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Beyond Boobs n’ Butts

The creator of a fictional character can make that character what the creator wants.  Obvious, right? If you’re an author or an artist (or both), and you invent a character to be in the story you tell, you can make that character look and behave however you see fit. The only limits are in your imagination. That’s an amazing power indeed.

And with great power comes….yeah, yeah, you saw this coming: great responsibility. This power and responsibility have belonged to every storyteller since people started to tell stories, and continue to do so as the methods of storytelling have changed.  It seems like everywhere you look, the conversation is taking place about how women are depicted in the forms of storytelling known as “comics” and “video games,” and this blog is no exception. But I didn’t want to just keep rehashing the point, so after those two posts I pretty much only commented when there was a new development on the subject that I actually knew something about.

Or, in this case, something made the point particularly well. That something is Buzzfeed’s article We Had Women Photoshopped Into Stereotypical Comic Book Poses And It Got Weird, in which female Buzzfeed writers tried to emulate the pose of a female superhero in a specific image, and….failed miserably. And then in an attempt to help them along, their pictures were Photoshopped to make them look like the superheroines.

Here’s the video:

It reminds me of fantasy author Jim C. Hines’ hilarious photo shoots of himself posing as the featured female character on the covers of various fantasy novels.  In addition to just being awesome, those photos were intended to show a) how a man would look adopting the same pose and wearing the same kinds of outfits as the women were, and b) how uncomfortable it would be for him to do so. In case readers dismissed this discomfort based on Hines’ age/gender/non-martial artist nature, he linked to a female martial artist/contortionist who had similar findings.

The Buzzfeed women, on the other hand, were primarily showing how for comic book heroines a) the poses are highly difficult to impossible, and b) the bodies themselves are impossible.  If you’ve ever looked at the Escher Girls blog, you’re very familiar with this.  You might even know that the most popular highly-difficult-to-impossible (hereafter referred to simply as “impossible”) pose is the classic “Boobs and Butt,” in which the female character manages to turn both breasts and her ass to the “camera” simultaneously, often in a way that suggests her spine is made of rubber and/or some or all internal organs have been removed.

Boobs n’ Butt example 1

Kristin, one of the Buzzfeed writers who took part in this horrifying experiment, describes the B&B pose this way:

Unless you completely lack object permanence, you can deal with not seeing both boobs and butt at the same time. Like, give readers some credit: When a character turns around, it’s not like we all go “BUT WHERE DID THE BOOBS GO? ARE THE BOOBS GONE FOREVER? I NEED ASSURANCES THAT THERE ARE STILL BOOBS HERE.” In fact, the only people who actually think this way are real-life babies, and they can’t read comics, anyway!

You know the typical policy of not reading the comments on internet articles?  This is an example of an article for which that is especially the case. Readers accused the women who took part in the creation of this article of having “body issues.” They accused them of trying to “ruin comics.” They claimed that hey, it’s the same for men, man!  They just outright made fun of the Buzzfeed writers’ appearance, calling them fat, ugly, etc.

I don’t seem to recall any of the same crap being directed at Jim C. Hines.

Some of the readers, though, had a slightly different complaint– What’s the point?  What are you trying to prove? they asked.  And I’d like to try and answer that.

I think a general principle can be applied to storytelling, which is that whatever reality your story is set in, if your characters differ from the what is normal for that reality (in terms of abilities, appearance, etc.), you need to account for that difference. It’s sloppy storytelling– or worse, a mistake– to have characters deviate from reality with no apparent purpose or explanation whatsoever.

So, for example, if you make a movie that’s set in downtown Atlanta in 2004, and you have your main characters walking down the street surrounded by people and all of those people are white, you’re deviating from reality in a way that needs an explanation.  Did everyone of a different ethnicity get vaporized by aliens?  Did Georgia experience a holocaust?  If the answer is “We didn’t bother to hire any non-white extras” or “We purposefully didn’t hire any non-white extras,” that’s not going to cut it.  There are really only two possible interpretations for your viewer, and those are:

  • The movie-makers are sloppy story-tellers, or 
  • The movie-makers are making a statement about their preferred reality, and that reality doesn’t include non-white people. In other words, the people who made this movie are probably racist.

Now take that and apply it to comic book women with impossible bodies in impossible poses. That would make sense if, and only if, we’re talking about superheroines whose powers include the ability to morph self. And then, I suppose, there would still be a need to explain why they chose to manifest this ability by doing the Boobs n’ Butt pose…mid-battle, fighting off fearsome enemies.

Boobs n’ Butt example 2

Because you know that, absent an explanation along these lines, the reader is forced to reach his or her own conclusions again. And there are (again) two of those:

  • The comic book artist is a lousy artist. He/she has poor grasp of anatomy and should invest in some manikins ASAP, or
  • The comic book artist deliberately manipulates female forms to exaggerate certain features that are sexually attractive to the artist or his/her audience, or both, at the risk of appearing ridiculous to people who have a good sense of anatomy and/or don’t think Boobs n’ Butt is an acceptable trade-off for realistic-looking human figures.

I think it’s fair to say that an increasing number of us do not find it an acceptable trade-off.  We’d prefer better storytelling than that.

How to be the creepiest nerd at the beach

Saw this in my email newsletter from Think Geek this morning, and…I had thoughts:

Main thought: This is creepy

The thing that creeped me out about it most is that it suggests that Princess Leia is wearing a bikini on purpose because she wants to lie on the beach and tan and look sexy or something.

I know that Star Wars fans who are all crazy about Slave Leia don’t spend much time thinking about the whole slave part of that, but…that’s kind of the point. That bikini is literally a shackle– she’s not wearing it on purpose. She’s chained to a giant alien slug who presumably has her dressed like that because it gets a thrill out of it, and…let’s not even get into whether she’s a sex slave or not, and precisely what that means.

Okay, let’s go ahead and get into it– realistically, she’s either a rape victim multiple times over or is about to become one.

That’s what “slave Leia” is celebrating.

That’s creepy.

And the degree of creepiness didn’t sink in for me fully, for whatever reason, until I saw her on a beach towel.

Canon fodder

The cocktail waitresses of Star Trek (2009)

So I was watching the 2009 film Star Trek, which annoyingly has no subtitle. No Nemesis, no Insurrection, no Into Darkness, no Into the Woods, nothing. So it will forever be known, to me at least, as “the 2009 Star Trek,” which is unfortunate given that it’s a decent film and immediately precedes Into Darkness, currently in theaters, which gets its own subtitle. Maybe they realized they messed up with the previous one? I don’t know.

Anyway, I watched it and couldn’t help but notice all of the female Star Fleet extras running around (literally, in more than one case because their ship was in danger of being destroyed) in those mini dresses and go go boots that the women wore in the original series, their hair more often than not up in what I guess was supposed to be a futuristic version of the beehive-like updos worn in TOS, a sort of vertical topknot, an oblong bun which sticks straight out of the tops of their heads. The choice to outfit them this way was presumably made in deference to the original garb that female officers wore in TOS, and to the reasoning it embodied, which– one can only guess– was so that nobody would accidentally take them seriously.

I watched this and thought about a recent blog post by Felicia Day on Into Darkness, discussing how it has no strong female characters. How even in instances where the leaders of the free galaxy, the decision-makers, were getting together and figuring out what to do, there were few women, especially appropriately aged women (you know, prime minister age or thereabouts) amongst them, and how weird and disappointing that was. Though Day doesn’t specifically mention the gratuitous underwear scene with Alice Eve for which screenwriter Damon Lindelof confusingly apologized (confusing because you don’t exactly trip and accidentally insert scenes like that into a script), she says

I kept waiting for her turn, waiting for her to not be the victim, to be a bit cleverer, to add to the equation in a “yeah you go girl” way but no, she was there to be sufficiently sexy that Kirk would acknowledge her existence, to be pretty, to serve the plot. I loved her bob. That’s it. What if she had been a less attractive woman, older, overweight? A tomboy? Wouldn’t have that been a tad more interesting choice? Or at least give her a moment where she’s not a princess waiting to be saved. From a director who is so amazing, who created wonderful female characters in Alias and Felicity, I was super bummed by this. A woman character CAN exist without having to be sexually desired by the guy. Oh, and she doesn’t have to be a lesbian either, OMG WHAT A SURPRISING IDEA!

Responses have ranged from the reasonable to the ridiculous on both the original Tumblr post and on her Facebook wall when she linked to it. It’s important to point out here that by “ridiculous,” I’m not referring to any comment which simply differed either with facts or the intent of Day’s post, or both. I’m referring to the kind of comment typical of any feminist critique of popular culture, which is some combination of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “You’re just jealous,” or worse. Sometimes much, much worse.

There were plenty of people who agreed with Day that a) there are no strong female characters in Into Darkness (which, full disclosure, I haven’t seen….yet. That’s why I was re-watching the 2009 movie), and b) given the futuristic setting of the Star Trek universe where the Federation has been depicted as an egalitarian organization, it doesn’t make sense to portray events as though there are no women in charge of anything who possess formidable skills and commit acts of bravery and cunning with more or less the frequency that men do, and even with c) Day’s larger point that “it’s time to invent some new cliches” where women are concerned. There are people who agreed with all of these things, and yet ultimately disagreed with Day’s claim that this spoke poorly of the movie as a whole (which, incidentally, she says she enjoyed very much).

A sampling of replies 

Why do they disagree? Because of canon.

Because Kirk is notoriously a womanizer, so it makes sense to depict him womanizing.
Because in the original series of Star Trek (referred to as TOS, for…the original series), the stories told revolved mainly around men doing things, men like Kirk and Spock and Scotty and Bones and Sulu.

Even though the 2009 movie and this current one are reboots and have changed a lot of things, they cannot and should not change the fact that the story is not about women and their interests, so if you’re interested in that kind of story, find a different science fiction franchise already. One that didn’t originate in 1966. These are the stories we’ve committed to, and by golly we’ll be damned if they’re going to be changed! At least to be less overtly sexist, anyway– other things such as chronology or location of events and the circumstances of different characters dying or not dying, as the case may be, you can change and we’ll grudgingly accept it. But don’t take away our sexist stories, because we’ll have nothing left!  If you want strong women, go watch Xena: Warrior Princess or something, and leave TOS alone!

…they said. Basically.

In response to this position– that the absence of strong female characters in Into Darkness (or, for that matter, the 2009 Star Trek) is a feature; not a bug, because it’s simply the movie being true to canon– I have a few thoughts.

The first is that I can see the point of this objection. In spite of being reboots, these two movies resurrect very old stories from TOS and splice them together with a modernized perspective. If too many changes were made, the stories would not even be recognizable and they would simply be about a group of people with familiar names in a familiar-but-new setting doing completely unfamiliar things, in which case it might as well not even be the Star Trek universe.

However, this brings up all kinds of questions about what aspects of canon must be adhered to and why, in order to preserve the familiar setting and cast but also tell a story which isn’t identical to one the audience has already been told (in which case the movies would not be reboots but remakes, which is a different beast altogether). Of all of the things preserved for the new, 2009/2013 versions of stories originally told decades earlier, must one of them be the male-centric nature of those stories? And regardless of your answer to the previous question, would it really be worse to modify the story to make it less sexist, or to invent a new one?

This is especially relevant to ask when we’re talking about the Star Trek universe, given that this universe depicts a futuristic existence where human civilization has presumably progressed to the point that bigotry is no longer much of a thing, right? It’s inevitable that people who are trying to tell stories about future human civilizations which have progressed far beyond their own, will still project on those people their own prejudices and general small mindedness without even realizing it– so even as they’re giving people of the future things like teleportation and food synthesization, they’re still going to make those people reflect whatever backwards inclinations are common in the time of the writers– or rather, in the writers themselves. It’s pretty much ubiquitous in any movie or TV show which takes place hundreds of years from when it’s written. We just can’t help but think about how people might think in the future– especially a utopian rather than dystopian image of the future– by relying on how people think now. Then, when that actual year finally comes along, people can watch your movie or TV show (assuming they remember it exists) again and laugh their asses off.

But in this case it’s a little different. In this case, we’re talking about putting our own current spin on the stories that were previously told about those futuristic civilizations and yet not questioning, in fact transferring verbatim, much of the prejudices of that bygone era. Prejudices which don’t even apply to our own societies in some parts of the world (where female leaders are common), let alone a society in the year 2233. Isn’t it weird that we’d take an old depiction of a futuristic society and decide to re-depict it, and in doing so deliberately not make corrections which would render the depiction more realistically futuristic?  It’s as if someone had actually invented a teleporter which is both different from, and functions better than, the ones depicted in old episodes and movies based on TOS, but we went right on making new movies which showed people moving from one place to another by standing on a little circle and becoming fuzzy until they vanish. Because after all, that’s canon. You can’t change the story.

If that’s really the case, though…that story is boring and you shouldn’t expect people who are represented poorly (or not at all) in it to be interested. They may be, but you shouldn’t count on it.

There, I said it.

Yeah, yeah, I know– there’s no shortage of people who simply don’t care if women and minorities are interested in the movies and TV they love. You could keep right on making movies and TV shows based on comics, science fiction, or fantasy which cater to the interests of white male geeks only, and plenty of white male geeks would be just fine with that. Some of these people even react to complaints like Day’s by acting as if she wants to take over Star Trek– or Star Wars, or Doctor Who, or movies based on Marvel comics, or any other franchise which keeps churning out geek fodder– and make it all about women. Put women in charge of everything! No, that is not what she’s saying. That’s not what I’m saying, and it’s not what any feminist critique of these things that I’ve ever seen has been saying.

I’m saying that if you’re going to tell girls and women that it’s cool to be a nerd, you should also give them better reasons to be.

That is not at all a knock at Wil Wheaton, who is speaking in the video at that link– he’s actively doing this, in addition to giving that excellent speech. Felicia Day is actively doing it, by creating the Geek & Sundry channel on Youtube. She’s also asking where all of the women are, and she’s not the only one doing that. According to a recent article in the LA Times, appropriately titled Where have all the women gone in movies?,

Despite the success of recent female-driven movies such as “Bridesmaids” and the “Hunger Games” and “Twilight” series, female representation in popular movies is at its lowest level in five years, according to a study being released Monday by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Among the 100 highest-grossing movies at the U.S. box office in 2012, the study reported, 28.4% of speaking characters were female. That’s a drop from 32.8% three years ago, and a number that has stayed relatively stagnant despite increased research attention to the topic and several high-profile box-office successes starring women. “There is notable consistency in the number of females on-screen from year to year,” said USC researcher Marc Choueiti. “The slate of films developed and produced each year is almost formulaic — in the aggregate, female representation hardly changed at all.” When they are on-screen, 31.6% of women are shown wearing sexually revealing clothing, the highest percentage in the five years the USC researchers have been studying the issue.
For teen girls, the number who are provocatively dressed is even higher: 56.6% of teen girl characters in 2012 movies wore sexy clothes, an increase of 20% since 2009. The USC researchers said these trends persist because those working in Hollywood believe attracting a male audience is the key ingredient to box office success.

Well gosh, I guess I have some questions for “those working in Hollywood” then. Such as:

  • Do you think women also go to movies?
  • Do you think men will stop going to movies if they feature strong female characters, and the number of women who see them will be unaffected? In other words, do you think both groups only want to see men doing things, and women serving as eye candy or simply absent? 
  • Do you think that movie-goers are actually more sexist now than they used to be, and are continuing in that trend? Or is there just more money to be made in assuming they are? And in the end, what’s the difference?

Returning to science fiction/comic/fantasy movies specifically, there are so many movies in those genres which are either out currently, or coming up in the next couple of years, that geeks are downright giddy. The Wolverine. Iron Man 3. Man of Steel. Pacific Rim. Ender’s Game. Thor: The Dark World. The Avengers 2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Ninja Turtles. More Transformers, more Expendables, more X-Men, and so on. It’s a great time to be a geek– if you’re a straight white male geek, or don’t mind taking part in stories told mainly for and about same. And actually there are a lot of people in that latter category– there have to be, don’t they? Because the alternative is to just not watch the movies.

But geek movies have a woman and minority problem, and they have it because canon is considered so important.

Because geeks are so often gratified when something is just the same as it was when originally depicted in the  comic book/regular book it came from, and prone to throwing tantrums (AKA “nerd rage”) when it’s different. And the origins of the stories which formed these canons are old– sometimes very old. Given how quickly social contexts change, “very old” in this case could be any time before 1980. If the canon of your franchise of choice formed prior to that point– and most of the popular ones do, from Superman to Star Wars– it’s probably going to be sexist. At that point you have to stop denying it, and start figuring out what to do about it. Is preserving the canon more important than telling stories which include women and minorities as something other than bit parts and scenery? As actors– and by that I mean, people who act, rather than being acted upon?

And by “canon,” I know I’m not referring to every last detail of a franchise story. An aspect of the story is considered canonical or noncanonical based on how important it’s considered, how story-altering it would be to change. Yes, I know. I also know perceptions of what should be considered canonical tend to differ. Is Johnny Storm‘s race canonical, or not? How about Nick Fury‘s? Is Spider-Man’s web-shooting ability naturally derived or an invention? These are questions a lot of comic book geeks actually have opinions about, and those opinions are based loosely on two different factors: 1) whether there’s precedent you can point to in the comics, and 2) how cool the particular geek you’re talking to thinks the different options are. Degree of badassery has a remarkable effect on people’s concerns about canon– see, for example, every superhero costume which made a dramatic change from brightly-colored spandex to metallic and/or black armor upon arriving in a movie post….oh, probably 1989’s Batman. Some costumes just can’t be translated directly to real-world garb without looking ridiculous rather than menacing to our eyes. That fact might not change, but it should be clear by this point that what impresses us does, has, and will.

You could change the characters, along with the costumes.
And if that’s too disturbing to consider, why not come up with and/or use some new stories?

I actually don’t really care which route movie makers choose– either one could be amazing. And both have actually been done and continue to be done, over and over….just not in women’s favor. The movies I listed as coming out in the next couple of years are noticeably lacking in strong female characters. Just men saving the world and the girl, over and over, for the most part.

It doesn’t have to be that way. So why not change?
Give us women…and make them badass. I hear geeks are into that.

Geek news

Bad tidings: Podcaster Patrick Beja is shelving two shows, The Phileas Club (current events from international perspectives) and The Movielicious (discussion of recent movies, also from international perspectives). Both of these shows have been part of The Frogpants Network for quite some time, and have included hosts who also do other shows on that network.

Good tidings: Dead Gentlemen Productions, makers of The Gamers and The Gamers: Dorkness Rising,  raised enough funding with their Kickstarter project to create a sequel to the latter movie, which will be called The Gamers: Hands of Fate. Their funding period has not yet ended, so you can still get in on being a backer. Since Dorkness Rising came out in 2008, they have been producing a web series called JourneyQuest which you can watch at that link or on Youtube. I discovered it as a result of learning about this Kickstarter project, and got caught up on the episodes in two evenings.

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