Review – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Poster: The Last Jedi(Here be spoilers.)

I wasn’t sure I wanted to review The Last Jedi, but men on the Internet are being so silly, I felt like there needed to be a voice of reason.

I’ll never understand why middle-aged men think of this franchise as solely theirs – as though women and girls weren’t right there in the cinemas watching it from the beginning. But maybe they were watching different films to me, who knows?

They apparently didn’t see Leia using the Force to tell where Luke was when he was hanging, barely conscious from a metal spar beneath Cloud City. They didn’t hear Yoda say “There is another,” clearly meaning both another Skywalker and another potential Jedi. They heard Leia say “Somehow, I’ve always known,” when Luke tells her she’s his sister, and they’re so distracted by the fact that this implies she knew she was snogging her brother that they don’t see this as yet another example of Leia’s Force clairvoyance.

And I guess they missed in the last film that she knew that Han was dead.

Oh, they say, we’re not denying that Leia is Force sensitive, but for her to actually move physical objects with her mind, like a Jedi, is preposterous.

Sure, sure. What Yoda meant was, “There is another who is Force sensitive, but could not possibly have been trained as a Jedi.” And his statement that “There is another,” is just as significant if there are in fact many people who are Force sensitive and Leia is just one of those. That totally makes sense.

These are often, by the way, the same people who are eager to argue that Han is Force sensitive, based on little cues like him knowing Gredo was about to shoot and therefore shooting first, and the fact that no one actually could navigate an asteroid field the way Han does, given the odds of 3,720 to 1.

Personally, I’m delighted by the idea that many people are Force sensitive, and I think we see evidence of this across the old movies and the new, but you cannot have it both ways. There’s really no other reasonable interpretation of Yoda’s words. He meant Leia. And he either meant that Force sensitivity is so rare that anyone with it could become a Jedi, therefore Leia is another potential Jedi, or he meant that Leia is also significantly powerful such that she could be a Jedi were she to be trained. If she’s not significant – if she’s not special in very much the same way Luke is – he wouldn’t have been talking about her at all.

Leia standing up to Darth Vader in A New HopeOn this basis, every woman I know who loves Star Wars has been waiting on baited breath to see Leia use the fatherfucking Force for more than ‘just’ clairvoyance. Don’t get me wrong: Yoda’s training of Luke in Empire strongly suggests that clairvoyance is actually a very sophisticated skill – one he only trains Luke in after a considerable amount of running through the jungle and lifting things with his mind. More: using that skill responsibly is clearly a key aspect of being a Jedi – one Luke fails at spectacularly, dashing off to save his friends despite Yoda’s warning. Whereas we never see Leia be ruffled by her clairvoyance into emotionally irrational behaviour. Leia is a military leader the very first time we meet her, at 19. She’s tortured by Vader and gives up nothing. She has always had the mental discipline to be a Jedi. She just, quite frankly, had better things to do.

All this was blindingly obvious to us. It’s written into the original trilogy. Explicitly. Through the voice of Master Yoda. And we were disappointed to see Leia still exhibiting nothing but clairvoyance after all these years when The Force Awakens rolled around.

Leia rescuing herselfSo we were cheering when Leia used the Force to do something Luke never did: she rescues herself (as she has always done) from the vacuum of space, using the Force to pull herself back into the spaceship.

Now, there is a legitimate question about why she didn’t die in the vacuum of space. Two things to say about that: firstly, a human being can remain conscious for about 15 seconds in a vacuum. We know because it has happened and the dude was revived. So Space Leia has some time to play with. You won’t last long, but your eyes won’t explode or anything gruesome. Secondly: we know the Force can be used to manipulate the physical world. It’s reasonable to suppose that Leia might use the Force to pull some atmosphere around herself to give her some literal breathing room. This is just an extension of Force telekinesis. We have seen forcefields in Star Wars seal in a hanger deck from the vacuum of space – why couldn’t someone strong in the force do the same?

Don’t get me wrong – the experience would still fuck Leia up, as it is seen to do. She spends most of the rest of the film unconscious. But that doesn’t make it silly or unreasonable.

Frankly, this moment was the culmination of 35 years of waiting for many female fans. And it felt like an apt tribute to the late and wonderful Carrie Fisher – Princess and General Leia, and goddamn awesome human being.

You want to take flying through space away from Carrie Fisher? Really? Really?

Carrie has written and spoken at length on the sexism she experienced in Hollywood – and indeed on the set of Star Wars. The toll it took on her mental health. She wanted her obituary to read that “I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.”A woman who was told by George Lucas in A New Hope that they wouldn’t have bras in space, so she wasn’t allowed to wear one… and who was then forced to sit as a mute slave in a gold bikini in Return of the Jedi. A woman who received relentless abuse from the industry and so-called fans because illness and simply getting older meant that she didn’t stay looking the same way she had at 19.

I would not deny Carrie her obituary for anything, but I am so, so glad her iconic character, General Leia, did not drown in moonlight, but instead flew through space to save her own skin. Just as she had been saving herself and her would-be rescuers right from the beginning.

You will take flying Force Leia from my cold, dead hands.

So. Now we’ve got that issue out of the way, let’s discuss the rest of the film.


Following the events of The Force Awakens the rebellion are fuuuuuucked. The First Order has a way of tracking them, even through hyperspace, and they are almost out of fuel. It’s deliciously reminiscent of the Battlestar Galactica episode “33“, with the heroes a benighted flotilla, running out of resources, pursued by a superior force who are tracking them in an unknown manner.

Worse, Captain Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) disobeys Leia’s orders, expending precious resources to take out a Star Destroyer. The plan works, but at a cost they can ill afford, as they lose almost all their fighters. When Leia demotes him for his action, Poe protests that the people who followed him were heroes. “Dead heroes,” she replies, and we feel the impact of her words most acutely, for we followed one of those heroes very closely in her last moments as she gave her life so that Poe’s mission might succeed.

That hero’s sister, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), meets Finn (John Boyega) as he appears to be fleeing the ship. At first, she seems merely to be grieving, and when she recognises Finn it is with the fangirlish charm we have seen from Tran on the red carpet, where she has burst out crying, hugged fans dressed as her character, and generally expressed a genuineness that can’t help but bring joy to anyone who sees her. She then explains that she’s been doing her part to honour her sister’s memory by tasering deserters. Which she promptly does to Finn when she realises he is leaving.

The First Order strikes a blow to the rebellion’s flagship, taking out all the leaders save Leia (who saves herself, but is incapacitated). Vice Admiral Amylin Holdo (Laura Dern) takes charge (with her amazing purple hair) and seems, to Poe, to be insufficiently active. Despite being demoted, he demands the same access and knowledge from Holdo that he had from Leia. She puts him in his place and tells him to do what he’s told. He doesn’t like that, so he hatches a plan (well, adopts Rose’s plan) to find a code-breaker to disable the tracking device, so the fleet can escape through hyperspace. Rose and Finn leave to find the codebreaker. Poe stays behind… to be a pain in Holdo’s arse, I guess?

Meanwhile, Rey is with Luke, failing to persuade him to join the rebellion. For some reason she doesn’t lead with the fact that she wants to train as a Jedi, but eventually Luke figures that out and sets out to give her three lessons. The lessons, he says, will teach her why there should be no more Jedis. Luke thinks the order is broken, that the Force is in everyone and that the Jedis fell to their own hubris in thinking that they somehow were the sole keepers of the knowledge and power to maintain balance in the force.

Finn and Rose visit a rich-person’s casino resort in search of a code-breaking gambler. They fail, but find an insalubrious substitute who seems to be equipped to do the job, escaping on adorable and impressive rabbit-horse creatures.

Meanwhile, Rey has been having mental meetings with Kylo Renn, and becomes convinced she can turn him away from the Dark Side. Despite Luke’s warnings, she leaves to attempt just that.

Can Rey save Kylo? Can Finn and Rose get back to the fleet in time to disable the tracker? Exciting, fast-paced tension ensues!

My thoughts

Honestly, I loved this film.

Apparently there has been a ‘review bomb’ to skew its score on Rotten Tomatoes, which is part of the reason I decided to dust myself off and write my own review, but I’m delighted to see that Wikipedia is currently saying “some considered it the best film of the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back“, citing a wide range of sources.

Screenshot from Wikipedia.

For me? It had almost everything I wanted. There’s a joke in the opening sequence that fell a bit flat for me, but otherwise, it hit home with just about everything.

A porg sitting next to Chewbacca in the cockpit of the Millenium FalconI thought I was going to hate the much-hyped porgs, but no, they are adorable, and hilarious. The decision to have them give Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo)a hard time was genius.

I also loved the aforementioned rabbit-horses, and the crystal critters, which are like arctic foxes created by Swarovski. Cute alien animals can go easily wrong and become cheesy, cringe-worthy figures of awkwardness (and I say this as someone who unashamedly loves ewoks), but these ones work.

Plotwise, the pacing was fast and gripping, and though there were many nods to the original films, The Last Jedi forges its own direction, which seems right to me. Empire, the second movie of the original trilogy, was famous for it’s anti-narrative, risk-taking ending, and it is in keeping for The Last Jedi to seek a similar stamp of originality. I loved the nostalgia of The Force Awakens, but I found I genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen with The Last Jedi, and that kept me hooked.

I loved the diversity. We saw more people of colour in Rose and her sister and DJ (Benicio del Toro), the Latino, dodgy code-breaker, as well as many background characters and a visible presence of women pilots and fighters.

I do rather feel like they wasted Gwendoline Christie (Captain Phasma), again, bringing her only late into the movie; although they did at least give her an epic fight with Finn. On the other hand, I was intensely relieved that Vice Admiral Holdo proved to be a genuine hero in the end, and not as cowardly and ineffectual as Poe assumed. Indeed, both Holdo and Leia calling Poe on his shit was glorious, and messages about listening to women in power and not ignoring the chain of command are important in an era where we are learning that decades of showing Bad Boys breaking the rules and succeeding has reinforced unhealthy attitudes in, for instance, policing in the US, where fatal shootings of civilians continues to rise, while data suggests police run much less of a rick of getting shot than they used to.

I was also a little disappointed that the fan-popular romance between Poe and Finn has not materialised, and Rose seems to be being positioned as a love interest for Finn. However, let’s remember that Leia kissed Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, and, well, we all know that was not meant to be. A friend knocked me for being shippy about this, but in all honesty, the possibility that Poe Dameron and Finn might be gay (or bi) is huge in terms of representation.

Another complaint on the net is that Luke Skywalker seemed different to how he did in the original films. My goodness, it’s almost like he aged 35 years.

I’ll admit, watching The Force Awakens I was struck by the differences in the characters of Han and Leia, but I swiftly adjusted my perspective on the basis that they are older. They aged. Like people do. Like the actual actors who play them have. The Last Jedi, in my opinion, is great precisely because it explores the issue of how people age and how experience changes a person. We see Rey having conversations with Kylo that are alike not just in subject matter, but in earnestness, to the conversations Luke had with Vader. Meanwhile Luke is begging her to see reason, that Kylo will not turn, and is furious with her for seeming to turn so easily to the Dark side.

Why? Because he has been precisely where Rey is now, and he has learnt lessons, hard lessons, about the impetuousness of youth.

Yet what struck me was that we need youth’s idealism to have these hard and challenging conversations. I remember having Rey’s passion and belief. Her ability to stand up to a mind like Kylo Ren’s and believe that she might change him. Just as Luke once spoke with unrelenting hope to Vader. As we age we learn that such conversations are all too often fruitless. We become discouraged, like Luke. We want to hide away. And we want to destroy the structures of pride we built, believing that we had all the answers.

What this film shows us is that both perspectives have validity. I am glad Luke has realised that the hubris of the Jedi order brought its downfall. I am glad he wants to bring down the systems that failed. I am glad that he recognises what I always felt: that if the Force is in everything, then it can be owned by anyone, not just a small elite. Equally, I am glad for Rey’s hope and her willingness to keep fighting. And I’m glad to see her inspire something in Luke – to make Luke believe in the power of hope again, and to be willing to use himself as a symbol to guide others and give them the strength to find belief in themselves.

The film honours the mythology of the original trilogy, while encouraging us to think that that world – that world that we love, that inspires something so powerful in so many of us – can change and evolve and be open to new thoughts. That was what Luke was in the original films, after all – a challenge to Yoda’s assumptions. And it is even what Obi-Wan was in the prequels. The impetuousness of youth, willing to believe and strive against an established order, is shown to have value, even if sometimes it fails, as Obi-Wan did with Anakin, but Luke did not with Vader.

So, thematically, I am well on board with this film.

But more than that, and more than the cute critters, I was blown away by the visuals and feel of the film.

Space felt like space again. In a way CGI space has never achieved for me before. I felt wonder. I felt inspiration. I felt the reality of another world in which individuals face titanic struggles. I felt the wide possibilities of alien environments opening before me with a stark beauty that took me out of my real existence. The mineral planet Crait is not Tatooine or Hoth, but it somehow captures the barren strangeness that led me to fall in love with both.

This is a film to see and to love and to find something to believe in again. Let it transport you to a galaxy far, far away…

Review: Jessica Jones

Jessica Jones Netflix headerJessica Jones is dark and thorny and sometimes difficult to watch, but it is also the best superhero fiction I have viewed in a long time.

I want to recommend it, but not without caution. Jessica Jones should come with trigger warnings for rape, abuse, stalking, and harassment. If you have ever experienced any of these, Jessica Jones, and the first episode in particular, is likely to make difficult viewing. I do think it’s worth it if you are up to that, but it is also worth knowing it will have this content going in.


Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is a private investigator. She’s also superhuman. The exact extent of her powers is never clearly defined, but she definitely has super strength, can jump high enough that her power is frequently compared to flight, and can take a serious beating and keep going. She also appears to be an alcoholic, and considering the amount and nature of the booze she drinks, I can only assume she has a super constitution, too.

Like Daredevil, Jessica lives and works in Hell’s Kitchen, a fictionalised version of an area of New York beset by poverty and crime. As Daredevil is another Netflix Original Series, there are some brief cameos to look forward to, but by and large the two series are pretty separate. Daredevil comes from the perspective of a middle-class lawyer taking on organised crime. Jessica Jones is up close and personal with the mean streets. She is poor and her antagonists are individual with personal evils. She isn’t trying to clean up Hell’s Kitchen, she’s just trying to live in it.

Trouble finds Jessica when the parents of a young woman, Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty) – a student and star athlete – come to her concerned that her daughter has left college and cannot be found. As she investigates, Jessica realises that Hope has been kidnapped by a dark figure from her own past: Kilgrave (David Tennant), a mind controller who once held Jessica herself captive, using her for his own amusement (including rape).

The first episode concerns Jessica’s race to find and save Hope, whilst battling her own PTSD and guilt over the actions she performed under Kilgrave’s control. Along the way we are introduced to Patricia ‘Trish’ Walker (Rachael Taylor), a former child-star turned Radio Host whose mother adopted Jessica as a publicity stunt, and Luke Cage (Mike Colter) the attractive and heavily muscled man that Jessica is, for some reason, stalking.

My Thoughts

I have to start by discussing my biggest beef with Jessica Jones.

Let’s be absolutely clear about this: this would not be the way you would introduce a male superhero. It’s said that in Hollywood the way that you make a man a hero is to hurt a woman, and the way that you make a woman a hero is also to hurt a woman. This is a subject that was brought to prominence in 2013 when Tomb Raider was heavily criticised for introducing a backstory for Lara Croft that included rape. It’s an uncomfortable and distasteful mix of the hackneyed trope that being a hero is about saving a girl who can’t save herself so you ‘get’ her, and the ingrained sexist notion that women only become strong if something is wrong with them, if they are broken. As well as a toxic dose of misogynist yearning to just see strong women get hurt. Not to mention the grotesque comic book staple of ‘fridging‘ – the brutalisation and murder of women solely for the purpose of motivating a male hero to action.

So, the thought goes, if you need to hurt a woman to make a man act, you should hurt a woman also if you want to make her act.

And, more often than not, you hurt that woman sexually too.

I have massive problems with the fact that the first hardass female superhero to head her own show in decades is not only a victim of rape*, stalking, and harassment, but this is a part of her origin story, and that her main antagonist for the first season is her rapist, from whom she and other women are constantly under the threat of being raped again. It’s a real punch to the gut. It’s hard not to feel like Marvel (whose misogyny in repeatedly delaying their single female led film in a list that is currently scheduled to include more than twenty) are saying, OK, FINE, you can have your female superhero lead, but we’re going to rape her first.

I found that really hard to get past, to be honest. After the sexism and racism of Daredevil and Marvel’s general continuing sexism in its films, I was really hoping for – needing – something different. I was furious.


But, Jessica Jones is very well written and very well acted. Divorced of the toxic masculinity and misogyny of comics history, it’s excellent television, really first rate. Moreover, Jessica’s PTSD is very well explored, and the show works on many levels to highlight and challenge the misogyny and abuse that is a part of modern life. Kilgrave is not the only abusive arsehole. We see also the dangers of the putative ‘Nice Guy’ in the form of Will Simpson (Wil Travel) – a victim of Kilgrave who is mind-controlled to attempt murder of Trish, who feels immense guilt and ultimately forms a bond with her. Whilst Will can be said to mean well and to often seem ‘nice’ he demonstrates a clear need to be in control, even when he is clearly not the most skilled person for the job, and ultimately descends into a pattern of abuse and contrition that has nothing to do with Kilgrave’s control.

Moreover, we see that abuse is not limited to men. Trish’s mother and former manager is shown to have abused her both emotionally and physically, and it is in protecting each other from her that Trish and Jessica find sisterhood.

These are important themes, well-explored.

Moreover, these roles are contrasted with a range of male characters who are not abusive – it is not that ‘all men are bad’. Both men and women are shown in great variety, including some interesting roles for people of colour. Luke Cage, in particular, stands out as a good man who does not abuse his great strength and power. It’s important to have the black guy be the good guy and not a thug. Moreover, as has been pointed out, Luke Cage has an important status in comic history. Created in 1972, not long after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Luke Cage is a black man with bullet-poof skin. A good black man who cannot be assassinated. A product of the civil rights movement that, sadly, is as relevant now as he was then.

Somewhat more problematic is the presentation of Jessica’s drug-addict-with-a-heart-of-gold neighbour, Malcolm (Eka Darville). The association of black people with drugs is a racist trope too often iterated on screen. Until Jessica Jones, Mike Colter, who plays Luke Cage, was best known for his recurring role in The Good Wife as Chicago’s top drug lord, Lemond Bishop. Most black actors have a CV that includes the roles of drug addicts, dealers, and thugs, perpetuating an unpleasant stereotype. Even Idris Elba first gained international recognition and fame from his role as drug dealer Stringer Bell in The Wire, before moving on to become the A list star he is today. Malcolm is a sweet and complex character, but still a perpetuation of a harmful trope.

It helps that he is not the only black character. And in addition to Luke Cage, we also see Oscar Clemons (Clarke Peters) as the insightful and upstanding police officer that Jessica eventually turns to for aid. As well as multiple smaller parts for people of colour. Multiple characters of varying types are what make for diversity, in contrast to tokenism.

Similarly, we see a range of female characters. Jessica Jones as an emotionally damaged hardass is well-paired against her feminine, but also strong, adoptive sister. Those in search of a more light-hearted female led superhero series have praised the new Supergirl for being sisterly, but sisterhood is not absent from Jessica Jones, and it is just as important. The elegant, but mentally steely, Jeri Hogarth is a wonderful role for Carrie-Anne Moss, best known for her portrayal of the high-kicking love interest, Trinity, in The Matrix. The complex relationships she has with her mistress and her estranged wife are also good in terms of representation of gay women in television. And it is delightful to see producers willing to change a character who was male in the comics to a female character in a modern context that tries to reflect accurately the number and diversity of women who exist in the world.

Women with masculine traits. Women with feminine traits. Women with some of both. Women who are strong in diverse ways. Women who are weak in diverse ways. Men who are weak in some ways and strong in others, too. Characters not simply defined by whether they are strong or weak. Deep, loving relationships that differ from those we usually see. Like the codependent brother/sister relationship of Jessica’s neighbours, Ruben and Robyn – clearly unhealthy and dysfunctional, but no less deep, allowing for Robyn as the domineering but protective sister to protray yet another role we rarely see for women.

Overall, watching this show, I was left with a startling impression of there just being way more women than I was used to seeing on TV. And that’s not the show having more women than men, it’s just the having of believable numbers of women, all of them being fully-rounded characters.

There’s a lot to be valued and much that is super important. I am still mad that rape and stalking and sexual abuse are such prominent themes in one of our few, precious shows that are led by women and feature women as superheroes. But I can’t fault them for how they handle those themes – seriously, with nuance, and with an understanding of the deep sexism that persists in ordinary society, and not merely in super villains like Kilgrave.

I strongly recommend Jessica Jones, with the proviso that it is likely to be difficult viewing for some.

*And let’s not forget that even Buffy was a victim of attempted rape in season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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.

Review: Extant, Episode 1

Poster image for ExtantI decided to check out the new Sci-Fi series Extant, available via Amazon Instant Prime (and apparently CBS, but pfft! Like I watch real channels!).

On the surface, Extant has a lot going for it that could provide a breath of fresh air – certainly for me, following the race and gender fails of the recent series of Hemlock Grove. Halle Berry as a starring role – a woman of colour, an Academy Award Winner, and a woman who has already been a part of a successful science fiction franchise. And, I’ll admit, I’m eager to see her explore that avenue again after she was completely sidelined out of the Wolverine X-Men films. I enjoyed her performance as Storm, and although I had heard that she got excluded for being difficult to work with, I can’t help but notice that white male stars like Christian Bale can throw massive tantrums and still get film after film making way for their pasty male faces. Confident women who know what they want have a history of being regarded as difficult, especially black women; difficult men have a history of being tolerated and catered to, especially white men.

So, I had real time for this. And we were going to space – so few TV shows or films actually do much of exploring the final frontier anymore.

What I’m saying is that I really wanted to like it.

But… well, here’s the set-up.


Molly Woods (Halle Berry) returns from a 13 month tour of doing… something, alone, in space. She’s in the process of readjusting to being home and being with her husband and child. Fair enough.

But then her post-return physical has a surprise in store: she’s pregnant. She got pregnant. Whilst alone. In space. With nothing but her friendly male-voiced AI for company.

What’s more, she thought she was infertile. So much so that her husband, John (Goran Višnjić), has invented an android child, Ethan (Pierce Gagnon),  whom he hopes can learn to be a friendlier face for AI by growing up amidst a real family. And, you know, fill the child-shaped hole in his and Molly’s hearts.

On top of the whole pregnancy thing, it turns out there is a period of time unaccounted for in the recordings Molly made in space. Something… weird happened, knocking out a bunch of systems, including the AI, and Molly sees her ex-boyfriend, Marcus (Sergio Harford), in the air lock. Her ex-boyfriend who is dead. And maybe she hallucinates this and maybe something even weirder is going on, but I’m assuming this has something to do with the spontaneous baby?

Why the long face?

Well, like I say, a lot of good elements are here, and, hey, I got surprise androids! Usually a thing I’m not sad about. But… I feel like I accidentally signed up for a two-for-one deal on creepy children, and I’m not a massive fan of that trope anyway? It feels… lazy, overdone, and like it’s supposed to work based on some kind of primal fear of unfathomably evil children, but I don’t really buy into the idea that some kids are Just Wrong independently of how they are raised. Besides which, I really don’t find the ‘AI is evil’ thing that interesting. Again, if you create actual artificial intelligence I would expect it to grow and develop, to socially adjust to how it’s treated, just like kids. And whilst that’s John’s whole idea – raise the kid like a human kid and everything will be fiiiiine – I really get the vibe that the programme is setting us up for a fall.

Also, I am just Sick To Death of the trope of women’s bodies betraying them and being under the control of other people or nebulous forces. And using babies and pregnancy to make women feel powerless. Alien and mystical pregnancies have been a trope of a lot of male-written science fiction and fantasy when they actually start to grapple with including women in their casts. The Mystical Pregnancy was one of the early issues that Anita Sarkeesian tackled in her ‘Tropes vs Women’ series, and I seriously recommend watching that, as it does justice to the extensiveness of this creepy-ass trope in a way I don’t have space for here. The most striking example this side of the millennium is the case of Cordelia Chase in Angel. Cordelia’s second mystical pregnancy (that’s right, Joss Whedon has gone to that well with her before) was the result of Charisma’s real life pregnancy, and ultimately led to the character being written out of the show.* But more immediately in my mind, the mystical pregnancy  from season one of Hemlock Grove and the way this led to women being further instrumentalised via their reproductive capacities in season two have left a bitter taste in my mouth that I was really hoping Extant, with its strong woman of colour protagonist, would wash away. Aaaand no. No. Here we are again. Something or someone has impregnated Molly Woods against her will and her knowledge.

Once again a woman’s natural capacity to give birth is being co-opted into a horror trope. Once again a woman is set-up as independent and self-determining (her boss is suspicious about the lost footage because he knows her, and she’s not the kind of woman to make a mistake like that), but is shown to be helpless and powerless to stop others invading her own body and using it against her. Because she is a woman. Because she has a womb.**

How is it too much to hope that a woman, and a woman of colour, could be the protagonist of a science fiction show and not undermined and essentialised in this way? I give up. I’m exhausted. Yet another show I really want to invest time and energy in, but I can’t.

And don’t say the show doesn’t work because she’s a woman – don’t you dare! We know that female led films that pass the Bechdel test – action films like The Hunger Games – make more money than films that don’t. You can’t sell us this lie anymore to keep pushing your sexism. We want to see women, and people of colour, in good, protagonist roles. The problem isn’t the actor, isn’t her gender, isn’t the colour of her skin. The problem is the sexist writing.

Try again. We want a show that doesn’t disappoint like this. If you give it to us, we will watch it.

* All parties have been circumspect in speaking about it in public, but a combination of hints such as this interview given by Charisma to the Boston Herald, and these comments by Charisma at a Q&A (the relevant question comes in at about 2:43), have led many to speculate that she was effectively fired for getting pregnant.

** I hasten to stress that I fully understand that not all women have wombs – it is precisely this biological reductionism and essentialism I object to.

Whitsle-stop review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2, poster.I wish I could devote more time to reviews, but it’s crunch-time in Rhuboland, so here’s a whistle-stop tour of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, good and bad.

The Good:

They beefed up Gwen’s (Emma Stone) role and gave her interests outside of her bf. They also showed her thinking about how kind of self-centred he can be and how she’s not content to wait around for him.

Plus, Gwen had some agency and some role in saving the day.

The character, Max (Jamie Foxx), is initially interesting, as a black guy getting to play something other than the tough guy, the guy presented as animalistic in some way. Although I wonder if the black nerdy, socially inept scientist is getting to be another stereotype. I was reminded strongly of Lem from Better off Ted, but I’m aware that I may be blinded by my own privilege in trying to assess what makes for a stereotypical black male character.

Max also gets to voice legitimate concerns of vanishing identity and feeling invisible, which can affect people of colour who are not recognised and rewarded for their achievements in the way that white men tend to be. Both Max and Harry cut sympathetic figures, at first.

The CGI is fucking fantastic. Second to none. And worth seeing in 3D, if that doesn’t affect you negatively.*

Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield shine, instantly lifting both the acting and (one feels) the script in any scene in which they are in.

The Bad

Hopefully it isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that things do not go well for Max. And whilst they toy initially with making him a human dude who doesn’t want to do bad things when he first gets his (basically very destructive) powers, he rapidly descends into the violent revenge trope and becomes a basic monster figure with almost nothing of his original character left. Fear of the Other. Terror of the Black Man (complete with hoodie, argh). It’s just all the worst stereotypes.

And they make him blue. Instantly cutting in half the number of obviously PoC characters I noticed in the film (the other being an anonymous cop).

And he cedes Chief Monster Spot extremely quickly to the spoiled rich white guy, swiftly assuming a Henchman role.

Prior to that he had been Comic Relief, aspiring to be Side-kick (but not actually cool enough for that). It’s basically a race ‘You wanted a “You Tried” sticker, but you really don’t deserve it’.

I think the moment where Random Unnamed Woman Secretary-I-Don’t-Know-What-Her-Role-Was-Meant-To-Be-That’s-Not-How-Oxbridge-Interviews-Work told Gwen she could go in for her interview was meant to make this film pass the Bechdel Test. But, honey, no, that’s not good enough. She could have easily been a professor, btw, but she wasn’t.

Peter Parker stalks Gwen and she finds this romantic. PETER PARKER STALKS GWEN AND SHE FINDS THIS ROMANTIC. NO, Hollywood! Stop putting this crap in our mouths. You want to have your hero stalk a lady, represent it as every bit as creepy as it is, and not ‘poignant’. NO, NO, NO.

Mental illness = evil. Illness that alters conventional beauty generates mental illness. People who get sick have cooties. White able-bodied men are better than everyone.

All the people in any position of power, from the unnamed people in dealing with a potential air crash in the powercut, to Harry Osborn (Dane DeHann), were white men. Harry delegates some power to Felicia (his father’s assistant, played by Felicity Jones) on a whim, but even if she is capable, her power is 100% derived from him and, as far as we are given any reason to believe, given to her because she is pretty and not currently trying to seize power from him.

And, last, but only so you can skip it if you don’t want spoilers…



The fridging. I knew (because people tell you these things) that Gwen Stacey was not slated to live that long, but this still pissed me off. I don’t care that that’s how it happened in the comics. I know fridging happens in comics, that’s how come we have a name for it. We are living in the 21st century, and if you are remaking something, you can make it BETTER and MORE SUITED to the world we now live in. The whole movie I was sitting there, trying to work out if it was going to go somewhere sexist or not. And I guess the moment Peter says he’ll go with her to England so that she can follow her dream (a totally legit thing to do that needn’t compromise his dreams in any way, as they discuss) she was doomed. Allow a woman too much agency, and she has to die to fuel the mangst. And we were treated to a longish epilogue to that effect. Not to mention the fact that Peter, for no apparent reason than just because he likes to be in control, never loses an opportunity to deny her agency. Webbing her hand to a car because she (rightly) points out that she knows more about how to solve the issue at hand than he does, is perhaps just the most painfully obvious of these.

Also, the pacing was really patchy, and the (exquisitely CGI’d and very impressive looking in terms of FX) fight scenes were too long and not punchy enough. Again, I felt like the Multiple Villain Factor was a problem – why not let Electro at least be head villain? Green  Goblin is totally up to fronting another movie.

So, there it is. I really wanted to like this. I did enjoy parts of it quite a lot. But it had a LOT of problems. And I’m kind of done making excuses for studios unthinkingly churning out this shit anymore. I’m done with saying ‘Maybe the next one will be less ableist/sexist/racist’. It’s not good enough. It doesn’t make the mark.

But do stay after the movie for the mid-credit Marvel Thang. Mistique kicking arse is a wonderful palate cleanser.

*On that note: please also be aware that this film contains strobing effects.

We need to talk about America’s Next Top Model

Promo shoot for America's Next Top ModelThis post is going to seem wildly off topic. I’m sure it will garner easy trolls, as well as people who don’t think they’re trolling but feel I’ve made a Serious Lapse In Taste of which I’ll need to be educated. I mean, what am I doing, with my blog which is casual in style but (tries to be) scholarly in approach, enthusiastic in tone, feminist in philosophy, writing about that awful woman , Tyra Banks, and her tacky show?

Which is kind of why I feel like it’s an important post to be made and it does belong.

Let’s start from the fact that it is overwhelmingly men who have criticised me for liking this show. Whereas numerous women have (in hushed tones, with a shifty look, as though confessing a dirty secret) have either volunteered that they like it, or confessed that they do too when I say I do. They are almost always quick (very quick) to add that what they love is the artistry of the photographs, and sometimes (usually if they are more comfortable with their own femininity) with the beauty and interest of the clothes.

Sadly, the promos (like the above) are almost always hilariously contrary to this professed quality. I mean, Tyra looks pretty powerful and clearly knows how to work a camera, but the skimpiness of the clothes and the cliché of many of the poses adds together to make something that looks faintly ridiculous and a tad exploitative.

I’m not gonna defend the promos too much. I rarely like them. But I would say that it’s worth baring in mind that this is all the models, including the ones that fall out in the first few rounds because they are, basically, crap. It’s also a composite of a group of individual photos. None of these women posed with each other. The were all trying to look their best for themselves as individuals, and none of them were thinking about how they would look in the composite because what they cared about was being judged on that photo, and there’s no way they could have known what the other girls would be doing anyway. As for the theme… themes for large groups of people verge very easily on the cliché, and ANTM has to roll out loads of these over the course of the series. If you try to focus on an individual model you can actually see that some of the outfits are not, in themselves, bad. Indeed, the model in question might be working the shit out of that thing. Compare, for example, the models in the front, or the one in the middle row on the far left with the cheesily posed lack-luster trio immediately above her. One thing this awkward promo format does allow for is that as each model gets eliminated her image disappears from the group, and you often have an interesting sense of perspective as you see that the ones who are left are usually doing more interesting things in their first photo.

As for Tyra… Let’s bloody well talk about Tyra Banks. She gets a lot of flack. She gets called fake and cheesy and bitchy and all sorts of unpleasant unsavoury things. Here’s what Tyra is: she’s a driven career woman who launched herself as a teenage girl into a very competitive field that frequently eats people up alive and actively works to exclude people of colour. She not only stuck it out and made it through levels of discomfort and hand-to-mouth poverty that would send most of us looking for a cushy job at McDonalds, she rose to the very top of her field, and then, before her fame faded and at the point where the natural effects of ageing would have excluded her from that field, she used her fame, her contacts, her skills, and her experience to make the move to TV. And whilst that might seem easy for a famously beautiful woman to do, it’s really not very common. There are probably others, but Tricia Helfer is the only other one I can think of (and she hosted Canada’s Next Top Model, too). Think of the adverts you may have seen other top models doing. If they speak at all it’s often pretty stilted. Acting and modeling and presenting are all different skill sets, and we only show our own ignorance if we suppose that any of them are easy.

What’s more, Tyra talks about her own career as a part of America’s Next Top Model, and whilst, yes, there’s a certain amount of self-aggrandizing in that, it’s no more than Alan Sugar gets away with on The Apprentice. She tells how it was always her plan to move from modelling to presenting. She knew the career of a model has a set lifespan and she planned ahead. There’s a kind of terrifying awe that grows as you watch through the series and realise just how meticulously Tyra has planned her life; how in control of it she is, how she manages her image and achieves her goals. She’s a business woman, and a pretty effective and powerful one, at that. Whatever you think of America’s Next Top Model, you can’t deny that it’s given Tyra everything she wanted: exposure, money, a career that extended beyond modelling, and a certain amount of power and visibility in an industry that likes to keep women in their ‘place’.

Which, of course, is usually the reason men laugh at me for being a feminist who enjoys America’s Next Top Model. ‘How can you watch something that’s in an industry that so exploits women?!’ they say, having never seen an episode.

Firstly: are they expecting that as a feminist I want to abolish modelling altogether? Do they have similar concerns about male models? I’m sure that some people do (possibly with good reason), but I’m pretty sure that these men (the ones I have talked to) don’t. That there are people who wear clothes and display them on catwalks and in photographs does not seem, in itself, to be a problem. In fact, it seems like a good way of both getting a designer exposure and allowing consumers to have an informed idea of what’s available. Honestly, I can’t see any problem with the idea that there should BE models.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing wrong with the industry in its actual form. It clearly is often exploitative of models. It’s frequently objectifying of women. The standards of beauty that have become desired in fashion are remote from reality in a way that’s damaging to consumers and (often) models both. That’s a reason to dislike a lot of how the industry works at the moment. It’s not a reason to say we should denigrate the industry altogether. Ignoring it, refusing to educate yourself about it or engage with its politics is basically tacitly encouraging it to continue on however it wants without you.

J Alexander (aka Miss J)

J Alexander (aka Miss J)

I’m going to hold my hands up right now and say that I absolutely had all these prejudices when I started watching. But I was parrot-sitting in a large house with a large TV and no internet. I like to take breaks whilst studying, and I watched a bunch of things I wouldn’t usually watch just because they were on when I was taking a break. America’s Next Top Model was one. At first it seemed bizarre. The characters flamboyant to the extreme, such as the fabulously larger than life Miss J Alexander, catwalk coach. But when they actually started to talk about their work, or when Miss J strutted his stuff on the catwalk* and explained to the young hopefuls what they were doing wrong… I realised quickly that there was a lot more to this career that I had never taken seriously than I had ever guessed. And I felt stupid for that, because of course there is.

Most people are uncomfortable having their picture taken, and many people who are conventionally attractive don’t know what to do with themselves in front of a camera and take dreadful photos. As for walking a catwalk, I’m pretty sure that most of us, if asked to do so, would produce a highly embarrassing pantomime of the activity. Of course there’s skill involved. Millions of attractive women (and men!) wash out of the fashion industry because however pretty they are they aren’t models. And there’s a clear difference between a catalogue model and a supermodel. We all know it. We mock the catalogue models for their cheesy poses – whatever else we say about the men and women in editorials and on catwalks, we rarely call them cheesy.

And this was underlined when it came to the photos. The people I’ve talked to who quickly rush to say that they watch for the artistry of the photography aren’t lying. Some of them are breathtaking. Here are just a few:

Cycle 15 winner, Ann Ward

Cycle 15 winner, Ann Ward

Kayla Hagler, Cycle 15

Kayla Hagler, Cycle 15

Jenah Doucette, Cycle 9

Jenah Doucette, Cycle 9

Cycle 9 Winner, Saleisha Stowers

Cycle 9 Winner, Saleisha Stowers

There’s real skill involved here, and being able to see the difference between someone who is trying to pose and someone with genuine skill who knows their body, their angles, how light plays on their skin, is aware of their surroundings, understands what will show clothes to best effect and what won’t… it’s really interesting. And you also see what goes into the lighting, the photography, the hair, the make-up. What makes a good walk. How personality, common sense, punctuality, can prove vital for someone who actually wants a career, as the models go to ‘go sees’ and compete to get booked, but also to get back on time (a model who arrives late is disqualified). The contestants are educated about what it’s really like to be a model, and so are we.

Which is not to say that it’s 100% ‘real’. The girls share a fabulous house and are constantly thrown into situations that will provoke discord. it’s a reality TV show and it has those markers. I will also concede that quality has fallen off sharply in recent years. I don’t watch anymore, but I watched a good 16~ cycles before I gave up. Of course the format got stretched and old. Of course it got formulaic. And ultimately I felt that the contestants were being asked to do some things that weren’t OK.

In one particularly fraught episode Tyra demanded that all the women wear special pants (underwear) to enhance their bums. One girl refused on the grounds that it went against her beliefs about body image, and she was treated extremely harshly for it. On the one hand, I understood that Tyra was actually pushing the boundaries of accepted standards for beauty. In particular, a larger behind is often favoured in African-American culture, whilst white American fashion scorns it. But on the other hand, the pressure to accept any and all of a client’s demands, whilst possibly realistic, does reflect and support the ugly side of the business, and the pressure to conform to beauty standards, whatever your personal beliefs.

It was also an uncomfortable moment as the girls were being taught ways to stick their bums out to be more attractive. This seemed in direct conflict with the line that had always been drawn before between ‘model sexy’ and ‘hoochy’. The ‘teaches’ and methods of posing the contestants were being taught that season seemed to be getting increasingly silly. One felt that the show was struggling to remain fresh and interesting, and had begun to reach too far.

However, ANTM’s descent into absurdity is highlighted against a background that frequently sought to be progressive. Having been a woman whose own career ended when she ceased to maintain the stick-figure physique, Tyra (an obviously still beautiful woman) championed plus size modelling. And whilst her rebranding of this to ‘fiercely real’ feels a little forced, I can get behind her thought that ‘plus size’ isn’t really as big as that name suggests, and that the real aim is to encourage greater diversity of body-types in modeling. ANTM also embraced transwomen, gay women, bi women, religious women, atheist women, women on the autistic spectrum, women of colour, educated women, women from poor backgrounds, metropolitan women, country women – all kinds of women. There was a real sense of Tyra consciously pushing the boundaries of what is permitted in fashion and championing the disadvantaged and excluded. Yes, some of it was to have a ‘story’, but there are an awful lot of US TV shows that would not have represented such a spectrum, and would have vilified a lot of the sorts of women described above.

So, yes, it’s now over-branded, formulaic, something of a caricature of itself. But just because it’s concerned with fashion and modelling doesn’t mean it’s frivolous. Just because the fashion industry frequently has a very problematic relationship with women and their bodies doesn’t mean that this show endorses everything you don’t like about it. Just because it’s full of flamboyant personalities doesn’t mean they don’t have serious things to say. And whilst one sometimes senses the machine of Tyra’s image generation working in the background, you cannot deny that she’s effective. Over all I sense a woman of tremendous personal strength, charisma, and confidence, with a sharp mind, using what she knows to build the kind of career she wants and challenge the issues she faced when she was fighting her way up the scale.

And I admire that. And I think a lot of the other women I know who like this show admire it. And I think we like seeing a powerful woman leading a show where there are lots of other women of many different races, backgrounds, sexualities, and beliefs, many of whom are ‘interesting’ to look at rather than conventionally beautiful in the way an actor is expected to be. Whether we want to work in fashion or not we also like to see the artistry and skill that goes into a sort of work that women do for which they are denigrated more than their male counterparts. (Which is not to say that male models face no issues of body-image or prejudice, they do, but the scale of the way women are judged by their appearance and for earning money by their appearance is that much more.)

And I can’t help but wonder if maybe some of the people who mock Tyra Banks as ‘annoying’ or ‘fake’ really just feel discomforted by seeing a confident woman running a show, instructing others, being regarded as an authority. She feels ‘fake’ because we’re not used to seeing a woman take such a stance of certainty – of stating facts and imparting knowledge, of sitting in judgement. There’s a sense of ‘What RIGHT does she have to set herself up as an authority like that?’

So, yeah, the later cycles of America’s Next Top Model in particular have issues, but they represent just a fraction of the output. This show has an awful lot more going for it than many people give it credit for, and I’m sick of apologising for liking it and for being berated as though I have betrayed the sisterhood (although it is rarely my ‘sisters’ who voice such views. So, I wanted to talk about America’s Next Top Model for a bit. And now I have.

*It’s my understanding that Miss J is not transgendered and uses male pronouns primarily, although he is referred to as both ‘he’ and ‘she’ on the show.

Review: Doctor Who: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

Poster for Doctor Who Journey to the Centre of the TARDISWell, that was the best episode of Doctor Who we have seen in a very long time. It was near perfect in execution, nodded to a past that charts back before 2005, and had some deep, troubling and interestingly explored themes. I was impressed and captivated. There was a clear impression that this needed to be a landmark episode, and it delivered.

Hard to believe it took eight years to show an interior of the TARDIS that was more than nameless corridors, but when push came to shove we were not let down.


The Doctor decides to let Clara try and fly the TARDIS as a way of getting the two of them to feel more comfortable with each other. (The TARDIS has made it plain that it doesn’t like Clara one bit and doesn’t trust her to be aboard without the Doctor.) For some reason putting the TARDIS in some kind of safety mode to allow Clara to fly involves turning off some plot significant shields? (I said near perfect execution, didn’t I?) Anyway, the moment is provided for the TARDIS to be exposed and some likely lads in a salvage vessel spy it and try to haul it in.

During the process of this the TARDIS is damaged, and somehow the Doctor is thrown outside the TARDIS whilst Clara is trapped within (fudge fudge fudge). The Doctor convinces the salvageers to help him enter the TARDIS and find Clara on condition that they receive the ‘salvage of a lifetime’.

Meanwhile, Clara becomes lost in a very unhappy TARDIS (fires are periodically a problem, because of… reasons) and she finds herself chased by strange, dark, creepy creatures.

The Doctor and the salvageers (it’s a word, shut up*) enter a race against time to save Clara and stop the TARDIS from exploding, hampered by the fact that some of the salvageers are more intent on salvaging than saving.

To add spice to the mix, one of the salvageers is an android, and he can sense the pain of the TARDIS, causing tension as he urges against his teammates’ impulse to just loot and get out.

My thoughts

This was bright, bubbly, entertaining, nostalgic, and dark. Which is a lot of what I want out of Doctor Who. We had some lovely nods to TARDIS episodes past, including the fan-beloved swimming pool. I would have liked to see the Cloisters (we do hear the Cloister Bell), maybe the rooms of some former companions, and I’m madly curious about the Doctor’s own bedroom, but there you go. They had to go wherever the plot was relevant, so fair enough.

There were a number of notes that made me wince. It wasn’t as bad as a Moffat penned episode, but there were a few completely unnecessary gender-oriented jokes which went unchallenged, and I continue to feel uncomfortable with New Who’s (mainly Moffat Who’s) emphasis on the conception of the TARDIS as female and in some kind of romantic relationship with the Doctor. Yes, there is a tradition of referring to ships using female pronouns, but that’s a sexist time and location-centric Earth tradition, no reason for the Doctor to buy into it. No obvious reason for the Doctor to think of the TARDIS as gendered at all. Being gendered is not a requirement of sentience. I know the Neil Gaiman penned episode is popular and all, but one of the things that made me less keen on it was this emphasis on the TARDIS as female and in love with the Doctor – even thinking of herself as called ‘Sexy‘, which if you wanted to encapsulate everything that’s wrong with Moffat era Who, a lot of it is said right there.

There’s nothing wrong with the TARDIS being feminine per se (she couldn’t possibly be female (sexed), TARDISes don’t mate), she can be gendered however she fancies. The problem is that she’s in a master/slave relationship with a paradigm patriarchal figure in an epically popular television show aimed at children. And don’t get me started on the people who think the themes don’t matter because it’s a family show. Do you even know what a theme is? A theme isn’t something invented by academics, it’s something academics label as a way of identifying messages embedded in a work of literature (yes, TV is literature, just like plays, deal with it) and issues tackled. If your message is one of iconic figures with whom children will identify being engaged in deeply problematic master/slave relationships with the division being created along gendered lines in a show where the male patriarch increasingly belittles women… yeah, it’s a problem.

Let’s talk about the master/slave dialectic; it’s an important tool of societal, psychological, and literary analysis. Marx liked  and popularised it for that reason, although it originates in Hegel. One thing I think really raises the bar of this episode of Doctor Who is that it directly addresses the problematic of master/slave dynamics.

The Hegelian theory is that a consciousness cannot be self-aware unless it has encountered another consciousness which it recognises as like itself and yet distinct from itself (don’t worry about why, it goes back to Kant’s transcendental idealism, which is a whole other thing, just accept for now that it’s a theory with a good amount of history behind it). As such, any consciousness is reliant upon other minded beings for its own existence, and yet (according to Hegel) it is always trying to destroy, or at least assert dominance over the Other. It doesn’t like that there is a consciousness out there that is not its own, so it seeks to destroy or absorb it. Which it can never do without destroying itself. Thus a symbiotic relationship forms. The ‘winner’ of the struggle becomes the ‘master’, dominating the ‘slave’, and yet the master becomes completely reliant on the ‘slave’ for nearly everything. Masters are not producers.

Now, there’s a feminist history of rejecting the struggle for dominance in the master/slave dialectic as a specifically masculine view. I do not subscribe to this. I think such views rest on an unsubstantiated essentialist view of gender which reads women as fundamentally submissive or non-combative. There’s plenty of evidence that this is false, even if you think that women are, on the whole, more submissive or gentle than men. Personally, I don’t just believe, but know, that many women are neither submissive nor gentle; however, I do not assert that this is an indication of superiority. I know there’s substantial reaction against Anglo-American feminist insistence on active and assertive agency as the only legitimate and respectable way for a woman to demonstrate her worth. Gender aside, one should concede that praising only the assertive and aggressive is problematic. My point is rather that assuming that these are exclusively, or even predominantly, male attributes is both false and problematic. I do think there is a natural human drive towards dominance. ‘Natural’ merely in the sense that the genes of those that strive for the most food, the most mating opportunities, etc., have a tendency to result in continued survival, and that’s common between men, women, gender queer, monkeys, catfish, and elephants. Nevertheless I also agree that struggling for dominance is not the only successful survival trait, and often beings that expend their energies in other directions can be more successful. Megan Lindholm’s masterpiece, Alien Earth, which is also deeply concerned with analysis of the master/slave dialectic, is particularly interesting in its exploration of cooperative ecologies and their relation to combative ones.

What I’m getting at is that the master/slave dialectic as an analysis of sentient interaction is an idea with legs, but not one we should be uncritical of. The Doctor’s relationship with the TARDIS is an exemplar of the master/slave dialectic. (A point the Doctor’s relationship with the Master has flirted with drawing out under the hands of some of Doctor Who‘s more insightful writers in the past.) The Doctor is the ‘master’, yet he is almost completely dependent upon the TARDIS for just about everything. She is his slave, and must do what he tells her, yet he’s not even a Timelord without her, he’s just the last Gallifreyan, not even able to reproduce. You can see why, then, it’s problematic to phrase this particularly iconic master/slave relationship in gendered terms. I am reminded with bile in my throat of the discussions I have had with male geeks about the sexism inherent in David Eddings’s works. All the women are ultra feminine, but, it is always said, the men would be hopeless without them. Polgara may be an immortal sorceress, but she likes cooking and darning socks. And that’s fine. Many women like cooking and sewing. The problem is that the men around Polgara exploit the assumption that she will like these things by completely neglecting to develop any skills in these areas. In this way, she has to perform these services for them. Dividing labour along gendered lines enforces a restriction of women’s options even as it makes men dependent on them. The catch is, the actions that men depend on women to perform are rarely those that allow women to accumulate extra resources with which to commission services from men.

And so the feminist Marxist analysis of the master/slave dialectic goes.

So. The thing I liked about this episode is that it confronts these problematic elements embedded in Doctor Who head on. By having a character who is othered (designated as the slave role) by virtue of him being literally a machine (the theoretically non-sentient analog of the slave role) we are confronted with the deep inappropriateness of such relationships. I don’t want to transgress into the Spoiler Zone, but let us just say that the emotional impact of the inappropriateness of such a relationship is made viscerally evident.

Moreover, despite the depressing tendency towards sexism in recent Doctor Who, and some unsettling elements of characterisation of the TARDIS with respect to her gendering as female, the TARDIS has a long history of defying the Doctor’s expectations. The majority of Peter Davison’s era, for instance, is spent with the Doctor having very little  control over where the TARDIS goes at all. His repeated attempts to return Tegan to Heathrow airport in the correct era represent an utter failure of mastery. Similarly, ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’ is structured by scene after scene of the TARDIS asserting control and rendering the Doctor, his companion, and everyone else aboard her utterly helpless.

This is why I think Stephen Thompson is to be commended as the writer of this episode. This is an acknowledgement and exploration of the Doctor’s problematic relationship with the TARDIS at a level we rarely see. Like the salvageers exploiting their ‘robot’ companion, the Doctor has gained immeasurable benefits – near godlike status – exploiting the TARDIS. And when the Doctor ‘offers’ them the TARDIS in compensation for rescuing Clara (one assumes he always plans to double-cross them on this, but it’s still a startling thing to do with a being you regard as sentient) one is confronted by the narrowness of their vision as they proceed to try and dissect the TARDIS, ignoring the fact that the TARDIS as a whole is worth immeasurably more than any circuit could be. The slave, we are reminded, is usually much brighter than the masters – he or she has to be; she or he does all the work.

It should also be noted that this is probably unique as an episode of Doctor Who in which people of colour outnumbered white people, and I suspect that it no mistake. One of the factors underlying the current instability of our economic situation, after all, is that so-called first-world, predominantly white countries like the UK and the US have had their wealth bolstered by exploitation of people of colour for centuries. It is a mistake to think this ended with the abolition of legal slavery. As a relatively poor person in the UK I can still buy a top for £3 if I want to. How is that possible, but that someone, somewhere, earns far less than I do? Now, following the credit crunch, our economy struggles to stabilise in a world where developing nations we are used to exploiting are gaining greater economic power.

One might still think ‘Well, that’s all very well – elucidating the master-slave relationship, but the status quo remains unchallenged for the Doctor at the end’. I think there’s some legitimacy in that. People talk about having a female Doctor or a black Doctor as a way of balancing the scales, but I still kind of feel like that’s missing the point. Not that I’m against it. I think a black Doctor could now be possible with nothing problematic to it at all. A female one… well, I have no faith that it would be well-executed under the current regime, and the total dominance of Doctor Who by male writers is preventing a woman from gaining sufficient credibility to take the helm and challenge the way of things. But in another time, under different leadership, with different writers… sure, it could be fine. My point is rather that 50 years of the Doctor flying around acting as the Great White Male Saviour to countless cultures that have not his wealth**, his education, his technology, cannot be erased by having one iteration of the Doctor be black, or Asian, or female. The problem with viewing it like this is that we are still maintaining the wealthy white man as the ideal by making it a goal to have people of colour and women play his role. The real goal is to surround this show where a rich, educated, white man saves the day again and again with a normality where any man, women, intersex or gender queer individual can save the day in any way he/she/zie damn well likes. The Doctor should not be the standard we all seek to attain. The Doctor should be just another character. Rich, complex, exciting, amongst other rich, complex, exciting characters, each of whom is rich, complex, and exciting in different ways. The rich, white, educated male ideal is not the only one to which we should aspire.

Nevertheless, I do think credit is due to Stephen Thompson and it must be noted that although there is little he can do within the confines of the show to change the cultural context in which it appears, or the necessity that the Doctor is and always will be the title character whose centrality is determined by his possession of the TARDIS – nevertheless, he does show us that if the TARDIS wishes to assert control she is more than capable of doing so. Moreover, although the status quo is re-established amongst the salvageers as well, the way in which the wrongness of their situation has been underscored provides a counterpoint with which to remind the audience that just because things have returned to the status quo, that doesn’t mean that it’s OK.

*I might have just started reading The Three Musketeers, it’s not important, don’t look at me like that.

** Incidentally, ever notice that the Doctor never thinks to carry money and never knows what would be appropriate to give someone when he has some? That’s a classic sign of someone whose wealth has become so vast they can’t even count it anymore or relate to those who lack it with any real understanding. You may not think of him as rich, but the TARDIS offers him so much wealth that money doesn’t mean anything to him. Not caring about money is not a sign of having grown ‘beyond’ such trivial things. It’s a sign that you’re rich enough that you’ve never had to care. One thing I like about Clara is that she consistently challenges the Doctor on his privilege, and expresses concern that the opportunities the TARDIS offers have distanced him from being able to connect with other people on any normal level.

Review: Doctor Who, ‘The Bells of Saint John’

Poster: Doctor Who, The Bells of Saint JohnI rather enjoyed this episode. Have I surprised you? I’ve seen a lot of disappointment on Twitter, contrasted with a bunch of other people shouting about how it was PERFECT and haters are gonna hate. Given my feelings about recent Moffat Who you might expect me to be in the former camp. OK, I don’t think it was perfect – far from it! – but we’ve seen a lot worse in recent times, and there was a lot to enjoy.


A weird phenomenon has been spreading over Wi-Fi. Open wireless connections are appearing with weird symbols as names. If you select that wi-fi your consciousness is uploaded to a mainframe and within a day your body dies.

Meanwhile, the Doctor has been hiding out in a monastery in 1207, trying to get the peace of mind to figure out what’s going on with Clara Oswin Oswald and why he keeps seeing her in different places. Until, that is, the TARDIS phone rings, enabling the gag that names the episode, as the TARDIS has a St John’s Ambulance sign on its door.

The call is from Clara, who has been given the number of the TARDIS’s fake phone (which ought to be just a part of it’s camoflage as a police box) as an IT helpline. The Doctor realises it’s her and goes to find her. Together they take on the uber-coporation.

Things I liked

There was a lot of fun in this episode. The joke of the title was a little throw-away and contrived, but in that kind of groan-joke way that’s completely appropriate for Doctor Who. Matt Smith was on fine form as his bumblingly eccentric Doctor who’s surprisingly smart underneath. Very Sylvester McCoy mixed with Patrick Troughton and a dash of Paul McGann. I like it. I liked that the fez and bow tie came out again, and I enjoyed the gag that monks’ robes are ‘not cool’ in contrast to such stylish accessories. Perhaps some find touches like this gimmicky, but I love them I love them for their eccentricity and because the Doctor has always had such peculiar quirks – recorders, capes, scarves, celery, umbrellas, hats… they make me smile, and they’re a great feature for a kid’s TV show. Kids can pick up on them and feel like they’re in on an in joke, and they can very easily play at being the Doctor just by getting hold of an inexpensive item like a fez or a clip-on bow tie without going full Comic Con regalia. That’s important because it’s inclusive, and because it helps spark children’s imaginations – especially when it’s encouraging them to think about what counts as ‘cool’ in different ways, and in ways that change over time. It’s important for showing children how to be more accepting of differences and to be more experimental in their own thoughts, as well as fashion choices.

Whilst the ‘be careful what you share over the Internet and beware of using and/or stealing unsecured Wi-Fi’ moral was a little obvious, I didn’t particularly mind. On the one hand it felt a little technophobic, but the Doctor and Clara didn’t respond to the crisis with a full on Sarah Connor Computers-Are-Bad routine. They used computers to retaliate against the human enemy, which was the real culprit for its misuse of technology.

I liked that they incorporated the Shard, an awesome piece of modern, futuristic architecture so new that I haven’t even seen it yet, but which has dramatically changed the London skyline. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s current, and it presents the future as something that we’re involved in creating, rather than merely something the Doctor can show us.

I liked Clara’s common sense response to a strange man landing on her doorstep demanding to be let in, and that only when he’s shown her a good reason to suppose it’s more dangerous to remain outside than to enter his small box does she agree to do so.

I liked the foreshadowing of a mysterious woman giving Clara the Doctor’s number (I’m guessing Rose?). I wondered if there was a deliberate reference to the Meddling Monk (a Time Lord antagonist of the First Doctor) in the Doctor’s hiding out as a monk at the beginning. And I LOVED that they got Richard E Grant in for the mysterious baddy. He’s a fantastic actor with oodles of charisma, and it’s a nice touch, what with him having played an AU Doctor in ‘The Curse of Fatal Death‘ and the animated adventure produced for Doctor Who’s 40th-anniversary, ‘The Scream of the Shalka‘. With the 50th anniversary coming up, we can expect big things, there, and it’s good to feel like we’re building towards that.

Things I didn’t like so much

Despite the fact that Moffat is now clearly aware of what people feel about his sexist attitude towards women (I don’t condone him being bullied off Twitter, but I assume it at least made him aware of the groundswell of feeling) he persists in throwing out sexist ‘gags’. Having the monk ask ‘Is it an evil spirit?’ and the Doctor reply ‘It’s a woman’ as though the two weren’t that dissimilar… it’s only funny if you hate women, which is out of character for the Doctor and a really bad message for kids. And… it’s doing you no favours, Moffat. It’s not just a few crazy feminists you’re continuing to poke with sticks because, for some reason, you think that’s funny, it’s 52% of the population that you’re insulting. We are watching, too, and some of us are little girls learning what the world thinks of our gender. Having it derided by an icon like the Doctor is pretty awful and entirely unnecessary. Not to mention the little boys who are learning about acceptable ways to interact with women.

On a similar note, I have some sympathy for the criticisms of Clara’s character as one-dimensional, used as a plot device and not really developed. As noted above, I do think she had some interesting elements of independence, but she has fallen into the tired old format of flirting with the Doctor. Although she says ‘come back and ask me tomorrow’ it’s token resistance that is presented more as a tease than any real sense that the Doctor’s being out of line in assuming that any woman who’s asked would willingly go with him. As others have noted, she’s too much like Amy and Riversong and all the other women Moffat writes, and not enough like a real woman with a personality that doesn’t revolve around her relationships to men. I am uncomfortable with how similar her speech patterns are to Riversong’s. ‘Run you clever boy’ is clearly drawn from the same smugly over-familiar well as ‘Hello, sweetie’ and, sexism aside, that’s just bad writing.

I also found some of the science a bit too silly. If the uploaded minds have been ‘fully integrated’ I don’t see how any of them could be re-downloaded without going mad. The cognitive scientist in me is irked. But on this point I am willing to subside and say ‘it’s Doctor Who, that’s just how it is’. Although this plot bore some similarities to ‘The Idiot Box’, I find the criticisms that it’s just a straightforward copy somewhat unkind. There was much more to the premise than an alien being simply absorbing minds. There was also a concept about integrating and altering minds – inducing paranoia, increasing intelligence, adding skills, enforcing obedience… some real interesting questions about the nature of personal identity and free will.

Overall, I found this episode considerably better than I expected. I still have serious problems with Moffat that I don’t think are going to go away. He seems to be digging his heels in on the sexism thing rather than listening to the voices of what women themselves think about his characterisation (or lack thereof) of them. But this was at least a fun episode with a good plot, some interesting ideas and a cohesive presentation. It was not a return of the ever more complicated confusions of the Riversong plot, and laid some stable ground for what I am tentatively hopeful will not be a complete train-wreck of an anniversary.

On Subjectivity: Wild Swans, Escher Girls, and Mansplaining

I heard something on Radio 4 this morning that set a fire in my brain. It connected with all kinds of things that have been bubbling beneath the surface for the last few weeks – a bunch of ideas and threads from internet culture and international politics that suddenly aligned themselves and allowed me to step back and see the central point around which they were revolving. I knew I needed to write something about it.

People sometimes throw around the term ‘subjectivity’ in internet discussions, but often it is not clearly defined, so I’d like to start by giving a bit of context to fill in what I mean. As you probably know, if you’ve been around here much, I have a not-so-secret identity as a philosopher. More particularly, I study scepticism, and the philosophy of mind. Philosophical scepticism is the doubt of some foundational aspect of our knowledge – such as that there is an external world, or that there are other minds. The kind of scepticism that interests me is what we call ‘solipsistic external world scepticism’ – the thesis that I might be the only thinking being and the whole of the rest of the world might be a figment of my imagination. Scepticism is something most of us have thought about idly from time to time, and some of us (like me) may have worried about intensely for brief periods, but none of us (it is generally accepted) seem to believe in our day-to-day lives. Yet it is notoriously difficult to disprove. Why is that? Well, it is because we are, all of us, stuck inside our own minds. It is because we find ourselves unable to reason from the subjective to the objective.

By ‘subjective’, in this context we mean that which is unique to our own perspective: the thoughts and experiences that make up our individual world views. Sometimes ‘subjective’ is used dismissively, as a way of discrediting an opinion or ending discussions that have become uncomfortable: ‘That’s very subjective!’ one might declare, intending to imply that the opinion has no real basis in fact; or: ‘Oh, it’s all very subjective, really,’ one might say, ‘I can see we aren’t going to decide this’ as a way of holding off any objections that are being made to one’s view. But to be subjective does not necessarily mean to be ‘merely a matter of opinion’. The dismissive tone is induced by the inaccessibility of mental states to the perusal of others. ‘That’s just not funny!’ is declared, and another responds: ‘Well, humour is all very subjective – just because you don’t find it funny doesn’t mean that it isn’t’. And maybe some things are subjective in this sense – some philosophers have argued that morality is subjective in this way – but it’s important to understand that merely being subjective does not entail that something is invalid, untrue, ephemeral, or to be dismissed.

For the subjective is as praised as it is derided. The history of modern analytic philosophy has been dominated by the Cartesian notion of certainty being grounded in the immediacy of thought. Experiences are untrustworthy – the senses are easily tricked – but thought is ‘directly’ revealed to the self. Although few would now except Cartesian infallibility for all thought (the rise of psychoanalysis has mostly put paid to that), the immediacy of thought and experience is persuasive, and most would hold at least certain types of thought or experience as clearly more certain than facts about the world, which can only be inferred through the veil of experience. Thus, as I can never experience your thoughts and your feelings directly, I can never know what it’s like to be you in the way that I know what it’s like to be me. The objective, here, may be more concrete, in that it is stable and accessible to all, but it is also less certainly known, only experienced through the filters shaped by ones own thoughts and experiences.

OK. Enough philosophy. What does this have to do with Radio 4? Well, as I walked to work this morning I tuned in to a discussion concerning Peng Liyuan, the wife of Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping was selected as the next president of China on 8th November 2012. Peng Liyuan is a celebrity in her own right, being a ‘folk’ singer*, and Professor Delia Davin and Ross Terrill had been invited on the Today programme to discuss her in relation to Chinese politics. It was an odd segment. According to the Today website the discussion was supposed to ‘examine what role [women can] hope to achieve in Chinese politics today’, yet for most of the segment they discussed Peng Liyuan’s relationship to Xi Jinping with some comparisons to Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. Ross Terrill has written a book on Jiang Qing, and the majority of the questions were directed towards him, instead of Professor Davin, who is described as ‘an expert on modern Chinese society with a special focus on gender’, who was asked what sort of music Peng Liyuan plays. Ross Terrill’s main comment on Peng Liyuan was that she would do best to keep herself entirely seperate from the politics of her husband. I’m not sure he even wondered just who this would be best for, and, to be honest, until I read the precis of the segment on the website, I thought it was a segment on how Peng Liyuan’s existing fame would impact on Xi Jinping’s career, instead of a discussion of women in Chinese politics. I wondered what Mr Terrill thought of Hilary Clinton’s involvement in politics – would he say she should have kept her nose well out of it and focused on doing what would be most complimentary to her husband’s career?

This was bizarre in itself, but then, towards the end of the segment, when the question of chinese feminism was finally raised, the question was directed to the biographer, and not to the woman who is an expert on gender issues in modern Chinese society. I was flabbergasted when Terrill confidently bemoaned the lack of feminism in Chinese society, only able to reference three historical figures who had gained some power through their husbands in the distant past. This, to him, was Chinese feminism. John Humphreys, the presenter, seemed to be expecting this answer – well, of course, the Chinese are sexist, aren’t they? Not like us in the liberated West (where we ignore the female expert when discussing the question of women and power in favour of the male biographer). He allowed Professor Davin a brief comment in what was clearly supposed to be a sentence before the programme closed and handed over to the news. To my relief, she expressed the same shock I did. Indeed, she said something to the effect of ‘Well, I’m glad you did [give me the chance to speak] I wanted to shreik at that comment!’. Because anyone who knows the slightest bit about Chinese history in the 19th and 20th centuries should know that what Terrill said was patently ridiculous and insultingly dismissive.

Wild Swans - cover artI would never in a million years declare myself an expert on Chinese history or women in China, but then, I’ve never tried to write a book about it. What I have done is read a book about it. Wild Swans, to be precise. Wild Swans is written by Jung Chang, and tells the story of her grandmother, her mother, and herself. Her grandmother was born in 1909 and was of the last generation to experience foot binding, she was also a concubine to a warlord. Her mother grew up in an age of turmoil and invasion. Jung Chang recalls that her mother ‘made up her mind to choose her own husband’ having become ‘disenfranchised with the treatment of women and the system of concubinage (see p. 81). Both the Kuomintang and then the Communists offered ideologies that appealed to the liberation of women, and her mother and father joined the Communist party. One of the most moving passages is chapter seven ‘”Going through the Five Mountain Passages” My Mother’s Long March (1949-1950)’, in which Jung Chang’s mother miscarries her first child, having been forced to march in harsh conditions and all weathers despite her evident illness. The reason? Because the Communist Party believed that men and women were equal, and that a woman should therefore be able to march as well as a man, regardless of the conditions.

All of which is not to say that Chinese feminism is a paragon to be emulated. The tale of Jung Chang’s mother’s long march illustrates this with horrifying clarity. There are hard lessons to be learnt here, in that equality of rights can mean respecting that a pregnant woman has different needs to a strong young man – we should not forbid her any and all activities, but this does not mean ignoring her medical needs, or the strains pregnancy puts on a body. The point is that far from being limited to a tiny number of women who gained power through marriage in the distant past, what Chinese recent history offers is a rich and very complicated story of feminist struggle, in many ways more dramatic than that which the ‘West’ has gone through. There is a strong impression that the extreme oppression of women’s lives in the society of foot binding and concubines led to an equally extreme position in the rejection of old attitudes under the new Communist regime.

And this was a thing of which I had no idea until I read Wild Swans. In fact, almost all the Chinese history I know I got from reading Wild Swans. It’s a terrible thing to say, but that was my education. A little bit on the terracotta army, and then it’s Romans, Normans, Tudors and Stuarts. Entirely Eurocentric, and largely Anglocentric. What reading Wild Swans gave me was an insight into someone else’s subjectivity. And boy, did it have an impact. For the first time history came alive to me and I understood why it was important – the value it has in enabling us to understand each other, and where we have come from. Since then I have eaten up history where and when I can find it. It’s been a bit of a random enterprise – an audio course on Ancient Egypt here, a history of Russia there – but I now understand how little I know about the world outside of my own little sphere of time and space, and I’m seeking to correct that. I’m seeking to expand my understanding of other people’s subjectivity.

It’s for this reason that, should I ever make a definitive list of books that everyone should read, Wild Swans would be on it. Alongside, Hamlet, A Room of One’s Own, Meditations on First Philosophy, Last Chance to See, On Liberty, and Existentialism and Humanism, there would be Wild Swans. Because it is an important book in helping us to understand one another. And because no other work of non-fiction has ever made me cry like that.

And yet, a so-called expert on a programme about women and China apparently knew none of this – had no idea that there had been a feminist revolution in China, just as there had been a cultural one. Clearly had never read Wild Swans. And I remembered how I had read Wild Swans and thought that everyone should read it, and particularly that men, and ‘Western’ men should read it… and that there was a very good chance that Wild Swans would mostly be read by women.

Which is not to say that no men would seek the book out or would read it when it was recommended. I recommended it to my ex-boyfriend and he loved it and bought me Jung Chang’s biography of Mao for my birthday as a result. It’s that men are less likely to find it on their own, less likely to pick it up when it is recommended by women. In the same way that a male friend once laughed at me when I asked if he had caught an interesting segment that had been on Woman’s Hour. I forget the content, but it had been relevant to his interests. He laughed because of course he hadn’t heard it – of course: it was Woman’s Hour. And I have often thought, since then, that a lot of the content of Woman’s Hour is stuff that men should hear, and that most never will.

This is not to condemn men. I have a love-hate relationship with Woman’s Hour, as I think many women do. It is important that many of the issues raised on the programme are given time to be aired, and there’s a good chance many of them wouldn’t be if that time were not set aside for ‘women’s’ issues. And yet by labeling them as ‘women’s’ issues it is only natural than men should feel alienated from them. They are being told that this hour is not for them, even that it is composed of content that they will never really understand. It suggests that there is a special women’s subjectivity from which men can only ever be on the outside looking in.

And yet, I often feel alienated by the content and views expressed on Woman’s Hour. I don’t have a family and have no interest in having one, yet a very great deal of the content seems less ‘women’s’ issues than ‘parents’ issues, and it seems to me that by treating these issues as belonging to a special ‘women’s’ domain we reinforce the idea that raising a family is really a women’s business. And yet – and yet I’ve also come to realise that there is a value to my listening to experiences and troubles that are utterly alien to me. I’ll never understand motherhood from the inside – isn’t it important for me to take the time out, sometimes, and listen to what mothers have to say, to try to understand their points of view? Their issues? I think it is, and it is equally important that men do so, too, but these are views and issues that have been shoved into my domain in a way that they are not projected into most men’s. It’s a problem.

It’s a problem we also see reflected in the other big international politics event that has sent the news networks a flurry: the US presidential election. Some of you may have read my piece responding to the evidence that if only white men had voted, Romney would have won by a landslide. I echo a view that has been making a lot of noise since the election. It’s not simply that white men voted overwhelmingly for Romney, despite his terrifying gender and race politics, it’s that Romney supporters were genuinely shell-shocked that he didn’t win, as documented on It never occurred to them because most Romney voters were part of a privileged world in which they had secluded themselves from dissenting views in the belief that dissent could only ever come from minorities. They had consistently ignored the views of feminists, black voters, hispanic voters, gay voters, transgender voters etc. etc. They even ignored the polls that told them these people were going to turn out in such numbers that Obama would have a clear victory. Why? Because they assumed they knew better about other people’s subjectivity, so they didn’t even stop to listen when people like Nate Silver told them they were wrong. Leading to the simply wonderful moment when Megyn Kelly asked Carl Rove, when he persisted in denying the truth: ‘Is that math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is it real?’

With this in mind, I have also been reflecting on the rise of sites like Escher Girls and Mansplaining: Academic Men Explain Things To Me, or the twitter account @everydaysexism and its associated project. Each of these is part of the rise of women using social media to systematically record their experiences and display them to the world.

Escher Girls records the sexism endemic in the depiction of women in comics, countering the oft repeated arguments that ‘male superheroes wear skin-tight clothing too’ and ‘It’s really just Rob Liefeld, and he draws men stupidly too’. The creator of Escher Girls has said that she had heard the latter point so often that she deliberately didn’t use any Rob Liefeld images until she had posted several hundred images by other artists. The point of Escher Girls is not that all of the poses are impossible (although most of them are) as that women drawn so routinely in such ridiculously sexualised manners that people have stopped noticing just how far much of the industry has departed from reality. And in the this centrally collected place distinctly sexist trends emerge that show that the poses of women in comics (in the vast majority) differ wildly from the poses of men. Check out the ‘Offenses‘ section of the tags to see what I mean – in particular ‘ridiculous fighting stances‘.

Academic Men Explain Things To Me is a much newer Tumblr, posting accounts from female academics who find themselves patronised by male colleagues in a way that clearly differs from how these men would treat a male colleague. This is the phenomenon that has been dubbed ‘mansplaining’. The idea came to prominence in 2008 with Rebecca Solnit’s article ‘Men Explain Things To Me‘, although I didn’t know that when I first heard it. In fact, it was a male friend who first introduced me to the term – we were having a discussion in the perilous depths of FanFicRants, and he was worried that he might be coming across as ‘mansplaining’ (he wasn’t, but I still appreciate that he asked). For those unfamiliar, FanFicRants is an odd place. A LiveJournal community so prone to volatility by the inflammatory nature of its subject matter that its denizens have become some of the most self-aware people I have known on the Internet. Not all, I hasten to add, not by a long stretch! But the fact that if you’re going to rant you should be able to take the flack has meant that it is populated by a bunch of outspoken people who will tell you when you’re wrong. I learnt a lot from them. The JournalFen community, FandomWank, has developed a similar culture.

@everydaysexism works similarly, but more broadly, retweeting the experiences of casual (and not so casual) sexism that women have to go through. The effect is a more thoroughly compelling impression of the cumulative grind of casual oppression that women endure much more powerfully than one woman could convey to a male companion by saying ‘But you don’t understand – it may seem like nothing to you, but I have to live with this every day!’

And yet I worry about these projects. I have the sense (I don’t know how one could possibly know for sure) that most of the followers of Escher Girls and Mansplaining are women. It’s not without value. There’s an intense relief in seeing woman after woman describe an experience so familiar to you and yet so rarely acknowledged until recently. ‘Here – here!’ I say to myself. ‘Here is proof – it’s NOT just me and it’s NOT just sometimes, this shit is everywhere‘. ‘Gaslighting‘ is a familiar experience for most women – we are taught to doubt our own judgements and our own experiences – our own subjectivity – because we are surrounded by men, often in positions of authority, telling us that our experiences are invalid – that we must be wrong, that they can judge what’s going on in our own minds better than we can. It’s really, really important to have resources like this to begin to unpick this ingrained psychological damage. I think one of the most valuable things the Internet has done has been to enable underprivileged people who would usually be silenced by the privileged to get together, grow in confidence via shared experience, and present that experience to a wider world. But it’s only half the story. Men need to listen to these accounts too.

Again, I am aware that some already do so – I am happy to know a great many decent men who keep themselves informed and go out of their way to challenge themselves. Alas, they are still not the majority. What we need to ensure is that these blogs – these collections of experiences – do not become like Woman’s Hour. That they do not alienate men by self-designating as female-only zones. I’m not entirely sure how we do that. I think some of the solution may evolve on its own. I really like the way the ‘redraws’ aspect of Escher Girls has developed to be a dominant theme. The blog no longer simply criticises sexist work; readers send in their attempts to redraw the artwork in a way that preserves the content of the action – even the sexiness of the woman – without the back-breaking sexist overtones. It’s no longer about simply saying ‘Look, this is wrong!’, it’s also about saying ‘Come on, let’s see what we can do together to make this right’.

But at the end of the day I think it still takes a little effort – we always have to go a little out of our way to expand our perspectives. You have to want to understand the subjectivity of the other. Wild Swans gave me a kick up the arse, and I’ve had a few more along the way. All I can say is that I don’t regret them. The only thing I regret is that I have not done more to understand other people. We have to keep on trying. I hope that the short, sharp, shock of the American election to the Republican party will give them the cause for reflection that I’ve seen people talking about on the news and the blogosphere. But I’m not holding my breath. Change doesn’t happen without action, and if you rely on other people to change around you things will either stay much the same as they have before, or you’ll be left behind.

* Professor Delia Davin suggested that her songs are too patriotic to be truly termed folk music.

[Edit: People asked me on Twitter to write a follow-up post linking this to the privilege issues in Geek Culture at the moment. I had originally intended to include something making the connections more explicit in this post, but I was pretty tired by the time I was finished, and the post was already pretty long. I did, however, make a comment following Escher Girls’s reply to Tony Harris’s intensely sexist rant about ‘Fake Geek Girls’ over at my Tumblr that makes these points explicit, so if you’re interested in my thoughts on the matter you can check them out there.]

Read Along with Rhube #28: Chapters 55 and 56

(Index of previous ADwD posts here.)

I know, I know, it’s been an age, but I haven’t forgotten you, you mad cap fools who for some reason are interested in what I have to say about every single chapter of A Dance with Dragons. Alas, I’ve had a number of bouts of illness and when I’ve had the critical energy for analysing heavy tomes I’ve been devoting myself to my PhD rather than this. But today I’ve decided I’m well enough to do something, but not well enough to read Crispin Wright on hinge propositions (or whatever the hell this paper I’m looking at is heading towards) so you get my thoughts on the inhabitent’s of George R R Martin’s mind, instead.

Chapter 55: The Queensguard

In this chapter we follow Barristen Selmy as he deals with Daenerys’s court in the absence of Daenerys. Last time we saw her she was flying off on a dragon – a great personal move, no doubt, but she has kind of left things in disarray. Hizdahr, naturally, assumes control, and he wants his people around him in court. He chooses pit fighters, whom Selmy can see are not really appropriate for the role. Factions are splintering in Daenerys’s absence. The Unsullied are loyal only to Daenerys and refuse to fight under a man of Hizdahr’s choosing. Selmy can see the issues, but his own inability to adapt to local customs makes it impossible that he should be able to provide a similar role to Hizdahr as he did for Daenerys. Hizdahr insists on being treated like a Meereenese King, Selmy insists on treating him as a king of Westeros, and without Daenerys’s deft hand and cultural flexibility the court is falling apart.

Added to this, no one is quite sure what has become of Daenerys. Some think her killed by the dragon, others that she was taken away against her will. Selmy saw her riding Drogon and knows she is not dead, but that does not tell him where she has gone, why she has not returned.

And then there is the question of who tried to poison Daenerys with the tainted locusts…

Shakaz of the Brazen Beasts seeks to involve Selmy in schemes, attributing trechery to Hizdahr, but it is anathema to all Selmy believes in. He only wants to do his duty, he has no interest in the game of thrones. Yet it is also his duty to protect Daenerys. She never commanded him to protect Hizdahr, and with the possibility that Hizdahr himself might be behind a plot to kill Daenerys, Selmy finds himself embroilled in intrigue nonetheless. Shakas reports that Volantis is moving against them and he believes that Hizdahr will open the gates to them. Steps must be taken to protect Daenerys’s reign if Hizdahr is a traitor. Reluctantly, Selmy agrees to talk to Grey Worm, to gain the aid of the Unsullied, on condition that he be allowed to question the poisoner, who has been caught.

This is an interesting chapter, showing us just how fragile Daenerys’s peace was, and how much it depended on her for its continuance. But it also underlines her mistakes – that she was too flexible, too benevolent, too eager for peace. Meereen bent to her because she commanded dragons and great armies. But she kept her dragons chained, and when Astapor fell she did not move to save it or calm it for fear of losing the peace she had established in Meereen. It is as though Dany regarded Astapor as a mistake, and cast it aside, determined not to make the same mistakes with Meereen, and therefore stood fast at her new base rather than returning to sort out the old one. The trouble is that the fates of the two cities were not disconnected. Trouble in Astapor and her failure to act upon it made her seem weak, and when Astapor fell to plague, her people followed her to Meereen and brought the plague with them. Similarly, she chained her dragons because it seemed that they might have killed children. She chained them to prevent further deaths, but this robbed her of their power and made it seem that she did not have the strength to wield such power and also control it.

What should we make of this? I’m still not at ease with this mother role Daenerys has been cast in – a role that is again re-emphasised in this chapter. We are told that the Unsullied will only follow their ‘mother’, and that the freedmen call her ‘Mhysa’ which means mother. I mean, yeah, yeah, ‘mother of dragons’ and all that, but the trope of motherhood is one of caring and enabling, not of commanding and dominating – she is not the rider of dragons or the ruler of dragons, she is the one who has nurtured dragons. The thing about mothers is, however loyal their children, they all go off and live their own lives eventually. Which is not to say that mothers cannot be more than this – they absolutely can – but it troubles me that a young girl like Daenerys is being cast in this role which seems to connote something at odds to her role as conqueror.

She also seems to be vulnerable to the stereotypical ‘weaknesses’ of mothers. It is hearing that a child has been killed by her dragons that leads her to restrain them rather than train and utilize their power. She has a soft spot for children. Which is entirely understandable. She lost her own child – I’m not saying this mothering role is out of character – it’s just that having her weaknesses be so stereotypically feminine is… uncomfortable, for me.

That said, it is also clear that the instability in Meereen is the result of a myriad of factors, many of which have had unforeseeable consequences. The book is called ‘A Dance with Dragons‘ and that should be the clue that all of the action is really circling around Daenerys and her ‘children’. She’s a power centre and almost everyone is drawn to her – Tyrion, Quentyn, Selmy, ‘Young Griff’, the Astapori, the Volantenes, the Yunkai’i… she stinks of power and agency. When she was on the move she went to the people and places she wished to encounter and act upon. By sitting still, the possibilities she represents swirl about her, and the more people catch up to her the more possibilities are added to the mix – events start rolling in ways impossible to predict. Her absence shows the instability of her reign, but it also shows the strength of her influence in that she managed to keep it in check.

Chapter 56: The Iron Suitor (Victarion)

I keep reading this guy’s name as ‘Victorian’, it’s a problem. But I confess that it is my problem. What’s more problematic is just where this character has come from. The name rings a bell and tickles distant memories of some kind of plot, but it’s the first time we’ve seen him in this book and it’s a big book that we’re three-quarters of the way through. Adjusting my mind to what he’s doing and why I should care requires a little bit of effort, but hey, I do so.

Victarion has been leading a massive fleet from the Iron Islands to (guess what?) try to get to Daenerys before everyone else, and especially the Volantenes. He’s been caught in the same storm as Tyrion’s boat and lost a hefty chuck of his ships. He’s also got a hand that’s festering from some cut he got in some battle I don’t know if I’m supposed to remember. There’s a Maester on board who’s tending to the hand, but Victarion doesn’t like him, and he really doesn’t like that the man keeps saying he wants to cut the hand off (which pretty much sounds like the sensible thing to do). He’s also got a ‘dusky woman’ with him. Because of reasons. Probably ‘sexy’ ‘exotic’ reasons.

Anyway, the priest, Moqorro, who was washed off of Tyrion’s ship, seems to have wound up on Victarion’s. He offers to help Victarion with his hand to prove his worth and save his life. Victarion has some qualms about this, ’cause, you know, he’s a good Iron Born, and he serves the Drowned God. But the Drowned God doesn’t seem to be being too helpful and/or pleased, if he sent a storm like that, and Victarion figures that if the red priest was washed up near him he might have been washed up by the Drowned God to help him.

Victarion accepts Moqorro’s offer and Moqorro heals his hand. Victarion is pleased and spares his life, taking the Maester’s instead as a sacrifice to the Drowned God.

So, there are a few interesting things about this chapter. It certainly is a striking coincidence that Moqorro should be washed up right by Victarion and be able to heal his hand. (I honestly can’t remember if we were aware of this wound before, or if it’s basically been parachuted in to allow Moqorro to have an in with Victarion.) What’s clear, as has been indicated elsewhere before, is that the gods in this world definitely have physical domains, their strength and ability to act in the world determined by the strength of their worshipers as well as other factors. The Old Gods seems to be tied to the frigid north. The Red God seems to be based in the warm south, although he clearly has eyes on the north. Thus, here, the Drowned God seems to have little to no power (you’d have thought the whole ocean is his domain, but I guess it’s still a long way from most of his worshippers), and R’hllor seems strong. We also get a few more tidbits of history about the destruction of Valyria, but we don’t really learn very much more.

I’m not awesomely happy with the whole ‘dusky woman’ thing, though. She has no voice and no name and she is quite literally a sex slave. That’s a… that’s a hell of a character for a woman of colour to have in your novel. I mean, I get it, the Iron Islanders are down with slavery and salt-wife taking and all that jazz. It’s a culture thing. GRRM depicts a lot of cultural stuff that he doesn’t seem to endorse. But this woman is so anonymous. She is given no character at all. In as much as we have any indication of her feelings, she doesn’t seem to mind being Victarion’s sex slave – he’s not the guy who cut her tongue out, so he’s kind of OK, right? Right?

There’s nothing wrong with having people of colour being slaves in fiction per se, it’s how it’s treated, and sensitively should be the key word. Similarly for women in sexually subservient positions. There are many ways to handle this that are fine. But just thrown in in a way that seems to add nothing to the plot, with no voice and no name, described in exoticised terms like ‘dusky’, with no real examination of how the woman herself feels about her condition… this is pretty clearly playing to the male gaze, and the white male gaze at that. Not classy, not classy at all.

Use the negative aspects of history to colour your fantasy novel by all means, but don’t just throw them in unreflectively because you think they’re ‘cool’. That’s a pretty easy way to be pretty damned offensive.

Womble out.