Geek culture really has a thing for nuns. Specifically, Christian (mostly Roman Catholic) women who have made vows to live in community with one another in order to pray and do good works while living a chaste, simple lifestyle. But geek culture doesn’t like nuns for the right reasons. Whenever nuns pop up in geek media, they almost always function as some kind of trope-filled plot device. They look more like the writer’s idea of what a nun is, and less like real nuns. If nuns were depicted accurately, they’d be a great source for feminist characters and plotlines.
You know that mythical unicorn of a show, the one that has a mainly female cast, with diverse characters, women who aren’t defined by their relationships with men, and a high quality of production? Call the Midwife is that show.
Call the Midwife might not be the typical geek show, but it’s one that all geeks (especially girl geeks) should pay attention to. It’s another period drama from the Brits, a BBC creation in the same family as ITV’s Downton Abbey, but for some reason it hasn’t caught the same popularity wave in the US. Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the show follows newly-minted midwife Jenny Lee as she dives head-first into serving the residents of the East End of London during the 1950s. Jenny lives and works with a group of Anglican Sisters (of the nun variety), whose primary work is nursing and delivering the hundred or so babies born each month in the Poplar district. The first series of 6 episodes aired in early 2012 in the UK, the second series of 8 in early 2013, and the first series aired on PBS in late 2012. A third series is planned for 2014. So far I’ve only seen the first series, via Netflix.
So why is Call the Midwife all kinds of awesome?
Hey all! It’s been, hell, it’s been a while since I’ve picked up a Manga Mondays around here, but for the good of all I sat down yesterday and re-read all of the Trinity Blood manga I own just so we could talk about it.
Explaining the plot of Trinity Blood is a bit tricksy. You see, the manga is based on a set of light novels, and an anime exists as well, and each of them differ slightly. But the manga is the one I’m familiar with (I’ve never read the novels, and it’s been years since I watched the anime), and this is Manga Monday, not light novel Monday, so I’ll do my best to sum it up.
The setting is a post-apocalyptic Eurasia, divided into human and Methuselah empires. The Methuselah are a long-lived alien species whose traits and habits strongly resemble the human vampire myth, but the story makes it clear that calling a Methuselah a vampire conveys ignorance and/or xenophobia. Humans (mostly led by the Vatican, which controls most of Western Europe) and Methuselah (whose empire is based more in what was once western Russia and Eastern Europe) have held an uneasy peace for centuries, since the apocalyptic events that coincided with the Methuselah’s arrival.
The story starts off in the city of Istavan in Hungary, on the border of the two empires, where Sister Esther Blanchett, a young nun, is betrayed by her best friend and falls in with a priest from the Vatican’s special forces in order to stop the traitor. Political, emotional, and dramatic tensions mount as her former friend plots to set off total war between the Vatican and the Methuselah. After diffusing her former friend’s first attempt, Esther follows the priest, Father Abel Nightroad, back to the Vatican, where she is trained to be a part of the special forces as well.
Abel is a great character, a textbook crouching moron hidden badass who loves humans and tries to embrace pacifism despite his dark secret: he is a genetic experiment, a bloodsucking creature called a Crusnik who feeds on Methuselahs, developed during the first interspecies war as an ultimate weapon for the humans. Most of the time he’s a goofy, clumsy guy who flirts with literally everyone (even the robot priest) and takes 13 sugars in his tea; but fuck with him, give him a reason to release the nanomachine controls on his Crusnik form, and he’ll end you.
Esther is, after re-reading this series, one of my favorite manga heroines. She’s never oversexualized or objectified. She and Abel, save for a few instances when they’d just met, have a relationship that is wonderfully, relievingly platonic (yay for realistic male-female friendships!). She often gets herself into sticky or dangerous situations, but she almost always saves herself (and others, at times) rather than needing to be rescued. She is fiery, caring, and noble, a good on-the-fly strategist and a loyal friend, but also flawed in different ways. She is often naive; she has to train hard to become a skilled marksman; and when she learns Abel’s secret, she is realistically and understandably terrified of him and has a difficult time overcoming this fear to restore their friendship.
This was one of the things that, weirdly, really made me happy about her characterization. When you find out that one of your good friends is hiding a terrible monster, especially when it’s something you’ve been trained to fear, hate, and kill, inside himself, it’s unrealistic that a person will just shrug the revelation off and move on with being friends with no issues. (This was one of my biggest beefs with the Blue Exorcist anime.)
The series is also full of other strong female characters, both human and Methuselah: Esther and Abel’s boss, Cardinal Caterina Sforza, is a caring but stern administrator and a genius at political scheming. The Empress of the Methuselah is a loving and maternal figure who’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and kick ass when the situation calls for it. Lady Astarothe is a low-ranking Methuselah noble who’s loyal, intelligent, a skilled warrior, and comfortable with her body. (But seriously on the topic of objectification, this series is really wonderfully non-objectifying while not being afraid of the female form—there’s an entire scene where Astarothe and Esther talk in the bath, and even though that meant ten or so pages filled with boobs, the scene wasn’t portrayed in a sexually titillating (/badpun) way—they just happened to be in the bath, and thus there was nudity.) The rest of the cast, both female and male, are a bevy of interesting, unique, and well-developed characters as well.
The story also has a lot of interesting religious aspects and themes. Any divergences from current Catholic doctrine or practice (female cardinals, militaristic special forces populated by priests and nuns, robot priests, and boy popes) I personally forgive, because considering the story is set 900 years in the future a hell of a lot of things could have changed. Abel and his family are both named after and obvious callbacks to creation-myth characters: Abel, Cain, Seth, and Lilith. Other character names are obvious callbacks to notorious Catholic leaders of the past—Caterina and her brothers, a bishop and the Pope, have the surname Sforza, a family closely tied to the Borgias in medieval/Renaissance Italy.
There are also interesting race-related themes, regarding intolerance, fear, and hatred of those who are unlike ourselves. That’s another reason I liked Esther—although she grows to accept humans and Methuselah for their character rather than making judgments about their species, we see that she has to work through her preformed prejudices in order to do so. I found this far more realistic; if she’d started out as a girl from a border town growing up around fear of ‘vampires’ for her entire life, and then the second she met a real one she immediately befriended them, it would reek of Mary Suedom to me.
The art of Trinity Blood is beautiful and the storytelling is clever, funny, and flows very well to me. Unfortunately this series was licensed in the US by Tokyopop, which went under last summer, so only the first dozen or so volumes of this ongoing series are available in English. Despite that, however, it’s definitely worth checking out. Give it a look and tell me if you liked it as much as I do! (Athough feel free to write less—good gorram I wrote a freaking novel here…)