The Third Annual Serene Wombles

Sorry this is so late. I had, like, three significant life crises happen all at once, and I only had this half finished by 3rd October, which was my blog’s birthday. I really wanted to get this out on the day itself, but that’s life. Let the post begin!

Wow, we survived a whole ‘nother year, and for some reason you lot are still interested in what I have to say about various forms of speculative media and other awesome shit. Weirdos.

For the n00bs: The Serene Wombles are the awards I give once a year, on my blog’s birthday, for the stuff I liked best of all the things I have reviewed. The skinny:

Eligibility for a Serene Womble is conferred by being the subject of a review on In Search of the Happiness Max in the past year. There may have been better or more worthy things that came out this year, but if I didn’t find them relevant to my interests, or if I simply didn’t have the time to review them, they won’t be eligible for a Serene Womble. I make no pretense that these awards are significant or important in any way, but I enjoy having the opportunity to praise and draw attention to things I have loved.

The Serene Wombles are divided into two categories, those that apply to recent releases, and special Time Travelling Wombles for the most awesome things in my Reviewing Through the Time Machine posts. The division between the former and the latter may at times seem arbitrary – why should a film that came out in 2009 count as a recent release, whilst a TV Show that ended in 2009 requires a time machine? It’ll always be a judgement call, and the call is mine. At the end of the day, these are not the Oscars, they’re the highlights from a blog, and are therefore subject to my whim.

Due to illness and stress and stuff the pickings have been a little thinner this year than I would like. Nevertheless, there have been some really awesome and creative things out there, and I still want to praise them.

The Serene Womble for Best Film

Poster for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Poster for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Elligible films: Looper, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Star Trek: Into Darkness.

So… guess who hasn’t been to the cinema a lot this year?  There are a whole bunch of films that I wanted to go see this year  – summer of bloody superheroes indeed! – but illness and lack of funds have prevented me. As a consequence, this was basically no contest. Looper made me angry. Star Trek: Into Darkness was tiresome and disappointing. And I enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a very great deal. I said when I watched it at Christmas that it would be the one to beat, and, alas, nothing rose to the challenge.

This was an exceedingly pretty film that I found well-paced and which realised the story very well. I didn’t mind the extra stuff added in, and actually like that Peter Jackson took this once-in-a-generation-or-two opportunity to explore Tolkien’s world more fully. Bags of fun!

The Serene Womble for Best TV Show: Hemlock Grove

Hemlock Grove PosterEligible TV Shows: Hemlock Grove, Doctor Who, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Hannibal, America’s Next Top Model, Sleepy Hollow.

For the first year, Game of Thrones is not the winner of this category! I still enjoyed it, and it had some of my favourite moments of the whole series, but the pacing was rocky, and for consistently good value there was some significant competition.

Hemlock Grove was original, genre bending, narratatively interesting, conceptually challenging, and thoroughly addictive. It wasn’t quite like anything I had seen before, in a good way.

Hannibal deserves an honourable mention, but although it was addictive, entertaining, and well-acted, I can’t say it was anything especially new or original, just very well done. House of Cards was well-acted and reasonably well-written, but fairly unoriginal and tiresomely another privileged white man plotting petty revenges that it’s hard to care for when he’s not really received any very great slights. Doctor Who is… Doctor Who. This really isn’t going to be a contender until Moffat leaves. If an episode doesn’t leave me wanting to scream, it’s a good sign. I thought there were a couple of somewhat interesting episodes this year, but that’s all. America’s Next Top Model, much as I am in the business of defending it, is not remotely in the same league. Sleepy Hollow snuck in as a last minute entry. I enjoyed the one episode I’d seen at time of review, but it’s basically entertaining fluff.

So, it’s a hearty congrats to Hemlock Grove. You seriously impressed me and I hope I can spread the love to my readers.

The Serene Womble for Best Novel – Null

There was precisely one entrant in this category: A Dance with Dragons. Given that this is just a couple of chapters from the longer Read Along with Rhube chapter by chapter review that I have been doing for the last year (two years?). It feels a bit cheaty to give it a free pass to a Serene Womble by default of multiple entries and the fact that I just haven’t reviewed any other (current) novels. Plus, it just isn’t that good. Entertaining, interesting enough for the time and attention I have devoted to it? Yeah, I guess. But it’s also deeply problematic and I doubt it would win against any competition it might have had in another year. (It did not win last year, for example.)

Fair? Unfair? It’s my blog, I get to choose.

The Serene Womble for Best Blog – Escher Girls

Escher Girls avatarEligible blogs: Myths Retold, Academic Men Explain Things to Me, Escher Girls

Oh man, this was a really hard one. I want to give the award to all of them and actually changed my mind a couple of times. One of the difficulties is that Myths Retold is a very different kind of blog to the other two, which are in turn very similar to each other in both content and impact. I considered making a separate category for ‘Best Fiction Blog’, so that I could honour Myths Retold as well, but then I couldn’t think of any other fiction blogs and it seemed like that would be getting needlessly specific. Basically, I’m saying that all three of these are very good and worth your attention.

I’ve picked Escher Girls for the win for the scope of its impact. Escher Girls is the creation of Ami Angelwings, an awesome Canadian woman who started the blog to ‘archive and showcase the prevalence of certain ways women are depicted in illustrated pop media’, namely: women are contorted into physically impossible poses for the pleasure of the male gaze. The blog functions as a demonstration that the way women are drawn in comics and other illustrated media is dramatically different to the ways that men are drawn, that we are sexualised to extremes and that this sexualisation is commonplace, and in ways that do not compare to the male power fantasies of ripped muscles in skin-tight costumes which are so often held up to minimise women’s claims of unfair treatment. The volume of examples that Ami has collected (both personally and from submissions) is staggering, and the comfort this provides to women (who have long been told that their experience of alienation by sexualisation in mainstream comics is a mere subjective impression) is extensive and powerful.

Academic Men Explain Things to Me serves a similar function, in providing a platform for women to voice their frustrations with the phenomenon of ‘mansplaining’, in which women frequently find that men explain very basic things to them, often in areas for which the woman is herself an expert and the man a novice. Again, this is an area in which women have often been told that they are imagining being treated in an overly patronising manner, that there are ‘know it alls’ of both genders, and that our subjective experiences are not as valid as men’s (who, of course, are privileged by a default supposition of objectivity that does not exist). By creating a venue to archive these experiences in detail and volume, Academic Men Explain Things to Me has provided a powerful vindication of women’s experiences – one which I genuinely believe is helping men to rethink their behaviour, as well as providing women with a sense of justification long denied.

In the end, I chose Escher Girls for its breadth of impact. I feel that there has been a palpable shift in comic and visual culture over the past year, where the misogyny in mainstream comics has come under increasing scrutiny from more mainstream critiques and fans. I don’t think Escher Girls have been the sole cause of this. Blogs such as DC Women Kicking Ass have also provided a sustained critique and made significant contributions, as have prominent critiques from individual women, such as Kelly Turnbull and Kyrax2. But to concede that a leading light is a part of a movement need not minimise the specific contribution. I think the impact of Escher Girls can be seen in the fact that it was able to spin off other projects, such as The Hawkeye Initiative, which highlights the discrepancies in treatment of men and women in comics by showcasing redrawings of sexualised female images with the male character, Hawkeye, in an identical pose.

Moreover, Ami’s blog is impressively organised in a way that facilitates citation and comparison from multiple angles – the tags page not only collates posts by trope, but also by artist, company, character, series, and Genre/Medium. And the blog integrates a Disqus commenting feature, allowing for debate and discussion of issues in a way that usually isn’t possible on Tumblr style blogs, and which Ami manages with great sensitivity.

It’s hard to compare a project like this with an artistic endeavour, like Myths Retold, which is not aiming at the kind of social change Escher Girls enables. Myths Retold demonstrates an artistry and poetic sophistication that simply doesn’t apply in assessing the other two blogs. All I can say is that whilst I recommend all three blogs to you, I felt that in this year, Escher Girls seemed most significant to me.

The Serene Womble for Best Webseries: Welcome to Night Vale

Night Vale logoEligible webseries: TableTop, Vlog Brothers, Welcome to Night Vale

I admit to using the term ‘webseries’ loosely. I reviewed quite a lot of things this year that don’t fit neatly into large categories, and although I might call TableTop a webseries, Vlog Brothers a vlog, and Night Vale a podcast, having each win a category for which it was the only entrant, I don’t think that’s a good use of my time and attention or yours. In any case, there is no question in my mind that Welcome to Night Vale outshines the other two, and I do not have the qualms I had for the previous category, in that I feel these compare fairly well, for regularly web-distributed entertainment.

TableTop is a nice idea, and if I were really into game mechanics I might find more value in it, but ultimately it fell flat for me. It’s basically just like watching other people play fun games. The games look fun, and maybe you like the people, but you can’t help but feeling that the whole thing would be more enjoyable if you were actually playing, too.

Vlog Brothers is entertaining, amusing, thoughtful, and informative. I recommend it. But it can’t hold a candle to Night Vale.

Welcome to Night Vale is one of the best, most enjoyable, most original shows I have had the pleasure to stumble across in a long time. The idea of using the podcast format as though it were a radio station for a fictional town is not one I had come across before, and it has been put to good purpose. Funny, strange, and more than a little bit dark, Night Vale is like a ray of sunlight that never fails to make me smile or to delight me with its unexpected changes in direction. It’s also surprisingly durable in terms of being something I can listen to over and over and still find new things to enjoy. I’ve had a hard year, especially the last few months, and being able to tune in to Night Vale any time I would otherwise have been alone with my thoughts has been remarkably soothing. It comforts me to know that wonderful, joyful, eccentric people are making such wonderful, joyful, eccentric works of art.

Not to mention that it manages to be progressive in terms of representation of gender, race, and sexuality without ever being po-faced. I can’t not give this an award.

The Serene Womble for Best Music: Stephanie Mabey

Album cover for Wake Up Dreaming, by Stephanie MabeyEligible musicians: Garfunkel and Oates and Stephanie Mabey

Garfunkel and Oates are witty and entertaining, but occasionally problematic. By contrast, Stephanie Mabey’s music is pure joy. I’ve listened to her album, Wake Up Dreaming, again and again, often on loop, since downloading it, and I’m not sick of it yet. Her music is delightful, witty, and often beautiful – a real must for the geek music lover. I can’t recommend her work enough.

The Serene Womble for Best Webcomic: City of the Dead

City of the Dead, panel oneEligible webcomics: City of the Dead

OK, this one was the only entry in its category – I haven’t been reading as many webcomics this year, focussing, as I have been, on trying out different new media instead. Nevertheless, this comic is dynamic, atmospheric, and fun, making full use of the online medium to present a fast-paced and cohesively presented story. It’s no Romantically Apocalyptic (the winner from last year), but it’s certainly a cut above the average, and worthy of your time.

The Time Traveling Wombles

The Time Travelling Womble for Best Novel: The Count of Monte Cristo

Cover Art: The Count of Monte CristoEligible novels: The Count of Monte Cristo.

A consequence of the sparse nature of this year is that the categories for the Time Traveling Wombles each has only one entry, but as each are stellar examples of exemplary works, this should not count against them.

I had no idea that The Count of Monte Cristo would be either such a rip-roaring adventure, or that it would be so progressive for its time (I ship Eugenie/Louise forever). Some classics are classics because they are fun as well as intelligent, and I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Non-Fiction Book: Wild Swans

Wild Swans - cover artEligible non-fiction books: Wild Swans.

In my original article on this I wrote that this is one of the books I would say everyone should read before they die, so it should be no surprise that I honour it here, also. Wild Swans is a biographical and autobiographical work of heart-rending and exquisite expression of three women’s lives across turbulent twentieth century China. The tale is worthwhile and breath-taking in itself, but for people living outside of China – people for whom the ‘Cultural Revolution’ is just a term – this intimate, detailed, and thorough history is an absolutely essential piece of reading that will change your perspective in the world.

Time Traveling Womble for Best Blog – Inexplicable Objects

A cupcake with a festive plane-on-a-stick in it.Eligible blogs: Inexplicable Objects.

Dating from a time before there was any such thing as a ‘blogging platform’ (the first was launched in October 1998), one can’t help but feel that Inexplicable Objects, which updated weekly from April 1998 to June 2001, would have made a phenomenally successful Tumblr. The archive is still active, more than ten years since it stopped updating, and it’s still one of my very favourite things in the world. Chocked full of delightfully strange objects, coloured by the witty commentary of Bill Young, this little website is a welcome piece of harmless absurdity to brighten your day. It may be the only entry in this category, but it is assuredly worthy of the Womble.

And finally:

The People’s Choice Award 2013: Hemlock Grove, Season One

Hemlock Grove PosterBy far and away the thing you most wanted my opinions on that I reviewed this year was Hemlock Grove. Netflix’s original fantasy/horror/weird show, released as an entire season, all at once, in April this year has garnered nearly 2,500 hits, with over a thousand more than its next nearest rival, Looper. This should possibly give pause for thought, as my review of Looper garnered attention more because it was negative and controversial than because the film was well-liked, but I hope that those who came to read my review of Hemlock Grove came away with a more positive image and their interest was more than car crash theatre.

Incidentally, last year’s winner, The Guild, Season Five, still has more hits than any other page on my website (including the home page) at over 14,000. What do these figures mean? Who knows, but something captured a lot of people’s interest, and maybe that’s something that’s worthy of your attention, too.

And that’s about it for this year. I hope you’ve enjoyed my reviews (or at least found them interesting) and that those who have won Serene Wombles of one kind or another get something positive out of the experience. It’s amazing the volume of wonderful and engaging things out there to culturally consume  in this crazy internet age; I hope I can continue to provide some kind of useful commentary on the tiny section of it in which I partake.

Review: Looper, AKA ‘It would have been so easy not to be sexist: WHY?!’

Poster: Looper

It’s NOT my future, it’s a future where all women are mothers or whores.

Title: Looper
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, and Pierce Gagnon
Written by: Rian Johnson
Directed by: Rian Johnson

So. This was the film that everybody loved. I have literally not heard a single person say a single bad thing about this. One doesn’t like to get swept up in hype, but my chief concern was that it would be another faux-philosophical concept film, like Inception, that would annoy me by being less well thought through than The Matrix (I got no problem with The Matrix, as a philosopher – it’s a handy brain-in-a-vat hypothesis; alas, Inception is not the Dreaming argument, it just thinks it is). Actually? The concept is interesting and fairly well realised in a way that I was not able to predict from start to finish. Moreover, the acting was excellent, the script was well-structured and the dialog believable. The CGI was very impressive and there were extensive geek references (chiefly to the Terminator films, but also Blade Runner and the 2009 Star Trek).

I really want to like this movie. But I can’t. Before I give way to the ranting, let me do my best at a non-spoilery plot summary.


In the future-future they invent time travel. But it’s so dangerous it’s pretty much instantly outlawed. So only the outlaws use it. And what they use it for is to dispose of bodies. They dispose of them by employing ‘Loopers’ – people 30 years in the past (but still in our future) who wait around at spots where future-future people are scheduled to be sent back in time, then shoot those people with a specialised short range shotgun. They are paid handsomely from this. The catch is that their wealth is bought at the expense of their future. Loopers literally tidy themselves away. At some point, the person sent back to be killed will be yourself. And you don’t want to know what will happen to you if you don’t kill yourself. Why they don’t send future Loopers back to someone else to be killed? REASONS.

It’s a nice set up until a suspiciously high number of loopers start ‘closing their loop’ in quick succession (i.e. killing themselves). Then, the mate-of-Joseph-Gordon-Levitt (aka Seth) fails to kill himself, and his old self tells him that in the future a new gang boss, the ‘Rainmaker’ is closing all the loops. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is next. But, as it happens, Joe is a match for himself, and gets away: on a mission to kill the Rainmaker whilst he’s still a child.

Oh, also? There’s telekinesis in this future. It’s usually shit. It’s totally not Chekov’s telekinesis.

Why So Serious, Womble?

K. It’s a nice idea. Ultimately, because of [spoiler], the time travel is not metaphysically sound. But I don’t care about that. The time travel isn’t metaphysically sound in the Terminator movies, either.

It’s visually very pretty. In particular, it references Star Trek (2009) in the long-view vistas of the city, and it references Blade Runner in the close-up street scenes – but updated to look even cooler and more realistic. The helicopters also distinctly recall the shape and movements of the aerial Hunter-Killers from the Terminator films.

There are also countless Terminator references that felt like they were getting at something more than just ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be awesome to have Robert Patrick Garret Dillahunt* play a killer in a time travel movie?’ or ‘Hey, let’s have a fierce momma-bear type called “Sarah” in a time travel movie!’ or ‘Hey, let’s have the hero in a time travel movie be called “Joe”, which sounds a little like “John” – we’re so rad!’.


But this world is mysteriously populated by, like, nine times the number of men to the number of women.

But the only black woman (and I think the only black speaking role?) is a waitress, who honours the hero with flirtation, but is never a real love interest the way the other women are.

But the only non-white woman who gets to be a love interest never speaks at all – and yet it is True Love!

But all the love interests are either whores or mothers. Or both. The only other woman is the black woman I mentioned earlier who gets to serve the white male lead, but never develop a real character or relationship with him.

But it is pretty much said at several points that if the mean, heartless, male killers in the film had only been loved by their mothers enough, they would never have turned out that way. That’s right: men kill because women don’t love them enough. Even though loving men is all women do in this film.

But (as though it needs to be said at this point) it does not even remotely pass the Bechdel test.

But the fierce mother called Sarah who protects a son that might be important one day isn’t actually as tough as her namesake; she needs a man around to protect her and her son from anyone who is more dangerous than a vagrant.

But her small child has more agency than she does.

And here’s the thing: it would have been so easy to make this film not sexist (or at least, less sexist than the common fair). Have some of the Loopers be women. Why not? If you genuinely think that women aren’t good fighters because they’re physically weaker than men, consider: all you have to do is shoot a handcuffed man with a bag over his head at point blank range with a shotgun who is delivered right into your waiting hands. No really, we can do that. In fact, we can do more than that. Women are police officers and soldiers and martial arts champions and sharp-shooters. They’re not rare, butch oddities, they’re relatively common these days. My sister is in the military – she knows how to shoot, disassemble and reassemble a gun**, just like a man – and she’s more femme than I will ever be.

This has come up a lot lately, and I’m discovering I feel strongly about it: women are increasingly shown as not being serious threats in popular culture. Dredd is a notable exception, and that’s part of why it so excited me. The trouble with this is that it gets defended as women being shown as ‘good’ in a way men are not. Because violence is bad.

Well. First up, let’s deal with the fucked up idea that men should be angry about: men are not born violent, uncontrollable fuckwits. Plenty of men are pacifists. Plenty of men are kind and gentle and caring. Plenty of men don’t think war is the answer. And, although you’d never know it from Looper, there are just as many fathers as there are mothers. Even if you want to blame bad men as coming from bad parents, why pick on the mothers? Why not ask: where the fuck are the fathers? But it’s so indoctrinated to think of child rearing as a female preserve that the question doesn’t even seem to occur to the writer of this film. The only father figures are the older loopers, who are complicit in the continuation of violence.

Second of all, I may not believe that violence is the answer, but being perceived as ‘good girls’ doesn’t keep women safe. And no, I am not, and would never, advocate violence against men, but the fact that violence is routinely expected (or at least conceivable) from men, and routinely dismissed as a likely response from women, means that women’s freedoms are curtailed in a way men’s aren’t, and that women are more likely to back down than men. That man cat-calling me is a twat, but who knows what he’ll do if I respond? Keep your head down, keep moving, try not to be noticed, run away. And why does he do that? Because it costs him nothing. It’s not simply that he’s been raised in a culture where he’s somehow got the idea that women might respond positively to such treatment: it’s that he doesn’t fear any kind of reprisal from women. He has nothing to lose. And this is at it’s tamest end. It’s realised in terrifying tales like this, which has been doing the rounds on tumblr, and which details everyday harassment and is still not the worst, because in the end it only involved the threat of violence. It is best summed up in the words of Margaret Atwood (as quoted by Mary Dickson in ‘A Woman’s Worst Nightmare‘):

A woman’s worst nightmare? That’s pretty easy. Novelist Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, “They are afraid women will laugh at them.” When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, “We’re afraid of being killed”.

As long as women are perceived as only having the weapon of their laughter, and as long as all men are presented as potential killers if women fail to offer them the expected love, this sort of inequality will be endlessly perpetuated. Ironic, really, when the message of Looper seems to be that if women love men enough they may turn out OK. It’s this sort of shit that means that Chris Brown thinks it’s funny to have a tattoo of what looks an awful lot like the bruised and broken face of his ex-girlfriend, who he was actually convicted of beating to a bloody pulp. Because why not? The worst she could do was get him sentenced to community service. And he did that, so now he can do whatever he likes. Including laugh in her face about it when she’s not even there.

So, that’s why I’m mad. Especially because this is nothing more than what is standard. Because I’m presumably supposed to be grateful there was a woman at least making a show of being tough until a man came along to do it properly for her. And more so because it made a show of using the tropes of the iconic depiction of strength that is Sarah Connor. All those geek references? They were just for geek-kudos. It spits on the memory of Sarah Connor to name a woman who cowers behind men (and her own child) after the woman who took down the terminators. It’s a bitter joke for the woman who took on the T-1000the terminators to be referenced, twenty years later, in a scene where the actor who played the T-1000 a terminator is threatening her namesake and she needs to be saved by a tiny boy.

So, yes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great. And so is Bruce Willis, and Jeff Daniels, to boot. Not to mention that Pierce Gagnon is astonishing as the little boy. I could have written this review about the impressive CGI that made JGL look like Bruce Willis. I could have written an interesting commentary of the shelf-life of an action hero, and just where JGL seems to be going right now.

But I haven’t. And it’s not because I’m a crazy feminist obsessing about something minor. It’s because it’s crazy that this kind of thing is regarded as minor – as acceptable, as par for the course. Instead of being what it was close to being – a part of a resurgence of real sci-fi, like that seen in Dredd – I am forced to talk about its negatives, because they need talking about. Because I’m shocked I haven’t seen anyone else talking about that. And because, in thinking about these things, I realised that, even minus the sexism, this was not as bright and innovative a film as I thought is was. It references classics, but it is not a classic itself. It doesn’t know what to do with its intertextuality. The CGI is pretty, but it is not the beautiful work of art we see combined when a master like James Cameron is at the helm to fine tune every lighting state and camera angle. The looper idea is neat, but it’s not as original as the terminator concept, and it’s not as fully realised.

All in all: a big disappointment instead of what could have been a fairly interesting film.

*[Edited:] @outofmyplanet has pointed out that it was not, in fact, Robert Patrick, the T-1000, but actually Garret Dillahunt, both a terminator and terminator prototype ‘John Henry’, in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which I think says more about the impressive casting in TSCC than anything else. In the cinema, I leant over to my geek-film-buddy, Lee Harris, and asked ‘Is that the T-1000?’ as soon as he entered. And Lee nodded. But then, he probably expected me to know what I was talking about. Seeing as I talk about Terminator 2 a lot. I think the same point goes through. Time travelling killer/opponent of Sarah Connor.

**And more, but being a pacifist myself and not being in the military, I really don’t have a clue.