Archive for June, 2011

Scrolling through my Google Reader just now, I came across a post at the Book Pushers website, stating their must-have titles for July.  In order of appearance and category, the books listed are:

Urban Fantasy

Night Veil, by Yasmine Galenorn

Naked City, an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow

Hammered, by Kevin Hearne

Ghost Soldiers, by Keith Melton

Spell Bound, by Kelley Armstrong

Ghost Story, by Jim Butcher

Bloodlands, by Christine Cody

.

Paranormal Romance

Skin Dive, by Ava Gray

Dead Alert, by Bianca D’Arc

.

Steampunk

Dead Iron, by Devon Monk

.

Young Adult

Touch of Frost, by Jennifer Estep

.

Historical Romance

Heartbreak Creek, by Kaki Warner

.

Contemporary Romance

Only Mine, by Susan Mallery

.

What struck me immediately was the staggering difference between how male and female protagonists were depicted on the covers. The heroines of Night Veil and Spell Bound are both shown with bare, toned arms and midriffs, their long hair loose, wearing tight pants and staring sexily forwards from the center of the cover. By contrast, the heroes of  Hammered, Ghost Soldiers, Ghost Story, Bloodlands and Dead Iron are universally set to one side or depicted glancing with their heads turned down or sideways, and all of them bar Atticus of Hammered (who has a sword) are wearing Badass Longcoats. Three of them have weapons. The cover of Naked City, which features both a man and a woman, follows a similar theme: the man is set to the side, glancing downwards and swathed in a coat, while the woman stares sexily from a place of prominence, her corseted cleavage, long hair and bare shoulders on prominent display. Even the YA cover, Touch of Frost, shows a pretty, long-haired girl staring sexily outwards. Note that in every instance, the long-haired girls have brown/dark hair, which the cynic in me thinks is used to denote Sexy Girls Who Are Neither Stupid Not Sluttish, both negative characteristics which are the traditional purview of blondes. 

Compare this with the four romance titles: the two paranormal offerings, Skin Dive and Dead Alert, both show shirtless, well-muscled men. One is faceless, set to the side; the other has a sword, and is accompanied by a PVC clad woman, who – yes – has bare arms, long dark hair, a gun and a come-hither expression. The historical romance has a landscape; the contemporary shows a man and woman, both clothed, on a beach, cuddling intimately.

So, look. I am in no way trying to disparage these books, because they all sound awesome, and at least two of them are already on my TBR list; nor am I trying to point fingers at the authors, or say that the images, taken individually, aren’t compelling. But what the hell is going on in Coverlandia? I mean, it’s not like I’ve been unaware of the gendering of SFF book covers, and I’m certainly not a noob when it comes to trope-spotting. But seeing it all laid out so clearly in a post that had nothing whatsoever to do with cover commentary really brought it home to me. So far as I can tell, these covers have all been constructed in keeping with a set of rules that must look something like this:

  • Sexy, bare-armed brunette women and brooding, weaponised men in coats sell books.
  • Men will be objectified only when the books are being marketed to women.
  • Women will be objectified regardless of audience, though this will be dialed back slightly for YA titles.
  • Men are sexiest when they appear diffident.
  • Women are sexist when they appear confident.
  • Unclothed men are sexy. Clothed Men are sexy.¬†Unclothed women are sexy. Clothed Women, though, are not.

And so on, to the point where my response to the whole wretched business is as follows:

   

As keen readers of this blog will have had occasion to notice, the most recent season of Doctor Who has not exactly met with my approval. That being so, and with the marvelous advent of¬†A Doctor World to inspire me, I decided to rewatch the whole new series – Eccleston, Tennant and Smith – with an eye to understanding the show’s development. Right now, I’m midway through Season 3, and in keeping with the seriousness of my self-appointed task, I’ve been taking handwritten notes on the structure, themes and byplay of every episode. Specifically, I’m interested in the depictions of female characters. How much agency do they have? Are their odds of survival comparable to that of their male counterparts? How do they die, and under what circumstances? Are they villains or allies? Do they rescue other characters as often as being rescued? How many episodes pass the Bechdel test?

It’s this latter question which has occupied most of my thoughts. How heavily should I rely on it? Though undeniably useful, the Bechdel is far from being the ultimate arbiter of narrative – or even feminist – success. Passing it does not, for instance, guarantee that the female characters in question are three-dimensional, believable human beings, nor does it protect against thematic sexism. Pass or fail, however, the results are always interesting – not just because of what they say about particular stories, but because of how the test itself reflects our culture of storytelling. At first glance, it’s utterly trite and obvious to point out that every day, everywhere in the world, human beings pass the Bechdel: after all, half the human population is female, and in accordance with the fact that we are all (as it were) named characters, the overwhelming majority of our conversations, if transposed to a narrative context, would pass. And yet, despite the obviousness of this fact, a disgusting number of movies, TV shows, books and plays all fail. Looked at as a purely narrative problem, it’s a disconcerting dissonance with reality. Looked at as a human problem, however, it’s a travesty.

As per Gail Simone’s observations on women in refrigerators, there are any number of reasons why individual writers might choose to structure a story such that there are no female characters, or only one female character; or why, given the presence of two or more such women, they don’t have occasion to speak to one another; or why, if they do, it’s only about a man. The limit of the Bechdel is the ease with which its detractors can argue – correctly – that the inclusion of women characters who talk about things will not automatically improve a story: not on a thematic level, if the point is to allay concerns about sexism, and not on a narrative level, if the point is to fix a plot. The failure of this objection, however, is that it willfully¬†misconstrues the inclusion of women to be meant as a panacea. It’s not about instituting what amounts to a storywide¬†affirmative¬†action policy, because the suggestion has never been that women, by themselves, make stories better, or fairer, or anything other than stories with women in them, just as stories which lack women, or contain few of them, aren’t innately inferior. Rather, the point has been to ask why, if we believe our society, culture and ethics to be egalitarian – and, more, if we personally support these ideals – our stories say something else.

Consider the following hypothetical instance of a film centered on the adventures of a male lead, Guy, and his female love interest, Gal. Already, Gal is defined by her relationship to Guy: because the narrative fulcrum rests on Guy specifically, Gal’s presence is justified by her participation in his story. (There’s no reason why this scenario can’t work in the reverse without changing the genre – and yet, how much more common is it for stories with female love interests to be action-oriented adventures, while stories with male love interests are billed as romantic comedies?) Thus, Gal’s only investment in the plot comes through her association with Guy, making it much more likely that he, and not she, will take the lead in future plot-oriented conversations – after all, it’s Guy who needs answers, while Gal is just there for the ride. Obviously, that’s a simplification of matters: in save-the-world plots, for instance, the ultimate stakes affect everyone, while personal survival is a pretty strong incentive for even the most reluctant, dragged-along love interest to sit up and take an interest. Assuming Guy and Gal encounter other women in their travels, either as villains or comrades, there’s every reason why Gal might talk to them, and they to her.

Except, more often than not, they won’t – which is where we hit the gender snag. Because in instances where Guy is the protagonist, Gal’s character development matters less than his: not because she’s a girl (or at least, we hope not) but because it’s his story, and any conversations which don’t include or mention him are going to be viewed as extraneous to the plot. Ignoring the false economy of a storytelling style which jettisons secondary character development in the name of streamlining – and ignoring, too, the fact that female love interests are so deeply ingrained as an action movie archetyps that their very presence can feel like last-minute shoehorning – this puts considerable pressure on any fem/fem conversation to be relevant to the action; and if the writer wants to really showcase Guy’s intelligence, strength and resourcefulness, then having two other characters think up a plan, chart a course of action or otherwise save the day will only serve to undermine his specialness. Throw in the necessity of keeping Guy and Gal together for most of the plot – you can’t kindle sparks if the flints don’t touch – and just like that, you’ve practically eliminated any opportunity for Gal and Gal2 to have a conversation. Trying to force them together would just be another sort of shoehorning; and anyway, what does it matter? It’s just a story.

All of which is, frankly, bullshit. Characterisation shouldn’t be the sole privilege of protagonists. Male heroes don’t require a monopoly on good ideas and snappy dialogue to be viewed as heroic – and if you think they do, you’re probably part of the problem. Women shouldn’t be token characters: I love a good, sassy romance as much as the next person, but there’s a profound difference between a love interest whose only investment in the plot is their attachment to the hero, and a fully functioning character who develops into¬†a love interest. As for the age-old argument about some eras, professions and settings being necessarily male dominated, I put it to you that if Deadwood, a well-researched, historically anchored show about life in a lawless town on the American frontier can pass the Bechdel test with ease, then any film the sole premise of which is Shit Gets Blown Up should be able to do it backwards and upside down, particularly if the setting constitutes a departure from everyday reality in any way, shape or form. Which is another way of saying that if you’re willing to break the established laws of physics and human endurance such that the male hero can get blown up, tortured and beaten shortly before running approximately ten miles at top-speed during a thrilling laser gun battle, you can probably stretch to having a female character whose capabilities extend beyond the rigours of looking decorative.

Unless you think women shouldn’t really have key roles in action movies, in which case, see above, re: being part of the problem.

All of which brings me to¬†my sudden inability to think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth as a realistic fantasy world (which sounds like a non sequitur, but bear with me). I’ll be brutally honest: watching the How It Should Have Ended clip for The Lord of the Rings has not done wonders for my perception of its plot, such that when I sat down this evening to watch the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I found myself wanting to yell at Gandalf to just GO GET THE FUCKING EAGLES. But as I tried to settle into the narrative, I kept asking myself: where are the women? I don’t mean Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel, who are all wonderful characters despite their lack of screen time: I mean, where are the wives and sisters and mothers? Why, when the succession is so important, is neither Faramir nor Boromir married? Where are the wives of Denethor and Theoden, the mothers of Arwen, Eowyn and Frodo? Why are so many races – the Ents, the Orcs, the Uruk-Hai, the Goblins, the Dwarves – drawn as if they were all male? For a setting which is otherwise so rich in cultural and historical detail, this reads as a serious problem. It’s not just that the trilogy fails the Bechdel test; it’s that the lack of women means we have very little idea of how that society treats them, beyond the basic, obvious knowledge that there must be wives and sisters and mothers of some sort, even though almost every woman in a position to occupy such a niche is either conveniently dead or mysteriously absent. And when, in The Silmarillion, Tolkien does venture to write female characters, it’s almost always in a romantic, devotional context: women who died to support their brothers or husbands, or who were pursued against their will, or who tragically fell in love with someone they shouldn’t (or couldn’t) have.

Which is where I start to wonder if the absence of female characters in Middle Earth is less a species of exclusionary sexism than it is a tacit acknowledgement on Tolkien’s part that, for all he was trying to write a magical, romanticised version of the medieval period, he didn’t know how to do so in a way that would benefit his women the same way it did his men. The happy resolutions to the lives of Luthien, Arwen and Eowyn all hinge on partnerships with men of their own choosing, men with whom they are genuinely in love; and yet a scholar of Tokien’s standing can’t have been unaware of how rare an occurrence that would have been, historically speaking. Perhaps, then, the wives and mothers of so many characters are absent as a preventative against the acknowledgement of exactly that problem; of the fact that one can believe in the restorative magic of feudalism and the aesthetic stylings of chivalry for only so long as one either postpones the question of women’s happiness or takes its existence for granted. As compassionately as Tolkien paints Eowyn’s desire for glory, and as determinedly as he makes Luthien the saviour and rescuer of Beren, the latter stance seems less likely than the former. But in dodging the issue, he undermines the story – because while his male characters are allowed to ask questions about their purpose in life, expressing bitterness at their circumstances and feeling haunted by unwanted duty, he cannot dare let the women do likewise, or else the whole myth of Middle Earth’s glory would come crashing down around him. The elves, conveniently enough, are exempt from this dilemma, presumably on the basis that if everyone in a given society is granted magical supremacy, immortality and eternal beauty as a matter of course, then unhappiness as a result of imposed gender profiling probably won’t be an issue. But humankind are not, which is why, despite how well-drawn she is, Eowyn’s fears are masculinised: her biggest concern is being denied a chance at battle, and not that Theoden or Eomer will see her married off, even though the structure of Tolkien’s society dictates that one must be at least as distinct a possibility as the other.

And that’s why I’ve lost my faith in Middle Earth: because I cannot reconcile Tolkien’s aesthetic mood of beauty, nobility and contemplation with the necessary ugliness and bias of male-dominated feudalism. Which explains why I’m such a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted recently to the HBO series A Game of Thrones: all the history and pageantry is still there, all the chivalrous words and noble aspirations, but we still get to see the women – their desires, struggles, success and persecution – without recourse to either convenient absenteeism or rosy-lensed love. Call it gritty fantasy or nihilism if you must, but no matter how pure and glorious your ambitions, it’ll take a lot to convince me that a standard medieval setting will lack the problems of forced marriage, rape and battery – or worse, that these things don’t matter – just because you choose to emphasise chivalrous conduct.

So, to recap: if you find yourself steering clear of female/female dialogue because:

a) women have no place in your story;

b) it doesn’t feel plot-relevant;

c) you don’t want to develop your female characters; or

d) the women might question the logic of a world you want your male characters to enjoy,

then I would humbly suggest that you are, in fact, part of the problem. Which is why the Bechdel test matters: not because all stories need women, but because the manner of their absence shouldn’t contribute to a culture of inequality.

Not so long ago, there was something of a furor concerning World Book Night’s¬†shabby treatment of genre novels, when SFF author Stephen Hunt reacted passionately to their absence from the event. Naturally, this is an issue near and dear to my heart, so when my Twitter feed presented me with an opportunity to nominate my own top ten books for the next WBN, I decided to take it. After all, what better way to correct the previous year’s imbalance than by throwing some SFF titles into the mix? After several minutes of faffing about, registering with the site and setting up a profile, I finally found myself in a position to suggest some books – or at least, I would have done, if not for the fact that clicking through to the requisite page produced the following unhelpful screen:

Though able to add favourite books to my personal profile, I’m apparently unable to suggest them to the site. Which is annoying, because so far, the genre representation is pretty slim. But that’s not the reason why I sat down to blog this post; or at least, it’s not the full reason. Because when I went to add a couple of titles to my profile list (an irritating process in its own right), I found myself automatically selecting, not my favourite books, but standalone favourites. Katharine Kerr’s excellent Deverry cycle, for instance, is fifteen books long: trying to add her to my list in any coherent fashion would have meant scrolling through more than thirty titles – each book having been printed in multiple additions – that weren’t presented in chronological order. Even assuming the site’s compliance, trying to suggest them as part of my personal top ten would have been numerically impossible without an option to nominate the whole¬†series¬†in one go, the way one might suggest The Lord of the Rings¬†singly rather than as three separate works.

Which made me wonder: how many times have I structured a list of favourite books to fit this principle, rather than in accordance with my actual preferences – and more, how many other readers must find themselves doing the exact same thing? Given its weighty history, most people, regardless of their tastes and preferences, are entirely capable of acknowledging Tolkien’s seminal trilogy to be a single, coherent story; so why, when it comes to every subsequent series, are we still thinking in terms of individual volumes? Even five years ago, there might have been something to the argument that the The Lord of the Rings counts as a single book only because it’s physically been printed as a single book edition, but in this day and age of ebooks, where I could potentially fit my entirely library of fantasy series onto a Kindle or iPad, why should such distinctions matter? Obviously, the breakdown of a series into its constituent editions is still significant: particular volumes might be preferred to others, for instance, or later works castigated where the earlier were praised, to say nothing of the fact that, in many instances, there are solid reasons why we might want to nominate or discuss a particular book in isolation from its siblings. But when it comes to lists that are meant to describe the tastes of the general public – when we’re talking about our favourite stories and authors – surely being able to discuss ¬†a particular series as a whole, discreet narrative rather than as a string of individual works has merit as an approach?

And then consider the obvious: that genre stories are far more likely than mainstream literary fiction to be constructed across multiple novels. From crime and mystery serials to multi-volume fantasy epics, it only takes a glance at the shelves of a library, bookshop or geekish living room to gauge the scope of things. It’s like the problem I have whenever I try to recommend that someone read the works of Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld series is now 38 books long. The conversation usually goes like this:

Me: You should read the Discworld books – they’re amazing, particularly the most recent ones!

Person: Great! Which one’s your favourite?

Me: Night Watch, definitely.

Person: OK, I’ll read that one.

Me: But you can’t start with Night Watch; all the best jokes are about characters from other books. It wouldn’t make any sense. You have to start with an earlier one.

Person: But I thought you said they weren’t as good?

Me: They’re still great books; it’s just that the later ones are even better.

Person: Where should I start, then?

Me: Well, if you just want to try the Vimes books – he’s the protagonist of Night Watch – then start with Guards! Guards! and work your way forwards through Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo¬†and The Fifth Elephant. He has cameos in other books, but those are the most important ones.

Person: All right, but what if I want to read the whole series, right from the start? How many books are there?

Me: About forty.

Person: *faints*

In fairness, Discworld – much like Pratchett himself – is something of a special case. Many of the books work as standalone volumes, or as discreet series-within-a-series, so that one need only read four or five novels to get the full adventures of a particular character (cameos notwithstanding). But in the case of something like Kerr’s Deverry cycle, or ¬†George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – which, despite being incomplete, has recently been adapted by HBO as the TV series¬†A Game of Thrones – there would be little point in listing just one book of either series, even the first or best, as a favourite novel. And so I wonder: when people contribute to lists of their favourite stories, lists which are publicised, discussed and dissected in their role as seemingly reasonable cross-sections of the reading public’s tastes, how often are SFF and genre works omitted, not because they aren’t loved, but because of the inherent extra difficulty in nominating series? And how many journalists, librarians, booksellers and other interested parties have, when setting out the structure and parameters of such lists, have instinctively done so with a mind only to individual books, rather than whole series?

To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that the only reason genre books are absent from places like the World Books Night list is because we’re more hesitant to nominate serial titles: personal taste, social bias and the perceived preferences of others are all significant factors. But I do think it must make some difference – not just to the titles we nominate, but to the books we actively¬†consider nominating –¬†¬†if our automatic assumption is that series somehow don’t fit with the mood of such lists; if we’re wary of cluttering them up with multiple titles written by the same author, or if we’d rather represent a broader spectrum of our tastes by listing the single works of many authors instead of the complete works of one. Either way, if we’re going to continue talking about the tastes of the reading public, then considering whether a primary means of assessing those tastes might be subconsciously biased towards standalone novels – and, by inference, to non-genre novels – seems like an important step to take.

ETA: I just checked the WBN page again, and the earlier problem has vanished: my personal favourites and the site favourites have now linked up. The search function is still glitchy as hell, though, and half the time, typing in a valid name or title produces no results. Sigh.

One of my favourite things to do in the shower (and don’t you wish more sentences started that way?) is to rake my fingernails over my face and slough off the wet, dead skin. Reasons for this include, but are not limited to: because I am deeply weird; because it feels nice; and because it keeps my complexion pretty. Leaving aside the first point as both an inevitability of my existence and a perennial lost cause (I also collect hats!), the latter two motives combine to form a habit which is both satisfying and, insofar as I can tell, cleansing. And lest you be disturbed by the image of long, sharp, manicured talons being gouged down my rosy cheeks, please bear in mind that I am, in fact, possessed of the shortest, bluntest nails in Christendom. Seriously. They are messed up.

There’s a point to all of this. Honest. Just bear with me.

Last weekend, my husband and I went on a picnic, taking advantage of what has thus far been one of Scotland’s four genuinely sunny summer days. Much to my surprise, this actually resulted in a light sunburn, such that I’ve been gently peeling all week. Today’s nail-enabled exfoliations therefore took longer than usual, which afforded me time to wonder:¬†Do other people do this, too? Did I start doing it because it felt nice, or because it improves my appearance? And if it didn’t feel nice, would I still do it to look pretty? And that made me think about all the other things I do to maintain myself, and whether they count as active beautification – and that was interesting question.

Because the thing is, I don’t wear makeup. This is not a shorthand to indicate that I only sometimes wear makeup, nor is it a dishonest means of saying that I wear very little makeup, be it regularly or semi-regularly. I mean, quite literally, that I wear no makeup at all. I own one tube of fifteen-year-old lipstick, worn maybe three times between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, that my mother gave me a decade ago. I wore clear lipstick at my wedding, and nothing more. Twice, female friends have given me party makeovers: once recently for the hell of it, and once as a teenager, when we were dressing up as vampires for a fantasy fancy dress birthday. I certainly experimented with makeup as a young tween, putting on blush and lippy and foundation and¬†eye-shadow¬†that I’d found in my mother’s bathroom cabinet, or else trying those same things at various girls-only sleepover parties, but that never really translated to my actually wearing makeup as an adult. There’s a number of reasons why this might be so – my mother rarely wore makeup herself, I was proudly a tomboy, I was too lazy to bother, I’d rather have spent my pocket-money on books – but the practical upshot is that I’m a grown woman who doesn’t wear any makeup, something which seems to be comparatively unusual.

And what really struck me today – the thing that made me sit down and blog – was the realisation that my decision to avoid makeup was not, in fact, a decision at all, let alone a political one. I never chose a makeup-free existence, because that would imply an actual, active thought process on the matter. I just never bought or wore it, in much the same way that I neither buy nor wear designer clothes: it’s simply something other people do. And that bothers me, because the more I think about the sexism and inequality of our culture and its obsession with unrealistic and frequently negative beauty ideals, the more it feels as though my abstention from makeup should be part of my politics. Which is where the comparison with designer clothes falls down: because while I can postulate a theoretic future, no matter how distant and unlikely, in which I take an active, positive interest in clothes design and the aesthetics and history of fashion (which is, for the purposes of this example, a different creature entirely to the horrific inequalities of the actual fashion industry), I cannot think of a similar future where I’d suddenly take an active, positive interest in wearing makeup. Or, to put it another way: despite the fact that I never decided not to wear makeup for ethical, moral or political reasons, I would nonetheless feel it to be an ethical, moral and political capitulation on my part to start wearing makeup.

That doesn’t seem so irrational, surely? And yet saying so makes me feel horrifically judgmental – a gender traitor, even, for all that I’m trying to make a case in support of women. Because the fact is that most Western women do wear makeup, and for much the same reasons that I scrape the dead skin off my face in the shower: because they enjoy it, and because doing so makes them feel cleaner and prettier than if they didn’t.

And so I ask myself: am I a total¬†hypocrite? After all, I still have a beauty regimen. I exfoliate; I use body wash and a loofah, facial scrub and¬†moisturiser. But I do these things as much in the name of cleanliness as beauty. The nice feeling they give me overlaps, is equivalent to, the sensation of having freshly-washed, non-greasy hair and sweat-free skin. But I also shave my underarms and, when I can be bothered, my legs, which is something different again. There’s nothing innately clean about the idea of hairlessness – our culture ¬†just teaches us to prefer clean-shaven men and women with minimal body hair. And there’s problems with that, because who the hell decided it, and why do most of us do it anyway? But while it makes perfect sense to keep such social¬†imperatives¬†and their malleability in mind, ultimately I don’t foresee a version of the human species wherein we don’t have some beauty norms, and if I were given ultimate control over humanity for a day such that I could forever revoke a particular beautification practice, shaving wouldn’t be it; or at least, not leg/arm/facial shaving, the practice of women removing their pubic hair to effectively recreate the image of prepubescence being considerably more problematic. Anyway: what I’m getting at here, or trying to, is that we adhere to different norms for different reasons, and even though women’s hairlessness is politicised in ways that men’s is not – hairy-legged or unshaven feminist being well-known terms of abuse – the trend ultimately seems to be more in line with the vogue of hairstyles than the application of makeup.

Possibly that’s a false distinction, and I’m very much open to the idea of being wrong: it’s something I’ve thought about before, and something I want to keep considering. But when it comes to sculpting, altering and otherwise emphasising our physical appearance (and ignoring the much more complex issues of body size and type, which is worth myriad other essays in its own right), what ultimately puts me off makeup is the extent to which it conceals and alters our faces. If I shave my legs and arms and crotch (or not); if I cut and colour my hair (or not); if I wear¬†jewelry¬†and pierce my ears (or not); if I paint my nails and get a tattoo (or not), then I am, for whatever reason of preference and aesthetics, changing my physical appearance: I am striving to look different, and regardless of whether I’m doing so to conform to an external standard of beauty, a social standard of beauty or simply to my own tastes – and those three things overlap more often than not – they are changes which serve to emphasise my identity and selfhood, rather than obscure it. Obviously many women – probably most, in fact – feel the same way about makeup: that wearing it serves to emphasise who they are. And I can understand that position; it’s why I’ve bothered writing this piece, because I’m honestly conflicted about where the line is between expressing oneself through physical beautification and objectifying oneself through adherence to (potentially damaging) cultural norms. Perhaps there’s no single solution, after all – maybe the question will never be answerable on anything other than a case-by-case basis; and that’s fine, too.

But makeup doesn’t empower me. The few times I’ve ever put on a face (and isn’t that a telling expression?), it’s made me feel, not beautified, but erased. It feels like compensating for my features, instead of emphasising them; like saying my native self is, if not actually ugly, then insufficient. Bland. Unmemorable. I don’t define myself by my hair or nails, my legs and arms or groin; I don’t consider that dyeing, styling and cutting my hair is anything other than an aesthetic act. But my face is what others see of me, and what I see of myself. It’s where people look when I talk to them; it is how¬†we talk, and the act of acknowledging, even tacitly, that my primary means of expression could benefit from cosmetics, leaves me feeling utterly unbeautiful. And what’s worse, makeup is a considered to be a strictly female domain. Men bathe and exfoliate; they shave and wax their body hair; they use dyes and moisturisers and hair gel and even nail polish – and yes, it’s still more common for women to use those things; and yes, some few men do use cosmetics; and yes, they have every right to do so, and more, should be allowed to do so without fear of social reprisals. I know all these things, and they are relevant and important. But knowing them will not convince me that I can find an iota of self-confidence, one ounce of esteem, in the application of tinted animal fats and powdered chemicals to any part of my face – and nor, I think, should it.

I’m not¬†trying to claim superiority over women who wear makeup; far from it. I’m not even trying to suggest that the concept of makeup is innately wrong – only that, for me, it crosses a personal line, and that part of that crossing is exacerbated by the fact that it applies almost entirely to women. The lines between personal aesthetics and social aesthetics will always be blurred, because we’re all creatures of the world in which we’re raised, and even if we can see where the habit of leg-shaving or lipstick comes from, that doesn’t automatically mean we should strive to destroy those practices out of pure contrition. Or, to put it another way: we are all empowered by different things. There will never be a perfect world where none of our customs have problematic consequences, and while I fully believe in our ability to create more and better societies than the one in which we now live, ¬†the way to do that isn’t to issue a new mandate to the masses about what they should and shouldn’t do with their bodies.

But in order for that to happen, we have to think about why we do things, the better to understand – and, in some cases, change – our reasoning. And so I ask: if you do wear makeup most or all of the time, why? Is it habit, or ritual? Does it empower or undermine your sense of self? Does it make you feel happy, or sad, or nothing at all? Does it give you a sense of belonging, or dislocation? Does it feel right or wrong, natural or unnatural? Does it make you feel beautiful or ugly, enhanced or lessened? Do you wear it because you want to, or because you feel you have to?

I already know how I feel. So what about you?

Last night, I stayed up until 2am finishing my ARC of Water to Burn, the second Nola O’Grady novel by Katharine Kerr. Despite being set in San Francisco and following the exploits of Nola, a psychic employed by a secret government agency on the side of Harmony, it’s not quite accurate to describe the series as urban fantasy. For one thing, an ongoing plot point from book one, License to Ensorcell, focuses on the discovery and exploration of deviant world-levels – that is to say, alternate and parallel realities both similar and dissimilar to Earth – populated in some instances by doppelganger inhabitants raised under vastly different circumstances. This puts the flavour closer to SF than fantasy at times, raising questions about the setting’s scientific theories and contributing to a rich sense of narrative possibility. The series is also distinguished by its strong sense of Earth politics: Nola’s offsider, bodyguard and love-interest since book one, Ari Nathan, is a high-level operative with both Interpol and the Israeli government. While some writers might be tempted to mention this merely by way of exotic background detail, Kerr actively incorporates it into events, not only in terms of Ari and Nola’s respective efforts to balance duties and secrets with their personal relationship, but also as a source of cross-cultural commentary and plot relevance. Just as Nola’s character is defined in large part by her family ties, psychic gifts, religious upbringing and Irish-American heritage, so too is Ari defined by his family ties, martial gifts, religious upbringing ¬†and Israeli heritage. Kerr has done her research, and if ever Nola lapses into forgetting that Ari, despite his perfect English, was raised in a different culture, neither she nor the reader is allowed to keep that ignorance for long.

Plot-wise, the events of Water to Burn follow closely on from the end of License to Ensorcell: the Chaos masters who orchestrated the events of book one are still at large, though their influence is being felt in difference ways. A twelve-year-old girl drowns when a freak wave seemingly pulls her from the shore; Reb Ezekiel, the self-professed prophet who ran the kibbutz where Ari spent his childhood, has been sighted in the city, despite having been thought dead for some years; and a shady businessmen appears to be blackmailing Nola’s affluent brother-in-law. Though seemingly disparate at first, these separate¬†occurrences all begin to tie in with the mysterious Peacock Angel cult and its Chaotic adherents, increasing in intensity as Nola and Ari get closer to the truth.

There are several satisfying differences that set this series apart from other UF works. Firstly, the romance: though Nola and Ari flirted and danced around each other for a significant portion of License to Ensorcell, by novel’s end, they’d reconciled their attraction and embarked on an actual relationship. There is no mysterious third wheel waiting in the wings to try and turn things into a love triangle; nor did Water to Burn begin with either party calling things off, thereby restoring a default state of unresolved sexual tension. Instead, they look for a new apartment and move in together, while Nola wrestles internally with her fear that ‘picket-stakes of domesticity’ ¬†are dropping into place in her life, confronting her past issues with commitment and abandonment. Given the fact that her other novels have cheerfully featured romantic, sexual scenes, the fact that Nola and Ari’s encounters are always hidden by a cut-to-black suggests ¬†that Kerr has made a conscious decision to differentiate the O’Grady books from the plethora of sexy, paranormal crime series already available. In this instance, the romance isn’t about wild, passionate tension, but rather about two defensive, similarly wounded people struggling to turn chemistry into love, with all the pitfalls, doubts and self-recriminations that involves.

The series also places a tremendous significance on family. Again, this runs counter to the usual intuitions about urban fantasy: Nola’s gifts are genetic and certainly contributed to her childhood woes, but she is neither an isolate orphan nor an only child. Instead, we’re ¬†introduced to the loving-yet-complicated network of brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles – most of them similarly gifted, though in different ways – that make up Nola’s family. We know her mother is in deep denial about her own magical gifts, let alone everyone else’s, while her father, for reasons that are slowly being uncovered, was forced to leave his wife and children while they were still a young family, with consequences that are still being felt in the present. Nola has seven siblings, one of whom was murdered before the start of the first book; a strong relationship with her caring, religious Aunt Eileen; and a plethora of other such kinships, each one uniquely complicated in the way that only extended family can be. So far, we’ve only been allowed to glimpse Ari’s history, but his own upbringing has already proved crucial to the plot, and with Nola fixing to secretly contact his mother, it seems plain that sooner or later, his family secrets will be subject to just as much scrutiny as Nola’s.

Finally, there’s the issue of Nola’s eating habits. As the books are narrated almost exclusively from her POV, the fact that both Ari and her family members are concerned about her having an ‘eating disorder’ is brushed off in her thoughts as meddlesome paranoia. And yet, we also see exactly how much calorie-counting Nola really does: scrimping her portions, foregoing meals, declining various dishes at family gatherings, and generally keeping herself half-starved. It’s both a refreshing and a confronting move on Kerr’s part: refreshing, in the sense that so many heroines are described as meeting society’s physical ideals without any conscious effort on their part or narrative criticism about the value of said ideals, and confronting, because by the end of Water to Burn, we’re left in no doubt that Nola really does have a problem. Happily, our heroine seems to understand this, too, but issues of esteem are never easy to overcome, and we’re left with the knowledge that Nola has a long road yet to travel.

Water to Burn is an immensely satisfying second installment in the Nola O’Grady series. Rather than relying on sexual tension and violence as the backbone of her series, Kerr has instead built a rich, original, complicated world of politics both real and magical, parallel worlds, family ties, cultural clashes and work-in-progress relationships that cannot help but suck the reader in – and I can’t wait to read book three.

The year is 1991; the setting, my kindergarten classroom. I am not quite five years old, and if this isn’t my very first day of school (memory being understandably hazy about such things) it’s certainly sometime in my first two weeks. Our young class has spent the morning seated on the floor, and now our teacher, Mrs Pallier, tells us all to stand up and find a desk. There is no seating plan; the ‘desks’ are actually conglomerates made of four or so smaller tables, big enough to seat about eight students each. Despite our newness, groups of friends have already started to form – one such being the cadre of boys who, by Year 6, will have become the male half of the popular crew. They pick a desk and sit down together. I don’t have a group yet; the boys, though, are interesting, and there’s a spare seat at their table. I go to take it, but no sooner have I sat down than they all leap up again, yelling about the¬†undesirability¬†of girls, and run to colonise the next desk down. This leaves me with a choice: either I can stay where I am, feeling hurt but pretending I really did want this particular chair, or I can follow them and see what happens. Desks are starting to fill up, after all – they have to sit somewhere. More importantly, though, I’ve discovered a secret power: I can make the boys run, and even though I really did want to join them, thinking of it as a game – one where I’m in charge, the chaser – is easier, less hurtful, than staying still and accepting their rebuff. And so I get back up, and follow them again.

What happened next is hazy. I couldn’t say whether I won or not, if I claimed a seat at their table or ended up somewhere else. But I remember the choice, and the thoughts preceding it, with clarity.

I mention this because there’s been some recent¬†discussion about the perception of women SF writers within the industry generally and their relationship with feminism in particular, and when it comes to the assertion that such authors are given less credence, less prominence and less publicity than their male counterparts – when I am presented with the image of women writers chasing after acceptance in a male-dominated area – the first thing that always springs to mind, or rather the first memory, is the image of a table of five-year-old boys in shrieking fear of Girl Germs. It’s not just this debate, either: earlier this year, there were questions asked about the feminisation of epic fantasy, and more recently VS Naipaul has asserted¬†that women writers are “unequal” to him. Unclenching one’s teeth sufficiently to talk about this latter case, there’s something interesting to unpick in Naipaul’s claim that:

“I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not.”¬†

It’s an argument I’ve encountered elsewhere: that women just write differently to men, that everything from their subject matter to their sentence structure and word choice sets them apart. It’s a breathtakingly flawed assertion, and yet so fiendishly simple that, like most such lies, it is easily believed, repeated and socially countenanced. Ignoring the fact that this is an unquantifiable, personal claim hinging entirely on anecdotal evidence,¬†how often do we read anything without seeing a name attached? Almost never, would be my guess – unless, of course, you’re someone in charge of vetting anonymous submissions to an academic publication, which is by no means irrelevant to the topic at hand. Surely, if Naipaul is correct, the flaws which distinguish women’s writing and ideas from those of men will be present in any type of writing, and not just works of fiction? If so, wouldn’t the publication records of academic journals with a policy of anonymous submissions – or better yet, journals which had recently switched from named submissions to anonymous submissions – be the perfect venue to test the theory? What about studies assessing the difference a male or female name makes to the reception of a single piece of writing?

As it happens, such data and studies do exist – bur rather than confirming Naipaul’s assertion, what they show is that switching to anonymous submissions increases the number of female-authored articles accepted for publication in academic circles. Take a moment to appreciate the significance of that finding. By removing a writer’s name – and, by extension, their gender – from the equation, more women are being published. This is all that changes.¬†For obvious reasons, blind submissions will not translate as a solution to the bias in literary circles and awards: books are published with names on the cover, and even in the case of novels we’ve not yet read, there’s still a strong chance that we’ll know who the author is. But when, for instance, Gwyneth Jones expresses a wish to have used a male pseudonym for her earlier feminist works in order to have bettered their success, rather than criticise this as a betrayal of the sisterhood, we could perhaps extrapolate that the same biases which afflict academia are just as omnipresent in the fiction/SFF world, and that wanting to avoid their ill-effects is entirely understandable.

In the same Women’s Hour segment where she expressed that opinion, Jones went on to say:

“If you‚Äôre a feminist, it‚Äôs much better to be a man, with the science fiction public.”

It’s an¬†inflammatory¬†suggestion, but one which seems all too sadly in keeping with the bias against women. Reading through the reactions of Jones, Timmi Duchamp and Cheryl Morgan to the Women’s Hour interview, much of what’s being discussed is the idea that the US and the UK have different notions of feminism; or that writers from these countries do; or that these particular writers do; or some combination thereof. As a recently expatriated Australian, I don’t know enough about the differences in feminist practice on either side of the pond to contribute to that debate. What I take away from this particular conversation, however, is the fear that simply being a woman SF writer, regardless of the actual content of one’s books, is enough to see those works branded as feminist by readers who have no interest in feminism – a misapprehension which ineluctably forces the writer to argue that their gender ought not stand in the way of their writing. Thus, the author is forced to speak out as a feminist – thereby reinforcing the perception of their works as feminist writings – only because this was already assumed to be a foregone conclusion. And so we go round, and round again, until it’s easier just to pretend to be male feminist, the way George Sand once did, than to confess to being a female one.

What a squeamish irony that is: that even feminism is more palatable when espoused by male advocates! Presumably, this is because women, as the movement’s primary beneficiaries, are seen to have more of a personal agenda in putting it forwards; whereas men, who are casually assumed to gain nothing from its success, and are vindictively assumed to lose everything, are seen to be more objective. If male feminists become passionate in their writing, then it is a rational passion, commendable for its intelligence; but if women feminists do likewise, then they’re guilty of pushing a personal, politically correct agenda, or of being angry, hysterical writers. Obviously that’s a provocative statement. Obviously we want and need male feminists: I am by no means¬†suggesting that the feminism of men is less important, less relevant or less meaningful than the feminism of women. But I can and will criticise those members of the public, be they feminist or unfeminist, male or female, who find feminism to be more palatable when it comes from men; because if you think men are intrinsically more lucid on the subject than women, or think women can’t be trusted to speak dispassionately about it, then you’ve probably missed the point.

Back in 1991, I chased the boys rather than be ignored by them, and some time over the next seven years of primary school, they stopped running and became my friends. Regardless of genre, authors in the fiction world – like children in a playground – have no recourse to anonymity, no ready means of stripping names and faces away, to let our words stand on their own bare merits. Instead, we must take the harder road: to actively consider the principles of equality, to hold ourselves accountable for our own biases, and to continually question whether or not we’ve truly overcome them.

Two things that are guaranteed to make me cranky:

1: Sexism masquerading as value-added content;

and

2. Racism masquerading as Colour-Coded for Your Convenience.

That is all.

Another flarf poem, this one dedicated to and inspired by the #YASaves conversation on Twitter.

.

I Believe In Stories

.

I believe in stories.

Sometimes I am asked

if telling a story is really any different

to sharing a book with a child.

.

As a child I heard many stories.

I believe in stories in a live-and-die kind of way,

to keep the living alive, and the dead.

Stories that live and breathe.

Stories that are fruitful and multiply. That create stories

within stories.

.

I trust in stories. Storytelling is hardwired into our brains:

it dictates how we think,

how we understand the world,

and how we make people free.

.

I believe

that Rapunzel let down her beautiful hair.

I believe in stories, because they reach

to something realer than real.

.

I still don’t know whether I believe

in saints, angels, or a God, but I believe in stories.

The world has enough dogma.

.

I believe that you can’t hate humankind

no matter how vile it’s become ‚Äď

and, you know, I believe in stories. Many of us

would be a fool without them.

Warning: total spoilers, much rant.

I just finished watching A Good Man Goes to War. I was not impressed. In fact, my unimpressedness is such that I’m close to declaring it the Worst Episode Ever. I mean, even the one with the Ikea Darleks wasn’t this bad – or maybe it was exactly this bad, and only a sudden rosiness of hindsight is making it seem otherwise. Either way, unless the series manages to execute a pretty fabulous face heel turn, I’m going to call shark jump from this point onwards.

So, look. The idea of the episode – the significance of Amy and Rory’s baby, why she’d been stolen, how the Doctor set about getting her back – is a good one. Ditto the reveal about River Song, although seeing as how I already picked this a few episodes back, it was less of a big surprise than a confirmation of fact. Even so, the laboured business of waiting to see her name spelled out really bugged me: the only time the TARDIS has struggled to translate written language was back in Season 2’s The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit, with the given reason being that the script in question predated Timelord civilisation – so seeing a sudden, convenient time-delay trotted out for the sole purpose of garnering a few seconds’ extra anxiety over River’s identity felt like retconning at its cheapest.

Which, you know. It was.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, here: let’s start at the very beginning, wherein Amy Pond spends a good few minutes telling her newborn daughter about the wonderful and magnificent man who’ll always, always look out for her. So far as I can see, this monologue was designed to do two things:

1) tug our heart-strings about her having to hand over Melody; and

2) pull a big ‘surprise!’ moment when we realise she’s been talking about Rory, not the Doctor.

Fine. Whatever. I get that, though at this point, the joke about confusing the two men in Amy’s affections is wearing very, very thin. Ship Tease¬†a love triangle once, I thrill to it. Ship Tease a love triangle every single episode, and I start to get stabby. More practically, though, this exposition serves no narrative purpose other than the above: it doesn’t move the plot forwards, it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, and it goes on longer than is strictly comfortable. Cut to Rory in a Cyberman base, dressed as a Centurion and issuing Manly Directives while the Doctor blows shit up outside.

I’m sorry, what? The Doctor, that is to say, the man who has spent the better part of forty years trying not to blow shit up and interacting very sternly with those who do, is blowing up an entire base just to make a point?

Sorry. You’ve lost me.

Oh, wait, right – but Amy is special, so she gets a special rescue! Very, very special, although as Cat Valente and Stephen H. Segal¬†pointed out on Twitter this week, that specialness is looking less earned and more forced the longer the series goes on. Or, to put it another way: the Doctor has a time machine that can go anywhere. Even if he really did need to call in all these amazing debts across the universe and put together a crack team of aliens to help him break into Demon’s Run, blowing up the Cyberman base was just gratuitously violent. I don’t care that River sort of, almost, indirectly calls him on it at the end; that we’re meant to worry about the sort of man he’s becoming because of this one, out-of-character incident. Bullshit: we were¬†worried already. This is the big contradiction of the Doctor, the subtle line that Moffat and Davies before him have played from minute one of the reboot: that the Doctor is a wounded soldier, recovering from his unwilling genocide of the Timelords and Darleks, battle-forged and fighting the violence of grief, power and loneliness as the last surviving member of an all-powerful species.

All of which says to me that the Doctor does not, will not wipe out a whole Cyberman base just to make a fucking point. If such a heinous act really is his tipping point, a sign of character slippage that signals an end to everything he’s tried to be, we should see him at that pivotal, damning moment, and not just be pacified with a shot of Rory looking all badass before the credits come up.

From this point on, what fast becomes notable about A Good Man Goes to War is how little screen time the main trio actually gets. The Doctor himself is conspicuously absent from the first half hour: instead, we follow innumerable secondary characters through various disparate locations. This is meant to give us a sense of grandeur, and to some extent, it works, in that each individual setting – the Battle of Zarathustra, Victorian England, a skeezy alien bar, Demon’s Run itself, even River’s prison block – is somewhere we’d like to be; or rather, a place where we’d like to see a story told. Instead, we skim into each one for about three minutes: just enough time to introduce a new character, a vague sense of context and their debt to the Doctor before we’re whisked away to the next one. This is, to say the least, dizzying. And then there’s River herself, who declines to show up only because she has to be there at the very end, when the Doctor finally finds out who she is. She says this in such a way as to intimate, backed up by ominous music, that he will be angry at the truth, shocked or betrayed or poisoned, that she must stay away in order to savour these last few moments of anonymity, when of course – as it turns out – he’s delighted. This doesn’t surprise her at all, though: the earlier, melodramatic scene with Rory was a bluff.

Which makes no sense: because now there’s no good reason why River stayed away.¬†Conceivably, it would’ve been awkward to have her there – except that there’s no narrative reason why this should be so, no mention of the don’t-cross-your-own-timeline directive (which, frankly, would have made more sense). The only reason River refuses to go, it seems, is because Moffat wants to tease us with the prospect of finding out who she really is, and feels her revelation will have more impact if she doesn’t show up until the very end. That’s an obvious ploy I don’t appreciate, and one that serves otherwise to ensure that an episode full of oneshot characters doesn’t accidentally stray towards meaningful development of the regulars.

Then there’s a bit which just plain doesn’t make sense: the introduction of a married, gay marine couple who talk to Lorna, yet another oneshot, ¬†and to each other, about the Headless Monks, the Doctor and various other sundries. Then we see one of the couple get taken away by the Monks, whose ranks he is forced to join. At the time, this is set up as an emotional thing: we’re meant to feel sorry for the chosen man, and briefly, we do – right up until it becomes apparent that neither he nor his partner have anything else to do with the rest of the episode. That is to say, we never see them again, and the five minutes we spent in their company are wasted. Lorna, at least, is important, though her scene with the couple isn’t: she sews the name of Amy’s daughter onto a prayer leaf and gives it to her, sympathetic because she, too, spent time with the Doctor as a child, and has only joined the army in order to meet him. This is, alas, an emotionally borked scene: in yet another hideous, long-winded display of telling rather than showing, they talk about how awesome the Doctor is, how worth it and wonderful, by which point both my husband and I were shouting at the episode to get on with it!, sadly to no avail.

Because then we have the army itself (no, we don’t ever find out why they’ve decided to fight the Doctor – he’s just the Big Bad as far as they’re concerned, and we have to take River’s nebulous word for it that possibly, maybe, somehow he deserves it, or is in danger of making himself deserve it) getting geed up by their commander. More Headless Monks emerge; we get another long speech about What The Doctor Is And Is Not, followed by more speachifying about how, just this once, the papal authority in charge of the Monks – who wear big, voluminous hoods – are allowed to show people what they Really Look Like, even though doing so is normally a heretical offence. This is, I mean, um. Because the Headless Monks? The big reveal about them? Is that they are headless.

Wow.

Let’s ignore the fact that if Moffat wanted anyone to be astonished by this, he could quite easily have called them, I don’t know, anything other than the Headless Monks. Their lack of heads, for all its obviousness, isn’t the biggest problem. No: it’s that he’s introduced a cowled, hooded order of Mystery Mystics, established that looking under their hoods is heresy, then lifted their hoods in a one-time special offer all in the space of fifteen fucking minutes. Which, you know, tends to kill the mystery pretty quicksmart.

Also, they fight with red lightsabers, like headless Sith Lords. LIGHT. FUCKING. SABERS.

And then, finally – FINALLY – the Doctor shows up. We don’t see his oh-so-carefully gathered compatriots at this point; instead, he talks a bit about himself (because nobody else has done that yet, oh wait), some stuff happens, he disappears, and then we get the whole army chanting WE’RE NOT FOOLS over and over again, somebody please kill me, Rory shows up and rescues Amy with their baby, the Doctor’s secret army (not his chosen few, who are doing things elsewhere at control panels, but some other random guys) show up and surround the enemy, and then we have an excruciatingly saccharine ten minutes of Everything Is Over And Yay We Won, Look At Our Cute Baby. Which, OK, I get that babies are cute, and I know the point is that everyone is happy and safe, but you’re trying to make me feel relived at the cessation of what is, in fact, a total lack of tension. Because up until the very end of the last episode, we didn’t know where Amy was, or that she was actually pregnant; we don’t see the birth, we don’t flash back to her capture, she isn’t threatened at all, Melody isn’t harmed, and the most menacing thing that happens in the whole episode is when Amy has her baby taken from her in the opening scene. The rest has just been strangers and oneshots talking, talking, talking – and so, to return to the point, when you follow half an hour of dialogue up with two minutes of something almost happening and then celebrate a bloodless victory with ten minutes of schmaltz, I am not feeling relieved that the characters are safe, because so far as I can see, they were never actually in danger. Telling the danger is not showing! Show. Me. The danger!

Which, of course, eventually comes. There’s a small trap, in that the Monks come back and attack the Doctor’s chosen guardians, one of whom dies, and Lorna, who also dies, but not until she’s had a tearful farewell in the Doctor’s arms. (Of course he remembers her. Apparently, he remembers everyone, even though he’s been known for forty years as an irascible, absent-minded professor. But I digress.) Oh, and the flesh copy of Melody that Rory thought was his daughter dissolves, thus putting the real baby well and truly beyond rescue. Except she’s not, really, because then River Song shows up, castigates the Doctor a bit, then reveals herself to be Melody Pond grown up, regenerated (because she’s sort of a Timelord, but not quite) and with her name changed via translation into an alien language.

Oh, and the name of the next episode is¬†Let’s Kill Hitler.

I’m not making that up. Believe me, I wish I was.

There were other things, too, small gaffes and glitches that niggled. Where did the photo of Amy and Melody come from in Day of the Moon? I can’t see eyepatch lady stopping to take one. Why were the Headless Monks and their order so heavily invested in a battle against the Doctor, when we’ve never seen or heard of them before?¬†The music, too, was desperately OTT, swooning and sugary well beyond what the situation called for, making this the first time since Eragon that I’ve actively wanted to mute a soundtrack.

So, yeah. I wasn’t impressed with A Good Man Goes to War. Not because it didn’t work, but because, despite all the problems, this should have been a good episode. There’s so much potential there, I can just about rewrite the episode in my mind. In fact, despite the probable arrogance of doing so, I can and will. So here’s my version of how things should have been.

Picture this:

In the opening scenes, Amy poses for a photo with her newborn daughter. Her smile collapses as soon as the flash dies. She tries to talk bravely to Melody, but three¬†sentences¬†in, she’s rudely interrupted by the army officers. The eyepatch woman declares how little patience she has for sentimentality; Melody is taken forcibly from a crying Amy, cuffed to the ground when she tries to snatch her back. They don’t need her alive any more, she’s told, but maybe she’ll be useful as bait. They leave, and we are left uncertain about Amy’s future.

Cut to Rory and the Doctor at the TARDIS controls, talking about a Cyberman base. It’s the only place they can go to get the information they need, but dealing with Cybermen is always tricky: without a show of force, they won’t tell them anything. Rory goes in, but keeps in touch with the Doctor by comm. We see the moment when the Cybermen refuse to speak; we see the Doctor’s face as he realises that violence is his only option. He tells Rory to brace, and then we see him go cold and hard, blowing up an entire base to make the remainder reveal where Amy is being kept. Later, he looks to Rory for absolution, but Rory says there’s nothing to forgive. They weren’t innocents, they were Cybermen. They needed to die.

While the Doctor picks up everyone else, the same as before (except he also grabs a regiment or two), Rory goes to River. She tells him she can’t come because she can’t cross her own timeline; that she’s already been to Demon’s Run. Rory assumes this means she’ll show up during the fighting and help, which perspective River lets him believe. We see her face as he walks away, though, and know that she’s lying – but not why. Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor asks Rory where River is, and he tells him she’s already there; and the Doctor says, of course she is. Now, we see the strike team all together in the TARDIS, listening as the Doctor explains the situation: what’s happening, what they have to do to save Amy, and why there’s an army after him. Cut this with slice shots of them actually infiltrating the base in real-time, sneaking through to their positions, fighting their way in. End with the Doctor telling them cheerfully not to die, then smash cut to Amy blank in her room as Lorna comes in, proffering the prayer leaf, which she puts down on a table when Amy won’t take it. Their conversation is different this time: it starts out with Lorna telling Amy that she used to know the Doctor as a child, but when she describes him, it’s as a great warrior, held reverential in her eyes for the violence he did. It’s why she became a soldier, to meet him in battle – an almost Sontaran glory – and Amy becomes furious, yelling at her to get out. She throws the leaf at Lorna, but the other woman won’t take it. Close the scene on Amy picking it up, trying to rip it, failing, then crying over it, all while trying to pull herself together. This she does – but just then, the lights go out.

Red light flickers on; we follow back to the Doctor’s posse, watching them put the finishing touches on their infiltration. Soldiers in chaos during a drill; Lorna rejoins them, excited because she knows what this means. But when the lights come up, there’s an army there instead of the Doctor, surrounding them: all weapons must be laid down. Elsewhere, we see Rory and the Doctor split up, looking for Melody. The Doctor reclaims her from eyepatch lady after a tense confrontation; he pulls a weapon,says he’ll spare her if she gives him the child, then prepares to shoot anyway when Melody is handed over. Eyepatch lady expects him to do it, which is all that stays his hand; and then Rory arrives, desperate for his daughter, in which moment of distraction eyepatch lady flees. The Doctor hands Melody over, gets word on the comm about what’s happened with the army, then leaves Rory to be the Amy-rescuing hero while he goes off to take charge of things on the ground.

Back to Amy, who’s actively trying to break out of her cell rather than waiting passively to be rescued. Just as she finds something to prise open the door, Rory opens it from the other side. Reunion! They go to the window and watch, tense, as the Doctor negotiates the final stand-down of the other army’s troops, sending them out with only a few casualties on either side. All three reunite; Rory explains to Amy what’s been happening while the Doctor goes to check the records with his Silurian sword-master. The scene about Melody’s genetics happens mostly as before, except that, when the trap is revealed and eyepatch tells him about the Monks’ involvement, they’re a new threat, one he recognises as deadly when their name is spoken. This time, we actually see the fight between them and his motley crew, including Lorna joining fight, the¬†disintegration¬†of the false Melody, and then the death scene of the Sontaran. A difference with Lorna’s death, though: the Doctor doesn’t remember her at all, and the last thing she sees is his face, stricken with apology, as he tries – and fails – to recall her name.

Only then, into the silence, does River emerge; she’s been watching from the shadows. The Doctor shouts at her: where has she been? She argues back, bitterly, about how rich this is coming from him, who’s forever swanning about and showing up where he pleases, never a care for those left behind, like the dead girl whose name he couldn’t remember; the Doctor retorts that he, at least, is always where he needs to be, to which River calmly replies that she is, too. Both reside a bit: he says she told Rory she’d be here; what did she mean? At which River breaks a little and says, I was, but you missed me. He understands the truth, then – heavy with the weight of what it means – but Rory and Amy don’t. The others are curious, but know this isn’t their business: he leads the survivors back to the TARDIS, giving the trio privacy. River tells Amy to pull the prayer leaf, forgotten until now, out of her pocket. Amy can’t understand how she knew it was there at all, and Rory is totally baffled, but both stop talking when they see the name on it: River Song, translated by the TARDIS. Lights, curtain, exeunt all.

Aaaand now I’m done. But seriously, is it so hard to throw in a little danger, to show us the conflict and tone down the melodrama, so that the emotional moments actually mean something? Apparently. And yet also, to my mind, not.

I’m really getting into flarf poetry, and¬†particularly the idea of writing feminist flarf. There’s a terrible sort of zeitgeist to typing provocative phrases into Google and boggling at what comes up, the things people write and the views they hold. Which isn’t to say I’m still not being selective about the lines I choose, or even that I don’t, from time to time, take only part of a sentence, so that it appears to laud what it formerly criticised: the point is that someone felt the need to rebuke that position in the first place, because someone else suggested it was true.

This piece was inspired by VS Naipaul and his spectacular literary sexism.

.

Women Can’t Write

.

According to baseline research, women can’t

create. It would be funny

if it weren’t so sad.

.

It is so much easier to type

using a penis ‚Äď

no woman can compare to him.

.

Women can’t write¬†good slash.

Women are not passionate enough about sex

and concentrate too much on feelings

to be able to write raunchy stories:

women think that the Kama Sutra

is an Indian takeaway.

.

Women can’t write¬†emails for shit.

They send them back and forth all day

like they’re shopping for useless junk,

each one more useless than the last.

.

Women can’t write¬†hardboiled crime.

Women can’t write¬†hard SF.

Women can’t write¬†fantasy books.

Women can’t write¬†effective horror.

Women can’t write poems.

Women can’t write comedy.

Women can’t write¬†believable male characters.

Women can’t write¬†for anyone but women.

.

My lady sensibility is limited

to menstruation (hilarious),

babies (adorable),

and unicorns mating (adorably hilarious).

.

Drowned in oestrogen,

women can’t write¬†for shit

so it might be nice

if there was an award they could win

without needing help

from affirmative action.