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: 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?

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: Mad Magic, or Feminism in Summer Films

This summer has already been full of a series of unexpected box office triumphs. With the meteoric success of Jurassic World, the celebration of the emotionally driven storyline of Pixar’s child-friendly Inside Out, and the hotly anticipated, yet immensely criticized Avengers: Age of Ultron, movies in the summer of 2015 have already made all sorts of headlines. But one of the biggest headlines this summer are the films with high levels of surprising, and unexpected, feminism.

Mad Max: Fury Road was an oddball contender for any sort of mainstream success; the sequel to a trilogy of primarily narrative-absent Australian action films from the 80’s, expectations were not overblown for the return of the cult beloved series. Sales-wise, the movie was average, even under-selling female-led sequel Pitch Perfect 2 on opening weekend. However, critically, the film excelled. The darling of the Cannes Film Festival, in which it wasn’t even a contender, it amazed viewers at the festival and overshadowed the movies that were actually competing in the contest. Even now, three months later, the film still retains a 98% of Rotten Tomatoes, one of the highest ratings on the website.

But what’s truely unexpected about Mad Max: Fury Road is that it is a story almost exclusively about women. Max is a secondary, borderline tertiary character in this titular film, which, in many ways, is technically in line with the previous Mad Max films. The film focuses on the female escape from enforced constructs, ranging from conventional beauty ideals, male possession of women, to independence, rights, and gender equality.

On the flip side, Magic Mike XXL is a movie all about men. It’s about male friendship, male connections, male emotions, and male power. However, Magic Mike is intrinsically a film about the female fantasy: the female sexual fantasy at its basest (men stripping), but also on a deeper level it treats women as sexual beings and, more over, as human beings. The film features more women of different sizes and body types, more women drinking, eating, and acting like “men,” than most modern pop culture films today. However, the best part of the film is that all the women in the movie are addressed, and treated as, “queens.” Magic Mike is a movie about men constructed specifically for the female view.

Both films, in a broad sense, are about objectification. However, neither film objectifies the female characters, which sets them apart from other standard summer film fare. In Mad Max, the wives of Immortan Joe could be seen as being “objectified” in the scene they are initially introduced in, but the lustful gaze of the scene is actually specifically, and explicitly, directed at the water (and the women are shown literally and physically straining as they break away from painful bondage in the form of bladed chastity belts). In Magic Mike, the men are objectified in what is a subversion of the classic “male gaze;” the women play the voyeurs, but that voyeurism is much more about women being spoken to, asked what they want, and treated as equals than it is about muscular men stripping.

The question “is it a feminist film?” is intrinsically flawed. Feminism is a light through which films can be judged, but there is no hard or fast definition that makes a film “feminist.” It’s a series of concepts (of which there are multiple interpretations), vague definitions, and personally-based feelings. Feminism in film is as much about the person viewing the film, and the person who made the film, as it is the actual content of the movie. Even the Bechdel Test, though poetically simple and easy to apply to movies, is barely an actual standard for film (as acknowledged by creator Alison Bechdel herself); in theory, a film could fail at the Bechdel Test, yet still succeed as a “feminist” film. However, movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and Magic Mike XXL can easily and readily be interpreted as “feminist” films, and offer a new hope that the film industry is shifting, if slightly, not just in support of female viewers, but in favor of women in general as well.

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.

She Can Fly: Why I’m Ready to Say Goodbye to Peter Parker

Dear Spider-Man,

No, wait:

Dear Peter Parker,

We’ve been friends for a while.

Sometimes our relationship is like hanging out with a good friend from high school. Someone I fell out of touch with, but, in reconnecting, I discover that, while we’ve both grown and changed, we still have a lot in common.

When I came back into comics in 2008, after a long absence, you were one of the first titles I picked up. I stuck with you until you were replaced by Doc Ock; at that point, I had to drop the title. I appreciated the story direction, but I just wasn’t interested in a megalomaniac Peter Parker with a penchant for being a jerk. I was always partial to Peter Parker because, despite the bad in his life, the struggle and sadness and turmoil, he still did the right thing, still stayed optimistic and fun and silly.

Peter Parker’s positive attitude got me through my own tough times.

My initial introduction to you was a mix of stealing my older brother’s comics and watching the 90’s Spider-Man cartoon. In everything I consumed, there was a sense of joy about being a hero and doing the right thing, even when it was hard.

You made me want to be a superhero.

Sometimes, our relationship borders on an intense love affair.

I first fell in love with you when I saw Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. I know, it’s a little before my time. What can I say? I was nostalgic from a young age. Anyway, as soon as I saw Spidey and his Amazing Friends, I tried to dye my Barbie’s hair red and pretend she was Firestar to an imaginary Peter Parker (needless to say, the dying process did not end well, and you can never really get nail polish out of doll hair once it’s been applied).

I fell in love with you again when Spider-Man came out; when Toby Maguire played you. He was the first celebrity I ever had a crush on, primarily because he was Peter Parker to me. He was vulnerable and fragile, but held within him this massive strength.

It wasn’t the spider powers that made you strong, it was your heart.

But, Pete, let’s be honest, the plight of the white nerd…that’s not really a thing anymore. Heck, you know that yourself: you’re the CEO of a successful technology company and that’s doing good in the world. Geek is chic. You’re actually (gasp) kind of a “cool” guy now. Yeah, you’re still a huge dork who loves puns a little too much, but that doesn’t put you at odds with anyone but villains who really hate bad jokes. Your high school bully is now on a superhero team (because of you); you may not have successful romantic relationships, but you’ve dated a bevvy of smart, strong, and beautiful women who all still love you (except Felicia, but hate isn’t really all that different from love); you’re best friends with the Fantastic Four, an amazingly rich and famous superhero family; heck, you’re an Avenger AND you’re the guy they all look up to.

So maybe you aren’t the right person to represent the disenfranchised. When you first came into existence, people who loved science and reading were typified as the “minority.” Though it may not have been as heavy handed as the X-Men as an analogy for racism, Spider-Man represented the every man. He wasn’t a superhero trying to be a real person (like Superman), he was a real person trying to be a superhero. He was the lower class, so capable, but the man was keeping him down.

But now you have money. You’re successful. Sure, you’re still a nerd, but you certainly aren’t disenfranchised or in a position without privilege.

So, Spidey, Pete, buddy; it’s time to step down. I still want you to hang out in comics and cartoons, but the Marvel movies? We all know that want to make you a teen (again). Let’s not go down the Andrew Garfield path of fake-ADHD, jerky Peter Parker.

Instead, let’s do something new:

Let Miles Morales take the lead.

Let’s see Spider-Man once again represent some who is facing oppression. Someone who is relevant to the images we see on the news of people fighting against the system, the man, racism. Someone who doesn’t have instant privilege.

Miles is going to be an Avenger soon, anyway. Why not give him a hand and a starring role. Maybe he can be the first superhero of color to get a new MCU solo movie (shout out to Blade, who was the first Marvel hero of color to get a solo movie). That would be pretty cool.

You can hang out on my water bottle on my desk every day at work, but it’s Miles Morales I want to see in my Marvel movies.

I hope you understand, Peter. I love you, but you just aren’t the guy who needs to be on the silver screen right now. Miles is.


She Can Fly: The Starfire/Raven Dichotomy

I grew up consuming pop media rabidly; the 90s and early 00s was a great time to love cartoons and comics. Anime had started its journey into the mainstream, classic cartoons were easy to find on repeat, and new shows seemed to debut all the time on venues like ABC’s “One Saturday Morning” and Cartoon Network’s “Cartoon Cartoon” block.

Still, being a female fan was always difficult. Often women and girls were relegated to being side characters, mainly moms and love interests. Some shows featured a single female character surrounded by men. When we were really lucky, and media featured more than a single token female character, there were usually two female characters to every three male characters. When this happened, shows often relied on a dichotomy between the two characters that caused conflict because of how different the two women were.

TV shows and comics often still follow these rules.

Look to Archie comics: Betty is the sweet, smart, athletic girl next door while Veronica is rich, snooty, and did I mention really rich? Scooby Doo has the beautiful, but dull Daphne and the smart, but tragic looking Velma (a dichotomy that has, in recent years, been subverted by newer iterations of the franchise). The Snorks relied not on competition between kind Casey Kelp and fashionable Daffney Gillfin, who were shown as good friends, but still instinctually pitted the tomboy against the girly girl. Kimberly and Trini in Power Rangers were essentially pallet swaps of one another in terms of how they were written, their most defining characteristics were that the Pink Ranger was a slightly girlier gymnast Pink Ranger and the Yellow Ranger was a slightly more tomboyish martial artist. Batgirl was a smart, good girl; Catwoman was a pretty, bad girl. X-Men Evolution had goth Rogue and her polar opposite, valley girl Kitty Pryde. The Powerpuff Girls, a show widely lauded for being  female friendly and featuring well-defined characters with depth, relied on stereotypes to characterize the main characters, which put them at odds with one another. A friendship is implied between Honey Lemon and Gogo Tamago in Big Hero 6, despite the fact the two never say a word to one another (but at least a subplot about the two girls competing for the attention of the same guy was dropped pre-production). Princess Bubblegum is smart and girly, Marceline is tough and cool. Even Katara and Toph in Avatar: the Last Airbender exhibit the stereotypes of the pretty, kind girl and the tough tomboy.

While stereotypes and broad generalizations can be helpful in creating the outline of a character, media seems over-reliant on the two female characters being polar opposites: pretty girl versus tomboy; optimist versus goth girl; smart one versus rich one, and so on.

The first time I really noticed this dichotomy was with the Teen Titans cartoon that debuted in 2003. The show is fondly remembered, and for good reason; one of the first American-produced shows to really adapt an anime-referential style, while still retaining its Western-based roots, the DC Comics cartoon told complex, layered stories that went beyond the classic definitions of good and evil, and tackled topics like character motivation, the origin of true strength, and the power of friendship. The show also used the classic 2:3 ratio, opting to initially feature Robin, Cyborg, Beast Boy, Raven, and Starfire as the core cast (sorry Wonder Girl, Flash, Aqualad, and Speedy).

Every girl I knew who watched the show was either a Starfire or a Raven—which is to say, they preferred and identified with one character, and the other struck them as kind of a mystery. “Starfires” were bubbly, optimistic, outgoing, and liked having fun, while “Ravens” were private, smart, brooding, realists with a tendency to be pessimistic.

I was a Starfire. I liked Raven’s intelligence, but the rest of her character seemed foreign to me. While the show was focused on explaining why Raven was the way she was (and why Starfire acted the way she did), sometimes that was lost in the bustle of the other characters and plot lines. I didn’t actively dislike Raven, but I honestly didn’t care about her, which is actually probably worse—indifference is the opposite of love, after all.

But Teen Titans combated the idea that women always had to be at odds with one another. Switched, which was the 7th episode of the show, did something really unexpected; Beast Boy, Cyborg, and Robin were essentially non-players in the episode, and it focused on a body switching trope which is often a cliché used with dichotomous characters. But, instead of being about the two characters just getting back to their own bodies, it became about the two of them understanding one another on a deeper level.

After seeing that episode, it started to click with me that disliking Raven made no sense. I shared attributes with both Raven and Starfire. Who I was could not be summed up with one generalized character.

Girls are often forced to choose who they are from one of two characters, instead of being allowed to see themselves in all characters. Part of it is societal, emphasis on competition between women that can be seen in media from the Bachelor to Taylor Swift, but another part of it is that media plays into the trope of girl on girl violence. Many of these duos are shown in competition with each other (for boys, grades, a role in a drama club production) in a way that is never truly resolved.

This dichotomy and simplification of female characters (really, of all characters) is a necessity for storytelling, but it needs to be done well. Princess Bubblegum and Marceline’s initial strife in Adventure Time came not from their differences, but from their similarities: they are both confident, powerful rulers and that put them at odds with one another. It’s not to say that the characters always have to understand each other, but their differences can’t be the only cause of conflict within the story.

The best thing that can be done with dichotomous characters is to show them as friends, and many of the examples I’ve posed do just that. The dichotomy is used as a place to derive conflict from, but also as a story telling gateway to greater understanding. Subversion of the dichotomy trope is a beautiful thing. When it turns out Daphne is not only pretty, but also smart and capable, or that Velma is smart, but also a romantic, it creates complex, well-rounded characters that anyone can relate to. A character is only the sum of the parts she is written with, so don’t make those parts all come from clichés.