence of things for me, that’s what Superman is. If you can’t buy Superman’s good intentions, if you’re not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, this might just not work for you. It’s possible that Lex is right, maybe power can’t be innocent. We certainly don’t have any incorruptible untarnished symbols to confirm such a belief, but does that change our desire for one? We’re asking questions, here, not answering them. But what are we meant to take from Clark pulling punches in a fight he could end quickly to rescue his mother? What are we meant to see when Superman darts out to intercept a punch meant for his greatest enemy? What conclusion are we meant to draw from a man laying down his life for a world that at best has mixed feelings, at worst hates and rejects him?

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Metaphorically speaking, Superman doesn’t stand in for the United States as a global power, he doesn’t stand for men in the armed services, or UN Peacekeepers, and maybe it’s a flaw of the narrative that his white maleness can obscure that for some viewers, (though I would put forth that that’s an erasure of his Jewish roots) but Superman doesn’t represent any of that for me. Superman is something greater. He’s potential, he’s a dream that we have about who we aspire to be as a species, he is, if you are willing to buy into it, pure wish fulfillment fantasy. The fantasy here is not necessarily that we will have great power, though I think Superman was certainly devised as coping mechanism for the powerless, but that we will be worthy of it.

Superman’s Intrinsic Humanity: Grief in Man of Steel

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Some of the best Superman stories are focused on how hard it might be to be Superman, but the classic complaint about such stories is that Clark Kent is hard to relate to. This is a problem that is constantly addressed in the latest Superman movie from Warner Brothers, Man of Steel, and in no scene is that more true for me than in the scene in which Clark loses his father. This scene more than any other is an example of successfully bringing this god-like figure down to the ground with the human race through the universality of the experience of losing or failing a parent in some critical way, and the solace for those of us who have been through the slow decline of someone we love that makes this scene one of the most significant and moving scenes in the movie.

Directly after my mother’s diagnosis with pancreatic cancer, I began trying to make a plan to come home.  I was living in Los Angeles at the time which had been a dream of mine since I was in high school, and my girlfriend and I had local schools and a lease in which we had at least three more months left. These issues seemed only obstacles at the time, and I was unemployed and capable of long-distance study so I saw no reason to sustain the distance. My sister had asked me to come home, but my mother didn’t want me to move. She sounded so in-control on the phone, I couldn’t argue with her certainty.

I wanted her to be right in her optimism. I believed in the power of the mind in the same way she did, if she didn’t believe she could die of cancer, then she surely couldn’t. I was so grounded in this belief that I rejected with force the good intentions of the people around me who suggested I ought to prepare myself to lose her. I see much of my own relationship in Clark’s relationship with his father. Jonathan is Clark’s spiritual rudder, and he seems determined at times to follow his advice good or bad to the very end. A few months before she died, I was at home with my family and I could either get on a plane and attend my residency or stay and postpone my degree by another semester. I tearfully asked for time to think it over and asked my mother what I ought to do. She asked me to go. I’m still bitter about that decision to leave, and I’m still angry about that lost time. Knowing that I could not save my mother has never stopped me from believing as much, and likewise I feel very certain that Man of Steel’s Clark struggled with the very same emotions. In the end, no matter how super, we are all doomed to fail our parents.

Henry Cavill’s performance in this movie is consistently brilliant throughout, but in scenes where Clark’s heart is breaking (specifically the scene where he loses his father which is paralleled with the scene where he executes Zod) he really gets to flaunt his skill and demonstrate succinctly why he was the best possible choice for the monumental role of leading the new DC cinematic universe. As Michael Shannon told The Daily BLAM, “I really haven’t seen anybody in this business work quite that hard. Obviously it’s a tremendous responsibility, and an intimidating one, to wear that suit. But he has the confidence and the work ethic to accomplish it.” In every scene he is quietly contained, soft even when he is hard, a demonstration of the rawness of Clark’s humanity that Cavill seems to have an intrinsic understanding for. It’s easy to forget that we are dealing with a character who is as emotionally vulnerable as he is physically invulnerable, but Cavill doesn’t ever seem to. The scene takes him smoothly through the familiar five Kubler-Ross stages of grief, and in a moment we see Clark grapple with denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance.

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Grief is rarely so tidy though, and though that is the order proposed in the model, it’s certainly not the order we see on screen. Once the moment culminates and we realize that Jonathan has made a very final decision, he extends his hand to stop Clark and the first stage that is detectable is certainly bargaining. We can see him calculate, count the slow seconds, the minutes he has left to rescue his father from mortal danger, and that bargaining is quickly followed by anger, which surfaces as frustration. You can almost see an argument coming, he’s thinking, no, I can do this. You see a little bit of frustration on him that is resonant of their earlier argument in the car. He’s pushing against Jonathan’s unflinching authority. You can also see the moment he loses the argument. In the car, Clark patiently and a bit petulantly reminds Jonathan that he’s not is father, he’s just “some guy who found him in a field,” and in acceptance of Jonathan’s decision he’s brought right back to a small, strangled cry of “dad.” It’s this moment at which I broke down in the theater, triggered by the stark authenticity of the moment, and it continued to tug painfully upon repeated viewings because it rung so true. My own experience losing my mother was grounded in that connection; in the profound importance of that relationship. The choice to close in tight on Clark’s face as Jonathan is obscured by a cloud of debris is intentional and significant. This moment tells us something vital about Clark, and we are experiencing it through his perspective. I have never once found Superman more relatable. I can even recognize in little ways throughout the film that he is still mourning his father, and only three years out from tragedy I can’t say for sure that he will ever stop.

There’s something profoundly human about the unavoidability of parental loss, and the lesson that Man of Steel seeks to teach in this scene and in others is that no matter how powerful we are, we can’t stop death. This is so common a theme in art that it has an attendant ages-old Latin tradition called “memento mori,” an art object that seeks to remind the audience of the futility of life or the inescapability of their own mortality. I would call any experience with the death of a parent a memento mori, and I think that writers often put characters through this trial of losing a parent for this reason if not also to induce independence. For Superman, it is perhaps more accurate to say that he is grappling with his own weakness. His shortcomings are uniquely devastating to him if only because he has so few. Clark had the power to save his father, but at a price Jonathan Kent wasn’t willing to pay.  In respecting his wishes, he failed to save his father.

When we imagine a life with invulnerability, heat vision, flight, and super speed, we have to also imagine a very different experience than what we are accustomed to. It is often said that Clark lives in a world of paper dolls, but we must also consider that his reality moves slower than ours relative to his speed. What takes an hour for most of us takes moments for Clark. Taking that into account, this two minute long flashback becomes more heartbreaking because Clark has more than just the few screen moments to save his father, he essentially stands by for what from his perspective seems at the very least an hour of knowing with certainty that his father is going to die and respecting his wishes means doing nothing about it. I can testify that grief is complicated, that heartbreak happens in pieces, and that we all possess the power to live through the unthinkable. Superman is a stronger and deeper character for knowing these things, too.

My experience was not so dramatic, my mother died nine months after her diagnosis and I struggled to accept that there was nothing to be done just as she did. The feeling in our household was hope, an extremely important theme in this film, and I realize now after watching Man of Steel that hope for its own sake at that point in time was its own kind of heroism. I spent a lot of time after my mother died being very angry. I was looking back and wishing we’d made distinctly different decisions, but now with some distance I feel nothing but proud of us. It’s not easy to hope when things are terrible, and just because that hope may be entirely in vain doesn’t mean it’s not enough to save you. Moments like this scene make a viewer feel less bereft and alone through incredible performances, universal and recognizable themes, and the realism of the pain of having someone slowly torn from your life. They are also moments that make heroes of us through survival, moments that can turn us courageously unreasonably toward hope.

Could Jupiter Ascending Set a New Trend in Power Fantasy Movies Aimed at Women?

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I saw Jupiter Ascending this week and had to drive no less than 30 minutes across the smallest state in the country in order to do so because the movie is quickly disappearing from cinemas in the Providence area. Before I saw the movie, I figured that trend was probably a fairly objective judgment of quality on this film. After all, its Rotten Tomatoes rating on the critical side is currently drawing even with 50 Shades of Grey. I expected to have a little fun at the movie’s expense, enjoy the much-praised costume design, and probably a very woobified Channing Tatum, but I was surprised by what I got instead.

This movie loves science fiction in a way that it seems we haven’t really loved science fiction since the mid-80s. There’s no genre-obliged tongue in cheek awkwardness about otherworldly elements; in fact there there’s no eye-rolling at all in this movie. Jupiter Ascending dives into aliens, the expansiveness of the universe, advanced technologies, and genetic splicing with an earnestness that made me nostalgic and didn’t so much beg for my suspension of disbelief as it took it for granted. I bought the ticket to a Sci-Fi movie after all, I find myself wondering what it is I expect of the genre lately. It’s not like we expect a tip of the hat from award shows in genre filmmaking in any category aside from special effects anyway, so why write to the academy or the critics? This movie is a treat for fans.

And when I say this movie is a treat for fans, I mostly mean fangirls. Jupiter Jones is likeable but not in a hyperbolic way, interesting and sharp but not in a way that would ever keep a viewer from feeling like they could also reasonably be a secret space princess who incidentally charms bees. There were moments in the movie in which I found myself thinking, “well that was convenient,” but none of those moments were more reasonably convenient than any logic-defying Die Hard stunt I’ve ever seen John McClane’s American every-man pull off in that series. For example, there’s a point in the movie in which Jupiter finds herself in a refinery that is falling apart beneath her feet and she runs an obstacle course of toppling pillars, crumbling structures, and grates with plumes of flame shooting up through the floors at intervals reminiscent of a level of Super Mario Brothers or Donkey Kong minus the barrels. Flames shoot up seconds after she has stepped out of the way and grates topple from impossible heights after she’s stepped off them as she climbs upward. Most of her successes throughout the film are in fact some combination of coincidence, timing, and nerve; an oft-criticized trait in female heroes and a trait completely taken for granted in the male ones.

We have a hard time defining the female power fantasy and that in itself is probably a good thing since women are not a homogenous group with uniform needs and desires, but we have defined pretty conclusively that the female power fantasy doesn’t include existing for the male gaze, being made one-dimensional, or being objectified. These are not moves that empower women the way that John McClanes and Bruce Waynes are meant to empower men. In a media so overrun by the one-dimensional “strong female character” that calling a character as much has turned from praise to criticism, we need to find authentic female power fantasies to give women a reflection of power they could conceivably own. As a writer, I struggle with the idea that most of these so-called strong female character types are somehow inauthentic as women. I think these women do exist because women come in a nearly infinite variety. The problem with the strong female character type is not her existence (though when she’s poorly written she’s a pain) but that she is the only acceptable option.

Jupiter, though, gets pretty close to female power fantasy in a way that many of our most progressive young superheroines also embody. Her power is not a result of trauma, not forced upon her, or bestowed upon her by a man- it is an inborn trait- quite literally in this narrative because her very own genetic makeup gives her the ability to bestow her inheritance on (spiritually speaking) her own reincarnated soul. At the start of the movie she is an undocumented immigrant housekeeper who loves, works with, and lives with her extended family so she has very little privilege to aspire to, making her an excellent every-woman who can prove that there’s something special about her (and by extension her presumably-average probably working class audience.) If the male power fantasy is about attainability, the female power fantasy should not feel lofty, out of reach, or alien to her intended audience. Jupiter is bright, resourceful, tough enough to go toe to toe with her villain and approachable enough to be befriended by her employer in her underwear. She gets scooped up and whisked away often in the movie, but sets her own terms when the occasion calls for it; flat out refusing to abandon her family when danger comes calling.

Another essential dimension to Jupiter’s female-power-fantasy status is that she is not the conquest in relationship. She pointedly and confidently pursues her male love interest, Caine Wise, not to the exclusion of all else or to an exaggerated degree, but with a certainty that we typically find very recognizable on a hero rather than a heroine. Wise’s reluctance puts her in a position of seducer rather than object to be won subverting typical princess tropes and putting even romantic agency back in female hands.

My only real criticism of the movie was the surprising lack of queer representation. Tatum doesn’t exactly bring anything to this role that couldn’t have been equally if not more charming coming from Natalie Dormer, Emily Blunt, Rachel Nichols, or my personal pet-casting, Tabrett Bethell. This movie never allows its feet to touch the ground and yet somehow ends up disappointingly heteronormative. The scraps in this genre for queer people are meager enough without queer writers contributing to erasure.

So are the perceived weaknesses and failures of this Wachowski film born in the expectations set on the shoulders of female characters? We may not be able to truly say until after the film’s inevitable cult status is achieved. I know I will be very surprised if this film is not still being written about many years after its DVD release.

Willow Rosenberg and the Gold Star

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This actually started as a post on tumblr attached to a casually biphobic video by YouTuber Arielle Scarcella. I posted it, walked away, got in the shower, and basically panicked about it being on the internet. I came back and ripped it down, feeling 75% better, and consequently very ashamed. I normally write non-fiction through the lens of pop-culture in order to provide the proper objective point of view and distance, as well as give readers a common ground from which we can all hopefully draw examples. I blog about pop-culture because I think it is ridiculously important and often ignored. But I don’t have a way to come at this through pop-culture. I’ve been working on this post for the better part of four months trying to find a way to talk about it, and I have not come up with a way. There’s a reason. There’s no popular media or sci-fi go-to person for bisexuality. As important as Willow Rosenberg from Buffy the Vampire slayer is to me personally, she never identifies as bisexual, in fact, despite the very familiar terms she uses to describe her attraction; “And it wasn’t women, it was woman. Just one.” (episode: “The Killer In Me”) and her late revelation about her sexuality, the depth and intensity of her relationship with Oz, the whole question is settled early and firmly with “I’m gay now.” Willow is in fact one of the most visible television lesbians still, and she could very well be a lesbian with a dating history that includes men. That on its own would be wonderful, but as it stands either way she does nothing for bisexual visibility or bisexual representation, and finding anyone, male or female who explicitly uses the word bisexual in reference to themselves in television or movies is discouragingly difficult considering the long and rich history of the term.

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The reason I know that representation matters is personal experience. The invisibility of my sexuality in popular media made it that much easier to accept it when people said it wasn’t real, that it was a train stop on the way to something else, that if I was queer at all, I would just know. Media infested with ex-lesbians and girls kissing “for attention” and experimentation made it easy to dismiss my own truth with common sentiments like, “well, all girls like girls a little bit, everyone’s a little gay, who doesn’t get excited by lesbian porn?” Like Kennedy, all the queer women I knew knew they liked girls by early adolescence if not earlier. One of my friends in technical theater told me she knew when she was five and gave me the weirdest look when I said, “I would kill to be that certain.” So I moved in hetero space, I stayed out of the queer spaces where I felt more comfortable because I also felt like an impostor. I still have that impostor feeling.

I am often vague about my sexuality, I let people assume my gayness or my straightness based on the situation, I get labeled lesbian in queer spaces and sometimes I don’t quibble. I drop “my girlfriend” into the conversation and then don’t go any further. If I were an ally, I would consider myself a truly terrible ally- but something occurred to me very recently that hadn’t before: I’m not an ally. I’m not vacationing in queer space as a stealth man-loving woman, I’m not letting people assume my heterosexuality to enjoy the “privilege” of invisibility as opposed to letting people assume my heterosexuality because it’s safer given the situation. I’m in the middle of this problem, and while as an ally I would expect myself to be vocal in public and to defend myself against erasure and micro-aggressions, I’m not an impostor here.

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When I first came out, someone told me that the LGBT (at the time it was still usually GLBT) acronym was a hierarchy, and I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time. Today, it’s the reason I remain very uncomfortable with the acronym, it’s the reason I’m so fond of the word “queer.” I love the idea that we can all be one giant intersectional umbrella of marginalized sexualities and gender identities including people who hardly ever make it into the acronym; including people who I’m already too old and stuffy to be educated about yet, but we have some stuff to figure out with each other before that’s really the reality we’re living in. I continue to use “queer” because I live in hope.

Maybe Willow Rosenberg isn’t bisexual, but she’s also not what the lesbian community calls a “gold star” lesbian. This gets really technical, but when you get right down to it, to be “gold star” you mustn’t have been penetrated by a penis. Obviously that’s a ridiculously transphobic definition, so some will scale it back to “never had sex with a man or male-identified person,” but if you talk to people who make the “gold star” distinction, it reduces to one of two things pretty quickly, straight up misogyny or biphobia. The misogyny comes from the idea that a vagina that has never been penetrated by a penis is somehow more pure or eternally virginal, the weird misconception that sex with guys invariably leads to a “loose” vagina, and the idea that someone sleeping with a woman has some sort of discretion over that woman’s sexual history, a pretty direct brand of slut-shaming. The biphobia comes from the idea that there exists some sort of hierarchy of being attracted to women and women who have never had sex with a man (totally erasing the existence of women who were coerced or molested) are somehow more gay and deserving of praise, and/or inherently more dateable or sexually desirable. The “gold star” idea is just one ugly way that some lesbians will continue to marginalize and erase bisexual women, and I’ve heard it more than once used as one of many legitimately held reasons to not date bisexual women. All this is to say that lesbian space is not generally safe space for bisexual women.

When I was younger, one of my favorite movies was Chasing Amy, one of the “Clerks” spinoffs directed by Kevin Smith. I love it for its sexual exploration, its down-to-earth romance and its flawed characters, but the press on the movie largely described it as, “man falls in love with lesbian; turns her straight.” The above scene is one in which the main character Alyssa tells her presumably and implied lesbian friends that she’s in love with a man. I have always and only seen a bisexual woman coming out at long last to her friends. The reception is chilly as you’d expect, and the scene ends with one of her friends saying; “another one bites the dust,” as if Alyssa is succumbing to some heteronormative pressure rather than following her heart after much painful soul searching and deliberation. Her friends give her no benefit of the doubt, and that scene stuck with me and continued to echo my own experiences with coming out. It’s not “easier” to come out as bisexual. You have to REMIND people that you have already told that you are bisexual, you have to CONVINCE people that you exist, you have to DEFEND your right to not be called either gay or straight or confused. If you think that Katy Perry’s “I kissed a girl” was bad for lesbians it was 20 times worse for bisexual girls, because it reinforced slutty bisexual stereotypes, the stereotype that we’re all lying or confused or experimenting, and the non-monogamous bisexual (from which folks can say they wouldn’t date a bisexual girl because they would be worried about her cheating as if we’re ALL THE SAME.) What little representation I can come up with in media portrayals of bisexual characters mostly reflected that handful of negative stereotypes, and only one out of the thirteen I could come up with actually used the word “bisexual” at any juncture.

Everyone should watch Orphan Black, just, everyone.

Everyone should watch Orphan Black, just, everyone.

Even though I was incredibly fortunate to grown up in a time in a metropolitan area where homophobia was at least socially frowned upon in public, it took me YEARS to understand and come to terms with my own bisexuality, because I spent that entire time questioning and interrogating and doubting my own feelings. I still struggle with feeling like an impostor, I still sometimes feel like my experiences don’t count as authority. But nobody hated this label more than I did, and now that I have it, you can’t take it away and I won’t shut up about it.

Mean Girls and Whores

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A few days ago I read for the first time that 1996’s teen slasher flick Scream was a place for Wes Craven to pin his hopes of keeping the slasher flick alive and well by marketing it to women.  This may just be a popular rumor the internet is passing around, but it immediately called to mind the fact that Scream and a few of its sequels have been and remain my favorite horror movies.  Scream keeps us inside the horror by taking its characters seriously, but then pops us right out with Randy the resident horror movie expert.  Randy exposes the tropes, lays down the rules, and even points out the killer.  It was the first time I started to understand just how rigged the horror movie game was, and having Randy there to let us know it was all just one big morality tale was just the anesthetic my teenage brain needed to think it through in the midst of all the innards and blood.  Scream is a great tool for rhetorical and critical thinking about media, but its distinction is mainly in being the first popular attempt at such in its genre.  Unfortunately, what the movie seemed to spawn in its wake was merely a legion of crappy cheap parodies of this borderline parody and I didn’t see much in the way of even derivative work on the silver screen until meta-master Joss Whedon tried his hand at horror last year.

If you haven’t yet seen Cabin in the Woods, good god, stop reading this right now and queue it up.  What you’ll find is a slasher that borders on the epically tragic and understands that even though this movie is just a deadly game, we still have big stakes in it.  Whedon really wants us to transcend our regular thinking and suggest this genre as a form of subtle social control.  And isn’t that where Scream was headed, after all?  We all know the rules:

  • Never have sex (lust)
  • Don’t drink or do drugs (gluttony)
  • Don’t say you’ll be right back (pride)

Don’t have sex, definitely don’t enjoy it, don’t indulge yourself, and absolutely positively don’t practice confidence.  The other four sins have their place in terms of cause of death, but Randy has outlined these as the ones that are absolutely unsurvivable.  As Jules, our final girl from Cabin in the Woods says in her final revelation; “They don’t just want to see us killed, they want to see us punished.”  Cabin suggests something ritualistic about our need to complete this story over and over again, even giving us totems; the fool, the whore, the athlete, the scholar, and the virgin or final girl.  There exist leagues of discussion about the final girl, and some of it well worth reading, but I concern myself chiefly with the other side of this virgin/whore dichotomy, the girl who doesn’t survive- the whore.

When the whore exists outside of the horror movie genre, the audience’s need for her to be punished follows her, as does the slut-shaming and witch-burning.  She’s the embodiment of biblical Eve, she’s the girl who, in the context of horror at least, must die, and she will die first, and she will die naked and afraid.  She is the blonde girl in the alley that Whedon so pitied that he wrote an entire television series about how she runs into a dark alley with a monster and emerges triumphant.

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“Buffy the Vampire Slayer was explicitly conceived of as a reworking of horror films in which ‘bubbleheaded blondes wandered into dark alleys and got murdered by some creature.’ As he notes, ‘The idea of Buffy was to…create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim.” (from PostFeminism: Cultural Texts and Theories, by Stephanie Genz)

Buffy ends up being much more of a final girl than whore in the end.  Buffy’s first tender sexual encounter is emotional and characterized by blurry flashes of flesh and ends in tragedy, while we’re led to believe that Cordelia’s sexual relationships have been numerous and far less pivotal.  Though virginal Xander is her longest on-screen relationship, no one seems to imagine that Cordelia graduates as a virgin, and when she leaves the series she spins off being just as promiscuous.  The difference is clear, Buffy is the kind of girl you take home to meet mom, and Cordelia is the kind of girl you date in secret. buffy-cordelia

Cordelia is not only a whore, she’s also a self-identified bitch, meaning that she looks out for herself and isn’t afraid to bargain with her affections, physical or otherwise.  She dates boys for their cars, she jumps from one emotionally distant but profitable relationship to the next, and she is not afraid to step on the neck of anyone who gets in her way.  She’s ambitious in a very feminine way, and it’s not that she doesn’t know how to censor herself, she just refuses to.  “Tact is just not saying true stuff.  I’ll pass.”  Cordelia sees her social position as something which she has earned and sacrificed for, and Buffy, by denying her authority in turning down her offering of friendship in the first episode, and then later directly threatening her position by going after the title of Homecoming Queen, is a threat to all Cordelia has, which is, even in her own estimation, not a whole heck of a lot compared to Buffy’s superhero status and support system.

The popular girl (identified as the “Alpha Bitch” by TV Tropes.org) is about status, she often comes from a broken home, or suffers from a lack of parental guidance or interest, but unlike the redeemable male bully, her situation is not to be pitied or empathized with.  Cordy is well-hated among the cast of characters, as well as among the fans, and she’s often the butt of jokes, but in Whedon’s universe, she is allowed a dignity and depth she might not otherwise be afforded.

That leads me to a position for which I find myself constantly explaining myself.  Mean Girls, the Tina-Fey-written feminist-lauded screenplay about just how monstrous it is that girls in the patriarchy don’t have each other’s backs while completely ignoring the fact that the patriarchy is a figure in the equation.  My lack of contemporary horror-movie knowledge means that Regina George is the most recent example I can conjure of “the whore” being unrepentantly publicly destroyed for mass-consumption, but I find that Mean Girls is easily the least criticized example of this trope.

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The narrative in Mean Girls would have us believe that Regina is an empty-eyed sadist, and the movie uses the viewer’s socially-conditioned contempt for the trappings of femininity to reflect the character’s intended shallow and phony personality.  Her clique is called “the plastics;” a catty dig aimed at shaming cosmetic surgery, her mother’s breasts are fake and therefore alien, she’s “flawless,” she insures her hair, and her bedroom is as pink as the group’s outfits on Wednesday.  Regina is the straw-femme designed to be measured against our main character and found wanting, but they both are self-interested, insecure, and unkind at different points in the narrative.  Cady is fairly unrepentant about hurting the other girls in Regina’s clique and easily falls into doing the same kind of bullying that is meant to make us feel alright about the karma-bus that hits Regina in the end.

The difference between Regina and Cady though, is in where they come from.  Regina comes from a house where drinking and sex are freely permitted, where she pushes limits and finds no boundaries whatsoever, where her obviously uninvolved father shows up for one scene in order to be a concerning joke about his teenage daughter’s burgeoning sexuality.  Despite the emotional neglect, she takes care of herself, sets her own boundaries and expectations, and builds herself a fortress of perceived self-esteem which cannot be punctured.  Cady on the other hand, while mysteriously under-socialized with young people her age, has a consistent and firm support system.  In short, she knows better, but she does anyway.

The audience is meant to enjoy tearing down Regina because of what she represents the same way that every teen-slasher-flick sets the scantily clad or nude “whore” on the altar of our own prejudices and inhibitions.  She is punished, no matter the genre, for daring to embrace her sexuality, her femininity, and herself, and she is right to mistrust us, because she knows intuitively that we would love to tear her down.  Mean Girls did seem to be a really genuine look at how and why girls bully each other, but my fondest hope is that a decade from now we will have a feminism that allows us to empathize with this character to a point at which this movie transforms in the public eye much like Merchant of Venice from the comedy that it wants to be to the tragedy that it is.

Ben Affleck cast as Snyder’s Batman; Why does that piss everyone off?

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Since the announcement yesterday that Warner Brothers had cast veteran actor, writer, and director Ben Affleck to play Batman in the upcoming Man of Steel sequel, there have been a number of large reactions, including but certainly not limited to a couple of petitions put up on petition websites, as if a petition by a couple of crank fans has ever turned the tide in a situation like this one.  Those who love Batman were quick to defend him against the accusation that he might ever have Affleck’s face, figure, or most significantly to me, his uncommonly kind eyes.  I tried immediately to picture Affleck’s soft brown eyes menacing from under a cowl and fell short in my imagination.  I have come to think that this knee-jerk reaction says more about the public perception of this character than it does about Affleck’s ability to tackle the role or his suitability as a choice.

As a long-time Kevin Smith fan I’ve had the opportunity to know more about Affleck than I typically would most actors or celebrities, and first of all I want to make one thing abundantly clear.  He’s one of us.  From the enormous backlash from fans, it’s been made clear that few people actually know this.  Ben Affleck is a serious fanboy; he knows his comics and he knows Batman.  He’s sought out roles like the lead role in Daredevil, and playing George Reeves in Hollywoodland for a reason, because he genuinely loves the work.

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Isn’t that the greatest thing to be embraced about Henry Cavill?  What’s important about Affleck being a geek is that he will protect the work, he will have the sense to protect Batman and portray him with dignity, and perhaps more significantly, he’s unlikely to be comfortable with story lines that do any disrespect to Superman.  I think Cavill definitely brings similar qualities, but he lacked the star power, at least before Man of Steel premiered, to put his foot down when it matters.  The bulk of detractors seem to be aware of Affleck as far as Gigli and Reindeer Games.

He’s also not replacing Christian Bale.  There’s no possibility of Christian Bale playing Batman again in the Justice League franchise, and while I can understand that people are bound to get very attached to a performance, the regularity with which this is brought up is really disheartening.  It shows a kind of ignorance that could be cured inside a 6-hour marathon of the 90s Batman movies, in which the cowl was passed three times.  It’s been made clear by almost everyone involved in the film that the Dark Knight trilogy and the Justice League movies take place in entirely different universes.  That’s not subterfuge, that’s a very deep chasm that Nolan has put down in order to isolate his “Batman vision.”  Snyder will not be picking up where he left off, and while every superhero movie clearly takes notes from the movies to come before it in the genre, he will not be matching the tone or technique.

I think though, that the immediate negative reaction has more to do with how we feel about Batman.  So, since we obviously have zero power to change Warner Brother’s minds about this, let’s speculate about how this casting decision might affect the movie.

  • There might be less Batman than we originally anticipated.  There have been rumors that Affleck has signed a “13 appearance” deal with Warner Brothers, which if it were true, would significantly limit Affleck’s screen time.  It’s interesting to me that for all the Batman/Superman content Synder has been tossing around, nobody has really confirmed that Batman will necessarily have second billing.  The Snyder/Goyer team seems to trust its actors to have the ability to do a lot when given very little (there’s not a lot of chatting about feelings or monologing in Man of Steel) so I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if Affleck had a few choice scenes and then in typical Batman style, disappear like a shadow.

  • We might be dealing with a number of non-traditional masculinities in this series.  We’ve already got a physically-desirable soft-spoken introvert for a Superman, and when I heard about the Batman/Superman team up movie, my first assumption was that they were intent on contrasting Batman as a more traditional masculinity up against Clark’s more sensitive portrayal for better or worse.  I expected the Batman pick to be someone who’d play gritty, edgy, mean, and dark to Clark’s sunny and naïve.  Affleck isn’t that choice.  He plays an effective smarmy jerk (hmm, sounds like a certain playboy millionaire I know), and I think he would have been a really fabulous choice for Lex Luthor, but he brings an inescapable tenderness to any role he assumes.  Even with the cowl on, I think we are going to see a very enlightened (maybe even feminist?) Batman.  With Batman and Superman setting the baseline, what would that mean for everyone else in the Justice League?

  • Batman is going to be old.  Ben Affleck just celebrated his 41st birthday, so while Cavill is definitely playing a few years older, there’s no way to pretend that these two are near the same age.  Synder has already been quoted saying that his Batman will be a “seasoned crime-fighter,” and this will undoubtedly affect the nature of their relationship, my only hope being that that doesn’t mean a snarky Batman condescending to Superman for the bulk of the movie.  With Affleck, Cavill, Snyder, and Goyer to protect this story though, I’m less and less concerned about that possibility as the days go by.  Nobody wants to do wrong by Superman, and so far, they’ve done a pretty fantastic job.  The choice of an older actor did bring me pause though, because Frank Miller’s Dark Knightmare features a older Batman, but Miller’s Batman is 55, and Affleck doesn’t yet look 40, so it’s still not a sign of a faithful adaptation.  The fact that Batman is so much older might also mean that they are subverting the idea of Superman as strictly the first costumed superhero in the DC universe.  I know Batman has more work to do to get to a role that Clark tripped and fell into, but I’d be very surprised if they wrote a 40 year old Batman without a bat suit.  How exactly has he been fighting crime all these years without a suit?  It’s not like Superman can just inspire him to put ears and wings on the outfit.

  • The acting is going to be really amazing.  Say what you want, I have seen effortless accomplished acting out of this whole cast and adding Ben just shows a commitment to excellence.  A lot of the detractors are saying the reason they are resisting the casting choice is because of his lack of skill or range, but I would challenge you to put that criticism to the test with some of Affleck’s best movies instead of automatically sighting his worst ones.  When he has good material to work with, he brings a consistently excellent performance.  I wouldn’t necessarily mind him getting his hands in the directing and writing of this franchise, either.

  • They might just be taking their female-dominated audience into account. Ben Affleck is not a man for heterosexual men to look at, and Henry Cavill is so beautiful that he likely makes heterosexual men uncomfortable as they re-assess what they thought they knew about their sexuality.  In contrast, Faora’s armor is practical and she is more of a female-power-fantasy than sex object, Lois, despite being played by the absolutely stunning Amy Adams, is never objectified, and Diane Lane is shot in a way that makes it seem as though having a 33 year old son might be plausible thing for Martha Kent.Image

All in all, I think the backlash to this decision has more to do with the idea that the Batman in this franchise might be a complexly flawed human being with a masculinity that isn’t necessarily so fractured that it can’t be called into question.  I personally think that Batman has started to become the Chuck Norris of comic book fans, and that’s not a compliment.  In the whole Batman/Superman controversy, it seems as though a disproportionate number of Batman fans as really really insistent about Batman winning in a fight while Superman fans are sometimes more inclined to ask why in the world that fight might be happening in the first place.  I’m tired of the Batman who has something to prove.  He’s got the dizzying intellect, the sex appeal, the cool exits and entrances, the title of “world’s greatest detective,” really, what is there to prove?

The Argument to be Made for a Female Doctor

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For those uninitiated, Doctor Who is a British Sci Fi series first launched in 1963 with little besides love, cardboard, and fishing line and ran with growing popularity for the next 26 years. It was recently revived in 2005 as a continuation of the original plot line. When compared to American media, it is nearest in spirit to Star Trek, an unnaturally long-running science fiction series that more or less invented and defined fan culture for a country.  It crosses media barriers with books, comics, a mid-eighties movie and numerous radio shows, has seen outrageous numbers of viewers in the UK, and as of today is unarguably Britain’s most popular television export.

The premise of this show is a time-traveling humanoid alien being who travels time and space with his generally human companions in his cleverly disguised spaceship/time machine.  What makes the doctor so special and adored is surely a question for history to answer and fans to bicker about, but one of the things that gives the series so much longevity is The Doctor’s ability to regenerate.  Regeneration is an affectation of The Doctor’s species, called time lords, all of whom possess a binary vascular system and the ability to cheat death by “regenerating” their cell tissue into a new form.  That new form comes with a new face, and conveniently, a new actor to play the role until the next time The Doctor “dies.”

The news these last two weeks has been the announcement of the 12th actor to play the most significant roles in British science fiction, and one of the most prominent roles in the current science fiction landscape in general.  As context may suggest, I don’t consider this a trivial decision.  Many people, myself included, expressed a sense of disappointment at the news that this actor was, like every single actor to play the doctor before him, white and male, especially considering the significant fan campaigns to have the current production team on the series cast its nets more widely when searching for this figurehead of science fiction television.

I reacted by writing a post that reiterated my lack of support for the current writing team on the series, with special attention to Steven Moffat, the current head writer.  Though my argument was largely based on the detriment that Moffat was doing to the general writing of the series, it was largely received by what I can only assume are folks with very low reading comprehension as a demand for an actress to be cast in the role.  I quoted Jill Pantozzi over at The Mary Sue in that article when she said something to the effect of; many female fans don’t want to see what scary sexist shit Moffat would do with a female doctor.

I can wait for a female doctor, I can wait for a POC doctor, I am concerned that the series will not survive Moffat’s decisions, but all my preferences are beside the point.  The fact is that I have yet to hear an objection to this plot point that isn’t couched in misogyny.

  • First of all, it’s canon. 

The first Neil-Gaiman-written episode titled “The Doctor’s Wife,” confirms the possibility of changing genders between regenerations.  If you don’t know this, and you’re still providing false-equivalencies like this one:

“What? Dr. Who has always been a male character. Would you accept Jane Austen books changing their leading women characters to men? Accusing Dr Who of being racist and sexist but yet you wouldn’t allow a black man to play the role of ‘Emma”. Tumblr Feminism strikes again. Smh”

Then you need to brush up on your knowledge. I don’t think being a fan requires knowing every single fact about something you love, but being a well-informed citizen means not barreling into arguments without any real ammunition to back you up.  From Neil Gaiman:

“I was the one who wrote the line about the Corsair changing gender on regeneration, in “The Doctor’s Wife” after all, and made it canon that Time Lords can absolutely change gender when they regenerate”

  • Gender-essentialism is all but dead. 

Numerous modern studies in the fields of sociology and psychology are proving that the differences between men and women that we have typically held to be true are the result of limited and biased science.  This is one of the first things you realize when you begin to actually study gender, that differences in behavior and psychology in terms of gender are largely socially created and more often than not used as an excuse to further oppress and discriminate against women and people who fall outside the straight/white/masculine norm.  It’s also the root of plenty of femmephobia (the systematic undervaluing and dismissing of traits and values typically coded “feminine”), homophobia, and transphobia, because people behaving outside the commonly-held parameters of their assigned gender can be othered and regarded as unnatural.

If The Doctor really has visited our more-evolved and more scientifically advanced future, gender essentialism should be a trivial archaic idea for him the same way sexual orientation is, and eventually the writers of this show will have to acknowledge that in The Doctor’s utopia male and female are interchangeable values of nearly infinite variation.  The Kinsey-scale for gender is on its way.

  • Representation matters.

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There’s one possible role on Doctor Who for women and girls, and that role is always secondary to The Doctor.  In Moffat’s universe, they can be obsessed with The Doctor, in love with The Doctor, or have their fate and existence completely dependent on The Doctor.  The Doctor is always, and has historically been, a benevolent-if-impatient patriarch, handing out instructions as a doctor to his nurse and giving his companions only enough information to get by.

It has been argued that this is not because his companions are female, but because they are human, and in-context that’s an excellent point to be made.  The Doctor isn’t prone to sexism in any way that’s been revealed, but he does often treat humans as inferior regardless of gender, at least he is very often frustrated by their limitations.  The gender-hierarchy represented on screen, however, is painfully familiar to a history of sexism and will need to tread lighter and lighter as progress marches on and viewers become smarter.  A decades-old series is bound to come up against this question, and the way that that series answers it is a deciding factor in its longevity.

The Doctor can have any face that can be imagined, unless we’re actually to believe that time lords are actually all Caucasian, and yet every single time he rolls the dice, he comes up with something that is in practical terms pretty similar to what he had the last time around.  Either the doctor is doomed to a complete lack of variation, or assuming he has some level of control over his regeneration process either in a conscious or unconscious fashion, The Doctor prefers his current skin-color and gender.  Now you can write that off to the fuddy-duddyness of the character, but it must be interpreted that if that is the case, the show itself feels that there is something superior about maleness and whiteness.

  • We’ve got no way to be sure we’re getting the best person for the job.

What does the casting call or casting list look like for the new doctor these days?  According to Steven Moffat, he says there was ONE name on his list this time around, which makes me wonder how many people he thinks that the UK contains. (62.74 million, as of 2011) So out of 62 million people, there’s no person better qualified than this one man?  Clearly that’s not a question that Moffat bothered to ask, if he’s to be believed about his casting process.  Gaiman says that a black actor was offered the role of The Doctor, but turned it down.  His sound bite on that isn’t specific as to which doctor that was, but regardless I’m pretty certain the case is not  that the United Kingdom has ONE representative black actor and once you query him, you’re pretty much out of luck.

And this may be rather naive on my part, but when do we start to hold the white male actors that are cast in these leading roles accountable?  Peter Capaldi is not hurting for work, and had a line of white and male actors said “no thanks,” would we just not have a new doctor?  Obviously not, casting directors would be forced to think outside the race-and-gender box.  How far does the responsibility as allies extend for these actors, really?  The question of casting off privilege affects the majority of us.

It’s entirely possible that the very best person who could have played the 12th doctor is a white man, it’s entirely possible that that person is Peter Capaldi, but unfortunately we’ll never know for sure.

 

Doctor Who: The casting of the 12th white leading male is not the problem, it’s a symptom.

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The 12th doctor was announced this past Sunday and he’s Peter Capaldi, a Scottish actor best known for his role on the BBC show The Thick of It.  My frame personal of reference for him was his other appearances in the whoniverse, in the season 4 episode “The Fires of Pompeii,” and a role I honestly don’t remember very well from the Torchwood special, “Children of Earth.”  He seems like a perfectly natural choice for The Doctor, and since they don’t choose just anyone for these roles and he’s a veteran thespian, I’m sure he’ll be wonderful.

That said, there’s been a lot of talk about the casting of yet another white male in a role that could be played by anyone in the world.  The doctor’s gender or skin color is not the most pressing issue in the current Doctor Who series, and if I were performing a social justice triage on Doctor Who, I wouldn’t start with the doctor himself, not at least the actor playing him, anyway, I would start with the writing.

Now I am a serious fanatic when it comes to the Russell T. Davies years, so I must acknowledge that that level of fanaticism comes with some temporary blindness but I would say that it was one of the most pure and undiluted attempts at social justice on television that I had seen so far.  So maybe I’m spoiled.  But I don’t think anyone will be shutting me down anymore when I talk about Steven Moffat, and that is the reason I find myself a little pleased in the wake of the announcement that may in the end up blowing up in the show runner’s face.

There’s a pretty complete rundown of Moffat’s public examples of blatant sexism on the tumblr Feminist Whoniverse, but I am just talking here about a few of the highlights.  The most clear examples of Moffat’s attitude come from an interview he did in 2004 with The Scotsman, right after he got his writing job for Doctor Who.

“There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands.”

This isn’t just sexist, it shows a truly depressing lack of understanding for gender roles in the first place.  When he’s not generalizing about women, he’s talking about what he’s “not allowed” to discuss because apparently he’s so very oppressed that he’s not allowed to say things that might offend someone.  Unless, you know, he’s being interviewed by a magazine.  He goes on to expand on his perceived oppression.

“Well, the world is vastly counted in favour of men at every level – except if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class, because then you’re almost certainly junior in your relationship and in a state of permanent, crippled apology. Your preferences are routinely mocked. There’s a huge, unfortunate lack of respect for anything male.”

This quote 100% explains how he writes all the relationships in his series and why no matter how earnest or heartfelt they try to be, they are constantly hamstrung by Moffat’s cynicism.  Examples, the fact that The Doctor and River have no chemistry, the fact that after all they’ve been through Rory magically has no idea what he means to Amy.  This flawed idea of how the world actually literally works deeply affects the directions his series goes in, and is most definitely the main factor in The Doctor being transformed into some sort of weapon-wielding, walking-away-from-explosions-holding-a-fainting-girl action-movie star.

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Now the defense usually given to these two snippets is that they were such a long time ago (2004), so hey, let’s scoot on into the future, shall we?

“You have to hand it to the Doctor for dumping a slightly needy girlfriend by palming her off on a copy of himself. He tried leaving her in a parallel universe, and that didn’t work.” (2008)

I can’t tell whether he’s purposefully or honestly misunderstanding the relationship between Rose and 10 here, but either way it’s really foolish and honestly pretty disrespectful to more than the characters.  It’s disrespectful to the writers who carefully crafted a relationship that redefined expectations for the way the Doctor would interact with his companions for a generation.  Defining Rose as a “slightly needy girlfriend” minimizes her role and minimizes the contribution that Billie Piper made to breathing new life into the series, and characterizing the sacrifice 10 makes in parting with Rose as “palming her off” cheapens the sacrifice and the emotional weight of the moment.  What kind of man can the Doctor possibly be, by the way, that he wouldn’t be able to break up with a girl except sending her off to a different universe?  Moffat’s approach to these stories isn’t problematic just because he habitually demeans the female characters, this sort of writing about gender is equally disrespectful toward the men he writes.  He doesn’t draw the line at fictional characters, however, when asked about Karen Gillian, he seemed delighted to objectify her, as well.

“And I thought, ‘well she’s really good. It’s just a shame she’s so wee and dumpy…When she was about to come through to the auditions I nipped out for a minute and I saw Karen walking on the corridor towards me and I realised she was 5’11, slim and gorgeous and I thought ‘Oh, oh that’ll probably work’.”(2010)

But all of this mounting evidence can for the most part be excused by apologists because it’s in the past, and Moffat has been watching his mouth lately to a certain degree, but during the announcement-special in a pre-taped interview, he responded to the folks who were hoping for a female doctor as such:

“I like that Helen Mirren has been saying we should have a female doctor, and to go on record I think it’s time that the queen was played by a man.” (5 DAYS AGO.)

He then went on to dig an even deeper hole, as is his habit, by letting everyone know that he was hearing from women that they didn’t WANT a doctor, which is hilarious mostly because Moffat seems to believe that women are incapable of sexism, but Jill Pantozzi over at The Mary Sue responded in what has been the most eloquent article written on the subject so far.

 “Although many fans (men or women, and even myself) didn’t want a female Doctor for 12, some of those fans didn’t want one simply because they were horrified at how Moffat would write such a character, not that they didn’t want one full-stop.”

And this is really what it comes down to; I have read around and I agree most with the articles that are ready to chuck out Moffat but feel just fine about Capaldi taking on the role. The battle cry against Moffat may on the whole have more to do with the way the writing has declined than Moffat’s brazen disregard for anything approaching social justice, but Moffat’s stance on his female characters, and really his male ones, has been a source of annoyance and frustration for fans for a long time.  A blogger on zap2it.com pulled a few punches on the whole “is Moffat a sexist” question, but ultimately pointed out what many are observing, that Moffat’s casting was indeed focused on criteria that is completely outdated, and that that isn’t just bad for women, it’s bad for the creative direction of the series itself.

“The issue is NOT that Moffat didn’t cast a woman (or a non-Caucasian of either gender). It’s that the thought of casting one NEVER SEEMED TO ENTER INTO THE EQUATION. It’s as ludicrous to him that a woman would be the Doctor as a man would portray The Queen. Both represent a type of drag performance that might be amusing but certainly not authentic. And given that science fiction/fantasy is a place where “what if” and “why not” have their safest homes, it’s disheartening to see limitations put on a show that is, by its design, utterly limitless.”

While it’s entirely true that socially we shouldn’t put up with this kind of behavior from any public figure, the fact that Moffat is or the thin argument that he might not be a sexist is far beside the point.  The point being that his perspective and the way that he writes is negatively affecting the show as a whole.  This is a point on which there are fewer and fewer dissenters as time goes by.  The New York Times published an opinion piece by YA author Jennifer Finney Boylan  on the subject, RogerEbert.com ran an article with the title, “Steven Moffat: Destroyer of Hopes and Dreams,” and the last two seasons have seen a growing negative backlash from Who fans of all kinds.   After this announcement and accompanying remarks, I would be very surprised if Moffat’s run lasts more than another year.   The concern that draws is whether or not Doctor Who will survive him, at least in the immediate future, or if this disaster is running headlong toward another extended hiatus.

Batman/Superman: why keeping Frank Miller away from this movie is essential

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The third chapter of my Man of Steel series, the one I would much rather write, needs to be postponed.  This Batman/Superman foolishness is too immediate and pervasive for me to NOT say something.

For people who don’t know, let me catch you up.  At this year’s Sand Diego ComicCon Warner Brothers further confirmed an announcement that came very shortly after the release of Man of Steel, that the favored team of Goyer and Synder would indeed be involved in the Man of Steel sequel as expected, and announced that the movie would include Batman.  The extent to which this news has been blown out of proportion all over the internet is owed in no small part to the excerpt read from the Frank Miller graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. This one.

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I’m not big on speculating about movies before they even begin shooting, I tend to hang back and see how everything falls, because I know with a collaborative project of any decent size, what you expect going in isn’t always what you end up with.  I was just going to privately grumble about this decision and leave it at that, but then yesterday, the news broke that Snyder would be meeting with Frank Miller to discuss the movie.  That obviously doesn’t mean anything in particular about Miller’s involvement in the direction of the movie, but when asked about the meeting by a source from Supermanhomepage.com, Snyder said:

“It’s too early for me to discuss the film. However, regardless of how I feel about Superman, ultimately I have to go along with the direction that Warner Bros. thinks is best.”  (emphasis mine)

If all of that is not enough to frighten Man of Steel fans, I don’t know how to rile them up.  Maybe they, like me, weren’t very familiar with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns for one reason or another.  Well, I’ve remedied that situation by sitting down and reading it, and I’ve got some insights.  People have been saying that this is a horrible idea because Miller doesn’t understand Superman, and that’s part of the problem.  Miller also doesn’t understand Batman.

The Batman in this book is contorted into a crude metaphor to suit Miller’s not-so-subtle political agenda and is basically a pale version of what Moore proposed to do to the main Justice League characters had he had the permission for Watchmen.  His obsession with tearing down these heroes is writ large in the dark parody that is The Dark Knight Returns. This Batman is not a hero, there’s not anything admirable about his character unless you admire break-neck tenacity with no moral compass attached.  Miller’s Batman is a lunatic.  He’s just as mentally deranged as the criminals he’s putting in Arkham, and despite a very brief anti-gun speech he gives near the end of the book while inciting a mob full of murderers, he’s constantly armed to the teeth with ammunition.  A scene where he turns a landfill into a war zone by driving a tank into a mob of gang members is handily written off by the dark knight’s use of “rubber bullets” with no explanation for the resulting explosions that are without a doubt targeted to kill.

Man of Steel had one of the healthiest approaches to masculinity yet to be seen in this film genre.  Clark’s brand of masculinity is non-traditional.  It doesn’t involve proving his physical prowess (he doesn’t have to) and it doesn’t involve needless violence.  When he loses his head, he quickly regains it because the entire purpose of the Kents is to make sure the most powerful man in the world doesn’t end up some kind of flighty loose-cannon.  In Returns, we do see Clark trying to problem solve and use his words, but when Batman literally won’t hear him, he is far too easily provoked to anger.  To not understand how serious unchained rage is on this character is to seriously misunderstand not only his motives but the motives of the universe constructed in MoS.

Batman, on the other hand, has somehow magically transformed from one of the most dependable and morally sound characters to wear a cape, to everything that detractors always said he was, an unstable vigilante whose reputation and sense of manhood are so fragile that every action is turned away from a noble attempt to save his city and toward some maniacal quest for glory.  This is not a characterization in a vacuum, in fact, this seems to be Miller’s go-to for Batman.  After all, he is the guy who coined, “I’m the goddamn Batman.”  The worst part though, is the slug-fest, which besides being a another pretty solid example of a character who knows better using poor Clark as an executioner, includes Batman telling Clark, “—it’s way past time you learned—what it means—to be a man.”  In this case, Miller makes it clear that the definition of “being a man” involves throwing punches and bleeding from the face, a definition that is so worn out that it’s laughable.  Who would have actually thought a fight between these two great men would actually be so easily translated into THIS? Or THIS?  The last thing DC needs to boost its image is a protracted scene of their two heavy-hitters behaving like overgrown nine-year-olds.

And this is about image.  In an earlier post, I pointed out that every derivative work featuring Superman has the power to effect his image, and Returns has had a very corrosive effect on both Superheroes.  Miller’s work has done nothing to complicate these characters, develop them, or challenge them; instead it has lazily reduced both heroes into stale and inaccurate stereotypes of more subtle themes.  Since Returns, the mainstream perception of Superman has been as dull, bossy patriarch, which is in my opinion even worse than the typical “boy scout” image pushed in the comics.  At least the emotionally fallible and earnest boy scout is a relatable character, while patriarch Superman is not only outdated, but alienates specific groups of people.  Batman has also been harmed by his portrayal, many of his followers have begun to exemplify the worst parts of toxic masculinity, and this whole Batman as Chuck Norris thing is a complete embarrassment.  Batman vs. Superman is not about brains vs. brawn, anarchy vs. order, or even old-guard masculinity vs. progress, because stories that embrace that kind of simplicity don’t include characters with 75 years worth of history and development.

But what it really comes down to for the Batman vs. Superman supporters is the much-desired grudge match in which the question will be forever answered about which superhero can “take out” the other and therefore whose shorts are the most bursting with virile man-parts or whatever.  With DC so far striving for realism over comic book frivolity, how do you honestly have someone like Superman exchanging punches with a regular human being?  Sure, Kryptonite can even the playing field, but how much story contortion do you have to perform from the end of Man of Steel to have Bruce show up in town with a big ‘ol hunk of meteor rock that no one ever knew existed?  The main point here is really that Returns didn’t have to make Clark a government stooge, it didn’t have to do the whole “Superhero sell out” storyline, all it had to do was alter Batman to the point that he started executing people, which he was, and at that point it’s Superman’s solemn duty to stop him.  If the situation were reversed, Clark would consider Batman showing up to stab him with some Kryptonite a sweet mercy. Miller had to fundamentally change both characters and add on decades of bad blood in order to make this fight a completely meaningless one, and that in my estimation indicates that their unlikely friendship is much more interesting than any rivalry could be.

Man of Steel: Superman the Myth vs. Superman the Character

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I wanted the next piece in this series to be about the women of Man of Steel, but after an afternoon on tumblr, I feel like this one is more pressing.  I don’t think this is the kind of film that can be “spoiled” in the traditional sense, meaning your viewing is somehow ruined by knowing plot details ahead of time, but be aware that this entry is going to have huge spoilers for the movie.

The biggest point of contention for critics and fans alike so far has been the scene where Superman kills Zod.  Plenty of people who identify as comic-book fans are claiming that this is unprecedented, that Superman has never killed anyone in his regular continuity and every time we see Superman kill someone it irreparably destroys the character.  I have it on good authority that’s simply not true.  Honestly, anyone who wants to know doesn’t have to go much further than Google. So why the convenient amnesia?  Why deny the obvious, why buck against Synder’s adherence to a piece of established canon?  Isn’t that what we, as geeks, have been asking for?

I believe it’s because we’re talking about Superman the myth, not Superman the character.  It interests me that everything affects Superman’s image.  Non-canon comic strips, webcomics, fanvideos, fan art, even the fan-fiction to the degree that it is read, not to mention the officially-licensed merchandise, animated and live action movies, video games, and paperbacks.  All of these sources, all of these different visions have the power to directly affect the way the public perceives Superman the myth because Superman belongs to us.  Maybe not globally speaking, but most certainly for Americans because Superman is part of the American myth.  We’re talking about a story that is only really technically copyright DC comics, and the consensus seems to be that if we had our way, we would take even that technicality away from them.  The reason this matters is because we’re having a large argument right now about what this country is and what it isn’t, and Man of Steel is right in the middle of that argument.

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Obviously the webcomic above by David Willis contains a pretty flawed analogy, as Superman the character has been evolving in his sense of morality and grappling with new American problems for over a decade now.  I’ve been told that the post-90s comic book Superman deals with the complexity of moral issues in a global way that reflects the slow and painful growth of the country of which he is a citizen is going though.  But he is a character, and to assume that he doesn’t understand the repercussions of the violence he’s involved in the same way we do while we are watching it is putting a pretty large assumption on the character.  What makes anyone watching the movie believe that occasionally trembling, constantly frowning, grimacing Clark Kent doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation?

Superman the myth on the other hand, is an American metaphor. He’s a metaphor for manifest destiny, for colonialism, for patriarchal dominance.  We have a problem with his collateral damage, with his hard decision, and in part with his helplessness because of what it says about us.  We don’t want Superman to lie to us, obviously, because if we did Superman Returns would have been a box office smash, but we don’t want the truth either.  The Superman myth IS a lie; it’s a classic power fantasy indulged in by the people who have the privilege to indulge in fantasies.  But looking at Superman in a modern context necessitates deconstructing that lie. That’s why in order to make Superman relevant in 2013, we had to start dealing with Superman the character, and that’s going to be messy.  This Superman doesn’t “always find a way,” sometimes there are two choices and both of them are horrible.

I think Goyer’s bravest decision in this movie was one of the most brilliantly handled moments.  Kal-El is a notoriously overpowered character, and going in I knew I would not be satisfied without a moment of helplessness from the man of steel in order to invert that power.  I wasn’t counting on it given that Snyder promised kryptonite wouldn’t be making an appearance.  The film surprises though, by inventing new obstacles for this famously hard to challenge character.  Martha Kent tells a story about Clark as a sickly baby that pays off a few scenes later when the grown man is reduced to helplessness in his home world’s atmosphere, his flashback to being helpless in the face of losing his father was particularly resonant, even if it was a few seconds too long, and his final moment of helplessness is perhaps the most offensive to critics; being forced to kill Zod.  The explanation Synder gives in a podcast with Empire Online makes perfect sense.

“And I wanted to create this scenario where Superman is going to see those people get chopped in half, or he’s got to do what he’s got to do. And I think Zod knows that. It’s almost [suicide in its way] in a way, it is, it’s like death by cop, you know in a way. In my mind if Kal has the ability to kill him, then that’s a noble way for him to die. It’s like that whole “good death is its own reward” concept in the movie.”

After-the-fact explanation aside, I’ve seen a lot of fanboys argue a number of scenarios in which this didn’t have to happen, each more ridiculous than the last, and continuing in the trend of re-writing this movie as a criticism of the movie.  The consensus seems to be, “it’s not the way I would write it, so it’s a terrible movie.”  That has never been a solid basis for criticism, but if we’re going to talk logistics, let’s talk logistics.  Zod matches Clark in strength, and while he’s got him in a head-lock in the moment, he hasn’t been particularly in control of the fight, so it’s clear Zod isn’t going anywhere.  His instinct is to try and turn Zod’s head away, and that’s a good instinct.  His instinct is to try to talk Zod out of this, and that’s a good instinct.  Plenty of people have described Clark’s final appeal to Zod as pleading, and I don’t think that’s off the mark.  In the end, he’s either Superman or he’s not, and Superman is going to make the hard decision.

Then there’s the fallout.  Like most grief, there are people who say he grieves too much for Zod, and those who say that he doesn’t grieve enough.  If this were a lesser movie, we’d be treated to the details of Clark’s emotional reaction in a clumsy voice-over or a long scene with Lois about his feelings.  This movie doesn’t need that, because Henry Cavill’s howl of despair that elegantly draws upon his last great moment of helplessness, the death of his father, is more than we need.  In point of fact, I haven’t seen the toll taking a life takes on a heart expressed in such an immediate and visceral way anywhere else in this medium.  I think you can easily miss a lot of the subtle moves Cavill is making if you don’t care to give him the benefit of the doubt or your whole attention.  Over at the Mary Sue, Zoe Chevat, the one and only journalist assigned by the proclaimed-girl-geek website to the launch of the potential justice league franchise, mischaracterizes a number of his moves as anger.

“The one trait Clark seems able to express is rage. Rage at his loved ones being threatened, but, beyond that, a general outpouring of anger aimed at a villainy that’s conveniently appeared. Whatever Superman’s traditional traits, thoughtless anger, and the actions it provokes, are not compelling in the lead of a superhero movie. If you cared about Superman before, you’re probably appalled by the behavior of his character and the changes made, and if you didn’t, the movie isn’t going to make you like him very much.”

This review was met with some very honest surprise on my part, because I found noteworthy that this particular Superman only loses his cool the once, when his mother is threatened.  Personally I find it hard to blame him on that count, but maybe I’m very forthcoming with the benefit of the doubt.  It’s true that Cavill does a lot of bellowing and grimacing, but most certainly in proportion to the seriousness of the situation.  In fact, the two times in the movie he lets loose and screams are moments of genuine heartbreak.  I don’t think that interferes with Clark’s appeal to audiences, in fact I think it’s part of the charisma of the character.  Typically bulletproof characters are not only difficult to relate to, they are difficult to like. Goyer’s Man of Steel seems to understand that and rises to the challenge.