Saturday, December 29, 2012

Girl Books

When I'm not sharing observations about pop culture or doing my "real people job" (you know, the one that pays my bills), I write fiction.

I did National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo, to those familiar with it), and managed by miracle and sleep deprivation to pound out 50,000 words in a 30-day period. And some of those words were not-horrible.

Though I've been writing for most of my life, I'm an unpublished amateur. Which is fine; if I'm going to have any bit of work with my name on it floating out there, I'd want it to be a good as I could make it, so not having my work seen by anyone but me and a few friends suits me.

But I would, eventually, like to be published. I think most people who write on a regular basis (or even an irregular basis, really) want that.

Here's the problem: I'm a woman who likes to write modern Fantasy, and I don't necessarily write for a strictly female audience.

To say that my gender kills my chances to be published in the genre of my choice is an exaggeration, sure. But, according to an article on science news website io9, The Wall Street Journal reports that female writers of Fantasy and Science Fiction are encouraged to use male pseudonyms--or at least, gender-neutral pen names-- if the editors believe that their novel will appeal to boys.

The article quotes an editor at Penguin:
"It sometimes makes sense for a female author to use a pseudonym, particularly when the main characters are male, or when it's a genre with a strong appeal to men, like military science fiction, certain types of fantasy or gritty thrillers," says Penguin editor Anne Sowards, whose fantasy authors K.A. Stewart, Rob Thurman and K.J. Taylor are women. ...
"For a new author, we want to avoid anything that might cause a reader to put a book down and decide, 'not for me,' " Ms. Sowards says. "When we think a book will appeal to male readers, we want everything about the book to say that-the cover, the copy and, yes, the author's name."
This mindset, while certainly sad, isn't new. The Bronte sisters, Louisa May Alcott, and plenty of other women have used male names or vague initials to assure that their work reached its audience. And then there's S.E. Hinton, who used her initials to make sure that male readers weren't deterred from The Outsiders, her debut novel inspired by two gangs present in her school. And J.K. Rowling, who was told that her series of novels about a boy wizard wouldn't sell if the name Joanne was printed on the cover.

There's an overwhelming belief in the market that women and girls will read books by male authors, but boys and men won't read books by female authors (there's a similar opinion regarding race--people of color will read books about white people, but white people won't read books about people of color, but that's a whole other post--or six-- for a whole other day).

Why is that opinion so widely held?

I've said before, I think, that masculinity is more strictly enforced than femininity, and that's what this line of thinking probably goes back to. At some point, boys are taught--implicitly or explicitly-- that liking things like "girl books" is makes them girly.  Which, in American society, is something that it is most definitely not okay for a boy to be. After all, what could be more girly than a book written by a woman--especially if it's one told from a female perspective or one with a female as the main protagonist?

That's just my theory, of course, but I think it holds some weight.

I'll leave you with a quote from the Tumblr of Shannon Hale, author of Goose Girl and a number of other Young Adult and Young Adult Fantasy books. In this post, the author discusses why boys don't read "girl books." The post can be read in its entirety here.
Another staple in my signing line is the family. The mom and daughters get their books signed, and the mom confides in me, “My son reads your books on the sly” or “My son loves your books too but he’s embarrassed to admit it.” Why are they embarrassed? Because we’ve made them that way. We’ve told them in subtle ways that, in order to be a real boy, to be manly, they can’t like anything girls like.
Though sometimes those instructions aren’t subtle at all. Recently at a signing, a family had all my books. The mom had me sign one of them for each of her children. A 10-year-old boy lurked in the back. I’d signed some for all the daughters and there were more books, so I asked the boy, “Would you like me to sign one to you?” The mom said, “Yeah, Isaac, do you want her to put your name in a girl book?” and the sisters all giggled.
As you can imagine, Isaac said no.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas!

I'm not actually writing new content today, but I didn't want to get off-schedule again so soon after getting back on track.

Hopefully you're all safe and warm and happy today.

There'll be a new, content-filled post on Saturday, but, in the meantime, here are some clips from NBC's Community, which is one of the most diverse and creative shows on television (and it comes back on October 19th--which is happening on February 7th).



Saturday, December 22, 2012

Action Girl

I love a good action series. Sometimes I love a bad action series.

Even the most gentle among us wants to see a good ass-kicking now and then. Part of the draw, I think, is getting to see people like us--people that we can relate to--doing crazy, amazing things and taking charge. It's part of why characters like John McClane and Batman and Hercules are so lasting in pop culture as a whole and American pop culture, specifically.

There's no shortage of male action heroes. They're plentiful and varied--though, admittedly, over time many of them start looking the same (compare video game heroes--the same scarred, angry, bald white guy shows up over and over, but that's a post for another day). The female version of this character type, The Action Girl, while it's being seen more and more in various media, does not saturate the market in the same way.

There are a lot of reasons for this--maybe you remember Warner Brothers making waves in 2007 by saying they would no longer produce films with female leads? -- and this year, editor Frank Parlato, Jr. of the Niagara Falls Reporter made it pretty clear what he thinks of female-led movies when he was approached by a writer who had reviewed Snow White and the Huntsman and, in spite of the eyebrow-raising content of his response to the reviewer, it's depressingly not hard to image that there are plenty who share his views.

Then there's the perception that action films that star women can't succeed; people tend to back this up by citing films like Catwoman and Suckerpunch (which, if we're being honest here, are indeed lousy films, and both, incidentally, are great examples of Male Gaze in effect), and that's sort of like judging every Sean Connery film by League of Extraordinary Gentlemen--which is to say that it's unfair and only provides a narrow view of the subject,only looking at one not-so-great example, and it doesn't take into account things like the marketing the movies get, the writing, the star-power behind the film, and other factors in what makes a movie sell.

But sometimes, action movies that star women as the hero and not the victim in need of rescuing do get made. And they do sell.


Consider two of the twenty highest-grossing female-led action films: 1979's Alien starring Sigourney Weaver as Ripley and 2010's Salt starring Angelina Jolie as the title character. Ripley and Evelyn Salt are two very different and interesting characters that share an unusual trait: neither character was written for a woman.

When Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett wrote the early drafts of the script for Alien, the characters that comprised the crew were to be "unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women. Ripley's gender wasn't decided until Sigourney Weaver was cast in the role.

Gender is not a factor in Ripley's actions at all--even in scenes in which she's clad only in underwear and a t-shirt, Ripley's not played for sexuality. Issues of femininity never come up. The actions demanded by the situation are the beginning and end of Ripley's motivation.

And then there's Evelyn Salt.

As the story goes, Tom Cruise was approached to play the title role in Salt--Edwin W. Salt. Cruise, not wanting to play a role so similar to the one he played in the Mission: Impossible films, declined the part, and Edwin became Evelyn, a vehicle for Angeline Jolie, who had already seen some success with the Tomb Raider franchise. Rather than trying to rewrite the script with a female in mind, the minds behind the film changed the character's name and left almost everything else untouched. In fact, the only major change was removing the children that Edwin was written to have (which does give the message that a woman can be an action woman or a mom, but not both, and that's kind of crappy any way you look at it).

But a female action hero doesn't have to be portrayed with masculinity or without gender at all to be successful.

The top-earning female-led action film came out earlier this year, and set sales records for movies with a spring release.

The Hunger Games, the first movie in a trilogy based on the books by Suzanne Collins, was wildly successful. The second film in the series, Catching Fire, is already in production and looking towards a November 2013 release. Judging from the buzz about the movie online and the success of the book series, the second film will be just as popular. And this is with a female character that was written to be female. Katniss's gender, while never a focal point in the story, is not ignored. She dresses up (though, granted, it's not because she wants to), she thinks about boys--at least, when she's not focused on surviving, which isn't often, but her understanding of her more romantic emotions does play a part in her character development--she's a girl. She just happens to be a girl who can fight.

There are plenty of examples from other media--Buffy, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, the Abhorsen trilogy, Charmed, Warehouse 13, Lost Girl, and tons of female-led anime.

One of the most shining examples of strong, action women on television has been Avatar: The Last Airbender and it's follow-up/sister series, The Legend of Korra. Both of these series are among the most popular animated shows of all time, with fans of all ages and all genders. And these two shows have some of the greatest female characters on television.








 Okay, Pema may not actually fight much, but she's definitely a tough lady.


(And these are just the good guys.)

So, what's the secret, then? How can we get more characters like these?

It's in the writing, really, when all is said and done. In his essay "Why I Write 'Strong Female Characters,'" novelist and comic book writer Greg Rucka, says this about writing strong women:

Writers don't write Men or Women or Dogs or Salmon. Writers write characters, and at our best, if we do it well and with care and with thought, we invest in those characters a spark of life, a realism and nuance that makes them believable and relatable. We seek to craft characters who inspire empathy, characters our audience will care for, and as a result, will care about what happens to them, and thus will share the journey we have charted. A story, after all, is the character's journey. No character - no well-created character, at least - is defined by only one trait, by one aspect.
 That's why characters like Ripley, Katniss, Salt, Katara, Buffy, and so many others are so popular--it's the same reason why so many male characters are popular.

They're characters. They have flaws, passions, motives, and interests that make viewers and readers care about them.

So, how do you write a great female action character? It's like Greg Rucka says.

"The Quick Answer goes like this:
Q: How do you write such strong/well-realized/positively portrayed women?
A: I don't. I write characters. Some of those characters are women."

Saturday, November 10, 2012

TV Moms, Part Six: Aunt Bee: Wholesome and Homecooked Mom-In-Effect

If there's one thing that can be learned from television, it's that there is more than one way to portray a family.

And sometimes, in these television families, the mother is absent.

Single dads aren't rare on TV. Phillip Drummond from Diff'rent Strokes, Russell Lawrence from Gidget, and even Full House's Danny Tanner and Arrested Development's Michael Bluth have been part of the television single-father tradition.

But one of the most famous TV single dads, who appeared on CBS from October of 1960 to April of 1968, was the sheriff of a a small town called Mayberry and still runs in syndication over fifty years after its cancellation.

Widower Andy Taylor and his son, Opie, though they had lost their wife and mother respectively, were not without a mother figure, even before the series began.

 The first episode of The Andy Griffith Show had Andy's housekeeper, Rose, moving out to get married and Opie being reluctant to accept a new mother figure into their house and his life.

And the woman that is brought in (brought back in, in Andy's case) into the Taylor boys' lives is Beatrice Taylor, or, as Mayberry and American came to know her, Aunt Bee.



Frances Bavier's Aunt Bee was the never-married sister of Andy's father. Though it's never explored very deeply in the series, it is stated flat out that Bee raised Andy and implied that she had raised a few other Taylors, also, though she never married or had children of her own (another tidbit that is never really explored in the show).

Aunt Bee is a very interesting character to me, especially when considered through the scope of her time and in the context of the modern audiences exposed to the show.

When The Andy Griffith Show first aired in the early sixties, the social stigma for unmarried women and the fact that the Feminist Movement of the 1960s was still in its infancy limited what they could do--working as housekeepers and in other "pink-collar" (or traditionally female) jobs such as teaching and nursing. And a woman never having been married was rare enough (check this pdf if you're interested in detailed 1960s marriage statistics). Even though Aunt Bee was established as an unmarried woman, her romantic life played a fairly large part in her storylines in the show. Though her actual life track is unusual for a woman on television in that time, Aunt Bee is very much like the other television mothers of her time--working inside the home and in the community by way of her church and being responsible for the care and upbringing of a child. The only differences Aunt Bee and mothers like June Cleaver are that Bee isn't married, and she didn't give birth to Opie.

There's something very encouraging, I think, in the fact that even in what was a considerably more conservative time, the idea that there are many different kinds of mothers-- Aunt Bee didn't physically carry or give birth to Opie, but there's no denying that she is a mother to Opie. Today, more people are considering adoption that in the 1960s, and it's interesting to me that, even fifty years ago, there was a postivie role model for people that are parents that didn't give birth themselves.

Though there are many ways in which Aunt Bee is relatable to modern audiences, there are, of course, things about the character that date her. While Bee lives with her nephew Andy during the series and, after Andy marries Helen Crump at the end of the series, with another widowed father, Sam Jones as part of the exposition for the spin-off series, Mayberry, R.F.D, in 2012, more single women are choosing to live alone than ever before. And, while Aunt Bee worked mostly in the home (though later in the series she did open a restaurant and record a cooking show), more women are working outside the home now than then, juggling work and parenthood.


Mayberry may have been a simpler time and place on the whole, and The Andy Griffith Show certainly portrayed more conservative values than many television shows today, it's interesting to see the modern thinking that got slipped into the narrative by way of Aunt Bee's unique representation of motherhood.

In the coming weeks, we'll start taking a look at single mothers and blended families with Brett Butler's Grace Under Fire and one of television's most famous mother, Florence Henderson's Carol Brady.


Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Video Follow-Up

I imagine everyone's busy voting today (or, at least, I hope everyone is), so instead of a content-heavy post, I'm just going to share this follow-up to the costumes discussion from my Halloween post.

You can also find a link to this video in the comments section of that post.

In this video, we see how people react to a (staged) argument between a parent and child--first a mom and son and then a mom and daughter--about costume choices. In both cases, the child wants to wear a costume that is "gender inappropriate."

For me, watching this video was pretty frustrating at first, but there was a nice turnaround in the end. Though I still wish that at least one person had been on the boy's side.


Thanks to Mandy for sending me the link to the video.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Wonderful World of Lucasfilm?

I had planned on continuing the TV Moms series today with a look at the title character in Grace Under Fire.

But then Disney bought Lucasfilm for 4 billion dollars. And it seemed like I ought to touch on that.


(You might want to watch for spoilers. In some of my examples, I'll talk about the ending of series. All of them are a few years old, but better safe, I suppose.)

I've heard all sorts of panicked ideas--reboots, Disney/Star Wars crossovers. Star Wars has both a huge and devoted fanbase, and it was, understandably, in a frenzy after the announcement--especially when the words "episode seven" began being tossed about. (And that is happening, by the way, in 2015--with an Episode VIII to follow two years later, and an Episode IX two years after that. And possibly more after that.)

To be honest, this whole thing is sort of a mixed bag for me. I'm not particularly worried that Disney will bastardize the Star Wars universe: a similar worry was voiced when Disney acquired Marvel, and that marriage has done a lot of good for Marvel in media outside comics--Avengers was hugely successful, Earth's Mightiest Heroes was pretty excellent as far as animated series go, and pretty soon there's going to be a S.H.E.I.L.D. television show on ABC. Disney's goal for the past several years has been to bring their level of popularity among boys to the same level as their popularity among girls. They're not going to mess it up by injecting glitter where it ought not be.

The issues that I have with Disney taking over Lucasfilm as a whole and Star Wars specifically are less about changes to the brand than they are about over saturation, I guess.

First of all, do you know how much stuff Disney owns? ESPN, ABC, Disney Theatrical, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Hyperion Books--they own a lot. A lot. There's nothing wrong with Disney having their hands in so many pies, I suppose, but it does make me uneasy. As with anything, when only one voice or one take on things gets heard, only half the story gets told. I'm a fan of a lot of Disney products, but they have specific areas in which they're strong, and there are lots of great stories that don't fit in to those categories. With Disney owning so many channels and so many production companies, it's harder for stories that Disney may not see a place for to get out there--television shows and movies that could be worthwhile might not get made.

The other issue I have that kind of goes along with this is that Disney is out for money. And, I know, every company is out to make money. I don't necessarily fault Disney for being focused on profit--it's certainly served them well for decades.

But Disney has a tendency to do something that really frustrates me as a storyteller.

As long as a franchise is pulling in profit, Disney will keep it going. They're not the only group to do this (Shrek, anyone?), but three Cinderella movies, a Monsters, Inc. prequel, and four Tinkerbell movies (not counting the two Peter Pan animated films) prove that Disney's pretty bad about continuing a story just for the money.

That might be a good policy for business--if Disney's any indicator, it works very well--but it's terrible for stories. This is a big problem in a lot of American media. It's how so many shows wind up lasting long past their prime and movies winding up with sequel after after sequel even after audiences have stopped caring. After a certain point, stories and characters are left with nothing to explore. While many Potter fans would love to see another Harry Potter book, Harry's fulfilled his destiny and there's no more to his story. An eighth season of The West Wing wouldn't have worked, and, as much as I was a fan of Aang, Sokka, Katara, Zuko, and Toph in Avatar: the Last Airbender, their story really ended with the defeat of the Fire Lord. When a story is done, it ought to be left alone.

I might be alone in this, but I feel like the core group of Star Wars characters--the Skywalkers, for instance--have told their stories in full.  We really don't need another movie about them. There are still other parts of that universe worth looking at, but  after a certain point, more Star Wars movies is really just using the brand for the sake of using the brand.

In the end, I don't think Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm is necessarily bad. It's just an interesting turn of events and, like any combination of companies or franchises, it could really go either way. I guess we'll see with Episode VII in 2015.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Happy Halloween!

If you're like me, then you'll take any excuse to don a costume and play around. And if you're like me, that means you love Halloween.

Halloween is probably my favorite holiday, but I have to say, sometimes the costumes I see break my heart.

Look, I'm a firm believer that people should be able to wear whatever they want and not get harassed for it. You wanna dress sexy, go for it. You want to genderbend, do it. My issue isn't that people are using Halloween as an excuse to dress in sexy costumes.

My issues are these: one, that most of the sexy costumes show a lamentable lack of creativity (seriously, it's like "take x, and turn it into a tube dress"), and two that the options for female costumes are limited to the overtly sexy--again, if you want to dress in a sexy costume, that's great, but for female-identifiers who don't, the lack of options makes the whole process frustrating.

Seriously. (image via Sociological Images)


I could spend some time talking about how these gendered costumes perpetuate some pretty insidious ideas about sexuality and gender performance, but there are plenty of other places that are leading that discussion--I've spent a lot of time scrolling through the Fuck No Sexist Halloween Costumes Tumblr page.

But instead of bemoaning the heteronormative travesty that is Halloween costume advertising or the disappointing lack of unique costume options, I thought I'd share a place where you can see some creative options for female-identifiers.

I was introduced to Take Back Halloween last year. It's a collection of interesting costume ideas--notable women from history, goddesses from nearly every pantheon, classic glamour girls, and queens from just about any where and any time--and lists of how and the things you'll need to make the costumes.

Just check out some of their options.

Queen Nzinga of Ndongo

Japanese Sun Goddess Amaterasu

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo

I know the day before Halloween is a little too late to put together a new costume, but I'm sharing this in part to give you something to think about to distract you when you see the fiftieth Sexy Big Bird of the night and, in part, to let you know about their Kickstarter project

Take Back Halloween  is in the process of expanding their costume ideas for 2013, and they need help funding their research. Check it out--see if funding this project is something you're interested in.

In the end, it's Halloween. You should dress how you want, without being limited by what stores and society think is appropriate for your gender.

Enjoy the holiday, guys!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

More on Gender

There'll be a Halloween post up on Tuesday, but in the meantime, here are a couple of videos that related to the gendered products we looked at earlier this week.

It's interesting to me that the overwhelming majority of videos on gender stereotyping focus more on women than men--making perceptions of feminine more broad, but not broadening the scope for masculinity. To me, this reinforces the idea that masculinity is more strictly enforced than femininity-there's a lot of societal pressure on boys and men to succeed, provide, and be strong. Whatever that means.
 



Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Today in "Wait, What?": Pointlessly Gendered Products

It's old news by this point, but back in August pen-making company BIC released a new type of pen.

A pen for women.

Aren't they pretty.

The reaction to these pens was about what you'd expect--a hardy "Wait, what? Seriously?" and plenty of snark. Just look at the reviews of the product on Amazon.com.

My favorite, though, was Ellen Degeneres's take on it on her show.


We can pretty much all agree that the notion of pens for a specific gender is a pretty ridiculous one--I mean, we all know that women can write whatever they want, and that a pen is a pen whether its pink, black, or whatever.

The thing that gets me, though, is that this sort of dismissal hasn't been applied to other products.

There's a whole host of products that are pointlessly marketed to a specific gender.

Look at Dr. Pepper 10.

I'm not supposed to want a lower-calorie soda because I'm a woman? And Men aren't supposed to want to drink anything that has "Diet" in the name because "that means it's for ladies"?

There are gendered calamine lotions, gendered ear plugs, gendered face masks--the list goes on and on. There are so many, in fact, that the sociologists behind the blog Sociological Images created a board on Pinterest specifically to catalog instances of products that are needlessly being gendered.

The media love to pit men against women--we see it in television shows, in advertising, all over the place. We've learned to deal with it and, in many cases, to expect it. It creates a sort of "us against them' mentality that, I think, is a pretty significant part of the problems we as a society have with issues of gender performance and sexuality. It forges an environment in which a person who doesn't perform his or her gender in the way that's considered appropriate--a guy who likes the color pink or a girl who wants to play football--gets ostracized.

And I'd say it's men who suffer more from this. Women can usuallly get away with not conforming with all aspects of their gender more easily than men can. People may roll their eyes at a girl who plays in the mud and dresses in boys' clothes, but she won't receive the immediate censure that a boy who plays with dolls or dresses girls' clothes. Masculinity is more intensely enforced than femininity in most cases, and it does a disservice to people who are different.

So, yes, we can all agree that "pens for women" are stupid. But maybe we ought to take a closer look at the thinking behind products like this--because that's pretty crazy, too.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

TV Moms, Part Five: "Now, What Would You Like In Your Coffee?"

While Roseanne and The Golden Girls both saw a great deal of success in the '80s and early '90s, one 1980s sitcom seems to outshine them all.

You can probably guess which show I'm talking about.

 

In the eight seasons The Cosby Show spent on NBC from 1984 to 1992, it's Nielsen ratings never fell out of the top twenty shows, and it spent five of those seasons in the number one spot. It's often given credit for paving the way for shows like In Living Color and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

The Cosby Show was unique in many ways: the show was filmed in New York instead of Los Angeles, Bill Cosby had an unusual amount of creative control over the show, and, in spite of its predominantly African American cast, it very rarely dealt with the subject of race (though it did promote African and African American music and culture, and it did spawn a spin off that dealt with race issues more frequently). The show is also both praised for breaking stereotypes in portrayals of African Americans--both parents of the Huxtable clan are professionals with college degrees and prestigious jobs--and criticized for only representing a certain portion of the African American community.

But aside from its significance in the context of NBC's sitcom history and in the context of shows with predominantly African American casts, The Cosby Show is remembered for one more contribution to television history.

Clair Huxtable is arguably the most memorable mother that's ever been on television. She consistently makes the top ten in lists of greatest television mothers, and understandably so: she's the "power woman": five kids, a full-time job as an attorney.

Where June Cleaver may be the ideal for the stay-at-home mother, Clair Huxtable is the working mom that has it all together.  She not only had a job, she had a job that was equal in prestige to her husband's--something that, even today, when there is no shortage of working women and even working mothers on television, is rare (the only other example I can think of off the top of my head is NBC's current sitcom Up All Night, which is not enjoying anywhere near the same level of success). She was undeniably present in her children's lives--who remembers the episode where she catches son Theo trying to cut corners on studying MacBeth? She wrote her own test for him! She got her kids to school and made dinner, even making a scrambled eggs supper for Rudy's friend who had just been to the dentist in one episode. And, while she varied from the pearls-and-heels ensembles of Mrs. Cleaver, Clair was always stylish and professional.

It's interesting to note, also, that, while early television mothers like June Cleaver and Harriet Nelson seem dated to modern audiences, Clair remains relatable. This could, certainly, be because 1984 is not nearly so removed from 2012 as 1957 is, but with more women going to college than ever and more women in the workforce, it's likely that viewers in 2012 are more able to see themselves in Clair Huxtable than 1984 viewers.

And, in a time where women's issues are making news, Clair is as relatable as ever.




Yeah, Clair's enduring popularity makes sense. She serves as a great model of a strong woman and is one of the most positive portrayals of working mothers television has seen.

In the coming weeks, we'll take a look some non-traditional mothers, including single mothers like Grace Kelly from Grace Under Fire and non-mother maternal figures like The Andy Griffith Show's Aunt Bee.


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Girl Wonder



Carrie Kelly’s been getting a lot of attention lately.



Websites like Super Hero Hype and Toon Zone have run interviews with Ariel Winters, the actress who provides Carrie’s voice in the latest DC direct-to-DVD feature. Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress wrote a short piece about how exciting it is to see this” self-made superhero in glasses and with moxie to burn.” And artist Noelle Stevenson, better known as Ginger Haze is clearly a fan, too. She’s everywhere.

With The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 hitting stores a couple weeks ago, it’s really not surprising that so many people are talking about Carrie Kelly. I mean, Robin is an undeniably important part of the Batman mythos, and Carrie is the first female Robin to get airtime in any film incarnation, animated or otherwise, of Batman.

Female Robins are hardly ever met by cheering crowds and sparkling praise, but the response to Carrie has been, from what I can tell, at best, optimism and enthusiasm and, at worst, apathy.
Helena Wayne, too, only recently retconned into holding the Robin mantel, hasn’t inspired the fury with which some comic book fans are quick to meet continuity changes and new heroes in old identities.
The same cannot be said for the third Girl Wonder.



Stephanie Brown may be one of the most polarizing characters in comics. She inspires a lot of fan love and fan action on her behalf, especially after Bryan Q. Miller’s take on her.

But, boy, do people hate her—fans, creators, and executives alike.

Why, though? Objectively, she’s not that different from the other two ladies who’ve donned the red and green. Like both of the others, she was Robin briefly before moving on to another identity. Like Carrie, she was selected to take the place of a Robin that could no longer perform his duties, and, like Carrie, she’s the child of neglectful parents. And she and Helena were both removed abruptly from the role of Robin, though the circumstances were certainly different.

What is it, then, about Stephanie that gets people so worked up? There are a few things that I can think of.
First, Stephanie took the place of an active Robin. Tim Drake didn’t get killed, he just retired, and he only did that because his father forced him. And Batman appointed Stephanie to the job in the hopes of getting Tim to return. Tim Drake is a popular character—I got into comics in the first place through the Robin and Young Justice books; Tim was the first character I cared about, so I get the attachment people have to him. Whoever replaced him was bound to meet with some resentment; Damian was met with his fair share of hate when he was introduced to take the Robin mantle from Tim (and in a much more literal sense than Stephanie). And Stephanie, who was Tim’s girlfriend at that time in comics, went behind his back to take up the role. It didn’t go over well.

Then, there’s the fact that Stephanie got fired. Stephanie was not the best hero before— as Spoiler, she was reckless and sloppy and frequently got into more trouble than she could handle-- and her appointment as Robin didn’t really improve her all that much. The deal from the beginning was that she’d only be Robin as long as she followed all of Batman’s orders. She doesn’t, though she’s hardly the only Robin to disobey (rebellion was Jason’s M.O., and Carrie was known to go against the Bat more than once, Dick and Tim both struck out on their own after a while, and Damian…well, is Damian), and she gets canned pretty quickly; the mantle is taken away from her, and the way is paved to restore the status quo—it surprises no one when Tim becomes Robin again.

So, Stephanie takes the mantle from someone else, and she gets it taken away from her by the Bat himself.  Neither of the other female Robins share those characteristics—Carrie becomes Robin years after Jason’s death and chooses to move on to her Catgirl identity, and Helena is raised to be Robin and only abandons that title after being tossed from her world. But I think there’s a third factor that plays into the harsh reactions to Stephanie as Robin.

Carrie and Helena are both Robins on alternate Earths. The two of them can have as many adventures as they want for as long as they want, and it will have no effect on Dick, Jason, Tim, or Damian. Stephanie, however, was Robin on the main Earth. Paired with the way that she became Robin, the fact that every issue in which she appears as Robin means that one of the guys is booted from the role, Stephanie had a lot working against her. It would’ve taken time and some pretty fantastic writers to allow her to win over fans that were (a) devoted to the Robin(s) already in place and/or (b) not used to a girl in the Robin suit.

And Stephanie wasn’t given that time. She only spends about three issues of Robin as the Girl Wonder—seventy-one days in Gotham-time, according to her narration. And while there may be nothing wrong with Bill Willingham as a writer, his writing of Stephanie didn’t endear her to the longtime fans of Tim Drake who had been reading the series for years. Then Stephanie was seemingly killed off and disappeared from comics for years.

There’s a lot working against Stephanie getting respect as a Robin—and, really, against her getting respect as a character, in some cases, though her fanbase is a loyal one, and if they have anything to say about it, we haven’t seen the last of her.

But at least it can be said that the vehement dislike for Stephanie-as-Robin is not a case of “people hate all girl Robins.” It is nice to see Carrie Kelly getting attention in a positive way. Not many women of the Bat Family have made it to the screen—big or small—and while Steph fans will probably be fighting the “was she a real Robin” battle forever, the popularity that Carrie seems to be gaining proves that there is room in the DC Universe for a female Robin.


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Saturday, October 6, 2012

Prime-Time's Glass Ceiling

For those that don't know, I currently work in production at a television station. I'm one of nine people with the same job title and, of that nine, one of three women. And, while I've never been "harassed" per se and the people I work with directly don't find my gender to be relevant to the work that I do or the quality with which I do it, I do get treated very differently from my male colleagues by people in other departments: the guys will be asked a question before I am, if something technical needs doing I'm either not asked or am instructed in a manner that can only be described as condescending--and it's not just the men that do these things.

There's more than one reason for this, I think: a combination of the station not bothering to seek out women interested in the position and women not being interested in the position and women, in general, are thought to be less informed and/or less abled when it comes to dealing with technology (which are pretty significant problemd in and of themselves, but that's a post for another day). Frankly, though, men make up the vast majority of people working behind the camera in television and movies (though the number of female creators, producers, and writers has been steadily on the rise).

I get it, though. Television and film, like pretty much all other industries has been traditionally dominated by men, and it takes time to turn that around (sixtyish years seems like a bit too long to me, but my perspective is admittedly skewed).

Though, there was something this week that caught my attention.

It's appeared in a few places (I caught the story on The Mary Sue, but I've since tracked it to this site), and it was certainly jarring to me--I recognize that there are relatively few women in television and film that get the recognition that their male counterparts do, but it's not something that I focus on while I'm working.

But this was just too much.

Director Barbara Stepansky (Fugue, Girls! Girls! Girls! and others) shared the tale of a male acquaintance from film school's winning the Student Emmy. The award was presented by the producer/director of a prime-time drama that runs on Fox, and that producer invited the male acquaintance to shadow the show's director on the set. After this, the acquaintance was invited to direct an episode himself.

This is not a problem. This is a director getting noticed for his good work and gaining opportunities because he's apparently good at what he does. That's a cool thing.

Here's the problem:

A few years ago, I won the same exact award for my own thesis film, the Student Emmy for Best Drama and Best Director. At the awards ceremony, I was approached by an equally heavy-hitting producer of an equally popular prime-time TV drama on Fox (alas, a different one). He was impressed with my thesis film, which had garnered the two top awards of the night. He also graciously invited me to come and visit the set of the show he was producing. I was allowed to shadow an episode he himself was directing for a day. During that visit, I asked about the opportunity to direct.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “The lead actor hates female directors. We only had one in the first season, and she was never invited back.  He just doesn’t like them.”

Yikes.

It's not so shocking that there's an actor who is a jerk--in fact, that's probably more the rule than the exception. What gets me is that no one fought against this. TV is a business, and I understand that it's necessary to hire actors that are marketable, even though I don't necessarily agree with the accepted definition of "marketable" (I mean, I can't watch an episode of Friends without being faced with the overwhelming desire to buy everyone in the cast a cheeseburger and watching to make sure they eat it), but seriously. It doesn't matter if you're limiting the show's potential by nixing female directors before you even try working with them so long as you're popular and your show gets high enough ratings?

I agree with Ms. Stepansky on this one.

I’d like to live in a world where people are ashamed to say things like that, but for some reason it’s still OK.  Take out the word “female” in that quote and substitute it with “black,” “Jewish,” or “gay.  You may tolerate your grandpa spouting misogynist rhetoric at Thanksgiving with a roll of your eyes, but it’s simply not acceptable coming from people who hold the keys to prestigious and lucrative jobs.

This experience transcends personal feelings, and it is endemic in the Hollywood culture.  I mentioned to somebody with a connection to a current popular TV show that I would travel across the globe at my own expense for the opportunity to shadow. They told me that unfortunately it would be pointless because I would have to be a white, ideally British guy. How can I hope to direct episodic TV if one of the main criteria is that I’m male?
 I've said it before; I'll say it again: This is not okay.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

High Hopes: CW's ARROW

Next Wednesday, the CW is premiering its latest foray into superhero television programs.



Arrow, based on the DC Comics character Green Arrow--Oliver Queen, in his civilian ID--is CW's attempt to bring back the fans of their Superman-based series, Smallville, back to the network for another show.

Now, I don't know how realistic the expectation of winning back the Smallville audience is, what with Green Arrow being a) a hero with no super powers b) not immediately familiar to people who aren't into comic books and/or didn't make it to the later seasons of Smallville and c) pretty clearly being used because CW couldn't afford the rights to Batman and wanted to use the next closest thing in the DC Universe (there's a actually a pretty big difference in how Batman and Green Arrow are traditionally characterized in comics, but you wouldn't know that from the promotional material for Arrow), but there are a few things about this show that have me hopeful.

1. Casting of actors from geek properties.

In August, John Barrowman, of Torchwood  and Doctor Who fame,was announced as joining the cast (though who he's playing is still unclear). Tahmoh Penikett, who was in both Battlestar Galactica  and Joss Whedon's Dollhouse has been cast as a high-ranking mobster, the right hand man to the father of a character that we pretty much know will have a significant role in the story. While fans of one geek property aren't necessarily going to be fans of another, CW's attempts to get out of the rut of reusing actors from their other shows--which is something that, if you take a look at their programming, they do a lot--shows promise. Though I, personally, have never been the biggest fan of Green Arrow, a well-handled show about him could be interesting and an excellent stepping-stone for other superhero-based shows, and that's pretty exciting.

2. Lots of potential for some outstanding female heroes.

We've known from the beginning that Kate Cassidy's character, Laurel Lance, could potentially become DC superhero (and on-again-off-again love interest of Green Arrow) Black Canary.
And it's been confirmed that Jessica De Gouw will be appearing as Helena Bertinelli, a.k.a. The Huntress (and my personal favorite DC lady) starting around episode six.

It looks like there may be long-term plans to evolve Ollie's younger sister into his sidekick, Speedy--based on the character's second incarnation, Mia Dearden.

And Ashley Scott, who played the Helena Wayne version of The Huntress in the short-lived Birds of Prey TV series, tweeted back in August that she was auditioning for the role of Kate Spencer, who the more comic-savvy will recognize as the civilian name for the vigilante Manhunter.
That's the potential for four awesome ladies. The last time we had this many superwomen in a show (that lasted more than one season...poor Birds of Prey) was probably the Justice League Unlimited cartoon. If these women are written with any care at all, it'll go a long way to pulling in a female audience--not to mention giving the show an engaging and unusual supporting cast.

3. The possibility for more live-action superhero shows--even ones centered on female heroes

I'm not gonna lie, I was disappointed when David E. Kelley's Wonder Woman pilot flopped, not because I thought it was good (it wasn't), but because I really, really want a Wonder Woman show. Superheroes are branching into new media with successful films like The Avengers and Nolan's Batman trilogy, but even with the films' success and Smallville's ten seasons, superladies are still conspicuously absent.

But, since the announcement of Arrow and the apparent warm reception to the pilot, CW, Warner Bros., and DC Comics are apparently collaborating to create a Wonder Woman script.  It's a long way from a pilot and an even longer way from a series, but the fact that they're trying--and the fact that they're using Allan Heinberg, who's written Wonder Woman comics (issue 1-5 of her series following the events of Identity Crisis)--gives me hope that we may yet see Wonder Woman on TV again. And, if Arrow continues to show promise, we may see her sooner than later.

The premiere of the show is still over a week away, so there's no telling yet if Arrow will succeed because of these factors or fail in spite of them. Either way, I know I'll be watching next Wednesday with hopes high.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

TV Moms, Part Four: "Thank You For Being a Friend"

Just before ABC brought Roseanne to the screen, NBC gave us insight in to the lives of four older women living in Miami. This 1985 to 1992 sitcom, like others of its time, took on social issues in addition to showing the viewership the characters' shenanigans, and touched on groups that were otherwise largely ignored by television-- particularly the elderly and the LGBT community. The Golden Girls was immediately a hit, raking in 11 Emmy Awards and staying in the top 10 of Nielsen rankings for six of its seven seasons.

But wait, you're thinking, the women on The Golden Girls weren't moms. There were no kids in the main cast.

Plenty of sitcoms showcased the traditional nuclear family--Mom, Dad, school-aged children with maybe an aunt or grandparent thrown in to spice things up. The Golden Girls, though, took a look at a different and generally ignored demographic: women "of a certain age," whose husbands were either dead or otherwise out of the picture, and whose children were grown.



Blanche Devereaux, Rose Nylund, Sophia Petrillo, and Dorothy Zbornak may not have lived with their children, but parent-child interaction was a pretty significant theme of the show.

Rose deals with the her boyfriend's grown daughter telling her stay away, and we see Rose's oldest daughter struggling with accepting the other three women as her mother's chosen family. Blanche's daughter deals with extreme weight gain, a verbally abusive partner, artificial insemination (which turns out to be more of an issue for Blanche than the daughter), and being a mother on her own. We also learn about Blanche's regrets: on more than one occasion, she mentions wishing that she had been more involved in the lives of her children, citing that even in their twenties, her kids felt more attached to their nanny than they did to her; in fact, Blanche spends most of the series trying to make amends with her children.

While the stories about Rose's and Blanche's relationships with their children are told with care and deal with some interesting issues that are specific to mothers with adult children, there's one mother-daughter pair that gets more attention on the show than any other.

In the pilot episode, Blanche, Rose, and Dorothy are already living together in Blanche's house in Miami (with a not-unstereotypical gay cook character who vanishes by the time the second episode rolls around), when Sophia, Dorothy's mother, shows up at their door saying that Shady Pines, the rest home she'd been living in, had burned down. Because it's television (and because Sophia's pretty much the most entertaining character in the show--or maybe that's just my opinion), Dorothy's other housemates immediately welcome Sophia and invite her to live with them.

Dorothy and Sophia have a relationship that is not often seen in sitcoms. Mothers of adults are rarely seen outside of the bothersome mother-in-law role in television comedies, but in The Golden Girls, Sophia broke that archetype.

Through the show's seven seasons, we see how Sophia and Dorothy's relationship has changed now that Dorothy is an adult and Sophia is elderly. Role-reversal is frequently apparent: we see the traditional "My roof, my rules" discussion with Sophia on the receiving end, Dorothy enforces a curfew for Sophia and worries about her when she goes out with her friends--even following her out after Sophia has a fight with her friend at the beach, and Sophia is constantly asking Dorothy about her allowance and to borrow the car or some money. And it's done with banter, outrageous stories ( Sophia's stories always begin in basically the same way: "Picture it. Sicily--1920"), and no small amount of snark.

But more than just showing this reversal, Dorothy reacts to it. "When did I become my parents' age?" she wonders in one episode. More than once, Dorothy is forced to face Sophia's mortality and has to confront the idea that she will be an orphan--even though Dorothy is over sixty.

Dorothy and Sophia, though they fight and call each other names ("deceitful Sicilian gecko" is one of my personal favorites), manage to cope with the transition from parent and child to friends.

What's most interesting about this to me is that it almost didn't happen. Sophia fits the trope of the Ascended Extra: the creators had intended her to be only a recurring guest on the show, but because of the overwhelmingly positive response to her first appearance, she was written into the main cast, allowing a world of viewers who, perhaps, hadn't given much though to women in their fifties and sixties--much less to the mothers of women in their fifties and sixties--insight into the relationships between mothers and the adults they raised.

Adding in Sophia officially was a great call. Aside from being widely acknowledged as the show's breakout star and becoming one-half of a fantastic comedy duo, as Dorothy's actress Bea Arthur said of Estelle Getty's Sophia following Getty's death in 2008, Sophia opened the door for a different type of mother-daughter relationship to be explored on the small screen.

Check back in the coming weeks. We'll be taking a look at Phylicia Rashad's Claire Huxtable from The Cosby Show and at Brett Butler's Grace Kelly from Grace Under Fire.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three