‘Under the Dome,’ Representation, and Scary Boyfriends

Earlier this week, the pilot for the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome aired. Ever since learning that Brian K. Vaughan was developing the series, I’ve been looking forward to it. I’ve never read any of King’s novels, but because I exist in this universe, I’ve seen plenty of the numerous adaptations of his work. In general, I’ve enjoyed them, though there is certainly a wide range of quality. While the better adaptations have showcased the qualities that have made King’s work classic popular fiction, I have always noticed that white men tend to be at the center of his stories. While female characters are often fairly well-developed, they are usually secondary characters, commenting on the action rather than advancing it. And I really can’t think of any significant people of color in any of (the adaptations of) his work, which I’m sure is at least partly due to King’s penchant for stories about rural Maine.

With that in mind, I was curious to see what Vaughan would do with these predominately white, male primary characters. As the writer for critically-acclaimed comics that also have an good track record with gender and racial representation, I was pretty sure that Under the Dome wouldn’t end up being a totally whitewashed show where only the men are active. In interviews, Vaughan expresses a thoughtfulness in his writing decisions, which is always an admirable trait in a writer.  (He also wrote for Lost, which, for all its failings, did a decent job with representation.)

So far, it seems that my suspicions have been correct. While our Chiseled Brooding Antihero, who seems thus far at the center of the story, is as white as can be, other casting decisions have been pretty impressive. So far, we have a Latina cop, who, though she seems pretty tough in her own way, isn’t a Fiery Sassy Latina. We have an alternative radio station operated by a black man and an Asian woman (who is also fat, which is so so great. I have no idea when I last saw a fat woman on TV). We have an interracial lesbian couple with a teenage daughter. We have all this truly diverse representation, with every character so far seeming three-dimensional rather than defined by their race, gender, or sexuality, AND it’s all happening in a rural town. With the exception of the couple with the daughter, all of these people are from Chester’s Mill. Often TV shows think of “rural” as code for “white,” which is both factually inaccurate and just an excuse to keep casting only white people.  (Shout out to my home state, North Carolina, for acting as the filming location. I’m going to just imagine this as Chester’s Mill, NC and no one can stop me.)

Ok, so I’ve established that the quality of representation is good. But what about the actual story? you might be asking. The pilot did an commendable job establishing both the premise of the show (in short: an invisible dome falls over part of a town), and the personalities, situations, and proclivities of the characters. After 45 minutes, I feel like I know some of these characters better than I knew most of the characters after two seasons of The Walking Dead.

While there is a certain hokeyness that is nearly impossible to avoid when the show takes place in Small Town America, I’m hoping that the hints of conspiracy and corruption will manifest in a way that complicates the diners-and-sheriffs vibe of the town. Already, we have been exposed to the idea that not all parts of town are created equal, especially because of the lack of medical care in one section of the town. I’m hoping that, in the future, the show makes more attempts to subtly expose the dangerous, structural inequalities of American life that the show’s premise could easily consider.

The huge black mark on the pilot was the subplot with Junior. (Arr, here be spoilers.) When we first meet Angie and her boyfriend Junior, it seems as though they are two happy young lovers. As the scene progresses, we see that that is clearly not the case. Angie is uninterested in a serious relationship with Junior, who says he loves her and is dropping out of college to stay in Chester’s Mill. He says he has loved her since the third grade and that she’s the only one who knows the real him. She responds, “and that’s why I can’t be with you,” suggesting that Junior is not the sweet romantic he appears to be.

Then come a few moments that are hard to watch. As Angie is walking away from him, Junior grabs her arm, trying to forcibly pull her back to him. She cries out in pain, and hits him. It’s unclear, though seems likely, that this is the first time something like this has happened. Later, Junior sees Angie talking outside of the hospital to our Chiseled Brooding Antihero named Barbie and decides, as all normal boyfriends in healthy relationships tend to, that he should kidnap her and lock her in his father’s underground bunker.

The violence between Angie and Junior was, for me, the most disturbing part of the pilot. It’s the only truly questionable part of the story so far, and, given Vaughan’s thoughtfulness as a writer, I’m hoping that Angie’s kidnapping becomes more than voyeuristic titillation or an opportunity to fridge a female character. I’m also a little worried that the show’s viewers will misread Junior as some kind of misunderstood bad boy, while somehow blaming Angie for her own kidnapping. I’ve already seen reviews that describe Junior as “troubled.” From where I’m standing, he’s an abusive boyfriend.

Uncomfortable subplot aside, I look forward to seeing whether the show lives up to its casting choices and explores structural inequality and corruption through its premise. I’m also hoping for some more snappy, BKV dialogue like this:

Joe: “You think the government built this thing?”

Barbie: “Doubt it.”

Joe: “Why?”

Barbie: “It works.”

-Joanna

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(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

#YesToFemaleDoctor

Internets! I just found the most amazing website ever!

Doctor Her is a website dedicated to fan posts about Doctor Who from a feminist perspective that is also concerned with not alienating (dis)abled, trans*, genderqueer, GLBQ people, and people of color. They paraphrase bell hooks in their About page! They use the term “kyriarchy!” I can’t handle this!

I stumbled across a totally awesome post Courtney Stoker wrote called “NuWho, poverty, and class: Or, the poor women are totally screwed.” In it, she examines the lives and fates of Rose, Martha, and Donna, arguing primarily that Donna and Rose get totally shafted because of their lower class status. If you’re interested in insightful anti-oppressive commentary on Doctor Who, visit this website. Now. Well, finish this post first. But then go.

And now to explain the title of this post, I also found out today that SFX Magazine started #yestofemaledoctor and #notofemaledoctor.

These two basically sum up my position:

https://twitter.com/erinpuff/statuses/184043723674488833

I would also add that I’m sick of lazy science fiction that is only willing to challenge norms like “Time travel’s not possible!” and “Aliens aren’t real!”, but never heteronormative assumptions about gender and sex. (I also just realized that Courtney Stoker, author of the aforementioned article, also is responsible for that first tweet. Is she just the coolest person ever?)

If you have a Twitter account, please tell the world, Yes to a Female Doctor! (I’m not going to be mad if you say no, but I will wonder why you read this blog.) Even if this is never, ever going to make the producers of the show let the Doctor regenerate into a woman, the world needs to know you support challenging heterosexist norms that place men at the center of the universe! (That’s right, the whole universe!)

-Joanna

P.S. If I seem a little excitable today, it might be the cold meds talking.

Why, Moffat, Why?

Now that Doctor Who-related buzz is all over the ‘nets, I figured I’d give my take on it all.

Early last week, it was announced that, beginning with the next Christmas special, Jenna-Louise Coleman will be playing the new companion.

It’s probably unfair to say right now that I’m a little disappointed. It’s impossible to tell what kind of character she will play, especially since Doctor Who keeps itself under very tight wraps. She herself seems like a perfectly nice person and everything. I just can’t help thinking the choice is a little too safe. She’s inoffensively pretty, the kind of companion we’ve seen a thousand times. I wanted a man, or someone older, or a squishy alien, or someone who isn’t white. Something different.

There are rumors that she might be an alien and/or a lesbian. If she is an alien, I sincerely doubt that Steven Moffat would allow them to put alien makeup on her pretty face, so she’d just be an alien that looks human. If she’s a lesbian, I’m sure it will be handled completely wrong, with Coleman playing a performative, hot lesbian instead of a real-life lesbian. Besides, alien-lesbian sounds a lot more like Russell T. Davies’ area of expertise, not Moffat’s.

While I’m on the subject of aliens: Why aren’t there more of them in the teaser trailer? Why does it make it look like it’s the sequel to Cowboys & Aliens?

For those of you who haven’t seen it:

 

I’m tired of Doctor Who being all about trendy alt history. I like alternative history, don’t get me wrong. But I think the show has done it to death, and I want hard sci fi back. I want aliens in spaceships, not in the Old West, and as much as I love Daleks, I wish we’d see less of them, too. It always feels like they realized they forgot aliens, so they throw in some Daleks.

To make me even more apprehensive about the new season, Moffat has said that, “Who she’s playing, how the Doctor meets her, and even where he finds her are all part of one of the biggest mysteries the Time Lord ever encounters. Even by the Doctor’s standards, this isn’t your usual boy meets girl.” Someone make this pain end. What I get from this is that the story will be pointlessly convoluted instead of good, and she’s going to fall in love with the Doctor. (Or, because it’s not the “usual boy meets girl,” the Doctor falls in love with the companion, and she doesn’t fall in love with him. Inversion! Genius!)

I’m especially missing Donna’s not-fawning-over-the-Doctor ways right now. And more than anything, I’m missing Russell T. Davies. You can say a lot of things about how Doctor Who, even Russell T.-era Who, problematizes female characters. But Russell T. didn’t have woman problems the way Steven Moffat does. For some extra reading, an excellent article about Steven Moffat’s woman problem can be found here at Starburst Magazine’s website.

We can argue til we’re blue in the face about Moffat’s woman problem in the context of Doctor Who, but the fact is that if a man casts an actress because he likes her legs, he’s probably sexist. I don’t really look forward to watching the new season, but I do look forward to deconstructing it.

-Joanna

To The Joust!

Amidst all the weird, non-historical programming that the History Channel is bringing us daily, there is one weird, half-historical show that I’m actually excited for: Full Metal Jousting.

The show fuses modern metal armor with the medieval rules of jousting, creating a totally awesome spectacle I will definitely be watching. (The show has already started, but I only found out about it today.) I love jousting. When I go to a ren faire (the Renaissance Faire, for all you non-rennies), even faires that follow the formulaic three-show storyline, I go to as many jousts as possible. (Although when I do go to storyline jousts, I miss having all the other tournament games that don’t involve fighting each other.) I know they’re staged, and that no one’s actually getting hurt. I don’t particularly care.  Watching a joust is exhilarating and fun, and the only time when screaming things like, “Your blood will water the grass” is at all an ok thing to do. The show is championship-style, with a cash prize for the winner.

My first hesitation about the show is that jousting may not be as amazing on TV as it is in person. Sitting outside in garb, with a hundred other people who are also screaming “Your blood will water the grass” is a very different experience from lounging on the couch by yourself. Of course, that’s the same difference between seeing any sport in person and on TV. I just hope that the History Channel adequately translates jousting to TV (something I imagine is difficult).

I’m also a little disappointed, though completely unsurprised, that there are no female jousters on the show. I realize that it could be asking too much of History to feature a coed jousting tournament when there are plenty of people who refuse to acknowledge female athleticism. And History definitely seems to want to market this in a macho kind of way. Which I get. But in real life (real life being, of course, the world of historical reenactors) there are female jousters. Plenty of them. There are even all-female jousting groups like Mounted Fury.

I don’t know what the casting call for these jousters was like, or what the audition process was like for the show. I have no idea if History tried to include female jousters or not. That isn’t really my point here. I’m just disappointed that, once again, an area where women are actually prevalent participants is being portrayed as an all-male zone.

I know that if there were female jousters on Full Metal Jousting, what everyone would say to discredit the female jousters would be: Are they strong enough to compete with the others? Should they change the rules to make it easier for women? These are the questions that still haunt any discussion, intelligent or otherwise, about coed sports or allowing women to do things like try out to be Navy SEALS. Because, as well all know, all men are big muscular giants and all women are teeny little flowers. Never mind that in the “real life” world of jousting and swordfighting, women and men compete together, in both staged jousting and real swordplay.

(In case anyone doubts those statements, the North Carolina Renaissance Faire has for years included a female knight in the jousts. Bat Cat and I also used to be involved with the European Medieval Arts of Arms group, who do actual period swordfighting. Women and men fight and rise to the rank of knighthood together, and no one seems upset by that.)

So, while I will give Full Metal Jousting a try, I know that the world of jousting that the show is portraying is only a limited one. And, as much as I might enjoy it, I won’t be able to help thinking that I might enjoy it a little more if it better represented the whole of jousters.

-Joanna

Male Feminist Ally: Joss Whedon

So I’m pretty late to be jumpin’ on the Joss Whedon bandwagon. It’s not like I ever disliked Buffy the Vampire-Slayer or Firefly, two of the TV shows that have canonized him in many circles. It’s just that I didn’t really pay attention until recently, a fact that might betray my youth. But now that I’ve started watching Firefly, and appreciating the genuinely strong, not-tokeny women I see on my TV screen, I’m starting to put the pieces together: Joss Whedon always writes strong female characters. It’s like he does it on purpose or something. But what male writer/director ever cares enough to specifically write women like they’re people? Joss Whedon does.

The more I read about him, the more I love him. According to everywhere on the internet, he created Buffy to be an “alternative feminist icon.” (I can’t find the original source of that quote, but it’s reported on many different sites.) During my research, I came across that quote and wondered about its accuracy. More important, the accuracy of Joss Whedon using the F-word in this context. Despite what I’ve seen of his work, my reaction is usually to be a little nervous when someone says they wrote a feminist character.

This is one example of a time I was wrong. Joss Whedon actually minored in feminist film theory at Wesleyan. In interviews, he says things like, “When people say to me, ‘Why are you so good at writing at women?’ I say, ‘Why isn’t everybody?’ Obviously there are differences between men and women – that’s what makes it all fun. But we’re all people. There’s a lot of good writers who are very humanist, but still manage to kind of skip 55 per cent of the race. And I just don’t get that. Not to be able to write an entire gender? To me, the question isn’t how do you do it? It’s how can you possibly avoid doing it?” Obviously the man understands two vital points: one, that women are people, and two, that feminism at its heart is merely the recognition of that seemingly obvious fact.

In the same article, he describes going from the home of his “radical feminist” mother, out into the bleak, anti-feminist world: “It was only when I got to college that I realised that the rest of the world didn’t run the way my world was run and that there was a need for feminism. I’d thought it was all solved. There are people like my mom, clearly everyone is equal and it’s all fine. Then I get into the world and I hear the things people are saying. Then I get to Hollywood and hear the very casual, almost insidious misogyny that just runs through so much of the fiction. It was just staggering to me.” It’s like he read my soul and repeated it back to me.

Armed with all this new knowledge about Mr. Whedon, I couldn’t be happier that he’s writing/directing The Avengers. When that was first announced, I was pretty indifferent. Now I’m pumped! Maybe Black Widow will be there for more than ass-shots and eye candy.

While we’re on the subject of comics, here’s what Joss Whedon thinks of modern comics: Nowadays I’m really cranky about comics. Because most of them are just really, really poorly written soft-core. And I miss good old storytelling. And you know what else I miss? Super powers. Why is it now that everybody’s like “I can reverse the polarity of your ions!” Like in one big flash everybody’s Doctor Strange. I like the guys that can stick to walls and change into sand and stuff. I don’t understand anything anymore. And all the girls are wearing nothing, and they all look like they have implants. Well, I sound like a very old man, and a cranky one, but it’s true.

I don’t mean to keep filling this post with great quotes, but I just want to make absolutely 100% sure that everyone gets how gosh-darn cool Joss Whedon is. I can’t help but gush about these quotes, because he’s a man involved with comics, sci-fi, shows with supernatural elements, etc who actually, really believes women should be written as people because they are people, and is really outspoken about it. Whedon doesn’t seem to give a damn what anyone might think about his attempts to empower women and girls. He doesn’t care if people reject him and his work because they hate feminism and feminists, because he knows feminism is relevant and more important than playing nice with sexist Hollywood.

And, I mean, look at him.

How could he not be a nice guy?

Interestingly, Joss Whedon’s outspoken feminism hasn’t hurt his career too much. It seems like everything he does develops a cult following, including many people who would never actually admit to being feminists themselves. I think this proves, among other things, that today’s culture has corrupted the meaning of feminism so deeply that people who actually at heart are feminists don’t realize that they are.

I wish I’d been watching Joss Whedon shows and movies all along, instead of now having to retrace his filmography. Still, better late than never, right? As for Joss Whedon himself, I wish him and his genuinely empowered female characters (and his not-sexist-pig male characters) the best of luck. I hope they continue to make the worlds of sci-fi, comics, TV, and film a much, much better place.

-Joanna

More Thoughts on The Doctor’s Companions

Recently, I’ve been re-watching the new Doctor Who chronologically. In a previous post, I expressed my disdain for Amy Pond’s non-character, and hinted at my nostalgia for the way the show used to be. This post is basically an appendage to that, with some thoughts on the companions individually and the show generally.

Unlike Amy Pond, Rose Tyler is many things, but, as The Doctor tells Satan in “The Satan Pit,” she is not a victim. Victimization has been and remains today an important facet in understanding pseudo-empowered female characters. If the character, in an attempt to save herself and others, formulates her own ideas and successfully carries them out, she is probably not a victim. In “The Satan Pit,” Rose thinks she and the Doctor might be separated forever (not an uncommon occurrence in the show). She is in the middle of a life-or-death crisis on a ship impossibly orbiting black hole, and neither she nor the crew know exactly what evil is among them. So what does she do? She doesn’t let the crew or herself wallow in self-pity, instead forcing all of them to think their way out of the situation, using the bits of information given to her by the crew to solve the puzzle. She doesn’t simply sit there and cry, wishing the Doctor were there to save them, and cursing him for not being there. She pulls herself up by her bootstraps, as the saying goes, and helps to save the universe.

Now, after reading this testament to Rose’s capability and smarts, you might be under the impression that I really like and admire Rose. That’s not exactly the case. Before Amy Pond, I really didn’t like Rose. Basically hated her. I found her personality grating and her sorta-kinda relationship with the Doctor pretty annoying. I also disliked her possessiveness of the Doctor; she tends to act like she is entitled to be with the Doctor. (Boy, was I to learn what a person could be like when they’re really possessive of the Doctor!) This time around, I was able to understand a few things about Rose. For one, she’s only nineteen/twenty. Of course she falls in love with the Doctor and thinks being with him is more important than being with her family. I also never realized how capable and clever Rose is allowed to be. While she may be just an ordinary chav working in a shop, she does have a brain and tends not to panic. When Rose does wander off, it’s usually to try to figure out something for herself. She clearly follows in the show’s tradition of using your brains, not your brawn, in order to get out of sticky situations/save the universe.

And that, dear reader, is how I grew to appreciate Rose. The Doctor’s next companion, Martha Jones, was a much easier character to love. Martha, a med student, is extremely intelligent, which impresses the Doctor when they first meet. Her intelligence and capability remain an important part of her character, even after she chooses to leave the Doctor. Less intelligent, but no less lovable, is Donna Noble. As I expressed in the previous post, Donna is funny, deeply empathetic, and twice as sassy as Amy Pond could ever be. All three of these women prove to be useful counterparts to the Doctor, and never allow themselves to be damsels in distress.

The show is sometimes accused of being sexist. I would perhaps call it heteronormative instead. It’s a mainstream, family-oriented British TV show; what about that says radical? I don’t think it promotes misogyny, but it obviously doesn’t do much to challenge gender norms. In my ideal world, Doctor Who would have even stronger female characters, a more equal villain-to-gender ratio, break down the barriers of race, gender identity and sexuality. But that’s my ideal; what’s real is much easier for most people to digest. And what’s real isn’t bad, but could be so much better.

-Joanna