Holy Hot Girl! Look out! She’s got Super Powers!

I’m addicted to a premise. (Admittedly, I’m addicted to several, otherwise saying no to romcoms and space odysseys about boys with daddy issues would be much easier). Here it is: an absurdly hot girl (who’s also absurdly unaware of how hot she is) finds she has super powers, which enter her into a world full of magic and more absurdly hot people. Typically, how she came to have these powers begins as a mystery, which is revealed over the course of several episodes or the whole movie and at some point constitutes, along with whatever will-they/won’t-they, the only real reason you’re even still watching this drivel. This revelation usually elucidates hot-girl’s life purpose (how being intimately connected to why in any context), and by the end of the show run, she will be called upon as the only one able to save our world, their world, all worlds. Thank God for this waify bitch and her magical hands, back flips, gun, hoo-ha or what-have-you.

During my initial tirade on this, to which a one-eyed teddy bear acted as my enthralled audience, I could think of at least eight TV shows and movies predicated on this premise that I have watched in their entirety at least twice. I recommend each, even though Rotten Tomatoes gave two of the movies 27% and 13% respectively and more than one of the TV series at some point becomes actively terrible. They are: Jupiter Ascending (2015), Mortal Instruments (2013), Lost Girl (2010-2016), Haven (2010-2015), True Blood (2008-2014), Twilight (2008, 2009, 2010, 2012), Wynonna Earp (2016-) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992, 1996-2003). Their powers, in order: reincarnation and a bank account; demon fighting and extreme tattooing; healing and an irresistible poonani; immunity to other people’s wacko problems; mind reading and delicious blood; not having her mind read and nothing else (because Bella is basically a useless placeholder whose strength is manifest as blankness); ability to wield a powerful gun (not an innuendo, but really an innuendo); and vampire-related prophetic dreaming plus superhuman senses, durability, strength, reflexes, fighting ability and resilience. So, I bring to these lady badasses the eternal questions of litfuck: Why do I watch this and what am I unwittingly buying into when I do?

In part, I watch these things for the same reason we watch any fantasy. I put myself in the place of the character and feel like I too, another regular gal, could wake up one morning with awesome abilities coupled with flawless skin. Additionally, for the duration of my watching, I am one of these women, and one (all, read: all) of her hopelessly and singularly smitten suitors is in love with me. Cue the lineup of lanky, high-cheekboned protector-types, including wolf- boy (Kris Holden-Ried, Lost Girl), dog-man (Channing Tatum, Jupiter Ascending ), angsty and dead (David Boreanaz, Buffy), angsty with a death wish (Jamie Campbell Bower, Mortal Instruments), and mustache ride (Tim Rozon, Wynonna Earp). I’m a badass with a purpose and a boyfriend I don’t need but get to have anyway. Sex, direction, ability and salon-perfect hair. If your real life’s got you down, then fret not; you’re destined for cooler, sexier things.

Though I’m into the very empowering depiction of inordinately capable female protagonists who rock socks and get shit done, I do wonder how else these fictions might be read. In sitting back to consider, I find in these stories a strange sublimation of the trope of the witch. Witches, until their more recent revamp in things like Harry Potter, Charmed, and Practical Magic (oh, pretend you don’t remember Practical Magic), traditionally manifest qualities that scare us (us=men). They are aberrant in their gender expression: too old or twisted to bear children (the witch in Hansel and Gretel), too ugly to want to bear children with (Macbeth’s Weird Sisters), too large to be feminine (a la the White Witch in Chronicles of Narnia), too sexual to remain passive (Circe of Odyssey fame). Passivity and power are precisely the issues. Witches know things they shouldn’t and wield that intelligence with dexterity and influence. Morgan le Fay is most harrowing as a beautiful woman who aims to subvert the honorable King Arthur. That women have power and what those powers are constitute threats because they leverage ladies into positions in which they are actors not receivers, subjects rather than objects. The ends to which those powers are and might be used makes them scary. Their purpose seems deviant, and, just as why and how are linked, so too must their origins be perverse. Hence, the women trapped by the mentality of medieval Europe and early modern witch trials clearly derived their abilities from the devil.

The women featured in the examples of the premise I just can’t get enough of are not, per se, witches, but they do have mysterious powers that make them agents in their own lives to such an extent that they actually don’t need men. In fact, the men need them. This is all commensurate with a rash of more feminist fiction in the mainstream that I’m ecstatic to see, but I still don’t know how to read the explanations of the origins and purposes of these women’s extra-human capabilities. I see these explanations as the narrative’s apologia for the woman having powers that she shouldn’t. There must be some reason, some defense, for why a character that we root for has powers that are not human, that in fact make her monstrous, possibly demonic. Yes, times have changed, so it’s possible to classify a witchy-woman as a “good guy” without representing some great transgression to our current notions of right and wrong. But, the trope of the woman with supernatural abilities is old, and the one we borrow from now when we read or write Sabrina the Teenage Witch or Lost Girl will still show its relation to the roots it grew from.

In order to make monstrosity non-threatening, we must give it a reason, one that supports our worldview by echoing it or by standing as its evil, vincible contrast. In these shows and movies, our badass bitches possess their powers as a result of birthright, blood and destiny. Their purposes are to defeat demons (so therefore are not of demonic origin) or to serve as arbiter-cum-barrier between worlds. (Except for Bella Swan, whose purpose as far as I can tell is to act as an empty, silent shell of a human being so that her creepy boyfriend can get some peace and quiet from constantly hearing people who think. And maybe Sookie Stackhouse, who does refuse to sit in the corner and watch but for the most part is just lunch. Sexy lunch, but still lunch.)

The latter of these categories, which places our female wizard-gladiators at increasingly porous and blurry boundaries, has them doing the hard work of standing between. This is not only an innovative path for considering gender roles but for framing realities of being in the world. They do not clarify what should and should not be by reinforcing their dividing line but occupy a place that is both double and non-existent. Postmodernism loves this because it paves the way for entirely new logics, but it’s not so conducive to asserting good and bad, acceptable and unnatural. The former explanation bizarrely places a girl with preternatural abilities to wield a stake, a gun, a wand (not all the women act through phallic appendages, I promise) in the position of sole, benevolent savior, the only one capable of saving everyone through love and self-sacrifice. Remind of you of anything, Jesus? The idea that there is more to the world than what meets the eye, that some things defy explanation and do not owe us one, is central to religious faith, and there is plenty of fiction that tells the story of Christ’s magic through a chosen-one protagonist. (Right, Neo?)So, to what strand of readings do these lady badasses belong? And if main characters are always a sort of surrogate self, who am I getting off on thinking I am? I don’t know, but I believe that Buffy can save us all.

Stealing Bechdels

The Bechdel Test is laid out very simply. For those of you who don’t know it, there’s a whole website that explains, but basically it’s three rules that actually fit into one sentence: There are two or more female characters with names (1), who talk to each other (2), about something other than a man (3). That doesn’t seem that hard. That happens to me every day, even if just me calling my mom to talk about myself. But, as any explanation quickly makes clear, precious few movies make it into this category. Reciting the Mahabarata would take less time than reading a list of the mainstream films that fail this test. (In case you wanted to hear that, at least a condensed version).

In the 1985 comic, the test appears almost as a joke, but one whose laugh quickly trails into a disgusted, powerless sigh. The women decide to go home and make popcorn, in Bechdel’s story, because the prospect of  another movie with flat female characters and non-existent feminine relationships frankly sounds boring. Bechdel is about representation, and what it calls out are the very limited roles of women. Oh, not so limited. In the movies, they can be wives, mothers, sisters, witches, bitches, dreamgirls and an occasional sympathetic fat friend. They can be all these things as long as they don’t exceed their functions of rotating around the bright center of the Copernican universe: some dude. What the Bechdel test is signalling is that a vast majority of popular movies limit women to the status of objects, plot devices or symbols. Even the sympathetic ugly friend graced with an ounce of emotional complexity is merely a man mirror. She’s there so he can see himself or so we can see him in a different light, so we can say, “oh look, he’s not a completely self-involved, vapid POS; he has an unattractive female friend.” (Except that he is, and honestly, we’d be upset if he hooked up with the fat chick.) The takeaway is that only men can be real people. Women are accessories, tools, and only have value in terms of what they mean for men. The very fabric of society depends on it (Levi-Strauss is just reading the rules). What the Bechdel test exposes is that in representations of society, women cannot exceed their roles as objects and cannot, cannot, cannot be allowed to form their own bonds…unless they’re over men.

If movies are meant to reflect the world, this is a sorry state. Worse still, we seem to be admitting more and more that our artistic representations of society shape society as much as they reflect it. This opens a line for interpreting popular movies as actively cultivating this state of affairs. These days, we’re starting to take this whole representation thing seriously, and suddenly an obscure cultural reference from a lesbian comic book that’s older than I am is now on everyone’s lips. My problem (I always have a problem. Blogs are glorified rant spaces; don’t be shocked) is that nowadays, everyone is giving themselves a pat on the back for passing Bechdel. But, it’s not a litmus test. It’s not a box you check. If two women have a five second exchange about a sword — even if one of them is the hero — this does not mean it’s a feminist film (Admittedly, The Force Awakens may not pass feminist muster for me, but The Last Jedi is giving me a new hope). There are feminist leaning movies that don’t pass the Bechdel test — Run Lola Run, Shrek — and there are wildly unfeminist movies that do — How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, Weird Science.

I’ve begun to feel lately that some movies are shoehorning in Bechdel test passing gestures because they think the appearance of representation and actual representation are the same thing. Crazy Rich Asians is still Cinderella even if a breastless girl has a conversation with a princess about microloans for women. This is how I came to the question of what this test is really demanding with its incredibly low bar of we just wanted to be in the movie and have a fighting chance at enough psychological depth to be a plausible human and not an electron to a dick-shaped nucleus. This made me ask if passing the Bechdel test is about feminism or about something else, and further, what’s the requirement I’m imagining for something to be feminist. Steel Magnolias passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. There are six female characters, with names, who constantly have conversations that are not about men. The women develop as people, as do their relationships with one another. For good measure, even the audience’s understanding of these women and their relationships evolves. But, for me, I find it difficult to call this movie feminist, even when I remember that it came out in 1989. It’s normative to the point that Julia Roberts’s character is painted as a hero for knowingly sacrificing her life so that she can produce a male heir. She tries to convince her mother to support her decision by saying that she “would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.” Life without making a baby, for women, is bleh. Bleh at best. This is not the only moment of regressive and confining goals for women, but it’s certainly my favorite…well maybe when Dolly Parton makes fun of a wedding guest for dancing with a younger man and wearing a dress so tight that her butt looks like “two pigs fighting under a blanket.” Shut up Dolly. At least she’s making something happen under her blanket.
But, then I have to think again about the feminist demand the Bechdel test is making and the perhaps narrow view I have of what feminists look like. Bechdel is asking that women be represented in a real way and that they not be isolated from one another. Steel Magnolias is doing that and more. The women have free reign to express themselves and make their own choices, even if damaging patriarchal structures are tacitly informing those choices and the women show zero recognition of that fact. It shows problems that women really confront and allows them to think, feel and act ambivalently. This makes the movie feminist. Furthermore, the women are unapologetic about their choices and their behaviors. Bechdel demands complex heroes, not idealized heroines (we all know how that turns out in things like Wonder Woman). Steel Magnolias does that and more. So, who’s being narrow, rigid and prescriptive now. Looks like me.

And the Moral of the Story is…For Dads Too. Christopher Robin and The Incredibles

Children’s movies are instructive. (Actually, all movies are instructive. Why do you think I don’t volunteer to be the winter caretaker of scenic overlook hotels anymore? Or marry someone who would. Wait, I may have done the latter.) We go to these movies anticipating a lesson. The fairy tale, the myth, the Bible story and the feature length cartoon are all visited with an expectation of a moral. Disney and Pixar know this. (Ok, Pixar is a subsidiary of Disney. I still think of them as separate in terms of what movies they’re producing). Pixar has a major theme with encouraging bravery even when you feel scared (Finding Nemo (2003), Monsters Inc. (2001), Brave (2012)). Until about the 1990s, all of Disney’s lessons for girls were, “serve, wait for a man and fear women who don’t have youth and do have ambition” (Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959)). Their lessons for boys were, “be boys!” (Peter Pan (1953), Pinocchio (1940)). Though, lately Disney seems to be trying to make amends, moving through “misbehave and wait” (The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995)), to gender-bucking girl-heroes (Mulan (1998), Moana (2016)), and “oh, actually women can have nuanced relationships” (Frozen (2013), Maleficent (2014)). (Admittedly, this second one is not animated, but a, it deliberately tries to reevaluate the evil crone, and I’m into that; b, Angelina Jolie’s beauty is exaggerated to the point of being cartoonish; and c, live action-ing classics is the new cartoon). Disney may have its faults, but even its teachings are developing with the times.

Generally, children are the target of this instruction. Christopher Robin and the Incredibles movies are no exception. They are teaching a number of valuable skills to kids. They learn from watching what the children in the movie go through. In Christopher Robin, Madeline has trouble talking to her dad, or rather in getting him to hear her. Though far from a main theme, her articulating and sharing her feelings provides a helpful model. Violet and Dash Incredible (oops, I mean Parr) demonstrate lessons about being responsible and taking care of family, even if the protective force fields and journeys to save captive parents will only ever be metaphorical for us non-incredibles. Kids also learn from watching the adults. Regardless of age, the viewer identifies with the protagonist, shares his point of view, and experiences his character arch. In the first Incredibles movie, Mr. Incredible brings us lessons about sharing, lying, expectations and responsibilities. Christopher Robin learns about excessive seriousness, about the need for play despite a desire to prepare for the future and be faultlessly dependable. These lessons are particularly fun to decode in children’s movies because typically the hero and the villain reflect one another. Billy Pine/Syndrome’s hero worship, his desire to be the soul savior of the day, to be surrounded by the awestruck love and admiration of a helpless and grateful population is only a slightly warped version of the same attitudes Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible has been expressing throughout the film. Defeating the villain is about identifying and overcoming the negative inside. Disney, with its ever-light touch, has Piglet, Tigger and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood crew repeatedly identify Christopher Robin as a Heffalump, a dangerous, childhood crushing creature that can only be defeated through imagination and play. Children watch these movies and learn about fallibility, the importance of whimsy, the need to be open to and listen to others.

Pixar has long since brought us out of the model of kids movies are for kids. I don’t foresee using my dad’s move of listening to books on tape as my only recourse to making two hours of animated feature tolerable. But these summer kids’ flicks, Christopher Robin and the Incredibles movies, not only ask parents not to shut them out but actually seem more directed at them than at their children. They’re instructive alright, instructive to adults, specifically to dads. All three of these movies are about fatherhood, and they have valuable lessons to impart. So, take off your headphones, Dads, because Winnie the Pooh has something to tell you.

Christopher Robin takes on the hobgoblin of upper middle class minds: efficiency. Always working, working, working, a grown-up Christopher Robin is missing out on his life and his child’s childhood by not preserving a sense of his own. He’s so concerned with ensuring his daughter’s future, through his own self-obliterating work ethic and teaching the same to his progeny, that he’s forgotten that doing nothing often leads to the very best of something. Mr. Incredible also learns that fatherhood is more dynamic than being a lone-wolf, hero provider (part of a larger discussion on masculinity, which you can read about here , here , here. Seriously, just type “incredibles masculinity” into a Google search. I’m not the only one who noticed, ok). While Christopher Robin is essentially teaching the same thing as Mary Poppins (1964) – i.e., reminding dads to spend time with their children – and the first Incredibles is largely doing the same, Incredibles 2 betrays a quick evolution for mainstream models of fatherhood. It’s not just that Bob/Mr. Incredible grapples with being a stay-at-home dad and that the movie provides an example of that being an ok role for the man of the house. It’s about watching a father invest a super-human level of energy into the job of parenting and deriving self-worth from that work. It’s about not being good at something the very first time you have to do it (I think that this, more than the inept father trope, is the import of the “Mr. Incredible gets the kids to school” montage). It’s about letting your children see that you’re not perfect but you’re trying. These things are building far past teaching the untouchable father that he’s allowed to have feelings.

I’m calling this out not because I think my dad should’ve taken his headphones off. Honestly, if I have to take my 14-year-old to see Moulin Rouge for the fifth time while it’s still in theaters, it’s only reasonable to bring my own entertainment. I’m signaling it because the three major summer movies for kids this year, Christopher Robin, Incredibles 2 and Hotel Transylvania 3, are all about fatherhood. I’m not accusing men of being a particular stereotype. We’re becoming increasingly aware of the limited models children’s movies give to daughters, but boys, fathers even, have also been represented in a constricting way. These summer spoonfuls of sugar might be giving us something new.

After I wrote this post, and my parents successfully defended the use of books on tape in children’s movies, my father found this article in the Washington Post and sent it to me. Hope for Dads!


Luke’s Lightsaber, Han’s Gun and my Grandmother

An heirloom is an object which connects. It links generations. Mother and daughter. Grandfather and grandson. Often even further back and further forward in time. I think most often of a necklace given to me when my grandmother died. She’d worn it every day. I remember it glinting behind blouses, falling onto plates as she leaned over to set a table, resting on the generous chest I would also inherit. I imagine when my grandfather gave it to her, this religious symbol with little diamonds. So when I took up her talisman – I too wear it everyday – it was like having a piece of her, of him and of our greater group. I can conjure her and the things that this little shape conjured for her, or at least, that I imagine it did. In some sense, they’re with me all the time, as this everyday object becomes a part of my person as it did for my grandmother.

A tactile bridge to the abstract and the lost, an heirloom condenses individuals, stories, groups. When the heirloom is also a talisman, it increases the intensity of all this and adds a sense of magic and a feeling of shared secrets. The heirloom-talisman given and accepted also acts as a mutual claiming. That’s what heritage does; it inscribes you in a genealogy, a figurative or literal family line. An heir, according to Misters Merriam, Merriam and Webster (yes, there were two Merriams), is “a person legally entitled to the property or rank of another on that person’s death” or “a person who inherits and continues the work of a predecessor.” It defines a legal relationship and status, an identity, and an activity that really has the quality of a mission rather than a pastime. The definition of loom I might leave alone for now, as that’s a linguistics diatribe that could go on for a while. (Loom as a verb, loom as a noun, loom in Old English). Let’s just say it’s a tool. So an heirloom is a tool of heritage. I think of all objects of emotional significance that pass from old hands to young ones with their affective powers still intact as having functions similar to that of the heirloom.

Here’s the part where I talk about Star Wars. (Admit it, you were worried the whole post was going to be about linguistics and my grandmother). The Star Wars universe is vast – more vast even than I realized – and initially, I thought it would have a number of objects of emotional significance that link or at least traverse its many plotlines. Though, given the number of orphans who populate its stories, perhaps I should have been less surprised to find markedly few. Maybe the Millennium Falcon. Perhaps the Tico sisters’ necklaces which create a material reference for their strong bond. But, these smack more of simple family talismans than objects exemplified for what they do and mean as they pass from one set of hands to another. Luke/Anakin/Rey’s lightsaber is the best example. We see it first (first? Oh Sith Lord, in what order do the kids these days see these movies?) in the OG, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. A boy with daddy issues, much in need of a sense of connection to his familial past, is bequeathed his father’s Jedi symbol/tool/talisman and, along with it, a story and a mission. This heirloom gives order to his life at a moment when he’s about to need it most. And, lest you forget to pay attention to it, this light-up sword which has now spawned several generations of children with poked eyes is one of the only physical objects across the Star Wars universe that is significant both emotionally and to the plot – unless you reduce R2D2 pregnant with Death Star plans or Han Solo in carbonite to things, which I don’t. This is one powerful little object, but I’m most interested in how it creates lineage and, in the process, becomes a reference for temporal order. It links Luke to his father and Episodes IV through VI to Episodes I through III. It brings Rey into that Jedi family, readying her to become the last Jedi, and it puts this most recent trio of films after the 1970s classics. It has intra- and extra-diegetic power, forging order in the major genealogical line within, throughout and outside the stories, most importantly helping the viewer to grip and be gripped by the timeline of the films.

A number of the Easter eggs from the new Solo: A Star Wars Story share a lot with these emotionally-charged objects I’ve been describing. They tie together people and story lines across time and do so by being passed from one character to another and possessing secret significance. The Millennium Falcon, again, sort of. A set of gold dice that doesn’t seem to bring Qi’ra much luck but does contain enough emotional significance and presumed magic that Han still has it at least 10 years later in Episode IV. And Han’s blaster. Han’s blaster, for me, is an Easter egg-heirloom. In the OGs, it’s just a gun. (Nobody get their panties in a twist. There’s no shortage of essays and comments against the idea that a gun is just a gun. Not that Han, in either his Harrison Ford or Alden Ehrenreich renditions, needs any more proof of testosterone, proxy or otherwise). In Solo, both the character and his beloved accoutrement get a backstory. He receives it from a replacement father character, Captain Beckett. In fact, it’s a part of this man’s rifle, his character’s weapon/talisman. (Oh my God, please someone write a paper on the weapon-talisman). He disassembles it and gives a portion that somehow is a blaster to Han. This thing which has obsessed fans since the internet was invented basically to talk about who shot first (obviously not Greedo because I imagine trigger pulling is a challenge with those fingers) now symbolizes a narrative that pulls Han into a family of sorts. It gives him a father figure and acts as his official induction into this band and the greater world of smugglers. The genealogy the blaster reinforces is two-fold because it also serves to connect and order the films.

But, the affective power of the blaster is felt not just by Han, but by the spectator as well. Its quality as an Easter egg – a wink to the audience, a conspiratorial congratulations to the canny viewer – redoubles these feelings of connection and significance because it capitalizes on a sense of shared secrets. To me, Easter eggs work a lot like objects of heritage because they condense an emotional tie and signal one’s status as a member of a type of family. You have to be in the group, in the know, to even notice the object at all and furthermore to value it as something of special significance. The viewer astute enough to catch it shares in a secret heritage. It draws us in affectively and makes us feel part of the Star Wars universe and its various genealogies. We sympathize with Han, and, holding one of his secrets, we even empathize with the protagonist to a greater degree. (We always empathize with a protagonist. That’s how movies work).

Of course, there’s a slightly more insidious view on all this which has to do with marketing and merchandise, with getting people to watch more, buy more, grow more obsessed with all of Star Wars’s secret pockets of story, scour the internet for content, and generate their own crackpot theories and overwrought analyses (who would do that?). The Easter egg in general, but particularly this Easter egg which is also blatantly a heritage object for our beloved hero, can simulate depth in the storyline by fomenting a sense of complicity and increased identification in the viewer. Well, I’ve now destroyed my self-congratulatory moment of “clever girl, you noticed the blaster Easter egg” by reclassifying it as a very good marketing ploy, a shallow bid for my money and allegiance masquerading as a sign of narrative complexity.  But, I give in, and honestly, tell me you don’t want one of these.