based on the manga by Naoko Takeuchi
1992-1993 • 46 episodes • Toei Animation/Viz Media
When the first major wave of anime hit the United States in the early nineties, I was a small child, both in the sense that I was both young and in the sense that I was not already five six, as I would be before hitting middle school. Already entranced by the television, I began watching fits and snatches of cartoons, although the serial nature of television went over my head. It completely eluded me to the point that I would just turn on the television whenever, which was usually at four in the morning. Madame McBride was not amused. When she came across me watching The World of Richard Scarry at an ungodly early hour, she took it for Are You Afraid of the Dark? and made sure I never lay my hands upon a remote before noon again, so help me God.
This might be why I didn’t understand how television worked until I was fifteen.
But that was how I saw Sailor Moon for the first time. I’ve, in the course of my fits and starts to more personal writing, tried to pinpoint the exact airing schedule of it when I came across it, and have only come to the conclusion that being on the west coast helped. It was DiC’s now infamous American dub of the show, neatly glossing over any cultural inconsistencies, providing neat moral lessons in the Sailor Says segments, and, of course, frantically erasing any violent and queer content, from the first season’s villainous Kunzite and Zoisite to Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus. While I didn’t watch it religiously, Sailor Moon fit neatly into my haphazardly lady-centric view of the universe, even as it faded into the rearview mirror when we left California.
2014 • 169 minutes • Paramount
Sometimes, when I watch a mainstream Hollywood film, I like to play a game. In that game, I imagine what the screen would look like if everyone who is a white dude who doesn’t need to be a white dude wasn’t a white dude. You’d be (not) surprised by how much that supposedly default setting is only really necessary to the marketing campaign. I can usually play this game quite easily with Christopher Nolan’s filmography, but in watching Interstellar, I was, for the first time, thwarted. While Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper doesn’t necessarily need to be white, he does necessarily have to be a man, because Interstellar, among the vast number of themes, concepts, and ideas that populate its three hour running time, offers an alternative take on what it means to be a father.
Towards the end of the film, we discover that Cooper is actually the character’s last name. He is not provided with a first name in either the film’s credits or any supplemental material. (This does lead to the inconsistency that Cooper’s grandson is Cooper Cooper, unless, of course, the child has his mother’s surname. I imagine this is an oversight, but I read the text, the author is dead, etc.) He doesn’t merit a first name, because his main function is to be a father—to his daughter Murphy, to his fellow scientist Dr. Brand, and to humanity. This sounds like the set-up for a Great White Male Savior character. And, in many ways, it is. But I find that the details that complicate it. Despite a speech early on about how humanity used to be full of explorers and not caretakers, Cooper’s paternal function is to sacrifice himself. “They didn’t choose me,” he concludes late in the film. “They chose her,” he marvels.
When She Woke
by Hillary Jordan
2011 • 344 pages • Algonquin Books
What happened to When She Woke? The peculiar pleasures and perils of having such a long reading list (and viewing list and listening list and…) is that by the time I actually get to reading something, I’ve forgotten all about it. But I feel like When She Woke made a very positive splash back in 2011—has it really been three years?—and then vanished. This, in itself, means nothing: our pop culture attention spans have only gotten shorter and shorter, to the point that I initially didn’t watch “Too Many Cooks” because twelve minutes was too long. That’s part of the charm of pop culture—there’s just so much of it that you end up with forgotten treasures squirreled away all over. (The moment I realized that I would never be able to listen to all of the music produced in the eighties was practically a spiritual experience.) Seeing that process in action is just what happens when you pay attention to pop culture.
But When She Woke’s slip into recent, fuzzy memory also has to do with the fact that, from day one, Hillary Jordan made sure that everyone who read it would think of two other novels. In the same way that I half-jokingly refer to Eragon as A New Hope set in Middle-Earth, When She Woke is The Scarlet Letter set in the Republic of Gilead. (All novels are sequels, influence is bliss, et cetera, et cetera, thank you, Michael Chabon.) The high concept pitch has endured the test of time (did you know we don’t know where the term even comes from? Language is magic), but there’s always a danger to the “X meets Y” pitch: if X and Y have stood the test of time, you better hope that XY is good enough—or at least different enough—to make your audience stay and not simply wander back off to X and Y.
Attack the Block
2011 • 88 minutes • StudioCanal
Out of all the arguments that whiners against diversity in speculative fiction attempt to use, the “shoehorn” argument is one of the worst. In its most insidious form, it attempts to excuse erasure by pointing out that, say, a fantasy novel based on medieval Europe can’t have people of color because of history, neatly ignoring both the existence of people of color in European history (oh, hey there, medievalpoc! Keep up the good work!) and the fact that it’s fantasy. If speculative fiction is used only to repeat the same old stories over and over, then it’s not actually speculative fiction because there’s no speculation necessary. Diversifying speculative fiction requires no herculean efforts or suspensions of disbelief; it merely requires shifting the viewpoint.
Attack the Block, harking back to the low-fi action movies of the eighties, largely focuses on the action inherent in a teenage gang fighting off an alien invasion in their South London housing estate. But while it does include a young, conventionally pretty, and white female lead to soften the focus (and complicate our viewpoint of the leads, since the film opens with them mugging her), it never loses sight of what’s truly harmed these boys: toxic narratives about what it means to be a man and a culture that sees them as threats instead of people. That’s what leads them to kill the first alien that lands, putting everything into motion. It’s only through the rare opportunity to play the hero (albeit through circumstances they created, which the film and the characters own) that the boys—sharp Dennis, slightly kinder Jerome, hangers-on Biggz and Pest, and their leader, John Boyega’s tight-lipped Moses—actually begin to escape from and recognize those narratives. At one point in the film, in a rare and unsettling quiet moment, the kids wonder what the aliens are up to. The normally terse Moses offers this explanation:
No, I reckon yeah, I reckon, the Feds sent them anyway. Government probably bred those things to kill black boys. First they sent in drugs, then they sent guns and now they’re sending monsters in to kill us. They don’t care man. We ain’t killing each other fast enough. So they decided to speed up the process.
2013 • 400 pages • Mulholland Books
The first identity I ever explicitly owned was gamer.
My brother is significantly older than I am, and I experienced his nineties adolescence secondhand as a small child. The signifiers of cool (for a given value where whatever your older sibling does is awesome) were the SEGA Genesis in the corkboard entertainment center in my brother’s room, the familiar weight and heft of a Nintendo 64 controller, and a discarded Street Fighter II strategy guide that I poured over in the family van. I remember perching on a medicine ball and watching him play Warcraft II, the two of us in perfect, rapt silence; I remember fleeing from the room as he faced off with Ganon for the last time in The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Pop culture starved as I was, video games became my childhood imagination’s major anchor.
I Am J
by Cris Beam
2011 • 352 pages • Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
I’m not sure I have that much to say about I Am J, let alone the seven hundred words I decided a long, long time ago was my required length for a review in this house. (Every space I occupy, be it a physical space or not, inevitably becomes referred to as a house. Even the Church of Bowie, although, I suppose, it is technically also the Thin White Duke’s House.) The novel is a fairly straight forward transition narrative: a teenage trans man comes to terms with being trans, decides to begin hormone treatment, and finally comes to a place in his life where he can live as himself. It isn’t poorly written. It boasts a diverse cast. It actually talks about homelessness and queer youth. But there wasn’t anything for me in it.
Not much to report this week, other than that I’ve been reblonded and feel pretty at peace with the world.
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The To Do List
2013 • 104 minutes • CBS Films
When Easy A came out, it was hailed as an intelligent, female-led teen sex comedy. It’s a fun trifle of a movie, remembered fondly for Emma Stone’s charisma, the light banter of her parents, and, of course, the fact that it’s a successful female-led comedy. There’s just one problem: Easy A is not actually a sex comedy. It’s a comedy about social politics, particularly those concerning gender and “correct” sexual activity for straight women and queer men. (Emma Stone’s fictional promiscuity is initially to help a gay friend stay in the closet for safety reasons.) That’s awesome, but it does remind us of the dearth of actual female-led teen sex comedies.
There’s two major factors for that: our culture and the MPAA, which both harshly punish open female sexuality. For instance, Coming Soon, a 1999 teen sex comedy, was initially slammed with the distribution destroying rating of NC-17 from the MPAA, despite the film featuring less explicit sexuality than American Pie, solely because the film focuses on a trio of teenage girls, not teenage boys. While the rating was later revised to an R, the MPAA’s distaste for female sexuality—especially if she appears to be enjoying herself, because, as we all know, female sexuality is far more dangerous than a head shot—is widely known, as seen in the damning documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated.
The Mighty Thor: Volume 2
by Walter Simonson
2013 (originally published 1984) • 238 pages • Marvel Comics
There is something about old school fantasy—sf that was produced between 1977 and 2001 and the attendant/appropriate rock and heavy metal—that fascinates me in a very specific way. It’s this kind of unwarranted nostalgia for something I’ve never experienced, somewhat similar to my love for the eighties. But this is more specific, usually coming with daydreams of reading poorly designed Tolkien paperbacks out on the roof in the summer of 1995. (The flannel shirt tied around the waist of this teenager who never was goes, of course, without saying.) Something about that entire configuration has been setting me on fire lately, and I’ve been trying to tease out why.
Upon reading the second volume of Walter Simonson’s legendary run on The Mighty Thor, I think one factor is just good old-fashioned Norse mythology. Its sweep covers both the fantastic and the mundane, the epic and the low, the bombast and the humanity. And you certainly can’t beat the location. It’s the kernel of fiery truth that many bad Tolkien imitators completely miss, focusing on the trappings and not the heart. (Look, nobody can be the second Tolkien, okay? The degrees required alone would bankrupt you in the United States. We just need to make peace with that and move on.) Simonson not only acutely understands the emotional underpinnings of Norse mythology, he understands where that ties into the unique bombast and mythology of Marvel comics.