Posts Tagged ‘Stereotype’

Warning: total spoilers.

It’s no overstatement to say that The Cabin in the Woods should really be subtitled Joss Whedon Brings The Meta. As a movie, I… don’t quite know what to make of it. I went in with few expectations beyond horror, Whedonosity and probable twistyness,  and came out feeling like I’d just watched a TV Tropes-inspired 101 instructional film on how not to make horror movies.  By that, I don’t mean that Cabin itself was so bad as to constitute a cautionary tale: I mean that it quite literally sets out to educate  cinemagoers – and, presumably, other filmmakers – on how not to make horror movies. The whole piece functions as a deliberate deconstruction of the archetypal horror-style five man band composed (as Cabin has it) of the Whore, Athlete, Fool, Scholar and Virgin. This isn’t subtextual, wink-at-the-audience deconstruction like you’ll find in the Scream franchise or the out-and-out mockery of the comedic Scary Movie and its ilk, either, but a balls-out synthesis of both approaches that walks – and sometimes, teeters wildly over – the line between heavy-handed satire and straight entertainment.

Buckle up, readers. We’re here for the long haul.

Premise

Right from the outset, Cabin takes the gutsy step of committing openly to two parallel storylines, one of which acts as a meta critique of the other. In one, college friends Dana (the Virgin), Jules (the Whore), Curt (the Athlete), Holden (the Scholar) and Marty (the Fool) embark upon the titular and archetypal exercise of driving out to spend a weekend at a remote woodland cabin owned by Curt’s cousin. In the other, a team of mysterious scientists working in a high-tech lab setting monitor the friends as they progress towards their destination, which is, as we soon find out, an environment both designed and controlled by this second cast of characters. As the story unfolds, we cut between the two narratives with an increasing sense of unease: clearly, the techs – headed by Sitterson, Hadley and Lin – have somehow orchestrated the entire getaway for the sole purpose of putting the five protagonists in horrific danger.

On discovering a creepy cellar stacked with every MacGuffin and Checkhov’s Gun known to horror – eerie dolls, weird masks, haunted clothes, demonic jewelry, devil-summoning puzzles, creepy music boxes and freakish diaries, to name but a few – the sadism of the scientists is made suddenly clear: not only have the five protagonists been brought to the cabin to die, but they’re also forced to choose their own mode of death, their path set by which of the many damned objects they unwittingly activate. When Dana reads from a diary containing the last words of Patience Buckner, a girl killed in 1903 as part of a torture-ritual by her sadistic, pain-worshipping hillbilly family, the zombie-Buckners burst from the ground nearby and the game is on.

But Marty, the Fool of a stoner, thinks something’s up. Having noticed the behavioural changes his friends have started to undergo (courtesy of the various chemicals pumped into the cabin by the controlling tech-team) and seemingly inoculated against same by his constant weed-smoking, it’s not long before he accidentally uncovers a camera and realises the extent of their manipulation. While the friends are fighting and dying, he manages to convince Dana that ‘puppet-masters’ are ultimately responsible for what’s happening to them –  a revelation that primes the two separate narrates for an ultimate collision.

Execution

The thing about running two parallel narratives is that, of necessity, it’s going to cut into the characterisation. Thanks to the talented writer/director team of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard – the latter of whom was also a staff writer for Buffy - good dialogue goes a long way towards ameliorating this fact. The opening banter between Sitterson, Hadley and Lin is a fantastic balance of witty humdrum and slow reveal, effortlessly creating a sense of wrongness and unease when placed in the context of their actions. However, it’s only really the scientists who benefit from this: the other five characters are, purposefully, stereotypes, and though some effort is made to transcend that fact – Curt’s initial kindness and cleverness, Holden’s rare status as a black intellectual character – it’s only Marty, with his quirky Whedonesque dialogue, who appears as a whole, unique person.  What this means in terms of the film is that, while we care enough about the other protagonists to mourn their deaths, they never stop being stereotypes – and even though that’s a deliberate choice, it’s not ultimately a successful one. (We’ll come to why later.)

In terms of pacing, the film moves smoothly through the first half and transitions to the final third with a skillful switch-flipping act break, but that’s where things start to get sticky. As lone survivors Dana and Marty infiltrate the scientists’ lair, the two narratives are brought into collision, and while the action arguably increases – or at least, gets knocked up a notch – the narrative theme shifts gear in a way that makes the story feel slow. If you’ve ever seen Into the Woods, it’s a bit like the moment near the middle of Act Two when the fairy tale characters suddenly notice the ever-present narrator, freak out and kill him, an action which forces them to depart from the story as known to the audience and strike out on their own. In fact, it’s exactly like that moment, with the key difference being that while Into the Woods employs the broken fourth wall device to explore character relationships and overturn archetypes, Cabin uses it as an excuse to create a gory-hilarious, Edgar Wright style bloodbath starring every single horror monster imaginable, with special emphasis on the giant snake. And while these final scenes certainly succeed at being blackly comic, they don’t really serve to unite the two thematically different stories that have preceded them.

Plotting

Narratively, Cabin is schizophrenic. On the one hand, it’s an overt deconstruction of the most overdone slasher-horror stereotypes, while on the other, it’s a self-aware film that nonetheless uses those stereotypes as the backbone of the plot. For anyone even vaguely trope-literate, there’s nothing new in recycling the same old characters,  even – and perhaps especially – if the whole point of doing so is to name and shame them as such. The ultimate explanation for this – that the terrible Dark Gods the scientists are serving need to see the archetypes fulfilled as a form of ritual sacrifice – is both riddled with fridge logic (which we’ll come to) and deeply unsatisfying in terms of the actual deconstruction itself. Holden’s death is a case in point: even though Cabin avoids the ultimate cliche of having the black dude die first, the fact that Holden still doesn’t make it to the end – or, rather, the fact that the issue of race is the one universally acknowledged horror-trope that the meta-narrative fails to so much as wink at, let alone address openly – is indicative of the film’s ambivalent commitment to self-deconstruction.

Or, to put it another way: it would have been much more interesting and far less heavy-handed to blur the archetype categories and cast multiple actors of colour. Marty, who was essentially presented as asexual, could have doubled with Dana as the Virgin – a narratively viable move which could have altered the ending in any number of ways. Curt and Holden were potentially interchangeable as both Scholar and Athlete – from the opening scenes, each of them qualified easily for either role – while making a male character the Whore would have been genuinely fascinating. And this ought really to have been possible: because while the archetype categories were openly named in the final scenes, it was also stated that when it came to Dana’s not being an actual virgin, the scientists were willing and able to ‘work with what [they've] got.’

Fridge Logic

Which is where, for me, the whole of Cabin fell down. I can deal with two thematically opposing narratives – one straight, one meta – that end up colliding in a blood-stained, crazycakes battle that plays out like the lovechild of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead on hallucinogenic meth. I can deal with witty, realistic dialogue that only works to elevate half the cast above the level of stereotype while   making the rest merely exemplary forms of the same; and I can even deal with a tropetastic film whose ultimate reliance on the very archetypes it exists to critique leaves it vulnerable to self-sabotage.

What I cannot deal with is the existence of giant, gaping logic-holes in an overarching narrative whose sole purpose is to make all the other contradictions viable.

So: every year for the whole of history, human beings all over the world have brought their horror-archetype stories to life in order to feed the blood of the victims to the Ancient Ones below – demonic, evil gods who, if denied at least one annual sacrifice from somewhere on Earth, will rise up and destroy humanity. OK. I can roll with that, except for the part that it makes no fucking sense. The entire point of the film is that the scientists have to enact horror stories as rituals, so that any deviation from the script – such as, for instance, the Virgin dying anything other than last – will invalidate the sacrifice. And yet, at the same time, it apparently doesn’t matter that the Virgin isn’t really a virgin – and if this seemingly crucial element is malleable, then why not everything else? If it were just a normal horror story, perhaps I wouldn’t care so much; but in the context of Cabin being almost solely about deconstruction, it matters that the given excuse for the stereotyped character format – We Had To, Because Ritual – doesn’t actually apply. It’s a continuity goof that screws not only the plausibility of the straight narrative, but the thematic goal of the meta. Unless it’s a double bluff and Whedon and Goddard were deliberately being lazy to somehow highlight out the laziness of others (which, if so, no), there’s no way to make it work – and that disappoints me, because if there’s one thing I don’t expect from Joss Whedon, it’s half-assed deconstruction.

Genre

This isn’t the only instance of fridge logic, but it is the most pointed, and the one which, for me, takes the most shine off the film. Stepping back from my own neurotic preferences, I can acknowledge that, quite possibly, I’m reading too much into things, and that maybe I should just be content to let Sleeping Gods lie. But even then, this doesn’t work, because Cabin is still a thematic mess. As a horror film, it’s jumpy, neither wholly the black comedy a la Edgar Right implied by the level of self-reference or the pure, straight-up shockfest implied by the advertising. It might have worked as a hybrid of the two, if not for the utter lack of synthesis or cathersis achieved by the ending – but instead, it’s a chimaera.

As a piece of deconstruction, it never rises above the level of a basic introduction to tropes. Remove the fansquee factor of Joss Whedon bringing the meta, and you’re left with a film which, while good fun in many places, informative in others and certainly original in terms of its execution (if not, as discussed, its archetypes), is neither as clever nor revelatory as its smugness seems to suggest its creators think it is. I won’t deny that it was fun to see Buffyverse alums Amy Acker and Tom Lenk working together, but Joss Whedon’s Favourite Actors isn’t a genre, and it doesn’t compensate for the presence of so many missteps.

Impact

Ultimately, despite my reservations, I suspect that The Cabin in the Woods is a necessary film – not because it does what no story has done before, but because it so unequivocally comments on what shouldn’t be done again. Given my druthers, it will forever stand as a 95 minute argument against the lazy application of horror tropes – and when it comes to the actual blood and gore, Cabin manages what is, perhaps ironically, its single best feat of deconstruction. The violence is short, sharp and brutal: minus the usual emphasis on drawn-out screams, running through darkened hallways, struggling with monstrous aggressors and retch-inducing torture porn, the fact that we genuinely do care for the characters, stereotypes and all, makes their deaths unusually horrific. As the audience watches the scientists watching the suffering, we’re invited to critique our own enjoyment of horror films – to ask why, when confronted with such brutal deaths, we persist in finding them entertaining at all.

Given that Cabin is still a horror film, this is arguably not the most effective course of action – rather like Sucker Punch’s failed attempt to critique the same vouyerism it was ultimately peddling. Nonetheless, I’ll give Whedon and Goddard more credit than to put them on the same level as Zack Snyder: Cabin’s violence is neither constantly sexualised, unduly graphic nor unnecessarily protracted, and instead relies on the audience’s emotional connection with the victims to convey its horror. And then there’s the ending – rocks fall, everyone dies, and eldritch gods rise, Cthulhu-like, from their ancient slumber, ready to destroy the world as we know it. This happens because Dana first fails to kill Marty and then refuses to, so that the film ends with our two bloodied survivors smoking a joint as the whole world cracks beneath them. It’s completely out of keeping with their characters – Dana’s will to survive, Marty’s intelligent self-analysis – and seemingly exists for no better reason than that it makes a good punchline. Maybe you’ll find it otherwise, but for me, it rankled: a final thumbing of the nose at everything in the film that should have worked, but didn’t.

Conclusion

The Cabin in the Woods is a tropetastic, self-analytic and deconstrutive horror romp starring torture zombies, college students, creepy scientists and a Bonus! giant snake. Whedon fans will enjoy his trademark dialogue and sense of the meta, though horror fans might be baffled as to what the hell he and Goddard are doing in their genre. Personally, it’s a question I’m still trying to answer – and maybe I never will.

Following on from my recent thoughts on female characters in YA dystopias and the Broken Bird trope, something else about the treatment of women in stories has been niggling at me. Writing those both posts, my emotional reaction was consistently stronger and more negative than seemed explicable by their topics alone – as though there was something else under it, some deeper irk I couldn’t consciously describe, but which was nonetheless feeding into my reaction. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out what it was; and now, finally, I think I’ve drawn a bead on it. So!

Regardless of their political orientation, most people can admit that:

a) sexism exists as a part of human culture; and

b) has done so for thousands of years.

Even people who insist that our current, enlightened society is sexism-free can usually admit that, once upon a time, things were otherwise, and that this has been true for the vast majority – if not all of – human history. So, following on from this logic, any SFF novel set in either:

a) a fictional society whose culture is modeled on that of a historical civilisation; or

b) a future society whose culture is modeled on that of either a present or historical civilisation

will, unless the author actively chooses otherwise, incorporate certain aspects of real-world culture into the narrative by default. These defaults are many and varied, but the one I want to talk about is sexism. Thus: because most readers, either consciously or unconsciously, expect a certain level of sexism to exist in every society – even fictional ones – authors can infer sexism as a cultural default without ever needing to explain or address it. This leads to the formation and propagation of certain tropes, stereotypes and archetypes whose existence and validity are fundamentally dependent on the narrative presence of sexism generally; and more specifically, given the overwhelming number of fantasy novels set in a sort of idealised, white, medieval Europe, on a grossly oversimplified and homogenized concept of medieval gender roles. Some examples of this are:

  • The Spirited Woman Married Off Against Her Will To An Ugly Man She Doesn’t Love;
  • The Lone And Therefore Exceptional Woman Warrior In A Culture Of Male Warriors;
  • The Widowed Queen Fighting To Keep Her Throne Against An All-Male Cast Of Contenders;
  • The Woman Who Runs Away Rather Than Be Married Off Against Her Will But Who Then Needs Rescuing From Worldly Perils;
  • The Woman Whose Love Of Books And Scholarship Is Exceptional And Odd And Therefore Deemed Socially Awkward;
  • The Unmarried Woman Who Is Happy Being Unmarried And Therefore Considered An Oddity;
  • The Unmarried Woman Who Was Forbidden To Marry The Man She Loved And Is Therefore Sad And Unfulfilled;
  • The Woman Who Ran Away To Marry The Man Forbidden To Her And Who Is Now A Social Pariah;
  • The Penniless Woman Who Needs To Be Rescued From Penury As Her Gender Prevents Her From Working;
  • The Girl Forced To Dress As A Boy In Order To Live Out Her Socially Unacceptable Dreams;
  • The Adventurous Daughter Whose Parents Let Her Run Free But Threaten Her With Marriage Should She Fail;
  • The Female Scholar/Magician Trying To Make It In A Largely Male World; and
  • The Lone Female Soldier/Technician/Magician/Scholar Whose Male Colleagues Don’t Take Her Seriously.

And so on.

Now: as per the existence of sexism in the real world both historically and currently, I’m not trying to suggest that any of the above tropes are unrealistic; nor am I suggesting they should be avoided at all costs, or that they’re inherently bad, or anything like that. What I am saying, though, is that these are all comparatively common tropes, and that, even lacking specific details of the stories in which they appear, it’s still obvious that, of necessity, they all must involve societies in which sexism plays a part. What’s more, because these examples all corroborate easily with a familiar sexist framework – that is, sexism against women in a Western/European setting – they don’t require much explanation. In fact, unless the story is actively trying to write an original culture or to tweak an existing one in ways that are plot-relevant, most readers are likely to consider any actual declaration of women are oppressed for these reasons to be not only redundant, but insulting – because obviously, we already know how it works! So if I pick up a novel and learn in the first chapter that the heroine is being pressured into marriage by her father, I don’t need to ask why, and chances are the author won’t bother to tell me. Certainly, the chances of the actual plot involving a push for social justice – a sort of SFF suffragettism, if you will – are slim to none. All I’m meant to infer that sexism exists, that the female characters will be hindered accordingly, and that otherwise I should just get on with the story.

And most of the time, the author takes it no further. We are left with sexism as a background detail: one which is used to justify the plight or origins of particular female characters and the total absence of others, but which is never actually addressed. Which, in instances where the protagonist is male, or where the majority of the cast is male, leaves us instantly with a screaming, red-faced anachronism: where are the actual sexists? Why, if sexism in this society is so deep-seated, are the heroes so unusually enlightened? Here is why; I will tell you the secret. Because we are meant to like them. Funnily enough, most authors have cottoned on to the fact that writing openly sexist heroes is less heroic than it is disgusting; that it’s sort of difficult to hail Weapons McFighty, Trueking Noob and Roamer Nomadson as the exalted Lords of Awesome when they’ve spent the majority of the book acting like entitled jerks.

Except, here’s the other secret: this is completely untrue.  Offhand, I could name you half a dozen fantasy novels where open, narratively-acknowledged sexism on behalf of the characters has neither prevented the book from being excellent nor the hero from being heroic. True, it’s made them more complex (gasp!) and probably less likable, but it’s also made them more human, forced the reader to actually think about sexism, and tied the characterisation to the worldbuilding in a realistic and consistent way.

This is not the only way to address the presence of default sexism. You can, for instance, construct interesting and believable histories for your male characters which explain their unusual sense of equality – provided that you also allow the women to find it unusual, rather than just taking it for granted. You can follow sexism to some of its natural conclusions rather than focusing exclusively on those few exceptional women who’ve avoided it, such that your characters – and, by extension, the audience – are forced to view it as more than just an inevitable background detail. Then again, you could avoid writing default sexism in the first place by actually considering how gender roles work in your story, building a cultural, social and historical setting that usurps the expectations of the reader. You could write an equal society, or one whose inequalities are unusual; you could write a typically sexist society, but make sexism a major narrative focus. Lots of different ways to explore the topic!

But just using sexism as a default while simultaneously including characters whose ambivalence to, distance from or disconnect with the problem only serves to diminish its impact and make it a background issue? That makes you not only a lazy, unoriginal writer, but one who actually perpetuates sexism by training the reader to take its presence for granted: to refrain from so much as questioning or calling it out, let alone showing its worst consequences, because that’s just how things work, and anyway women’s issues are boring.

And this is my problem, the thing that underlies all the beefs I have right now with UF and YA and dystopias in particular, but also with a bunch of other things in general: the simple fact that too many authors shrink away from acknowledging the default sexism of their settings when everything in their stories suggests its relevance. I am not asking you to use your writing as a vehicle for feminist discourse – actually, no, wait, I sort of am, if by feminist discourse you mean not letting sexism pass without comment, which is also weirdly synonymous with being a decent human. I just want you to admit that this is a problem, and that perhaps making it a background detail without any sort of commentary beyond ‘Oh my female character was being oppressed but now she’s escaped or been rescued, so that’s cool,’ is, you know, unhelpful.

For instance! Are you:

  • Writing a story where your heroine is either the lone woman in her field or one of an elite few ladies? Then tell me why! If she’s battling uphill against an entrenched culture of sexism, show it to us – don’t just rely on inference. Fighting sexism in the workplace is hard enough when you’re an office temp, let alone fighting manticores or saving the world! And if there’s no culture of sexism, then why are there so few ladies? Were lots of them killed off in a major battle? Is the job itself actually considered low-status in a context where women tend to hold higher-status positions? Or did you just default to a male majority because that’s how the world often looks and you didn’t actually think about it, even though you’re trying to write about an institution that prizes equality?
  • Writing a story where, due to some stupid quirk of magical biology, the female of the species is much rarer than the male, so that all the guys fight over her and go swoony for her lady-originating specialness?  Here’s an idea: don’t. I am truly, thoroughly sick of this trope. If I happen across one more story where there’s a bajillion boy-werewolves, boy-vampires, boy-magicians or whatever and then lo and behold, a lady werewolf-vampire-magician shows up and OMG SHE’S THE ONLY GIRL BECAUSE REASONS, LET’S FIGHT!, I will SET THE BOOK ON FIRE. To me, this is the most toxic, awful form of default sexism because it builds into biology the idea that girls must either be unspecial and irrelevant or special and put on a pedestal while simultaneously providing an excuse to perpetuate all the very worst gender stereotypes (New Special Girl Resented By Special And Unspecial Girls Alike,  Boys Fighting Over Potential Mates Ladies In A Way That’s Meant To Be Hot, Hierarchy And Sexism Are How Our Society Work So Deal With It) as a species-based culture. Plus and also, this is doubly ridiculous because healthy animal populations produce an equal number of males and females; when human populations end up with more men that women, it’s invariably because sexist cultures encourage sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. So not only does it make no biological sense, it also ends up taking some of the very worst aspects of real-world sexism and using it to justify sexy romance plots. Which, I’m sorry, no.
  • Writing a story where women’s bodies and sexuality are policed, reproduction is exalted and all the hallmarks of deeply coercive sexism apply? Then actually call it sexism! Show the consequences! Or at least, show the indoctrination! Explain how the system is maintained, how it came into being, and why people believe it! Show what happens to LBGTQ people! Don’t be afraid to write radical characters! These last two are particularly important: I am getting massively tired of sexually coercive dystopias whose protagonists are always straight people in love, and whose rebellion therefore stems wholly from not being free to choose each other, rather than from the fact that, you know, they’re living in a dystopia based around eugenics, enforced heterosexuality and state-sanctioned rape. Romance is great and all, but if you’ve built a setting founded on sexual atrocities, then glossing over them because it detracts from the romance is sort of… atrocious.

And so on.

Sexism is not the only social default thus applied – racism and homophobia continue to crop up in SFF for much the same reasons. Default sexism might well be more common, but only because the exclusion of POC/LGBTQ characters from so many SFF works means that problems of race and homophobia are even more deep-seated in the real world than problems of sexism, making it harder for those conversations to be had in reference to fictional works from which they’re too often erased. Women are everywhere – it’s hard to ignore us completely – but thoughtless authors can and do whitewash and straightwash their stories without any conscious thought, simply because it never occurs to them to do otherwise. Which is, I think, somehow more terrible than if they’d made an active decision. The freedom to  ignore the relevance of intersectionality is just another form of privilege, and arguably one more vicious than benign. Remember: if your equality looks homogeneous, then it’s probably not equality.

In a nutshell, then:  I am sick of stories that pay lip-service to equality (sexism exists, and is bad) while actively working against its principles (but it’s boring, so let’s get over it). More importantly, I am sick of this process being so much in the way of a default setting that we’ve stopped even questioning it – making it a hidden process rather than something overt. In the immortal words of Caitlin Moran:

These days, a plethora of shitty attitudes to women have become diffuse, indistinct or almost entirely concealed. Fighting them feels like trying to combat a mouldy, mildew smell in the hallway, using only a breadknife. Because – like racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia – modern sexism has become cunning. Sly. Codified. In the same way a closet racist would never dream of openly saying ‘nigger’ but might make a pointed reference to someone black having a natural rhythm, or liking fried chicken, so a closet misogynist has a vast array of words, comments, phrases and attitudes that they can employ to subtly put a woman down, or disconcert her, but without it being immediately apparent that that is what they are actually doing….

It’s difficult to see the glass ceiling because it’s made of glass. What we need is for more birds to fly above it and shit all over it, so we can see it properly.

Yesterday, my husband and I rewatched Season 1 of Sherlock. It’s an awesome show, and one that was made even better by repeat viewing in all respects save one: the treatment of the women. I’ve blogged before, pointedly and with bitterness, about the terrible things Steven Moffat routinely does to his female characters in Doctor Who, and though his motives seem to stem more from ignorance than malice, the results are nonetheless unpleasant.

Early on, we’re introduced to Molly Hooper, Sherlock’s contact at the morgue. His obliviousness to her interest in him is played for laughs, which is fine and as it should be; what’s less fine is the way he consistently and cruelly criticises her appearance, which is also played for laughs. In A Study In Pink, he remarks on the fact that without her lipstick, she doesn’t look as nice; it makes her mouth ‘too small’. In The Blind Banker, he defuses her legitimate anger at his behaviour by complimenting her hair, which Molly accepts with a giggle. Finally, in The Great Game, Molly brings in a fake boyfriend, Jim, to try and attract Sherlock’s attention. As the boyfriend turns out to be Moriarty, the implication is that he’s duped her into friendship, though we don’t find this out until later. In the meantime, however, ‘Jim’ has pretended to be gay, which Sherlock points out (there’s a lot of guff about personal grooming and choice in underpants, which feels hideously superficial until it’s revealed that Jim has, in fact, slipped Sherlock his number) – and that might be fine, too, except that he also takes the time to tell Molly ‘You’ve put on three pounds since you’ve been with him.’

‘Two and a half,’ says Molly, desperately.

‘Three,’ Sherlock says again.

The encounter ends, not unsurprisingly, with Molly fleeing the room in tears, and even though Watson points out that Sherlock has been unkind, this is on the basis of so callously revealing her boyfriend to be gay, and not for the remark about her weight.

Next, we have Mrs Hudson. Given the character’s origins, it’s less surprising that she’s given short shrift, but her treatment by the other male characters nonetheless rankles. At two points in The Great Game, she’s shown nattering pleasantly (or trying to natter pleasantly) with Holmes, Lestrade and Watson: in both instances, she is rudely ignored, while in one they actually walk away and leave her talking mid-sentence. Again, this is played for laughs, the implication being that Mrs Hudson, above and beyond being a genial, clueless landlady, is so utterly irrelevant that nobody needs to even acknowledge her presence or attempts at conversation.

Sargent Sally Donovan gets a slightly better deal, in that she’s the one woman shown to interact aggressively with Sherlock, calling him Freak and telling Watson that he’s a psychopath; but we’re also meant to dislike her for this very same reason. She’s also a WOC – the only non-white cast member, in fact – and given the unfortunate tendency of the TV industry to continuously cast black women in angry roles, this facts strikes me as being doubly unfortunate. And then, of course, Sherlock makes the obligatory remark about her sexuality, pointing out to Watson that she’s been sleeping with her (equally unlikeable) white colleague, Anderson, saying she clearly spent the night at his house and must have ‘scrubbed your floors, going by the state of her knees’. Which – as ever – is played for laughs.

Charming.

Then we have Mycroft’s female assistant, Anthea, who’s shown as being aloof and disinterested in Watson to the point of outright rudeness. Texting almost constantly, she only looks up to rebuff him and, on their second meeting, professes not to know him at all. We’re meant to find her vapid and distant, despite the fact that, as Mycroft’s assistant, she must be exceptionally intelligent and capable. Her characterisation might be brief, but she nonetheless fits the pattern of how women on the show are treated.

Finally for the recurring characters, there’s Sarah, Watson’s love interest. As is par for the course, we know almost nothing about her except that she’s a doctor and a love interest; she obligingly takes on Watson’s locum duties when he falls asleep at work and then gets thoroughly damselled at the end of The Blind Banker, with the intervening time spent being sneered at by Sherlock. Not exactly an offensive piece of characterisation, but hardly stand-out, either. Besides her attraction to Watson, her passivity is her only defining feature.

And the one-off female characters are hardly treated any better. The primary victim in A Study In Pink is female (and one cannot help but notice how her love of pink has been tied to her femininity for the purpose of the plot); in The Blind Banker, Mei Lin Yao is killed while trying to escape a female villain who is herself killed at the end of the episode; and in The Great Game, the gallery owner, Ms Wenceslas, is shown up by Sherlock after trying to exhibit a forged painting. In the same episode, two women, a man and a child have explosives strapped to them: the middle-aged woman is called a ‘stupid bitch’ by Moriarty, while her blind, elderly counterpart is called ‘defective’ and then blown up for trying to describe his voice. Add to this another female victim – Connie Prince, a celebrity makeover artist – and a wife who colluded in her husband’s disappearance in order to collect insurance money, and the scoresheet for female characterisation remains steadfastly at zero.

But wait! I hear you cry. What’s wrong with having female victims and villains? They can’t all be men, and it’s not like there weren’t male victims and villains on offer, too!

Which, yes, of course; and under ordinary circumstances, unless there was an established pattern of preference for pretty female victims, I’d be happy to leave well enough alone. But in Sherlock’s case, these otherwise ordinary oneshot characters all stand as testament to the fact in nearly five hours of television, every single female character is either a villain, a victim, a dupe or a damsel: someone to be arrested, avenged, ridiculed or rescued. And under those circumstances, no, I do not care that a few male characters also suffer the same fate, because as the entire narrative premise is centred on Two Exceptionally Awesome Men Being Awesome And Exceptional, there is no imbalance between clever/likeable and stupid/unlikeable blokes to merit the comparison.

I am not asking for a female character to be smarter or better than Sherlock Holmes: it is, after all, his story. I’m not even arguing that it ought to pass the Bechdel test (which it doesn’t), even though I’d love it if it did. I am, however, deeply disappointed that not even one female character is anywhere near the equal of Watson, Lestrade or Mycroft, or who at the very least could engage in some sort of banter with one or any of them. There is a great, yawning gap between “as smart as Sherlock Holmes” and “gormless passivity”, and while we have male characters aplenty who fit that bill, not a single woman does. The only woman described as clever, in fact, is the victim in A Study In Pink - but seeing as how she’s already dead, that doesn’t add much to the overall quality of female repartee.

But then, the show is the brainchild of Steven Moffat, who hasn’t got aspectacular track record when it comes to writing women, and to whom the following quote from 2004 is lamentably attributable:

“There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands. The world is vastly counted in favour of men at every level – except if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class, because then you’re almost certainly junior in your relationship and in a state of permanent, crippled apology. Your preferences are routinely mocked. There’s a huge, unfortunate lack of respect for anything male.”

Which, um.

ABOUT THAT.

And it angers me. It angers me because I tend like, if not love, the stuff Moffat works with - Doctor Who and Sherlock and Tintin - but am forced to do so in spite of what he believes and says and writes about my gender. And I am SICK of it.

-  This piece  is also posted here.

Recently, N. K. Jemisin wrote an excellent piece on the limitations of womanhood in fantasy.  Together with Kate Beaton’s take on Strong Female Characters, Kate Elliott’s discussion of gender and culture, and Overthinking It’s analysis of why strong female characters are bad for women, the essay illuminates an increasingly problematic disjunction in our treatment of femininity. The success of feminism means that women can now choose to live beyond the confines of their traditional roles; but despite/because of that freedom, there’s a fearful sort of disparagement reserved for women who still elect to be wives and mothers, or who shoulder the bulk of domestic duties. As though, somehow, feminism has made all such occupations redundant; as though a perfectly equal society is one in which nobody ever has to get married, give birth or do the washing-up. Doubtless there’s some who’d call such a world Utopia, which is fair enough. But here in reality, being a stay-at-home mother isn’t the same as being anti-feminist, and the definition of a strong female character is not exclusively one who eschews domesticity – or love, for that matter.

Commenting on Jemisin’s post, one woman remarked:

“Sure, the romance narrative is helping sell the books, and I freely admit I eat that stuff up, but… reliance on that central romantic narrative undercuts female power pretty dramatically. The entire story basically becomes a failed Bechdel test, even if it passes technically.”

Which is another way of saying that romance in narrative is innately anti-feminist. Frankly, it’s a sentiment which terrifies and chills me, not least because of the way in which it echoes the historical discrimination against working women who dared to get married. Find a man, this logic went, and you loose your credibility: married women should be (or are, depending on your preferred flavour of sexism) incapable of devoting time, effort and intelligence to anything other than marriage itself, and therefore can’t be trusted in the workforce. The modern version is subtler. In this scenario, women shouldn’t (or don’t, depending on your preferred flavour of feminism) need men to fulfill them; positive depictions of male/female romance contradict this tenet by linking happiness with heterosexual  romance, and are therefore anti-feminist. To be clear: the overwhelming preference of our culture for embedding marriage as the standard Happily Ever After is still problematic, as is the marginalization of happy non-hetero love and the idea that singleness is always the same as loneliness. What I’m objecting to is the idea that being romantically involved with men is, by itself, enough to undermine the feminist worth of female characters.

Imagine a group of macho men disparaging love as ‘chick stuff’ and an affront to masculinity, calling their married friends pussy-whipped and questioning the manhood (not to say intelligence) of any man who changes his lifestyle for the sake of a woman; the whole ‘bros before hos’ nine yards. Ugly, right? Then imagine a group of modern women disparaging love as a means of patriarchal control and an affront to feminism, calling their married friends submissive backsliders and challenging the feminist cred (not to say intelligence) of any woman who changes her lifestyle for the sake of a man; the whole ‘housewives and breeders’ manifesto.

Yeah. Still ugly.

To wax briefly lyrical, love is the great leveler: if you don’t lose your dignity at some point during the process, then I’d contend that you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes, and as treacherous an idea as it might seem to our sensibilities, loving another person does fulfill us in a way that nothing else can; nonetheless, love is not our only means of fulfillment, nor even – necessarily – the most important. Love is unique; it fascinates and enthralls. As countless narratives from Harry Potter to Pride and Prejudice have been at pains to point out, neither love nor loving is a weakness. Which isn’t to say that love is never destructive, ill-conceived, fleeting, hurtful, wrongheaded, violent or stubborn. It can be all that and more – but the saving grace is, it can also be exultant, glorious, unexpected and gleeful. Contrary creatures that we are, it can sometimes even be all those things at once. To quote e.e. cummings, whose wisdom in such matters is unparalleled:

‘and being here imprisoned, tortured here

love everywhere exploding maims and blinds

(but surely does not forget,perish,sleep

cannot be photographed,measured;disdains

the trivial labeling of punctual brains…’

That being said, I’m not about to issue a blanket indemnity for each and every romance ever written. Just as many real-world relationships are abusive, one-sided, airheaded and/or undertaken for all the wrong reasons, so too can narrative relationships turn toxic. The vital point here is whether the author intended the relationship to be positive or negative or somewhere in between, to what purpose, and whether or not they’ve succeeded. In this as in so many things, your mileage may vary; but more of that shortly. Assuming momentarily that adherence to feminist canon must always be the rubric by which we gauge the narrative success or failure of fictional relationships (it’s not, but that’s another post entirely), failure on that count isn’t the same thing as failure overall. By which I mean: a story which deliberately chronicles the ups and downs of a negative relationship is not automatically anti-feminist. But wait, you cry: weren’t you asserting only moments ago that positive relationships were the problem? Well, hypothetical reader, I’m glad you asked me that, because the sad fact is that some proponents of this view will have you coming and going. Negative hetero relationships are called anti-feminist because, nine times out of ten, they show women being mistreated by men, which – yes – is awful, but frequently on purpose, which is to say, the mistreatment is written deliberately to raise exactly this point; which is to say, a point that some commentators – not many, but enough to notice the pattern – persist in missing. But positive relationships are still called anti-feminist, too, because isn’t it just so contrived and backwards and cliche that a heterosexual woman might fall in love with a man, or want to? Why is it even necessary?

Look, you got me: it’s not necessary (or at least, not necessary to everyone). That doesn’t make it irrelevant, and it certainly doesn’t make it unrealistic. I mean, dragons aren’t necessary, and they’re still fucking awesome – but hey, if you don’t like dragons? Maybe read a unicorn book! Or something.

This is why I get irked when novels – or more specifically, their romantic plotlines – are reviewed in line with this somewhat warped version of feminism. To directly refute the Jemisin commenter, you do not fail the Bechdel test by having your heroine fall in love, even if it’s with an awesome, powerful dude; but perhaps you do fail at writing a feminist heroine if, for whatever reason, love turns her into a doormat and her love interest into a douche without any indication that this is, in fact, suboptimal. Similarly, to play something of a strawman argument – and without wanting in any way to suggest that lesbian relationships aren’t legitimate, beautiful, awesome things – having your heroine fall in love with a lady does not automatically make her more feminist than if she falls in love with a dude; so why would heterosexuality prove a feminist handicap? So often in these debates, I feel like narrative context becomes optional in assessing a story’s merits; we get hung up on whether or not the heroine is making the same choices we would under the same circumstances when the whole point is that the story’s not about us.

Returning finally to the subject of strong female characters, then, wives and mothers of any kind are no more anti-feminist than kickass warriors in skintight leather with multiple sexual partners are the feminist ideal. Suggestions to the contrary may well be a fault of terminology; despite appearances, the strong in strong female character doesn’t refer exclusively to physical attributes, but rather to strength of character – interesting, three-dimensional ladies with a range of capabilities, backgrounds and interests being, for my money, a far more workable and compelling definition than just ladies who can fight. But then again, I’m happily married, so I guess that means my life fails the Bechdel by default.

Rats. And I felt so strong, too.