Geek culture has evolved. Over the last few decades, a push for greater inclusiveness and better representation has gained major ground as our generation’s penchant for nostalgia simultaneously breathes new life into dusty classics. One of the more excellent byproducts of all this dusty life-breathing has been the tendency to reexamine some of our favorite classic female characters and expose them to modern feminist criticism. In the midst of it all, however, I feel like one of the most unique ladies in comics has remained largely confined to “cult status”: Tank Girl.
This foul-mouthed, sexually liberated, substance-abusing, interspecies dating, ultra-violent, post-apocalyptic badass has been around since the late punk days and has given us some of the most incredible and incredibly fucked up stories I’ve ever read. She has been able to retain such a consistent emotional energy throughout decades of artists interpreting her that she nearly seems to have some level of real-world agency; at times she almost feels real. I, and many of her fans, see her as a sort of pop culture meta-demigod-thing: “Tank Girl, goddess of anarchofeminism and blowing shit up.”
You really don’t want to make her mad.
Tank Girl is, in many ways, the comic book equivalent of the punk and riot grrrl musical movements. Born a decade after the Sex Pistols but a few years before Bikini Kill, Tank Girl’s pagesradiate a sense of anarchistic artistic resistance to the inequality born of extreme commercialism and the emotional damage caused by rigid and oppressive social norms. Tank Girl is regularly portrayed literally destroying systems of oppression, often going to ludicrous extremes to avenge minor injustices (such as the mafia buying up all the good beer to sell everyone crap at inflated prices) and occasionally committing major injustices in the process, highlighting and mocking the fragile nature of these systems along the way.
I admit it, I’m bad about checking out browser-based games. Brilliant titles like Depression Questoften slip past me for months even when I’ve read numerous articles about them and made a point to play them. That was what happened with A Normal Lost Phone. I read about it, thought “that sounds amazing, I need to check it out” and then… just didn’t, even when it started coming up in my alerts for “games like Gone Home”. So when I saw it available on the App Store, I had to download it immediately, and I’m glad I did.
Heads up: you will forget it’s an app at some point.
The premise of A Normal Lost Phone is both simple and incredibly innovative. You have just found a phone and you are looking through it. That’s all. The entire interface of the game is a simulated phone with a handful of apps, and the puzzles are essentially just figuring out various passwords and finding where to type them. But as you do that, two things start to happen: you begin to get drawn into the story of the person whose phone it was, and you become increasingly aware of the fact that you are role-playing an invasion of privacy, effectively hacking a particularly vulnerable person to find out more details about their life.
Warning: spoilers for basically the entire game after the break.
When I first watched Star Trek: The Next Generation as a kid, I was struck by how strongly I connected to the characters. For many of us, I think, it was one of the first shows to really inspire. Not only as a bold continuation of Roddenberry’s vision for the future, but as role models for how to live our lives. Picard, Data, Dr. Crusher, even Wesley all served as early examples of what we aspire to be and how to start living up to that aspiration. But as I grew older, I realized that one character in particular was causing me to think about gender roles and romance in ways I wouldn’t fully understand for years: Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge.
“Oh crap, Picard’s got that ‘I need you to violate the laws of physics’ look on his face again.”
In rewatching those episodes, I have come to understand the character of Geordi LaForge as, among other things, a parable about how easy it is to fall prey to toxic masculinity and how genuine confidence and respect rather than bravado and entitlement are the keys to avoiding it. This was something that takes years for many people to understand, and fortunately, we have years worth of TNG to see Geordi’s masculinity evolve as he begins to understand these things as well.
With Wonder Woman’s tenure as the United Nations Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls coming to a somewhat unceremonious end, I can’t help wanting to do a postmortem on her appointment and the controversy surrounding it. In addition to finding the whole affair oddly fascinating, I found it revealing—not only about global attitudes towards feminism but on how the most recognizable symbols of pop culture feminism are often inherently polarizing.
While I do not question that all parties involved genuinely had nothing but good intentions, there were some serious objections raised almost immediately (after the collective online shout of “cool!” dissipated, anyways) and they bear further examination, especially in light of the apparent success of said objections.
The three things that were most controversial about this “appointment” are all significant. The primary objections were that Wonder Woman is overtly sexualized, that a fictional rather than a real woman was unacceptable for such a role, and that giving “Wonder Woman” that voice for women was effectively just handing it to the DC Comics marketing department. While there were a few objections related to her history of violence and some that simply being a comic book character delegitimized her, the former was not really unique to this case in any particularly interesting way and the latter is something I won’t dignify with a response.
No matter your thoughts on the politics of the campaign, this is an ad you’d probably want to stop and look at.
Before I jump into the fallout over all this, it’s probably a good idea to recap what exactly happened. While this was a big deal in geek and/or feminist circles, it was quick and a lot of us may have missed most of it. In October of 2016, the UN announced that Wonder Woman would be named an honorary ambassador. The press release mentioned that as part of a campaign with DC and Warner Bros, Wonder Woman would be connected to everything from fighting abuse to promoting examples of women making a difference. What would WW actually do though? Primarily, be featured in various social media campaigns to promote gender equality as part of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.
Without getting into depressing (and obvious) specifics, I’ve been thinking about fascism lately—specifically the concept of “utopian fascism”. As is often the case when grappling with such issues, I turned to science fiction for a guide. Fortunately, there is a fictional government perfectly suited to explore the question “can democracy and universal prosperity ever be successfully combined with fascism?”: Star Trek’s Federation.
The Federation’s exact political structure is sometimes difficult to pin down, but it seems to be a combination of a democratic interplanetary parliament, a massive military alliance, and a totalitarian bureaucracy.
This isn’t what it looks like.
Now don’t panic! This isn’t going to be super depressing nor is it going to be about space Nazis (unless you count the above-pictured episode TOS episode “Patterns of Force”). When I talk about fascism, I’m talking about the philosophical concept as it dates back to Rome, not the actual horrific reality of modern-day fascism. I am not about to ruin all of our moods by writing some anti-Starfleet propaganda… at least, not too much of it. What I will do is take a look at how the Federation is utopian, how it’s fascist, how (and if) the two can be combined, and what that all says about our vision of a perfect government.
The Fifth Element is one of those movies that it often seems like everyone likes.From the comic book visual aesthetic to the ostentatious yet believable nature of the universe, there is a lot to love about this flick. It is also a film that plays with tropes and genre staples in almost every scene. It could be said to be the opposite of a film like Young Frankenstein, which is a parody film that loves its genre; Fifth Element is a genre film that loves its parody. But while he employs many tropes, director Luc Besson seems to be deconstructing and analyzing those very cliches in a way that often makes the result truly brilliant.
One of the things that gets dissected in this fashion is gender. The way that gender and heroism are intertwined in sci-fi is a constant presence in almost any scene in which there is significant development of the protagonists, Leeloo and Korben Dallas. While these moments sometimes play into expectations and brush with actual tropiness, they also make some crucial points in a way that resonates with an unusually diverse audience.
My primary focus will be three things: Bruce Willis as the “generic action hero”, The Supreme Being as a female archetype, and of course, Ruby Rhod.
Ever since that famous scene in Planet of the Apes with the temple dedicated to an unexploded nuclear missile, I’ve been fascinated with the concept of post-apocalyptic theology. The duality of simultaneously worshiping death and finding ways to validate the lives of those who continue to survive takes on a very literal dynamic in these stories and it allows for some unique and fascinating narrative possibilities. While numerous classic geek works from Tank Girl to Adventure Time examine this in one way or another, I have long been particularly fascinated by the Children of Atom from Fallout. Granted, with the amount of time I’ve spent playing Fallout games, I know more about their beliefs than I do many real-life religions, but something about the Children of Atom hits right at the issue of what our artistic musings about post-apocalyptic religion really say about us as a culture.
Top: Warboys pray at the altar of V8 in Mad Max: Fury Road. Bottom: High Confessor Tektus leads the Children of Atom in praying to a nuclear submarine in Fallout 4.
While we don’t know what a post-apocalyptic religion would actually look like, we have real-life cults with apocalyptic visions that share some commonalities. We also have real-life mainstream religions that reference apocalyptic events. Large-scale death and destruction are a historical part of most major religions, in some cases as an allegorical component to the philosophy and in some cases as a literal part of the religion’s history, often both. Many of these stories are given apocalyptic qualities in their retelling. But “fictional anthropologies” of future religions are incredibly revealing and deeply fascinating. From the various “mini culture” city-states deifying gasoline and automobiles in the wastes of Mad Max’s Australia, to a monk guarding the knowledge of the past in Canticle for Leibowitz, to a tribe worshiping the power of the Ringworld engineers’ long abandoned buildings, there are some common themes among our favorite works in this sub-genre that are worth exploring. To me, the Church of Atom is an arguably perfect example of those themes, so I have chosen to focus mainly on them throughout this post.