Posts Tagged ‘Women’

One of my biggest pet peeves in visual media is what I tend to think of as the Perfect Hair Problem. It happens when female characters in physically active professions end up consistently sporting long, perfectly coiffed locks that are never tied back and certainly never cut. Their hair is never messy, because it’s never allowed to be practical or, god forbid, ignored altogether. Whether they’re cops or mercenaries or superheroes, their unbound manes¬†swish freely as they run into battle. Their hair is always a decorative thing, because the people making the show or the film in question are always conscious of the woman’s beauty: they know they’re telling a story, and so use that license to render her as prettily perfect in difficult situations as, realistically, such women would seldom be. We’re most of us suckers for beauty, after all, and in the end, we know it’s pretend – so what does it really matter?

But far from being innocuous,¬†this small, visual detail is part of a larger problem, one that serves to steadily erase female characterisation on the screen. Though men on TV are similarly meant to be handsome and held to their own particular physical standards, the female equivalent is frequently narrower and more exacting, especially when it comes to age and bodytype, and because there’s a greater expectation that female bodies be showcased to their best advantage at all times, that in turn influences the costumes their characters are given – how put-together they’re meant to look at any given time, and in what way – to a much higher degree. Yes, there are certainly some individual outliers and exceptions, but as an aggregate phenomenon, women on the screen are meant to look immaculate, regardless of whether their characters¬†would realistically do so, in ways that men are not.

And as such, this changes the nature of their characterisation at a fundamental level: it’s an absence of individuality, an absence of personal expression replaced, all too often, with similar permutations on a bland, fashionable sameness. How we dress and the importance we ascribe to various types of personal grooming and deportment says a lot about us as people, and even if only subconsciously, we viewers notice the absence of those quirks in ladies on the screen and react accordingly: we know something’s missing, even if we can’t quite pin it down. Consider the women you actually know; the ways they dress and look. My mother is 5’11 and grew up feeling self-conscious about her legs, and so seldom displays them, even in warm weather. Her hair is cut short for practical reasons; she’s equally likely to wear men’s shirts as women’s, prefers loose clothes to tight, wears very little makeup, and seldom bothers with high heels, because she doesn’t need to extra height and finds them uncomfortable anyway. My mother-in-law, by contrast, is about 5’1 and has always had a strong interest in fashion. Though short, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her wear heels: she prefers flats, especially ballet flats – shoes that are both pretty and comfortable. She takes great care with her earrings, glasses and bracelets: at any given time, they’ll all be colour-coded to match whatever outfit she’s wearing, which will invariably be something interesting, the pieces drawn from many different places but all complimenting each other. Because I know them both, I can see how their respective personalities and interests influence their clothes, but even if they were strangers to me, they’d still be visually distinct enough – even beyond the disparity in heights – to signal their different tastes.

Women on the screen, however, are not allowed such unique aesthetics. Their hair is long, because our cultural beauty standards privilege women with long hair, and invariably worn loose, kept in place with spray and sheer force of will; their clothes are expensive and form-fitting, because we’re meant to admire their aspirationally well-toned bodies, which we can’t do if they’re wearing loose things or layers; their shoes have high heels, because we consider that fashionable, even for women who spend all day on their feet; their makeup is immaculate, their nails are manicured, and to me, they look largely like alien creatures, because 90% of the time, there’s a disconnect between who their appearance says they are and what their character is meant to be. The Perfect Hair Problem fritzes with my ability to recognise these women as three-dimensional people the same way that driving into an area with bad reception makes the car radio go staticky and faint: in both instances, there’s an urge to slap the box and tell the responsible mechanism to cut it out, and if that fails, to switch channels – but as in the metaphoric backwoods, the signal is glitchy everywhere, and occasional service¬†is better than nothing at all.

To be clear: I’m not saying I fail to connect with female characters just because they’re dressed and coiffed a certain way, or that every female character who fits that description is necessarily poorly written. I’m saying it bugs me that women on screen are seldom allowed to deviate from a set aesthetic, even if it suits their personalities: aren’t allowed to shave their heads or not shave their armpits or shove their hair up in an unkempt bun or wear long skirts with boots or t-shirts that aren’t nipped at the waist; aren’t allowed to be visually distinct in ways that go much beyond hair colour, or which forever render particular clothing choices off limits, just because we might think they’re less pretty like that. I’ve never seen a teen girl protagonist on TV who favours loose or baggy clothes who wasn’t a cartoon character; I’ve seldom seen black women characters with natural hair, which is an entire issue in its own right. Purely on the basis of their characterisation and personal priorities, your geeky-pretty Queen of Tech should not have an aesthetic¬†that’s functionally identical to that of the partygirl teenage heiress, which in turn should be distinct from that of the hard-working lawyer, and no, it doesn’t count if you give the tomboy character a basic, sensible wardrobe, but then find endless narrative excuses to show her dressed up after hours or give her the She’s All That treatment,¬†Arrow, I am looking squarely at your first season. Something I still love about The X Files is the fact that Scully spends basically nine years swathed in an enormous beige overcoat or the most ridiculous nineties jacket¬†with her hair in a sensible bob, because that’s the kind of woman she is, and her wardrobe is allowed to reflect it.

For how strongly and readily our sexist culture insists that women love clothes and shoes and makeup and expressing themselves individually through fashion, TV shows and movies sure do hate to show them actually doing it unless their “individual” tastes just to happen to magically coincide with What Magazines Think Is Hot. But men are allowed to be as fashionable or unfashionable as they like – can be as messy or scruffy or long-haired or short-haired or daggy or geeky or well-groomed or quirky or casual as their characterisation demands – because their visual presentation is always meant to support their personality¬†instead of emphasising their beauty first and their personhood second. It’s a default that Orphan Black is, of necessity, particularly adept at subverting: with Tatiana Maslany playing so many characters, there’s a clear need to establish clear visual identities for each of them. Cosima is not Helena is not Allison is not Sarah: Maslany nails their different vocal tics and physical mannerisms with a skill that’s almost eerie, but the performance is still aided by how clearly their individual looks relate to who they are.

And I for one would very much like to see more of it.

Q: On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work? A: I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though. РAndrew Smith

The idea¬†that Andrew Smith‚Äôs daughter is the first girl he ever had in his life is a staggering lie. For one thing, he has a wife,¬†and presumably has, or had, a mother; and for another, women are half the global population. They have been his classmates, colleagues, girlfriends, relatives, and while not all those relationships will have had the same degree of meaning to him – while his connection to¬†his daughter might be the¬†most important of all¬†– the idea that he was functionally isolated from women before he up and fathered one is bullshit. What he’s saying isn’t that he never had a chance to bond¬†with women, but rather that, until he had a daughter, he didn’t, and wow does that tie into some ugly rhetoric about male ownership of women being a trigger for their caring¬†about our wellbeing. (The fact that we still pitch women’s rights¬†to men by giving them the what if it was¬†your mother/sister/daughter/wife¬†speech, as though it’s completely unreasonable to expect them to care about us on our own merits, is a case in point.)

There is, to me, a casual kind of sexism, a sort of paterfamilias handwave, that comes of a man who’s lived with a wife and daughter for almost twenty years blithely admitting his total ignorance of their gender. Never mind that this is also a lie, unless Smith seriously wants to double down and claim that, yes, the women he loves most in the world are fundamentally alien to him; the problem is that he saw nothing wrong with pretending they were strangers.

I don‚Äôt think Smith meant to do this: I suspect, rather, that he was trying to acknowledge the implicit criticism in the question without actually engaging it, and ended up blundering into a much thornier problem by accident, rather like stepping into the path of oncoming traffic in order to skirt an open manhole, which you then stumble into anyway, but not before taking a couple of motorists with you. Having brothers is not what stops you learning about women. Maleness can be insular, the culture of masculinity rigidly maintained, but just the mere presence of men is not, by itself, a thing that negates the simultaneous presence of women. Smith was ignorant, not because he had brothers, but because a combination of cultural influence and inherent privilege conspired to tell him that women weren‚Äôt worth learning about, and by ignoring the distinction, he points the blame away from himself, and from the culture in which he was raised – both of which can be subject to critical analysis – and onto an objective fact over which he has no control, and which therefore seems impervious to criticism. I was raised with four brothers, therefore I couldn’t possibly¬†know about women. QED.

I‚Äôm not angry because Smith gave a flippant answer to a serious question; I‚Äôm angry because he seemingly didn‚Äôt care enough to realise that‚Äôs what he‚Äôd done. Even if Smith‚Äôs daughter was the first real girl in his life, he‚Äôs had seventeen years to consider that she, and other girls like her, are unique individuals capable of sustaining narrative interest, and to realise that his ignorance on that front is unacceptable. Citing¬†her birth and his brothers as part-reasons why he hasn’t already done so¬†is, therefore, if you‚Äôll pardon my French, a really fucking lazy way of saying¬†the dog ate my homework. Tacking a¬†‚Äėbut I‚Äôm trying to be better though‚Äô on the end of that mess without understanding that literally every word preceding the final sentence proves its necessity is¬†just adding insult to injury, like you’re aware there’s a problem, but couldn’t be bothered to check if your answer was part of it. Here is what I feel for Andrew Smith, and other men like him, who end up in these situations: embarrassed. You’re a professional writer who expressed¬†a thing so glibly, so naively and so poorly ina professional context that you’re now put in the unenviable position of having to explain, over and over, that you didn’t actually mean the words you wrote. Which leaves you with¬†a choice: either own up to having produced an astonishingly bad piece of writing, inasmuch as it utterly failed to communicate your actual views on women, and try to address why this happened, or defend the quality and cop to the sexism.

It’s your call.

Warning: All the spoilers for Supernatural, especially Season 10. Trigger warning: discussion of rape.

The first time I tried to watch Supernatural, I gave up midway through the first episode, irked¬†by the show’s highly stereotyped portrayal of women. Though I subsequently found myself sucked back in by the promise of the premise and lead characters both – and while I’ve never been shy about my affection for the show overall –¬†the range and treatment of female characters in the first nine seasons has, with few exceptions, remained disappointing.

Traditionally, Supernatural¬†has¬†used¬†the deaths of women as emotional motivators in the developmental arcs of its male protagonists, all of whose pasts are littered with female loss. Beginning with Mary Winchester and Jessica Moore in the very first episode, the body count steadily ratchets up, claiming established characters like Ellen and Jo Harvelle, Bela Talbot, Ava Wilson, Pamela Barnes, Anna Milton, Meg Masters and Ruby alongside women whose connection to the Winchesters, or to other male characters, is frequently rendered equivalent to wearing a red shirt in Star Trek.¬†Sarah Blake, Madison, Tessa, Emma, Karen Singer, Channing Ngo and Gwen Campbell, to name just a few, all die to amp up the emotional tension for the boys, and while Dean’s girlfriend, Lisa Braeden, escapes alive, the fact that she does so with her memories wiped denies her any agency in the decision.

Though undoubtedly a show whose male characters also die in staggering numbers – getting close to Sam and Dean Winchester is practically a death sentence, regardless of gender – Supernatural has also tended to offer its men both a higher chance of resurrection and a wider range of characterisation, and when you couple this fact with the highly sexist language of the early seasons in particular, it’s easy to see why the majority female fanbase has often felt, if not underappreciated, then certainly misunderstood by the show’s creators. The fact that the series was originally intended to attract a male audience – a fact incorporated into¬†early meta episodes like ‘The Real Ghostbusters’ (5.9), which portrayed the fanbase for the Supernatural books as predominantly male – goes some way towards explaining this; the creators expected one type of audience and found themselves with another.¬†This does not, however,¬†excuse the treatment of the female characters, even early on: a story may be intended by its creators to be male-oriented without disrespecting, stereotyping or belittling either women or femininity, and vice versa (though our frequent failure to make such a distinction is of a piece with the rest of our cultural baggage around gender roles, and looks to remain so for some time).

Yet slowly but surely, Supernatural has begun to catch up to its own audience, introducing recurring female characters like Charlie Bradbury, Jodie Mills and Donna Hanscum, and making a (mostly) sincere attempt to engage with its fans on topics like queerbaiting, shipping, diversity¬†and sexism. Which isn’t to say the dialogue isn’t prone to insensitivity, missteps and¬†one-sided preaching, or that all parties¬†have always been respectful of one another; the conflicting opinions run too deep for that, and after ten years on the air, three different showrunners and the omnipresent spectre of network approval as a meddling factor, the various camps – both within the fanbase and the show itself – are entrenched enough that sometimes, agreeing to disagree is as close to a compromise as can be managed.

Undeniably, one of, if not the most contentious such¬†issue is the question of Dean Winchester’s sexual orientation. With a significant portion of the internet¬†currently revelling in the popularity of Dean and Castiel’s still-apparently-platonic relationship – according to tumblr’s year-end statistics, Destiel is now the most popular ‘ship on a site with somewhere between 30 and 50 million users, while multiple media outlets, including¬†Buzzfeed, MTV¬†and¬†TV Guide,¬†have all described them as a romantic couple – the fact that the pair have shared the screen¬†in only two of the current season’s nine episodes hasn’t gone unnoticed, leading to rampant speculation about what this might mean, given that the show’s 200th episode, ‘Fan Fiction’ (10.5), expressly mentions Destiel as a concept. (And with the recent confirmation of a canon romance¬†between the two lead female characters of Avatar: The Legend of Korra¬†– a relationship heavily and deliberately inferred throughout the show, but never made explicit due to network pressures – the question of Destiel, and of how we distinguish ‘romantic’ vs ‘platonic’ relationships on screen between same sex couples where PDAs are verboten, seems more pertinent than ever.)

Which is perhaps why Season 10 of Supernatural has, in some quarters, been met with a critical reception not dissimilar to that of Season 8 of The X-Files, when viewer anxiety over the fate of Agent Fox Mulder, absent and presumed dead until the finale, lead to the dismissal of a narrative arc that was otherwise much stronger than that of the preceding Season 7. Indeed, one of the reasons that rewatching a film or rereading a book is not only emotionally satisfying, but (I would argue) critically necessary, is that the context in which we encounter a story¬†can dramatically alter our perception of it. Though TV shows air week to week, with the distribution of episodes frequently spaced around one or more season breaks, they are still constructed as narrative wholes, and as such,¬†there’s a world of difference between watching the finished product unspoiled, as it airs, and watching the same episodes spoiled, in a glut, or for the second time. That being so, anyone watching the first half of Season 10 of Supernatural in tense¬†anticipation of Dean/Cas interactions – and it’s hardly a small number of fans who are thus invested¬†– may well have been, not only¬†disappointed, but actively frustrated. Apart from ‘Soul Survivor’ (10.3) and ‘The Things We Left Behind’ (10.9), Dean and Castiel are kept apart, moving along narrative trajectories that not only failed to intersect, but which saw both of them romantically engaged, however fleetingly, with different women.

On the Destiel front, then, Season 10 has thus far been slow going. But despite the wider implications of Dean and Castiel’s relationship, it would be a grave mistake – and even, I’d go so far as to say, an actual injustice – to judge the latest season purely through this lens. Because not only is Season 10 steadily unfolding a coherent, engaging narrative arc built, unlike the melodramatic angel wars of Season 9, on the importance of human relationships, it’s also doing something utterly unprecedented in the history of Supernatural: it’s wholeheartedly handing the reins to the women, and doing so with a respect, a sincerity and a deftness of touch that’s all the more powerful for coming from a show with such firmly¬†sexist beginnings. It’s a tonal shift so profound and omnipresent across every single episode as to be inarguably deliberate, and when taken as a whole, the effect is gamechanging.

To give a sense of the extent of the shift, while only 20.93% of episodes across the first eight seasons passed the Bechdel Test, and with Season 9 not much better, the pass rate for Season 10 thus far is 100%. That’s a staggering improvement even before you get to actual context of the episodes themselves, and once you do, the results are even more profound. There simply isn’t another way to put it: Season 10 of Supernatural¬†is fundamentally invested in discussing issues of sexism, gender roles¬†and female agency, and has managed to do this without either retconning the main characters, turning them into white knights or changing¬†the tone of the show, and if that’s not an endeavour worthy of praise, then I don’t know what is.

Right from the outset, sexist and misogynistic behaviour is actively subjected to criticism. In¬†‘Black’ (10.1), Demon!Dean is shown to be in a sexual relationship with Ann Marie, a waitress at a bar. When her ex shows up and corners her, Dean violently beats him, his aggression fuelled by the Mark of Cain – but though Dean tries to pass his actions off as chivalrous – ‘I protected your honour, didn’t I?’ – Ann Marie calls him out. ‘Seeing you take on Matt,’ she says, ‘I was like, no one’s ever done that for me before. But then you kept going and going, and I realised whatever is going on with you has nothing to do with my honour at all.’¬†They argue, and Dean eventually responds by calling Ann Marie a ‘skank’ – but again, she gets the last word, leaving the audience¬†in no doubt as to how unacceptably she’s being treated: ‘Now, see? I’m so screwed up myself I’m gonna walk out of here thinking I actually deserved that.’

Similarly, in ‘Reichenbach’ (10.2), we see Demon!Dean at a strip club, where he touches a dancer without permission, then beats up the bouncer who comes to her rescue, his behaviour¬†presented as a consequence of the Mark of Cain. Yet in the same episode, when Crowley sends Dean to kill the cheating wife of a man, Lester, who sold his soul for the hit, Dean ends up killing Lester instead, disgusted by¬†his misogynistic double standards – he wants his wife dead because of her infidelity, yet freely confesses to having cheated first, because ‘It’s different when guys¬†do it.’ In an episode that’s expressly about Dean’s ambiguous moral status – sometimes demonic, yet sometimes not; enough so that Crowley yells at him to ‘Pick a bloody side!’ – it’s not an accident that Dean’s disrespect of women is presented as demonic, while his championing of them hints at his humanity. Elsewhere in the same episode, angel Hannah goes to visit the imprisoned villain, Metatron, who taunts her in an aggressively sexist fashion, leering as he refers to the ‘white-hot spark’ between them and describing her as ‘desperate to be dominated’.¬†¬†Hannah responds, very satisfyingly, by slamming Metatron’s face into the bars of his cell, and while Castiel is present for some of their exchange, it’s notable that Hannah is the one given the satisfaction of responding to Metatron’s abuse, just as Ann Marie was given the space to name and shame Dean’s cruelty.

This respect for female agency is pivotal to the season’s success: though misogyny is consistently entangled with villainy across all nine episodes, its status as an expressly gendered form of abuse, rather than just another type of evil, is always made clear, while the women it affects are, without fail, validated in their responses. Though Sam, Dean and Castiel are far from bystanders, over and over and over again, Season 10 gives us women who save themselves and each other, and whose cathartic moments of confrontation aren’t stolen by the boys. In ‘Paper Moon’ (10.4), it’s returning werewolf Kate who ultimately kills her renegade sister Tasha, not the Winchesters, while both the captured women in ‘Fan Fiction’ (10.5) and their showrunning friends are treated as equal participants in the defeat of the goddess Calliope, their right to interpret the Supernatural stories validated by both Dean and – more pertinently – Chuck.

Which isn’t to say that women are consistently saints through Season 10; far from it. Along with Tasha and Calliope, we’re also given other female villains in the form of renegade angel Adina, shapeshifter Olivia and the witch Rowena, Crowley’s long-lost mother and a likely candidate for the season’s Big Bad. Additionally, in ‘Ask Jeeves’ (10.6), we’re also given Heddy and Beverly, older women who make an effort to foist themselves on Sam despite his obvious discomfort. Though their characterisation is part and parcel of the episode’s Cluedo theme of stereotypical socialites in a murder mansion, it’s one of the few sour notes as regards the season’s portrayal of gender; not because the women are sexually confident, but because they repeatedly ignore Sam’s boundaries in a way that’s played for laughs without being called out as inappropriate, their eagerness and age presented as¬†justification to view them as comic.

The fact that this is the only instance of demonstrable sexism that goes unchallenged in the season* is striking: a blind spot on the part of writers who are otherwise making a clear effort. But then, Sam being assaulted by women for laughs is a running joke in Supernatural, which perhaps goes some way towards explaining why it snuck through unchallenged: prior to the events of ‘Ask Jeeves’, there was his drugging by and marriage to Becky Rosen, his longtime stalker, in ‘Season Seven, Time For A Wedding!’ (7.8) and his groping by Gertrude Case (also an older woman) in ‘Red Sky at Morning’ (3.6).¬†What makes this gag even more objectionable in Sam’s case, however, is the fact that he is, canonically, a victim of rape – a revelation¬†made explicit in ‘Hello, Cruel World’ (7.2), when he hallucinates Lucifer calling him ‘bunkmate’ and reminiscing about their time in the Cage, when Sam was ‘[his] bitch, in every sense of the word’. There is literally no other way to interpret this than as an admission of rape, and yet this detail¬†is never addressed again. Instead, Sam continues to be assaulted for laughs – because undesirable women wanting him is funny; because their touching him despite his discomfort is apparently even funnier – and while his experience with specific tortures demonstrably triggers him at other times, sexual assault, for all that it happens repeatedly, never does.

That being said, in all other respects, Season 10 endeavours to be sensitive on the subject of sexual abuse. In ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ (10.7), when Sam and Dean encounter a demon-run brothel, it’s significant that the phrase used to describe the treatment of the (human) women is ‘forced prostitution’, rather than simply prostitution alone – a pivotal distinction between choice and coercion. Again, the emphasis on female agency comes to the fore: when her pimp is tricked into a confrontation with the Winchesters, it’s Shaylene who responds to his misogynistic abuse by killing him, and while this cuts short the interrogation, she still manages to provide the necessary information on her own initiative. Elsewhere, two other women, Catlin and Elle, are ‘rescued’ from similar circumstances by Rowena, whose magical abuse soon leads to Elle’s death. But when Rowena tries to talk Catlin into sticking with her, praising her as ‘strong’ while calling Elle¬†‘weak’,¬†Catlin responds by agreeing that yes, she is strong – at which point, she punches Rowena in the face and walks away. Adding a further layer to their interactions is the fact that, prior to Elle’s death, Rowena tries to manipulate the women into trusting her by taking them to a fancy restaurant. When the head waiter snobs Catlin and Elle because of their clothes, Rowena casts a spell to make him do their bidding, and while her motives are unquestionably selfish¬†and cruel – like Elle, the waiter dies – this is nonetheless another instance¬†of sexism (Elle and Catlin are upset by the waiter’s attitude, then happy at being allowed to stay) that’s flagged as such in the narrative.

Further fleshing out the depiction of female agency in ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ is Hannah’s decision to let her vessel, Caroline, return to her husband. Throughout the season, we’ve seen Hannah struggle to understand humanity and human feelings in much the same way that Castiel once did; she experiments with her body and the reactions it can elicit from both herself and Cas, but when confronted by Caroline’s husband, she reconsiders her claim on the person¬†she’s wearing. ‘Caroline was inside me, screaming out for him, for her life back,’ Hannah says. ‘These feelings – they aren’t for me, for us. They belong to her.’¬† And thus comes one of the most powerful, graceful exits of a female character in the entire run of Supernatural: Hannah not only¬†chooses to leave, but does so in a way that is expressly considerate¬†of the wishes of another woman, Caroline. That we don’t hear the dialogue between them doesn’t make its impact any less real. Both Hannah and Caroline are granted agency through a respectful negotiation, and when Castiel watches Caroline’s reunion with her husband, he’s prompted to consider the former family of his own vessel, Jimmy Novak, in turn.

When it comes to depiction of female friendship and agency, however, the relationship between Sheriffs Jody Mills and Donna Hanscum in ‘Hibbing 911’ (10.8) is hard to beat. Not only is this a funny, engaging episode in its own right, but it manages the trick of taking two very different adult women – Jody is wry and antisocial; Donna is smiles and sunshine – and realistically developing their relationship in the context of a monster-of-the-week case. Again, there’s an emphasis on calling out sexism: both women are condescended to by a male gunseller, whom they eyeroll and mock, while Donna’s douchey ex-husband repeatedly fat-shames her until Jody gets him to stop. The fact that Jody actually calls his behaviour ‘fat-shaming’ while simultaneously reassuring Donna about her body is the kind of representation that we badly need more of; even better, however, is the fact that Donna is still allowed to feel embarrassed and upset at Jody speaking for her, rather than being obliged to accept the defence without comment. Both women are existing characters with complicated personal histories: though Jody has a teenage daughter, Alex, to care for, their relationship isn’t simplified either, and the fact that Jody still mourns the loss of her husband and son is something we’re allowed to feel along with her.

In fact, in a show whose male characters are so often defined by the loss of their wives, mothers, girlfriends and daughters, Jody’s status as a woman who has survived the loss of three significant men – her husband, son and Bobby Singer, with whom she was romantically linked – is striking, as is her near-death on a date with Crowley and her subsequent adoption of Alex. Jody’s development arguably parallels that of the Winchesters: like Sam, her romantic partners either end up dead or demonic, and like Dean, she’s been forced to watch the death of her child. Donna, however, with her incongruously cheery personality and slightly comic introduction to the series – at a weight-loss spa run by a fat-sucking pishtaco – is closer to that of Garth Fitzgerald, a dentist who became a hunter (we’ve been told) after killing the tooth fairy. Just as Garth’s friendliness was initially juxtaposed against Dean’s surly demeanour, so Donna’s smiles are juxtaposed against Jody’s scowls – and just as Dean ends up taking Garth under his wing, so ‘Hibbing 911’ ends with Jody offering to show Donna the ropes.

Rounding out the season thus far is ‘The Things We Left Behind’, a heartbreaking episode that reintroduces a now teenage delinquent Claire Novak – daughter of Castiel’s vessel, Jimmy – on the run from the foster system. Critically, the episode respects Claire’s anger: though Castiel tries his (clumsy) best to look after her, both he and Claire are acutely aware of the fact that her actual father is dead, and that Castiel can’t replace him. When Claire states that¬†Castiel is helping her out of guilt alone, Cas acknowledges the truth in the accusation while still expressing a desire to protect her. But even when Claire is effectively ‘sold’ by a man she considered a protector to a loan shark, who promptly tries to rape her, the story still gives her agency in her escape: she fights her attacker, and when Castiel breaks into the room, it’s Claire who takes advantage of the distraction to kick her assailant to the ground and flee. Yet neither is she shown to be unaffected by what’s happened: she is clearly distraught, looking to Cas for comfort that he anxiously provides, and as harrowing as the sequence is, it never once feels exploitative or sensationalist. Claire is a realistic character, flawed and brave: she makes her own choices and acts to protect herself, but is still allowed to be a scared, vulnerable girl distressed by a dangerous situation.

And what about Sam and Dean? After all the secret-keeping of Season 9, it’s both refreshing and necessary to see them attempt to communicate with each other; not that Dean isn’t still lying about the effects of the Mark of Cain, but they’re lies of emotion and omission rather than the informational, you-can’t-know-the-truth-Because-Reasons fibs of the previous season, and it both grounds their relationship while demonstrating its rockier edges. The parallels between Dean and Cole – an antagonistic ex-soldier whose monster father Dean killed in 2003 – are clear and deliberate: Cole has a wife and son he’s neglecting in pursuit of revenge against Dean, just as Dean lost Lisa and Ben to the hunting life. Though Cole may yet return later in the season, his use as an inverted foil for Dean’s transition from demon to human – Cole becomes more monstrous as Dean regains his humanity, while Dean’s acknowledgement of his own monstrousness pushes Cole to return to his family – is neatly cathartic, while at the same time, Cole’s¬†vendetta is what¬†allows Rowena’s escape, his exit as an antagonist leading directly into her establishment as one. But Dean’s transition from demon to human – and the question of what makes someone a monster – is also echoed elsewhere: both in Sam’s decision to risk the damnation of innocent souls, including Lester’s, in his pursuit of Dean and Crowley, and in the questionable humanity¬†of the rapist loan shark and his cronies, all of whom end up dead at Dean’s hand: monstrous men, for all that they’re not technically monsters.

Powerfully, there’s a direct line drawn between Dean’s behaviour¬†at the start of the season¬†his actions at the end of it. In ‘Black’, he attacks Ann Marie’s ex-boyfriend on the pretext of defending her honour while overtly relishing the excuse for violence;¬†in ‘The Things We Left Behind’, however, and despite the greater provocation of the threat to Claire, he genuinely tries to avoid the fight, yet still ends up killing to sate the Mark. In both instances, Dean’s violence is contextualised by a sexual threat to a specific woman, and in both instances, his use of violence as a response is coded as being attributable to¬†the Mark of Cain. But whereas Demon!Dean tries to justify his aggression by falsely claiming it as chivalry,¬†as¬†a human with the Mark, he¬†doesn’t attempt to defend his behaviour at all, even though he has a much better case to make. Not only did the other men attack him first, they were all complicit in the attempted rape of Claire – yet Dean is left numb and horrified, because the Mark has compelled him to murder, and though he could try and pretend otherwise, as he did with Ann Marie, he knows there is no chivalry in his violence. And if that’s not a valuable entry point for a conversation about masculinity, white knight behaviour and aggression-as-protection, then frankly, I don’t know what is.

Nine episodes in, and Season 10 of Supernatural has blown me away with its female characters, human themes and clear commitment to discussing gender roles, sexuality and agency. ¬†It’s a rare show that lasts this long to begin with, but a rarer one still that’s willing to go so far outside its traditional parameters in direct response to the fanbase, and while the execution isn’t always perfect, the fact that the writers are so clearly making an effort carries a lot of weight with me. As big a fan as I am of Destiel, I’d be selling the show short to paint it as the emotional be-all, end-all of everything, and while I’d like to see more of Cas and Dean together in the rest of the season – and I rather suspect we will – if the show keeps on in this new vein regardless, I’ll be a happy camper.

*In ‘Soul Survivor’ (10.3), Castiel refers to Hannah’s presence by saying ‘there’s a female outside in the car,’ a line which has been justly criticised. However, while I agree that this is a¬†poor choice of words, I’m inclined to view it as a more innocent slip; partly because ‘female’ is a word we’ve seen Cas use before within his awkward speech patterns – most notably in ‘Reading is Fundamental’ (7.21) – but also because there’s a potential contextual reason for the ambiguity it provides, inasmuch as it doesn’t betray whether Cas’s companion is human or angel. (Dean and Hannah don’t get along, which makes it understandable that he wouldn’t call her by name.) So while I still find the line jarring, I don’t think Castiel is being sexist.

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¬†Swordfish,¬†Death 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 clich√©. 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.)

A couple of years ago, while attending an SFF convention, I made the mistake of participating in a geek trivia contest. Normally, I love this sort of thing, even when I lose badly: I spent a not inconsiderable portion of my tweens and teens¬†playing the original edition of Trivial Pursuit for fun, despite the fact that even the most “recent” events on the cards¬†were all older than me by more than a decade. My parents used to beat me hollow, but I loved it, because I always felt like I learned something. So, understandably, I embarked on this particular quiz with a feeling of optimism. I didn’t care that it was billed as “ridiculously hard” – I just wanted to have a good time, and maybe learn some cool, obscure facts about the history of SFF. Instead, the whole thing quickly became the single worst experience I’ve ever had at a convention.

The Round 1 topic was meant to be SFF literature: no time period specified. Not unreasonably, given the sheer breadth of SFF as a field, I’d expected the questions to cover a reasonable spread of works – some old, some new, some obscure, some famous. Instead, the range was much more limited; obliviously¬†so. Before we all swapped papers for marking, I called out to the straight, white, middle-aged male MC (who’d also written the¬†quiz) and asked a question: was there any answer to Round 1 that was not either a Dead White Male or an Old White Male?

He¬†paused, looking stunned. “Oh,” he said. “I hadn’t noticed that.”

The film round was more of the same: the most recent movie referenced was a work of B-grade 90s SF. Everything else was from the 50s, 60s, or – more commonly – ¬†the 70s. No answers involved women, let alone POC. At this point, the MC decided to hand out the sheet for the picture round. When he reached our table, he pointedly said to me, “You can’t call me sexist now, because an equal number of questions on here are about women. I made sure of it.” Which is to say: on the bonus round that was about identifying SFF characters and celebrities¬†by their predominantly naked or scantily-clad arses, three of the pictures were of women: Ellen Ripley, Catwoman, and Seven of Nine. Three others were of robots, and the remaining four were men. Surprisingly, this didn’t cheer me up.

Next was a¬†Star Wars/Star Trek round, which distinguished itself by featuring a single answer that involved a woman. (The question: what was Seven of Nine’s real name?) By this point, four of the five tables were visibly¬†losing the will to live: the remaining team, which boasted two straight white men in their forties or above – one of whom was close friends with the MC – was something like 30 points ahead of their nearest competitors, and it was becoming increasingly apparent, from comments made by the MC, that the entire quiz had basically been designed as a series of in-jokes between him and his mate; this did not, however, stop him from calling¬†the losing teams “pathetic”. To make things worse, once¬†he’d handed out the arses sheet, the MC started¬†deliberately mispronouncing and mocking our team name when he read out the scores, something which he continued to do for the rest of the evening. As we were the only ones to received this treatment, it was quite obviously meant as¬†retaliation.

Then came the Doctor Who round, which had two questions that referenced the reboot¬†and the rest of which was all about the classic series; which would have been fine, was the focus not specifically centered on a handful of obscure episodes¬†that seemed to be personal favourites of the MC and his mate on the winning team (who was, unsurprisingly, the only one who got the answers right). At the start of this round, the MC announced loudly that these questions would “separate the men from the boys”. At this,¬†a¬†WOC from one of the other teams – who’d also noticed the somewhat SWM-heavy¬†material – turned to me and said, “Well, what about the girls?”

The results of this round were so heavily skewed in favour of the MC’s friend’s team that even he acknowledged there was no point in doing the extra Doctor Who questions, and skipped straight ahead to Round 5, which asked us to list the shows, books, films or series responsible for particular swear words. The answer to the first question was Battlestar Galactica, which was, from memory, the most recent work referenced in the entire quiz. After that,¬†we marked the arses. (Most recent, and most prominent on the answer sheet: a naked Daniel Radcliffe in Equus, though how that counts as SFF, I don’t know. Oh, and the Green Lantern.)

Naturally, the¬†team captained by the MC’s mate won by a landslide; we came last, with a score the¬†MC called “shameful”. By then, it was after midnight: the quiz had dragged on for hours, and the overriding mood among the participants was one of exhaustion, with expressions ranging from grim to baffled. Not unsurprisingly, the most irritated people were, pretty much universally, women and POC, all of whom had been actively excluded by the increasingly hostile host. I didn’t care that we lost: I cared that, at a convention with a diverse range of attendees, and which had put some effort into promoting discussions of bias in SFF, an event that should’ve been a fun end to the proceedings and a celebration of shared experience was instead turned into an exclusionary old boys’ club.

Which is what came to mind this¬†evening, when a not-so-snappily-titled Buzzfeed quiz – What’s Your Geek Number? – cropped up in my Facebook feed. The whole thing is 300 questions long, and in that entire, lengthy list, which mentions a hefty number of specific titles and works by name, only two are created by women: Harry Potter, and My Little Pony. Everything else listed has either been written or created by men, and it’s notable that while there are multiple questions about the purchase and possession of merchandise in the male-oriented franchises, particularly relating to comics and Magic: The Gathering, neither of these female-dominated fandoms is explored in similar detail. In fact, male fans of My Little Pony even get a bonus point for liking the show, as they can effectively answer the same question twice, while women – the show’s traditional fanbase – cannot:

Buzzfeed Brony question

Which is sadly typical of the entire thing. While fandoms, behaviours and pastimes that are commonly held to be male-dominated are discussed in detail – programming, mainstream comics,¬†Star Trek, Star Wars, Magic: The Gathering – there’s a conspicuous absence of female-dominated media. Right at the end, for instance, there are three questions about fanfiction, and a couple of passing references to artwork based on favourite series (though the term ‘fanart’ is never used), but there’s no mention of cosplay, costuming, knitting, filking, fanzines, slash, book blogging, meta-writing, YA novels, webcomics, or any other subcultures¬†known for having a high percentage of female geeks. Which isn’t to say that women don’t program, or read mainstream comics, or like any of the other things the quiz puts a premium on; nor am I suggesting that, at 300 questions, the whole thing was really too short.¬†I know this is just a random Buzzfeed quiz – which is to say, a literal timewaster – and that my analyzing it like this is going to have lots of people rolling their eyes, because why the fuck would anyone take it seriously?

But here’s the thing: at a time when various geeky cultures and subcultures are still gripped by lurking paranoia about the existence of Fake Geek Girls, and where women are so often asked to prove their geek credentials in ways that men just aren’t, creating a quiz whose content perfectly mirrors the extant debates about what “real” geeks are, in a way that makes it clear that “real geek” is code for “guy”, kind of helps to demonstrate the problem. Whenever mainstream culture stereotypes geekdom as a bunch of greasy, cheeto-stained white guys in sweat pants mouthbreathing in the basement of their parents’ house, we bristle collectively, because we know it’s unfair and inaccurate – a caricature some forty years out of date. But when we ourselves make assumptions about what the “average geek” looks like, we still tend to picture some variant of this same guy, with his Boba Fett statues and Kirk v Picard t-shirt, and treat him, if not as a yardstick, then as genesis: the archetypal Patient Zero who first spread the disease of dorkness to his likeminded fellows. We think of women and POC as interlopers, latecomers, erasing the history of their participation in fandom in a bid to reassure a particular resentful, insecure cluster of white men that, even if they’re not the only fans around, they’re still the most important, because they were here first: that men like them were solely responsible, not just for fandom as a concept, but for all those geeky fields – like computing, video games, movies, science fiction and fantasy – with which it’s now associated.

Only, no: they weren’t. Not exclusively. Not by a long shot.

The first ever novel, The Tale of Genji – which was also, coincidentally, a work of fantasy – was written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu¬†in around the year 1000, and is still being read today. In 1666,¬†Margaret Cavendish published what is arguably the first ever work of science fiction, The Blazing World; but even if you discount her work on the grounds of obscurity,¬†Mary Shelley¬†is still recognised as the mother of modern science fiction for her 1818 publication of Frankenstein, which she wrote at the age of 19. The first ever crimefighting¬†vigilante¬†to go don a mask, a cape and a secret identity was the Scarlet Pimpernel, created by Baroness Emma Orczy in 1905. Women have been creating comic books since the late 1800s; even in the male-dominated¬†Golden and Silver Ages, women like¬†Nina Albright, Ruth Atkinson and Marie Severin were still known quantities. The whole concept of young adult novels – and, indeed, of teenagers as a distinct literary audience – was introduced by Sarah Trimmer in 1802, while the novel most widely held to have prompted the separate categorisation of YA in the modern era¬†was S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, published in 1967.

The earliest surviving¬†animated feature film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, was written and directed¬†by Lotte Reiniger in 1926, while the world’s first animated films were the work of Quirino Cristiani. The first female film director, Alice Guy-Blache, was working as early as 1894; depressingly, though, it wasn’t until 1991 that Julie Dash became the first African-American woman to both write and direct a full-length film that was given a general theatrical release, Daughters of the Dust. ¬†Such is the exclusionary strangeness of Hollywood that from the¬†1920s to about 1940, the only woman working as a director was Dorothy Arzner; yet during the same period, the majority of screenwriters were women. June Mathis was the first female executive for Metro/MGM in 1923; Mary Pickford founded United Artists in 1919; and writer¬†Frances Marion¬†became¬†the first person ever to win two Academy Awards in 1932.

The world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace, wrote her famous algorithm 1842; and even in the modern world, as hard as it is to believe now, computer programming was originally considered to be a female occupation, and as such was female-dominated right up until the late 1960s. The first compiler for a programming language was developed by Rear Admiral Grace Hopper¬†in 1952 – just one of her many pioneering developments. Modern spread-spectrum communication technology is based on an invention originally¬†developed and patented by Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil. Many of the famous Bletchley Park codebreakers were young women; notably Mavis Batey, who cracked the Enigma code used by the German secret service while in her early twenties, thereby ensuring the success of the D-Day landings.

The majority of attendees at the first Star Trek conventions were women. It was Betty Jo Trimble who successfully campaigned to keep the original series running after it was nearly cancelled, just as it was Lucille Ball who pushed NBC to give the show a second chance after they initially rejected the pilot. The first, small Star Trek convention was the work of Sherna Comerford, while a much bigger second convention was organised by Joan Winston. The contents of the first Star Trek fanzine, Spockanalia Рwhich was produced by Devra Langsam and Sherna Comerford Рliterally defined modern fanfiction, and by 1973, 90% of Star Trek fanfiction was written by women, which fandom also gave us the term Mary Sue (whose origins, contrary to popular belief, were purposefully satirical).

Women have also been involved in video games since the early days, too: to name just three,¬†Roberta Williams¬†co-founded Sierra Entertainment, Carol Shaw designed her first video game in 1978, and Anne Westfall programmed the hit EA game, Archon. ¬†As early as 1993, it was reported that 64% of girls played video games for at least one hour a week, while in 2008, a study found that 94% of girls play video games. I could go on, but hopefully, I’ve made my point: that not only have women and POC always played an integral role in fandom, but that even in geeky arenas commonly held to have been white-male-only spaces until very recently, the assumed narrative is far from accurate. The histories have been glossed and elided, the narrative of white male supremacy touted as the natural result of innate interest and aptitude, rather than the purposeful consequence of exclusion, bigotry and ongoing bias.

And even in the present day, the elision continues. Everyone knows that Joss Whedon wrote Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog; what’s less well-known is that it was¬†co-written by his sister-in-law, Maurissa Tancharoen, who also worked on¬†Dollhouse and Avengers Assemble.¬†We know that Mamoru Hosada is the breakaway director responsible for¬†The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars and Wolf Children,¬†but not that all three scripts were written by the same woman, Satoko Okudera. After decades of adoration by girls and women – decades in which the franchise has been roundly shunned¬†as ungeeky ¬†– My Little Pony has rocketed to prominence as both a valid fandom and within public consciousness, not because women are now being taken seriously, but because male fans have deemed the franchise worthy of their attention, thereby legitimising it. Here’s how quickly things have changed: in 2005, Penny Arcade ran a strip where a female character was mocked by male geeks for her My Little Pony casemod;¬†come 2013, the Penny Arcade Report is running a supportive piece on bronies battling Hasbro.

Which brings me back to that stupid Buzzfeed quiz, and why, when it evoked¬†the memory of that awful convention trivia night, I found I was physically angry. As innocuous as such small slights are in the abstract, they’re ultimately predicated on something bigger and more insidious: the ubiquity of bias, and the many ways in which ignorance feeds itself. This is why women in fandom are still suspected of being Fake Geek Girls: because the history that supports our claim to geekdom is a history too many of our peers have¬†never learned, and have in fact been actively encouraged not to seek. Until sufficient male support¬†legitimises female-dominated fandoms, we are forced to accept a lesser, periphery status; but once the men do take an interest, then suddenly, the women were never there to begin with.

I don’t care that some mook at Buzzfeed thinks that playing Magic: The Gathering is a more natural and obvious geeky pastime than cosplaying characters or writing fanfiction: I care that he no more seemed¬†to realise he was making that distinction than the MC at the convention trivia night realised his quiz wasn’t just generally difficult, but specialised to the point of exclusion.Liking different fandoms is one thing, but assuming your fandoms are the only, the realest, the most legitimate¬†fandoms, whether consciously or unconsciously, Because Dudes, is a quite another. And I, for one, am sick of it.


We have, as a society, such a completely disordered, distorted perception of female bodies that the vast majority of people are incapable of recognising what “overweight” actually looks like on a woman, let alone “healthy”. As such, we’re now at a point where women are not only raised to hate their bodies as a matter of course, but are shown, from childhood, a wholly inaccurate picture of what they “should” look like – a narrow, nigh on impossible physical standard they are then punished, both socially and medically, for failing to attain.

I don’t say this lightly. I say it because this is the only conclusion supported by the facts.

Let’s examine the evidence, shall we?

1: BMI

Overwhelmingly, the measurement used to determine whether or not someone is a “healthy weight” is the BMI, or Body Mass Index. Most people are still taught it in schools; indeed, it’s commonly used by doctors and in medical underwriting for insurance purposes, ¬†and is also used by the WHO and various other official bodies, including many universities. It is, however, flawed to the point of uselessness – a fact acknowledged by the man who popularised its usage, Ansel Keys, who explicitly stated that it shouldn’t be used as a tool for individual diagnosis.

There are several main reasons why our cultural reliance on the BMI as a means of assessing health, and particularly women’s health, is deeply problematic:

1. It doesn’t take into account the fact that muscle is denser¬†than fat. As such, it frequently registers athletes and bodybuilders as being obese or overweight, despite their incredible fitness, just because their bodies have greater muscle density, a prejudice which extends to anyone with significant muscle-mass. This is why, for instance, a superfit bodybuilder, Anita Albrecht, was yesterday told by an NHS nurse that she was obese and ordered¬†to go on a strict diet.

2. It doesn’t take height or bodytype into account with any degree of accuracy. Taller individuals will always have a higher BMI regardless of their actual weight, because of the way the measurement is constructed, while shorter people will always have a lower one. Having been originally developed in Europe, using European physical norms, in the 1800s, neither does it factor in ethnicity or metabolism,¬†which is why a Yale University student, Frances Chan, is currently being pushed to develop an eating disorder by the college’s medical administrators, all of whom are¬†so obsessed with her naturally low BMI that they’ve assumed she must be anorexic, and are forcing¬†her to gain unnecessary weight or risk expulsion.

3. Although women are both shorter on average than men while¬†naturally carrying more fat, the BMI calculation doesn’t take this into account, but uses the same measurement for both men and women. In fact, it was originally formulated based on studies of white male populations only¬†– which means that¬†BMI is fundamentally predicated on¬†judging female bodies against male norms. As such, and as useless as the BMI is anyway in terms of individual diagnosis, it’s especially harmful to women and POC, whose morphology and metabolisms it was never meant to accommodate.

4. It doesn’t account for age, or any change in height that occurs with age. A teenager who hasn’t yet achieved their full growth or settled into their normal, adult weight is held to the same standards as someone old enough to have begun losing height

Combine these facts together, and you have a recipe for disaster. All over the world, women of all bodytypes, ages and ethnicities are being told by physicians, family members, universities and insurance companies to try and adhere to a single, “universal” notion of bodily health that is, in fact, predicated entirely on what was considered normal for white European men in the mid-1800s.

2. Clothing Sizes

Consider the women in these two photos, all of whom, despite their wildly differing bodytypes, weigh the Australian average of 70kg, or 154 pounds:

American women who all weigh 154 pounds Australian women all weighing the average 70kg

Clearly, these women all wear different size clothes for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their weight, and everything to do with height and bodytype. But because of the fashion industry’s obsession with tall, thin, white, ectomorphic models – women chosen, not because they’re a representative sample of the population, but so their minimal frames can better serve as coathangers for clothes that privilege a very specific aesthetic over function – we have learned to correlate small sizes with healthy bodies, the better to justify their primacy on the runway, in advertising and on screen as a healthy ideal. Never mind that modelling agencies have been known to recruit at eating disorder clinics, with store mannequins more closely resembling the bodies of anorexic girls than average women, models eating tissues to stay thin¬†and¬†rail-thin models photoshopped to hide their ill-health and prominent ribs:¬†because “plus size” models – that is, women whose bodies are actually representative of the general population – are treated as a separate, exceptional category, the fiction persists that “plus size” is a synonym for “overweight”, “unhealthy” or “obese”: women too enormous to wear “normal” clothes, even though the norm in question is anything but. As such, plus-size models are frequently derided as fat, a joke, unhealthy and bad role models. Today, catwalk models weigh 23% less than the average woman, compared to 8% just twenty years ago – yet whenever this disparity is pointed out, the reaction of many is to just assume that average women must be overweight, and that using plus size mannequins will only encourage obesity.¬†Throw in the fact that women’s clothing sizes aren’t standardised, but fluctuate ¬†wildly from brand to brand – or within the same brand, even –¬†and the idea of judging a woman’s health by what size jeans she wears becomes even more absurd.

For anyone still¬†temped by the idea that the standards set by the fashion industry aren’t really that bad, and that the obesity epidemic is surely skewing statistics somewhat, let me put it bluntly:¬†Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. Women aged 15-24 are twelve times more likely to die of anorexia than of anything else, while 20% of all anorexics die of their illness. So when I tell you that 20 to 40% of models are estimated to suffer from eating disorders, and that only 5% of American women naturally possess a model’s bodytype, I want you to comprehend my full meaning.

Think about that, the next time you’re tempted to call the girl in the size fourteen jeans overweight.

3. Fat Health

And here, we come to the nub of the problem: the ubiquitous conflation of slenderness with health. With all the statistics I’ve just listed, I shouldn’t have to point out that one can be fantastically thin – model thin, even – and still dangerously unhealthy: among their many other evils, for instance, eating disorders can lead to bone loss and heart complications, to say nothing of the mental health component. What’s much harder to convey, given the overwhelming social incentives to the contrary, is the idea that one can be fat – and I want to talk about that word more, in a moment – and still be physically healthy. Obviously, there are also¬†health risks to being obese, and that’s still something worth discussing, especially given that¬†6% of deaths are attributable to obesity. But on a daily basis, our fear of this fact, when combined with myriad other social distortions –¬†our obsession with an extremely narrow and largely unrealistic image of female beauty, the conflation¬†of small clothing sizes with healthy bodies, our phobia¬†of anything “plus size”, the false reporting of BMI as an indicator of female wellness – means we’ve lost the ability to tell what obesity actually looks like.

(One cannot help noticing that, while the WHO claims the number of obese persons has doubled since 1980, this statistical leap neatly parallels the adoption of BMI as standard by that same body, which also¬†happened in the 1980’s.¬†Given the appalling flaws of BMI as a system – flaws which¬†not only lead to¬†average-sized women being categorised as overweight or obese for failing to have male proportions, but which¬†also award higher BMI’s to taller people at a time when¬†the average person is getting taller – it’s hard not to wonder, therefore, if¬†it’s not that we’re gaining weight in such massive numbers, but rather that the yardstick for obesity has radically shifted. At the very least, if actual obesity is on the rise, I sincerely doubt it’s rising as much or as quickly as scaremongers seem to think it is, given the undeniable skewing of data inherent to the BMI system.)


Particularly for women, possession of any visible body fat whatsoever is invariably conflated with being overweight or unhealthy, and while that’s true some of the time, what it means in a practical sense is that fat, as a concept, rather than being a simple bodily descriptor, has instead become pejorative, a warning that we need to amend our ways. We talk about fatness like it’s a single, static thing, rather than a relative term: as though, if you’re fatter than someone – anyone – you must also be fat absolutely. We don’t talk about degrees of fatness, or bodytype, or distribution of mass. We LOVE big breasts (provided they’re not saggy, of course, or possessed in the expectation that you’ll be able to buy affordable bras to put them in, which – surprise! – you can’t) and we talk, gingerly, about “curves”, but always in ways that¬†serve to disconnect them from the type of bodies to which, more often than not, such attributes belong: fat ones. Because being fat isn’t the same as being overweight, or obese; it just means not thin, and if you think “overweight” and “not thin” are synonyms, then you haven’t been paying attention. Being called fat, in fact, is¬†often just¬†code for “not the ideal”, which can be down to any number of things – that you have wide hips, stomach rolls, thighs that touch (our obsession with the thigh gap is dangerous in and of itself; unless you have a naturally splayed pelvis, it’s only attainable via malnourishment). Our language is full¬†of mocking, heavily gendered terms tied to particular bits of anatomy or pieces of clothing, all of them designed to police women’s bodies:¬†cankles, cameltoe, muffin top, whale tail, tramp stamp, thunder thighs, junk in the trunk, saddlebags, child-bearing hips. As a teenager, I remember seeing a gossip magazine mock¬†Jennifer Aniston for having “arm sausages” – little rolls of skin at the side of her armpits – and feeling physically sick as I realised I had them, too, and must therefore be fat.


We need to stop reinforcing¬†this idea that if you’re not thin, you’re obese. As a concept, it has absolutely nothing to do with health, and everything to do with justifying our demand for idealised female beauty by mocking anyone who doesn’t meet its impossible standards as overweight. We need to stop relying on BMI to tell us how healthy we are, or not – especially for women – and accept instead that “health” is too complex a concept to be boiled down to a single calculation. Especially given the horrific biases in the healthcare system against anyone seen to be¬†overweight, using a single glib rule to determine the most likely cause of unwellness is not only counterproductive, but dangerous. We need to stop using “fat” as a pejorative, and we sure as hell need to stop the toxic culture of eating disorders, photoshopped images and outright malnutrition currently fuelling the fashion industry.

Because society deserves better. Women deserve better.

We deserve better.







All too often, gross remarks – be they racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise abusive and vile – are excused or condoned on the grounds of irony; that because they were meant to be humorous, they can’t possibly be offensive. And if somebody is offended, then they’re either oversensitive or incapable of laughter – either way, though, the problem is with them, not the joke-teller.

Except that, no: it’s not.

Generally speaking, there are two reasons why people make ironically offensive jokes: either they think we live in such a post-racist, post-sexist, post-discriminatory world that the act of mimicking historical abuses cannot possibly reinforce those abuses, on account of how they no longer really exist; or they secretly think the stereotypes which underlie offensive jokes have some basis in reality, and are therefore funny because they’re true. The former person can be anything from genuinely well-intentioned but oblivious to belligerently convinced that society has swung so far in the opposite direction that previously oppressed groups are now the beneficiaries of so much privilege that mocking them is only fair. The latter person, however, is almost invariably bigoted, even if they’re not consciously aware of it.

As such, there are really three types of people who tell ironically offensive jokes or make offensive remarks for fun: those who think bigots either don’t exist or are so vanishingly rare as to be meaningless statistical anomalies, those who are bigots but don’t realise it, and those who embrace their bigotry as the only logical truth. If that’s true, then it’s surely important to know the exact intentions of the people both making and responding to supposedly ironic jokes – otherwise, you run the risk of laughing at yourself.

But if the remarks themselves are functionally identical regardless of who’s making them, then how can you possibly know which ones are meant ironically?

The answer is, you can’t – and for those who’d like to contend otherwise, permit me a small experiment with which to support my case.

The following statements are all, word for word, sexist comments or messages I’ve received online from total strangers. Some, by the explicit admission of the senders, were intended ironically; others, also by explicit admission, were not. Some are from self-professed sexists; others are from individuals who violently objected to my labelling them as such. Some were sent in the course of a conversation; others were out of the blue. But all were sent online, by people I don’t know in real life – meaning that you, my readers, know as much about the senders and their potential motives as I first did on receiving them.

So tell me: which ones are ironic, and which are not?

1. im gonna rape you

2. you rant and whine like a true cunt

3. Most women need to be dominated. It might not be what they think they want but its what they need, trust me they eat that shit up.

4. God, what a feminist bitch!

5. you just sound like another bitter angry man-hating lesbian

6. Petal, you have no idea how pleasurable it is being fisked by a self-righteous tea-cosy-wearing Scots feminista called “Foz”.

7. it’s not really a sexist belief that women are mentally and physically inferior to men

8. You’ll never get a husband thinking that way.

9. You’re a fat bitch with a man haircut that never got laid so you turned dyke and you’re on a feminazi rage.

10. still an ugly slag, get some surgery bitch

Laughing yet?

I’m not.

Not because I don’t have a sense of humour – I do. It’s just that this isn’t funny. This is a tiny, tiny taste of what it means to be a woman online: I have folders full of this stuff, and I guarantee that most of the people sending it don’t think of themselves as being the least bit sexist or misogynistic . Oh, no: they’re just being honest, or – god help me –¬†comedians. But the thing is, the ironic-offensive-humour-peddlers? They’re the minority. The vast majority of the offensive nonsense I receive – that all women receive – isn’t meant ironically. It’s either meant explicitly to intimidate and frighten, or ¬†– just as chillingly – is nothing more than a deadpan, no-nonsense glimpse into the sender’s view of women. It’s the opposite of irony.

So when you joke about how I should get back in the kitchen and make you a sandwich, you’re not being clever or witty or post-ironic. You’re offering up a pitch-perfect imitation of the sort of abuse I routinely receive, and – at absolute best – are asking me to laugh at how weird, how implausible it is, that people used to think like this! Isn’t that just crazy?

What’s crazy, friend, is that you expect me to laugh at my own belittlement.

Bottom line: ironic sexism is still sexism. Not just because women can’t tell the difference, but because misogynists can’t, either – and they think that shit’s hilarious.