Friday, January 08, 2010

This is getting old.

Dear David,

I believe I aptly explained why I feel that Rucka has merely copied the Indigos with his rationalization, and that Diana was clearly placed in Violet due to the combination of her prominence and her gender and not because of any suitability in her modern age character. (Aside to the spectators, supposed pre-Crisis know-it-alls should RTFP and RTFC before piping up--DC's made a conscious effort to remove Aphrodite's influence as of the reboot, and it was quite successful.) As such, I figured you should understand just why I find the situation unacceptable.

Then I read your statement regarding love:
I think you could have as easily made the argument that Superman loves all creation and is willing to fight for it, and thus could have easily been a Sapphire. But perhaps Johns has a story reason for wanting Supes to remain undead a bit longer... or (more likely) no one ever thought Superman could rock the pink outfit. And at the same time, I try to see the positives here, in that we're talking about Love, dammit, and I actually LIKE the idea of super-heroes filled with love for humanity, love for the world, as the M.O. for doing what they do. In a world of vengeance-driven characters like Batman, I WANT someone to say "love must triumph," so I admit -- I can't get too outraged at the continuity/treatment/event/momentary-lapse-that-won't-affect-her-solo-title-four-months-from-now.

Before I get into the sweeping problem here, let me note that not wanting to put Superman in a pink costume but being willing to change Wonder Woman--who has the same hair/eye/skin color and costume color scheme--to a pink costume is homophobic and sexist and therefore wrong. So it's not a good excuse for using Diana rather than Clark for this particular twist.

But that's not where we get screwed up. You seem to find the idea that Love is what saved Wonder Woman from Death to be unequivocably positive, but even without the promblematic setup of the Star Sapphires Love is quite a loaded word, and there is definitely a gender disparity here. For male characters, Love is a positive addition to an already heroic character. It makes a powerful character more powerful. It adds to their supporting cast and gives them inspiration to achieve greater heights. They tend to be the hero first and the brother/father/husband/son/lover afterwards.

Female characters more often than not from conception have their LIVES revolve around Love and relationships. They are mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, lovers (even as bad guys, they are often potential lovers) to male characters first of all. They live, sleep, and breathe love and romance. Most of them are introduced as love interests and many that begin as heroes in their own right find themselves quickly paired off with the writer's and fan's favorite guys. Precious few gain and keep satellite male love interests that enhance their stories. Most female characters are used to enhance a male character's story, to teach them the power of love and the ways of the heart.

And outside the superhero genre? Men get to be reluctant romantic leads and learn to open their hearts, but they are also action and adventure and dramatic leads as well.

Women are overwhelmingly romantic leads and workers of love with hearts that yearn to be open. They are sometimes dramatic leads, but that's usually folded in with romance. They are RARELY solo action and adventure leads who explore their problems with wit and courage. Even when they get action and adventure roles, they tend to be romantic and emotional in nature, or learning the value of love for family, for men, or for strangers.

See, it may be an amazing and special thing for you to read a male hero learning to open up himself to love and it making him stronger. And it may be fun for you in the same way to read a woman tap into love to draw strength. That's because to you, it's not the same old theme to every story about you. You get a variety of themes about human nature.

We get love conquers all. In the large and the small, in the personal and the global. Love conquers all. All the time.

That's why for many of us the amazing and beautiful thing is watching a woman be independent and confident and hopeful without attaching herself as a helper to a man. The special thing is watching a woman reach wholeness by opening herself to other emotions--emotions like righteous anger (that we're often urged to repress) and enduring hope that aren't the theme behind every story we've ever read

And for a lot of women, there is nothing special in watching a woman tap into a reservoir of love so that she can draw strength from that because that's what 99.9% of female characters do when they're strong anyway. And though a lot of women still greatly enjoy it, it's as common as dirt and they can find it anywhere. And everyone enjoys variety. Even those of us who adore apples like to eat a pear once in a while and don't like when that pear we were in the mood for suddenly turns out to be another apple.

To clarify, I'm going to have to discuss spoilers for Green Lantern Corps #42-43 here.

Now, I have said in the past that I absolutely adore Miri, and I have blogged in the past that I was surprised at how well the Kyle and Soranik relationship worked out. Soranik is a very clinical, willful woman. She's never allowed herself to be in love because she's specifically been afraid of being hurt. And she has a superstitious streak (she insisted back in her first appearance her ring was cursed because Sinestro went bad and Katma died), so she must have been afraid of Kyle's fucking amazing bad streak. Not only that, she's from Korugar where Green Lanterns are despised and Kyle is The Green Lantern, the Torchbearer, the reason we all HAVE Green Lanterns right now. It's a beautiful blend of complementary personalities. He's artistic and neurotic. She's logical and hot-tempered. He's from a chaotic and diverse world and she's from a very well-ordered world that hasn't had freedom long enough to be accustomed to it. (We can infer the difference in natural states from how Sinestro reacted to Earth in the Secret Origin storyline, suggesting that Korugar was never so wild even before he took over.)

So opening herself up to love was a multifold experience. She was overcoming a number of fears and exposing herself to a completely different culture and mindset. It worked beautifully, and wonderfully. It wasn't innovative, but it was well-crafted.

Then Blackest Night started. And Kyle and Soranik's relationship was tested by Black Lantern Jade. It came out ahead. Then Kyle sacrificed his life, blowing up in the middle of telling Soranik he loved her.

It was heartbreakingly beautiful.

It was clearly not the end.

Kyle's sweetheart, after all, is a neurosurgeon, and the best medical professional on Oa. so one of the expected solutions is that she would be able to work through her panic, desperation, and grief to revive him from the dead. That she would, through her skill be able to save her love.

There are times when you expect a plot to continue in the obvious direction along a well-worn path, only to have the writer pull the rug out from under you. Before you know it you see the tips of your shoes cross the backdrop of a beautiful summer sky, but it doesn't hurt. You landed on soft grass and you can feel the warm sunlight on your face, so you laugh because you got surprised and you loved it and it was part of this wonderful game!

Kyle's death was one of those times.

Kyle's resurrection was not.

The plot had been marching down an obvious direction (though there were still many forks available that weren't cliched) but it was not a well-worn or unwelcome path. It was an unusual path because the Doctor with the material skills and logical mind was a female character and the one who'd sacrificed himself for love was a male character. This may not be as unusual as it used to be, but it was still a riveting departure from the typical setup and the romantic fairy tales of our youth. Tomasi pulled Miri--thus far the best of the Star Sapphires so I credit him with creating her--into the mix. Soranik finds herself without the skill to save Kyle, and is unable to balance her emotions in the center of the battle. Miri creates a link between the two lovers and uses Soranik's love to resurrect Kyle.

An inspiring example that love conquers even death, no? I'm sure Tomasi thought as much. He was thematically incorrect, though. Since it was Miri swooping in as a Deus Ex Machina, this was solely Love conquering death while Will sat on the sidelines. But if Soranik had done so using her measured skill with or without the quasimystical help of Miri, it would have been an example of will mixing with love to conquer death, and a better echo of the overall theme of Blackest Night--that these forces cannot prevail alone. You neglect in your argument that "Love Must Triumph" is most certainly not the only thematic alternative to vengeance-obsessed protagonists. I enjoy reading about people who achieve their goals through strength and intelligence and just plain never giving up. I enjoy watching a protagonist who wishes to preserve the thing they care for above all else, but I also like a protagonist who has a strong sense of what is fair and just and acts in order to correct injustice and balance. I like heroes like Green Lanterns, who apply their skill and their wits and their courage to make sense of the universe. Love's a wonderful experience, but it is not the prime motivating factor for everyone who does something altruistic or even just good, and stories where love alone doesn't get the job done can be incredibly uplifting.

More importantly, the sour taste I found in my mouth came from this: A woman's love can conquer anything is a theme that reverberates across fiction. You can find it anywhere if you want to look for it. But here Tomasi had a storyline that was different and exciting, and he threw it away for the sort of cliched climax that can be found in a 13-year-old's Mary Sue fanfic.

(I will give him that the potential fallout from this impromptu battlefield marriage is juicy as all hell, so I'll continue reading, but the resurrection sorely disappointed me. Also, Miri is a fairy godmother, but she's also fairly awesome--the first genuinely positive example of a Star Sapphire so far. This is a misstep that hasn't soured me on his using her.)

But I'll even give you that Miri's solution could have been quite ingenius if Kyle had been the one standing helplessly at Soranik's side (this wouldn't have sent Guy into a rage, but they could have placed it afterwards--like she got hit while reviving him), and Miri had linked hearts to bring her back to life. Why is it so different? Because a man's love in stories tends to be expressed by the physical deeds he does for it, and doesn't need to manifest as a mystical quality.

Female heroes don't often get to express love through feats of strength or skill. Love wells up from the bottom of their soul and springs forth as inspiration or magic, and puts things right on a spiritual level. (And at DC, love wells up from the bottom of a crystal cocoon and springs forth in a neat little pink package that shows lots of cleavage!) It would have been a hell of a thing to see Soranik Natu save her lover through her skill, and then be saved by the pure power of his love because that would be her love-driven skills and his pure emotion rather than the usual trope of emphasizing the woman's pure emotions and the man's skills.

Love stories may be an undiscovered country for men, but this is far from a new frontier for women. It's always been our playground. It's where we're assumed to have our greatest power, and it's the place we're relegated to in story and song.

Love is the kitchen of genre fiction.

So to a lot of us? Yes, this is a negative.

And the fact that in DC, love is overwhelmingly personal (Wally and Linda, Kyle and Soranik, Miri and her late husband are all examples of when the power of love has manifested supernaturally, and it has ALWAYS been personal), sexual and seems to be exclusively the domain of women--to the point that even a character like Diana who is established as downright virginal and much better suits another established realm is STILL rationalized into that domain (with the description of the other established realm, which went to a male character... which had a history that even suited the established description of what makes a Star Sapphire)--is an incredible negative.

I will say this much... I do want a love story. But not the one we've been getting. I want the undiscovered country.

I want something starring a male Star Sapphire.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

I won't even come CLOSE to everything that's wrong with this picture...

Edit 8 JAN 10 1720 CET: I've promised to tell everyone know that Chris wrote his very astute Blackest Night: Wonder Woman review before I wrote this, and note that he is very handsome. At least one of these statements is objectively true.

Blackest Night spoilers ahead, but you can't really be much further behind that I am.

I'm sure I've written about it before, but I absolutely despise the Wonder Woman bondage origin claims. Whatever creepy personal ideas Marston had that were leaking (or being leaked) into his creative life (and probably not coincidentally, the creative lives of just about everyone writing and drawing comics back then because it sure as hell wasn't just Diana getting tied up in that period), it is a documented fact that he pitched the character as a comic for girls. That he wanted to bring female readers to the superhero genre. He wanted to give girls a story they could read and enjoy.

So Wonder Woman counts among one of the very few superhero genre characters that are legitimately a gift to young women. She is not a character to be marketed to young men. Marston assured the company the boys would read as well, but she's custom designed for young women. For god's sake, she's a princess who talks to animals. Her entire supporting cast, with the exception of one blockheaded love interest, was women. She is a character made with little girls in mind.

The bondage urban legend always struck me as a mean-spirited attempt to rob us of that. To strip her of all innocent and generous beginnings in favor of something uber-sexualized. To say that we weren't worth our own superhero princess, she had to be secretly aimed at young men. That she was really meant for boys. It's a way to steal Wonder Woman, and claim she wasn't ever stolen.

To be honest, that's why I've always felt they had trouble with her. She is a female-oriented character that they keep marketing to a widely male audience. They fill her with T&A and hire writers who figure she should either be a complete bore or the "woman you wish you could date" in the hopes that men are biting. Then they further ward off women by spreading the story of bondage in her origins and skimp up the outfit even more than possible (No one's seen her in shorts in how many decades?), and wonder why no one is buying the world's preeminent superheroine.

In the past five years, though, I'd gotten the feeling that maybe this had changed, that maybe letters and postcards about other female characters had suggested to them that there was an opportunity to market characters made for female readers to female readers. They started hiring female positive writers and female positive artists for the character, treating her as an equal to Batman and Superman, propelling her to a more prominent place in-story, and just pushing her more greatly than they had been for decades. She even got an animated movie! There were stumbles, but I figured maybe they were giving it a shot.

Then I clicked a link on Twitter and saw this monstrosity.

Wonder Woman in a fucking Star Sapphire outfit.

Let me make this clear, as I have complained about her lack of romance as relative to having Aphrodite as a patron extensively. In the Golden Age, this would work. She followed Steve off the island for love. But Steve's not the love interest in the modern age. They made him too old, wrote him out and married him off. He's been replaced by Superman--No... Hermes--No... Guy Gardner--No... Trevor Barnes--No... Io--No... Batman--No... Nemesis... Oh wait, we can't decide on a major love interest because every writer has to make their own or pair her off with their favorite! (Funny, this never happens to Superman who still has his Golden-Age Love Interest.) And since she has been decreed by DC to be an eternal virgin, none of these relationships ever deepen to the point that she would be especially attached to this person over anyone else. They tend to be flirtations and infatuations. So Aphrodite is shuffled to the background in favor of virgin goddesses Artemis and Athena (both greener than a pine tree in the middle of December) as her primary patroness.

So even though with the character's current chastity (brought specifically about by them aging her boyfriend and marrying him off to the comic relief in the CoIE reboot) Love no longer suits her nearly as well as Compassion (or Hope, or Willpower), they stuck her in the all-girl Corps (WHY THE FUCK IS IT ALL WOMEN IN SLUTTY OUTFITS YOU FUCKING ASSHOLES?! ARE MEN UNABLE TO FALL IN LOVE AND ACT IRRATIONAL OR WEAR SKIMPY CLOTHES?!!) because hey, that's just a bunch of Space-Amazons, right?

They see nothing wrong with tying Wonder Woman to some smartass writer's abysmal joke about how women go CRAZY in relationships.

They see nothing wrong with taking a character who's concept is the person girls should all aspire to be and placing her with the group of women who are DEFINED BY THEIR ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS!!!!!





You can't just ignore Aphrodite's influence since the 80s and then suddenly decide her realm is the primary motivator in the character's life just because the character is the girl. Not without laying years of groundwork suggesting she's been fighting her need for love, which just hasn't been laid. She's been fulfilled the whole time without a man.

And you know what? She should be, as she's WONDER WOMAN. I'm all for bringing Steve back in some form--retcon, reboot, long-lost nephew... Something to give her the equivalent of Lois Lane again. But there's a reason they don't and never should (even with Steve in the equation) portray her as feeling like only half a person and desiring a soulmate above all else. Because she's WONDER WOMAN and that would send a really fucking bad message.

And that fucking costume. That godawful costume. Like someone vomited pink all over one of Solomon's concubines. They took one of the aspects of the character that is CONSTANTLY picked on--her skimpy costume (which is considerably skimpier than the skirt she debuted in and the shorts she wore after or even the tasteful bathing suit of the Silver Age)--and went and made it even skimpier, and even MORE sexualized, and then SHOVED her into a group full of women who thus far have been characterized as ALL ABOUT SEX.

It's the Ultimate Reminder that Wonder Woman is no longer for girls. She's been re-purposed for the lowest common denominator or men who refuse to grow up and deal with women on equal terms. She's not going to be given back to us, even though she was conceived as a gift for us. Too many people have managed to convince themselves she was always for boys to begin with, and if they can just hit the right shade of sexualization and male fantasy--the magic balance that Marston had somehow--they can make her popular again.

And it never seems to occur to them that she is not and never was meant to be a male fantasy. She's meant to be everything a girl would fantasize about being. I know, you're saying she's beautiful and sexy but guess what? That's not the kind of beautiful and sexy meant for the boys. It's not the sort of sexy that's there to be desired by the reader, it's the sort of sexy that's there because the person reading her wants to be desirable and POWERFUL in that way, as well as strong and intelligent and POWERFUL in those ways too. The reader is supposed to want to BE her, not just want her.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Yes, More Twin Peaks

Don't bother with this one unless you've watched the whole series, because I spoil the shit out of the Martell-Packard storyline.

There's a point in the series where Deputy Hawk remarks that Josie Packard was "powerful woman" because of how she managed to affect the Sheriff. It was one of two points in this show--with all it's utterly horrifying gender dynamics--that I had to yell at the screen. Seductive ability isn't real power. It is the illusion of power, because the actual choice ultimately lies with the seduced who can throw you away at any time. Josie herself was all too aware of this.

Josie Packard begins the story as a woman with fair amount of power and influence from her inheritance. She's in a tenuous position, though, as her sister-in-law Catherine has a greater hold and she has a past that could tear all of it from her fingertips. She's in the middle of a subtle game of politics with Catherine Martell and Ben Horne, and she's the underdog here. So she plays at being too innocent to wield any of the influence she inherited, and defaults to the role of hapless damsel when in the presence of White Knights Pete Martell and Sheriff Harry (Yes, he's serious) Truman.

Now, I will say to Josie's credit that she is a really clever and willful woman. She know she doesn't really have any substantial power, and much of what she does is an attempt to get some substantial power from Catherine. She knows she's starting from the disadvantaged position. She's got age, gender, and racial expectations aligned against her. She's the outsider in the town. So she starts from there and lowers everyone's expectations so much that no one will believe she's actually playing this game. That's not to say there's no truth in her body language or her accent, but her behavior with Pete and Harry as well as her steeling herself against Hank shows that she's considerably stronger than she lets on. She knows she's the underdog, and she's seizing the advantage there. She's playing the Princess side of the chessboard to Catherine's Dragon Lady, and she's a formidable opponent. Ultimately, though, Catherine checkmates her and strips her of everything. She further humiliates Josie by making her become her maid. Still, it would be a disservice to the character not to acknowledge she played a good game.

But she is truly in over her head, and has way too much to lose, and Catherine is just older and better at this. Not to mention that her husband never actually died, so the small amount of power and money gained from her inheritance isn't really hers. That power's an illusion too.

So once she loses, she goes from simply being panicked from time to time to being panicked all the time. Her focus shifts from attempting to amass and solidify substantial power to trying to keep from losing every bit of personal power she possesses as Thomas Eckhardt, her old boss, comes to claim her as a wife or a mistress. No amount of manipulating Harry can seem to save her from this as Catherine and Andrew close in on her. She describes Eckhardt as seeing her as "property" and is terrified of returning to him. At least one of the four murder attempts in which she's implicated was so that she could escape him. It could be argued that all four are her attempting to wrest free of his control.

After Josie's end, Harry is so distraught at losing her that Deputy Hawk makes the remark about her being powerful. Josie's character arc only proves him wrong. Power attained through seduction is only an illusion, and she knew this. The second the seduced loses interest or feels wronged, they can yank any influence back because the power had always been theirs alone. This happens to Josie with three men. Andrew tosses her aside after discovering her complicity in the murder attempt. When Harry discovers too much evidence of her criminal acts, he joins Cooper to confront her. Most severely of all, Thomas Eckhardt's physical attraction to Josie leads him to put her under his power, making her charms more of a liability than a tool and fueling the greatest fear of her life.

In the end, Josie's spirit merges with the nightstand in Eckhardt's room in the Great Northern Hotel, literally turning her into a piece of furniture that belongs to a powerful man (Ben Horne). Given that so much of her character arc is dedicated to avoiding that, this seems an especially horrible fate.

The woman with the real power in the storyline was and always had been Catherine. Catherine had seniority, Catherine had experience, Catherine didn't need to gather protectors to consolidate power. She could be the biggest bitch in town and not lose for it. (Even Josie's sweet-natured ally Pete would never turn against Catherine for her, he loved Catherine because she was an exciting woman.) She had her wits and wealth to support her. Like Josie, there's a point where Catherine gets wind of the gathering clouds and forces (Ben and Josie) aligned against her, but she recoups to take a terrible revenge. This is the character who had all the cards all along, which is probably why I felt terrible for Josie even knowing she was the one who shot Cooper. She was severely outmatched and facing some terrible options.

There's an extra shade of troubling in that Josie--who never gets any real power and ends up with the worst punishment for crimes no worse than much of the rest of the cast--is the only woman of color in an almost-entirely white cast. She's the demure Asian woman sought after by colonizing white men. She gets objectified and ultimately crushed in the power games between rich white people. I'll note for fairness that the character was originally intended to be Italian, but the final result is pretty unsettling.