Girl Power? Grrrrrrr!

Green-Lantern-The-Animated-SeriesThe other day, as I watched an episode of Green Lantern: The Animated Series (developed by Bruce Timm, Giancarlo Volpe, and Jim Krieg for Cartoon Network), I wondered whether or not the producers, animators, and writers of animated superhero shows really want more female viewers. The point is moot in regard to this show, however, since it was canceled after one season. But the catalyst for my musings is the look of the females in it. Many have the look of swimsuit models with Barbie-like measurements. Even a starship’s AI (artificial intelligence), after deciding to take on human form to travel and converse with three male comrades, chose to be a female wearing a midriff-baring shirt and tiny briefs.

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Aya the computer turned Green Lantern warrior

In the illustration below, note the amount of clothing of males like Hal Jordan, one of the Green Lanterns, in comparison with females like the Star Sapphires—a group of women wielding pink power rings. The woman in the suit is Hal’s boss and girlfriend, Carol Ferris. Her Star Sapphire outfit (long story) is at her right.

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When referring to the Star Sapphires, Hal Jordan calls them “hot girls” (not women or smart, powerful women). How’s that for empowerment? Fine. I get the fact that to him, they’re “hot girls.” They’re supposed to be powerful, but do you think of power when you look at the illustration above? (Makes me long for Katara and Toph of Avatar.)

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Katara and Toph

Look, I grew up reading comic books and loving superheroes. But some things irritate me. I realize that writers and animators have the right to do what they want with these characters. I’m speaking as a woman who watches them, but sometimes is ready to throw in the towel. If the power of women is really to be emphasized, let’s start with the basics, namely wardrobe. If I’m blasting people with my power ring while ducking their energy blasts, a bikini and six-inch high boot heels don’t add up to a smart wardrobe. Ever try to run in six-inch heels without turning an ankle? Also, anyone who has ridden a roller coaster high up in the air knows how cool the air can be. Who in their right mind would fly around half naked in cool air? Who would expose that much skin to an energy blast that could singe you?

Okay, I realize I’m in the minority with this. And I’m not saying I haven’t enjoyed many of the Green Lantern episodes I’ve seen. I gave the show a shot by watching 14 episodes. But I can’t help seeing a pattern here which also was obvious in other series. Women might have powerful abilities, but that power is deemphasized when design choices for the characters are made to appeal to only one demographic. My thought is this: why not try to appeal to a wider market?

I searched the Internet to see if I could find anyone who had a comment on this issue. I found a different take on the subject. Writer/director/actor/producer Kevin Smith and famed writer of Batman/Superman animated series, Paul Dini, discuss the issue of female viewers and canceled animated superhero shows on this SModcast. Warning: if you’re sensitive to language, avoid listening at all costs. I listened, because I’ve seen many of Paul Dini’s scripted episodes in various Batman animated series. I wanted to hear what he had to say. Part of the conversation was transcribed here. This part especially jumped out at me:

DINI: “They’re [Network executives] all for boys ‘we do not want the girls’, I mean, I’ve heard executives say this, you know, not [where I am] but at other places, saying like, ‘We do not want girls watching this show.”

SMITH: “WHY? That’s 51% of the population.”
DINI: “They. Do. Not. Buy. Toys. The girls buy different toys.” (Emphasis and punctuation as per the transcript.)

Well, my blood boiled after that exchange. Adults buy the toys—not boys. I’ve bought many toys for the kids in my life. And I’ve seen many girls playing with action figures long after the boys have given up and turned to Hot Wheels or Thomas trains.

I like Kevin Smith’s solution to those who claim they can’t market to girls toys related to animated superhero shows: “Get better at your job.” In other words, find something else you can sell, rather than write off a significant group of viewers. Irate listeners agreed with Smith and totally disagreed with the notion that girls weren’t interested in the licensed products. The problem, says the parents whose children watched some of these series, is the lack of toys for girls.

Honestly, based on the decisions made about female characters in some series, I wouldn’t want to hand a little girl an action figure of those characters, where the depiction of women leaves a lot to be desired. I’d rather give a girl the X-Men action figures (particularly Rogue and Storm). Or, better still, I’d rather just say, “You’re beautiful and special just as you are.”

Toph and Katara from fanpop. Green Lantern logo from Wikipedia. Aya, Green Lantern, and other characters from Cartoon Network.

Where Are the Good Guys?

BaileySpur4XAngoraBlendFurFetlCowboyHatWhiteThe other day I received an email about a new book series involving a beloved character from a classic series. Sorry to be cryptic, but I don’t plan to reveal who that character is or what that series is. Suffice it to say, this character and others in the series have been reimagined as evil characters when formerly they were on the side of good. My first reaction was irritation. What gives, huh? Is it because villains are portrayed as having more fun these days?

As I groused over that email, I couldn’t help thinking about Thor: The Dark World. This is my own opinion here, rather than a well-reasoned critique of the movie (I enjoyed it by the way), but the standout character in it was Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston). Really, he would be a standout character if he just stood there rearranging socks in a drawer. But in a movie with the name Thor in the title, shouldn’t Thor—the hero—be the standout character? Maybe he was for you (he is 6 feet 3 inches tall, heh heh), but he wasn’t for me in this movie, despite the romance and the tragic bits. My eyes were on Loki every time and also on Christopher Eccleston who played a dark elf named Malekith the Accursed.

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Thor (Chris Hemsworth) battling Malekith (Christopher Eccleston); Loki at right (Tom Hiddleston)

Now, I realize movie production companies and authors have the right to do whatever they want. And I have enjoyed some of the fruits of their labor. But here’s where my blood pressure rises: when good is portrayed as weak or even boring.

In a previous post, I mentioned a quote from Sean Bailey, president of production at Walt Disney Studios. This quote came from the November 8 issue of Entertainment Weekly in an essay by Anthony Breznican:

The better you make your villain, the better your hero has to be. . . . We call it the Hans Gruber theory. One reason Die Hard is a great action movie is Gruber never makes a mistake, but he’s still defeated by John McClane. McClane is a great hero because he’s up against such a formidable adversary. (47)

But in some of the books or movies I’ve seen in recent years—Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) being one of them—the good characters seem weak and timid in the face of evil. (Looking at you, Glinda!) This kind of thing sets my teeth on edge.

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Glinda

Making heroes weak to make the antagonists seem stronger goes against what Bailey talked about in Entertainment Weekly. As he said, “The better you make your villain, the better your hero has to be.” Keep that in mind while I bring up another quote. I could kick myself for not writing down the exact words or even where I found it, but the person quoted said something to the effect that villains are preferred, because we get tired of trying to identify with people who are good all the time. (I know. I’m running the risk of misquoting here. Bad, L. Marie. Bad!)

I’m guessing “we” refers to all of us. Well, I can speak for myself, thank you. And I’d like to address something I see as a fallacy: “people who are good all the time.” Know anyone who is “good” all the time? People are more complicated than that. Even pastors yell at their kids sometimes. If we can’t identify with people “who are good all the time,” shouldn’t heroes be complex?

Robert-Downey-Jr-Iron-Man-3I love Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr., because we see his foibles. The choices he makes are what define him as the hero. I love Natasha Romanov (Black Widow/Natalia “Natasha” Alianovna Romanova) as played by Scarlett Johansson. I love everyone on Avatar, especially Prince Zuko and Toph Beifong. They don’t always play nice. They make mistakes.
 
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Black Widow

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Zuko

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Toph (I wanna be her when I grow up)

Love the X-Men, especially Wolverine (Hugh Jackman!) and Rogue. Also I squealed over Four in Divergent. (Sorry. That was gratuitous. I just wanted to mention Theo James.) I continue to be mesmerized by the characters on shows like Babylon 5 and Young Justice, thanks to Netflix.

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Wolverine (and not just because he has abs of steel)

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Gratuitous photo of Four (Theo James)

I’m happy to say that many of you are taking the time to make your characters complex (a shout-out to everyone I know from VCFA, as well as authors I’ve met through the blog like K. L. Schwengel, Charles Yallowitz, Kate Sparkes, ReGi McClain, Emily Witt, Stephanie Stamm, John Carnell, and Andra Watkins). There are others too like Phillip McCollum, Andy of City Jackdaw, and Jill Weatherholt who work hard at their craft. You give me hope, people. You also encourage me to get my act together and put forth the effort on my manuscript.

It takes work to make a hero complex, just as it takes work to make a villain complex. So why not make the effort to do so?

Maybe we need a better definition of good. Think about the characteristics that make a parent, a doctor, a fire fighter, or some other professional good at what he or she does. Many times that individual has to make some tough choices—i.e., disciplining a child; giving a patient a shot; and so on. When you really need a professional, you want someone tenacious and strong, not someone who cringes. But you also know that person isn’t perfect. Anyone who has a parent or is a parent knows this.

That’s what a good hero is—someone who isn’t perfect, but who tries to do the right thing. I can relate to that person. Can you?

Breznican, Anthony. “A Villain Will Rise.” Entertainment Weekly. 8 November 2013: 46-47. Print.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Chris Hemsworth as Thor from marvel-movies.wikia.com. Theo James as Four from pinterest.com. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow from marvel.wikia.com. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark from wallpapersshop.net. Zuko and Toph from avatar.wikia. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine from x-men.wikia.com.

It’s All Good?

I’m in season 3 of The Clone Wars. The arc of a series of episodes spurred me to write this post on the depiction of goodness. I wish I could sound as calmly lyrical as Bottleworder, Andra Watkins, or Lavender Moon Girl always does. But I can’t. Not when I feel like screaming.

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I can’t avoid spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything about this arc, you might skip to the part where it’s safe to read (bold capitalized text below). If you want more information, click here.

In the episode that begins the arc, Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Anakin’s padawan, Ashoka Tano (see hero pose below; I often stand like this with my friends) are brought to a planet (Mortis) where they meet the beings known as the Ones: the Father, the Daughter, and the Son. For more on them, click here.

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Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ashoka

Take a look at the picture of the Son and Daughter below. Guess which one is the embodiment of the light side of the force and which represents the dark side. (I would have liked to see a role switch.)

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When the Daughter and the Son fight each other for arc-related reasons, guess which one is easily defeated. I’ll give you this one: the Daughter—the good side. Why? Because she is “good” and thereby constrained by the limits of goodness. The bad side, however, has no real limit.

We learn about a weapon that can defeat the Son—a dagger that reminds me of the sword Samurai Jack wields in the titular series—the only defense in the fight against Aku, the shape-shifting evil spirit. However, as the episode of The Clone Wars goes on to show, this valuable weapon is easily stolen by the bad side, thus once again proving that bad barely has to break a sweat to triumph over good.

The notion of the light (or goodness) being limited in comparison with the dark side gets my hackles up, especially since good is personified as a woman in a flowing gown who acts like a doormat. Based on her outfit, was the expectation that she would stand around and look pretty? Does that somehow show the power of goodness? Grrrr. Since when has good become this limited? Why is it limited?

IT’S SAFE TO READ NOW. BUT I’M STILL RANTING. I’ve seen this limited-good aspect played out in other series and books where the good guys seem about as engaging as a bowl of milk, while the bad guys are like ice cream sundaes—enticing, interesting, layered, and much more powerful than the good guys. While I can understand the need to place some limits on good for the sake of conflict (i.e., in the Lord of the Rings), I don’t understand the efficacy of the limits in this Clone Wars arc.

That’s why I’m thankful for shows like Avatar and characters like Katara and Toph.

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Katara

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Toph

They are the face of good in the series, along with Aang the Avatar. None of these characters is perfect. They make mistakes, some quite boneheaded. Even when defeated, they come back fighting. And neither wears a trailing gown, which would be a hazard in a serious fight.

I have to stop here to explain that I grew up in a rough neighborhood. When I was in middle school, there was never a question of whether you’d get in a fight, but when you would. So I had my share, though I didn’t instigate them.

In a fight, the first things to come off were earrings and anything your opponent could yank or twist. That’s why I can never suspend my disbelief when a character is shown in battle wearing a prom dress with trailing sleeves. But I digress.

I’m also grateful for movies like The Avengers

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and characters like Natasha Romanoff/the Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson. Sure, she has a checkered past. But she’s got layers. She’s a complex character who stands with the other heroes in The Avengers based on the choices she’s made. And I think you can guess which scene in the movie is one of my favorites. If you can’t, please comment and I’ll tell you.

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Script writer/director Joss Whedon didn’t have to lower the stakes to make the heroes look effective. He kept raising the stakes because they were. So, I’m grateful for that and for . . .

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. . . beautifully, nuanced characters like these. They’re imperfect—prone to argue with each other. But they get the job done. Sure they were afraid. When Syndrome came knocking, these heroes answered the call. This is what GOOD looks like. And note the lack of capes and trailing sleeves. The movie provides an effective argument against both.

Want another image of good? If you get a chance, take a look at the photos at the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Service (iWomen). Go here for those. It takes guts and determination to be an emergency professional. It also takes a strong desire to help others. That’s the nature of goodness. Strong. Sacrificing. Real. And no prom dresses in sight.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go calm down somewhere.

Images from marvel.wikia.com, imdl.com, heatdown.com, deviantart.com, fanpop.com, captainrover220.blogspot.com, coverdude.com.