At The Movies: Star Wars — The Force Awakens (2015)

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

★★★★★

2015 • 135 minutes • Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

I have never really been a big Star Wars fan. I’d always found the franchise fascinating, as both a pop culture junkie and an amateur fandom historian, but I’d never developed the deep, enduring affection I’d seen it generate in other people. But something about the run-up to Star Wars: The Force Awakens woke something very strange within me. I watched a fanedit of the prequels. I talked endlessly about how terrible Obi-Wan Kenobi’s life is. I threatened to make Mrs. Captain Phasma sweaters (which will totally happen). I plotted endlessly about what the film could hold. I became, bit by bit, obsessed with Star Wars.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens made me a Star Wars fan before it came out, and now? I am completely composed of Star Wars for the time being and I am loving every minute of it.

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Review: Only Ever Yours

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Only Ever Yours
by Louise O’Neill

★★★★★

2015 (originally published 2014) • 406 pages • Quercus

We didn’t discuss Elissa Sussman’s Stray in any great detail in my publishing program—after all, we weren’t supposed to know what the book was, just evaluate the excerpt we were given. (And definitely not start screeching its virtues to all comers. Uh, oops.) But one comment has always stuck in my craw. One of my fellow students, whose identity I will obscure to protect their innocence, wondered if feminists wouldn’t hate Stray, because it shows women in a negative light.

As a feminist who was loving it, I was aghast at the idea that feminists can only ever be satisfied with seeing women in a positive light: feminist dystopian fiction has a long and storied history. Speculative fiction’s most noble usage is to reflect our society back at us at slant angles so that we can see the truth (as the author sees it, anyway). I said my piece and we continued through the exercise.

Two years on, I shudder to think what that person would have made of Only Ever Yours, the darkest and grimmest satire I’ve come across in a long, long time. The misogynistic thinking that lies just beneath the surface of a lot of modern thinking about women is taken to its logical extreme, creating a truly horrific dystopia that is, as Ana at the Book Smugglers points out, composed entirely of misogyny. Only Ever Yours is inevitably compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s only The Handmaid’s Tale if women were reduced specifically to their sexual utility to men instead of “just” reduced to their reproductive capabilities.

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Page to Screen: Sailor Moon S (1994-1995)

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Sailor Moon S
based on the manga by Naoko Takeuchi

★★★★★

1994-1995 • 38 episodes • Toei Animation/Viz Media

Sailor Moon S had an odd journey to North America. You see, after the first two seasons of DiC’s dub performed so poorly in syndication, DiC just kind of dropped it. In fact, it kind of dropped it towards the end of Sailor Moon R, never finishing the season. But after Cartoon Network made Sailor Moon and Sailor Moon R a key part of Toonami, the show became more and more popular. DiC eventually bought and released the remaining episodes of Sailor Moon R, but it was Cloverway, the then American branch of the show’s production company Toei Animation, that produced the dubs of Sailor Moon S and Sailor Moon Super S, which ran on Cartoon Network. Sailor Moon Sailor Stars was never picked up for North American distribution, largely because of that season’s gender trouble.

I tend to think of Sailor Moon as a very cohesive whole, like a lot of manga and anime franchises, so it’s a little jarring to realize just how it trickled into North America, where it had such a sizable impact. As much as I’m mildly playing at revisiting my childhood by watching Sailor Moon at god awful in the morning while I get ready for work, I’m experiencing Sailor Moon in a way most English-speaking fans did not; I mean, I’ll actually get to watch an official subtitled version of Sailor Moon Sailor Stars.

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Page to Screen: Hannibal — Season 3 (2015)

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Hannibal: Season 3
based on
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

★★★★★

2015 • 13 episodes • NBC

It only really occurred to me on Sunday that I have spent this entire summer drowning in Hannibal. Despite declaring that binge watching was just not the way I, personally, should be consuming television, Hannibal’s circumstances and quality endeavored to make a hypocrite of me and succeeded. My appetite for Hannibal was insatiable; forty-five minutes never went so fast in my life before.

Now that I’ve returned to my other television projects (Sailor Moon and Xena: Warrior Princess, for the curious), it almost feels like I’ve just wandered, dazed, out of a dark forest and, looking back, have only just now realized how vast it was. When it comes to television, I am well-trained in the art of being completely out of the loop when it comes to television: see previous sentence, where I have somehow managed to grow to full adulthood as a queer lady geek without the power of Sailor Moon and Xena: Warrior Princess. So the experience of not only being in the loop but being in the loop with a show that has radically challenged what network television and television can do has felt like a rare honor.

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At The Movies: Magic Mike XXL (2015)

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Magic Mike XXL

★★★★★

2015 • 115 minutes • Warner Bros.

It’s true! It’s true! Everything Our Lady of Celebrity Gossip Anne Helen Petersen says about Magic Mike XXL is breathtakingly true. Not that I would ever doubt Our Lady of Celebrity Gossip, but I remain firmly suspicious of mainstream Hollywood at all times, especially when it comes to feminist credentials.

That truth? That Magic Mike XXL is a sun-soaked, beautifully shot hangout movie that replaces any silly ideas about a plot with vocally and visually centering and emphasizing (straight and male-attracted) female desire at every single opportunity. And elaborately choreographed stripping numbers. If Magic Mike was a understated film about a man coming into his own, Magic Mike XXL is practically a musical.

Like any musical, the plot is really only there to get the characters moving from set piece to set piece. Channing Tatum has described the film as “a stripper odyssey,” which isn’t a half-bad description (although, blissfully, there’s no Penelope fighting off suitors back home). After the events of Magic Mike XXL, the tattered remnants of the Kings of Tampa invite Mike to join them on a road trip to the delightfully untitled Stripper Convention in Myrtle Beach. After a little consideration, Mike happily hops onto the frozen yogurt party food truck and off they go, leaving torn tank tops and happy women everywhere they go.

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At The Movies: Mad Max — Fury Road (2015)

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Mad Max: Fury Road

★★★★★

2015 • 120 minutes • Warner Bros.

If you know me at all, you know that I love the eighties. Specifically, I love a specific aesthetics associated with American pop culture in the 1980s—that peculiar blend of heavy metal, speculative fiction, absurd hair, and high camp that I have designated old school sf. I actually define old school sf as existing from Star Wars (its introduction into the mainstream) to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (its legitimization in the mainstream), but it’s that extra eighties boost that so often drives me over the edge into snarling joy. Maybe it’s growing up on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, or perhaps it’s the best marriage of my camp sensibilities and my love of speculative fiction. Nonetheless, it hits and satisfies a very pure and primal part of myself.

But I gave up, a while ago, any hope of seeing that aesthetic—that old school sf aesthetic that’s equally interested in being totally kick-ass as being speculative fiction—applied in a big way that didn’t exclude me. While I adore old school sf so, so much, it’s usually par for the course that I will find female characters or queer characters (if they’re even present) being treated not so great. And that doesn’t even include how it sometimes poorly handles or straight up ignores great swathes of people, like people of color or disabled folk.

There are, mercifully, wonderful exceptions. Gael Baudino’s Gossamer Axe is a queer pagan feminist rock and roll fantasy. Every episode of Xena: Warrior Princess features two very different women kicking butt, taking names, and being devoted utterly to each other. But they weren’t the norm and they certainly weren’t the stuff that turns into the big budget stuff that often define a year or even a decade in media. Since speculative fiction is an inherently progressive genre, it makes sense to for us to have left a lot of that behind in its continuing mission to reflect the diverse people who use it to explore their own experiences of the world and thereby expand everyone else’s. As much as I adore old-school sf, I have no shortage of selections from the past. I have always been ready to sacrifice it for the future of speculative fiction.

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Review: Women in Clothes

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Women in Clothes
edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton

★★★★★

2014 • 528 pages • Blue Rider Press

I’ve started wearing blue lipstick recently. I’ve also started wearing purple lipstick—true, dark, royal purple, not berry or mauve—but they both get the kind of attention I want. With the warm tones in my face neutralized by how dark and cold they are, I look… different. Women are usually pleasantly baffled by it; men are repelled. Cute shop girls ask me where I get it. I leave fantastical, cosmic lip marks on coffee cups and apples. I actually had a teenage girl timidly touch me on the shoulder at a museum exhibit to compliment me on it, staring at my mouth like she’d simply never conceived of the idea before and found something inspiring about it.

What those lipsticks give me is something incredibly rare: power over the way other people see me. As a femme queer, I have so been long resigned to being visually misread that I’ve reached the point of just not caring and doing whatever I want, since people usually just begin and end with my hair anyway. Stumbling across something that disrupts what I had previously believed to be something completely static feels like finding a magic wand.

The decisions we make about what we wear, no matter how conscious or conscious, speak to how we interact with both the outside world and our inner world. Women in Clothes, a massive project undertaken by editors Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, explores those decisions by asking over six hundred women (and a few male transvestites) what their clothes mean to them. Largely, they used a survey (which you can look at here), but there are also interviews, diagrams drawn by women about their bodies, maps of the discarded clothes left on the floor, and collections of similar clothing owned by one person, just to name a few.

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Page to Screen: Agent Carter (2015)

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Agent Carter
based on Captain America: The First Avenger

★★★★★

2015 • 8 episodes • ABC

Do I really need to tell you Agent Carter is amazing?

I kind of feel weird reviewing it, to be honest. Part of it is its obvious awesomeness to everyone I come in contact with on a regular day. Part of it is that it feels so long ago. Okay, it’s only been a month, but that’s like a year in fandom time. (I mean, the first blush of Sherlock fandom feels like another decade entirely.) And part of that is because Agent Carter is the closest thing to an original television show I’ve decided to review for the blog, being based on the Marvel Cinematic Universe instead of a specific comic, and that makes me a little nervous. Like everything that makes me nervous, that’s preposterous—it’s not as if I’m reading the Sailor Moon manga to give the anime series greater context…yet.

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Review: Bastard Out of Carolina

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Bastard Out of Carolina
by Dorothy Allison

★★★★★

2012 (originally published 1992) • 336 pages • Plume

 

Sia has adopted the young dancer Maddie Ziegler as a kind of avatar, and so I expected to see her crop up when Sia appeared on Saturday Night Live this weekend—even without knowing that Ziegler had already turned up in the music video for “Elastic Heart.” Less inevitable was seeing another dancer, Denna Thomsen, don the leotard and blonde bob as well. But by the time Ziegler was stomping on the back of her older dance partner, I was enthralled. The performance can be read many ways, but the more I read about the larger context of the song—the official music video features Ziegler dancing with a bearded Shia LaBeouf as a pair of “warring ‘sia’ self states,” according to the artist—the more I was convinced that the performance on Saturday Night Live yielded plenty of fruit as a treatise on motherhood.

Between that performance of “Elastic Heart” and Bastard Out of Carolina, I’ve been thinking about motherhood, lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the spiritual violence of motherhood. Louis C.K. has a joke about how adopting a dog is just starting a countdown to sorrow, because owners will usually outlive their dogs. I deeply suspect that the same is true of raising a child. There comes a moment when you look into your child’s eyes and discover that she is both the same as you and different from you. There comes a moment when you look into your mother’s eyes and discover that she is both the same as you and different from you. It’s the moment in Sia’s performance when the child wraps her arms around Sia, declaring agency, and it breaks her mother’s heart; it’s the moment when Bone loses her mother, because her mother can still love the man who abused and raped her daughter. It’s the moment when you recognize each other as independent and fallible beings. It’s the moment when you are discover that you are now equals.

I fell in something hotter and drier than love with Dorothy Allison’s writing when I came across her essay “A Question of Class,” where she talks about the difficulties she’s faced at the intersection of queer and poor. It’s as visceral as she confesses to wanting her prose to be, so off I trotted to said prose. And here is another thing to fall for: she writes of an angry girlhood.

Bastard Out of Carolina is often taught in high schools and is, as you can imagine and as Allison discusses in the afterword to this twentieth anniversary edition, hotly contested. But I don’t think it’s about the level of abuse Bone suffers at the hands of her stepfather, but about Bone. I remember the rape narratives I came across in middle school and high school featuring faultless heroines who suffer silently until rescued, presumably to forestall the “enjoyable” discussions about consent my middle school Health class I stewed through. (I slaked my anger on correcting misinformation about abortion in the textbook.) Bone is no such long-suffering, pure heroine. she’s serious, quiet, and righteously angry. She understands the world both better and worse than she thinks she does. She deeply suspects and speculates on her mother’s coping mechanisms. She knows how others think of her people—the poor, the backwoods, the Boatwrights. And she spends the novel grappling with her mother’s seeming desire to ignore what is happening to her.

And Bone is righteously, incandescently angry at the world, society, and mother that fail her:

After that, when I passed the Woolworth’s windows, it would come back—that dizzy desperate hunger edged with hatred and an aching lust to hurt somebody back. I wondered if that kind of hunger and rage was what Tommy Lee felt when he went through his mama’s pocketbook. It was a hunger in the back of the throat, not the belly, an echoing emptiness that ached for the release of screaming. Whenever we went to visit Daddy Glen’s people, that hunger would throb and swell behind my tongue until I found myself standing silent and hungry in the middle of a family gathering full of noise and food. (98)

We do not see enough angry girls in fiction—girls whose anger is not dismissed or ignored, but recognized and validated. Girls, even girls protected from what Bone suffers, have every right to be angry. To see an angry girl, and an angry girl who dominates the novel with her own searing voice at that, is more than a breath of fresh air. I was an angry girl myself, but I never realized it, no matter how hateful and spiteful I was, no matter how deeply I overreacted to other things, no matter how loud I raged. No one around me knew what to do with a overgrown girl’s unreasonable anger, largely because I don’t think they thought young girls could be that angry, and we all largely pretended it wasn’t happening. (It got better, eventually.) It, thank God, was not for the reasons Bone is angry; it was a different, internal anger. But it was an anger all the same. Validation comes in all forms, even if it’s the barest fingerprint of Bone’s life against mine.

Bone, eventually, thankfully, and mercifully is given a way out—through her extended family, who defend her against Glen, and specifically her aunt Raylene, who ultimately takes her in. But Bone ultimately rescues herself, by making the heartbreaking realization that her mother cannot help her. It’s a messy novel, as it has to be, and it’s searing. I opened Bastard Out of Carolina to read a few pages at lunch on Saturday and could not physically tear myself away. I have so much to learn from Dorothy Allison.

I rented this book from the public library.

At The Movies: Attack the Block (2011)

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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.

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