Hey, finally, the promised part two in my Hannah Montana series. (Part one, covering race issues in the show, is here.) This part is about the show’s issues with gender and sexuality. To illustrate my points I’ve picked out two episodes as the worst offenders to discuss. Though they represent the worst I’ve seen on the show, their messages are also pretty indicative of the show overall.
The first, “Me and Rico Down by the School Yard,” is the season two premier. It’s the first day of school, and Miley and her friends are starting high school. Miley starts getting creepy text messages that morning, from someone who claims to know her secret and have photographic proof of it. She eventually finds out that it’s Rico, who has been skipped up into ninth grade, and he threatens to send the picture on his phone to everyone in school, unless she does everything he says.
What does Rico want from Miley? For her to pretend to be his girlfriend. He addresses her only by demeaning nicknames, mostly, “Toots,” and “Dollface.” When Miley demands to know where the phone is, he tells her, “You’re free to pat me down.” At lunch that day, he informs her, “Go get Daddy a moist towelette — and make it hot, like my Latin blood.” And so on, and so forth.
Finally, Miley’s friends Lily and Oliver discover the phone is in Rico’s locker. They agree to steal it, while Miley stalls Rico. He tries to go to his locker, so she tries to convince him she really likes him to stop him. He suggests, “Perhaps you could prove your love with a kiss.” Miley’s friends save her from having to kiss him in the nick of time, only to realize the phone is fake and Rico had the real one all the time. He demands the kiss again — but this time Miley tells him no, because she doesn’t want to have this hanging over her forever. She’s ready to deal with her secret being exposed.
Plan A having failed, Rico goes for Plan B: he gives a very touching speech about how hard it is to be the youngest, smallest person in his class — and how he thought if he had a girlfriend like Miley he’d fit in better. She feels bad and agrees to give him a cheek kiss, but at last second he turns his head to “steal” a kiss on the lips, then cackles and runs off.
So let’s look at some of these elements in detail.
First off, the language Rico uses when talking to Miley. It’s very dismissive. “Toots,” and “dollface,” make it clear that Rico is male and speaking to someone female; they aren’t nicknames that are used in any other situations. “Toots” is something in particular used to put a woman in her place; at least for me, phrases like, “Listen here, toots,” are what springs to mind. It’s downright creepy to see them used by someone pre-pubescent, and they certainly sum up Rico’s disdain of Miley as anything but a sexual object.
So, by extension, it isn’t much of a surprise that what Rico wants Miley for is her implied sexuality. First off, he’s literally using her as an object; he makes it clear that having an attractive girlfriend will increase his social standing. Though he says he likes her “passion and brains,” he does it while making it clear that he only likes them because he finds them sexy — in fact, the full quote is, “Passion and brains. I repeat”¦rowwwr.” What’s important to him isn’t that she possesses either of those qualities independently, but that she possesses them in such a way that he is turned on. It is sexualizing and incredibly degrading.
So Miley finally stands up to him. Not to say, you know, “Sexual harassment is wrong, and I don’t have to take it,” but at least she acknowledges that there is no way for her to win in the situation, and she’s not going to bow to Rico’s incredibly upsetting whims. So Rico’s fall back tactic is one too often used in this culture — he makes her feel bad about standing up for herself, paints himself as the victim, and quite literally uses her pity to get what he wants.
Then — and I am sputtering with rage as I type this — he “steals” what he wants, going further than she is willing to. It’s easy to laugh it off as just a kiss and him being just a kid, but the thing is, in other contexts where a man “steals” something sexual from a woman because she isn’t willing to consent, that’s rape. So you’d think that Rico would get some kind of comeuppance for this scheme, let alone for sexually harassing and, essentially, raping Miley? You’d be wrong — the whole thing is played for laughs. He kisses her, cackles, and runs off. The last we see is Miley chasing him and slipping on a banana peel while he escapes.
Because, clearly, stopping at nothing to get what you want, with overtones of rape, well, that makes for some darned hilarious television! And it’s especially funny when it’s played for laughs to an intended audience of kids — because god knows we want them to grow up thinking that’s normal and not objectionable! Except, wait, no, that’s terrible on all levels and, frankly, I’m not sure I’d let my own kids watch the show, if I had any.
Turning away from that, let’s talk gender essentialism. My second episode goes like this: Miley’s best friend, Lily, is an adorable skater girl who makes some loud, wacky fashion choices. How much of a tomboy she is varies with the episode in question, but she’s always at least mildly sporty when compared to Miley. Then comes the episode “You Are So Sue-Able To Me,” in which there’s a school dance. Everyone has a date except for Lily — even the class nerd, gasp! — and Miley tells her wisely that if she doesn’t stop “being one of the guys” and start dressing, acting, and speaking more femininely, she’ll never get a date. But it isn’t phrased like that: the phrase they throw around casually is that Lily “isn’t a girl.” And because she isn’t a girl, no boys will like her, and Miley makes it pretty clear that if no boys like her, she’s a failure.
But no worries, of course, because Miley is a guru on all things girly, and when Lily sees the boy she likes flirting with another girl, Miley promises to take her “from skate chick to date chick.” It works; after merely letting down her hair and batting her eye lashes at him, the boy in question asks her out! But that’s not good enough, Miley says, because, “You’ve got him nibbling on the cheese, but you’ve got to snap the trap,” to make sure he doesn’t ever flirt with another girl. So they go for a total makeover.
When next we see Lily, she’s traded in her usual wacky outfits for a hot pink dress. Of course, this means that literally none of her male friends recognize her (“Hey, new girl, where did you come from — Hotsylvania?” Ew.) At least until she does something masculine — she punches one in the arm. Meanwhile, Miley counsels her to speak “lower and slower” and when the boy she likes freaks out upon seeing her, she promises, “It’s all for you.” She also pretends to be helpless and weak so the boys will carry her books for her.
Except, as it turns out, that’s not what the boy wanted at all! He stands her up for the dance, and in wacky hijinx fashion, they drag him onto a TV show where a fake judge settles teenage disputes, and dumps buckets of gross food on the guilty party. Miley takes over prosecuting the guy while Lily cries fakely, at least until the kid confesses that, “I asked out this cook skater girl and the next day she was all girly and frilly and weird!” He says Miley changed her into “something from a teen fashion magazine,” when she was already what he wanted; Miley answers, “He doesn’t know what he wants, he needs to be told what he wants — he’s a boy!” Of course, she’s the one who ends up doused in pizza sauce and anchovies, while the couple gazes happily into one another’s eyes.
So let’s break this down. “Sue-Able” lacks the downright disturbing qualities of “Me and Rico” but is not without its own problematic messages. First and loudest among them is that there are very definite roles that girls play, and that boys play, and that it’s nearly traitorous to cross gender lines. Miley even agrees with her arch-nemesis that Lily is an embarrassment because she’s not feminine enough; Lily is, for all intents and purposes, shamed and peer pressured until she agrees to conform to the standards of the girls around her.
It isn’t just that girls need to wear expensive clothes, spend time on their appearance, and act dainty. The episode is also none-too-kind to the boys involved, in that the boys are all, well”¦idiots. Idiots who can’t look past the physical, at that. Lily, wearing her bright pink dress, is still highly recognizable, but we’re to accept the boys are so entranced by a girl who dresses in a way that is traditionally feminine (and thus marks her as being interested in boys in a way Lily’s usual clothes don’t) that they don’t even recognize her without a physical reminder (being punched) to snap them back to reality. And Miley, whose gender-essentialist views inform the whole narrative, certainly doesn’t think they’re worth anything; her comments in the courtroom prove that. So basically: girls are pretty, boys are dumb, and those are your only two choices in life. If you fail to fit your gender role, you’re shunned by all your peers.
But what of the end? Of course, it’s an expected part of the narrative that Lily doesn’t end up being forced into the role Miley tries to shoehorn her into. That’s a good thing, as far as it goes. But the thing is, the moral isn’t that Lily was fine as she was — the moral was that Lily was fine as she was because the boy liked her that way. If he hadn’t stood her up, we’d understand that she was justified in changing herself to better perform femininity. But at the end, we’re reassured that Lily can be herself all she wants”…because the dude approves. That means she still wins at Miley’s gender game, and, of course, that her appearance and attractiveness remain much more important than her actual personality.
So, as I said, these two episodes are particularly bad offenders. They’re also only the extremes of the show’s stanard: Rico is always disturbing and the show consistently presents boys as being willing to resort to anything, even — honestly, especially — trickery to get what they want, be it a date or a kiss or what have you. (Miley’s brother, while never as blatantly horrible about it, is frequently shown lying to or manipulating girls he wants to go out with.) Miley’s self-image is very much tied up in being feminine and having boys like her.
Here’s a show anecdote to go out on, from the B-plot of a recent episode: Miley’s father comes home angry after a date. After much prying, Miley learns that he’s angry because his date, coming off a bad divorce, wanted to pay and was very clear about the fact that she is determined to maintain her independence. Miley is, of course, horrified — not at her father’s reaction, but at the woman for daring to spurn his old-fashioned, well-meaning ideas of how men and women relate. While Lily points out that her father can be a bit of a caveman when it comes to traditions, Miley is the POV character, and thus it’s Miley (and her father) we’re meant to sympathize with. Because in the world of Hannah Montana, breaking out of gender roles is just not acceptable.
Stay tuned for the (eventual) third (and probably final) part where I discuss Miley Cyrus as a real person and role model, and the music she and the character present.
Or, Where I Got My Taste In Books
Me: Dad, I’m borrowing some of your books.
Dad: No, you’re not.
Me: I’m sorry, I phrased that badly. Daddy, I picked out some books of yours that I want. Can I have them?
Dad: No. … Which ones?
Me: About half of that shelf?
Dad: No! …Which half?
Me: Well, I’ve been jonesing to reread all the old Mercedes Lackey…
Dad: Maybe. You’re not touching my Tamora Pierce.
Me: Fine, I’ll borrow those from Jess.
Dad: Great, she can fight with you to get them back.
Me: No, we’re not related; I’m obligated to return hers.
Dad: Yeah, how does that feel for her? I wouldn’t know.
Me: Dad, you’re not getting your books back.
Dad: We’ll bargain.
Me: Can I take the Patricia C. Wrede? You have the two I didn’t find on PaperBackSwap.
Dad: The other two are in the garage. Not that I’m giving them to you. She’s great.
Me: I agree!
This article (via Chaos Theory) is absolutely excellent. Both in its analysis of the show Beauty and the Geek (which is fascinating and touching, despite being incredibly shallow), and in its analysis of why it’s so uncomfortable to add Nicole and Sam, the female geek and male beauty, to the show.
But I think there’s also more to it than that. I’ve discussed the idea of a reverse-gender cast with GC before (as we accidentally watched all of season two together in a New Years marathon last year. In one sitting,) and have always been against the idea. Which at first struck GC as odd, what with me being, you know, a female geek and all. But there are two points I’d like to make about this.
First: I don’t like having Sam in the competition against the female beauties. First off, because a lot of their challenges are things which are, in this society, gendered as male activities*, such as the week they were building bottle rockets. As GC pointed out, there’s a much bigger chance that at some point in his childhood, Sam had already done that, or at least known kids who did and was familiar with it. But it isn’t just that.
The stereotype of the shallow, sexy woman is also invariably tied to low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence. The theory seems to be that the cliche beauty, the sort found on the show, uses her body in place of brains, and thus has never tried to use her brains. She may not be dumb, but she’s uncomfortable and doesn’t like being put in a position where her smarts and not her body are being judged. So that’s what the show does. It repeatedly challenges these walking stereotypes to learn something, and to be confident in their newly-acquired knowledge, and in almost any competition, the most confident wins.
The thing is? Good looking men aren’t socialized that way. That stereotype does exist for guys, but with guys, “lack of confidence” and “attractive” aren’t inextricably linked. Where beauty for women is generally passive and objectified (literally meaning they’re at their prettiest when they’re not contributing anything but good looks), it isn’t for men; a man can be attractive and shallow without getting the message that he should shut up. So to have a contest such as the one where the beauties had to debate against each other, but throwing him in the mix, is unfair. The show is a learning journey, where the beauties gain that confidence. Sam, raised in a society that can appreciate his opinions as well as his attractiveness (not to mention one which urges him to be competitive while it urges women to be supportive and gentle), is not lacking in that confidence.
And then there’s the matter of judges. Society already values male opinions over female one; in a contest where there are, what, eight women stumbling to find an answer and one guy (who, while not especially well-spoken, is also not shy or nervous), who is going to stand out more? I’m not saying that he didn’t genuinely learn his material and present it well, but regardless, the whole competition was already biased in his favor.
Point two: let’s talk about being female and geeky. It isn’t easy. Though male geeks tend to appreciate your existence, society overall is confused, baffled, and just doesn’t know what to do with you. You’re smart, but instead of being judged on competence, you’re judged on looks. But the thing is, inherent attractiveness isn’t even the point. Different things tend to be important to geeks as compared to most of the rest of the population, and one of the major differences is that looks (and with them, fashion, the ability to use make-up, or do your hair) are waaaay further down on the priority list.
Look at Nicole. She’s not ugly, but she doesn’t dress with attractiveness in mind. Especially when she’s surrounded by other women, all of whom are concerned primarily about being attractive, the message is that she’s lacking. Actually ugly or not, she might as well be, because not caring means being ugly, and being ugly means, well…dealing with it.
This is not a society that’s kind to the unattractive. At all. And when all you want is to be judged by your intelligence, and instead you spend your life having all of your hard work barely noticed but your physical attractiveness scrutinized…well, it’s hard. It’s frustrating. Being yourself without apologizing for it is hard, because no matter how awesome you are, you’re fully aware you’d be treated better if you were prettier.
So back to the show. The reason having the female geek on a show where the geeks all get makeovers and learn to better fit in with society is that it’s damn hard to not do that. It strikes me as very much taking someone who has, consciously or not, rejected the patriarchal idea of female beauty, and trying to shoehorn her right back into it. Because the thing is, guys can be appreciated for being geeks. Which isn’t to write off their legitimate struggles with social awkwardness or attractiveness; when I said this society isn’t kind to the unattractive, I meant that, full stop. Both genders. But for men, there are other ways to contribute to society and be appreciated for them. For women, it’s beauty first, kindness and femininity second, and everything else after that. So for male geeks, learning to jump these hurdles and conquer personal demons is a bonus. It’ll make life much easier, sure.
But for a female geek? It’s akin to saying, “You’re really great at what you do. But you’d be better if you were prettier and easier to get along with.” Which is the same damn thing women are told every day. It isn’t subverting the societal message of what a woman should be, it’s reinforcing it.
I get enough of that in my daily life, as someone who’s female and a geek. I identify with Nicole, and it’s rare to find someone on reality TV (or, for that matter, TV generally) I can see myself in. I really don’t want to see her buy into this.
* Mostly unrelatedly, fuck you and your “boys are different” campaign, Playskool toys. Because sure, only little boys like toy trucks and want to run around…but at least they make girl toys! Play houses! With play kitchens and a play washing machine! Seriously, fuck you.
I have a love/hate relationship with Disney’s Hannah Montana. For those who haven’t run across it (though it’s becoming ever-more ubiquitous as its popularity grows), it’s a TV show/music franchise about a girl named Miley Stewart (played by Miley Cyrus) who has a normal life with her father, Robby Ray (Billy Ray Cyrus) and her brother, Jackson (Jason Earles). But Miley has a secret: she’s actually the most famous pop star in the country, Hannah Montana. She keeps that a secret by way of a blond wig, and keeps the lives separate so that she can still go to high school like a normal person. So she deals with friends, with bullies, and with boys just like everyone else, even though she’s famous! The show itself is mildly charming, though often completely nonsensical; the music of Miley/Hannah is pure bubblegum pop, which I happen to love. (The music is actually sung by the real Miley, who performs concerts be-wigged as Hannah, but has recently released her first “real” album as herself, the B-side of a Hannah album. It’s kind of confusing, but the upshot is that she does some writing, much of it is written for her, and all of it is her surprisingly excellent singing voice.)
I do have real fondness for the show. It’s a lot of fun, it fulfils a lot of childhood fantasies that I’ve lived out as Mary Sues in my head a hundred times, and I really, really love pop music. It’s a cut above most of Disney’s mediocre programming on a lot of levels. On the other hand, though, while on its surface it’s nothing but wacky hijinks, the show has some seriously deep flaws when it comes to race and gender. I don’t think there’s a mustache-twirling villain trying to indoctrinate tween viewers with stereotypes, but the show is rampant with them, and the fact that it probably isn’t intentional is almost more problematic. It means the show is regurgitating the disturbing stereotypes from the writers’ and producers’ subconsciouses, and transmitting them to a new generation. So while I enjoy this show, I am decidedly not pleased with it at the same time.
Race is probably the biggest problem on the show. As I get started talking about this, though, I want to offer up a general note; I grew up very much as a clueless white girl, and while I’m doing my best to become less clueless about race issues, I still often back away from them out of fear of screwing up. I’m trying not to do that any more, but the fear of saying the wrong thing is still there, so if I do screw up, feel free to wield a cluebat as necessary.
Okay. So. There are only a handful of characters of color in the otherwise totally white cast. This is, sadly, not too surprising, given that a lot of shows have that problem. But things are worse when you actually look at the roles the non-white characters play.
The most minor of them is Cooper, Jackson’s best friend in the first season. Though occasionally a jerk, Cooper was no more or less so than the rest of the cast; he was just a bit player who showed up sometimes when Jackson needed a friend to converse with. The problem? Between seasons, the character abruptly disappeared, and the role of Jackson’s best friend was filled by a new guy — a blond, white character. I don’t think Cooper appeared in more than one or two episodes this season, and never with more than one or two lines, and his friendship with Jackson is all but forgotten about while Jackson has hijinks with Thor instead. (Thor, for the record, is a terrible character in his own right, but that’s a different essay.) So there’s that.
Next we come to Amber and Ashley, African- and Asian-American respectively. These two are Miley’s classmates and nemeses; they’re rich, spoiled, snobby, and stupid. They are the closest thing the show has to villains, and they’re often the only characters of color to appear in an episode. Gosh.
Next there’s Rico. There are actually a lot of problems with his character, which I’ll get to in a later essay, but they certainly tie into his race. Rico is Latino, and despite the fact that he’s the youngest regular character — he’s eleven, everyone else is in the 14-16 age range — he’s also extremely oversexed. (I believe at one point he refers to himself as, “a sexy Latin lover.”) And on top of that, he’s another antagonist. Virtually all he does on the show is sexually harass Miley and find ways to taunt and torment Jackson.
So far, that gives us one character of color who was replaced with a white guy, and three who are nothing but antagonists. But, you may be wondering, is there any recurring, non-antagonist character of color? Why, yes! Her name is Roxy, and she’s Miley/Hannah’s bodyguard. And…oy. Where to start? For one thing, in one of her appearances she mixes up what amounts to a voodoo potion she calls “the funk” for her white employer. Which definitely raised my eyebrows.
But that’s nothing compared to the episode which seems to have been designed to let Roxy chase after a teenager, screaming, “Come back here, you cracker!” But it’s wacky and hilarious! Because she’s chasing off a bully! A bully who happens to be nicknamed the Cracker because she’s constantly cracking her knuckles and can crack nuts open with her bare hands. So when Roxy comes to Miley’s rescue, when Miley fears being beaten up, she aggressively chases after the bully, calling her by the nickname in question.
I…I just…whaaaaa? That isn’t something that happens by accident. It’s not an, “Oops, we didn’t realize there were possibly problematic racial undertones to this!” punchline. It’s something that was carefully set up for. I really just can’t imagine what the writers were thinking or trying to accomplish.
So Cooper, Amber, and Ashley, I can assume were probably not intentionally written in a problematic way. They may even have been backfired attempts to up the diversity in the cast. But oversexing the only Latino character? Having the black woman yell potentially offensive, certainly charged terms? And playing it off as comedy?
And how’s this for another one-off gag the show offers: At the end of a recent episode, to bring the physical comedy, two white characters get tangled in an African-American woman’s braided hair in the middle of a fight.
Disney, what the fuck?
(Next time, or whenever I get around to it, the show’s issues with gender and sexuality.)
Wow, so working full time actually, you know, takes up a lot of time. Who knew?
Anyway. On the subway today, I reread Bruce Coville’s The Dragonslayers, probably for the first time since I was twelve. And it’s just as awesome as I remember. It’s about a spunky redheaded princess named Willie (it’s short for Wilhelmina, but an appropriate name, as she’s “the most willful person in the kingdom”). Willie wears army boots under her frilly dresses, and is outraged at the notion that she should get married before she has a chance to go out and have an adventure. So when a dragon appears, she runs away to slay it on her own, and does so with the aid of an aged Knight named Elizar and a brave young squire, Brian. They all want to slay the dragon, though it’s Willie who eventually does so. It’s a cute story for kids, with a truly rockin’ heroine. It was one of my favorites for years.
Which got me thinking. Basically everything Coville wrote was one of my favorites at some point. Right back to one of the very first books I can remember reading. Because the thing was, unlike the rest of my family, I was slow to learn to read. I didn’t have the patience for it, and I have very clear memories of how frustrated I was in first grade, struggling to read a worksheet. And then sometime in second grade, someone handed me a copy of Space Brat, and I tore through it. It’s the first time I remember reading something easily or eagerly. It was also the first time I thought it might be interesting to try and write a story. And it was my first introduction to science fiction and fantasy. In other words, Bruce Coville had an almost absurdly large influence on me, and, not surprisingly, is still one of my very favorites today.
Now, as an adult, I also appreciate them on another level. As a kid, I didn’t realize how hard it can be to find dynamic female characters, and girls I can identify with. But Coville novels are chocked full of them. Willie, obviously, is a good example. But glancing at my bookshelf (yeah, I own a few and am slowly acquiring more — first the ones I had as a kid, and then, hopefully, the many I missed before rediscovering my love of them in college) I see quite a few with girls in the lead (all of whom are ripe with personality and quirks of their own) and even in the books which center around guys, there are usually a few girls in the background. (It’s also not just that he writes female characters well; his books also tend to place high values on honesty and fairness, and have also dealt with self-acceptance and occasionally sexuality.)
So here are my quick rundown of a handful of his books, which I feel are among the most excellent.
The AI Gang
I think I may be just about the only person who has ever heard of this trilogy, but even though I haven’t read it since middle school, I remember most of it vividly. Most vividly of all I remember the female characters. It’s about a group of kids whose genius parents have been gathered on a former military base on an island, to work on a top-secret project. The kids are geniuses themselves and quickly realize their parents are there to create genuine artificial intelligence, and decide to beat the adults at their own game. Meanwhile, a shadowy villain is trying to gain control of the AI for himself.
I think the group was six kids, though it may only have been five. Two of them were female, but, like I said, I remember those two really clearly. Rachel was one of the nicer of the group, and she and her twin brother had built their own robotic head and programmed it to tell bad jokes. She loved music. And she kind of dated one of the boys, which I thought was fantastic, because the boy was also one of my very first fictional crushes. And there was Wendy, who was exceptionally awesome. Like me, she was short, messy, and had an extreme fondness for oversized sweatshirts. Her specialty was miniature robotics, and she had turned all of her dolls into talking alarm clocks that valiantly tried (and usually failed) to get her up in the morning. Her full name, if I remember right (sadly, I haven’t been able to find copies of these books yet) was Wendalyn Wendal III. When asked how she could be the third, given that women usually change their names upon marriage, she answered, “I come from a long line of strong-minded women.” Wendy was smart, she was outspoken, she was unconcerned about her looks (again, dirty sweatshirts — and a tendency to regularly eat hamburgers the size of her head), she was stubborn, and she was all kinds of awesome. (She was also, you might guess, my favorite.)
The Nina Tanleven Ghost Series
An awkward title for another trilogy (The Ghost in the Third Row, The Ghost Wore Gray, and The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed), but these are about the only ghost stories I’ve ever really enjoyed. I also think that this is Coville’s best series — especially The Ghost Wore Gray, where the ghost is a southern Civil War soldier, and as the book goes on you learn his story and how he ended up overcoming racism. And it brings you that message without being trite or after school special-y. And it makes me cry.
Anyway. The trilogy is about two girls, Nina (“Nine”) Tanleven and her best friend Chris. They meet at the beginning of the first book, having both been cast in a local musical, and quickly become best friends. They also develop the ability to see ghosts, and spend the three books finding tragic spirits, solving mysteries, and letting the ghosts finally sleep. I love both characters, and I love their relationship. I also love Nine’s relationship with her father — her mother walked out on the family, and she and her father are extremely close. Overall, it’s a series with rich characters and amazingly powerful back stories.
I think these are the best known Coville books; they faded away for awhile, which is a shame, but are now being reprinted with kicky new covers, which is awesome. And though the first book is largely just a wacky story about a girl saving her sixth-grade class from what they think is an alien invasion, the series gets darker and much deeper as it goes on. The kids discover that the reason aliens are snooping around Earth is fear — they’re worried because humans are the first species to develop extremely destructive technology, and to be close to space travel, without having reached a planetary peace. No one knows why humans have such an urge to kill and harm one another, but the aliens are afraid that their sickness will spread if they stumble on to the secret of faster-than-light travel too soon. They’re so scared they’re considering blowing up the planet to avoid the potential dangers. The fourth book is the protagonists’ quest to find proof that humanity is inherently good, that it can become peaceful, and is worthy of survival and respect. In other words, really heavy stuff, and it doesn’t shy away from some of the darker human impulses: aside from finding beautiful things humans have created, the kids visit war zones, torture camps, and areas of poverty and starvation. I won’t spoil the end for you, but I will say that it’s fucking amazing, and to this day, I still mentally compare every science fiction novel I read to the conclusion of the My Teacher series. (And not that many measure up.)
The Magic Shop
The Magic Shop series reminds me of old fairy tales and fables in that just about every book has a lesson to it; a kid with an obvious flaw will stumble upon the mysterious Magic Shop (run by the even more mysterious Mr. Elives) and end up with some kind of magical object which sparks an adventure. Through the course of the adventure, the kid learns to cope with whatever his or her flaw is. They also often draw upon traditional tales and mythologies in their backstories. These books are all excellent and charming, but I’d have to say the best, hands down, is Jennifer Murdley’s Toad. I adore this book, partially because of the sarcastic talking toad, but mostly because it’s a book about a girl who is unattractive and has low self-esteem, and the story is notably not about how she gets beautiful — it’s about how she comes to value herself for her personality and not her looks. She’s offered the chance to be compellingly beautiful and extraordinarily powerful, and her struggle — her longing to finally feel worthwhile by becoming beautiful — is moving and compelling, and makes the ultimate payoff (that Jennifer is special and smart, and that’s more important) even better.
(In terms of issues that are near and dear to my heart, I’d also give a nod to The Skull of Truth, where a kid who’s a compulsive liar ends up in possession of a skull that forces people within its influence to tell the truth. This causes general havoc everywhere he brings it, but also an interesting scene at a family dinner when his uncle, after many years, comes out to the family. The kid’s reaction is well done; he’s confused and unsure of how to interact with his uncle, and eventually comes to the conclusion that, well, he loves his uncle, who really is the same as he always was, it’s just something to get used to.)
Okay, so, in conclusion… I don’t think I can think of a single other male author — and very few female ones, for that matter — who so consistently writes so many dynamic girls. For anyone out there who might be looking for good, positive books to pick up for a niece/cousin/daughter/young girl who would like to read about someone female, I’d definitely recommend any of the above. Or just about anything else he’s written.
First off, I’m sorry things have been kind of scarce around here…most of my blogging time has gone to gathering the links for this, The Tenth Carnival of Feminist Science Fiction & Fantasy.
There were a couple of subjects I ran into a few times each; either bloggers responding to one another, or coincidentally covering the same topic from a different perspective. I’ve grouped those together at the top; then we get into posts separated by media.
TOPIC: CASSANDRA CAIN
Things start with Kalinara at Pretty, Fizzy Paradise, whose post,“Of Course She Is…” My Problem With Cassandra Cain, is a criticism of the current Batgirl. Kalinara looks at Cass not as an exciting, unique character, but instead as a collection of traits that the writers thought would be really neat:
Her past is tremendously angsty. Okay, I can dig that. She was trained as an uber-assassin by a villain. Makes sense. He was abusive and scary and raised her without the capacity for speech. It’s a bit over the top for my taste, but it’s original at least. And ties into a particularly neat ability to read people’s body language like a book.
And naturally, she’s not really a killer! After all that, she only killed someone once! When she was too young to know what she was doing! And she ran away immediately afterwards! At the age of 8. And she lived alone, incapable of speech until she hooked up with the Batclan at age 16/17 or so. …now we’re getting to things that I start to find hard to swallow. It’s such a cliche. Someone raised to be a killer, but somehow managing to be so pure that she only did it once. When she couldn’t possibly be blamed? And then immediately left? Because she was so good at heart, she couldn’t take it? Oh, brother.
Even though it’s a modification of the suit, the stitches, as a design point, suits her character as a silent, no-nonsense fighter. She doesn’t make wise-cracks, or intimidate through words. She gets right down to business and fights. It’s actually sort of refreshing that she doesn’t engage in that cliched, belabored hero-villain rhetoric. And another thing the suit adds is the intimidation and mysteriousness factor. “Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot” and all. The fact that “creepy” comes up is some sign that it works, to some degree.
TOPIC: MARY SUE
At The True Confessions of an Hourly Bookseller, Mickle tells us why she considers Mary Sue a sexist term:
So, yeah, any female equivalent of Rocky is going to have aspects of Mary Sue-ness – because Rocky has aspects of Mary Sue-ness.
But we only call River a Mary Sue, not James Bond. And seriously, which is more deserving of the title of Mary Sue – James Bond or River?
In Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary to Popular Belief…, I give my own take on why Mary Sues happen, and why I enjoy them.
(Then, in Speaking of Terms That Need to Disappear, Mickle also tackles the idea of fanservice.)
TOPIC: CHILDREN OF MEN
The movie, a dystopian film, premiered last month, and reactions to it were across the board.
The thesis of the movie — and I understand that we aren’t meant to take it so literally — is that this is what happens when people lose hope. Why have they lost hope? Well, there are no children; there have been no births for nearly two decades. If there were children, everyone would be less inclined to horrific behavior towards other human beings, because we would have some hope for the future that would give us reason to love each other. In other words, if only women weren’t all infertile (of course, sterility is always the woman’s fault, even in the future), society wouldn’t look like this.
At her blog, Ami Angelwings has another take-down of the message:
Maybe this is cynical, but the way he’s singling out women as the people who dislike Supergirl, it’s almost like he’s telling the male readers, “hey if you’re unhappy with what we do, blame those GIRLS”. >:|
Jared also gives us his thoughts on Supergirl:
By focusing on the “girl” at the expense of the “super,” Berganza and Co. have denied female readers their power fantasy. So why then would a female superhero want to read a book that goes so directly against why they like superheroes in the first place?
(That’s Not Really Super, Supergirl.)
At Me Myself and I, Liliaeth has an interesting rant about the “designated love interest” and why it makes for uninteresting characters. She looks specifically at Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man: Rant: The Designated Girlfriend.
In I’m Just A (Gamer) Girl, and That’s All That You’ll Let Me Be, the Heroine Next Door debunks the myth of the Gamer Girlfriend, and takes on the idea of the Hot Gamer Chick.
In the Girl Gamers LJ Community, filthy_bonnet recalls dealing with guys whose minds are boggled by “being beat by a girl”, and asks the eternal question: Is this a common experience for girl gamers or do I just keep versing jerks?
Steve-O, at Taller Than Thou, writes Dead Rising: my own stupid little annoyance, an analysis of the guns and weapons used by a female character, and how they show her to be a fantasy rather than a character in her own right.
In Alex In Wonder Land, there’s an in-depth analysis of Perez’s Wonder Woman reboot, covering topics from the removal of Steve Trevor as a love interest to Diana’s costume, and a lot more: Revisiting the Perez Era: Making Wonder Woman political.
In ID-ing Identity Crisis, Kalinara explains why she doesn’t think Identity Crisis was a story about rape, making a powerful point: It’s the fact that Identity Crisis was NOT about the rape that made the inclusion so damned offensive.
Also dealing the rape in Identity Crisis, there is a very powerful post by Loren at One Diverse Comic Book Nation, in which he acknowledges he is a rape survivor, and gives his thoughts on the storyline in that light: A Personal Story: Identity Crisis and Rape.
At In One Ear, there is a hilarious post: Advice for Artists and Writers: Getting the Elusive Female Audience. (There’s also a follow-up: Writing Minorities: How to Approach Gay Characters.)
TV, MOVIES, BOOKS, WRITING
At Riba Rambles: Musings of a Mental Magpie, Riba Lis implores Smallville’s creative team to include some female heroes: In Justice. She’s also got another post of note, Don’t be such a skank – an Arisia gripe, about parties that are invite-only (unless you’re hot).
In her entry, Oh, Look, A CAN OF WORMS! Let’s watch Mary open it again! at Tangled up in blue, monkeycrackmary writes about being a feminist, and wanted to have female characters she can identify with when she watches TV:
It’s not fair for a black kid to watch tv and only see white people when they’d also like to see black people. It’s not fair for a gay teen to watch tv and see only straight people when they’d also like to see gay people. And it’s not fair for me to watch tv and only see male people when I’d also like to see female people.
There’s a response by wemblee in her LJ, the definite fraggle, where she notes:
But when debates about misogyny in fandom, or in source texts, roll around, as much as I enjoy those debates for the most part, I often leave feeling like I’m a bad feminist since I always identified with those male characters reflexively.
(yeah, I’m gonna regret this…)
In Carmarthan’s LJ, An Old Song, she has an interesting post about finding female characters she enjoys in different mediums:
I can see how a woman who is fixated on TV–with its narrower range of choices–and a few particular genres (narrowing the range further) could have trouble finding the specific type of female characters she loves, especially given that most TV still has the male characters outnumbering the women by at least 3 to 1. I don’t think it’s necessarily sexist–the odds are generally better for people with narrow tastes to find male characters they like on TV because there are a lot more choices.
( On narrow genre tastes, female characters, and the wider variety of books)
Whoa, hold up. You both think Niki is a strong female character because she’s a mom who strips on the internet? Is that all we’re looking at here? Is this why this woman is empowering? Because to me, it’s more than just “Niki can strip.”
Check out the comments, too; there’s some great discussion.
Is that not enough feminist sf&f for you? Well, no worries! The call isn’t up yet, but the next Carnival will be at Women’s Work — But Can She Spin?
Okay, I will admit it right now: I love Mary Sues. I always have; I love both the stereotype original character inserted into fanfiction and the super-extraordinary fantasy clichÃ© characters. I just can’t help it; I find them compelling and always have. I’m also guilty of having written…well, we’ll just say a few. (Not nearly as many as I’ve contemplated, however.) But for this, I’m concentrating on the original meaning of the phrase, a perfect authorial-insert character into fanfiction.
So yes: I love them.
The major drawback to the characters include that they’re often very, very poorly written, and they rarely mesh with the actual ‘canon’ characters they’re interacting with. These are very fair criticisms, and I tend to avoid them by, well, avoiding reading badly written stories. Because the characters can work, when people get a better handle on writing and characterizations; some will probably always be crappy, but they don’t have to be. The poor writing, I think, is often the sign of a young or inexperienced writer (two traits which can, but don’t always, go hand in hand). I’m concentrating mostly on the idea of young writers — particularly girls — here, when I say that I love Mary Sues, as a very concept.
Basically, it goes like this. There are two major archetypes of Mary Sues. The first, the one I’m more familiar with (as it appeals more to me) is some kind of Tough Girl; this is a character who can beat up anyone, tell anyone off, and is smart and intimidating. Depending on what the writer thinks is super cool, she may be a punk, goth, tomboy, or…well, almost anything else. The important thing is that when she walks into the story, she owns it: the other characters’ actions all revolve around her, either loving or hating her*.
The second major archetype are the more traditionally feminine characters; they’re more likely to be the perky cheerleader types. They’re charming and beautiful, and it almost goes without saying that all canon characters instantly fall in love with them. They’re also often martyrs or saviors; their sheer goodness protects the other characters, or they tragically sacrifice themselves to save everyone.
Of course, the Mary Sue phenomenon isn’t limited to these two archetypes, and individual Mary Sues don’t always fit neatly into one or the other. Other things they are nearly guaranteed to have in common: Mary Sue is close to always related to or dating a canon character. And Mary Sues are also always, in some way (or many ways) valued by the canon characters. In fact, that value is often automatic; one of the frequent complaints against Mary Sues are the they don’t earn their place in a Scooby gang, they just show up and are there. Once again, bad writing.
But here’s why I love it: this is a society which is still struggling greatly to overcome sexism. It’s one where girls are given a social message almost from birth, which tells them who to be and how to act. It’s also a culture where most of the heroes are male; even as female roles and characters are becoming more common (though I’ve written about that before), it remains true that it’s harder to find female characters that girls want to, and easily can, identify with. But with Mary Sue, you’ve got girls saying, “This is me, as I know I could be.”
It peels back layers. For me, it was this: I always wanted to dye my hair blue. But in high school, I never worked up the bravery. I was a nice, bookwormish, quiet girl; that wasn’t the sort of thing I was supposed to do. My boyfriend definitely didn’t want me to, so I never did. When I got to college, that feeling hadn’t really gone away, though I knew the liberal arts atmosphere would have been more accepting of it. After all, it was a big choice to make; it would have affected how I looked (which is, according to culture, of utmost importance for a girl). And my wardrobe didn’t fit with blue hair! My wardrobe was for a mild mannered writer girl, not someone brave enough to dye her hair bright blue and declare, in effect, “Look at me!” So I still never did. And now I’m allegedly an adult, with an office job, which requires me to look somewhat professional. Needless to say, blue hair wouldn’t really work. So I never did it, and now I don’t think I ever will. But my Mary Sues (and oh, do I have tons of them in my head) inevitably have bright blue hair, and it never looks silly on them, and everyone thinks it’s cool.
But that’s me, and that’s a pretty mild case.
It seems to me that in saying, “This is me, as I know I could be,” the girls who write these characters are sending another message. They’re saying, “I’m worthy of being the main character, I’m a person with agency, I’m someone lovable and respected. And if you don’t love and respect me, you’re wrong.” So in a culture that sends the message that it’s better for girls to be quiet and pretty and leave being the main character up to a boy, it’s pretty awesome that there are hundreds of thousands of stories where girls stand up and say, “No, it’s all about me.” They cast themselves in the spotlight, usurping the role of the main character, imaging the former male lead as their love interest. Whether the character is doing away with a villain, snapping off a sarcastic quip in a high school lunch room, or dying nobly to save everyone else, the writer is still creating a world that revolves around her; a world where she is, without question, worthy.
Of course it’s wish fulfillment, and it rarely leads to a well told story. But I don’t mind that so much: I’m just glad that somewhere, in their heads, on paper, or on the internet, girls are making connections to stories that often otherwise exclude them, and rewriting the narrative to include themselves. That’s just all kinds of awesome. And besides, if they’re still inexperienced writers, experimenting and learning, then who knows? These Mary Sue characters might someday transform, as the writer gains skills. They might just go from wish fulfillment characters in someone else’s world to dynamic characters in the writer’s own world. Everyone starts somewhere, starting by saying, “I want an awesome girl who reminds me of me to be the main character,” is as good a place as any — and better than most.
I don’t pretend that this is the only reason people write Mary Sues, that only girls write them, or that girls are intentionally writing Mary Sues as backlash to a culture that disenfranchises them. If women in fiction were suddenly to have equal footing with men, I don’t think that Mary Sues would die out. After all, sometimes we just really want to hang out with the cool kids we like to see stories about, even when the story is perfectly well told and there is no need to ‘fix’ it. The idea of being able to interact with the fictional characters we love is powerful. But as culture stands right now, I do think it’s awesome to see people who are underrepresented making space for themselves.
Incidentally, this is a really interesting look at Mary Sues as a tool for teaching.
*I suspect the breakdown goes something like this: if the author likes the character, the character loves Mary Sue; if the author dislikes the character, the character is instant enemies with Mary Sue. Unless, of course, they’re enemies who end up BFF/romantically involved in the end…