Sexualized Saturdays: How GLaDOS Got Her Feminist Groove Back

At one point about a year ago, I was thinking of writing a Sexualized Saturdays post on Portal, but when I discovered that our own BrothaDom had already written that article, I cursed the whole “great minds think alike” thing and moved on. But something about Portal kept refusing to let me drop the idea of doing an article on it and I think I finally figured out what it is: GLaDOS is, arguably, an unsung feminist icon.

GLaDOS via TPW

Admit it, even after all the attempted murder… you still kinda want to give her a hug right? (Image via The Portal Wiki.)

Much of the media discussion of Portal centers around the awesomeness of Chell as a groundbreaking example of “female as generic default” for a game protagonist… because she is! But, mostly in Portal 2, there’s a whole lot more narrative devoted to GLaDOS’s backstory and the way it changes the emotional tone of her relationship with Chell. Along the way, we get a narrative about who and what GLaDOS really is, which takes her from being little more than a gameplay mechanic to a truly deep and memorable character. The main story arc in which that transpires is one in which Chell and GLaDOS confront a patriarchal system that has turned them both into pawns in an infinite game and where the cycle of violence brought by abuse is a central theme.

(TW: Discussion of abusive relationships and violence against women.)

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Sexualized Saturdays: Something Something Lord of the Flies: When An All-Female Reboot Just Doesn’t Work

After several decades of hemming and hawing in the face of the evidence that movies about female heroes and/or starring more than one woman can be financially successful, I suspect that Wonder Woman finally was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Before Wondy, we had the moderately successful Ghostbusters: Answer the Call; coming next year, we will be #blessed by Ocean’s Eight. However, the thing about the latter two films, both reboots of previously all-male franchises, is that they are movies where the gender of the protagonists is incidental. That’s why it’s possible to reboot them with women; there’s no reason a lady can’t bust a ghost or rob a casino as effectively as a dude.

Or suffer on the MTA (via People)

But of course Hollywood can never get it quite right, and now The Powers That Be have predictably got ahead of themselves by confusing incidental and intentional gendering in lady-led reboots.

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Sexualized Saturdays: Steven and The Doctor; Gender Identity and Role Models in Steven Universe

Since its premiere, Steven Universe has meant a lot of things to a lot of people. The representation of numerous gender identities, sexualities, ethnicities, and creeds has been a phenomenal example of how diversity can lead to better storytelling and has provided many fans of all types with new fictional role models. The recent remarks by former Doctor Who lead Peter Davison, however, have had me thinking about one group that some say is overlooked in discussions of how this diversity is having an impact: straight white men.

Now, before anyone says anything, the reason this group is “overlooked” is that they have occupied a widely disproportionate number of the roles that need to be diversified in the first place; they aren’t overlooked, they’re usually the group being looked at. This demographic is the exact opposite of an underrepresented minority, and the overwhelming number of complaints I see about their exclusion are, as sixth Doctor Colin Baker says in his reply, “absolute rubbish.”

“Straight white male” has been the default target demographic for a wide majority of western mass media in the last century, and that identity is one that is effortlessly validated by a seemingly unending parade of straight white male heroes (even just ones named Chris). There is, IMHO, absolutely no argument whatsoever to be made that straight white men are underrepresented in media, let alone solely within the subgenres of animated kids shows featuring aliens or British time travel franchises. But the result of this debate was that I got to thinking about the nature of what messages these shows send, and how the identity of the messenger can impact the way it is received.

SU WHO - In the real way

He can show you how to be strong. (screenshot from Steven Universe)

Which, of course, led me to Steven Universe. SU is a show with a straight male protagonist, but also one in which the bulk of the show’s main characters are women and many are (essentially) queer women of color. The show demonstrates both that a straight white male can deliver a highly inclusive message and that characters with a different identity can deliver messages that are particularly important for those same young boys in need of a role model—the same ones that Davison is worried about. By validating that a straight white man can in fact be a messenger for diverse audiences, SU simultaneously demonstrates why straight white men can and must begin to learn more of those messages from messengers of other identities.

(Note: while the racial component to the “default” hero identity is equally important, this article will obviously focus primarily on the gender and sexuality components.)

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Sexualized Saturdays: Matriarchy Shouldn’t Just Be Patriarchy-But-With-Women

Our society has a poor relationship with gender, which is bad for reality, but gets interesting in fiction. This dynamic is pushed to some possible conclusion in works such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Bitch Planet, or Stepford Wives. In these stories, the degrading treatment of women in the present day becomes far more explicit and sinister. We aren’t just looking at microaggressions and lower pay, but being forced into servitude or stripped of all agency. Stories like these are both good cautionary tales and thought experiments, and they can more easily highlight some of the harder-to-see marginalizations women face. But sometimes, an author wants to shock the audience by flipping the gendered treatment of the characters. In some stories, we get to see matriarchal societies and how they tend to operate, which is useful for examining our own biases. But whenever I see these, I wonder if this is how things would actually go.

A month or so ago, we saw some of the drafts for a Wonder Woman movie penned by Joss Whedon. To put it lightly, it caught some flak. Within the droves of criticism, some commenters pointed out that Diana would most likely not resort to insulting someone by telling them to “be man enough.” First off, she was previously unfamiliar with the concept of men in general. Second, as an Amazon her frame of what is strong would include only women. So if anything, she would say to “woman up,” but again, the gender thing wouldn’t come up the same way, because she doesn’t even know men existed. Third, would a society completely comprised of women still value strength as one of its key tenets and judge someone’s value on their bravery and toughness? For a warrior society, maybe, but not necessarily. Would their values be roughly the same as our more patriarchal society, just with a gender flip? I started thinking about it, and then I got to thinking about other times this theme caught my attention.

Content warning for sexism and assault below.

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Sexualized Saturdays: The Life-Changing Magic of Being Not Like Other Girls

As I recently read S. Jae-Jones’s YA novel Wintersong, I noticed something troubling. The book seemed designed to appeal to me: it was a fantasy romance with strong (really strong) inspiration from both the movie Labyrinth and my favorite poem, Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market. However, something about Liesl, the main character, bugged me, and it took me a while to figure it out. Not because it wasn’t obvious, but because I thought that, in this, the Year of Our Lord 2017, we had done away with the “not like other girls” trope.

It’s a tale as old as time: a girl who’s just ~not like~ the other girls around her, against all odds, wins the day. These stories are appealing to us because these girls are framed as the outcasts; we can relate to their being bookish or plain or unpopular. But a problem that uniquely affects the female characters who fit these roles is that they often succeed or achieve victory at the expense of other women and girls, or by denigrating traditional femininity (or both). Liesl is an on-the-nose example of this trope: she is terribly jealous of her sister’s physical beauty, a trait Liesl lacks and constantly laments. Liesl is a genius composer, but her skills are downplayed or overlooked because of her gender. Meanwhile, it feels like her gorgeous sister is set up to be resented, as she at least can win men’s attention with her looks.

The cup of a carpenter is not like those frilly other cups. (via indygear)

However, when offered a beautiful fae gown by the servants of the Goblin King, Liesl instead chooses a plain dress, and this is played like Indiana Jones correctly picking the right Holy Grail. But instead of just rejecting the wealth and majesty of the other dresses, it reads as though Liesl is casting a value judgment on the majority of the other women in the book, who did choose to wear frills and finery.

This is just the latest example of this issue, rather than the only one. Pop culture has a long and varied history of celebrating these not-like-other-girls, from formative Disney flicks all the way up to watch-at-your-own-risk premium television like Game of Thrones. These portrayals enforce a terrible message: that there’s only one right way to be a girl, and that it’s totally acceptable to tear down other girls who don’t meet those standards. Continue reading

Sexualized Saturdays: Martyred Moms and Dastardly Dads in the MCU

My friend and I came out of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 convinced that the Infinity Wars movies, and the big Avengers/Guardians crossover therein, were mostly going to consist of Tony Stark and Peter Quill trying to out-Daddy-Issue each other. As well as both having facial hair and a penchant for roguish one-liners, the two heroes have a few things in common, most notably their parental situation: like Tony, Peter Quill has a complicated and at times antagonistic relationship with his father that forms the emotional core of a whole movie, and a sense of wistful mourning for his mother, who was sweet, kind, and only shows up in a few scenes. She’s also dead due to circumstances that were in no way her fault, so they can bond over that as well. At this point, maybe Thor can chime in too, perhaps initiating a group hug, since he also has a complicated relationship with his main-character dad and grieves over his good and nurturing dead mum. Jeez, is Infinity Wars just going to be one big session of father-related angst and mother-related mourning?

Fridge a kind mother and elevate a father to main character status once, Marvel, and that’s shame on you. Fridge a kind mother and elevate a father twice, still shame on you. Do this three times for three different superheroes and it’s officially a pattern. What exactly is going on here, and why does it annoy me so much?

GOTG Ego and Starlord

Complicated Father-Son Dynamic: Space Edition (Via Comic Book Movie)

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Sexualized Saturdays: “I’ll Make My Own Gender, with Blackjack… and Hookers!”—A Critical Look at Futurama’s Handling of Bender’s Gender Identity

Futurama is one of my all-time favorite shows. I have watched these episodes so many times I think I broke Netflix’s suggestion algorithms. While there are many aspects to the show that are brilliant and remarkably nuanced, one topic that they have addressed repeatedly, and one that their exploration has handled in widely disparate and often problematic ways, is gender and gender identity. While not a main theme of the show, various aspects of gender and sexuality are regularly explored and put under the lens of Futurama’s satirical distant future.

Futurama calendar pic

A genderbent recreation of the Barbarella poster with Fry and Leela. (Screenshot from Futurama)

In examining how this is generally handled, the good and bad alike, there are some specific episodes scattered throughout the show’s run that specifically deal with these issues and demand specific attention; mostly through changes to the gender identity of one of its most widely known characters: Bender B Rodriguez.

TW: Discussion of transphobic and homophobic themes.

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