Welcome back to the blog, all! I hope you had a fun two weeks while we were on our summer vacation; I spent the days doing Pokémon raids and surfing random webcomics online, trying to find a replacement for my dearly departed Always Human. There’s a lot of stuff out there, much of it diverse and much of it superbly creative. The one I found myself most interested in is called The Substitutes, a reality-bending fantasy by games artist Myisha Haynes.
Plenty has already been said about heroes and anti-heroes. Superman was created over seventy-five years ago, and yet America today prefers its heroes to have a bit more grit, like Tony Stark. What’s undeniable is that a dichotomy exists between light heroes and dark heroes. It’s a way of looking at protagonists that has ancient roots, but manifests differently in male and female characters.
The light and dark dichotomy is very old and very ingrained in our storytelling traditions. On the surface, “light” stereotypes give the character traits that are traditionally associated with positive ideas and symbolism. More often than not these characters will wear white or light colors, have light skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. “Dark” characters tend to have dark hair, skin, eyes, and clothing. This color dichotomy is associated with good and evil, for religious and historical reasons. If you don’t have electricity you can be more productive when the sun’s out, while it’s easier for robbers and rule-breakers to hide in the cover of night. White is associated with purity and goodness, especially in Christianity, while black is associated with evil and the consequences of evil (like sin and death).
While light heroes cling to a traditional morality, dark heroes have a more subversive attitude. There’s something bad or wrong or broken with a dark character, which is usually the source of their darkness. Men tend to be gallant, chivalrous heroes or troubled rogues, while women tend to be virginal maidens or seductive vamps. It’s taken generations to move beyond this rigid dichotomy, giving the light and dark new and interesting implications. But if we really care about smashing gender stereotypes, we need to move beyond the light and dark gender axis. Both Luke Cage and Jessica Jones from Marvel’s respective Netflix series take the light and dark dichotomies and smash them to bits.
Spoilers for all of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones below.
Sometime in 2005, I went to the movie theater with some bored friends and we ended up watching a film called The Brothers Grimm. Literally no one else I was with liked it, but I loved it, bought it, and watched it over and over for years. In spite of its nonsensical nature, it had an A-list cast, including the late great Heath Ledger, who was my favorite actor as a kid thanks to his turns in stuff like A Knight’s Tale and 10 Things I Hate About You. After his untimely death, I put all his movies away for later, and finally unearthed this one this past weekend. Upon rewatching it, I realized that The Brothers Grimm is a fun fairy tale-esque movie, with some great acting, but it doesn’t succeed at being anything more than that.
Spoilers after the jump!
Last week Ace reviewed Stranger Things, the runaway Netflix hit. It’s a fabulous sci-fi show quickly gathering what should in time turn into a cult following. The sci-fi-horror-mystery story follows the mysterious disappearance of young Will Byers (and others), the efforts of his family and friends to rescue him, and the mysterious government authorities that want to keep everything covered up. It’s a show that truly pays homage to the spirit of 1980s television and movie tropes, without making the show feel cheap. Most of the time, when a story utilizes a lot of tropes, it’s not a good thing. Usually tropes mean that characters are flat and stereotyped, plots are predictable and boring, and more often than not anyone outside the “straight WASP male” gets shafted. What I find truly remarkable about Stranger Things is its ability to (for the most part) navigate the divide between using familiar tropes and not indulging in sloppy, harmful stereotypes. Take, for example, the way the show treats its female characters.
Spoilers for Stranger Things below. Continue reading
If you have not yet seen the short film Sunspring, you’re missing something fascinating, bizarre, and potentially historic. It is a sci-fi short script written entirely by an AI named Benjamin. Specifically, Benjamin is a type of neural net called “long short-term memory” that is most often used for high end speech, handwriting, and text recognition. In the case of Sunspring, it was fed a few dozen classic sci-fi scripts (full list shown in the movie’s titles) and told to write its own short, which the human creative team then attempted to faithfully produce.
The results are… interesting, to say the least. While the stream-of-consciousness style of the language has drawn comparisons to the “cut ups” of William Burroughs or even some of the works of James Joyce, there is also a fair amount of straight up gibberish as well. In fact, what makes the film so interesting is that the majority of the meaning cannot be attributed to the “intent” of the AI author but rather the creative interpretation of the actors and directors. Sunspring is a type of collaboration between performers, viewers, and an AI all trying to pull together a coherent narrative by “reading the tea leaves” of the patterns common to sci-fi stories.
In many cases, these patterns are essentially tropes. The fact that an AI recognized this and incorporated it into a script is worth examining, as this seems to speak volumes about the genre itself. For the purpose of this article, I am choosing to focus on the gender narrative and what it says about sci-fi culture and the role of gender in the geek zeitgeist.
Dark Matter can be a rather polarizing story. There are a lot of things about the show that I like, such as the nitty-gritty feel, the characterization, and both the internal and external conflicts our protagonists have to deal with. I absolutely adore what Dark Matter has to tell us about redemption and identity, and I look forward to what will hopefully be more worldbuilding in Season 2. But specifically, I love how Dark Matter takes common tropes and attempts to subvert them.
Unfortunately, as I talked about in an earlier review, the show doesn’t always know what it’s doing, and sometimes while subverting one trope, it simply gives into others. This can make watching Dark Matter a bit of a chore at times. Some of the better examples of this can be seen through the characters Five and One.
Spoilers up ahead.
I tend to fall in love most with a certain type of character, and those characters are usually assholes. Oh yes, sometimes there are exceptions like Scott McCall in Teen Wolf, who is practically a literal Disney prince, but most of the time I love the asshole characters. Usually this is because I find them hilarious and I love that they don’t seem to give a fuck about what anyone thinks of them.
And let’s be honest, there is a reason that we love characters like this. To some extent we all wish we could get away with saying exactly what we are thinking, no matter how awful it is, and not give a fuck about any of the consequences that comes from that. But we still want to be liked, and we certainly do not want to be evil (not necessarily anyway) and thus we get the Lovable Asshole trope. The character who doesn’t give a fuck and makes hilarious quips about people they don’t like, but everyone still loves them for the most part, even if they know they’re a bit of an asshole. Characters like Deadpool, Jayne Cobb, and Iron Man fulfill this trope to a tee. I usually think these characters are awesome and they certainly have an interesting amount of complexity to them. Sometimes, though, this awesome trope can be used for evil. And by evil I mean that writers can use these characters to make prejudice and bigotry seem cool and acceptable.
You all remember that iconic Red Pill/Blue Pill scene from The Matrix, right? Just in case you don’t, let me recap it for you. Our protagonist Neo, who is slowly discovering that his perception of reality is an illusion, is offered the choice between taking a red pill or a blue pill. A man named Morpheus explains to Neo that the illusion they’re in is called the Matrix, and serves to stop humans from discovering that they’re nothing but slaves. The blue pill allows Neo to go back to his normal life, while the red pill would allow him to fully wake up from the illusion and begin a quest for truth. Morpheus sums it up nicely:
You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
We see this Red Pill/Blue Pill symbolism all over the place in pop culture, especially geek culture. Sometimes pills are involved, other times it’s simple amnesia, or some kind of device to plop the hero back into their pre-story life. Why is it so popular? I think it’s because it speaks to a deep part of the human spirit.
In light of the recent Game of Thrones rape scandal, rape and rape culture have once again become the topic of debate. While many people naturally looked upon the scene in disgust, the same was not true of all people. These past few weeks, victim-blaming, misogynistic, rape-apologist rhetoric has once again made its way into the secluded corners of the internet that I tend to frequent. Hey, it’s the internet, so I couldn’t avoid it forever.
Sadly, this is nothing new. This is a society-wide problem that stems from a lot of dark places, and no matter where you go, you will always find offensive misunderstandings about what rape is and a dismissal of its consequences on its victims. Even more unfortunate, it’s not just limited to Game of Thrones. Rape-apologist themes recently made their way to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and before that, you could find them in shows like True Blood, Stargate SG-1, Charmed, and many, many others. And that’s not to mention something like Family Guy. Rape themes are in our musicals, our TV, our video games, and our books. In many ways, they’re treated as a joke and rarely are they ever presented in a realistic light. More often than not, rape is used for shock value. Of course none of us should be surprised that we find the same thing in fanfiction.
We have fanfiction that like to tell us that rape is love, a trope I first found in my Zelda fanfiction. Ganondorf kidnapped and raped Zelda. The two then fell madly in love and fought back against the evil Link, who was trying to tear them apart. I’ve seen this trope in Final Fantasy, between Cloud and Reno, Sephiroth and Aerith. We also have fics that tell us that rape is a suitable punishment for women who need to be put in their place or men who commit crimes. Kairi from Kingdom Hearts is a victim of this, which is one of the reasons I steer clear from Kingdom Hearts fanfiction. Severus Snape often falls victim to this as well. Additionally, there are fics that tell us that victims who are mind-controlled into sexual acts are just sluts who deserve it or cheating bastards. I see this again with Kairi a lot, and Mozenrath from Aladdin (or any sci-fi show I’ve ever watched). We’re told that rape is funny. That rape is shocking. That rape is always a “back alley” scenario involving a masked attacker. That virgin rape is worse than non-virgin rape. So on and so forth.
I personally find that last trope to be one of the more damaging rape myths out there.
As I pointed out to Lady Geek Girl the other day, more than a month has passed again since I last addressed this topic, so it’s time to revisit my favorite series. I’ve spent a good long while harping on The Inheritance Cycle in the past, and while it does have plenty more problems that I could go into, Paolini did do a decent job every once in a while. This series has a good number of avid fans and followers, and I highly doubt that would be the case if the books had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. We could argue all day about whether or not they’re good books (they’re not), but even if you don’t like the series, it’s hard to deny that there is an appeal to it.
So today, I’m going to talk about some of the things that I genuinely enjoyed, or at least appreciated, about the series.