New Girl: Fighting Sexism with Humor

 

There’s a big difference between sexist comedy and comedy against sexism. Now, I typically avoid comedies as I find them more offensive than funny. But I finally got around to watching the first episode of New Girl and my initial reaction was a very well thought out meh. Could be better could be worse, but at least I didn’t hate it.

However, although I didn’t find most of the jokes particularly funny, I kept turning them over in my mind trying to figure out if the show used sexist comedy or not. I mean, the pilot perpetuated gender roles with Jess being the “emotional woman” watching Dirty Dancing and crying for a week over her break up with her boyfriend. But the show was more than I expected and had more to it than I initially thought.

I’m not going to analyze the entire pilot right now, but rather look at one of the show’s running gags that shows the pilot of New Girl is using comedy to fight sexism, not perpetuating sexist comedy.

If you have not heard of it already, let me introduce to you: the douchebag jar.

Now, as I have only seen one episode I am not commenting on the series as a whole or how sexism is treated even beyond episode one. This is solely a comment on the pilot and the use of the douchebag jar.

What I loved about this gag is that the humor was not when the character Schmidt did something that was sexist and considered “douchebagery” (which would have been sexist comedy) but when Schimidt’s room mates called him on his behavior and made him put money into the jar (comedy against sexism). We’re not laughing at Schmidt’s antics so much as groaning that he has the audacity to act in such a way as to take off his shirt to show off his abs, for instance. Instead, we’re laughing that he gets punished for his behavior.

In short, sexism isn’t the joke and that is the best comedy this pilot could have brought forth.

 

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The Too-Strong Woman Cannot Exist: Rose Tyler and Donna Noble in Doctor Who

I am a recently converted Whovian who began watching Doctor Who this past summer. And while I had had friends for years tell me to watch Doctor Who, I never felt I had the time to sit down and watch a television series. I must thank my roommate who, over the summer, convinced me to watch this phenomenal series. But as much as I now love the show and am emotionally invested in the characters and story arcs, Doctor Who is not immune to participating in sexist tropes and practices.

For this post, let’s examine two particular moments in Doctor Who: at the end of Season 1 (9th Doctor) when the Doctor absorbs the time vortex out of Rose to save her life, and at the end of Season 4 (10th Doctor) when the Doctor takes the DoctorDonna’s memories to save her life.

To clarify, I know I am not an expert on Doctor Who. I have only seen the more recent Doctors, and even then I have only seen up to a few episodes into Season 5. All the same, I am not making an over-arching claim that Doctor Who is an entirely sexist program, nor am I claiming anything on the quality of the show. I am looking at two specific moments to identify a harmful trope against women.

For both Rose as the Bad Wolf and Donna as the DoctorDonna, the story line is, at its heart, the same. The female character has extraordinary powers, shines as the hero for a moment, and then the true hero of the show takes these powers away in order to save her life.

Let’s begin by analyzing Rose as the Bad Wolf:

On the surface, this is an incredibly empowering scene. The human female companion controls the action. She is the one to destroy the Emperor of the Daleks, save the Doctor and save the planet. But, as soon as the immediate danger of the Dalek Emperor  has passed, the series shifts back to the Doctor. It is his story we’re meant to follow, not Rose’s. When he says, “It’s all my fault” we are brought back to the reality of a male dominated program: the hero saves the woman.

I’m examining the Doctor absorbing the time vortex from Rose because this is more than a simple hero saves the day plot devise. The woman gains too much power and too much knowledge. For her own good, it has to be taken from her. The Doctor is a Time Lord and therefore he has superior intelligence, superior stamina and pretty much superior everything and that, as audience members, we trust his opinion. If he says the time vortex is killing Rose, he is correct. He sacrifices himself to save her and the world continues to turns on, with the hero saving the woman.

The writers wrote themselves into a jam here. Although theoretically, they could have let Rose continue to be the Bad Wolf and travel with the Doctor as his equal (or potentially superior), the Doctor wouldn’t have regenerated and the classic formula of Doctor and Companion would have been ruined. In short, Rose gained power specifically to for it to be taken away after the defeat the villain. Her power surge, is only to serve the Doctor’s story arc. There is no room for a woman who has knowledge and power because, as the Doctor explains, it’s killing her. For her own good, the Doctor needs to take that power from her.

The same issue of too much power and knowledge being deadly for a woman occurs when Donna becomes the DoctorDonna and the Doctor wipes her memory:

http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScUgeZ-fvvU

Again, we have a female character in an incredibly powerful position, who gains knowledge and defeats evil. But, again this power is only temporary. She is not meant to hold onto it, as it is beyond her due. Now, I know some people may say that it is because she is human that this power was taken from her, not because of her gender, but television shows exist within a cultural context. It is not an accident that the man of the story is the alien of superior intelligence, wisdom and the like. It is not an accident that his companion is a human who needs to rely on the Doctor to save the day. The traditional power structure of the man knows best and female subservience is merely cloaked under the disguise of alien superiority.

This is an issue because it spreads the message that women cannot physically handle knowledge and power. It is too much for them. It is too great for them to exist holding onto such power. And for their own good, men need to keep them sheltered. If men do not then women will die as the result of over-reaching herself. The Doctor can possess immense knowledge. His female companion is along for the ride.

I do not say that what Rose and Donna do in the series is inconsequential or that their great deeds as the Bad Wolf and the DoctorDonna should be overlooked as a sexist scam. There is a strong possibility that the writers of Doctor Who are not even aware of the messages they are spreading to their audiences. But, they are spreading them all the same.

As much as I love the show and admire the Doctor as a character, it is not his job, or the job of any man (alien or otherwise) to strip a woman of power. The plot devise of “for her own good” does not hold up as legitimate when analyzed under a feminist lens.

Teen Titans Go! Go and Learn Consent

I am a huge Teen Titans fan. It was one of my first introductions to the superhero genre and what I loved the most was that I didn’t get into the show until I was sixteen, but the plots were dark and complicated enough that I was wholeheartedly invested. For anyone who has seen the monstrosity that is Teen Titans Go! (TTG) however, I don’t think I need to make it clearer that this funny take on the original cartoon is an awful desecration of the original genius.

From L to Right: Robin, Cyborg, Beast Boy, Terra, Raven, Starfire

No,Teen Titans didn’t always take itself seriously, but when it did it handled everything from abusive relationships to racism to family issues. A majority of the time it balanced humor and darker plots. It has been an inspiration for me to write children’s cartoons that can appeal to a wider audience and say something worthwhile.

I don’t care that they brought back the old voice actors for TTG. This new show is a minefield and I wanted nothing to do with it.

Then the creators brought Terra into the show  in the episode “Terra-Ized”. If it wasn’t apparent from my previous post about how much I love Terra, she is my favorite fictional female character. I had to watch that episode. So I gritted my teeth and sat down with one of my friends and continued to grit my teeth and by the end of the episode I’m surprised I still had teeth left to grit.

The basic premise of the show is that the Teen Titans had never met Terra before and Beast Boy brings her back to Titans Tower. He gives her all sorts of access codes and secret information thinking she’s in love with him. She (like in the original series) is spying on the team, which TTG makes obvious and derives most of their humor from the blatancy of her “spying”.

I can forgive TTG! that they ruined all continuity by having no one know who Terra is. I can forgive them for completely ruining a fantastic female character who had deep emotional issues and a legitimate story arc over the course of Season 2 in the original Teen Titans. I can forgive them for making her a character who openly hates the team as opposed to a covert spy and traitor.

What I can’t forgive is that this show perpetuates rape culture by blatantly ignoring consent. Watch this clip of the episode and focus specifically on the pictures Beast Boy has of him and Terra at the end of the clip.

It is not funny when a character who clearly says “no” to another character’s advances is brushed aside as a joke. What’s worse is that this is a major and recurring joke throughout the episode. Terra continuously rebuffs Beast Boy’s advances and the writers rebuff her complaints. She’s just a female character, after all. She doesn’t have autonomy over her own body or anything. No one wants to see the boat rocked by addressing issues of consent. It’s not as if consent is a real issue men and women have to deal with in real life or anything!

It’s a kids show yes, but before anyone tells me I’m over reacting, where do kids learn their behaviors if not from the media they’re exposed to? If no one questions this blatant disregard of Terra’s voice ignoring the woman becomes another piece of ordinary life to be glossed over as natural.

When Terra rejects Beast Boy’s advances, he has no right to continue to pursue her and Cyborg has no right to advise Beast Boy to press after her. It is even worse when Cyborg gets involved because that normalizes the behavior even more. Beast Boy can no longer be viewed as anomaly who acts in a way we are not supposed to approve of. No, his choices are validated by Cyborg’s advice. It is the men of the series conferring over and rejecting a woman’s decision. This suddenly doesn’t sound like a kid’s show, but rather a sexist insertion driving the plot as a running joke.

The episode relied on sexism and misogyny to make children laugh. This is wrong. This is wrong on every level because children won’t see the systems of oppression that make these jokes possible. But we who see them need to speak out because no one else will.

I don’t want young children to be indoctrinated into believing that “no” is a joke to be laughed off. “No” is definitive. It is always taken seriously. And Teen Titans Go! needs to learn about consent.

 

The Princess Bride AKA Look at the Straight White Blonde Couple

Anyone who knows me personally will know that I have complex feelings about The Princess Bride. It was the film my parents saw on their first date and the book that led me out of the teen section and into the world of adult fiction. I loved the film before I read the book and then criticized the film to no end once the book became my bible. I worked at a summer camp and would spend days reciting the story of The Princess Bride to my campers.

Then I found out that the classic tale by S. Morgenstern and abridged by William Goldman was actually just written by William Goldman. S. Morgenstern does not exist. This was earth shattering to someone who was legitimately planning on finding a way to get to Florin (the city Goldman claims to be real) and seeing the museum where we could actually see Buttercup’s wedding dress and the six fingered sword.

Just a quick summary of the story for those who don’t know. Buttercup is the most beautiful woman in the world and lives out on a farm. She and a farm boy named Westley fall in love and he leaves to seek his fortune in order to marry her. But he is killed at sea by pirates. The Prince of Florin, Prince Humperdink, finds out about Buttercup’s beauty and decides he will marry her, even though he knows she doesn’t love him.

But on the day her engagement to Humperdink is announced, Buttercup is kidnapped by a hunchback named Vizzini, a Spanish man named Inigo, and a giant named Fezzik. Her captors plan to kill her and blame it on the neighboring country Guilder in order to start a war. But they are being followed by a man in black who rescues Buttercup through a series of sword fighting, hand fighting, and a battle of wits.

The man in black turns out to be Westley who was never actually killed and the straight white couple is re-united. Then, Prince Humperdink tracks the lovers down and Buttercup makes a deal that she will go back with Humperdink if Westley is allowed to live freely. Though Humperdink agrees, Westley is not spared and is taken into Humperdink’s Zoo of Death (Pit of Despair in the film if you’re more familiar with the movie version) to be tortured.

Humperdink kills Westley, but Fezzik and Inigo bring him back to life with a miracle pill and they storm the castle to stop Buttercup’s wedding. In the end, Westley and Buttercup ride off with Inigo and Fezzik and true love conquers all.

The End.

I know I’m leaving out Inigo’s storyline and tons of stuff from the book (for those of you already familiar), but this is the main plot condensed as best as I can condense it.

For the past two years I haven’t touched the book or the film because of my anger at William Goldman. But last night I watched the movie with my room mate who had never seen it before and I realized that this was the first time I was watching it as a feminist.

It is such a heteronormative story! It is such a sexist story!

I knew even before I would even consider touching the word feminism that Buttercup does nothing and gets everything she could ever want. And what she wants is Westley. Her arc, if we’re generous and want to call it an arc, revolves around her love for Westley. What is she without the male protagonist? She is beautiful. The most beautiful woman in the world. Why does Westley love her? For her beauty. Her looks are all anyone ever mentions of her in the book and it’s all that Westley ever talks about in regards to her. Granted there isn’t much else to talk about. William Goldman makes it a point actually to emphasize that Buttercup isn’t very smart: she named her horse Horse and used the world syllabub instead of syllable. This just shows that Goldman is sexist and thinks that writing comedy involves making fun of women’s brains in order to highlight their beauty.

Hilarious, William Goldman. Hilarious.

The whole idea of a couple where the woman is just prized for her looks reminds me of this scene from The Swan Princess:

Even when I liked the book, I never liked Buttercup. It’s a shame to hate a female character just because she is written as flat as a piece of cardboard. But the strange thing was that even though I hated Buttercup, I envied her and perhaps that was the source of my hatred. A shallow part of myself wanted to be Buttercup because she does nothing and gets everything she could ever want. She is the stereotypical princess, except that The Princess Bride was writte in 1973 during the Second Wave of Feminism. William Goldman had to have been aware of what he was doing in writing this “perfect woman” who had all the beauty in the world and none of the brains.

Westley on the other hand has both looks and brains, because the two go hand in hand in men, but not so much in women, right? Westley is also perfect, but where Buttercup is a Mary Sue, Westley is amazing! He scales the 1,000 feet of the Cliffs of Insanity (part of the way not even using a rope), he duels the greatests swordsman alive, beats a giant in hand to hand combat, outsmarts a schemer and rescues Buttercup at every possible moment where she is in danger. Buttercup exists to be rescued by perfect Westley and this is called true love!

There is such a double standard here. When Buttercup is brave and stands up to Prince Humperdink expressing her love for Westley her bravery is framed in words. She has the regal bravery of a queen who commands in words though not in actions. She is and always was passive. When Westley is brave he is undergoing torture and not crying out because he is removing himself to think of Buttercup’s beauty. As Westley says to his captor Count Rugen, “We are men of action”.

I don’t care if this book and film were meant to be a comedy because it takes the theme of true love very seriously as being the through line of the plot. And Goldman’s idea of true love is the limited one of a straight white blonde couple where gender roles match up like puzzle pieces. Comedy is never funny when it is at the expense of any group of people. If someone believes in true love more power to them, but true love is not just between a man and a woman. True love is not just between “beautiful people” and true love is not based on gender roles.

“So Beautiful It’s a Curse” Trope

My favorite historical figure is Hannibal Barca-the Carthaginian general who marched elephants into Rome during the Second Punic War.

File:Map of Rome and Carthage at the start of the Second Punic War.svg

Carthage is on the tip of modern Tunisia: look to the right of Numidia and up toward Sicily. Carthage (the city) is right at the star. 

Hannibal was a military genius and even though he lost the war against Rome, his battle strategies are still studied today. I could spend hours just writing about his brilliance and my adoration of this man, but author David Anthony Durham has done most of that work for me. His historical fiction novel Pride of Carthage (2005) is what drew me into Hannibal’s world and over all, this is a very good book. Durham cites a bibliography, crafts rich and compelling characters on both sides of the war, and animates historical figures who have been dead for 2,200 years.

Yet he is incapable of writing women. While he does a decent on the historical women of Hannibal’s wife and sisters, Durham also writes a love story as a side plot line set against the larger back drop of the Second Punic War. The love story is about a foot soldier, Imco Vaca, who Durham creates and this woman, Aradna, a Greek who follows Hannibal’s army as a camp follower.

While Imco is an interesting character, rising through the ranks of Hannibal’s army, surviving the war and even conversing one on one with the Carthaginian general, Aradna’s greatest attribute is her beauty. This wouldn’t be so bad, if she weren’t introduced as a woman so beautiful that her entire back story is being raped by various men, starting with her dead father’s friend. Throughout the novel, Aradna falls into the trope of So Beautiful It’s a Curse. And the writing does not feel as if Durham is portraying the mindset of 200 BC, but his own ideas that beauty is a reasonable excuse to rape someone. We’re supposed to feel terrible for her after we read her tragic back story, but during the novel we’re told to accept that her beauty will attract men because that is naturally the way things go for beautiful women. Durham takes the responsibility off the men and reminds his readers that it is the woman’s job to not get raped.

When she’s not fending off men by rubbing herself in excrement in the hopes the smell will keep them at bay, she’s being pursued by Imco. By this, I mean he saw her bathing we get an uncomfortable look into Imco’s mind about how he wants to have sex with her. From the start of their interactions, she is an object. Throughout the novel the two meet up periodically by chance and Imco is always lusting after her. He’s in love with her beauty and this is the relationship readers are supposed to root for.

What bothers me the most is that even though she’s not interested and feels he’s just another man trying to attack her throughout most of the novel she finds him trapped under the dead bodies after the Battle of Cannae and she rescues him. Then they fall in love because the man needs to win the woman in the end. She is, after all, his prize.

There are so many things wrong with how she is written and where her arc goes, but I think one of the most important things to point out is that her story is sexist against both men and women. Against women, the obvious is that it perpetuates rape culture and also denies the woman agency unless it’s to aid a man and be his love interest. Against men it portrays them as sex-driven animals who can’t control themselves if a beautiful woman is around. I don’t understand why a man would want to portray his own sex in such a negative light, but that’s what Durham does.

This trope vilifying beautiful women as tragic figures destined for unwanted attention and rape is one that I didn’t understand when I first read the novel in high school. All I understood was that I never wanted to be Aradna. Because she was sexually assaulted she was the literary example of my greatest fear. It is terrible when young girls cannot look up to female characters without feeling as if being a woman is wrong and sinful somehow. I thought that her Aradna’s beauty was the cause and I didn’t want to be beautiful. And because beauty was her defining feature, I didn’t want to be a woman. I wanted to be Hannibal: the respected general with an intricacy of thought I still marvel at, not Aradna the beautiful woman followed by tragedy

I love Hannibal Barca, but I can no longer love the novel Pride of Carthage because it represents all of my fears of rape culture and places fear into women readers. I will not read something that makes me afraid or ashamed of my sex and these are the real evils of sexism that feminism combats. Feminism is needed because of how flippantly women are hated and how often we are told to hate ourselves. I’m a feminist because I refuse to hate myself and I will fight so that others can also understand the love and respect women deserve.

Marvel’s Romance Comics

I mentioned in my post, Queering Wolverine that I hadn’t been keeping up with the X-Men recently. Truth be told though, I haven’t been keeping up Marvel recently. Comic books are expensive and my philosophy has been that I’ll buy it if I know it’s influential to the Marvel universe or a must-read of some caliber.

If something happens with Marvel comics I’ll know even if I’m not perfectly keeping up with their publishing. And, unfortunately, something has happened at Marvel comics.

Marvel has made the decision to team up with Hyperion and publish two romance comics based on Rogue, from the X-Men, and She-Hulk. The comics are titled Rogue Touch and The She-Hulk Diaries.

The Editor-in-Chief of Hyperion said, “It’s a great time to explore what happens to super-heroines when they are dropped into traditional women’s novels.”

Traditional Women’s Novels? What does this even mean? This is such bigotry. This is literature grounded in women’s difference and in the separation of the sexes. This is based on ridiculous gender roles that hold no bearing on what a woman is. By creating these comic books, Marvel and Hyperion are saying they have found a set definition of the elusive term “woman” and that guess what? What a “woman” is has been in front of us all along because this is a “traditional” idea.

Since when do women need books that are written for some unfounded idea of their identity?

These are two established female superheroes, not some unknown romance heroins Marvel hasn’t written since the 1950s. The ’50s were when Romance comics sold because comic book companies were under constant fire that comics were too violent and were corrupting the youth. Everything but superheroes sold in the 1950s. There are no traditional women’s novels and certainly no grounds to force ideas of womanhood into the comic book genre. Comic books are just starting to break free from heteronormativity, but as a whole the industry is incredibly sexist. The last thing Marvel needs is to isolate a chunk of their fan base by deciding they suddenly know what women want in their reading material.

I think Marvel needs to learn that these “women’s novels” were only women’s novels because up until the early 20th century, women writers were few and far between. Their work was never taken seriously because it was written for women and there were limited subjects available to them to write about because writing might put a strain on the female mind.

Marvel already has a female audience! Adding romance will not expand their audience, but isolate those who want more well developed female characters. It’s time Marvel learned that femininity and womanhood are not characteristics that define a person. Woman does not equal reads romance novels.

Terra: Radical Rocker of Teen Titans

I’ve noticed a trend in my favorite fictional characters: at least 90% of them are male. What surprised me the most about this realization was that I have way more female friends than male friends. There was no way I couldn’t brush aside this point and say that maybe I just “don’t connect with women”.

I have heard women talk about how women are annoying, petty, and more difficult to be around because of their tendency to be overly emotional. This seems to be less about how women actually are and far more about how they are portrayed in fiction, especially in relationship to how their male counterparts are portrayed. In short, the men (even men who are evil) are almost guaranteed to be people in their own right and therefore more likeable. Rarely are male characters designed to benefit a female character. Chances are it’s the other way around.

Now, when I first began to be interested in superheroes I fell in love with the Cartoon Network series Teen Titans. While I do have a few complaints about the female characters in the show I was floored by one character. I fell in love with Terra.

She was the first female character I had a genuine connection with. She was a young girl trying to be a hero with her powers of earth manipulation, but because she could not control these powers she would inevitably cause more harm than good. When she is introduced in Season 2 she was a live-life-to-the-fullest go-getter hiding her massive insecurities about her powers, her past, and her ability to have normal relationships. Her backstory is never fully explained in the cartoon, but watching the series and seeing how she interacts with main cast of Robin, Starfire, Beast Boy, Cyborg, and Raven, it is easy to see she is a rounded character.

Terra reacts out of fear, love and pain, just to name a few of the emotions she goes through. Her character arc is treated with respect and even though she is paired with Beast Boy she was not created to be his love interest. She is her own person no matter that her arc is bound up with the male characters of the series, Robin, Beastboy and Slade.

I feel the most interesting thing about Terra though, is that she is not a feminist character. For all that I could rave about her being a rounded character, that does not mean that she is a feminist or that the creators of the show wanted her to be one. And that’s alright.

I love her because I connect with her on the basis that I could meet someone like her on the street. She doesn’t fit into the women-are-either-angels-or-monsters paradigm.

The irony to all this is that her comic book version created in the 1980s (read “Terra Incognito” and “The Judas Contract” for her comic book arc) was designed for her to be a loud mouthed jack ass who hates the Teen Titans for no other reason than that they are good. She is sexually involved with Slade Wilson, a man at least 40 years her elder and it is only to prove that she is psychotic. She is a “monster” in the comics, but the cartoon made a different call. The cartoon wanted a female character who was well developed and wasn’t created to further the story of the male heroes. Although she isn’t a feminist character this doesn’t mean she doesn’t do radical things for how female characters are perceived and written.