Review: Sense8, Episodes 1-4

Sense8 posterMy first review since I went radio silent!

I submitted my thesis on Friday 29th May and I’m slowly trying to figure out what it is to live in a world where I am not constantly guilty about not writing my thesis. It’s been a strange and emotional week. I have been looking for jobs and sleeping and playing Dragon Age II. And mostly not watching as many shows as I’d like because so many of them are over and the only currently airing ones I’m watching are Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (great) and Game of Thrones (problematic). I was badly in need of some new fodder and despairing of finding any. Sense8 came out of nowhere and… and it’s fantastic, to be honest.

Sense8 is the new Netflix Original released on 5th June. Having originally been blown away by Netflix Original output, I’ve since been pretty disappointed. The difference between Hemlock Grove seasons one and two was astounding. House of Cards was so patriarchal I’ve given up in frustration. And as for Daredevil, there’s so much sexist disappointment I wouldn’t even know where to begin. So I’ve come to look at Netflix Orignals rather warily. And then I saw a post on Tumblr giving trigger warnings for it (but saying it was great), and my interest was piqued. Tumblr has a not unjustified reputation for liberal criticism, and when the Tumblrites I follow say something is painful but good, I pay attention. Particularly when they say it’s painful but good in its depiction of trans folk, and the programme in question was also created by a trans woman.

So, with nothing to lose and not yet ready to go to bed at midnight last night, I decided to give it a go. At 4am, I forcibly tore myself away.

What is Sense8, then?

Sense8 is a twelve episode show about a bunch of people who discover that they are telepathically and empathically connected – they are ‘sensates’. They find themselves feeling what each other are feeling, seeing what each other are seeing, and being able to act on each other’s behalf. Find yourself in a fight? Wouldn’t it be hella convenient for your body to be taken over by a Korean martial arts expert? It would certainly help!

The eight sensates we follow were ‘created’ when a woman being pursued by an Evil Scientist shoots herself in the head. They each witness her death and then start seeing images of her as they go about their daily business, and then they start seeing and feeling what each other are seeing and feeling.

These people are refreshingly diverse: a Korean business woman who participates in underground fighting in her spare time, a white cop in Chicago, a lesbian trans woman former hacktavist, a gay Latino film actor, a coach driver in Nairobi trying to get together the money for his mum’s AIDs medication, an Icelandic DJ in London, a Hindu woman in Mumbai who is about to marry a man she doesn’t love, and a German safe cracker. Different backgrounds, different levels of wealth, different sexualities, and a blessedly even number of women and men.

How is it?

It’s good. I mean, it’s stay-up-to-4am good. And maybe it’s the emotional week I’ve had, but I was weeping from complex feelings at the end of the last episode I watched, and for me that’s always a good sign. The characters all have complex plot arcs and relationships, the episodes are well paced and gripping, and it’s shot in a visually engaging manner.

That said, the trigger warnings on the Tumblr post mentioned above are well given. The trans woman’s plot, in particular, is painful and may cut awfully close to the bone for some viewers. Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) is a woman in a healthy, loving relationship with a cis woman named Amanita (Freema Agyeman (!<3)), but her family are not so awesome. When she faints in the middle of a Pride march she wakes up in a hospital with her family, who misgender her, prevent her partner from seeing her, tell her she needs brain surgery, and sign papers that (somehow) mean she is unable to leave the hospital – her door is locked.

As a non-binary person I don’t feel equipped to speak with authority as to whether this is well handled, but it seemed so to me. It’s certainly wonderful to see a trans character who was both created by a trans woman (Lana Wachowski) and played by a trans actor. I have no sense that the character herself is portrayed with anything but sympathy. Nevertheless, of the few trans characters that exist in TV and film, they are so often shown only through their pain – its a trope familiar across LGBT protrayals in film, what has been described as ‘dead gays for the straight gaze’ or ‘queers die for the straight eye‘ (although I hasten to add that we are not talking about literal death in this case, although identity death certainly looms as a possibility). I know some of my trans friends have lamented the fact that there are so few portrayals of trans people that are not difficult and painful to watch.

Whilst we’re here, I’d just like to add that it’s a pleasure to see the awesome Martha Jones Freema Agyeman on screen again, and whilst her American accent is somewhat wobbly, her portrayal of Amanita as Nomi’s compassionate, vibrant, sex positive partner is wonderful. Her presence on screen is a balm in difficult scenes.

I’m a little less comfortable about some of the scenes given to Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) who winds up in an awkward three-way relationship with his boyfriend and Daniela Velasquez (Eréndira Ibarra) the actress who discovers Lito’s secret relationship and imposes herself as an unasked for live-in ‘beard‘. Miguel Ángel Silvestre and Alfonso Herrera are accomplished and subtle actors who play the motions of a couple living in a difficult, closeted situation well, but the comic relief offered by Daniela sits uneasily with their more serious portrayal. Overall, it just doesn’t work for me.

I also wonder about racial and national stereotyping. Sun Bak (Bae Doona) is engaging and convincing as the secretly badass Korean woman who can fuck you up but bows meekly to sexist treatment in the day. I recall all too well the questions raised by my Asian friends about the protrayal of Mako Mori in Pacific Rim. Ami Angelwings was particularly articulate on the issue of white women saying how wonderful Mako was whilst East Asian women had issues with the portrayal that were overlooked. There’s a culture of white feminists drowning out voices whenever there’s a meek feminine woman who is also shows strength, on the basis that there are so few of such characters, despite the fact that there are (to my eyes) more portrayals of this than any other type of female character. And I find it worrying that Mako Mori springs immediately to mind when I see Sun Bak. I wonder how much the charactisation of the extreme sexism against which Sun Bak must work reflects racist assumptions about South Korea. The truth is, as a white British woman, I simply don’t know, but if I’m noting a pattern in how East Asian women are being represented in American shows, there is a chance we are being presented with a type, and not a character.

Similarly, the poverty stricken black people beset by crime and AIDs in Capheus’s (Al Ameen) plotline raise flags. As does the fact that the Indian woman is facing the prospect of a marriage supported by her family and friends that she does not really want. Do people like this exist? Perhaps – I’m wary of making any judgements as to the truth of that as a British white woman – but I think it’s worth asking whether there weren’t other characters and plotlines we could have had for a woman in India or a man in Nairobi, ones that didn’t fit so very neatly into Euro-American stereotypes of what life is like in those places.

From a less significant aspect, we also see stereotyping of white characters based off their nationality. There’s an Australian girl (not a main character) who is very blunt spoken, and everytime she makes a faux pas either she or her boyfriend says it’s because she’s Australian. I’ve known a lot of Australians in my time, but none who acted like that. They… were as varied as other people? And then there’s the Icelandic DJ. She’s has whiffs of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and her general nightclub/alternative music aesthetic makes me think of Björk. Part of me wonders if a musical alternative girl is the only kind of woman they could imagine coming from Iceland.

I also have questions about the use of the suicide of Angelica Turing (Daryl Hannah) as the inciting incident. Especially as it is at the urging of one man in order to escape another and to ‘give birth’ to the sensates. Whilst this is not a classic case of ‘fridging‘ a woman in order to advance a man’s plot – as she advances the plots of several woman, too – it is using the death of a woman as a plot device, it is to fulfil the designs of a man, it is also to escape man-on-woman violence, it substantiates a sense of men as patriarchal figures, and the ‘giving birth’ metaphor gives it an unnecessary veneer of reporductive violence as well.

All of which is not to undermine the fact that these are still engaging and rounded characters or that I find myself incredibly moved by their stories. Rather, it is to acknowledge that these stories are not perfect. In comparison to everything else I am watching right now the show is still infinitely more diverse, it does provide a range of female characters such that I don’t feel any of them particularly stands as representing what it is to be a woman, it also provides a racially diverse cast (including the beautiful Naveen Andrews as Jonas <3), as well as an array of LGBT characters. One could wish for some disability diversity too, but overall, it’s a refreshing improvement.

And as for the science fiction… well, it’s more fantasy than science fiction, but that’s OK. The light-touch on scientific explanations offered so far is better than the Heroes route of talking absolute rubbish about evolution in order to justify the plot. I would like to see more consideration given to the dodginess of just taking over someone else’s body, but it’s early days, yet. Bodily autonomy is definitely a theme. I feel for these people. I engage with these people. I see both male and female characters I don’t often get to see on screen, and that means something to me. And they have superpowers. And those superpowers are both making them awesome and giving them emotional problems. Which is right up my alley, basically.

If you’re in need of some quality drama and starved of shows that don’t give centre stage to straight white cis men, Sense8 is a really wonderful choice, and I commend it to you.

Gender Stats in Reviews 2

Some of you may remember that earlier this year I was inspired by Warpcore SF to track statistics on the gender of lead characters in the things I review. A lot of talk is bandied about regarding the gender of protagonists – whether there are less female protagonists than male, whether female protagonists sell less well, whether books/films/TV shows etc. with female protagonists are often overlooked by reviewers. But there’s not a lot of data. Especially in the vast blogging marshes of the Internet it seems impossible to accurately gauge the truth about what people are reading and what people are reviewing.

Does it really help for one not particularly well-known blog to keep a record of these things and do a bit of analysis? I don’t know. Maybe. I know a couple of people have been referred to my data since I posted it, but the data sample is so tiny I’m not quite sure what they got out of it. For me it’s an interesting exercise to take the opportunity to step back and think about what I’m reading and viewing, and what I’m choosing to review of the things that I’m reading and reviewing. If you read this blog you’ll know I make big noises about the representation of gender in the various forms of media I review. It’s only fair that I step back and take a look at myself and my own actions.

As my previous post was conducted spur-of-the-moment in the middle of the year, I wanted to do a post soon(ish) after my blog’s birthday (3rd October) to compare the two years I’ve been blogging. I had planned to make the post shortly after the Serene Wombles, but… yeah… that didn’t quite happen. It’s still October, right? Just?

So, let’s take a look. As before, I have followed roughly Ros’s model for logging female, male, and neutral main characters, using neutral for items where there were multiple protagonists of different genders as well as for trans or indeterminately gendered protagonists. Where I have given multiple reviews for the same item (e.g. my Read Along with Rhube A Dance with Dragons reviews, or where I have reviewed multiple episodes from the same TV Show) these have only been counted once. I have not counted any reviews given since 3rd October 2012.

Total figures for all reviews
Female: 25%
Male: 45%
Neutral: 30%

Well, that’s not great. And if you compare to when I did this in March, there’s no real movement. Female has gone up by 1%, neutral has gone down by 1%, Male has stayed the same, with nearly half of all reviews having a male protagonist vs only a quarter with a female one.

But let’s break it down by year and see if there’s a change.

Female: 23% (9)
Male: 50% (20)
Neutral: 27% (11)

Female: 29% (7)
Male: 38% (9)
Neutral: 33% (8)

Well, that’s quite a difference. Male protagonists have gone down a lot, and all three categories are hovering roughly around the third mark. However, the stats from March, half-way through the year, are interestingly different:

October 2011-March 2012
Female: 27% (3)
Male: 27% (3)
Neutral: 45% (5)

I seem to have backtracked from gender parity to males taking the lead since I started tracking this. You might have thought awareness of gender parity would have had the opposite effect. However, when you look at the numbers rather than the percentages, you can see that the difference isn’t very great. I have in general reviewed more works with a clearly gendered protagonist, and there is only a difference of two between male and female. It’s a shame, really, that I haven’t had a chance to review as much this last year as I did the year before, as the sample is smaller, but it is what it is.

Let’s drill into the detail and see where the changes happened.

Books 2010-2011
Female: 21% (3)
Male: 57% (8)
Neutral: 21% (3)

Books 2011-2012
Female: 17% (1)
Male: 33% (2)
Neutral: 50% (3)

These figures are interesting. I’ve reviewed fewer books with a clear female protagonist, and male protagonists still clearly outstrip females. However, the percentage of gender neutral protagonists has gone up massively. When you look at the numbers (1, 2, 3) you might not think that’s too significant – perhaps I simply didn’t review enough books this year to make for much dice. But look at the figures from 2010-2011; I reviewed eight books with a clear male protagonist vs only three with a clear female protagonist. I think it is significant of something that I didn’t read dramatically more male-led books this year.

These figures reflect two books I reviewed written by Sophia McDougall – books that I got into explicitly because I had been so impressed by her blog posts on gender issues (interestingly, these were both gender-neutral, multi-POV books). The two male books are Kraken, which I read because I had heard it was good and it was written by an author I’m already a fan of, and The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three, which was a time machine review of my very favourite novel, which I wrote because I had revisited it and felt compelled to write more on. Both of these books are by massively popular male authors who lead the field (China Miéville and Stephen King) and both of whom write predominantly male protagonists (King also writes a lot of multi-POV books as well, to be fair). In both cases I like the authors because they usually write women well and allow women to take strong roles as well as displaying a range of female roles; nevertheless, they are market leading male authors who, when they have a clear protagonist, usually have a male protagonist. (Note: It’s possible I haven’t read as much China Miéville as I have Stephen King; I apologise if I’ve misjudged him on this basis, although it did seem to me that in all the books of his I have read there have been many more male characters than female.)

I don’t take this as an indictment of these men – on the contrary, I respect them both immensely from the views they have expressed outside of their books as well as the sort of female characters they write. Rather, it is interesting that this can be said of some of the better writers for gender equality who happen to be male. One might speculate that there is a natural tendency to identify with one’s own gender and therefore write characters of one’s own gender as the lead (except that female authors also seem to write male leads a lot, which I suspect may be a product of the prevalence in the culture). Indeed, I recall a gob-smacking conversation with a very senior academic who seemed shocked that a man would ever write from a female POV – he seemed to think it a matter of literary merit to attempt it at all. He could see women writing male characters, but not the other way around. I rather suspect his interests don’t stray far outside of literary fiction, however – I don’t imagine he will be reading Contact, Embassy Town, or Carrie anytime soon. But the idea that men would only try to write women as some kind of literary study is kind of appalling to me – as though were an alien species, or a laboratory specimen. I guess women are allowed to write men because a) male is the default, and/or b) women are just so intuitive and empathic. You can imagine how I feel about that kind of assumption.

This attitude may be a part of the problem, but given that there are actually a fair few men who write female characters at least on occasion, I would expect it to be more a matter of lack of thought on the matter than actively thinking it impossible. Stephen King, after all, has written a great many excellent female characters, just much less frequently in the leading role. Consequently, if males generally get ahead more in society it’s reasonable to expect that more of our most successful authors would be male, writing more male characters, especially in a genre perceived as male-dominated and where female writers still feel a pressure to conceal their gender to avoid putting male readers off. A number of female authors have commented that they chose to use initials rather than their forenames to conceal their gender, and even the colossally successful Robin Hobb chose this pseudonym as being more androgynous for when she started writing high fantasy with a first person male protagonist*.

I also wonder if female authors are more likely to write multi-POV novels. This is pure speculation, but I found it interesting that Sophia McDougall’s novels were multi-POV. I had sort of assumed that they were female-led novels, because she wrote such strong women and I had read her books because I was impressed by her articulate expression of her views on gender. However, when I came to tally up the figures, I realised that Una, impressive character though she is, is only one of three predominant POVs (four, counting Varius, who becomes more prominent in the second novel), and the others are male. Of course, the sample is far too small to draw any conclusions, but I have noted elsewhere that women are more likely to be given powerful roles in ensemble casts in television shows, and I wonder if something similar might be going on here. The more leads you have, the easier it is to slip in a powerful woman without objection, as you will also be able to give men powerful and prominent roles. Perhaps this might also explain why I read so many more multi-POV books: they are more likely to have a range of female characters, and some in positions of power.

Interesting note: the one female-led book I reviewed this year was The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish, and, by my reckoning, the first science fiction novel. Is it telling that women writing in harder times are more likely to write about women? If you have to fight harder to get published, are you more likely to have an axe to grind about why it was hard for you? Virginia Woolf thought so, and she thought it was a flaw (although not one we could be blamed for) – that we couldn’t possibly know what women will write until we achieve genuine equality because our frustrations naturally bleed out into our work. I can’t say it better than she, so I will quote the passage in full:

But perhaps it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not. Her gift and her circumstances matched each other completely. But I doubt whether that was true of Charlotte Brontë, I said, opening JANE EYRE and laying it beside PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

I opened it at chapter twelve and my eye was caught by the phrase ‘Anybody may blame me who likes’. What were they blaming Charlotte Brontë for? I wondered. And I read how Jane Eyre used to go up on to the roof when Mrs Fairfax was making jellies and looked over the fields at the distant view. And then she longed — and it was for this that they blamed her — that ‘then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen: that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character than was here within my reach. I valued what was good in Mrs Fairfax, and what was good in Adele; but I believed in the existence of other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I believed in I wished to behold.

‘Who blames me? Many, no doubt, and I shall [b]e called discontented. I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes….

‘It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

‘When thus alone I not unfrequently heard Grace Poole’s laugh….’

That is an awkward break, I thought. It is upsetting to come upon Grace Poole all of a sudden. The continuity is disturbed. One might say, I continued, laying the book down beside PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, that the woman who wrote those pages had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?

And you can see what Virginia Woolf means, can’t you? Charlotte Brontë interrupts her work to break into a wild description of her own pain and frustration because to be driven to write is to be driven to express yourself. The skilled and calm practitioner, Woolf suggests, does so wholly within the bounds of the story and the natural inclination of the characters. But a writer in pain may let her own passions bleed into the work, and if you are fighting to be heard you may be more inclined to skew towards a description of your own pains – of writing your own tale, rather than another’s. Yet, we should be wary of taken Woolf’s criticism 100% at face value. The conceit of A Room of One’s Own is that of a woman trying to pin down a thesis whilst constantly being interrupted – she begins the essay uniquely with a ‘But…’ as though she is trying to complete a point someone interrupted her to object to. It’s a telling moment. I myself have been taken to task for ‘interrupting’ with a ‘but’ when I was merely trying to finish a point a man was objecting to on a mistaken premise because he had not let me finish outlining my point in the first place. And, of course, that is why Woolf prizes ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (and £500 a year) as so necessary for writing – for developing thoughts and following them through to completion. In the same vein, Woolf may have a dual point in highlighting the way in which Grace Poole’s laughter interrupts Jane Eyre’s reflection upon the restraints that are placed upon women. Yes, it is an intrusion of authorial voice upon the writing, but it is also an illustration of Jane’s frustrations, as well as Charlotte Brontë’s.

I don’t know if anyone has ever done a study on early women writers and their protagonists – quite possibly they have – it might make an interesting read.

It’s a thought anyway. Let’s move on.

Film/TV 2010-2011
Female: 6% (1)
Male: 47% (8)
Neutral: 47% (8)

Film/TV 2011-2012
Female: 33% (5)
Male: 40% (6)
Neutral: 27% (4)

Well, now there’s a clear shift. I think, in part, because I’ve personally been fed up with film and TV that represents women in an implausible and offensive manner, and have thus sought out more varied fair. It should be noted that I have included in this category web series; as I only reviewed two this year it didn’t seem like it would provide intelligible information to include a category just for them. That said, they were both female led both on screen and off – with Felicia Day taking the lead in both. Does this skew the results? I don’t know, but it reflects the fact that when I sought televisual entertainment with female protagonists I turned to the web, where the more indie nature of the genre allows more flexibility. The fact that Felicia Day is a woman and one of the most successful innovators in the genre speaks well of a different dynamic in the future. It also reflects that finding you like a female creator/lead in one show can lead you to investigate other work that she is involved in. It’s like Sandi Toksvig says of comedy panel shows: if you want gender parity, ‘make the host a woman’.

Anyway, enough musings. Moving on!

Comics 2010-2011
Female: 0% (0)
Male: 100% (2)
Neutral: 0% (0)

Comics 2011-2012
Female: 50% (1)
Male: 0% (0)
Neutral: 50% (1)

No change from March. Same goes for podcasts and blogs:

To quote me in March:

I have only reviewed two podcasts on this blog, both were last year, one was a work of fiction with a male protagonist, the other was non-fiction but given by a man. I have counted both in the overall total for boys.

Blogs 2010-2011
Female: 100% (5)
Male: 0% (0)
Neutral: 0% (0)

I wrote quite a bit about this in March, so I won’t duplicate that here (this post is already long enough!) but it’s still there to be read if you’re interested.

I also grouped the non-Film/TV/Book categories together for comparison, as these groups have much smaller results overall. (Note that I reviewed one poem this year – Fern Hill – which has been slotted into this category along with the others already mentioned. It has a male protagonist.)

Other 2010-2011

Female: 55% (5)
Male: 45% (4)
Neutral: 0% (0)

Other 2011-2012

Female: 33% (1)
Male: 33% (1)
Neutral: 33% (1)

Again, this is a no-change-since-March, so I won’t say much more about it, except that I think perhaps the year coming will show more variety and I will have to switch up the categories generally. I suspect web series may need its own category, and it may be that comics and/or blogs will have enough to stand on their own feet. But it all depends on how things go. When I finished Read Along with Rhube (and I will finish it, I will!) I’ll have more time for reviewing other things. I’m also moving towards the end of my PhD, which will probably mean a little less blogging followed by a bit more. Exciting times!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of my useless data and personal analysis.

*Fun fact: a certain local charity shop that will remain nameless to protect its cause took to dividing its books up into those by ‘male authors’ and those by ‘female authors’. They consistently misshelved Robin Hobb in the ‘male authors’ bookcase, even though I kept moving her books back to the ‘female’ shelves.