She Can Fly: This Joke isn’t Funny

The Killing Joke has never not been surrounded by controversy. The almost 30 year old graphic novel by infamous author Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland attempted to portray the Joker as a sympathetic character, a man who had one bad day, but, in foil to Batman, it took him over the edge to insanity. Of course, the Joker’s backstory isn’t what made The Killing Joke the buzzword that it has been since its publication in 1988; the crippling, sexualization, and (possibly) implied rape of Batgirl.

But, in the nature of the comics industry, the stand-alone comic was considered a huge success, winning an Eisner, often being referred to as “the greatest Batman story ever told,” and being one of the few comics (of a certain age) that has never gone out of print.

In the original, the physical and sexual violence towards Babs was meant as a motivation for her father, James Gordon; it was the Joker’s tool to break him as a man, and the supposed illustration of Gordon’s moral superiority over both Batman and the Joker. However, in retrospect, Moore denounced the story as “[not] very interesting,” and later directly blamed DC editorial for poor decisions, including what happened to Batgirl, in a 2006 interview with Wizard magazine:

I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon – who was Batgirl at the time – and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project … [He] said, ‘Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.’ It was probably one of the areas where they should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t.

So when DC announced in 2015 that they would be producing (what ultimately turned out to be an R-rated) animated feature of The Killing Joke, reaction was mixed. Fans of the original, and of Bruce Timm-produced DC features, were ecstatic, while others were skeptical, considering the subject matter.

Immediately prior to the release of the film, right around the time of San Diego Comic-Con 2016, leaks began to slip out.

First there was a bordering on explicit sex scene between Batgirl and Batman.

This decision was apparently made because the filmmakers felt they needed to have the audience become move invested and Batgirl, and create a “deeper emotional tie” between her and Batman. Instead of a mentoring or student-teacher relationship, instead of a coworker relationship, or a friendship, or even a familial relationship, Batgirl becomes, at best, a sexual object to ultimately motivate the male characters. “It’s her decision to engage in this relationship,” the creators state. However, Batgirl was canonically, and is likely, between 16 and 19 in The Killing Joke, so the sexual nature of her relationship with Batman becomes one of Batman abusing his age, status, and power over her, even unintentionally (also, Batgirl is a fictional character with no actual agency beyond what the writers write her doing). Brian Azzarello even later stated, “The thing about this is that it’s controversial, so we added more controversy.”

At Comic-Con, it was revealed that, after the sex scene, Batman spurns Batgirl, and the film leaves her to pine alone before being shot, kidnapped, and…well, you probably know the story.

Fans at Comic-Con reacted negatively in The Killing Joke film panel, including Bleeding Cool’s Jeremy Konrad shouting his response to the panel saying that Babs was written as a strong female character in the movie (“Yeah, by using sex and then pining for Bruce.”). Brian Azzarello responded in a way that really emphasizes his feelings on the presentation of female characters and fan reaction: “Wanna say that again? Pussy?”

Finally, it was recently revealed that the implicit nature of the Joker’s possible rape of Barbara Gordon is made much less implied, with a scene where a prostitute says the Joker has sex with prostitutes every time he breaks out of Arkham Asylum, but that he did not come visit her after his most recent breakout, saying “maybe he found himself another girl.”

Bruce Timm attempted to refute the assertion that Batgirl is raped by the Joker in an interview with Vulture, saying:

I don’t think that [he raped her], actually. I did not think of it as supporting that. If I had, I probably would have changed the line. I never, ever thought that he actually raped her. Even in my first read of the comic, I never thought that. It just seemed like he shot her and then took her clothes off and took pictures of her to freak out her dad. I never thought that it was anything more than that.

Here’s the thing: Whether he [raped her] or not, it’s still sexual violence. It’s still a horrible thing. So in my own head, I was already self-censoring the moment. Maybe just to make it a little more easier to get through. But it’s still a very horrible, horrible thing.

Honestly, all these snippets of information about The Killing Joke, which was just released digitally, makes me feel like we’re just living through this scene from BoJack Horseman:

Screenwriter Brian Azzarello and co-producers Alan Burnett and Bruce Timm are, at their core, three white guys writing a story about the destruction of a woman; a.k.a. something they have no singular, personal experience with.

That’s what The Killing Joke is at its core: the destruction of a young woman, barely in her prime, and the defacing of her body, her spirit, and her self-identity. It also uses this destruction purely to motivate male characters. Barbara is given no happy ending, no moral resolution.

The Killing Joke did not create Oracle, Oracle came over a year later, and only at the hands of editor and writer Kim Yale and her husband, fellow writer, John Ostrander. Kim Yale was notably disgusted by the treatment of the character Barbara Gordon, and ultimately made it her mission to prevent the character from listing in obscurity by turning her into an even more powerful hero, despite, and also because of, her disability.

I don’t own The Killing Joke–book, film, or memorabilia–and I never will. I won’t see The Killing Joke, and I never was going to, but with the treatment of Batgirl as a secondary character, taking the backseat to the men, in what could have been the story of her power, personal strength, and moral superiority over the Joker, I am verbally denouncing the film. And I’m not alone.

Don’t give The Killing Joke your time. It’s not worth it.

She Can Fly: Don’t Need a Cape to be a Hero

Lois Lane is a hero.

Lois Lane is a hero, all on her own, without the strength of Superman, or the speed of Flash.

Lois Lane is one of the strongest female characters in the DC Universe.

Lois Lane is one of the strongest characters in the DC Universe.

Being a hero isn’t about wearing capes or having super powers. Being a hero is about making hard decisions. Being a hero is about doing the right thing.

Lois Lane, the most enduring female character of superhero comics, should be a character that doesn’t need powers to be powerful. However, editorially speaking, Lois is usually relegated to the sidelines, depending on Superman either as his girlfriend, his wife, or that annoying girl he sometimes pines for. And when she’s not jettisoned to a supporting role, she is often forced into dream and fantasy scenarios where she imagines she will only ever be worthy of Superman’s love if she, too, has super powers and becomes some subsidiary of the Super-brand (“Supergirl,” “Superwoman,” and once, even, “Power Girl”).

But that perspective, that many writers rely on when they have no better ideas for Lois, is wrong. Ultimately, Lois is a character that should be written as smart, aggressive, and tenacious.

Even when the character arcs of Lois make missteps–relegating her to a “dumb broad” trope, focusing her entire character around wanting to marry Superman, trying to pit her against other Superman love interests–the essence of the character (from the beginning) remains the same: a woman who pursued an “atypical” and uncommon career for females in the 1930s (crime reporting); a woman who sought to beat her bumbling coworker to the punch; a woman who put herself in danger to get the story; a woman who wanted to do the right thing.

So, the DC Rebirth pitch of having the dying (New52) Superman give his powers to Lois Lane (so that she may become Superwoman), falls flat. While the creative team on board is a fantastic one, Phil Jimenez and Emanuela Lupacchino, the solicitation for the Superwoman series already seems to boast a plot-line akin to the current Mighty Thor, while pushing Lois to fight female villains (instead of Superman’s classic rogues gallery):

Imbued with the powers of Superman, Lois Lane pledges to use her powers to protect Metropolis as the new Superwoman. The only problem is, Lois’ new powers are killing her, and neither she nor her friend and confidant Lana Lang know what to do about it. Will Lois even survive long enough to find out the deadly secret of ULTRA-WOMAN?

Yes, there are all sorts of Elseworlds and imagined stories where Lois has powers, but DC always seems to revert her to human in the end. Why?

Lois classically represents humanity in Superman stories. The relationship between Clark and Lois is designed to have her as the rock that stabilizes Superman, the thing that epitomizes to him everything that makes humans wonderful. She is a grounding device for an alien that can fly and shoot lasers from his eyes. But Lois Lane is so much more than that. Ultimately, Lois doesn’t need an emblem to show her power.

DC’s Superman: Lois Lane one shot from 2014 (by Marguerite Bennett and artist Emanuela Lupacchino) not only justifies the character staying unpowered, but also exemplified how she can be a hero without putting on spandex. More recently, the young adult Lois Lane novels (Fallout and Double Down) continue the trend of giving Lois the agency to save the day, simply by being curious, intelligent, and pursuing the truth.

Lois Lane fights for the common man, whether by exposing stories, reporting truths, or by simply being a human with her feet on the ground.

Lois Lane doesn’t need a cape to be super.

She already is.

In memoriam Noel Neill.


She Can Fly: Oh What a World

Truly, we live in a geek renaissance.

Not only is it cool to read comics, play video games, and follow television series with bated breath, but all those things are absolutely in vogue. No longer do kids get shunned for being into roleplaying games. No longer are adults side-eyed for reading thick fantasy and sci fi novels. The most successful movies are superhero flicks; the best received television shows are based on books like Game of Thrones, and new game releases–be it video, board, or book–dominate conversation. Being nerdy, geeky, dorky is all the rage.

And on top of all those amazing things, we also have an influx of reboots, re-releases, remakes, and sequels that some thought would never actually come to fruition: Mad Max: Fury Road, another season of X-Files, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Twin Peaks (maybe), Baldur’s Gate: Seige of Dragonspear, Ash vs. Evil Dead, another Ghostbusters film…

The best thing of all, is all these sequels and reboots and recreations are, on the whole, surprisingly good. Really, really good.

So why are nerds so critical of them?

The truth is, it’s not simply nerds who are being so critical of these, it’s primarily male nerds (but not all men).

It was men who stated they would boycott Mad Max: Fury Road because a female character was featured just as prominently as the titular hero.

It was men who most actively reviled Star Wars: The Force Awakens for two of its three lead characters not being white men.

It was men who complained that the inclusion of a subtly transgender character in the newest Baldur’s Gate game was “political correctness,” “LGBT tokenism,” and “SJW pandering,” and subsequently attempted to flood the game with negative reviews and dox a one of the game’s writers.

It was men who have been most verbal about panning the Ghostbusters trailer, with their Youtube “dislikes” leading to the video being the “most disliked trailer of all time.”

(It’s also a man who says he won’t review–or see–Ghostbusters because…it won’t star the original cast? Because it “isn’t appropriate”? Because it has a majority female cast? Because it’s simply called “Ghostbusters”?)

These can’t all be a coincidence.

There’s an inherent thread of sexism tying all these “critiques” together.

This attitude of gatekeeping aimed at female and LGBTQ+ fans is nothing new, but since the rise of Gamergate, and the subsequent “Sad/Sick Puppies,” on social media, people who engage in that sort of discourse, regardless of gender, have become more courageous about speaking out.

The truth of the matter is many of these commentators are simply seeking to gain acknowledgement through ruffling feathers. These same people are often the ones to resort the death and rape threats when someone makes a less-than-positive comment about media they like, or even chooses simply to interpret a story element differently than they would. In some cases, these people will even go so far as to create multiple social media accounts on a single platform with the express intent to harass people who disagree with them.

There’s an inherent sense of privilege, whether it’s denied or acknowledge, that all men (but especially white men) have that makes them feel they are–or should be–the target audience for media. All media. In a lot of cases, companies encourage this attitude, like DC Comics’ skewed readership survey, used to affirm their choice of target audience (men 18-37), while other companies don’t actively dissuade it (think Marvel and Disney’s non-response to its lack of female toys back when Avengers: Age of Ultron came out).

New things, even when they are based on “nerd canon” standards, will always face negative commentary, but with the pervasiveness and anonymity of social media, negative comments can quickly turn down darker paths. Though it may be a minority voicing their dislike, it is often a verbal minority, and negative comments are more “news worthy” than positive ones.

When asked about the reception of the Ghostbusters trailer, director Paul Feig said, “Geek culture is home to some of the biggest assholes I’ve ever met in my life.”

He later clarified his comments to CBR, ending the interview with a celebration of what it truly means to be a geek: “the bullies are not the norm and I would dare say they are not even true geeks. They are the micro-minority. God bless the true geeks of the world, and here’s to taking our community back from the bullies.”

It’s a beautiful thing that men are no longer the only audience when it comes to geek media. Now if only everyone could embrace that.

She Can Fly: What’s Truly Outrageous

I watched the Jem and the Holograms movie.

And I liked it.

The movie wasn’t mind blowing, but it was a sincere coming-of-age story that took cues from what it means to grow up in a world where you can post videos of yourself for all the world to see in a matter of moments. The cast had better diversity than a lot of popular films, focused on the interplay of almost exclusively female characters, and played off the source material without being tied to it.

In all, it worked well as an homage to the Jem cartoon series, but took plenty of liberties to translate the material to make sense in a modern setting.

So this got me thinking: why was it so reviled?

What about this simple, sweet film made people call it “a dud,” “terrible,” and a “box office failure”?

Well, when you look at the numbers, Jem and the Holograms, a wide-release movie, only made 2.3 million dollars, which absolutely does make the movie a dud, and a failure at the box office. However, the movie only had a budget of $5 million. Compare that to, say, Bill Murray’s Rock the Kasbah, a similarly music-themed movie that released in theaters around the same time, and you’ll see that Murray’s movie made only 3.2 million dollars, with a budget three times bigger to that of Jem’s.

You know which movie wasn’t called a “total box office failure”?

It seems to me, part of the negative reception of the Jem film, part of the reason people were so quick to dismiss and bash it, is because of a double standard in the film industry. Jem and the Holograms is female led, aimed specifically at young women, and directed by someone closely associated with dance movies, a genre that is stereotypically popular with women.

Film is already an industry well-known for it’s gender inequality, and studios and audiences alike are quick to disregard films starring female characters. Usually, women in film have to embody an ideal of perfection that often doesn’t make them much better than a sexy lamp.

Only in the past two years have we begun to see Hollywood explore a side of women beyond the perfect (but clumsy) romcom trope and the sexy “strong female character, with some female-driven (often female written films) starring semi-realistic, more fleshed out characters who are women; characters who are free to fart and burp, be strong, be weak, have sex, abstain from sex, be tight laced, be “loose,” without harsh judgement implied in the script.

But fans and critics alike judge this move harshly. Some critics even had the gall to argue that Jem and the Holograms is “implausible” and an “unrealistic representation of the music industry.” (I suspect these are the same critics who might say that Wall-E is an unrealistic portrayal of the future of humanity, and that positing robots might develop autonomy is implausible.)

The other reason for it’s lambast-ion is because Jem and the Holograms is not Jem the cartoon.

Fans of the seminal 80s girls cartoon were upset because the film lack glamour, glitter, fashion, and only had a small dosage of fame. And yes, it’s not the 80s show; but, frankly, how could it be? But the expectation for the movie to be exactly like the show, however out of place that would have been, remained. Ultimately, fans wanted the film to fail because it wasn’t the technicolored jaunt they remembered from their childhoods. Fans wanted to denounce the movie because it didn’t follow the canon.

Fans are the worst.

Fans are so attached to the specific image of a character of property that they have in their mind, that they remember from their childhood; this image is so colored in nostalgia, therein lies the true fault. Fans want something from the movie that probably never really existed; fans want perfection, but only the perfection they remember.

Everybody has a favorite version of something. Heck, I’ll admit I can be guilty of being too wedded to canon, too! But when canon starts to effect your enjoyment of other mediums, you allow your judgment to skew in a very specific way.

The beauty of adaptations, homages, and remakes is that they embrace what’s different about the era in which the content is being made: whether it’s improved graphics and CGI, restyled and revamped characters, re-imagined genders and roles, or setting the story in modern times with characters using modern technology.

Jem and the Holograms is a happily sterile movie, one without cursing or innuendo, and in the landscape of modern film, that’s a rarity. Jem and the Holograms is not shy about the influence of Youtube, and uses real Youtube videos to orchestrate points (whether it be building tensions with an interspersed video of a drumming prodigy or simply involving fans by using the videos they posted online where they talk about Jem), and sometimes this comes of as passe and hokey. But at the heart of it, Jem is a sincere movie. Though cautiously gentle, and clumsy at times, the film has a sweetness to it that has been overshadowed by mainstream media and, even more so, fans.

So, if you’re a fan of the Jem cartoon, maybe just pretend it’s someone else named Jem who is just a little less truly outrageous than the original?

Mhani Alaoui Interview: Dreams of Blue Boots, Orange Blossoms, and Feminist Heroines

Maryam TairNot such a long time ago, in not such a faraway place, and yet a world so completely different, a girl was born. This girl is the heroine of Dreams of Maryam Tair: Blue Boots and Orange Blossoms, a new novel by Mhani Alaoui (published by Interlink Books).

Dreamy and otherworldy, the novel takes its reader on a journey through Casablanca, Morocco, Earth, and to a world that lies in between reality and stories. Dreams of Maryam Tair boasts a number of storytelling twists, changing perspectives, interlaced stories, and also offers up something different from your traditional fantasy novels: a queer, disabled, non-white, female hero.

The titular Maryam is a powerful character in a way that contradicts fantasy hero archetypes; she is not strong of body, but strong of heart, and her words (and the words of the book) seem to hold much more power than anything else in the universe. The novel plays on classic mythos of tales from the Quran, the Bible, One Thousand and One Nights, and other stories, creating a narrative that is as much about storytelling as it is about telling the story of its characters. In a way, Dreams of Maryam Tair represents a new generation of fantasy novels that, in “deviating” from the norm, are creating a “new normal” one page at a time.

I was lucky enough to have a chance to talk with Mhani Alaoui about Dreams of Maryam Tair: Blue Boots and Orange Blossoms, storytelling, and creating feminist interpretations of ancient texts.

-Spoilers follow-

Acts of Geek: I’d like to start off by touching on the framing device you use with Sheherazade. The majority of her scenes seem to exist in a place outside time, and these chapters emphasizes how stories function in the rest of the book. Why did you choose to use this story-within-a-story style frame? What inspired your application of Sheherazade as both a major character and architect of the story?

Mhani Alaoui: Sheherazade, in Arabo-Muslim tradition (and this should be seen as encompassing North Africa all the way to the Far East), herself probably Persian or Indian, represents the Story Teller. She tells stories to stop a mad king from beheading her. I like that metaphor. Stories are a tool against uncontrolled, irrational power. And the storyteller, a woman, becomes herself the symbol of the resistance of words, imagination, creativity against brute, unthinking force and suffering. It’s nice, especially in a time like ours where violence threatens people everywhere.

One of the most beautiful stories I have ever read is the Mahabharata, one of the two main Indian religious texts. The Mahabharata uses the story within a story structure and I liked the immediacy, the ‘humility’ of this structure. It was also an enjoyable way for me to mingle the real and the magical, the past, present and future and allows the heroine ‘Maryam’ to acquire a knowledge no-one otherwise would have given her. Finally, it was a way, for me, to give a ‘cosmic’ dimension to the story of a ‘poor, little Arab girl’ whom everything in life predisposed to an inconsequential life but who acquires, through the story of a story, agency, power and meaning.

AoG: Another prominent story within the book is the biblical story of Adam, Lilith, and Eve, which plays out both in a more literal sense (with the given names of Adam and Shawg) and also in an interpretive sense (like Leila’s attempted divorce from Adam and the betrayal between the twins Shams and Hilal–who are parallel to Cain and Abel). However, you subvert the biblical story by presenting Lilith, in a sense, as the more heroic figure. What was your intention with having Maryam as the daughter of a traditionally “evil” (or at least witchy) character? Was this choice an intentional feminist interpretation/cooption of the Bible story?

MA: It was intentional. In fact, when the idea of this story first came to me, this was the initial part. It seemed to me that, whether we are atheist, agnostic or believers, those of us raised in Judeo-Christian cultures (and that, of course, would include Islam: people to forget the proximity between these cultures and religions), all know the story of Adam and Eve. And Eve, the woman, is, despite all progressive rereadings, the ‘temptress’ and inferior to a ‘purer’, corruptible man. In the US and in Europe, very broadly, the feminist revolution, the gay revolution and gender awareness all have contributed to advance women and minority rights. However, in my part of the world (the Arab/Muslim World), these revolutions have not yet happened, even though their premises are there. In fact, quite the opposite. For religious narratives continue to dominate and render inferior all other narratives and stories. As such, it is very hard for the ‘couple’ and the ‘individual’ to emerge as the core of society.

Lilith, in Jewish mythology, is both a she-demon and the first wife of Adam. She was his equal until she refused to submit. Her rebellion, in these myths, is what makes her a demon. It made sense to me, then, to trace the ‘new, first family’ from an equal, even though broken, couple. I wanted Maryam to have a mother she could be proud of, even if she was absent from her life.

AoG: Your book is an absolute sensory delight. There were moments when I was reading out where I craved the food described or felt the sensations written in the pages, like bread with olive oil and honey or riding a rickety bike. The sensation with the greatest emphases seemed to be smell. Why does smell seem to play such a major roll (like the scent off Maryam as opposed to Shams and Hilal)? And what made you choose orange blossom as the emphasized, titular scent?

MA: I had a dear friend, who passed away recently, who once asked me what was the most important sense for me. I answered ‘vision’. He said it was ‘scent’, it had to be ‘scent’. Without it, we could not be sensual or sensuous. There would be no pleasure or taste. We would not know nostalgia and would forget our past. And when I thought about it, I agreed. Very often, scent triggers sensations or memories we think we had forgotten. Scents allow us to day dream, in all senses of the word. A story, like this one, that is a kind of dream, would have been incomplete without the predominance of scent. Scent becomes the condition of being of the dream and of the story-as-dream.

I chose the orange blossom scent because it is usually associated with marriage, purity and innocence. Perfumes and scents are also associated with saints. Saint Theresa of Avila was said to have a
natural perfume that signified her presence to others, in special circumstances.

In a way, for me, Maryam both transgresses all these symbols and epitomizes them. Her quest is a ‘saintly’ one but her physical presence is disturbing, unchaste, may be considered by some as not
beautiful and not innocent. She is a superheroine. For me, a superheroine is the modern expression of the ‘saint’. He or she who fights for causes, despite all odds, and is there to protect the weak.
The powers of saints and superheroes ( and of Maryam) are in hiding, camouflaged. They only appear at times of great stress or need.

Maryam is a modern saint/superheroine.

The scent of Shams and Hilal (who are Cain and Abel) is the scent of the earth, of wet clay. They are of the earth, but an earth of violence and roughness. They are, also, the sculpted clay before it is
fully moulded. As such, they are imperfect. I chose their scent to contrast with the lighter, more delicate scent of their sister, Maryam.

AoG: That’s really beautiful, thank you.

I wanted to touch on the magical realism in Dreams of Maryam Tair. So much of the story is grounded in real-world happenings, like the 1981 Bread Riots in Casablanca, but supernatural demons play a major role in how the societal unrest is handled and punished. What made you choose Casablanca as the major setting, and why do demons play a co-antagonistic role alongside figures of male power?

MA: Casablanca is my city. I grew up here and spent the first 18 years of my life here. After twelve years abroad, I came back and rediscovered the city, its many paradoxes, beauties and terrors, anew.

In Morocco, whether in the countryside or in the major cities like Casablanca, there is an entrenched belief in witchcraft. People of all classes and education levels believe in witchcraft and sorcery. At various degrees, of course: from light superstitions (do not throw salt down the drain, you may scorch and anger a djinni living there, to the profound belief that adultery is the cause of a witch and financial problems the work of a jealous enemy). Anthropologists study witchcraft as though it were ‘real’. By real, I mean that because people and a society believe in it, they build a reality around it, and in that sense, witchcraft becomes real, a fact of society. This belief in witchcraft encompasses such diverse practices as talismans, the power of djinnis, witches, she-demons, omens and love potions. In a way, then, they become ‘real’ in so far as they are a part of people’s imaginaries, choices and actions.

AoG: How does the power of humans like Zohra, a sort of mystical midwife, figure into the magical landscape? What about the human/divine romance between the inhabitants of the Tair household and Hamza?

MA: In this novel, it seemed to me that magic realism worked well with what I was trying to portray. There is always a part of the ‘magical’ in the way people go through their days. But it’s also more than that, there is a political component to this choice. Demons are not just demons. They are the emanation of a repressive system. Whether the repression occurs through the police, the failing judicial system or society itself with its very traditional, bigoted, closed judgement of the world. The Tair household comes to represent a microcosm of Casablanca, of Morocco itself. It is a universe with its own cosmic laws and myths. In Morocco, we have a real problem with ‘child maids’, as they are called here. These are very young girls (they can be as young as 8 years old) who are sent to work as housemaids by their families, desperate for money and stuck in the poverty cycle. Zainab is one of these children whose childhood was taken away from her. By imagining a romance between her and the most powerful of beings, Hamza, I try to rectify the unfathomable injustice done to all the children robbed of their childhood. It may be silly, part of a fantasy, but it was my way of bringing in this aspect of our society without making Zeinab into simply a victim. Women like Zohra have always existed in Morocco collective imaginary. I think she may be one of the forgotten remnants of an African, matriarchal past. Morocco is as much an African country as it is a Muslim and Arab one, which people tend to forget.

AoG: And finally, there are moments when the book shifts tenses, most notably giving readers the first person perspective of Maryam or her mother Leila. It’s an effective tool to put the reader in the protagonist’s shoes, but you keep it from feeling jarring by having the transition feel like a natural journey into that moment. Why did you use first person on occasion, and was it meant to intentionally emphasize something about the passages where it is used?

MA: The shifting of tenses is linked to [the forgotten matriarchies of the past]. I believe that history is always among us, that we play and enact it daily, without even knowing it. We are both in the past and in the present.

Finally, I am not sure why the first person narrative popped up in the novel. It just seemed appropriate. Sometimes the characters want to have a life of their own, slip away from the control and authorship of the person writing the story… Maybe it’s like a play, where the story sometimes pauses to allow a character to put his/her own imprint on the stage.

She Can Fly: Resolutions

New Year is always a time for resolutions. As I get older, my resolutions are more and more becoming nebulous things I should do, as opposed to concrete things I should stop doing. In the spirit of ringing in the new, here are my five resolutions that I think any woman, nerd, geek, or dork can apply to their lives to have a better year:


Always Ask for More

There are more female centric comics being published now than ever before. There are two upcoming female-led superhero films. There are three female-led superhero shows. Heroines are the stars of television, tough girls are kicking ass in dystopic movies, and women are the focus of YA fiction.

That’s all good. It’s good, but it’s not great.

NYCC was all about asking for more—there were more female, queer, and racial-focused panels this year, and all those panels emphasized the fact that people should never stop asking for more representation.

There will never be enough representation. And that’s why you have to always keep asking.


Get Angry

Sometimes I feel like all I write are angry, nagging blog posts about how difficult it is to be a woman in nerd culture.

Here’s a secret: it is really difficult to be a woman in nerd culture.

Here’s another secret: I should be angry. And so should you.

It’s okay to be angry. It’s great to be angry. Look at how women are treated in nerd culture. Look at Gamergate. Look at Brian Wood and Tony Harris and Scott Lobdell. Look at cosplay harassment and the fact that PAX and San Diego Comic Con don’t have rules against harassment. Look at how women are treated in media. Look at how Wonder Woman is Superman’s “hot girlfriend,” and how young women are told they should be “in training” to be Batman’s wife. Look at how female fans are trivialized with fake nerd girl memes and the mockery of fanfiction.

So get angry, but do something with that anger. Write a blog, make a post, join Holla Back, join the board of a con and create an anti-harassment policy.

Don’t just stew, take action.


Stop Saying “Sorry”

I love that the women of geek culture are embracing the fact that there is nothing they need to apologize for.

Look at Gamergate: Zoe Quinn was told she should apologize for her relationships. Anita Sarkeesian was told she should apologize for her feminist critiques. Brianna Wu was told to apologize for saying people should stop harassing women.

Whether their stances are “right” or “wrong,” these women didn’t apologize. They fought back.

Amy Poehler’s Yes Please emphasized the fact that saying “sorry” is something that is societally engrained in modern women. Yes Please also emphasized that women should stop saying “sorry” all the time.

With comics like Bitch Planet and Boom’s Curb Stomp (among many others) embracing tough women who don’t do what they’re told and don’t comply with society’s rules, and creators like Kelly Sue Deconnick (telling fans to “fuck shit up. Speak up, stand up for what is important for you.”), Kelly Thompson (defending her critique of the Teen Titans cover, despite death and rape threats), and Danielle Henderson (whose essay on race, gender, sexism, racism, and the willful ignorance of those topics was featured in Bitch Planet #1) not apologizing for their opinions and standing up to bullies, it seems like the world is waking up to the fact that women don’t have any reason to apologize for every little thing they do.


Be the Boss

I wrote my thesis on Power Girl, so when some guy told me I was wrong about the year she was introduced in (1976), I simply laughed and shrugged and said “oh, maybe I’m wrong.”

Don’t stand for that sort of nerd policing.

When you know something is a fact, don’t act shy and don’t hide your knowledge. If you know the correct combo sequence for Chun Li’s Tensei Ranka, don’t let some dude tell you it’s down+down+kick. If you know all the Doctor’s companions in order, don’t let someone insist that Romana came before Leela.

Be smart, and be the boss. Tell people what’s what and fight for yourself.

You won’t regret it.


Keep Learning

At the same time, if you don’t know something, be honest about it. Who can keep track of all the Batgirls, and does Helena Bertinelli really count as one because she wore the Batgirl costume briefly in No Man’s Land?

Be willing to say “I have no idea.” But also follow that up with “but I want to know.”

That’s really what it means to be a nerd or a geek: to have an insatiable appetite for knowledge.

She Can Fly: What if I Don’t Want to Wear a Metal Bikini?

Like any child born after 1983 (and many born before that), I was raised on a steady diet of Star Wars movies, toys, and games from an early age. I remember watching the original trilogy with my older brother multiple times. Luke was my favorite, and I thought Han Solo was a real jerk to Leia (remember, I was a very small child, so some nuances were lost on me; I used to wonder why Leia and Luke didn’t get together in the end, because I had a very selective memory about them actually being siblings).

But there was something more than Han Solo’s curt attitude towards Leia that bothered me, even as a five year old:

Where were the girls?

When I was in third grade, my best friend had his birthday party at the Smithsonian, which had a special exhibition of the costumes of Star Wars. All my guy friends marveled at the cool costumes of Luke and Obi-Wan, Darth Vader’s helmet (and what was underneath), and Han Solo trapped in carbonite. But I, the sole female of the group, had three costumes for someone like me: Princess Leia’s white dress, the sexy leather ensemble of a twi’lek, and the infamous metal bikini.

Even when the three sequel episodes came out, there was a clear gap. No matter how badass Leia was, or how intelligent and capable Amidala was, there was a clear division; women were secondary to men in Star Wars. Sure, they could succeed, and even be unusually strong representations of heroines, but women were never the “heroes.” Women always had to be, at best, the attractive romantic counterpart to the male heroes, and, at worst, beautiful, but silent captives, sex symbols, or canon fodder (especially if they were older or unattractive).

New York Magazine put together a video compilation of all the female speaking rolls in the original trilogy, excluding Leia. The results show the disparaging difference between female characters in the movie and male (keep in mind, the collective runtime of the first three movies is well over 300 minutes).

It’s unequivocal to argue that taking Leia out of this compilation is proving some kind of fallactical point. Even including Leia, the male characters of Star Wars undoubtedly speak far more than all of the female characters. Simply look at the ratio of lead male characters to female: it’s 2:1.

What it comes down to is, it’s not fair for there to be one woman of note and so many men (Han, Luke, Obi-Wan, Darth Vader, Yoda, Lando, Jabba….even C3PO and R2-D2 are presented as male). It’s a matter of numbers, and a matter of equality. And this is coming from a white, brunette woman, a woman who looks pretty darn close to Princess Leia. Imagine how hard it is for women of color, who’s best representation in the original trilogy (and in all Star Wars movies thus far) are Jabba’s green and blue-skinned dancers.

Director J.J. Abrams has specifically spoken to the point that Star Wars was always a “boys movie.” Speaking as a woman who watched Star Wars, it was a boys movie. No matter how many female fans there are, or how deeply they love the series, the movies were never about the female characters, or for women in general. I hope Abrams’ statement that the Force Awakens is “a movie that mothers [can] take their daughters to” is true, because that would represent a tangible shift in the gendered marketing of sci fi films in general.

On this, the eve of the debut of Star Wars: the Force Awakens, I offer my hope that this newest installment of the giant film franchise, which promises to have more speaking females than the first three (possibly the first six) films put together, not only follows through on its promises, but also features more variety of characters, aliens and humans, that represent our current world: people of all colors, sexualities, and genders.

Seven for 007: The Next James Bond, Brought To You by The Notorious RBG and Baby Deadpool!

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has said she wants to see an all-female Supreme Court, because, no one questioned when it was all men.

This film image released by Sony Pictures shows Judi Dench as MI6 head M, in a scene from the film "Skyfall." Dench resurrected Her James Bond character M in a video released Thursday, Nov. 7, as part of the Weinstein Co.’s appeal to the Motion Picture Association of America to change the rating of Dench’s latest film,“Philomena.” The MPAA has given the film an R rating for language, but the Weinstein Co. wants it changed to PG-13. The film is set for release later this month. (AP Photo/Sony Pictures, Francois Duhamel)Remember that time when M was a man? Of course, M is male again, but I think it is safe to say that Dame Judi Dench was a revelation as the head of MI-6.

The BBC had a chance to do some interesting casting for the newest Doctor, and instead went with an older Caucasian gentleman. As much as I might not be a fan, it would have been awesome to see Idris Elba get the role (and would have made my birthday game for AoG Editor Mike all those years ago prophetic!).

Instead of looking at which actors would be fun casting for the next James Bond, and blowing people’s minds by suggesting non-white dudes, why not really think big and cast a woman?

When Daniel Craig was announced, there was hullaballoo because he was blond. And now, Idris Elba’s name comes up again. Sure, that could be fun.

rbg007thorWe survived and thrived with the blond Bond, who was quippy enough to imply he might have been bisexual, a topic interesting enough to be covered in the Huffington Post. I greatly enjoyed that scene. But, why can’t Bond be a woman? And not Jane Bond. James Bond. Ryan Reynolds has made it ok. Because Thor is whoever holds the hammer, and that other fellow is the Odinson.

Now, which females should be considered? Here are our 7:

Archie Panjabi-James Bond likes ice cream.

Catherine Zeta Jones-Connery would approve.

Charlize Theron-Furiosa. Nuff Said.

Kate Beckinsale-From one Underworld to another.

Miranda Raison-From MI-5 to 007

Rosmund Pike-Bond Girl becomes Bond.

Zoë Bell-She would do her own stunts.

Who do you think the next Bond should be?

She Can Fly: Best Foot Forward

It’s no secret that superhero products are marketed towards women. From “Training to be Batman’s Wife” shirts to the lack of Black Widow action figures in the wave of Age of Ultron merchandise, it often feels like comic companies are specifically marketing against women.

But they aren’t. Or, at least, some of them aren’t.

I ended up buying socks recently at Macy’s. There were two packs of women’s socks being offered; one from Marvel and one from DC. The Marvel pack had socks for Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Captain America. The socks from DC only had logos from the Trinity–Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman–but each sock offered a particular feminizing element: hearts, statements like “Girls Rule” and “Fearless,” and other things that indicated the socks featured the logos not of the male heroes, but their female counterparts (Batgirl and Supergirl).

The same day, I also stopped in at the local Target. I began to notice a pattern: every superhero item Target had for men (shirts, underwear, pajamas) featured only male characters. Everything that Target had from DC Comics for women featured Supergirl, Batgirl, and Wonder Woman or their logos; meanwhile, every item of Marvel merchandise for women featured Cap, Thor, Iron Man, or Spider-Man. No Black Widow. No Scarlet Witch. Not even female counterparts to male heroes. No female characters at all.

And this really bothered me.

Marvel’s roster of female characters feature some of my favorite fictional ladies of all time, and yet they are nowhere to be found on any shirts or socks or underwear. Not even the women who have been on Marvel Cinematic television or movies. Yet, while my favorite DC heroines would be hard to market on clothing, socks, or undergarments (although a Misfit t-shirt would be awesome!–and yet still totally irrelevant what with the new, new DC), DC is still offering female characters on female-geared merchandise. And the female trinity still has yet to be featured in a modern tv show or movie beyond, tenuously, Smallville.

Aside from online specialty shops like Mighty Fine and Her Universe, Marvel merchandise seems to be sending the message “women can’t be heroes, they can just get saved.” Conversely, DC doesn’t offer up much beyond Supergirl, Batgirl, Wonder Woman, picture091 (2)and the occasional Catwoman or Harley Quinn, and much of what is available and marketed for women falls into the same dull, sexist “I only date superheroes” diatribe, but at least they are offering up anything at all.

Being able to access the plethora of heroine and villainess merch online and at cons is great, but not everyone can do that. Stores like Target, Macy’s, and Hot Topic are all over the States, easily accessible, and offer up apparel that the masses know about, can access, and can afford.

The best I can say of DC is, “at least their trying.” But that’s the truth, and it really seems like Marvel isn’t.

She Can Fly: Great Expectations

While Avengers: Age of Ultron had a record setting first weekend, just $19.7 million behind the first Avengers in terms of all-time opening weekend rankings, the movie has also faced a lot of outcry, specifically about its handling of female characters.

This is nothing new, the first Avengers doesn’t even pass the Bechdel Test (it barely passed the “sexy lamp test,” to be frank), but the level of outrage, directed specifically at Joss Whedon, is definitely something (semi-)new for the creator.

The issues with Avengers: Age of Ultron all started with an interview with Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans just before the statewide release of the movie. In the interview, with Digital Spy, Renner and Evans are asked about their characters’ potential romantic connections with Black Widow. “She’s a slut,” Renner causally replied, which caused Evans to laugh uproariously and agree. The two of them continued by calling Black Widow a “trick” and a “whore,” while implying that she has slept around with all the Avengers as well.

They both retroactively apologized, although Renner’s apology came off as significantly less sincere, and more of a “sorry, not sorry” mansplanation of his very funny “joke.” Renner even went on to later talk about the outrage directed at him on the late night talk show Conan:

Mind you, we are talking about a fictional character and fictional behavior, Conan, but if you slept with four of the six Avengers, no matter how much fun you had, you’d be a slut. Just saying. I’d be a slut. Just saying.

But the problem is, the movie does the exact same kind of slut-shaming that Renner and Evans did in their interview. Black Widow’s sexuality has always been weaponized in the comics, but in Avengers: Age of Ultron her sexuality is not something that she controls or owns herself. Instead, Captain America is the one to talk about her sexuality, with the implication being that either he has seen her sleep with other people for the purpose of “the mission” (“I’ve seen her flirt”).

Beyond that, Black Widow’s role in the film is to be the Hulk’s glorified babysitter. There’s little to no chemistry between the two characters, and the moments between them feel forced, with Banner suddenly becoming a goofy schoolboy to Natasha’s bizarre southern-accented bartender roleplay–something that felt extremely out of character for her. Their romance is forced and off-note at best, and add to that Dr. Helen Cho getting mind controlled and Scarlet Witch playing the stereotypical broken Whedon waif, with a hearty dose of implied Ultimates-inspired twincest, you basically have the trifecta of poorly handled “strong female characters” (not to mention neither Widow nor Witch are seen in any merchandise for Avengers: Age of Ultron). At least it was Quicksilver who “died” to provide the female equivalent of man-pain for his sister.

Perhaps the most offensive decision in Avengers: Age of Ultron was the exchange between Bruce Banner and Black Widow about infertility. The hamfisted monster “subplot” of the entire movie was eyeroll-worthy in and of itself, but when it was revealed that the only reason Black Widow considered herself a “monster” was that she can’t have babies, that was truly the breaking point.

Yes, the only real progression Natasha’s character has in the second Avengers movie is that she was forced to have a female vasectomy in the Red Room in order to become a more efficient killer. This scene has so many layers of uncomfortable, poorly handled subtext: people unable to produce children are “monsters;” women can’t become strong unless they can’t give birth; women can’t be truly happy without having babies. Whedon’s shoddy writing is disappointing, but no surprise; it’s his absolute lack of awareness about how his writing can be interpreted that’s offensive.

Criticism of Joss Whedon purportedly led to the writer/director to delete his entire Twitter account (again). Many bloggers attribute Whedon’s decision to “rabid feminists” offended by “one little old-timey rape joke,” but Whedon denied this, claiming he deleted his account for work purposes, saying in a statement to Buzzfeed News:

Believe me, I have been attacked by militant feminists since I got on Twitter. That’s something I’m used to. Every breed of feminism is attacking every other breed, and every subsection of liberalism is always busy attacking another subsection of liberalism, because god forbid they should all band together and actually fight for the cause.

I saw a lot of people say, ‘Well, the social justice warriors destroyed one of their own!’ It’s like, Nope. That didn’t happen. I saw someone tweet it’s because Feminist Frequency pissed on Avengers 2, which for all I know they may have. But literally the second person to write me to ask if I was OK when I dropped out was [Feminist Frequency founder] Anita [Sarkeesian].

But Whedon’s statement doesn’t provide much assurance. If anything, it speaks to the likelihood that he can’t (or won’t) handle criticism of his work. Yes, many of the people, both women and men, criticized Whedon for the inclusion of a Prima Nocta (literally “first night,” referring the a warlord’s right to take the virginity of any woman who married) joke in the scene where Tony is attempting to lift Thor’s hammer (which, interestingly, replaced a completely different line that was seen in the October 2014 trailer for the film). Yes, many people criticized Whedon to the level of death threats and name calling (something, it should be noted, that creators like Kelly Thompson and Anita Sarkeesian deal with almost daily–only often with the addition of rape threats). But frankly Whedon was, and should be, criticized.

Joss Whedon frequently claims to be a feminist (although now he says he “regrets” ever calling himself a feminist because “suddenly that’s a litmus test for everything [I] do”), but his actions don’t back up his words. This is just another case of Whedon claiming to be a positive force for women in pop media, while offering up only extremely poor and unvaried representation of his female characters, and covering it up with defensive statements about “bad” feminists.