Posts Tagged ‘Tropes’

Recently, my husband and I burned through S1 of Orphan Black, which, as promised by virtually the entire internet, was awesome. But in all the praise I’d seen for it, a line from one review in particular stuck in my mind. The reviewer noted that, although the protagonist, Sarah, is an unlikeable character, her grifter skills make her perfectly suited to unravelling the mystery in which she finds herself. And as this was a positive review, I kept that quote in mind when we started watching, sort of by way of prewarning myself: you maybe won’t like Sarah, but that’s OK.

But here’s the thing: I fucking loved Sarah. I mean, I get what the reviewer was trying to say, in that she’s not always a sympathetic character, but that’s not the same as her actually being unlikeable. And the more I watched, the more I found myself thinking: why is this quality, the idea of likeability, considered so important for women, but so optional for men – not just in real life, but in narrative? Because when it comes to guys, we have whole fandoms bending over backwards to write soulful meta humanising male characters whose actions, regardless of their motives, are far less complex than monstrous. We take male villains and redeem them a hundred, a thousand times over – men who are murderers, stalkers, abusers, kinslayers, traitors, attempted or successful rapists; men with personal histories so bloody and tortured, it’s like looking at a battlefield. In doing this, we exhibit enormous compassion for and understanding of the nuances of human behaviour – sympathy for circumstance, for context, for motive and character and passion and rage, the heartache and, to steal a phrase, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to; and as such, regardless of how I might feel about the practice as applied in specific instances, in general, it’s a praiseworthy endeavour. It helps us to see human beings, not as wholly black and white, but as flawed and complicated creatures, and we need to do that, because it’s what we are.

But when it comes to women, a single selfish or not-nice act – a stolen kiss, a lie, a brushoff – is somehow enough to see them condemned as whores and bitches forever. We readily excuse our favourite male characters of murder, but if a woman politely turns down a date with someone she has no interest in, she’s a timewasting user bimbo and god, what does he even see in her? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some great online meta about, for instance, the soulfulness and moral ambiguity of Black Widow, but I’ve also seen a metric fucktonne more about what that particular jaw-spasm means in that one GIF of Cumberbatch/Ackles/Hiddleston/Smith alone, and that’s before you get into the pages-long pieces about why Rumplestiltskin or Hook or Spike or Bucky Barnes or whoever is really just a tortured woobie who needs a hug. Hell, I’m guilty of writing some of that stuff myself, because see above: plus, it’s meaty and fun and exactly the kind of analysis I like to write.

And yet, we tend overwhelmingly not to write it about ladies. It’s not just our cultural obsession with pushing increasingly specific variants of the Madonna/Whore complex onto women, such that audiences are disinclined to extend to female characters the same moral/emotional licenses they extend to men; it’s also a failure to create narratives where the women aren’t just flawed, but where the audience is still encouraged to like them when they are.

Returning to Orphan Black, for instance, if Sarah were male, he’d be unequivocally viewed as either a complex, sympathetic antihero or a loving battler with a heart of gold. I mean, the ex-con trying to go straight and get his daughter back while still battling the illegalities of his old life and punching bad guys? Let me introduce you to SwordfishDeath Race, and about a millionty other stories where a father’s separation from a beloved child, whether as a consequence of his actual criminal actions, shiftless neglect, sheer bad luck or a combination of all three, is never couched as a reason why he might not be a fit parent. We tend to accept, both culturally and narratively, that men who abandon their children aren’t automatically bad dads; they just have other, important things to be doing first, like coming to terms with parenthood, saving the world, escaping from prison or otherwise getting their shit together. But Sarah, who left her child in the care of someone she trusted absolutely, has to jump through hoops to prove her maternal readiness on returning; has to answer for her absence over and over again. And on one level, that’s fine; that’s as it should be, because Sarah’s life is dangerous. And yet, her situation stands in glaring contrast to every returning father who’s never been asked to do half so much, because women aren’t meant to struggle with motherhood, to have to try to succeed: we’re either maternal angels or selfish absentees, and the idea that we might sometimes be both or neither isn’t one you often see depicted with such nuance.

Which isn’t to say that we never see mothers struggling – it’s just seldom with their desire to actually be mothers. Maternal angels struggle with the day-to-day business of domesticity: how to deal with teenage chatback and those oh-so-hilariously forgetful sitcom husbands, how to balance the bills and keep everyone fed, how to find time for themselves amidst all their endless finding time for others. By contrast, selfish absentees are usually career-oriented single mothers in high-stress jobs, either unwilling or unable to find the appropriate amount of time for their children. Looking at the gender disparity in the characterisation of TV detectives who are also parents is particularly interesting: not only are the men more likely to have wives at home (to begin with, at least), they’re also more likely to be granted reconciliation with their children later. Contrast obsessive, depressive detective Kurt Wallander, who slowly rebuilds his relationship with his daughter, with obsessive, depressive detective Sarah Lund, who steadily destroys the possibility of a relationship with her son. Compare single fathers like Seeley Booth and Richard Castle, whose ability to parent well is never implied to be compromised by their devotion to the job, with single mothers like Alex Fielding and Gloria Sheppard, whose characterisation is largely defined by the difficulties of striking a balance between the two roles. Orphan Black’s Sarah is a rare creature, in that she falls outside the usual boxes for maternal categorisation, and in so doing forces us to re-examine exactly why that is.

In fact, though their respective shows and stories are utterly dissimilar in every other respect, in terms of her approach to motherhood, the character Sarah most reminded me of was Laura Gibson, the protagonist of SeaChange, an Australian show about which I have previously waxed lyrical, and which I cannot recommend highly enough. Though ostensibly subject to the same stereotyping outlined above – Laura was a high-flying corporate lawyer and newly single mother whose decision to move to a small town and reconnect with her family constituted the titular sea-change – she was written with such complexity and feeling as to defy the cliché. She was eager and well-meaning, but just as often selfish and oblivious. Though she learned to slow down and listen to others over the course of three series, she never became a domestic goddess or a motherly martyr; nor did she magically lose her flaws or suddenly develop a perfect relationship with her children. Instead, she remained a prickly, complex character, quick to both give and take offence, but also introspective, passionate, sly and caring. Like Sarah, she wasn’t always sympathetic, but that didn’t stop me from loving her, flaws and all.

But what of female villains? Perhaps I’m just not reading the right meta, but it’s always seemed a bit glaring to me that, whereas (for instance) there are endless paeans to the moral complexity and intricate personal histories of the Buffyverse’s Spike and Angel, their female counterparts, Drusilla and Darla, never seem to merit the same degree of compulsive protection. I’ve seen a bit of positive/sympathetic meta surrounding Once Upon A Time’s Regina, but otherwise, I can’t think of many overtly antagonistic female characters whose actions and motives are viewed as complex, and therefore potentially redemptive, instead of just as proof that they’re bad women. We think of men as antiheroes, as capable of occupying an intense and fascinating moral grey area; of being able to fall, and rise, and fall again, but still be worthy of love on some fundamental level, because if it was the world and its failings that broke them, then we surely must owe them some sympathy. But women aren’t allowed to be broken by the world; or if we are, it’s the breaking that makes us villains. Wronged women turn into avenging furies, inhuman and monstrous: once we cross to the dark side, we become adversaries to be defeated, not lost souls in need of mending. Which is what happens, when you let benevolent sexism invest you in the idea that women are humanity’s moral guardians and men its native renegades: because if female goodness is only ever an inherent quality – something we’re born both with and to be – then once lost, it must necessarily be lost forever, a severed limb we can’t regrow. Whereas male goodness, by virtue of being an acquired quality – something bestowed through the kindness of women, earned through right action or learned through struggle – can just as necessarily be gained and lost multiple times without being tarnished, like a jewel we might pawn in hardship, and later reclaim.

Throughout history, women’s legal status and protections have been tied to the question of whether or not they’re seen to be virtuous, whatever that means in context. The sworn virgins of Albania were granted equal status with men – indeed, were allowed to live and act as men – provided they never had sex, owing to a specific legal stricture which ascribed female virgins the same financial worth as men, while valuing women less. The big three monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all boast scriptures and/or religious laws that have, both historically and in the modern day, allotted specific legal privileges to women provided they remain virtuous; privileges which are invariably retracted should the woman in question be seen to have strayed, or become tarnished, or to have otherwise lost her virtue. We see this echoed in modern rape culture, which puts the onus for self-protection on women to such a degree that, far too often, if a woman is raped, her victimhood is viewed as a consequence of poor character – because if she really was innocent, then how did she let it happen? Why was she dressed that way, or out late, or drinking? Why, if she wasn’t already lacking in virtue, would she have been in the company of a rapist?

And so, our treatment of morally ambiguous female characters ends up paralleling some truly toxic assumptions about gender and morality. Women cannot act to redeem themselves independently, because under far too many laws, our need of redemption voids our right to try and reacquire it. Good women can redeem broken men, but good men can’t redeem broken women, because once we’re broken, we lose our virtue; and without our virtue, we’re no longer women, but monsters, witches and viragos.

Which is why, to come full circle, I fucking love the fact that Orphan Black’s Sarah Manning isn’t always sympathetic; isn’t always traditionally likeable.  She is, rather, an antiheroine in the most literal sense: and with all the Madonna/Whore bullshit we’re still caught up in imposing on women, that’s a class of character we desperately need to see more of.

(Note: I’ve only talked about men and women here, rather than third gender, genderfluid and other gender non-conforming persons, because it’s men and women we usually see depicted in stories, and whose narratives therefore form the bulk of our cultural stereotyping. The absence or elision of narratives concerning other genders, however, along with their own highly stereotyped portrayals when they do appear, is a problem in and of itself, and a contributing factor in the way men and women are stereotyped: because when we view gender purely as a fixed binary phenomenon, whether consciously or unconsciously, we make it harder to see beyond the rules that binary has traditionally imposed on our thinking, repeatedly foisting “masculine”/”feminine” values onto successive new characters without ever stopping to think that actually, we might challenge or subvert those norms instead, a blindness which only helps to further perpetuate the problem.)

*This post was sponsored and proofed by Grammarly, a free proofreading service. 

Warning: spoilers for The Killing (Danish version)

Over the past few weeks, my husband and I have been watching our way through all three seasons of The Killing – an amazing Danish crime show following Sarah Lund, a detective based in Copenhagen, as she investigates a series of politically connected crimes, each one of which forms the backbone of a particular season. The quality of the scripts, plots, acting and overall everything are astonishingly high, and I’d unhesitatingly rate the series as one of the single best crime shows I’ve ever seen. The final episode, however, has left me feeling deeply annoyed – not because it’s inconsistent with everything that’s come before, but for precisely the opposite reason.

Right from the outset, The Killing sets itself up as a gritty, no-nonsense thriller series: lots of political backstabbing with undertones of noir. The tropes in play are textbook – Lund is a single parent; she has a difficult relationship with her son, and is so obsessed with the job that, particularly in season one, her dedication sees the rest of her life systematically lost or broken; there’s an overriding theme of power corrupting even good men; and, crucially, all the primary victims are women: two raped and murdered teenage girls (Nana Birk Larsen from S1, Louise Hjelby from S3), a tortured and murdered lawyer (Anne Dragsholm from S2), and a kidnapped child (Emilie Zeuthen from S3) – and yet their execution is anything but. Lund is one of the more complex, compelling female detectives I’ve ever seen, played with incredible skill and subtlety by Sofie Grabol, and despite the traditional use of women in refrigerators to fuel the plot, just the fact that each death is dealt with, carefully and in detail, over the course of an entire season, is itself a humanising change from the endless parade of procedurals in which multiple such deaths are investigated and forgotten within the space of a single episode.

It’s also notable that, despite other thematic differences, key tropes recycle – and, indeed, feature prominently – across all three seasons: in particular, the good politician forced to accept the corruption of his peers for the sake of political expediency; the duplicitous political aide whose decision to withhold key information “for the good of the party” invariably leads to more deaths in the long run; the ruptured-but-repairing marriage of a couple trying to parent a young child or children while dealing with a crisis; and, of course, the steady disintegration of Lund’s personal life, which in S1 alone includes breaking up with her partner, an abortive move to Sweden, the loss of custody of her son, the death of a colleague, and, eventually, the loss of her job (albeit temporarily). Given the fact that S1 is 20 episodes long, whereas S2 and S3 are only ten each, the tropes it uses really do cast a long shadow over the rest of the series; which isn’t, I hasten to add, an entirely bad thing. As I’ve said, each season is incredibly well-constructed, and even though familiar themes and elements tie them all together, there’s still a real sense of tension and mystery to each whodunnit.

But where Lund’s personal life is concerned, it doesn’t take long to realise that her universe is a crapsack one. Important family occasions and crucial conversations with loved ones are invariably interrupted by urgent, work-related phone calls or summonses. If Lund makes a promise to meet with her mother, son or partner, you can bet she’ll either fail to make the date or be entirely preoccupied during it, with her early departure taken as a given. This self-destructive pattern of events is hardly unique to The Killing – the fact that I’ve long since thought of her as Wallanderesque is proof of that – but it does seem more unremitting than usual, not because Lund falls into a bleaker pit than other, similarly obsessive detectives (she doesn’t), but rather because the promise of recovery is never really dangled before her, either. Lund’s personal life is monotone: once her move to Sweden is called off midway through S1, we know that things have fallen apart forever. This pattern only continues in S2: not only does she grow increasingly estranged from her son and mother, but as her fledgeling love interests turns out to be the killer, it sort of hits home the point that Lund is not a character for whom things will ever work out.

And that’s entirely fine. What bothers me about the ending to S3, though – a plot-twisty scene in which Lund shoots the killer dead in cold blood, not because he attacked her, but because she lacked any evidence with which to convict him, a vigilante-style action that sees her fleeing the country to escape justice – is that it takes this phenomenon to an unnecessary and unrealistic extreme, both narratively and in terms of Lund’s character. Narratively, it’s a weaksauce decision: not only did Lund have a new lead and new suspicions about the killer having additional victims, but three other prominent characters had actual evidence to support her theory. Had Lund stayed to stand trial rather than fleeing – or had she refrained from shooting the killer at all – their collaboration would have been natural; instead, with Lund fled, none of the other parties have any reason ever to meet again, which ensures that the matter stays buried, and while that might fit with the overall theme of politics winning out over propriety, it feels like a cop-out designed to ensure a bleak outcome in the face of common sense. Similarly, I couldn’t help feeling that such a dramatic action was out of character for Lund: not only did the shooting come at a time when she had more to lose than ever – having just reconnected with her son, become a grandmother, accepted a cushy new job and rekindled an old romance – but as far as the rest of the series goes, we’ve never seen her run away from anything, and especially not the consequences of her actions. Even though her shooting of the killer felt forced to me, I didn’t think it implausible; but her fleeing from justice felt wholly out of character. Lund has always broken the rules in pursuit of justice; yet every time, we’ve seen her stay and face the music. That the final season ended with her escape was deeply irritating – a decision I felt was made, not because it was in the best interests of the plot, but to ensure that the whole series finished on a suitably bleak and gritty note.

Which is why, to finally come to the point, I had something of an epiphany tonight: that stories whose emotional outcome can be broadly inferred by what genre you’re in are almost always, on some fundamental level, going to disappoint me, because even though their individual events might surprise me, their actual endings won’t. All the way through S3 of The Killing, I kept on thinking, there’s no way this will end well. The absolute best that can happen is that they’ll save the girl - because even gritty noir shows tend to flinch from killing nine year old girls in the final act! but otherwise, Lund is screwed, because she’s ALWAYS screwed. And of course, that’s exactly what happened. Which isn’t to say I disliked The Killing – as I said earlier, it’s easily one of my favourite crime series. But while there were doubtless viewers for whom the ending came as an emotional suckerpunch, for me, it just felt like a bland continuation of the overall theme of bleakness; because once you firmly establish that there’s no room for Lund to end a season happily, then no matter how spectacular you make the cause of her unhappiness, past a certain point, I’m just going to struggle to find it in me to care.

And this made me realise, in turn, that I have just the same problem with romance narratives – or rather, with stories that are explicitly marketed as romance. By which I mean: if I know from the outset that Story X is a romance, then you’re simultaneously telling me the emotional catharsis of the ending – that the protagonists end up together, happily ever after. And sometimes, that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a story. But if I want to be surprised, there has to be some emotional uncertainty. By definition, genre is always going to codify at least a few things about any given narrative. If I read a whodunnit, I can be pretty sure that a crime will be committed, and that at some point during the course of events, I’ll find out who the guilty party is. What isn’t certain is whether the criminal will be brought to justice, how the detective and/or protagonist will cope with it, and who’ll be hurt in the process. In other words, while I might know beforehand some of what happens, I won’t know how I’ll feel about it ’till afterwards, and that uncertainty is what motivates me to get to the end.

Which is also why I tend to have a preference for romance narratives that appear in stories which aren’t earmarked as romance: because even though I natively want my favoured characters to end up together, the minute you tell me that the pairing is predestined, it takes away some of the clout of the finale, because it simultaneously removes the possibility of an emotional surprise. And sometimes that’s comforting; sometimes, as I’ve said, it’s what I’m after – just as at other times, I’m in the mood to feel cynical about life, the universe and everything. But the stories that really get under my skin are the ones that make me doubt; the ones whose climactic moments have me physically hunching forwards, desperate to learn what happens next – and a truly great story can make me forget what genre it belongs to. The first time I saw How to Train Your Dragon at the cinema, the climactic battle was so well done that, when Hiccup and Toothless fell through the sky, I actually forgot I was watching a children’s film, with all the narrative safeties that traditionally implies: I watched them fall, and my heart seized up, because just for an instant, I thought that one or both of them was going to die. The story was so well-crafted, I stopped watching through the lens of genre awareness and became completely immersed in the narrative, as awestruck and uncertain as if I were six years old, and for someone who spends as much of their life doing meta-analysis as I do, that’s no small thing.

So if this post has a point, it’s this: that, regardless of the genre in which you’re writing, emotional uncertainty is important. Audiences can tell the difference between fake conflict – aka, There’s Only An Obstacle Here To Make The Plot Work, Otherwise They’d Just Kiss On Page Ten And Get It Over With – and conflict that genuinely unsettles the characters; similarly, they can also tell the difference between forced bleakness – aka, We Decided This Story Was Going To Be Serious And Depressing, Therefore Nobody Is Allowed To Have A Happy Ending – and a story where tragedy feels organic to the narrative. It’s a subtle distinction at times, and as in all things fictional, YMMV, but far too often, I feel as though creators and audiences both fall into the trap of relying on the audience’s knowledge of genre to smooth over bumps in the plot and characterisation. After all, the human brain excels at filling in gaps: a lot of the time, we see what we expect to see, and if what we expect (for instance) is gritty compromise, then why stop and question the logic of Sarah Lund shooting an unarmed suspect when she had a new lead, a whole new life to live for, and several powerful, dedicated allies she could turn to for help? Easier just to shrug and say, well, that’s how this sort of story goes. And as I’ve said, that doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. But for me, it won’t ever really be a surprising thing – and sometimes, that’s a type of disappointment all its own.

*A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Grammarly, who offered to sponsor a writing-related post in return for an Amazon voucher valued at USD$50. I agreed to do so on two conditions: one, that I disclose that I was being paid, and two, that I actually liked the product. Which, from my limited usage, I do:  some of the things it checks for, like use of the passive voice and particular grammatical constructions, are probably more applicable to formal or academic writing than informal blogging, but as a tool, I found it easy to use, and it’s certainly more thorough, and with a nicer user interface, than the spellcheck in Open Office.   

I started watching the Hawaii Five-0 remake on LoveFilm Instant in a fit of cynical boredom. I expected it to be hilariously terrible; I expected to get ten, maybe fifteen minutes into the first episode and then give up due to an eyeroll-induced migraine. I expected cheesy dialogue, mediocre to terrible acting from everyone who wasn’t either Daniel Dae Kim or Grace Park, cardboard characterisation and nonexistant plotting, because I mean, seriously: Hawaii Five-0 remake.  Given all my trepidations, it’s a wonder I bothered watching at all. But I also wanted to see some blue skies and tropical, non-Scottish scenery, and so I thought, why not? And yes, the first episode did managed to find not just one, but two different excuses for Grace Park to be scantily clad (first in a bikini, and then by having her strip to her underwear); and yes, the stereotype of the big fat, friendly Hawaiian guy who sells shaved ice and has one toe dipped in the criminal underworld was textbook enough to cause even someone who’s never been to Hawaii to look sideways at it; and yes, the entire premise of all these ludicrously elaborate big-time crimes being committed on a tiny island is blindingly unrealistic; but somehow, I found myself watching a second episode. And a third. And a fourth.

And now, as I’m nearing the end of season one, I’ve realised I kind of love it.

At the most basic level, the characterisation and writing work. The banter between Steve McGarrett and Danny Williams is sharp, lively and highly enjoyable, providing a solid narrative anchor for the total overthetopness of their crime-solving techniques. Their personalities clash in the usual odd-couple way, but due particularly to Scott Caan’s energetic Danny, the partnership never feels stale. The plots are, as predicted, ridiculous, but despite the fact that the comparative smallness of Hawaii makes them feel noticeably more ridiculous than they would if the show were set elsewhere, they’re otherwise no more ridiculous than the usual procedural fair, but with the added bonus that, as the show is shot on location, you get plenty of gorgeously sweeping vistas of oceans and jungles and mountains and rainbows and actual goddamn sunlight thrown in, which tends to make up for it. Daniel Dae Kim’s Chin Ho Kelly and Grace Park’s Kono Kalakaua are both meaty, well-rounded characters who, in a refreshing twist, are allowed to have a racial heritage that matters to them as people without defining them totally or nudging them into caricature territory; and even though all three Five-0 men are afflicted with Suitably Dramatic Manpain Backstories – McGarrett’s dead parents and villain-oriented vendetta; Danny’s complex relationship with his ex-wife and shared custody of his daughter; Chin’s false accusations of corruption and the subsequent implosion of his life – the main team nonetheless manages to interact in a way that feels supportive, human and everyday in all the right ways.

All of which makes the show engaging and fun, yes. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Because: OK. If you’re like me, and you watch a lot of procedurals, then chances are, you’ve noticed how many of them reflexively try up the stakes and increase emotional investment, not just throughout the series as a whole, but particularly in the first and early episodes, by killing or damselling attractive, young, and overwhelmingly white women. To give some examples, the first episodes of Bones, Castle, House, True Blood, Angel, The Mentalist, Elementary, Sherlock, Supernatural, The Killing and Twin Peaks all involve dead women; and indeed, several of them base their entire premise, or the premise of whole seasons, around female-oriented murders. And that’s not an anomalous sample group, either: if you were to go and check the first episode of every procedural, crime or thriller/suspense oriented show of recent years, then I’d be prepared to lay good money that the vast majority of first deaths, or first imperilments, will be of conventionally attractive young white women. 

It takes Hawaii Five-0 until episode five before they either investigate a woman’s murder or rescue a damsel in distress, while the next focussed damselling of a female character doesn’t happen until episode eleven. And that might seem like an inconsequential thing, but seriously: do you know how rare that is, to be able to watch a procedural show where women aren’t being kidnapped or raped or murdered every three episodes? It doesn’t happen. But not only does Five-0 avoid the trope, it actively subverts it, producing multiple episodes where female characters thought to be victims really aren’t, or where women in vulnerable positions end up showing astonishing strength. And then there’s Kono, who, yes, is the only woman on the team, and a young, attractive one at that. But notwithstanding the events of episode one, she’s never sexualised by her colleagues – by which I mean, she’s not presented as a love interest for any of the men she works with, and again, that shouldn’t be so hard to come by in a TV show, but it is. This is a procedural without sexual chemistry; a show where a young, intelligent, kickass WOC has three older male mentors who actually fucking treat her respectfully, who don’t make comments about how hot she is, whose sex life isn’t the subject of skeevy jokes or subplots, and who gets to be her own person rather than a romantic prop for someone else. There’s even a moment in one of the early episodes where Kono remarks that of course, she’s going to be the one who has to go look after a child-witness, because she’s the woman; and she gets told that no, it’s because you’re the rookie, and that’s what rookies do – and you know what? She actually gets to be a rookie without that being an excuse for lady-incompetence or a cute way to make the sole female character less powerful: because not only do we see her demonstrate extraordinary skill, but we also see her being taught and praised by her mentors, asking for advice and receiving it, making mistakes and learning from them. Kono isn’t a sex object, she’s not a blank space and she’s not an office romance waiting to happen, and off the top of my head, I honestly can’t think of another crime show with a female character like her.

But the most important thing about Five-0 is the diversity. On the downside: so far, there haven’t been many native Hawaiians in the show, which is disappointing. But otherwise – and I cannot stress this enough – even though the main cast is two white guys and two POC, on an episode by episode basis? POC are the majority, and they appear in every possible capacity. And this is so, so significant in terms of modern procedurals, because as with the first-episode dead woman, there’s another toxic pattern common to the oeuvre, namely; that nine times out of ten, the only POC victims we see are either criminals, poor (where poor is coded to imply unworthiness) or possessed of criminal pasts, and even if we’re meant to sympathise with them, that sympathy is always filtered through the bigoted lens of accepting them despite their shady histories and/or poverty. This logic is so pernicious, it frequently extends to main characters, which is why Tara and Lafayette of True Blood, Eric Foreman of House, Kimball Cho of The Mentalist, Alfredo of Elementary, and Javier Esposito of Castle are all revealed to have criminal backgrounds and/or to have struggled out of poverty. POC characters whose personal histories are defined by neither class warfare nor illegal dealings, by contrast, are very seldom presented as victims. When POC are murdered, these stories overwhelmingly whisper to us, it’s not because they’re good people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – it’s because they lived in bad neighbourhoods, because they were poor or had criminal friends or were criminals either recently or at some point in the past; because they were gang members or illegal aliens or some other kind of Other. And as a result, these stories teach us – however subtly, unintentionally or against our better judgement – to feel less sorrow when POC are killed, and especially MOC, who are far more often portrayed as violent bogeymen than sympathetic victims. 

But Five-0 flips all that. We sympathise with illegal immigrants whose only crime is being undocumented; we sympathise with POC victims, and the families of victims, who are monied, middle-class and working class rather than exclusively poor; and, over and over again, we’re invited to identify with MOC, who are portrayed as loving, caring, peaceful, hardworking citizens – and family men, too – with enough regularity that, when we do invariably encounter POC gang members or criminals, their criminality isn’t implied to correlate with their race. Five-0 humanises POC victims in a way that no other procedural I’ve ever encountered does, and not just as a one-off, but as an actual thematic element to the show.

So, yeah. It’s still not perfect – there are other stereotypes in play, there’s zero queer representation, and I’d love it if Kono had a female mentor-character, or even just another woman, to talk to – but especially given how sceptical I was at the outset, Hawaii Five-0 has more or less floored me by casually subverting some of the most pernicious and ubiquitous tropes of the genre while still being joyfully full of explosions and car chases and scenes where Grace Park kicks ass, and it also – oh, joy of joys! – has multiple female and POC writers on staff, which, you know. Makes a damn difference.  (And also, Daniel Dae Kim’s cheekbones? YES.) So if you were on the fence or thinking of giving it a miss, maybe give it a look-see: the first episode isn’t the best, but beyond that, it’s definitely a show worth watching.   

 

Recently, I’ve started watching my way through The X Files, a show that was big enough to amorphously dominate my pop cultural recollections of tween- and teenhood, but which, with the exception of two lone episodes circa the sixth or seventh season, I’ve never actually watched before. For a show that first aired in 1993 – which is to say, a show whose first season is now twenty years old – the overall feel is surprisingly undated, partly because of the massive stylistic influence it had on later programming, but also because, right from the get-go, Scully and Mulder have access to both mobile phones and the internet. This might seem like a minor detail at first, especially given the hilariously dated brick-style phones and grey box laptops everyone is using, but it’s incredibly significant in terms of plot: as others have pointed out, many classic Seinfeld gags would be voided now by the presence of mobile phones, while their virtual absence from Buffy meant the main cast spent seven seasons getting in trouble in ways they couldn’t now. But because The X Files was about characters with access to what was then exclusive, expensive technology, there’s a structural modernity to even the earliest episodes that sets it apart from other 90s shows.

By the same token, however, it’s impossible to forget that these early seasons effectively codified the relevance of multiple tropes whose usage is now ubiquitous in both its SFnal and crime procedural heirs – most prominently, the protracted UST between Scully and Mulder, arguably the ur-example of a narrative device so commonplace now as to be practically requisite for crime-fighting partnerships. Having only just reached the end of season two, I can’t yet comment on how the portrayal changes throughout the series, but initially at least, it’s striking to note how the cinematography treats their relationship in comparison to the default practice of more modern shows. In programs like Bones, Castle and Fringe, for instance, moments of intense physical and emotional connection between the male and female leads are almost invariably shown in closeup, replete with soulful reaction shots to underline their significance and further highlighted by the addition of meaningful glances and strong musical cues. By contrast, and despite the undeniable intensity of their relationship as shown through their actions, interactions and dialogue, Scully and Mulder’s closest moments are overwhelmingly shot in wideview, so that the audience watches from a distance: there’s no lingering focus on where and when their hands touch, no sudden cutaway so we can see the one gazing hungrily at the other, and no special score to help us infer attraction, which means that the audience isn’t constantly being hit over the head with Proof That They Secretly Love Each Other. Instead, we can get on with seeing them as individuals whose relationship isn’t their most defining quality, and while they’re still rescuing each other from dire peril every other week (more of which shortly), the end result comes across as refreshingly objective.

It’s also noteworthy how unsexualised Scully is in terms of her clothes and appearance. So far, with the exception of a single scene in the pilot episode where she appears in her underwear,we’ve never seen her in anything more form-fitting than a full length, long-sleeved dress – and even in the pilot, it’s notable that instead of sexy lingerie, she’s wearing sensible, comfy-looking white underwear with an elastic waist. Most of the time, she cuts around wearing a massive, shapeless overcoat; even her hair is a practical length to be worn loose, and when tied back, it actually gets to look messy. Accordingly, the camerawork isn’t overly concerned with her body: we see detail on her face and hands often enough, because her expressions and actions matter, but in two  seasons, I’ve never noticed a ‘male gaze’ moment where the camera sweeps her from top to toe, or else follows the line of a male character’s vision to indicate that he likes what he sees. In fact, I can only think of a single male character who has overtly passed comment on her physical attractiveness, and that was done playfully, in a way that was neither demeaning nor predatory. Which isn’t to say that there’s something wrong with female characters being presented in ways that acknowledge their sexuality – Kate Beckett of Castle, for instance, is very purposefully a woman who enjoys and owns her body, and that’s done extremely well. It’s just that overt sexiness and all the secondary trappings thereof have long since become a default setting for TV heroines, as has male gaze camerawork: any visible underwear is always sexy lingerie and usually shown gratuitously; long hair is always impractically long and often worn loose to  emphasise feminine beauty even in situations where any practical woman would tie it back; work clothes are form-fitting, cleavage-revealing and invariably paired with high heels, even for women who spend all day walking and running; and cosmetic disarray only ever enters the picture as a sign of emotional distress. It’s so low level and constant that half the time I just tune it out, but even so, it’s rare I can get through an action movie these days without gritting my teeth over female soldiers and scientists with perfect flowing princess hair, and oh my god, can we please have a fucking heroine with a ponytail or – let’s go crazy – hair that comes to above her shoulders? But Scully, though well-groomed, smartly dressed and physically attractive, if unconventionally so by today’s exorbitant standards, is still allowed to be practical; to look comfortable, rather than like she’s constantly on display, such that you can go whole episodes without being forced to acknowledge her body at all.

And then there’s Mulder: the handsome young hotshot who’s difficult to work with, but whose crazy theories and mad, brilliant deductions inevitably turn out to be right. That’s a character we see a lot of, now – The Mentalist’s Patrick Jayne, Greg House of House - and while the archetype by no means began with Mulder, Sherlock Holmes being a far more established and obvious antecedent, he’s nonetheless an obvious forerunner to many of the leads we currently see on TV. However, I find it interesting to note that, whereas more recent iterations of this character-type tend to be abusive, inconsiderate, rude, arrogant or some admixture thereof – traits which serve to justify why others find them difficult to work with – Mulder’s outsider status stems not from any overtly obnoxious flaws, but simply because his convictions are so radical. Combined with his consideration of and empathy for others, this makes him much more reminiscent of Holmes than many other characters with an ostensibly closer connection to Doyle’s creation, at least in terms of personality. Despite the propensity of modern adaptations to render Holmes as an uncaring, selfish egotist whose bad manners are justified only by his genius, the original Sherlock, while certainly confident of his abilities and prone to a bluntness born of equal parts distraction and haste, was never deliberately cruel, nor did he disdain the feelings of others; and on occasions when he did cause hurt or offense, his habit was to apologise. In much the same way that Scully’s treatment contrasts with the current default sexualisation of  female leads, therefore, Mulder’s kindness and willingness to listen contrast with the overt displays of arrogance and insensitivity which are increasingly normalised as acceptable and even justifiable when delivered by a particular kind of (straight, white, male, maverick) hero.

In combination, the effect is to make a twenty-year old show feel markedly more progressive than many which postdate it, at least as far as the main characters are concerned. When it comes to issues of race, however, the picture is much more grim. Specifically: the show has made a habit of introducing POC characters whose ethnicity and/or religious beliefs are a source of dangerous supernatural powers, or else of intimating that the religious and cultural beliefs of various POC groups are inherently magic or suspect. Thus far, we’ve had a Native American werewolf, an African American whose zealous Christianity has lead him to track down and kill his former associates, a white soldier using Haitan voodoo to perpetrate atrocities, and a community of cannibalistic white people whose Eebil Cannibalism stems solely from the fact that one of them spent time with a tribe of Indians back in the day and picked up their Eebil Ways. By contrast, white religious beliefs are given positive associations: an alien species living in disguise as a white Christian community, for instance, is portrayed as using Christian beliefs – or at least, the semblance of them – to curb their more dangerous impulses, while white Romanian priests use ritual magic to drive out evil spirits. I’d like to believe that later episodes will improve on this point, but given the extent to which modern shows are still rampantly perpetuating these same stereotypes, I’m not holding out much hope.

What’s really struck me about The X Files, however, is how rich a narrative resource it is for conversations about damselling and gender. Almost every episode, either one or both of the protagonists is put in life-threatening danger, which means that, more often than not, they end up requiring rescue. In terms of who ends up rescuing who, the scores are pretty much equal: both Scully and Mulder regularly go to extraordinary lengths to save each other, whether it’s from exposure to a deadly virus or death at the hands of a killer. There’s no notable imbalance in the hurt/comfort ratio, and nor are such incidents used as gratuitous fodder for emotional confrontations built on romanticised damage, which is very much a positive. In episodes where both characters are imperiled at once, the threat usually comes from a neutral source, faceless government agents and unknown toxic/biological agents being favourite. But when only one is endangered, the type of peril faced is markedly gendered. While Mulder frequently ends up in trouble from what I’ll call an excess of initiative – being first through the door, going off alone, taking risks, pursuing dangerous people – Scully tends to be targeted by male villains for kidnap, experimentation and abuse. Thus, while Mulder tends to save Scully from the predations of specific villains, Scully tends to save Mulder from the consequences of his own actions – meaning, in essence, that whereas male characters are targeted a result of their boldness, female characters are targeted because they’re female, or because they’re perceived to be weak. It does help that Scully is seldom a passive victim, fighting back even while terrified and frequently helping to rescue herself before Mulder arrives on the scene, but even so, the difference is striking.

Overall, then, despite certain qualms, I’m enjoying The X Files, both as a series and as a narrative exercise. Given that the entire collection is nine seasons long, I can’t guarantee that I’ll make it the whole way through, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I plan to give it a try.

Picture the scene: our competent, clever, kickass heroine has just undergone a significant emotional change. Maybe she knows who the killer is, or has suddenly learned that a friend is in danger. Perhaps she’s uncovered a crucial piece of evidence or identified a traitor. Or maybe it’s something more personal: the death of a loved one, a startling revelation, the prospect of an unpleasant choice, an unexpected setback, a heated argument with a sexy-yet-frustrating antagonist. Whatever the catalyst, our heroine is energised, angry, likely upset and probably needing to blow off steam. So what does she do?

She goes alone into a dangerous situation, bites off more than she can chew, and promptly finds herself so overwhelmed that the next thing you know, she’s captured, bleeding, unconscious, imperiled and generally up shit creek. While a male character in similarly dire straits will likely James Bond his way out of things via a sequence of improbable badassery – bullet-dodging, some deus ex machina assistance, a judicious application of poorly-constructed handcuffs and the inevitable revelation that being cornered was part of his plan all along – our heroine will, instead, be rescued by her handsome, protective male love interest, with whom she will then have some soulful eye contact and cuddling at the very least. And instead of feeling irked by this, the audience is meant to feel vindicated.

Why?

Because Prince Saves Damsel is one of the oldest tropes in the book, and not even the advent of Strong Female Characters (TM) has caused it to lose its power. Instead, we’ve simply warped it a little: the Damsel is now a Kickass Damsel, endowed with just enough agency, power and awesomeness to fool the casual observer into thinking that she, too, could potentially have her own James Bond moment. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, she won’t: the odds are stacked against her, not so she can show her strength by overcoming them solo, but as justification for her forthcoming rescue. Crucially, her decision to go alone into danger is always praised as bravery or self-sacrifice – a species of gendered martyrdom – or else couched in a language designed to give the impression that, however foolish her actions might seem in retrospect, they were wholly justified at the time: by anger, by urgency, by the unavailability or physical distance of allies. Ultimately, though, these excuses are all just component parts of a narrative sleight-of-hand trick constructed for a single purpose: to make us forget, or to disbelieve, that the heroine was ever really a Damsel.

Let me break down the narrative logic:

In order to have a charged, emotional moment with her love interest, the heroine – who, for a whole different set of sexist reasons, invariably struggles with intimacy – needs to be rendered vulnerable in his presence. Simply catching her at a moment of personal weakness won’t do the trick: her issues are so deep-seated that unless she was actively dealing with some new trauma, she’d clam right up again – but generally speaking, that’s the sort of major collision you save for later in the relationship, ideally as the catalyst for spending the night together (as per the classic hurt + comfort = sex/spooning equation). Right now, you’re just trying to show that the sexy antagonist cares for her – but because you want to draw out their relationship, you can’t have them kiss or screw right away; instead, they need to connect emotionally, but in a situation that realistically limits their ability to get it on. Solution: send the heroine into danger, watch her get wounded, and have the love interest show up to rescue her, not because she called him in as backup, but because he secretly cares so much for her wellbeing that he was heading to help out anyway. And voila! Not only is her vulnerability and physical weakness excused, but so is his protectiveness and greater competence – the classic Prince Rescues Damsel scenario reconstructed, but in such a way as to couch the Damsel’s endangerment as strength and the Prince’s heroism as sensitivity.

In other words, the Kickass Damsel requires rescue, not because she’s inherently weak, but because her strength and independence are only sufficient for getting her nobly into trouble, not awesomely out of it. At the same time, her love interest’s traditionally masculine protectiveness is justified both by her imperilment and his secret affections: he becomes the Badass Prince, whose aloof, macho and frequently antagonistic/sarcastic persona is ultimately constructed around a chivalrous, knightly core. Over and over again, we limit the competence of our female characters by placing them in perilous scenarios, not to test their skills, but to show how thoroughly they still need to be rescued; to make them vulnerable enough to fall in love, because if we wrote them as being emotionally well-adjusted and romantically inclined from the outset, they’d be deemed too feminine (whereas if we wrote them aromantically, they wouldn’t be seen as feminine enough). And the thing is, none of these tropes are inherently toxic; it’s just that, overwhelmingly, we don’t seem to realise that the Kickass Damsel is a loophole character, designed to blind us to her patriarchal base by disguising her as a feminist icon, and so we end up lauding her as though she were something else.

And I just… I would like to see more recognition of this fact, and more effort taken to write action heroes and heroines who don’t fit this mold so completely. Like triple-choc mudcake, some tropes are fine as a treat, but sickening if over-indulged – and in either case, you should never mistake them for broccoli.

Here’s a contentious statement: A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write. Stories reflect our culture even as they shape it, and as culture is an intrinsically political concept — in the sense of not only shaping and reflecting the politics of the people within it, but actively seeking to comment on how and why this happens — so too is storytelling. At base, fiction is an attempt to answer two different questions with a single answer: nobody can ask what if without first establishing what is. Assumption is as much a part of narrative as invention, and often betrays as much, if not more of the writer than anything they consciously create. Like it or not, our politics — by which I mean, our moral, social and spiritual beliefs about the world as refined through the lens of our individual biases, ignorance, privileges and experience — drive our assumptions; and in fiction, our conscious and unconscious beliefs about what is become the parts of the story we assume the reader already knows — the characters, tropes and logic we assume to be universal, or at least unimportant, and which therefore require neither examination by the audience nor explanation by us. They’re our personal default settings, where personal is the operative word: not everyone will share them, and we forget that at our peril.

For instance: as a teenager, I wrote a number of escapist stories that all began with a bored, frustrated girl of about my age being suddenly rescued from maths class by magic, aliens or something similarly fantastic. I’ll give you three guesses as to my least favourite subject — but while I was fully aware of replicating my own bias, I never saw the harm in doing so. And why would I have? It was my bias. The fact that it was fairly benign doesn’t change its status as an assumption, viz: an aspect of the story that I didn’t intend the prospective reader to question, and whose universality I therefore took for granted — not because I thought that everyone secretly hated maths, but because I wasn’t interested in the feelings and opinions of people who liked it. While the primary point of narrative is certainly to make the reader think, imagine and question beyond the norm, that can only happen if both reader and writer agree on what normal actually is; and if the reader’s own opinions and experiences aren’t encompassed by the writer’s take on what’s normative — if, in fact, they are absent altogether, or else marginalised, twisted and scoffed at — and the reader notices the dissonance, then the likelihood is that they’ll become hostile to the author, or at least to their assumptions, and conclude that the speculative, what if elements are fundamentally flawed by virtue of having been extrapolated from an inaccurate view of reality.

Here’s another, considerably less benign assumption my teenage self made: that white people live in cities and towns, while brown people live in tribal groups in the forest, desert or plains. Not that I’d have phrased it that way if you asked me outright — obviously, I knew people of all nationalities could live in all types of places! But subconsciously, from the culture in which I lived and the tropes I’d absorbed from exposure to other narratives, I’d nonetheless internalised the idea that the type of civilisation I found familiar must always be the work of white people. One brief flash of self-awareness at the age of 14 made me wonder if, just maybe, there was something offensive in my having a lone black character speak in broken English; the thought made me profoundly uncomfortable, and hopefully to my credit, I abandoned that version of the story not longer after. The one that ultimately replaced it, however, while certainly better in some respects — brown people building cities! egads! — was just as racially inept as its predecessors. This time, I wrote about a continent where the indigenous race was dark-skinned, long-lived, innately magical and not-quite-human, and where the human population was descended either from escaped slaves (black) or colonist farmers (white) — and despite having ostensibly created a setting where white-skinned humans were the minority and had arrived last of all, I still managed to have a light-skinned royal family and predominantly white protagonists.

The fact that I had good intentions doesn’t make those early stories any less problematic, and while it’s true that I wasn’t trying to write politically about race, that doesn’t change the fact that I’d internalised enough negative stereotypes that not only had I failed to recognise them as negative, I didn’t even understand they were stereotypes. I had simply assumed that the tropes I’d employed were acceptable, neutral defaults, as inoffensive and apolitical as the classic fantasy usage of elves and dwarves. But our choices always speak to our opinions, whether we mean them to or not. Familiarity is synonymous with neither inoffensiveness nor neutrality, and while the infinite variety of human taste and experience makes it impossible to please everybody, let alone equally, there’s a wealth of difference between causing offence by actively challenging the assumptions of others, and causing offence by failing to challenge your own.

And the thing is, even if you’re aiming for the former option, you won’t always succeed: partly because, as stated, it’s impossible to please everyone, but mostly because we all still need some basic assumptions to work from. A single piece of fiction cannot question the entirety of itself, because then you’d be questioning questions — an infinite recursion without answer or end. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to ever challenge assumptions, either; the point is to accept that, all too often, it’s the things we take for granted — the things we neither explain nor question — that say the most about us as writers, political beings, and as people. The argument that stories shouldn’t be judged for anything their authors think is irrelevant therefore strikes me as having fundamentally missed the point of criticism: Creators shouldn’t have a monopoly on interpreting what they’ve made, while the assumptions which underpin a work are just as important as the inventions which make it unique.

To take one example, I’ve written before, in detail, about my issues with default narrative sexism in SFF: instances where fictional worlds and cultures are anchored in sexist social logic for no better reason than that the authors have assumed its existence either to be so fundamental to sentience, or its use as a trope so unremarkable in narrative, that they never considered excluding it. Or, alternatively, their efforts to write an equal society might come burdened with a whole new set of sexist assumptions, the most common one being to masculinise women without feminising men — there’ll be plenty of empowered female soldiers, leaders and spies, but not so many male nurses, teachers and domestics. (A big part of real-world sexism is still to exalt traditionally male pursuits as being objectively desirable for everyone while discrediting female ones as being objectively undesirable for everyone, but particularly for men.)

And then there’s the current, depressing trend in YA discrimiflip novels: stories which all too often base their supposedly egalitarian messages on simplistic, binary notions of discrimination and privilege by taking a mainstream, powerful group (men, the cisgendered, straights, white people, the able-bodied) and turning them into the victims of those their privilege currently discriminates against (women, QUILTBAG people, POC, the differently abled). Ostensibly, this is meant to engender sympathy for the other side among members of privileged groups, but when poorly handled — as, with few notable exceptions, it overwhelmingly seems to be — the egalitarian intention is buried by the surrounding weight of negative assumptions, foremost of which is the idea that there’s anything simple or binary about discrimination to begin with. The most notable recent example of such a discrimiflip novel is arguably Victoria Foyt’s Revealing Eden, where white people are Pearls and black people are Coals, but there are others, too: Laura Preble’s forthcoming Out, where Perpendiculars (straights) are considered abnormal in a world run by Parallels (gays), and Claire Merle’s The Glimpse, which, while not a straight social flip, nonetheless pits Crazies (those with mental illnesses) against Pures (who don’t).

Which brings me, at long last, to the overwhelming number of YA-related arguments in the recent past over issues such as romance, racism, feminism, conduct and reviewing, and what strikes me as being the primary unifying factor in every instance: the presence of a dispute about interpretation versus intention — which is to say, a criticism of the author’s assumptions on the one hand, which cannot help but also be a partial critique of the author themselves, and the assertion that such criticism is unreasonable, irrelevant or unfair. Over and over again, in arguments about the portrayal of romance in YA novels (for instance), certain authors have been accused of presenting as healthy and desirable relationships which critics claim are literally abusive, toxic and dangerous, and regardless of where you might stand when it comes to individual novels, the fact remains that this debate has been stymied in large part by an overwhelming uncertainty as to whether such criticism is valid, and if so, to what extent.

The recent emergence of YA as a mainstream, successful genre and the overwhelming popularity of series like Twilight among both teenage and adult readers has fundamentally altered the concept of YA reviewing — which is to say, has ended its status as a separate kind of reviewing altogether. Prior to the advent of Harry Potter, it seems fair to say that YA novels were reviewed, not as books that anyone might like to read, but as books for children, the crucial difference being that, as children weren’t (and to a certain extent still aren’t) presumed to care about issues like politics, equality, feminism, bias and privilege, pretty much nobody was reviewing YA novels with those aspects in mind, let alone considering that their handling, presence or absence might be a relevant factor in judging the success of a given book. After all, we’ve traditionally maintained different critical standards for stories that are intended purely for entertainment value — action movies, for instance, are still graded wholly differently to serious drama — and prior to J. K. Rowling, what else was YA meant to be for but entertaining children? Certainly, there’s a long history of literary praise for youthfully-oriented issues-based novels, but that’s still a far cry from mainstream cultural analysis, and anything that smacked even slightly of magic or escapism was exempt from scrutiny (until or unless it was old and vaunted enough to be deemed a ‘classic’, of course, in which case scholars were right to treat it with reverence).

But now, in addition to the rise of digital reviewing – which, as I’ve said before, is particularly skewed towards genre novels – YA is being treated seriously. Not only did the success of Twilight prompt a flood of romantically similar titles, all of which have found themselves subject to the same scrutiny vis-a-vis the promotion of stalking and female passivity as the original, but it directly contributed to YA being critiqued for things like whitewashing, straightwashing, cultural appropriation, sexism, racism and homophobia, too — issues which had previously been the critical domain of mainstream literature, if and when they were discussed at all. Which, often enough, they weren’t, literary fiction being possessed of its own, separate-but-related battles with misogyny, classism, genre snobbishness and white male homogeneity. (Suggesting, perhaps, yet another reason why so much political literary criticism has fallen on YA of late: the old establishment still has its barriers up, so that those of us who wish to critique the negative assumptions of writers as manifested in fiction and deemed reflective of society have necessarily had to look elsewhere.) But still, the tension between those who view YA as pure escapism and those who hold it to a greater accountability remains, well, tense — because for every writer of YA who isn’t trying to be political, but whose assumptions about what is necessarily encode their opinions anyway, there’s a flock of readers ready and waiting to dissect their work as a manifestation of culture.

A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write; nor should they be, regardless of the intended age of the audience. Though pop cultural analysis has been sneered at in some quarters as an attempt to give trash entertainment a significance far above its station, it can’t be denied that the mainstream is a powerful reflection of our collective cultural subconscious: the assumptions and stereotypes we all quietly learn from childhood, but which many of us never learn to recognise openly, let alone question. Every time we construct a story without any thought as to the assumptions we’ve made that underpin it — assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, ableness, privilege, ignorance, bias, identity — we run the risk of replicating the very problems we might otherwise condemn; or at the very least, of being lazy thinkers. The fact that it’s impossible to please everybody shouldn’t make us afraid to challenge ourselves or others; rather, we should try harder to ensure that we’re not alienating people through ignorance. But most importantly of all, we need to accept that no story is told in a vacuum: that the politics, beliefs and assumptions of authors are at least as important to the structure and creation of their narratives as those elements which are purely fictional — and that sometimes, there can be real and significant overlap between the two.

About a week ago, I wrote a post on Penny Arcade vs. Rape Culture, which sent my blog traffic skyrocketing after it was linked on Reddit. However, both in comments on the post itself and elsewhere on Reddit, quite a few people seemed to be missing the point: or, more specifically, misunderstanding what rape culture actually is and how it applies to gaming. One commenter, in fact, responded thusly:

My mind is boggled that you feel righteous in condemning something people enjoy, especially when it’s not even real. Do you realize that’s what you’re doing? You’re standing up and telling all these people, people you don’t know, that what they’re enjoying is *wrong*. You don’t have numbers or statistics or any sort of fact behind you quantifying how what they do is wrong. None. Telling people that what they enjoy in the privacy of their own homes in a virtual reality contributes to a Rape Culture is crazy. What’s next? Telling people what sort of porn they can watch, what sort of books they can read?

Seriously, show some facts. Show a concrete link between this and that, between playing the computer game and a rise in rape statistics. I know, I know, it’s not “Rape” it’s “Rape Culture”, so you conveniently don’t have to show *any* facts. Which is the one saving grace in all this. In the real world, for laws to pass and things to change, you have to show concrete evidence of your position. I remember how they tried to do that with Computer Games and Violence, and how no one was able to draw *any* sort of factual link between one and the other that would stand in any court of law.

Which is what made me decide that, rather than linking to any number of excellent rape culture 101 posts online, there might be a need for an explanation of rape culture tailored specifically to gaming. Because, let’s face it: gaming culture has so often been singled out by lazy politicians as the root cause of society’s ills – which is to say, as being inextricably bound up with violence, obesity, immaturity and so on – that it’s small wonder most gamers, on hearing it simultaneously accused of rape culture, are likely to roll their eyes. After all, those other accusations are only so much hot air, and tend to stem from a deeply prejudicial view of games and geekery besides – so why on Earth should rape culture be any different?

From the outset, we need to acknowledge something critical: that gaming is primarily a digital culture, and that digital cultures – while analogous in many ways to other cultures – happen in venues that lack a physical presence. Yes, there are gaming expos, conventions and tournaments where gamers come together, while many friends who meet up regularly IRL will also game together online or at lans. But the difference between gaming culture and, say, workplace culture is that the latter occurs primarily – if not exclusively – in a specific physical location inhabited by all the individual participants in that culture. What this means is that a Venn diagram of the overlap between social interactions, physical proximity and guiding culture for any given workplace would practically be a circle, as all three elements would, with very few exceptions, happen in the same space. But the same diagram of gaming culture would look drastically different: physical proximity would barely have any overlap with guiding culture and social interactions, which would themselves be separate, because proximity is a meaningless concept in digital environments, guiding culture doesn’t come from a single body but from multiple competing sources, and social interactions are less a byproduct of something else – like being at work – than they are a primary point of gaming.

And what this means for rape culture, which is a term we most often hear applied to cultures that do center on a physical environment – such as, for instance, sports clubs and fraternities – is that right from the offset, people are confused about how it can apply to digital environments in comparable ways. Because for both sports clubs and fraternities, rape is a significant problem; it is an actual, physical consequence that happens in the actual, physical environments associated with their cultures. Hardly a week goes by without some sporting hero somewhere being accused of rape or sexual assault, while the dangers faced by women at fraternity parties are a mainstay of both popular culture and popular knowledge. So when we talk about rape culture being promoted by this football club or that frathouse, we – very naturally, and very sensibly – tend to link the accusation with instances of rape being perpetrated by their members. But when the term is applied to something like gaming, there instantly seems to be a disconnect between the accusation and the reality, because barring conventions, tournaments etc, gaming lacks the physical spaces in which rape can actually take place. Which isn’t to say that sexual assault and rape never happen at cons or expos or tournaments; they do. But obviously, there’s a difference, because the primary mode of social interaction in gaming is digital – and how can you rape someone over the internet?

Which brings us back to the actual, proper definition of rape culture. Quoting from Fraternities and Collegiate Rape Culture: Why Are Some Fraternities More Dangerous Places For Women? by A. Ayres Boswell and Joan Z. Spade (my emphasis):

“Rape culture is a set of values and beliefs that provide an environment conducive to rape… The term applies to a generic culture surrounding and promoting rape, not the specific setting in which rape is likely to occur.” 

In other words, rape culture refers neither to physical locations where rape is deemed likely to occur, does occur and/or has occurred, nor to the specific details of  particular rapes: rather, it refers to a culture – that is, a set of values, beliefs, rituals, social codes, language, laws and art – which can be said to promote sexual violence, and particularly sexual violence against women as perpetrated by straight men. Note that this argument neither automatically nor universally implies the existence of a direct causal link between specific cultural artifacts and incidences of rape (though this is certainly possible); nor does it contend that every participant in that culture is or must be a rapist. What it does describe is a culture where rape is trivialized, where both the abuse and sexual objectification of women is normalised, and where, as a result, the sexual abuse of women is more likely to happen. 

But – and I cannot state this emphatically enough – rape is not the sole expression of rape culture. The whole point of the term is that abuse of women doesn’t happen in a vacuum: other sexist, toxic social conditions have to be present first, and so long as these conditions remain unaltered, the abuse itself will continue. The fact that gaming exists largely outside physical spaces isn’t a get out of jail free card; it just means that in the case of digital expressions of rape culture, we have to get ourselves out of the mindset that rape is the only consequence that matters – or, worse still, that unless rape happens, the accusation of rape culture is somehow bunk. Culture is what informs our actions; it is not the actions themselves – which means that rape culture is perhaps best understood as the presence of an ongoing sexual threat. If someone wielding a gun threatens to shoot me unless I comply with their orders, I’m supremely unlikely to challenge them: they don’t have to shoot me in order to change my behaviour. In that sense, it doesn’t matter if they really planned to shoot me, or if the gun was even loaded. The point – the effect – is power and coercion, and only someone who was completely callous, stupid, oblivious or a combination of all three would argue that the threat of being shot – and the subsequent change to my behaviour – was meaningless unless I actually was shot. Similarly, if I’m threatened with rape and violence and silenced with gendered, sexualised slurs every time I disagree with male gamers on the internet, it doesn’t matter if they really plan to rape me, or if they’re even capable of doing so: as with the gun, the point – the effect – is power and coercion, and the logic which underlies their choice of threat. What they want is to shut me up by reminding me that rape happens, that it could and should happen to me because of what I’ve said. And when that is your go-to means of silencing women in a context where men are the majority, where the female form is routinely shown in attitudes of hypersexualisation, sexualised violence and submission, and where men are in majority control of that setting? That is rape culture. 

Which brings me to the attacks on Anita Sarkeesian.

Sarkeesian, for those who’ve never heard of her, runs a website called Feminist Frequency, where – among other things – she posts videos deconstructing and criticising the presence of sexist tropes in popular culture. Recently, she went on Kickstarter to garner funding for a new series of videos: Tropes vs Women in Video Games. It should tell you something significant about the popularity of this idea – and of Sarkeesian herself – that, having asked for a mere $6,000 in financing, she has, as of today – with four days left on the clock – been funded to the tune of $44,027 - more than seven times what she initially asked for. Here’s her kickstarter pitch:

I love playing video games but I’m regularly disappointed in the limited and limiting ways women are represented.  This video project will explore, analyze and deconstruct some of the most common tropes and stereotypes of female characters in games.  The series will highlight the larger recurring patterns and conventions used within the gaming industry rather than just focusing on the worst offenders.  I’m going to need your help to make it happen!

As a gamer, a pop culture critic and a fan, I’m always working to balance my enjoyment of media while simultaneously being critical of problematic gender representations. With my video web series Feminist Frequency,  I look at the way women are portrayed in mass media and the impact they have on our culture and society.

THE PROJECT

With your help, I’ll produce a 5-video series (now expanded to 12 videos) entitled Tropes vs Women in Video Games, exploring female character stereotypes throughout the history of the gaming industry.  This ambitious project will primarily focus on these reoccurring tropes:

  • Damsel in Distress - Video #1
  • The Fighting F#@k Toy - Video #2
  • The Sexy Sidekick - Video #3
  • The Sexy Villainess - Video #4
  • Background Decoration - Video #5

1st Set of Stretch Goals Achieved!

  • Voodoo Priestess/Tribal Sorceress - Video #6
  • Women as Reward - Video #7
  • Mrs. Male Character - Video #8
  • Unattractive Equals Evil - Video #9
  • Man with Boobs - Video #10
  • Positive Female Characters! - Video #11

2nd Stretch Goal Achieved!

  • Let’s Bump up the Production Quality!

3rd Set of Stretch Goals Achieved!

  • Tropes vs Women in Video Games Classroom Curriculum 
  • Video #12 – Top 10 Most Common Defenses of Sexism in Games

Each video will be between 10 and 20 minutes long and available online for free for everyone and anyone to watch, share and use.

Pretty benign language, yes? All she’s done is state what should be a fairly uncontroversial and obvious truth – that women are often presented badly in video games – and proposed to discuss this in detail.

And for this crime, she has been threatened with rape, with death and with violence, and had her Wikipedia page vandalised with images of graphic pornography.

This is what rape culture looks like in gaming: the use of misogyny to defend yourself against the accusation of misogyny. It’s like a woman telling an abusive partner that he’s abusive, and the partner being so angered by this that he punches her in the face. It’s doing exactly the thing you’re being accused of in response to that accusation while simultaneously trying to plead your innocence. And you know what makes this even worse? Sarkeesian hasn’t even started her videos yet. All she’s done is tried to get the funding for them – but even the prospect of a popular feminist deconstructing video game sexism has apparently been deemed so threatening, so emasculating and yet simultaneously so unnecessary by this particular misogynistic segment of the gaming population that, as one, they’ve risen up to threaten her with death, rape and physical violence.

And I can’t help but wonder: how many of Sarkeesian’s attackers use rape language when gaming? How many of them have inferred that because it’s apparently OK to talk about raping other players in-game, it’s OK to issue rape threats against women out of game? What are the odds that the men who vandalised her Wikipedia page with pornographic images – who decided that the quickest, easiest and most universally effective way to insult, demean and punish a female adversary was to hypersexualise her – are the same men arguing that the hypersexualisation of female characters in video games is normative, desirable, harmless? I’ll say it again: rape is not the sole expression of rape culture, and the fact that it exists foremost in gaming in nonphysical spaces – forums, online, in game, on the other end of the microphone, in game design itself – doesn’t make it any less toxic to women than the unsafe frat houses of Boswell and Spade’s study.

Critics within gaming seem to think that, unless we can prove definitively that rape culture acts like some sort of Hypno-Ray to turn otherwise normal men into rapists and sexual harassers, the whole idea of social settings that are inherently toxic to both female safety and healthy gender relations is bunk. But what else do you call it when gamers defend sexism in gaming by threatening a woman with rape? What else do you call it when a prominent figure in gaming says that “sexual harassment is part of the culture” and counts this as a defensible, necessary thing? What else do you call it when the combination of hypersexualisation and violence against women are so deeply embedded in gaming culture that a significant portion of developers and fans don’t see it as problematic? What else do you call it when the default form of insult used by and against male players is, as Penny Arcade’s Tycho once called it, ad mominemthat is, a way of insulting men by sexually impugning the women (mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends) with whom they’re most closely associated? There’s a reason, after all, why such jokes are used primarily against men, and why their subjects are never fathers, brothers, husbands, boyfriends – what misogynistic male gamer would bother leveling sexually loaded insults at a female player’s mother when he could just level them at her? Show me a female gamer who’s played online or at tournaments, or even one who has simply participated actively in male-dominated gaming forums, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I will show you a female gamer who has at some point been called a bitch, a cunt,a slut or a whore by male players, or who has been crudely sexually propositioned by male players, or who has otherwise been sexually threatened or intimidated by male players, because this is how rape culture is primarily expressed in digital contexts: through the abusive language, gendered slurs, sexual threats, silencing and exclusion that are levelled at women generally, but which are specifically and intensely used to punish women like Sarkeesian, who dare to point out that this is what’s actually happening.

The core argument of rape culture isn’t that exposure to yet another instance of highly sexualised violence against women will turn every man who sees it into a rapist, and that therefore we should censor everything that even vaguely references women and violence together; the point is that in a healthy culture, there would be no need to censor such images, because participants in that culture would have enough respect for women to neither create nor demand them as mainstream in the first place. Because ultimately, the big objection to the charge of rape culture in gaming seems to boil down to fears about censorship: that by criticising creative output and language as being problematic, sexist and offensive, people like me are arguing for less art all together, when what we’re actually arguing for is more good art. Sexualised violence and the sexual objectification of women should be to gaming like The Human Centipede, a film which is horrific in absolutely every sense of the word, is to cinema: something that we all understand is vile, but where a desire to confront that vileness is the motive for watching – as opposed to a scenario where almost every film produced contains elements of The Human Centipede, and has done for so long that cinemagoers treat those elements as normative rather than vile, because they’ve become so commonplace that they can’t properly imagine films without them, reacting with bafflement and outrage and cries of ‘Censorship!’ every time some critic were to suggest that maybe, just maybe, not every film needs to feature graphic depictions of the forced ingestion of shit.

In other words: it is not censorship to suggest that gamers and game corporations should increase their collective respect for women, or to try and encourage the creation of a gaming culture that would nominally reflect such respect in both its output and its language.

Returning to the Boswell and Spade paper about rape culture in fraternities, it’s extremely important to note the differences between houses which were identified as ‘safe’ – that is, houses where women felt comfortable and which had lower levels of sexual assault – and those which were ‘unsafe’ – where women felt more vulnerable and which had higher levels of sexual assault. To quote:

“At high-risk houses, parties typically had skewed gender ratios, sometimes involving more men and other times involving more women. Gender segregation also was evident at these parties, with the men on one side of a room or in the bar drinking while women gathered in another area. Men treated women differently in the high-risk houses. The women’s bathrooms in the high-risk houses were filthy, including clogged toilets and vomit in the sinks… 

Men attending parties at high-risk houses treated women less respectfully, engaging in jokes, conversations, and behaviors that degraded women. Men made a display of assessing women’s bodies and rated them with thumbs up or thumbs down for the other men in the sight of the women. One man attending a party at a high-risk fraternity said to another, “Did you know that this week is Women’s Awareness Week? I guess that means we get to abuse them more this week.” Men behaved more crudely at parties at high-risk houses… It was rare to see a group of men and women together talking. Men were openly hostile, which made the high-risk parties seem almost threatening at times.”

In other words: the high-risk environments that were toxic for and dangerous to women were characterised by skewed gender ratios, poor respect for female spaces, offensive jokes made at the expense of women, the hypersexualisation of women themselves, and male hostility towards women – all of which is representative of rape culture. The fact that these behaviours are also representative of many digital spaces in gaming culture should not be any less alarming simply because they happen online: the misogyny, sexism and disrespect which underlie their usage is, at base, identical. Similarly, it’s worth noting that in another recent paper, Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace by Sreedhari D. Desai, Dolly Chugh and Arthur P. Brief, the authors found that employed men in traditional marriages – that is, marriages where the wife stayed home and the husband was designated as the sole breadwinner – tended, when compared to men in non-traditional marriages, to:

“(a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.”

On the surface, this has nothing to do with rape culture – and yet I mention it by way of demonstrating that the way men treat and think of women in their private lives has a direct impact on how they treat them professionally and elsewhere. This doesn’t even have to be a conscious process – as the authors point out, the majority of such sexism was implicit rather than overt, meaning that the men didn’t even realise they were doing it – but either way, the impact on women remains the same. Given this evidence, then, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that male gamers who disrespect women online, who threaten women with rape, who call women bitches and sluts in anger, and who view both women in games and women gamers through the lens of hypersexualisation, will be much less likely to respect women generally and elsewhere. And that really is significant in terms of analysing the elusive physical, real-world implications of rape culture in gaming, because even though gaming itself is a primarily digital culture, gamers themselves still inhabit the real world, where they must necessarily interact with women in physical spaces and contexts that have nothing whatsoever to do with gaming.

Or, put it another way: parties, clubs and bars are universal spaces, places where people of all different cultures and subcultures meet – as, for that matter, are workplaces, offices, shops and streets. If a group of footballers sexually assault three women in a hotel, for instance, we aren’t wrong to ask about the influence of rape culture in football, even though the physical location of the assault is a public place with no specific ties to either the sport or its culture. But this is where things become tricky, because gamers – unlike footballers – aren’t celebrities; and unlike fratboys, their subcultural identity is unlikely to be mentioned in the event that they’re involved in an incident of sexism or sexual assault. And there’s the additional problem of making the nomenclature accurate: while it’s very easy to identify footballers and fratboys – do they belong to a club or frat house? then yes – it’s less easy to tell who, for the purpose of analysis, is a gamer, and if so, what their level of participation in gaming culture actually is. It’s exactly this sort of subtle point that so easily gets lost in public discourse, but which becomes exquisitely relevant when we start talking about preventative strategies and the real world consequences of rape culture in gaming. Saying gamers are is a vastly less accurate and more problematic notion than saying gaming is: even though there’s a massive intersection between the two concepts, the former is still a generalisation about types of people, while the latter is an assessment of culture that may or may not be relevant to individual participants in that culture. But still, I have to ask: if gaming itself lacks the physical spaces we usually associate with the most dramatic consequences of rape culture – but if this doesn’t invalidate the fact that many sexist male gamers are nonetheless learning from and actively participating in a rape culture they refuse to acknowledge as negative – then what happens when those men interact with women in other areas of life? On the basis of the evidence, they seem deeply unlikely to respect them, and however subconscious their sexism may be at such times, the fact that any physical consequences, such as abuse or assault, would happen outside of gaming-oriented contexts does not free gaming as a community – as a culture – of the responsibility to reinforce the fact that abusing women at any time is completely unacceptable.

So: gaming culture is – or at least, contains many problematic elements of – a rape culture. It is frequently hostile to women, toxic in terms of both the hypersexualised, violent content and the hypersexualised, violent language it uses to demean and belittle women. Even if, for whatever reason, you’d hesitate to use the term rape culture, it should nonetheless be apparent that gaming, en masse, has deep-seated problems with its treatment of women, and that this ought to be addressed. The horrific backlash against Anita Sarkeesian is unacceptable. The Hitman: Absolution trailer is unacceptable. Aris Bakhtianians’s comments are unacceptable. Saying so is not censorship: it is simply a call to treat women with respect. But so long as gamers refuse to acknowledge that rape culture is an issue which applies to gaming, the situation will not – cannot – get better.

Warning: all the spoilers.

Trigger warning: some rape and pregnancy squick.

Earlier today, the husband and I went to see Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, after which we watched Alien, which I’d actually never seen before. I’m extremely glad I did, because if nothing else, it offers a whole new perspective on Prometheus, viz: that the latter is actually a reboot of the former. The visual, narrative, structural and thematic similarities between the two are such that, when coupled with Prometheus’s ending, it’s an extremely difficult thesis to ignore; at the very least, Scott is borrowing heavily from his original, and while I’ve not yet seen anyone else make the comparison, if you watch the two films back to back, the relationship between them is undeniable.

But first: Prometheus itself. Considered in isolation, it’s surprisingly hard to categorise with any degree of accuracy. Though ostensibly SF/horror, the tone and pacing are much more philosophical, concerned primarily with abstract questions of identity, genesis, belief and kinship. At the same time, though, the bulk of the characterisation is thin, if not actively dependent on stereotype, which causes a weird, occasionally mesmerising disconnect between the actions of the protagonists and the narrative arc. Having discovered archaeological evidence that the same images of giants, together with the accurate depiction of a distant star system, have appeared in geographically and temporally different cultures throughout history, scientific couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) set out aboard the Prometheus in search of an alien race they call the Engineers, who Shaw in particular believes created humanity. However, the ship itself has been financed by dying industrialist Peter Wayland (a heavily made-up Guy Pearce) at the expense of his company, Wayland Enterprises, and is nominally under the command of captain Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), an icy professional who doesn’t believe in Shaw and Holloway’s theories. Also on board, apart from sympathetic pilot Janek (Idris Elba) and a handful of interchangeable engineers and scientists, is David (Michael Fassbender), an enigmatic robot in the employ of Wayland. Fassbender’s performance is perfect: we’re never quite sure about the extent to which David’s personal motives (which he claims to lack) overlap and intersect with his programmed directives. He’s quiet, polite and inhuman, but with an implied depth of insight and evident sense of wonder that balance eerily with his detached courtesy. It’s David and Shaw whose experiences and interactions form the real basis for the film, and one that makes for an interesting mix of themes.

If you’ve seen any other films set in the Alien universe, then I don’t really need to tell you how the plot progresses: mysterious ruins are discovered, the party splits up, infection/infestation occurs, people die, fire is employed in defense of humanity, corporate greed forces the crew to stay when any sane person would flee, the female lead gets forcibly impregnated by an alien monstrosity with an accelerated growth rate, a big alien boss with a grudge against humanity is revealed, everyone bar the female lead and the robot dies, and the alien threat is averted (for now) in a climactic final battle; the film ends with Shaw flying away in an alien craft piloted by David’s dismembered (but still functional) head. None of which was new or surprising, but all of which was entertaining to watch: the 3D used in Prometheus is superb, the soundtrack is gorgeous, the visuals compelling, and the overall story something I’m glad to have watched. As an action movie, it isn’t half bad (though it does lag briefly in the middle).

The real heart of the film, however, is in the contrast between Shaw’s quest for the creators of humanity and David’s strange relationship with his human creators. My favourite moment comes when Holloway, drunk and dispirited after having discovered that all the Engineers are dead (or so he thinks), laments his inability to ask them the big question: why did they make humanity? To which David, deadpan and quiet, asks why Holloway thinks humanity decided to build robots. “Because we can,” says Holloway, as though this is the most obvious thing in the world – but when David asks if Holloway would be content to receive such an answer from humanity’s creators, Holloway just snorts and rolls his eyes, as if to say, But that would never happen to us . We’re different, and you’re just a robot. The arrogance of Holloway’s disconnect is staggering, such that we feel real sympathy for David; but when, moments later, the robot deliberately contaminates Holloway’s drink with an alien biological sample – not maliciously, but as part of a calculated plot to try and find a cure for his dying master – our sense of his humanity is instantly eroded. Shaw, meanwhile, is caught in a constant balancing act between her faith in God and her scientific belief that the Engineers created humankind. When questioned about the contradiction – shouldn’t she take off her cross, Holloway asks, now that she has proof the Engineers seeded Earth? – Shaw smiles and answers, “But who made them?” Confronted later by the growing evidence that the Engineers weren’t as benign a force as she’d imagined, Shaw retreats into her faith, only to have it tested in other, more horrible ways. And yet she survives with both her faith and her hunger for answers in tact, flying off into the unknown with only the remnants of a created being to keep her company on her quest to understand why humanity’s creators turned against them.

Despite this solid and compelling philosophical core, however, the rest of the characterisation is disappointingly lackluster. Vickers is little more than a cold, blonde ice maiden; Wayland is the archetypal dying industrialist looking to prolong his life; Janek is the loyal captain; the other crew members – Fifield, Millburn, Ford, Chance and Ravel – are by turns anonymous and textbook; even Holloway, for all his greater significance, is strangely generic – supportive and loving to Shaw and a believer in their work, but completely undeveloped in terms of his own history and motives. The Engineers, too, are unfathomable, due in large part to the fact that we never learn anything tangible about them: not why they made humanity, not why they abandoned it, nor even why they subsequently turned to the creation of biological weapons – the aliens whose predations are the film’s main source of threat – with the intention of unleashing them on Earth. There’s a sense in which this enforced ignorance is deliberate: a way of leaving the story open-ended, so that we, like Shaw, are still left with unanswered questions, the better to preserve the sense of mystery. But there’s also a sense in which the lack of answers undermines the integrity of the narrative – because in the absence of any concrete explanation, certain elements of the plot and worldbuilding start to look less like deliberate omissions and more like accidental discontinuities, some of which occurred to me while watching the film, and the rest of which are classic fridge logic.

In the very first scene of the film, for instance, we witness an Engineer – a giant, white-skinned man who bears more than a passing resemblance to Darth Malak in his underwear – standing alone as an alien spaceship flies away in the distance. The Engineer drinks the biological compound that’s later used to kill Holloway and which, by all accounts, appears to be the doom of his species. And yet he does this voluntarily, even though it instantly causes his body to disintegrate, right down to the level of his DNA. The reason for this scene is never explained. Why is the Engineer alone? Why does he drink the compound? Does he realise it will kill him? If not, why not? And if so, why drink it when there’s no-one else around? What planet is he on? None of these questions are answered during the course of the movie – and in fact, what little information we do glean only serves to make the first scene look self-contradictory. Similarly, the ultimate implication of both Shaw’s final voyage and Janek’s never-refuted supposition that the planet they’ve found is a military outpost both point to the fact that the Engingeers came from a different star system all together. But if that’s true, then why didn’t the archaeological evidence Shaw and Holloway found on Earth lead them there instead? More pertinently, it’s stated outright that the dead Engineers the crew finds were killed roughly two thousand years ago, while their earliest appearance in human culture is five thousand years old. So if the Engineers only decided to destroy humanity *after* leaving Earth, why leave behind directions to an outpost planet that they hadn’t yet colonised? In fact, why leave directions at all? We’re shown explicitly that the Engineers intended to send their biological weapons back to Earth, in which case, leaving messages in human culture to one day come to the source is redundant: the only reason humanity survived that long is because the aliens the Engineers bred to destroy us destroyed them first. Under those circumstances, the archaeological messages can’t be a warning, but nor are they viably an invitation. Instead, they appear only as a plot device: something Scott has orchestrated in order to justify his characters being where they are, but which, on the basis of the evidence presented, makes no narrative sense at all.

Other niggling issues also drew my attention: little glitches that made me question the overall story. Why does David think that infecting Holloway will help Wayland? Why does nobody chase after Shaw when she physically attacks two of her crewmates and runs away? Who is Janek working for, and how much does he know? Why, when we’re explicitly told that there are seventeen crewmembers on board, do we only ever see ten of them? This last might seem like a strange niggle, but it becomes relevant near the end, when Vickers is told to run for the escape pods while Janek and two of his companions stay behind to make a Heroic Sacrifice and crash their ship into the alien craft that’s headed for Earth, thereby saving humanity – because if there were still seven other people on board, people we never met and whose deaths we never saw, then it feels extremely odd that Janek and the others would tell Vickers how to save herself, but leave the rest of their crewmates to die. (It’s also worth mentioning that the three men who make the Heroic Sacrifice are all POC – the only three in the movie. I’m not quite sure what to think of this, but it does feel like something of a trope subversion that all three died nobly rather than running for their lives as plucky comic relief, or as the archetypal black dude who dies first.)

And then there’s the gender issues. Round about the midway point, Vickers initiates a conversation with Janek and actually seems to be thawing a little, prompting him to flirt with her. Vickers reacts in kind, but ultimately rejects him, at which point she turns to leave. Janek, however, stops her by asking an incredibly invasive question: is she a robot? Now, on the one hand, this is a narratively reasonable question: Scott’s Alien-universe movies do tend to contain secret robots, and as far as the audience is concerned, Vickers is definitely a viable candidate. On the other hand, though, Janek has asked this in direct response to Vickers choosing not to sleep with him, and even worse, her response, rather than saying yes or no, is to tell him to come to her cabin in ten minutes – they can have sex after all! And this is problematic for me, because even though Janek might plausibly be curious, his timing is gross, and Vickers’s response is grosser still, because the way she proves her womanly nature is to change her mind about sex. The whole scene did not sit well with me, and even though we don’t actually see the deed take place – the whole incident is, I suspect, narratively engineered solely to get Janek off the bridge, so that when the crewmates stuck outside call with an SOS, he isn’t there to hear it – and even though it effectively answers the question of Vickers’s humanity, it still comes across as sexist and offensive.

And then we have the Underwear Problem – or, more specifically, the fact that women in the future apparently don’t wear bras or singlets, but have instead reverted to wearing weird wrap-around boob tubes that look uncannily like bandages, and which come complete with matching bandage underwear. To wit, this:

and this:

Setting aside the infuriating ubiquity of Hot Terrified Women In Their Underpants as an SF/horror trope, what would have been so terrible about letting them wear bras or crop tops? Even Ripley in the original Alien gets a goddam singlet, despite the fact that her undies are literally and gratuitously about five sizes too small.  I just, I actually cannot get over this lack of bras. I mean, the first time we see Vickers, she’s doing pushups in what amounts to a boob tube, and I’m sorry, but it’s hard enough to get a strapless bra to stay put when you’re hugging your armpits at a party, let alone engaging in strenuous physical exertion like running for your life. I don’t even care that, from one perspective (although certainly not the one employed for the gratuitous cleavage shot pictured above), the boob tube bandages arguably cover more frontal cleavage than a real bra would, because once you’ve decided to have your female heroine running around in her underwear, you’ve pretty much abandoned the notion of modest costuming. As far as I can tell, the only possible logic behind the boob-wraps is because someone, somewhere decided they were more aesthetically pleasing than bras – but speaking as a person of somewhat busty dimensions, the absence of good, supportive bras is the exact fucking opposite of futuristic, and is in fact about as big a visual anachronism as having an axe on a spaceship.

Oh wait.

*facepalm*

But all of this is small beer compared to the big, endlessly problematic notion of forced alien impregnation. Insofar as the alien attacks go, I’ll give Scott some credit for trope subversion: twice in the course of the film, male characters are violently orally penetrated – and, in the process, killed – by phallic alien tentacles. This is visually disturbing on a number of levels, but given the near universal establishment of tentacle rape as a thing that happens to women, I’m going to give him a big thumbs up for bucking the trend. That being said, what happens to Shaw is awful on just about every level imaginable. If you have difficulty with the womb-biting vampire birth scene in Breaking Dawn, I’m going to issue a big, fat warning about Prometheus, because everything that happens to Shaw from about the three-quarter mark onwards is the ladypain equivalent of that scene in Casino Royale where Le Chiffre tortures James Bond by tying him naked to a wicker chair with the arse cut out and then repeatedly belting him in the genitals with a length of knotted rope, with bonus! psychological angst thrown in.

So: Shaw is infertile; she can’t have children. This is a source of evident sadness to her, something that Holloway has to reassure her about after he accidentally makes an offhand comment about how easy it is to create life. At the point at which we see them make love, Holloway has already been infected with the alien biological compound: he dies horribly not long after, forcing Vickers to literally set him on fire while Shaw watches rather than continue in his painful, bodily disintegration. Making this even worse, Shaw’s own father, an explorer or anthropologist of some sort, also died of an incurable, graphic virus – ebola, in fact. Understandably, Shaw is so distressed by watching her lover die that David has to sedate her – but of course, David is the one who infected Holloway to begin with. When Shaw comes to, David asks her (politely, of course) if she and Holloway have made love recently; when Shaw says yes, he does an ultrasound, and reveals both that Shaw is three months pregnant – impossible, as they only slept together ten hours ago, never mind her infertility – and that the foetus is abnormal. Unhesitatingly, Shaw tells him to get it out of her, to which David replies that he can’t: they don’t have the technicians on board to perform a cesarean. His solution is to suggest she go into cryo. Shaw refuses, so David forcibly sedates her. When she wakes up again, two fellow crewmates in quarantine suits have come to see her frozen. Shaw feigns unconsciousness, attacks them, and runs – in some considerable pain, as the alien-baby is trying to squirm free – to the special, super-expensive automated surgery pod in Vickers’s quarters. Desperate, she tries to program it for a cesarean, only to be told that the chamber has been locked for male use only (we later find out, through inference, that this is because it’s meant for exclusive use by the aged Peter Wayland, who’s secretly been on board the whole time).  Thinking fast, she tells it to perform abdominal surgery to remove an obstruction, jabs herself with a couple of painkillers, and hops in.

While Shaw is still conscious – and clearly able to feel pain, despite her medical injections – the pod cuts into her with a laser, opens up her uterus, and uses a metal grappling tool that looks frighteningly like the lovechild of an arcade grabber machine claw and an eggbeater to pull the writhing alien-baby in its placental sack out of her stomach and hold it overhead. Shaw is now trapped in the pod with a gaping abdominal wound and a predatory tentacled alien that wants to kill her – plus and also, the umbilical cord is somehow still linking it to her insides, so she has to physically pull the cord out of her goddam womb, at which point the pod wraps things up by closing a gash the entire length of her abdomen with giant metal staples. She then has to slid downwards and out of the pod by passing underneath the alien, slam the pod-lid closed, and then stagger, weeping and bloodied, into the hallway.

To summarise: an infertile woman who wanted children and whose partner died ten hours ago is forced to give herself an emergency c-section to rid herself of the ravenous alien baby he impregnated her with, alone, while on the run from her crewmates, without help or anesthetic. Also, despite the fact that her stomach is literally being held together with staples, she then spends the rest of the film running for her life while in obvious, crippling pain, alternately sobbing and injecting herself with painkillers. Fun times! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So how, then, does Prometheus resemble a reboot of Alien?

Barring the Engineer prologue and a brief scene on Earth, Prometheus contains exactly the same establishing shot and data that Alien does: the image of a spaceship with the written details of its name, function, crew, cargo and course superimposed over the top; both films also end with the lone survivor, a brunette Final Girl, dictating a last entry into the ship’s log, stating that the rest of the crew are dead, the ship was destroyed, they’re the only one left, and that now they’re about to travel elsewhere. Both are also accompanied in their escape by a small, inhuman companion – Ripley has a cat, Jones, while Shaw has the disembodied robot head of David. In Alien, the ring-ship the crew discovers is identical to the one piloted by the surviving Engineer in Prometheus; in both films, it’s a pair of white men who stumble on the larval face-sucking aliens and subsequently die. In both films, it’s the female protagonist who calls for the implementation of quarantine (Ripley is ignored where Shaw isn’t) and who subsequently suggests that the message which lead them there to begin with wasn’t an invitation or an SOS, but a warning to stay away. In both films, a robot secretly furthering the agenda of a corporate power turns on the crew, ignoring quarantine and disobeying direct orders in order to bring an alien sample on board, actively harming and endangering others in order to protect it. Both films also follow a very similar plot progression, kill off secondary characters in a similar order, and make graphic use of flamethrowers; even the title fonts are the same (both also pass the Bechdel test). Perhaps most importantly of all, however, the final scene of Prometheus shows an alien – that is, an Alien alien – emerging from the wreckage, created in its larval form by gestating in Shaw (the Holloway-monster she cut out of herself) then growing again in the body of the Engineer, which makes the whole of Prometheus look like nothing so much as a retcon of the entire Alien universe.

Given that fact, my suspicion is that there’ll probably be a sequel at some point down the line, restarting the Alien mythos in a suitably altered context (though whether Rapace’s Shaw will go on to be as canonically significant as Weaver’s Ripley remains to be seen). Over all, I found Prometheus to be an interesting movie: flawed in some ways, problematic in others, and peppered with enough apparent discontinuities and WTF moments that I couldn’t wholly settle into the story, but still entertaining and definitely one of the better SFnal flicks I’ve seen of late. (Though if you’d rather pass on the open-womb surgery scene, I can’t say I’ll blame you.)

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.

Warning: spoilers. 

Since yesterday’s post, I’ve caught myself up to date with Night Terrors, The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex. All three are well-written, well-executed episodes: their plots are coherent and self-contained, the scripting is solid, and there’s a genuine feeling of mystery and tension to each of them. That being said, I’m still distinctly unhappy with the treatment of the female characters. In all three episodes, Amy ends up a damsel who needs to be rescued, while the latter two both use the deaths of competent, clever, interesting women to wring emotional responses from the audience. There’s also the lesser (but still relevant) issue of Moffat’s constant reuse of robots/functions as villains and the overwhelming number of Earth-based episodes, but we’ll get to that later. First, let’s look at the ladies.

For an excellent summation of the problems with the death of Older Amy in The Girl Who Waited, I recommend this post by Phoebe North. To quote:

Every single aspect of this plot and every action of the Doctor conspire to invalidate Older!Amy’s choices, desires, and personhood. What matters is that she be spared, even if she doesn’t want to be spared–because the men, of course, know better than she do about her very life.

In this episode, the Doctor acts in a way that’s in keeping with his recent behavior, but is still insanely maddening. He’s paternalistic. He’s condescending. He lies. He rejects Amy’s right and autonomy over her experiences outright…

It’s only Older!Amy who is anything new. This is the first time we’ve seen concrete, verifiable growth in Amy-Pond-the-adult. It’s also the first time it’s been suggested that she’s a certifiable genius. Karen Gillan is able to stretch her acting chops like never before. She fights. She invents. She hacks. She flirts. Despite the fact that she’s been hurt, she’s still indisputably a whole, capable person–in precisely the way that our Amy has never been…

Amy’s storyline is really more of the same. The woman has to be saved. Worse, the woman doesn’t really know what’s good for her–to the point where she has to be manipulated and tricked into making the right decision.

I understand television’s need to protect the status quo. But Rory has been allowed to grow, from passive near-cuckold into a hero. In previous seasons, Donna, Martha, and Rose all underwent very palpable growth as their experiences changed their goals, lives, and desires (even if Donna was pretty much royally screwed over in the end). Now that I’ve had a more concrete vision of what Amy could be dangled in front of me–and then snatched away by male characters and writers who say they know better–damn it, I want a sign of that woman on the actual showI want some sign that Amy can grow into a brilliant, kick ass person even as she stands by her husband’s side.

Because otherwise? If Amy stays as she is today–if the show continues to value damselship over competence, raw youth over experience, passivity over self-sufficiency–if Amy is always the problem and almost never the solution?

Then I’m done.

As has been previously mentioned, A Good Man Goes To War left me with so little faith in the show that I had to postpone watching the next set of episodes. This meant that my husband went ahead and watched them without me; a sort of advanced guard to test the waters. After finishing The Girl Who Waited, he came storming out of the bedroom in a state of distress, talking about how vile and awful it was that the Amy who’d been left on her own for 36 years – who was clever and capable and deserving of freedom – was killed off in favour of her younger self. What was worse, he said, was how little criticism of the episode he could find online: did people not realise how morally reprehensible this was? Admittedly, that absence may be more reflective of his weak Google-fu than of the majority reaction to the episode, but even so: my husband, who has been a fan of Doctor Who since childhood, has reached a point with the new series where he considers the Doctor to be morally bankrupt. And honestly? I am not about to disagree with him.

There is no reason why Older Amy had to die except that the writers wanted her to. In a show – and, more particularly, a season – where continuity is constantly being retconned, where exceptions are constantly found to old rules and where pretty much everything that happens is explicable only by magic, blaming the necessity of Older Amy’s death on any extant Whoniverse laws is both demeaning and cheap. Worse still is the decision to make the Doctor directly responsible for it: he literally slams the door in her face and leaves her to die, having promised sanctuary he knows is impossible. But the only reason for that impossibility is authorial. We still could have had a heart-wrenching finale where Older Amy was deposited on an alien world and forced to hand Rory over to her younger self; given that she was in a quarantine facility, she could even have been left behind on the original world, but in the visitor’s section, free to make her own way out. But no: as with ‘Ganger Amy before her, she is killed – and not just on the Doctor’s watch, but by him.

And then they pull the exact same trick again. In The God Complex, we are introduced to Rita, a clever, capable woman who immediately wins the Doctor’s respect to such an extent that he tells Amy she’s fired. It’s a joke, of course, but intentionally or not, this sets up the whole episode as a comparison between the two characters. Rita is brave, calm and selfless (and a Muslim! an actual positive representation of a Muslim woman on television!), while Amy clings, quite literally, to a blind, childish faith in the Doctor. There is no need for her to try and rescue herself or others, because he will always save her, and as the episode hinges on her admitting as much, it becomes abundantly clear that this has, in fact, been the defining aspect of her character all along. Meanwhile, poor Rita’s fate is sealed when the Doctor mentions taking her on the TARDIS with him, which has always been a kiss of death equivalent to watching a redshirt beam down to an alien planet alongside Kirk and Spock. She dies nobly and bravely, of course, but she still dies, and while in another time and place – by which I mean, an earlier season – I might have just accepted her death on its own terms, in the particular context of Season 6 and Moffat’s reign in general, it stands out as part of what is starting to feel like a calculated decision to keep the female characters young, pretty and pliant, or else to kill or depower them.

And then there’s the fact that Amy and Rory have ceased to grieve for their daughter. I don’t care that Melody Pond grows up to be River Song. I don’t care that Amy and Rory know this, and like who River is. They have, as a couple, lost a newborn child – one who goes on to be raised and brainwashed by terrorists – such that they are never really her parents, and know she endures a terrible childhood without them. This is fucking traumatic; or rather, it should be, except that we never actually see them grieve. In fact, against all logic and expectation, at the start of Let’s Kill Hitler, we learn that the Doctor has been looking for Melody through space and time without them, and I’m sorry, but what the fuck? Amy and Rory lose their daughter, and then they just go home to wait while the Doctor tries to hunt her down instead? This makes no sense; growing up with Mels is not equivalent compensation for losing a child; and when, at the end of The God Complex, the Doctor drops Amy and Rory home – seemingly for good, but who knows? – and Amy lightly says that he should tell River to drop in on them some time, my whole body clenched with anger. NO. As much as I’m ready for a new companion, Amy deserves better than to have been dragged through all of space and time, where she loses her child, and then just be taken home because the Doctor says so. I don’t care that he’s almost a thousand years old: this sudden, awful paternalism of Doctor Knows Best For The Ladies, such that he gets to override not only their desire to travel with him, but their desire to live, is vile.

To close out the feminist side of things, there’s an excellent piece at Tiger Beatdown about the problematic nature of Amy, wherein Lindsay Miller says:

Amy as a plot device… drives me insane with rage.  The writers cannot seem to come up with anything for her to do that doesn’t involve being a sexual or romantic object, a damsel in distress, or—more recently—a uterus in a box.  This is primarily a show about the Doctor, not his companions; I get that.  Still, Rose, Donna, and even the tragically underdeveloped Martha all got at least a few episodes dedicated them and their problems and their families…

Amy’s dialogue is reasonably well-written, and Karen Gillan’s performance is funny and engaging.  But her storylines are terrible.  We spent all of season 5 (which, for me, was about three days) hopelessly enmeshed in the Love Triangle that Just Wouldn’t Die.  Amy was engaged to Rory, who had a smallish head, but she wanted to make out with the Doctor, who had a huge head!  How would she ever choose between two such different head sizes?  Then she had a moment of realization and went with Rory, presumably because their eventual offspring would do less damage on the way out.  But every two or three episodes since then, we’ve gotten these teasing “maybe she really DOES love the Doctor” moments, even though everyone, including all three characters, is sick to death of that plot thread.  It’s like the writers honest-to-God cannot come up with anything better for two dudes and a lady to do, with all of space and time at their fingertips, than worry over which dude the lady will end up with.

Finally, there’s the Moffat tropes, which are wearing seriously thin. Let’s have a look at the themes and villains of this past season, shall we?

The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon: An eerie little girl in a spacesuit repeating the same few lines of dialogue over and over, plus the Silence, who also repeat themselves, are uniform in appearance, and can’t be argued with.

The Curse of the Black Spot: The robotic function of a medical ship, who can’t be argued with.

The Doctor’s Wife: An evil planet who eats TARDISes and who has actual conversations with the characters. (Note: this episode was written by Neil Gaiman rather than a member of Moffat’s regular staff, and was originally meant to appear in the previous season.)

The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People: Dopplegangers of the crew of a mining station, plus the crew itself and the Doctor.

A Good Man Goes To War: Headless monks, an army commander, and an evil eyepatch woman.

Let’s Kill Hitler: Robot doppleganger people filled with robotic ‘antibodies’ who attack intruders while repeating the same few lines of dialogue over and over, plus a creepy child-Amelia as a function of the TARDIS who repeats the same few lines of dialogue over and over.

Night Terrors: Creepy, unspeaking zombie-dolls who chase the characters and mindlessly try to convert them.

The Girl Who Waited: Hospital robots who mindlessly try to subdue intruders while repeating the same few lines of dialogue over and over.

The God Complex: A host of creepy, unspeaking dolls, plus a minotaur-monster who behaves exactly like a robot (i.e., he can’t turn himself off or stop what he does, nor do we hear him speak in his own right except through the Doctor’s translations) who causes people to turn into zombies and repeat the same few lines of dialogue over and over.

Is there a pattern here, do you think? Just to be sure, let’s run a check on the themes and villains of some previous Moffat episodes:

The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances: An eerie little boy in a gas mask repeating the same few lines of dialogue over and over, plus the robotic functions of a hospital ship who can’t be argued with.

The Girl in the Fireplace: Clockwork robots acting as functions of a ship who repeat the same few lines of dialogue over and over.

Blink: Quantum angels who don’t speak, but who prey on other lifeforms as functions of their existence and who, like robots, cannot be argued with.

Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead: Eerie dead people trapped in spacesuits repeating the same few lines over and over, plus the Vashta Nerada, who prey on other lifeforms as a function of their existence, and who are argued with once.

The Beast Below: Creepy clown-doll-robots acting as functions of a ship.

The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone: More quantum angels.

And then there’s the high incidents of female characters meeting the Doctor both in childhood and as adults, which started with Renette in The Girl in the Fireplace and goes on to define both River Song and Amy Pond. Put another way: Moffat seems to have a narrative range of exactly one female character, and the more he writes her, the weaker she gets.

Call me crazy, but I’m fairly sure this constitutes a pattern.

Which might go a long way towards explaining why we rarely, if ever, see any actual aliens any more; why we’re constantly stuck on Earth or in Earthlike settings as opposed to other worlds – because Moffat, for all his strengths (and some of these episodes are, in fairness, utterly brilliant) doesn’t seem to like writing alien races, or alien cultures. He likes puzzles and hospitals and automated processes and robots and enemies who can’t be argued with, which is all fine and awesome, except that this is all we’re getting any more. Even episodes which aren’t written by Moffat, like The Lodger and The Curse of the Black Spot – both of which feature automated hospital ships and their attendant robot-functions as the ultimate explanation for things – are chock-full of Moffaty tropes. And I don’t know about you, internets, but I am getting bored of so much sameness.

It doesn’t strike me as irrelevant that so far in Moffat’s tenure, not a single episode has been written by a woman. Admittedly, the same was true under Russell T. Davies – his first two seasons lacked any female-authored episodes, with Season 3′s Daleks in Manhatten being the first – but it shows more under Moffat, not only because of how he treats his female characters (badly), but because his preference for writing robots means that there are fewer gendered characters of any kind in the background, so that the number of secondary women has dropped, too.

I’m worried by all of this, internets. I really want the show to make a clean break next season, but I’m very much afraid that won’t happen. Yes, the writing and plotting has picked up again, but unless the ladies start to develop, too, it’s going to get harder and harder for me to continue with it.