‘Gambit’ and the Female Gaze

So, I banned myself from writing about comics this week, but here we are anyway.

Before I read the first issue of Gambit, I was curious what I would find between its covers. In an interview with Comics Alliance, writer James Asmus said, “Gambit really is one of the few explicitly sexy male characters in mainstream comics, and that’s a major part of how I envision this book. Luckily, our artist on the book is Clay Mann. And he completely taps into the easy cool and good looks that help make Gambit such man-candy to his fans.” (Also, Asmus said he has actually lived in Louisiana and known actual Cajuns, and therefore won’t have to rely on “other fictional portrayals of the culture,” which is amazing for a whole ‘nother set of reasons, fit for a whole ‘nother post.)

The idea of putting Gambit’s sex appeal at the forefront of the book was extremely interesting to me, for a probably fairly obvious reason: superheroines are primarily sexy all the time, regardless of how much sex appeal their characters actually have, but superheroes are rarely sexy first and foremost, even when their characters have a lot of sex appeal. Also, James Asmus thinks that Gambit’s “fans” think he’s man-candy. This means Asmus understands that not every single comics reader is a straight man. Which blows my mind in the most unreasonable way.

And then there were hints of a shower scene! Be still, my beating heart!

Fast forward to the release of issue 1. What do we open with? Naked Gambit in a naked shower! Hurray, world! Four thousand points to feminism, right?

Sort of. What I find most interesting about the way Gambit is drawn is that his sexiness manages to be both overt and subtle at the same time. His character also manages to be sexy without being objectified.

Let’s go back to that shower scene.  In the first panel, we get all of naked Gambit that’s fit to print. (Meaning, he’s positioned so he isn’t facing us, so sorry, but no genitals.) Then we see various body parts of Gambit as he gets out of the shower, all leading up to the panel where he’s toweling off his hair in the buff, with a picture frame covering (just) his crotch. This panel is extremely erotic, I think, and in part because it balances subtlety and overt sexiness so well. The placement of that picture frame at the same time conceals and emphasizes what we all know is there anyway. And then the final panel gives us a gleaming shot of Gambit’s muscley manly-man back.

First page of Gambit #1

This is all pretty hot-and-bother-inducing, yet, does it differ from superheroine shower scenes? Do I find this portrayal sexy, but not creepy, simply because I’m not a man and am unused to seeing naked men in comics?

I don’t think so. One of the major reasons why objectification of women’s bodies is so harmful, is that it teaches us that women are interchangeable. The eroticism associated with a woman’s body is unrelated to her as a person; she is sexy because she has a cis woman’s body, not because she is a sexy person. And yet, in this first page, this snapshot of Gambit is very intimate, in every sense of the word. It’s not just that we’re seeing him naked, it’s that we’re being introduced to him as naked, and, while he is naked, we are putting together pieces of his life. In the panel with the picture frames, we’re looking at Gambit’s not-penis while also looking at the picture in the foreground of Gambit and Rogue. These things are associated directly. We’re not just looking at a naked attractive man; we’re looking a specific naked attractive man, one who we are trying to get to know. His naked shower scene is actually advancing story and character. This is inherently different to the idea of objectification, which, in addition to being gratuitous, teaches us that women (or men, but usually women) are sexual objects, not sexual people.

Throughout the first two issues, most of the time Gambit keeps his clothes on, and leaves his sex appeal to be channeled through his words and actions. However, even when clothed, Gambit’s posture and placement are much sexier than that of most male comics characters. He’ll lounge topless, looking devil-may-care, while having a conversation about that thing that got stuck in his chest (long story). Which brings me to another distinction between the sexiness of Gambit and the traditional sexiness of women in media, particularly when catering to the male gaze. Women’s sex appeal usually slows down the plot, allows for a pause in the story, and is never used for the advancement of anything, really. But Gambit’s sex appeal functions as part of the story. It keeps pace with the story, rather than slowing it down. Consequently, it seems natural and necessary. I can hardly imagine this book being the same without these poses and angles.

The one reservation, sex appeal-wise, I have about this series is actually his female antagonist/partner. In the first issue, I actually liked how she looked. She had a cute, rockabilly sort of style, and she wasn’t drawn in gratuitously sexy poses or angles.

But, I’m not sure that’s going to stay that way. Issue 2 had a cover which, though hardly the creepiest cover I’ve ever seen, was still somewhat problematic, with the shot of Gambit surrounded by the cut-out silhouette of a sexy woman, presumably his new acquaintance.

Cover of Gambit #2

When we met this woman, she had personality and style, but now that’s she’s on the cover, she’s just a hot body. Next week’s #3 isn’t looking too much better, considering that apparently she decides to wear short-shorts and a belly shirt when they go do secret-adventurey things in Guatemala.

While the objectification of the female character in the series is tremendously less bad than in most mainstream comics, it’s still objectification to some degree. The series manages to make their male character a sexy person, yet fails to emphasize that the sexy woman is a sexy person. It leaves me to feel disappointed and strangely apologetic at the same time. I’m forced to say, “It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, because it’s not that bad, but it’s still noticeable!” Which is an annoying thing to have to say.

My theory is that they excel at keeping Gambit’s sex appeal without objectifying him precisely because he is male. When female objectification is the norm, it’s difficult to make a specifically sexy character without falling back to the same old tropes. And when you’re a man, I imagine it might be more difficult to spot the difference between mild objectification and sex appeal.

I’m not opposed to sex appeal in comics, especially when that seems to be at the heart of the series. And I really am enjoying the “man-candy.” But objectification, male or female, is something comics needs to learn to avoid. My suggestion? Do what you’re doing with Gambit, but do it with the female character, too. Include her sex appeal in ways that are interesting and advance the story or character. Cater equally to the male and female gazes, so that sexiness seems natural.

Or, at least, put Gambit in booty shorts and we can call it even.

-Joanna

Fangirls/Fanboys

I don’t consider myself a fangirl. I might be ok with someone jokingly referring to me as an Aragorn fangirl, for example, but it’s not a label I identify with at all. Partly, this is because of the stigma associated with the word fangirl. While “fanboy” is certainly used derisively now and again, it is also a word with a sense of pride attached to it. (For example, the name of the comics website iFanboy.) Generally speaking, fanboys are super into geeky things to the point of obsession, while fangirls, on the other hand, are super into geeky men to the point of obsession.

WARNING: The following post contains anecdotal evidence.

I was talking to someone at work about various comics related things. I laughingly told him about how the new Gambit series’ writer has said that Gambit’s sex appeal isn’t going anywhere. Later, when I was trying to refute his friend’s anti-Gambit arguments, I ended with, “and he’s a dreamboat.” (Again, a joke. Not that there’s anything wrong with crushin’ on Gambit, but I don’t really think of Gambit like that. Gambit and I are just friends.)

My co-worker smiled at me, and made the kind of face that usually greets comments like that. A face I’m not sure how to describe. It’s a little smug, a little condescending, and weirdly knowing. He said, “Ok, so you don’t have any real arguments.” (I won’t object to that comment, because I was mostly goofing around by suggesting that Gambit’s sex appeal makes him a better character. However, it does make me wonder what happens in conversations between two men, where one man argues a superheroine is better than another partly based on her superior hotness.)

Last week, this same co-worker was gushing over Catwoman as played by Eartha Kitt and Michelle Pfeiffer. While I didn’t really have anything to add to his comments (Catwoman and I are also just friends), my reaction wasn’t a vaguely condescending laugh and a comment that suggested: oh how silly, you find this person attractive. It’s not that I really think he no longer views me as a comics fan (although some men would), it’s just that my comment was completely blown off. Talking about whether or not Gambit is sexy is not up for discussion.

Is my co-worker a meanie-pants sexist jerk? No. But his reaction to me (even jokingly) referring to a male comics character as attractive is pretty much the reaction I always get from men if I call attention to the dreamboat qualities of male characters.

This wouldn’t be a problem if that’s how men talking about female characters were greeted. But men are always talking about how hot female characters are, without women feeling the need to condescendingly nod at them and act as though it’s sorta funny that a female character might be thought of as attractive. Women put up with a lot of talk about who the hottest female characters are.

The issue with this reaction can be highlighted through the difference between the terms fangirl and fanboy.

Fangirl is often used derisively, to denote that a woman or girl only likes Geeky Thing because of a male character. This is often used to devalue said woman or girl’s genuine appreciation of Geeky Thing.

Take the first Urban Dictionary entry for each word:

Fanboy: A passionate fan of various elements of geek culture (e.g. sci-fi, comics, Star Wars, video games, anime, hobbits, Magic: the Gathering, etc.), but who lets his passion override social graces.

Fangirl: A rabid breed of human female who is obesessed with either a fictional character or an actor. Similar to the breed of fanboy. Fangirls congregate at anime conventions and livejournal. Have been known to glomp, grope, and tackle when encountering said obesessions.

While fanboy is sometimes used derisively too, among the geek community it also denotes a source of pride. In this way, a fanboy is the opposite of a fangirl: his obssession, rather than devaluing his appreciation, actually increases it. Being a fanboy proves your stature in the geeky community, while being a fangirl demotes it.

It’s for this reason that often women don’t like sharing in mixed company the male characters they think are dreamboats. Men usually tease us when we do. This reflects a larger societal issue of making light of female desire. Much of the negative hoopla surrounding Magic Mike revolves around society’s disinterest in the female gaze and female sexual agency. It’s ok for men to gawk at female strippers, but women gawking at male strippers is silly and up for laughs. Female sexuality is funny and shameful, unless men are calling the shots.

Dismissing conversation about attractive male characters also partly stems from the homophobia inherent in much of society and geek culture alike. Men, to some degree, don’t want to seem gay by discussing the attributes of a man, while women usually feel less inhibited adding to the reasons why Hot Female Character is attractive. Of course, that also relates to the way that it is normal to fetishize the female body, but not as normal to do so to the male body. Women are also (generally) more comfortable describing a woman’s looks because judging women’s appearances is pretty normal for both sexes.

So what does all this mean? It relates to my previous point about the geek community and society’s values. We can’t pretend like we’re better than normal folk if it means we partake in the same negative behavior as the rest of society. I don’t want men to stop feeling comfortable being attracted to female characters and talking about it. What I do want is for that same privilege to be granted to female geeks. I want women to be able to feel comfortable talking about their fictitious crushes in mixed company. I want gay geeks to be able to discuss their same-sex fictitious crushes without scorn. And I want fangirl to stop being a dirty word.

The geek community, like the rest of society, needs to embrace a more whole vision of human sexuality. And as with fat-shaming and racism, it is up to geeks to lead the way: otherwise all our self-important superiority about being fringe members of society is completely worthless.

-Joanna

The Vatican: UN Member Circa… Never?

Another day, another week full of things to say. Man, does this War on Women and the general shitty misogynistic culture we live in ever give me a horde of topics to write on! What do I choose when day after day, I have so many possibilities?

How badass Rep. Lisa Brown is for performing the Vagina Monologues on the steps of Michigan’s state house? How that whole situation makes me want to run through various legislature buildings, yelling “VAGINAVAGINAVAGINA! I HAVE A VAGINA AND I VOTE!”? What about the serious crush I’m developing on Mr. Jay Smooth, eloquent video blogger extraordinaire whose total awesomeness is finally going viral? Or how lazy writing is claiming Lara Croft as its next victim, by using the age-old ill-advised plot device of sexual assault as a way to make a female character more sympathetic and give her a big obstacle to overcome? How, if we have to spend our time squabbling about basic legal rights women should already have, we’ll never get to other stuff that matters, like the absolute travesty of justice that is the CeCe McDonald case?

I could talk about these. But I won’t. Instead, I’ve linked to websites that are already doing excellent work on these topics.

Today I’m moving the discussion to Brazil. Specifically, to Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. As Zonibel Woods at RH Reality Check explains, the conference, which began in 1992, “was the first of a series of United Nations global conferences that sought progress on sustainable development, including human rights, population change, social development, women’s human rights and gender equality.”

The 2012 conference attendees are currently negotiating the Future We Want document. The contested portions of the document surround– what else? –reproductive rights and other rights unique to women and sexual health. According to the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, “This morning [June 19] the draft text compiled by Brazil does not include any reference to Reproductive Rights, it has been removed.”

Youth SHRH goes into further detail: “Yesterday the G77 proposed to remove references to young people in paragraph 147 which outlines commitments to reducing maternal mortality, improving health of women, men, youth and children and reaffirming commitments to gender equality and language on youth having control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including access to sexual and reproductive health.

The Holy See, Russia, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Chile, Syria, Egypt, Costa Rica all spoke against including reproductive rights in the Gender Section of the draft outcome document. This was the ONLY reference to reproductive rights in the 80 page document. These governments not only questioned reproductive health, they also claimed to not understand the relationship between sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights within the context of sustainable development. They claimed that reproductive rights go against national legislations and constitutions, and that reproductive rights was a ‘code word’ (for abortion) and they have to protect rights of unborn and right to life.”

After reading this, in addition to being upset, I was confused by the idea that the Holy See has any say in this. I have since discovered that the Vatican is what is considered a “permanent observer state,” which apparently means it is a “Non-member State having received a standing invitation to participate as observer in the sessions and the work of the General Assembly and maintaining permanent observer mission at Headquarters.”

Call me a cynic, but I’m not sure that attempting to prevent reproductive and sexual health is really observing. In any case, G77 members are also guilty of this push to refuse to acknowledge that empowering women can help lead to a sustainable future. Achieving a sustainable future, after all, is ostensibly the purpose of Rio+20.

I have no idea when the Vatican will get its head out of my and everyone else’s uterus, but I can tell you that a future without global reproductive health, sexual health, and women’s rights is not a future I want. So please spread the word all across the internet, so that activists and G77 leaders alike can be told that sustainability means including women’s human rights and reproductive justice.

-Joanna

Mind = Blown

The following article just blew my mind:

The Machine-Gun Bra Is The Third Craziest Thing About The New Issue of ‘Tarot’

June 5th, 2012 by Chris Sims

Look, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve had my difficulties with Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose, Jim Balent’s long-running epic of mostly-naked witchity adventure. We all have. Dubious werewolves, eel trauma, the occasional haunted bathroom area… put it all together and it’s a hard comic to love.

But there’s a reason I’ve bought every single issue for the past nine years, and never, ever want it to go away. And that reason is that every once in a while, Tarot will give you something amazing, like the image above of a woman with golden breast-mounted Gatling guns. It may be the single greatest image to grace a comic book since Superman smashed that car on Action #1, but here’s the thing: That is nowhere near the craziest thing to happen in the latest story.

The latest mind-boggling story from Tarot is called “Kittens vs. Robots,” and let’s be honest: That’s probably one of the top five titles in comics history. As you might expect, it features one of Balent’s lesser-known creations, the 3 Little Kittens, and while they’ve popped up in Tarot before, this time it isn’t actually a crossover. Instead, it’s just a full-on 3LK story that occasionally cuts away to Tarot and her boyfriend Jon getting naked on a rooftop and blindfolding each other for some sexy fun that’s interrupted by a couple of naked blue ladies with butterfly wings, something that — according to Tarot at least — happens at least three times a week in Massachusetts.

In fact, Tarot’s adventures in rooftop nudity are so completely unrelated to the rest of the issue that it’s never quite clear whether the Kittens’ section of the story is actually happening, or if Jim Balent is doing a comic-within-a-comic on some Alan Moore jazz. In previous crossovers, it’s been established that the 3LK star in a comic, and the opening scene of this story, I jazz you not, is Tarot seducing Jon by telling him to watch her laying on his bed reading his comics. What if she creases a cover and knocks it down to a VF minus?! So naughty!

Have I mentioned yet that Jon looks exactly like Balent? Because this would probably be a good time to do that.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Balent’s BroadSword Comics Universe — which delivers on its promise by focusing more on broads with swords than any other publisher — the 3 Little Kittens are a cat (and bondage)-themed anti-terorrist strike force that’s essentially What If Jim Balent Created Charlie’s Angels. They first showed up in a self-titled mini-series back in 2002 called — wait for it — 3 Little Kittens: Purr-Fect Weapons, but they’ve never gotten another shot at an actual solo title. As a result, their occasional appearances in Tarot are kinda like seeing a unicorn, except that the unicorn is made entirely of fetishes. And every time they show up, it is the greatest thing that has ever happened.

The reason for this is that 3LK seems to be where Jim Balent goes with his ideas that are too weird for Tarot, which means that there actually are ideas that are too weird for Tarot. In the past, they’ve dealt with a super-villain who has menaced Massachusetts with a pair of nuclear bombs embedded in her breast implants, and who also wanted to kidnap Saddam Hussein (whose mansion was equipped with a Bat-pole) for reasons I still don’t understand in a comic with political implications so incomprehensible that I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

This one, though… is even better.

Like that other story, this one gets a little political. The Robots the Kittens are up against in this titanic tussle are actually renegade TSA Security Robotsthat have gotten a little handsy with the people trying to get on airplanes, smacking them around in search of weapons and occasionally stripping them naked right there on the concourse:

Well, I say it’s political, but I imagine it’s just as likely that this story is Balent working out his own frustrations with the TSA. Let this be a lesson to you: When you’re heading to the airport to fly out to San Diego, leave the “Coed Naked Quidditch” shirt at home.

Also, this happens:

Again: An idea too weird for Tarot. I am hoping with every fiber of my being that this guy becomes a recurring villain.

Anyway, it goes without saying that when their transport crashes, the robots end up escaping and terrorizing people. Their first target is a pregnant lady whose fetus somehow registers as a “personal item” that needs to be handed over for inspection, which I think plays on that innate fear of government-sponsored fetus-hunting robots that lurks within all of us. Fortunately for the young mother-to-be, Jaguara shows up on a motorcycle from Tron:

f you want to get technical about it — and there are few things in this world that I love more than getting technical about Tarot — that’s actually Jaguara II, the sister of Jaguara I, who stepped into the corset when the original had her head violently bashed in with a rock in Iraq. It’s okay though: Jaguara I’s invisible ghost now watches over her sister, as revealed in a story where the ghosts of the firefighters who died on 9/11 helped Tarot defuse a bomb in Manhattan.

I may have mentioned that this is a weird-ass comic.

Anyway, the 3LK pick a fight with the robots, and this fight goes on for forty pages. As much as I hate to admit it, I was actually pretty disappointed by this story for being so boring. The only thing of note in the entire second issue is that the robots make stripping our alleged heroines their number one priority, and I’ve read enough issues of this comic that the constant nudity has lost a bit of its luster.

But then, this happens:

Gun Cat, the Bosley of the 3LK dynamic, shows up in THE HIGH CALI-BRA CAT-LING GUNS. There is also a jetpack, but I can forgive you for missing that one.

If there was any doubt that Tarot was the Id of Jim Balent brought to glorious life on the page, then this should dispel that tout de suite. There’s not even anything I can add to it, except to say that from a technical standpoint, the HCBCLGs aren’t really practical. Gun Cat would always have to be standing (or jetpacking, whatever) at like a 45-degree angle from what she was shooting at, and they don’t really seem to be mounted on a stable surface. Still, I think we all just need to accept that practicality wasn’t even a tertiary concern when it came time to drop this one on us.

But that’s not the scene that pushes this comic over the edge and into the territory of the amazing. No, that comes from the fact that, during their battle with the TSA robots, the Kittens are aided by someone who looks suspiciously like Iron Man. And when it finally comes time to reveal his identity…

It turns out that it’s President Barack Obama.

It’s a hell of a surprise. Or at least, it would’ve been if the title of the issue, as revealed on the inside front cover, wasn’t “Ro-Bama-Tron,” complete with that awkward hyphenation that makes absolutely no sense. But that doesn’t matter either, because Balent now turns his attention to the question of just what President Obama is doing flying around in a suit of Iron Man armor.

The answer… is mind-blowing:

I think I need to make it clear right here and now that there is no longer any irony in my love of Jim Balent’s work. That dude has created a world where every single American president has flown around in a robot suit in order to battle against evil (or in Nixon’s case, hippies), and that is fan-frigging-tastic.

It only gets better on the next page, where — and again, I am not even close to kidding about this — Obama details the secret robot suit battle between Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis that settled the Civil War:

You heard of the “Battle of the Ironclads?” Well they weren’t just talking about the Merrimack and Monitor.

And yes, Lincoln’s battle suit had an iron top hat.

Hahaha.

Say what you want about Tarot — I certainly have, and will most likely continue to do so — but after 74 issues, it’s still a comic that surprises me. Not always in a good way, you understand, but occasionally in the best way possible.
First of all: What the hell? Is this real life? Did I just go to the dentist?
Second of all: I think what is worse than this comic existing in the first place, is how EXCITED Chris Sims was about it. I mean he goes on and on about how AMAZING the boob-guns are and how cool it is that the Kittens are all fetishes etc. Basically this comic is masturbation in a plastic wrapper. If the image of the naked, impossibly proportioned girl on the bed reading comics didn’t prove that enough. OH! And the fact that her boyfriend looks exactly like the author? Ok, Stephanie Meyer. She is shamed by the almighty Internet for this but this guy is praised for it? How is all of our Presidents essentially Iron Man any different than the mutated vampire baby named Nessie?*
*I don’t like Twilight at all. But this analogy seemed perfect.
Thank you, Joshua, for giving me hope in this world:
It’s sad when you think of some small book that ends up getting cancelled and then you remember there’s 74 issues of this piece of ****.
Indeed.
I must admit that the Presidents thing is pretty amazing, but everything else is just… Let me put it this way: If you were in a comic shop and picked this up the leaf through and the pages are sticking together, you might want to light your hands on fire to sanitize them.
-BatCat

Samuel R. Delany and Literate Fantasy

For some reason, unlike science fiction, fantasy (especially high fantasy) is treated like it’s always escapist nonsense without any possibility of having substance. To most people, sword-and-sorcery fantasy will never have depth, and it most certainly will never be literary. Even when fantasy sweeps the nation (see: Game of Thrones fever), it’s because the books are enjoyable, not because they say very much about anything.

Being someone who loves sword-and-sorcery fantasy, “serious” literature, and social justice, the role of high fantasy in literature and in life is sometimes a sticky one. Yes, the majority of fantasy is escapist nonsense that, if it says anything, uses its voice to reinforce the sexist and racist norms of our society. However, that isn’t something inherent in the fantasy genre or in genre writing. You’d certainly have a case for arguing that much of literature, regardless of genre, reinforces all the bad things in inequitable societies like ours.

But for whatever reason, fantasy gets to bear the brunt of this injustice. Perhaps it’s because the covers of books, even ones with interesting things to say, ones you might even be tempted to call literary, often look like this:

I personally find nothing wrong with this cover, but I can understand why an ordinary person might pick this book up and think they know what they’ll find inside. Actually, they have no idea.

The plot synopsis probably doesn’t help: “For Pryn, a young girl fleeing her village on the back of a dragon, Neveryona becomes a shining symbol just out of reach. It leads her to the exotic port city of Kolhari, where she talks with the wealthy merchant Madame Keyne, walks with Gorgik the Liberator as he schemes against the Court of Eagles, and crosses the Bridge of Lost Desire in search of her destiny.” As interesting as I find it, others might read it and just think, oh just another book about dragons and destinies.

Of course, I didn’t choose this book randomly. Samuel R. Delany has a reputation for being one of the more literary-minded fantasy (and science fiction) writers, and for good reason.

Neveryona‘s chapters begin with excerpts from the likes of Susan Sontag, Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt, and Barbara Johnson (all women, as well as dense thinkers, which I think is important to note). If so inclined, you could very easily write a postcolonial analysis of the novel, particularly since the novel spends a lot of time deconstructing the real meanings of civilization and barbarism.

For example, Delany presents the now fairly well known idea that nature is an idea constructed by civilization. At one point, a character (Gorgik the Liberator) notes, “except some of the more primitive shore tribes along those bournes where civilization has not yet inserted its illusory separation of humans from the world which holds them.” This statement is a postcolonial goldmine. Not only does it include the civilized/barbarous dichotomy, but it clearly is nudging at the certainties civilization has invented and imposed on the world. This apparent knowledge is described as “illusory,” or deceptive. Civilization does not know everything it thinks it knows.

Pryn, the main character, is often confused about where the divisions between country, suburb, and city lie. This, for the sake of the story, is because she is new to the area. However, the subtext deals with not only the physical boundaries between the civilized and the barbarous, but also the ways in which it is difficult to tell which is which, without civilization there to explain it to you.

The novel begins with an interesting incident regarding language, one that I think is significant to consider in the context of the definition of civilization. Pryn writes her name in the dirt, but writes it “pryn,” “because she knew something of writing but not of capital letters.” It is important to note that she is a girl of the rural mountains, not of the city. It takes a woman who has traveled to “civilization” to teach her about capitalizing the first letters of names. Civilization bestows this knowledge onto barbarians, who are expected to learn civilization’s ways.

Although she is not from the city, Pryn is also not a “barbarian” as such. There are specific people who are known to be barbarians, namely the tribes to the south. Thankfully, these tribes seem to be white. (I say thankfully, because I’m tired of desert “barbarians” being represented by brown people. Of course, Delany being black himself, it would be strange for such an otherwise self-aware writer to lapse into racism.) These tribes are apparently nomadic, do “barbaric” things like weave copper wire into their ears, and talk with funny accents. I’m interested in whether or not the geographic position of the barbarians was intended to signal back to modern-day America. After all, the Northeast defines its own civility by the perceived barbarity of the Southeast. In both cases, the South is the Other by which civilization defines itself.

I’m also interested in what role sexuality plays in the novel. (Full disclosure: I haven’t actually finished the novel yet.) From what I’ve read about Delany, he has been known to write frankly about sexuality, calling some of his work or parts of his work pornography. Because it’s very clear Delany is a thoughtful writer, I would like to compare this work with the sorts of misogynistic sex scenes of other writers, and figure out what (if anything) makes Delany’s empowering or equitable. I’m also interested in looking at how Delany’s own sexuality (he’s gay) may or may not have influenced his writing of sexuality. I’m hoping that Neveryona delivers in that respect, because otherwise the Bridge of Lost Desire is a bit of a tease.

I also hope to see whether or not race plays a larger role in the deconstructing of civilization and barbarism. So far, Delany seems to be unpacking a general definition of the two loaded terms, but not approaching the racial definitions. There are plenty of people in Kolhari with undisclosed ethnicities, as well as people described as pale or darker, so it’s hard for me to tell right now if he will approach race directly or not.

I can’t imagine that the rest of the novel will disappoint me, however, because not only is the worldbuilding wonderful, but the novel features a well-drawn, dragon-riding, 15-year-old girl protagonist, and I have no gender-related complaints about the characters. Don’t be too surprised if I follow up this post with a more in-depth analysis of the novel.

For now, though, I am confident enough to say that, while Neveryona would probably be enjoyable for your average fantasy reader, it is also a rewarding experience for more academic or literary-minded people. The subtext is rich and thought-provoking, and it lends itself to various kinds of analysis, not just postcolonial. While many people may still deride swords-and-sorcery fantasy for being fluff, Delany’s work makes it clear that fantasy can be so much more than people think.

-Joanna

(Re)Discovering Empathy With Torchwood

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been re-watching Torchwood. (By “re-watching” I mean going on hours-long Torchwood binges.) Because of my bitterness about the death of practically everyone (Ianto in particular, first time around) and how the end of Children of Earth made me dislike Jack, I vowed to kick the Torchwood habit forever. Miracle Day and its whole being-on-Starz-and-set-in-America thing made me even less interested. (Call me old fashioned, but it’s just not Torchwood to me if I can’t hear those Welsh vowels from someone other than Gwen and Rhys.) I was so upset and disinterested in the show that I didn’t even want to watch the old episodes.

That changed after I watched an episode of Doctor Who with Captain Jack in it. Suddenly I was overcome with nostalgia for Handsome Jack and his crew. So, I decided to shelve my years-old grief and enjoy the show like I did before, knowing all the while what heartbreak lurked in the future.

One thing I noticed this time around is how brilliantly most of the characters are drawn. Torchwood is a haven for blurry morals (my kinda place), with Captain Jack serving as the ultimate anti-hero. Jack does what he needs to do; he’s chaotic good incarnate. (Say what you’d like about Jack, but he’s always looking out for somebody.) He’s mean and kind and brutal and thoughtful all at once. (You know, like a real person.) He also seems to know exactly what he’s doing all the time, but as the show progresses, we see Jack as helpless and clueless as everyone else more and more often.

Gwen is also one of the most successful characters. There are times I want to punch Gwen in the face, but there are other times when I find her sympathetic. Again, sort of like a real person. When she confesses to Rhys about sleeping with Owen, but then drugs him so he’ll forget, I want to shake her, but I understand that sort of impulse, even though I’ve never cheated on my boyfriend with a co-worker and then given him an amnesia pill. The only time I couldn’t fathom her actions was during “Adrift,” where she lies to and manipulates Andy for reasons I just don’t get.  But, you don’t always have to like a character for her to be well-drawn.

Even Tosh and Owen, who each seem a little like a stock character, have their characters fleshed out. Owen, like Gwen, I want alternately to punch in the face and to hug. This time around, Tosh was my favorite character, which probably has something to do with the fact that I never wanted to punch her in the face. She and Owen are so wonderfully human, which makes their deaths that much more heartbreaking.

And then there’s Ianto.

The first time I watched Torchwood, Ianto was my favorite, because he was adorable, efficient, angst-ridden, and secretly hilarious, and because I was in high school. As much as I love Ianto still, I think what prevented him from being my favorite character this time around is that they did very little to humanize him (cyberwoman girlfriend incident aside). Jack was practically always associated or a motivation. I was disappointed that in the episode where we learn of how everyone got recruited by Torchwood, Ianto’s story was how he stalked/obsessed over Jack until he got to prove himself in the warehouse with the pterodactyl. I wanted a glimpse into Ianto’s soul, and all I got was more Ianto x Jack fodder. (There’s nothing wrong with Ianto x Jack, but Tosh and Owen’s stories were really devastating and interesting, but Ianto’s was sort of pathetic and silly.)

Overall, though, the characterization is excellent, which is why I wish Russell T. could run all shows. All the characters were human, even the women. Russell T. and Joss Whedon are probably my dream team of TV/movie writers, because they understand both how to make characters human and that woman are people. (However, if they did work on a show together, someone would have to stop them from slaughtering all beloved characters.)

Another major component of why Torchwood is great is its sexuality. Ianto himself is bisexual, Jack is bi/pan/omnisexual, and Tosh is seduced by a woman without it being performative. All of these sexualities (including heterosexuality) are shown as normal and nothing shameful, which is really refreshing. For some, Torchwood may be overly frank in its relationship to sex, but at least people of non-hetero inclinations can see people like themselves on TV and like them. On TV, if not in real life, they can see total acceptance of their sexuality. And even though I just labeled a few of the characters, from what I remember, there is very little talk in the show about who has what sexual preference. No one agonizes over what preference Ianto is, if he had a girlfriend but also shags Jack, or if Tosh, having been seduced by a woman, is now less heterosexual. It doesn’t matter in Torchwood. All that matters is that you’re having sex with someone you enjoy being with.

Part of me wants to try the Starz season, but part of me is scared that the parts of Torchwood I love will be done all wrong, thanks to this puritanical country. (That, and I really do mean what I say about those Welsh vowels.) Even on a channel like Starz, I fear that the nonchalant acceptance of all sexualities will disappear. I’m scared that someone in the Starz world will force Russell T. to create less human characters, especially less human women characters. But I think I will try it, because if it is awful, I can just pretend it’s a different show called Torchwood, unaffiliated with the one I love. (I did this when watching the recent-ish movie version of Brideshead Revisited, and it worked.)

Regardless of whether I try the newest season or not, I will always have the original two seasons that, despite all the grief they caused me, also gave me reasons to celebrate and find it possible to empathize with people in situations I never thought I would. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

-Joanna

Also, this is the cutest darn Captain Jack I’ve ever seen:

http://niccals.deviantart.com/art/Captain-Jack-Harkness-Plushie-170851245

Werewolves! Lesbians! Pot! Erotica! Fish Puppets! (Not All At Once)

I decided to browse the comics section of Kickstarter today and highlight a few of my favorite projects. The great thing about Kickstarter is that anyone with a project can join, which means a lot of women who might otherwise go unnoticed by mainstream industries end up creating the comics/films/theatrical productions/games/etc. the world needs.

So, what exactly is it that I think the world needs?

Body-Positive Erotica!

Luckily, Sarah Benkin is working on Star Power: A Body Positive Erotic Comic… Told in Rhyme.

According to the Kickstarter page, “Star Power is a 32-page book about what happens when sexual competition and body modification go too far.” What isn’t awesome about this? Currently, the project is at 24 days to go, with only $700 of its $7000 goal met. In case you’re wondering what all that money goes to, “Funding is needed for printing costs, artist fees and to cover the many incentives attached to the project.”

The world also needs more superheroines who smoke pot!

Ok, I’m not so sure about that. But, it’s certainly a niche in the comics industry that isn’t being met. The Superhighs is about two girls who save the world by smoking weed. I have literally no idea what this actually means. However, the author, Dani Marie, says that, “I was conscious of gender and sexuality as I wrote this comic book. I wanted everyone from every religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation to be able to see themselves in the comic… you don’t need to be a white heterosexual male to save the world.” Even though I’m a little lukewarm on the concept, I can definitely get behind inclusivity. With 25 days to go, The Superhighs has met $225 of their $3500 goal.

Are you into horror and lesbian werewolf protagonists? Rachel Deering and Anathema have you covered!

According to Deering, “Anathema is a six issue limited series horror comic that tells the story of Mercy Barlowe, a tormented young woman with a dark side. She must fight through treacherous lands and unspeakable horrors to reclaim her lover’s soul, which has been stolen by members of a sinister cult, bent on resurrecting a terrible and ancient evil.

In issue #1, we saw Mercy’s world torn asunder, and watched as she accepted the curse of the wolf. Can Mercy learn to harness her horrible new powers and stop the raven cult before they succeed in their vile plan? Mercy needs your help to see her journey through!”

This Kickstarter campaign is to finish the 6-issue series. Deering explains the money will specifically go to paying her artists and colorists a fair wage and paying the Amazon and Kickstarter fees. If there’s any money left over (which there is now, the $20,000 goal having been met), it will go to funding Deering’s convention appearances.

Last but not least, the world needs more videos with fish puppets.

Luckily, M. Alice LeGrow and her video on Kickstarter promoting The Elephant Book have provided us with that. (Seriously, watch the video. It’s really funny.)

Unfortunately, the comic has nothing to do with fish puppets (or elephants). What it is about: “The Elephant Book is an action/fantasy story set in Philadelphia, about a couple of kids named Williams and Fairfax (which one is which is anybody’s guess), who are caught in the middle of a power struggle between two covert groups that are seeking to either preserve or destroy the one trait that defines humanity: the power to invent.  A series four years in the making, the story spirals down levels and levels of millennium-old conspiracy and fear that has protected civilizations from the biggest trick ever played on the human race.

And this being Philadelphia, along the way everyone eats crab fries, goes to the game and ponders the mysteries of the Eternal Wawa.”

Who doesn’t love conspiracies?

If you’ve got spare monies, consider giving one (or more) of these projects some, or browse Kickstarter for some other worthy projects. Support women as active creators!

-Joanna