One of the things that I loved most about the Tyme series, which is a revisionist retelling of several fairy tales, is its depiction of fairy godmothers. In many traditional fairy tales, the fairy godmother is not particularly expanded upon; she’s simply a deus ex machina to get the protagonist from one place to the other. In the Tyme series’s retelling of Cinderella, it takes the concept of fairy godmother and builds on it in both a worldbuilding and a moral way.
For many of us, Cowboy Bebop, as it notes in its opening credits, really did become “a new genre unto itself.” It was a formative anime experience and set a standard for animated television that in many ways continues to be that against which new shows are judged. It was hugely successful and for many people, in the West at least, served as an introduction into what anime was really capable of as a storytelling medium. It was also released during the late 90’s pop culture zeitgeist when the Internet was still relatively new and concepts like media inclusivity and cultural appropriation were just beginning to gain traction in the mainstream narrative.
So how does Cowboy Bebop hold up when exposed to modern criticism? Mostly pretty well. There’s some problematic stuff, obviously, but the universe in which Bebop is set offered a lot of creative freedom and some of that was used to explore social constructs and culture. It presents a vision of the future that is incredibly diverse and where humanity is living on other worlds, but where people are still just people. While there are tropes and shortcomings, some of that vision was ahead of its time and still holds water today.
After a long couple months of YA books that I couldn’t wholly get behind, I went back to the library to return them and then just wandered the aisles for a while. I didn’t have any other recommendations from friends or websites, so I ended up in the children’s section, picking out, somewhat at random, what looked like a fairy tale adventure with a Black protagonist. The back cover told me it was the second in a series, so I grabbed the first book, as well, and went home to see if they were any good. As it turns out, they were incredible. Not only are they some of the best revisionist fairy tales I’ve read, the book I picked up, Disenchanted: The Trials of Cinderella, was also centered on social justice and the ills of child labor. Did I mention I found this in the children’s section?
Minor spoilers to follow!
Advisory: Potentially NSFW content.
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.”
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 pages radiate 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.
For many, fictional media is an escape from real-life troubles and stresses. Of course, completely fantastic settings achieve this easily, but seeing an “our world, but different” setting can also provide this escape. This is becoming increasingly common, such as in our superhero fiction; the Marvel Cinematic Universe is set in our world, for the most part, with only subtle changes. The DC universe, while set in fictional cities like Gotham or Metropolis, still reflect our cities and sometimes have shoutouts to real-world locations. These reflections create a shorthand of worldbuilding and can certainly enhance the experience. However, what kind of responsibility does fiction owe to real-world realities?
I’m a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. They evoke a sense of wonder, dread, and the allure of forbidden knowledge. As Neil Gaiman has stated1, “Lovecraft built the stage on which most of the last century’s horror fiction was performed.” He draws the reader into a world of arcane mystery and nameless horror, threatening his protagonists’ sanity and indeed their very lives with a sense of addictive fascination that practically flows out of the page. Lovecraft’s method of “describing the indescribable” with florid and evocative language has all but made him a genre unto himself.
While that never stopped me enjoying his stories, it is sometimes off-putting and makes much of his stuff difficult to read. It is tempting to contextualize this to the period he was writing (where such attitudes were expressed openly), but Lovecraft’s social and racial elitism was considered beyond the pale even for his times; though the tone of his arguments on this topic became more general over the years, they did not appear to change with the times. His correspondence (much of which has been collected and published by S. T. Joshi) bears this out.
But as I’ve re-read his stories over the years, something has dawned on me: the often wholesale embrace of “the white man’s burden” is not only a central metaphor in Lovecraft’s work, it often deepens the isolation of his characters and heightens their peril.
TW: Racist and imperialist language and themes, as well as ableist language and themes, after the jump.
I’ve been a huge Fallout fan for almost two decades now, reveling not only in its lore and gameplay but also its humorous yet (usually) thoughtful treatment of social issues. The post-apocalyptic genre lends itself to this in a unique way. By incorporating sci-fi and fantasy elements, these stories can deal with fairly abstract concepts. By grounding their narratives in a world steeped in dirt, decay, and the conflict between the social contract and raw survival, the best examples of the genre are often able to address these issues in an accessible (and fun) manner.
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid playing/watching/reading about Fallout 4, here’s a bit of background before we dive in. Set in the post-apocalyptic ruins of Boston in the year 2287, the story of Fallout 4 revolves heavily around synths. Synths are synthetic people, made from human DNA, indistinguishable from humans, and created to serve as a labor class for the manipulative and technologically advanced Institute. They are inspired by, if not directly based on, Blade Runner’s replicants. In one way or another, all the major factions involved in the game’s central plot have an interest in what the synths represent and what is to become of them.
On the surface, the parallels to western slavery are pretty clear. The synths are a race of people viewed as “human-like” by their masters and used as free labor to maintain the status quo for a leisure class. They are given virtually no rights and are seen as little more than machines. While their masters take pains to prevent them from being killed or seriously harmed, this is mostly due to the expense involved in replacing them rather than any real concern for their well-being. There is also an underground group seeking to liberate them. This group calls itself the Railroad and is a direct reference to the real-life Underground Railroad, being referred to as such even within the world of the game.
The idea that synths are meant to represent slavery as a human institution was clear to me from the get-go. But in addition to this central metaphor, the treatment of synths and their place in the game’s civilization goes much deeper. There are parallels to infamous examples of racial and cultural discrimination throughout human history, as well as constant remarks by NPCs that the synths are infiltrating their communities and plotting terrible things. Fear that a synth might be living next door, might kill you in your sleep, and might poison the town’s drinking water is a near constant. While some of this is certainly due to the shadowy operations of their human masters, the synth race has become synonymous with deceit, violence, and threats to civilization itself. Sound familiar? This demonization and scapegoating of an entire class of people is common to most examples of real-life discrimination, and synths are a consistent metaphor for that in Fallout 4.