Zelda “Jackie” Ormes was a pioneer of American comics and the first black woman to have a syndicated comic strip.
Jackie Ormes syndicated several strips from 1937-1956 in African American newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Pitsburgh Courier. She drew several strips, either in the romance-adventure genre or single-panel subtle political cartoons. Her first notable strip, Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, was about a young, glamorous woman traveling to New York City to seek her fortune. Torchy Brown was a fashionable, smart young woman who wasn’t afraid to break the rules to get what she wanted: love, a dance career, and great clothes.
Many of the Torchy Brown strips came with a paper doll section highlighting seasonal fashion.
Why was this a big deal? Particularly when written or drawn by white people, black representation in comics in the late 1930s and early 1940s was often limited to racist stereotypes. Ormes sought to break these down through her comics and later, her dolls. She portrayed real people rather than caricatures.
Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem stopped being syndicated in 1940, but returned later in the strip Torchy in Heartbeats, which focused more on Torchy’s romantic aspirations, but also touched on themes of environmental justice and Torchy’s career. Romance comics were the rage in the 1950s, and Ormes’ work is a good example of the genre.
Aside from romance comics, Ormes also drew single-panel cartoons. Her most famous is the humorous political strip Patty Jo ‘n’ Ginger, which ran from 1945-1956. Every strip is some sort of witty banter between Patty Jo, a little girl, and her teenaged sister, Ginger. Like Torchy Brown, Ginger is a fashion plate: always in fantastic, fashionable outfits. She never speaks in the comic, and plays the “straight man” to Patty Jo’s witticisms. Patty Jo is smart and pulls no punches.
“It would be interestin’ to discover just WHICH committee decided it was un-American to be COLORED?”
Patty Jo is the epitome of speaking truth to power. She takes on racism, sexism, and injustice, sometimes blatantly, sometimes subtly.
“What’cha mean it’s no game for girls? We got feet too, ain’t we?”
In this 1948 comic, Ginger is holding a pamphlet and pledge cards for the Negro College Fund, a scholarship fund that helped students get into historically black colleges:
“Gosh–Thanks if you’re beggin’ for me–But, how’s about gettin’ our rich Uncle Sam to put good public schools all over, so we can be trained fit for any college?”
After the 1955 lynching of teenager Emmett Till, who had reputedly whistled at a white woman, Ormes posted the following cartoon:
“I don’t want to seem touchy on the subject…but, that new little white tea-kettle just whistled at me!”
Unsurprisingly, Ormes’ work was not syndicated in white newspapers.
Never once was Patty Jo asked to silence herself or rein herself in: the strip just served as a place for her to be precocious, i.e. smart and politically incisive. Rebecca Onion of Slate describes Patty Jo as a “spiritual ancestor of the radical Huey Freeman of the comic strip Boondocks.”
Jackie Ormes made a Patty Jo doll with the Terri Lee doll company in 1947, which was a sixteen inch tall plastic doll with “playable hair” and a variety of fashionable outfits. It was a huge commercial success, and is now a collector’s item.
When I woke up this morning and looked at the internet, I wasn’t prepared to go through various stages of grief, starting with a rock-solid denial: what? David Bowie isn’t dead. David Bowie cannot, in fact, die because he is a magical space being. Right? But no, it turns out he had cancer and died two days after his 69th birthday and final album release, which makes his album and his Lazarus video 1000% more badass.
So this morning, while I mourn the man who brought beautiful weirdness into a lot of people’s lives, I want to celebrate some of the damn important lessons I’ve gotten from Bowie’s work and life:
1. Create with your whole heart.
If I don’t put my all into something that I’m writing, I inevitably feel regret.”
David Bowie never hesitated to be his own exact flavor of weird. And he inspired a lot of other people to do their own weird thing, too. As a magical space being of weirdness, though, Bowie was also very studied in a wide variety of disciplines and had some pretty coherent creative processes. He was about actually creating things: he cited his futurism as a response to hippie-ism of the 60s. In this 2002 interview, Bowie states: “God, I hated the hippie period. They talked about being so creative, but there was so little creativity to it. Glam really did plant seeds for a new identity. I think a lot of kids needed that that sense of reinvention. Kids learned that however crazy you may think it is, there is a place for what you want to do and who you want to be.”
2. Reinvent yourself.
Bowie played rock, soul, R&B, new wave, electronic, glam, also acted in both theatre and film, studied mime, painted, and of course costumed himself in a variety of signature styles.
He also accumulated personas like other people accumulate accessories: Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Alladin Sane, and more. He never let his art stagnate, and did the work necessary to keep himself from merely riding the fame train without also constantly innovating.
3. Let the personas that no longer serve you die.
David Bowie did a lot of cocaine in the 70s; for a while he lived on a steady diet of red and green bell peppers, milk, esoteric magic, and mostly cocaine. In his late 20s, though, he felt like he might die and started down the path to get clean. Part of that path, for him, was to retire Ziggy Stardust and effectively put to rest the much-beloved persona that spurred his drug use. At the height of his cocaine use, he also lived a persona who was effectively his shadow self, the Thin White Duke. This persona, too, Bowie put to rest once his usefulness had passed.
While I don’t expect everyone to live their lives through such carefully costumed personas, I do think that everyone who creates has personas attached to creating. As a freelancer, one of my frustration is that I’m not always sure where Work Anne and Writer Anne and just Anne overlap, or don’t. But I know that any persona I accumulate or story I tell myself doesn’t have to be permanent, and I can let them go if they’re no longer serving me.
4. Meet death head-on.
Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday, is a “carefully orchestrated farewell” to his fans. He was very private about his cancer; he knew he was dying and made art accordingly. I imagine making Blackstar was a way for him to also bid farewell his all his personas, and himself. In a culture that fears death and does not speak of it, such work is impressive and beautiful.
My aunt speaks of “aging on purpose”…I think Bowie died on purpose. Which is the best one can ask for, really, out of life.
5. Contribute to the culture.
I suppose for me as an artist it wasn’t always just about expressing my work; I really wanted, more than anything else, to contribute in some way to the culture that I was living in. It just seemed like a challenge to move it a little bit towards the way I thought it might be interesting to go.”
Both are about the early days of computers. Halt and Catch Fire revolves around an independent computer company in the dawn of the PC era (1983), trying to make a portable computer that can compete with IBM. WIZZYWIG is about a notorious hacker in the early 90s phone phreak era. Both have beautiful attention to detail and are worth your time.
WIZZYWIG: Portrait of a Serial Hacker by Ed Piskor, Top Shelf, 2012.
WIZZYWIG (phonetic pronunciation of WYSIWYG: What You See Is What You Get) follows the hacks and run-ins with the law of Kevin J. Phenicle, a.k.a. “Boingthump,” a notorious hacker of phones and computers. Phenicle is a character who Piskor based on a synthesis of various real-life hackers, most notably Kevin Mitnik (“Condor”), who was on the run from the law for years, in prison for years, and now works in IT security. Mitnik was the hacker who was said to “be able to start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone,” a phrase which comes up in WIZZYWIG to describe Phenicle. Phenicle is an ever-shifting character: contrary to the title, what you see is never what you get with him in this story.
Reasons you should check it out:
This is a gorgeous book, physically satisfying to hold in your hands. Perhaps ironically, I would pick up the hardcover a hundred times before going digital on this book in particular.
The structure of the story is fascinating. The story is told in a patchwork fashion: it combines bits of linear plot with fake news broadcasts, vignettes that help build Phenicle’s character, retrospective interviews with hackers who knew him, lists of the people he used in his schemes, etc. In this way, the structure of the book mirrors a biopic or a documentary more than a feature film. I find it refreshing; it reads like a zine, but has more plot and character arc than a zine. This book showcases what comics can do that no other genre can.
There are many many nods to hacker culture and the history of 90s hacking/phreaking/social engineering. If that’s familiar territory, you’ll find it delightful. If it’s unfamiliar territory, you’ll find many interesting places to jump-start your own research.
Reasons you might want to pass it up:
If you are looking for a well-rounded, diverse comic, this is not it. This is a story about arrogant white guys. The most significant female character is Kevin’s grandma, and she never actually appears in the panels, but rather exists as a disembodied, floating voice. There are some women Kevin wants to have sex with or uses in his schemes. And a black guy beats him up in prison. That’s about it in terms of diversity. Actually, aside from his childhood friend, Winston, pretty much everyone
If you want a very linear story with clear plot points, the patchwork story structure might annoy you, I guess?!
Halt and Catch Fire, AMC, 2014
True confession: I only found this show because Kate Leth was talking on Twitter about how Lee Pace’s character is bisexual and it’s frigging nice to see some bisexual men represented on TV.
Even though I started watching the show for superficial reasons (who doesn’t want to see Lee Pace make out with a dude?!), there’s a lot to love in the show. Lee Pace plays Joe Macmillan, a highly ambitious salesman who swoops into a small Texas computer company and recruits Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a sad, alcoholic visionary whose last computer project failed. Joe convinces Gordon to help him to make a new machine with an OS designed by whiz kid college dropout Cameron Howe (Makenzie Davis). They’re helped at times by Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), who is a data recovery expert at Texas Instruments.
Reasons you might check it out:
The chemistry–sexual and otherwise–between the actors is fantastic. All of the characters are struggling with the balance between being creators and consumers–of computers and of each other. All of the characters could be shoved into single-story stereotype boxes, and yet they all somehow manage to evade cookie-cutter roles and are instead nuanced, interesting people.
The show is set in Dallas in 1983, and the 80s aesthetic is captured perfectly in the sets and costuming. It’s delightful. It’s a period piece, and a very well done one.
In terms of representation, Halt and Catch Fire beat the pants off of WIZZYWIG. In the first season, there are two significant female characters, Cameron and Donna. There are a few folks of color who show up, albeit none are main characters yet. Yes, Joe is bisexual.
Donna and Gordon’s relationship, in particular, is interesting and important. Donna is a working mother who ends up shouldering a disproportionate amount of the house and parent duties. Donna and Gordon have a tumultuous relationship, but at the same time believe really strongly in each other. Again, the characters are complex and fascinating.
2a. To overthrow (a nation, government, ruler, etc.); to bring down, depose, put an end to; to defeat, vanquish. Also: to overcome (an ostensibly more powerful force).
2c. To undermine without necessarily bringing down (an established authority, system, or institution); to attempt to achieve, esp. by covert action, the weakening or removal of (a government, political regime, etc.).
6.trans. orig. Literary Criticism. To challenge and undermine (a conventional idea, form, genre, etc.), esp. by using or presenting it in a new or unorthodox way.
-Oxford English Dictionary online, 3Aug15
Today I want to talk about subversive music videos. The heyday of the music video began in the 80s, with MTV as the primary distributor of these little nuggets of film. Some music videos were just performance showcases; some told a story. Pop songs now conjured video images in the heads of those who heard the song.
And in every age of music videos, there are videos that are controversial, that cause generations of adults gasp in horror and shield their children’s eyes. “Shock value” is a term often tossed around with these videos. “Sensationalism.” “Excess.” And today I want to look at some videos that have all of those things in one way or another, and analyze them against one other factor: subversiveness.
To be subversive, a video must present symbols in a way that challenges existing power structures. By “symbol” I don’t necessarily mean something overt like a burning cross–which is a symbol used in the videos I’m discussing today–rather, a symbol is any image that represents a larger category of images or tropes. A symbol might be a tree, a building, a cigarette, a sandwich, or something film-related like a close-up or an “ass shot”. i hear you cry “but if symbols can be anything, why are we even talking about them?” Because symbols measure subversion: a single thing like a tree can mean a thousand things in a thousand different contexts. Literary theory, kids, hold on to your symbolic hats, ’cause we’re about to talk about pop videos.
One thing to note: all of these videos involve personas, as in the singers acting out a role to tell a story in the video. While some of them are based on fact, like how Rihanna’s accountant really did screw her out of millions of dollars with bad financial advice, nonetheless the performances are not meant to represent the artists as much as the artists’ personas. I will refer to the artists by name, but know that in context of the videos I mean their persona for that video.
Madonna: Like a Prayer
The video opens with a flurry of images: Madonna running with sirens in the background, white men assaulting her in an alley, a burning cross, a black man being arrested, a church. Madonna runs off and hides in said church where she has a vision/moment/thought trip that comprises most of the video. In the church, she frees a Black Jesus statue from his special Catholic saint cage; he comes to life.
Then Madonna dances around with a black gospel choir and makes out with Black Jesus, inter-cut with scenes of her singing while crosses burn in the background. About halfway through the video we get the twist: we see the scene of her assault, but coherently this time: three white men assaulted her, the black man shooed them away but was arrested, presumably charged with her assault. Back to gospel choir and burning crosses.
In the end of the video, Madonna’s in the police station talking to the police, who let out the black guy who saved her.Finally, everyone who appeared in the video–muggers, cops, black man, Madonna, gospel choir–takes a theatrical bow and a red curtain lowers with the words “THE END.”
It’s easy to reduce this video to its most “shock value” signs, at least for the time of its release: “Like a Prayer” is the “making out with Black Jesus” video. Ironically, the figure played by Leon Robinson was supposed to be Saint Thomas, but hey, authorial intent often times means less than popular interpretation. The video is chock full of signs rich with cultural meaning: Jesus, the stigmata, weeping blood, burning crosses, the police. The power structures that all of this imagery is working towards dismantling could be the Catholic Church (the Vatican officially condemned the video, so…), or the police, or the systems of institutional racism and injustice in America. And particularly during its release, the imagery was provocative, especially since like most pop artists, Madonna had a following that included children and teens.
Looking at the video in 2015, a few things stand out to me. One: The race relations between police and young black men is more relevant than ever. In that respect, this video has not aged out of subversive use. Two: To some extent, this reads as a white justice fantasy, by which I meant that this is a story by and for white folks that features Madonna being accepted with open arms by the black community and then heroically saving a young black man with her whiteness. If Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was a white vengeance fantasy, then “Like a Prayer” is a white justice fantasy. Three: the theater curtains and curtain call at the end of the video are important, drawing out the constructed, artificial nature of power structures represented in the video.
Lady Gaga: Telephone, ft. Beyoncé
Lady Gaga has been thrown in prison (possibly from killing her murderous boyfriend in the her last video, “Paparazzi”), and gets bailed out by Beyoncé.
The drive away in the Pussy Wagon from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, and go to a diner where Beyoncé poisons one guy (who she presumably has a bad history with) and Lady Gaga poisons everyone else in the diner including the dog.
There is then an All-American dance party.
Finally, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé escape with law enforcement in pursuit and drive off into the sunset.
Lady Gaga’s obsessions over the course of her career include both fame and monstrosity, thus her album “The Fame Monster,” where we can find this song. I chose this video because like the Rihanna video I’ll be discussing next, it features violent women. Like the Madonna video, “Telephone” sets itself up as another constructed medium: in this case, a film rather than a stage play. Much of what Lady Gaga makes is about the constructed nature of her own fame as well as celebrity culture.
So is this video provocative? Absolutely. There’s enough spikes, near-nudity, death, and nifty outfits to sink a very fabulous ship.
Is it subversive? Well, kind of, kind of not. While I find Lady Gaga’s overall commentary on fame, appearance, spectacle, and monstrosity intriguing and oftentimes subverting of its own celebrity structures, this video spends more time recreating structures than breaking them down.
Take the prison scene, for example. Mostly, it recreates the women-in-prison tropes of 70s exploitation films, just with an updated look: butch female wardens punishing Lady Gaga, catfights between prisoners, makeouts between prisoners, and a dance number in leather thongs. Bitch Planet this is not.
Take, also, the Quentin Tarantino references. In Kill Bill, the Pussy Wagon was driven by a rapist man, then stolen and co-opted by Uma Thurman’s character Beatrix Kiddo to wreak bloody vengeance on those what done her wrong. In “Telephone,” it’s presumably Beyoncé’s car. The other Tarantino reference is that Beyoncé’s name/nickname in the video is “Honey B,” a reference to Honey Bunny, one half of the diner holdup duo from Pulp Fiction. This foreshadows what the duo will do at the diner. They poison folks using service and sweetness (honey). The deaths of everyone except for Honey B’s awful man (played by Tyrese) are ultimately gratuitous, unlike the death Rihanna’s video. The brutality is unexpected and subverts the structure of women as automatically sweet, kind, and servile.
Ironically, the most subversive part of the video was the All-American Dance Scene at the end. Juxaposed with the brutal poisoning, its use of the American flag and an enthusiastic dance routine make it an ironic end to the story. This is the performance you’ve come to expect of us, the dancers seem to say. So were the murders just a part of that performance?
TL; DR: The meat dress was subversive. The women-in-prison was not. The murder-and-dance-away was kinda subversive.
Rihanna: Bitch Better Have My Money
(video is NSFW )
Rihanna’s 2015 video, “Bitch Better Have My Money,” or BBHMM for short, was met with Like-a-Prayer-esque shock and horror after it dropped.
The video opens with an image of a trunk with bloody legs sticking out of it. Then we see a white woman in sheer lingerie getting ready, kissing her husband, and leaving her house with an ornamental dog. This is inter-cut with Rihanna dragging a large trunk into an elevator that the white woman enters…ding, when the elevator opens at the bottom floor, it’s just Rihanna, the trunk, and the dog.
The video then goes through a series of tortures that Rihanna and her two flunkies are doing to the white woman: stripping her, hanging her upside down in a shed, Weekend With Bernie-ing her (knocking her out and pretending she’s conscious) in front of a cop, almost drowning her, and making her drink and smoke drugs. There are several shots of Rihanna on the phone.
Throughout, the lyrics:
Bitch better have my money!
Y’all should know me well enough
Bitch better have my money!
Please don’t call me on my bluff
Pay me what you owe me
Ballin’ bigger than LeBron
Bitch, give me your money
Who y’all think y’all frontin’ on?
Like brrap, brrap, brrap
Louis 13 and it’s all on me, nigga you just bought a shot
Kamikaze if you think that you gon’ knock me off the top
Shit, your wife in the backseat of my brand new foreign car
Don’t act like you forgot, I call the shots, shots, shots
Like blah, brrap, brrap
Pay me what you owe me, don’t act like you forgot
The turn of the video happens at 4:50, when Rihanna and company return to the house of the rich woman. We meet the “bitch” that the song has been talking about: not the woman, not any woman, but rather the accountant, played by Mads Mikkelsen, who we learn has ruined Rihanna’s credit and stolen her money. We see him tied up, gagged. We see Rihanna selecting weapons that are labeled with different sins (“cheater,” “ruined my credit,” etc), inter-cut with re-plays of the scenes we saw before of Rihanna on the phone. This time, though, we see the flip side of the conversation: Rihanna’s been asking for her money, using the wife as collateral, but the man doesn’t care. He’s sleeping with sex workers, wasting cash, living a life of excess. To him, his wife is just as much of an object as Rihanna and gang have been treating her.
The final scene of the video goes back to the opening image: the trunk with the bloody legs. The camera turns and we see that the legs are not those of the wife, but of Rihanna, who is naked, covered in blood, lighting a cigar with money, and lying on the trunk full of cash. Presumably, the wife lives, and the accountant is dead.
The sheer violent imagery of the video shocked a lot of folks. Unlike Lady Gaga, from whom “Telephone” was an expected spectacle, Rihanna got blasted for such a tonal departure from some of her previous work. The violence in BBHMM was exaggerated and theatrical in the way that rap video violence is exaggerated and theatrical, but it had one less step of hyperbole and showmanship than “Telephone.” I think that’s why many folks condemned the video so strongly: it’s too violent/graphic, they said, meaning that it’s unironic violence that’s not being played for laughs coming from the hand of a black woman.
There’s been a lot of critical commentary on the video, including Karley Sciorentino’s thesis that the white woman and the white man represent the idea of whiteness more than actual people, and the idea put forth by HuffPo’s Barbara Sostaita that the video is a metaphor for reparations. My favorite commentary on the video’s scenes of violence towards a woman comes from the brilliant Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous: That a white woman (specifically) is turned into the object of a vengeance fantasy to help the survival of a black woman is putting White Feminists’ shorts in a knot. If it were the accountant’s brother, McKenzie points out, certain white women commentators would not feel so uncomfortable because, y’know, dang men, and we’re all in this together and stuff. The critical commentary surrounding the video is a part of the measure of its subversiveness, much like “Like a Prayer.”
I think this video does very clever things to subvert the following power structures: race, gender, rap video tropes, and the male gaze. Rihanna doing things that many men have done in many movies, music videos, and video games is subversive to begin with: why do we decry her but not other artists with similar content in their videos? Why is this terrible, but not Grand Theft Auto or Eminem’s “Kim”? Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Hannibal the cannibal on the NBC show Hannibal, is an interesting choice for the accountant. His presence seems to ask: Are you offended? If so, why this? Why now?
The nudity in the video is by and large non-sexual. The stripped white woman is not there to be sexy, she’s there to be meat, an object with which to earn money. Twice we see Rihanna nude or near-naked: once at the end, and once when she’s in a pool. There’s one sexualized shot of her butt in a thong swimsuit, but it’s only half the frame: the other half of the frame is the white woman being hidden from police, underneath a pool floatie.
Were you looking at her butt? Because then you are just as dumb as the cop, and as powerless as the woman under the water. Rihanna has the power in this situation.
A powerful black woman who is willing to act in a violent, monstrous capacity in order to ensure her own survival is a subversive image in the USA in 2015.
What did you think of these videos? Do you find them subversive, or not? What other pop videos do you find subversive? Tell us in the comments, preciousss.
In Frank Miller’s imagination, everyone loves the goddamn Batman.
Lately, I’ve found the best examples of both success and failure in writing outside one’s demographic in the world of comics. Successes include books like Trees by Warren Ellis, and Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue Deconnick. Failures include Strange Fruit, written by Mark Waid and drawn by J.G. Ballard. As J.A. Micheline points out on Women Write About Comics, the book fails because it falls back on tired, racist tropes. Micheline notes that when white characters say something racist, there is always someone there to contradict them or chide them for their racism, making it a magical fairy tale for white people. There is also a mute superman character, who is an alien, but looks like a black man, strong, silent, and animalistic. As Micheline says, there are real-world consequences to actual black humans when this type of trope persists: “This depiction of the superhuman black has led to dire consequences for a number of black youth in America, to name a few: Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. White police feel so threatened by black men, fear their purported strength, aggression, and animalistic tendencies, that they believe themselves justified when gunning them down in cold blood.” Micheline’s suggestion that perhaps a story like this should involve one or more black creators seems awfully apt. You can read her plea to white comics creators to create responsibly at Comics Alliance.
The comic I want to talk about today, though, doesn’t even touch on race. It’s entirely about white people. Which is a relief, because it still manages to be once of the worst comics I have read, and I don’t even want to contemplate what Frank Miller would have done if he’d tried to include people of color in this…well, as my podcast-mates put it during our review, this dumpster-fire of a comic.
What am I talking about?
Why, All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, of course.
Pictured: All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder
This nine-ish issue series came out between 2005 and 2008. It’s written by Frank Miller, who was in the process of going from a creator of respected, if pulpy comics to a person who writes white supremacist America propaganda and other fringe, ridiculous projects. The tragedy of the series is that it’s drawn by Jim Lee, and the iconic comic artist does a fantastic job at bringing Miller’s bullshit script to life.
All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder is set in an alternate storyline to any of the main, canonical DC universes. Batman is young, and just now “adopting” (read: abducting and brainwashing) young Dick Grayson (Robin) after his parents are murdered. There are plenty of scenes with lots of first person internal monologue from a wide variety of characters.
But what this book is really about is Frank Miller imagining himself as the goddamn Batman.
The panel that launched a thousand memes.
In the imagination of Frank Miller, the goddamn Batman is an unrepentant asshole who revels in the most toxic masculinity possible: he hates grief and loves beating the crap out of people. He gets all the ladies because they also love watching him beat the crap out of people. He makes Dick Grayson camp out in the Batcave and eat rats because it’s going to help him become “strong”. He tells people to shut up a lot. Heroic!
But the goddamn Batman is not the only character that Miller boldly ventures to explore: we get internal monologue from Dick Grayson, Vicky Vale, Wonder Woman, Jimmy Olsen, Superman, Batgirl, Black Canary, and more. All of it makes one thing painfully clear: Frank Miller cannot conceive of what might be going on the inside of an adult woman’s mind.
Vicky Vale does not get any deeper than this. She is not portrayed as a woman, but as Miller’s anima.
If you wanted insight into Miller’s train of thought when writing the Vicky Vale scenes, fear not:
This is not about Vicky Vale. This is about the men looking at Vicky Vale’s ass. The male gaze, ladies and gentlemen!
But wait! Not all women are pointless sexpots. Some are straw feminists:
Goddess help him, I think Frank Miller thinks that feminists are constantly angry and only think about men and how awful men are.
This is Frank Miller trying his best to write a character who’s really different than he is. Unfortunately, he has only managed to write a weird shadow-self, a woman who rants about men and how incompetent men are and men and awful awful men, but then later makes out with Superman and shuts up for a while.
The goddamn Batman, then, becomes Frank Miller’s power fantasy. Women like Vicky Vale and Black Canary become his admirers; Wonder Woman becomes a foil that only serves to reinforce the role of dominant masculinity in the story. The goddamn Batman uses words like “retarded” and “shut up” to try and assert dominance over the other characters. It’s little wonder that one of the few characters who rang true to me was Jimmy Olsen, the horny teenager:
So what’s my point? Why am I showcasing the wretched failings of Frank Miller’s imagination?
Because it’s easy to see. And if we start out by looking and the goddamn Batman as an example of the limits of one person’s imagination when trying to write a variety of characters, then we can slowly expand our critical lens. It’s easy to see when Frank Miller writes women like sexy lamps, but it’s much harder to think about your own writing, and where you have blind spots. Did you just write a woman who has no thoughts or desires outside of the male main character? Are you basing your characters on media stereotypes of their demographics? Did you write a silent black superman wrapped in a Confederate flag?
We live in our own heads, and it’s hard to get outside of them sometimes. Showing your work to a wide variety of people and listening humbly and honestly to criticism is one way to expand your brain-horizons. Working with creators other than yourself, including those outside of your demographic, is another. You can also consider if you’re writing for an audience of people just like you (the men looking at Vicky Vale’s ass; the white folks who want to be soothed about racism), or if you’re writing for a diverse audience.
In honor of Pride weekend, let’s talk about some awesome queer literature!
Specifically, I wanted to highlight a few works that have positive depictions of transgender characters, as the “T” is often neglected in “LGBT” publicity. In particular, trans women tend to get the short straw in the real world and in media, so today I’ll focus on some works with positive portrayals of trans women.
Positive depictions of trans women in media are unfortunately in short supply. Biologist, author, and activist Julia Serano describes the two stereotypes that trans women are often thrust into in film and media (the terms are hers):
The “deceptive” transsexual: a sex object until the moment when *gasp* she is revealed as trans, which in works that feature this stereotype usually means horror and revulsion because she’s “really a man.” Examples Serano notes: Dil in The Crying Game; Lois Einhorn/Ray Finkel in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
The “pathetic” transsexual: a character who could never be a sex object because she appears masculine or doesn’t “pass” as female. (Note: real trans folks do not “pass” as their actual sex. They may have spent years passing as the sex they were assigned at birth, though.) Examples from Serano: Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp; Bunny Breckenridge in Ed Wood; Bernadette in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Julia Serrano says,
While characters based on both models are presented as having a vested interest in achieving an ultrafeminine appearance, they differ in their abilities to pull it off. Because the “deceivers” successfully pass as women, they generally act as unexpected plot twists, or play the role of sexual predators who fool innocent straight guys into falling for other “men.”
The intense contradiction between the “pathetic” character’s gender identity and her physical appearance is often played for laughs.
In Rachel Pollack‘s run writing the weirdo DC alt-superhero team Doom Patrol, she introduced the character Kate Godwin, a.k.a. Coagula, a trans woman with the power to dissolve matter. Pollack’s writing is strongly influenced by classic and the occult–Kate’s powers are related to alchemy, and there is a storyline that references Tiresias, Oedipus’ adviser who became female for seven years. Kate is an unapologetic badass who has some great conversations with her fellow teammates, including a particularly salient conversation about what gender is with a male-identified robot. Tragically, Pollack’s run on Doom Patrol has not been collected into trades, but issues are decently easy to find. Check out a thorough run-down of the series over at The Toast.
Written by Warren Ellis, Trees is a strange dystopian tale of earth after the most underwhelming alien invasion ever. All over the world, giant alien structures called “Trees” have landed, and stretch from the ground to the atmosphere. They seem to do nothing, except occasionally emit toxic waste. Nobody knows what they are. The storyline of Trees follows many groups and characters, covering both very personal stories and grand political machinations. One storyline in particular is about a Tree in China and the a liberal city/huge art colony of Shu that’s accreted around it. A newcomer to town, Chenglei, a young man who befriends Zhen, a transgender woman and artist who lives in the colony. Zhen is an interesting, three-dimensional character whose friendship and possibly romance with Chenglei is endearing to follow. Trees is ongoing; it’s got a dozen or so issues out and one trade paperback.
Questionable Content is a long-running webcomic written and drawn by Jeph Jacques. The characters in the comic are quite diverse, in particular with a wide range of sexualities represented. There is an asexual character, several gay and lesbian and bi characters, and Claire, a trans woman who is currently dating Marten, the (cisgendered) protagonist of the strip. Claire is a library intern trying to figure out her adult life, a common quest of the characters in the strip. Her relationship with Marten is pretty darn adorable. Here’s Jeph Jacques talking about Questionable Content and Claire.
Manic Pixie Nightmare Girls by Jessica Udischas is a slice-of-life comic strip that tackles moments of transmisogyny, cissexism, and struggle experienced by the protagonist, Jesska Nightmare, and her friends. While the strips are, by and large, about the often depressing reflections of the realities of being trans, they are nonetheless injected with wry humor and wit. Trans women and anyone who’s ever worked as a barista will find this strip particularly cathartic.
Unlike the film examples listed up top, the trans characters in these examples are played by actual trans women actresses. Gosh.
Sense8 is a Netflix original show written by J. Michael Strazynski (Babylon 5) and the Wachowskis (The Matrix). The show traces eight people who have become psychically linked despite living all over the world. It’s the same kind of “high-concept” science fiction as Trees, and although the plot moves slowly and it doesn’t explain a lot, it’s right up my alley. For one, I appreciate it because the eight people who are getting de facto superpowers exist all over the world and not Mostly America. (coughHeroescough) For two, I appreciate the character Nomi (played by Jamie Clayton), a trans woman and ex-hacker living in San Fransisco with her girlfriend (played by Freema Agyeman). There are some pretty hair-raising scenes involving her being trapped in a hospital, but she is not stuck being a damsel in distress by any means. Two words: psychic hacking.
So I’m not usually one for romantic comedies, but this is a pretty darn adorable romantic comedy, suggested to me by Alyson over at Persephone Magazine. Boy Meets Girl is the tale of Rikky (Michelle Hendley), aspiring fashion designer and young trans woman living in the South. Rikky becomes friends with the new girl in town, or rather, the girl who’s back from prep school and lives with her rich family and Skypes with her military fiance. As they begin to strike up a romance, Rikky’s best friend from childhood, Robby (Michael Welch) becomes increasingly nervous for her sake… I won’t spoil the film for you, but suffice it to say that it’s got just the right amount of classic romance ingredients and doesn’t fall into cliche nor into cheesiness. Boy Meets Girl is also available on Netflix.
I have not been reading a ton of fiction these days, but I thought this short story was worth mentioning.
This is a short story in the Magic: The Gathering universe. You don’t need to know anything about the universe to read the story, which is about a warrior named Alesha undergoing a trial of combat, kicking ass, and taking names. Well, name. Her name: Alesha, Who Smiles at Death. Check it out!
John Henry, the “Steel-Drivin’ Man,” has many variations of his ballad. The consensus is that he was based on a real person who lived in the late 1800s, although which person is the subject of some debate. He was born a slave but was a free man during the time of the ballad. That being said, he may have been a convict leased to work on the railroad, which was de facto slavery. Pretty sure Disney glossed over that in their version. Anyway, in the main version of the tale, he races a steam drill to make a tunnel through a mountain, and wins but dies tragically from exhaustion. There are, frankly, more versions that I can process, but that’s the one that gets the most press.
Here’s a version of the ballad by blues singer Furry Lewis.
Here’s a version by Mississippi John Hurt:
a.k.a. Stagolee, a.k.a. Stack-O-Lee
If John Henry is an archetypal hero, Stagger Lee is archetypal antihero. Stagger Lee is based on a real historical person named Lee Shelton, who murdered a man named Billy Lyons in 1895; both are now immortalized in a murder ballad. The details of the murder vary pretty wildly from version to version of the ballad, but the basics are that Billy and Stagger Lee were sort of friends, and had a dispute over gambling/women/Billy messed with Stagger Lee’s hat. You don’t mess with the hat. In any case, Stagger Lee shot Billy, and has since become an archetype for the rebellious black antihero.
Here’s an upbeat version of the ballad by Lloyd Price that hit number one on the Billboard 100 in 1959:
Robert Leroy Johnson is a historical person that is well-documented as compared to the other two. He was born in 1911 and died at the age of 27. He was apparently an okay harmonica player and a mediocre guitarist, but suddenly improved his guitar skills mightily and went on to have a strong career as a musician, pioneering the Delta blues style. His death remains mysterious. He is one of two musicians (the other being Tommy Johnson, no relation, who shows up in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?) who allegedly got their musical talents from selling their soul to the Devil at a crossroads in exchange. The Devil, in these tales, is usually described as a large black man; between that and the crossroads factor, the figure is perhaps more reminiscent of the Yoruban trickster Elegba (and his various incarnations) than anything overtly Christian.
Johnson never sang explicitly about selling his soul to anyone, but here’s a song about him going to the crossroads:
Got a favorite folk hero, or favorite version of these songs? Post ’em in the comments.
I think my favorite types of literature are those not easily categorized.
I was at Powell’s in Portland recently, which is an overwhelming experience to begin with: it is called “City of Books” for a reason. I asked one of the many information stations where I might find fairy tales. “For adults or for kids?” the employee asked me. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Of course fairy tales are for adults and for kids. “Yes,” I said. “Both.” I didn’t end up visiting the kids’ section because I got far enough over my pre-appointed book limit that I knew I had to cut and run. (Powell’s is dangerous.) But in the section I checked out, the “mythology and folklore” section, I found a lot of great stuff. I picked up a copy of The Turnip Princess, that collection of German tales that was discovered a few years ago; a copy of Elijah’s Violin, one of Howard Schwartz’s excellent collections of Jewish tales, and a copy of Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic, a history of The Arabian Nights.
The books I got at Powells. Also some sai. Um, because Raphael likes to read, too.
I’d found some relevant things in the Classics section–classical European, Indian, and Japanese texts were there. I picked up a collection of tales about the Emperor Vikramaditya, Some of them, to my mind, fall clearly into the Fairy Tale category: Reynard the Fox, for example. Other things like the Divine Comedy and The Tale of Genji, are not fairy tales but involve mythic and imaginary imagery such as spirit possession, ghosts, the afterlife, and the Devil. So are these fantasy? Are they horror? Can we paint a novel from 1600s Japan and an epic poem from 1300s Italy with the same broad strokes as we do the rest of literature?
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, The Ghost of Genji’s Lover. Woodblock print, 19th century.
One of my favorite games is “spot the genre literature.” Much of what is considered canonical (and we know how I feel about that) involves supernatural, surreal, magical, or uncanny elements that are the hallmarks of popular sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction. Kafka. Borges. Marquez. Bulgakov. Shelley. Stoker. And that’s just a smidgeon of the 19th century. In fact, stories about ordinary people are a relatively new invention; myth and tales of larger-than-life heroes have been the foundation of literature for a long time. Tales of Cuchulain, Gilgamesh, Hercules, and Brunhilda were around long before we got Jane Eyre, Leopold Bloom, Captain Ahab, or David Copperfield.
In part I think I defend the supernatural, uncanny, and mythic in literature so hard is because of my devotion to sci fi, fantasy, horror…and comics. Comics is the one form in which I see the strange as being default, and stories set in the “real world” about ordinary people just starting to trickle in. Comics are also something that have an entirely different publishing industry built around them, and are therefore often difficult for bookstores to categorize. I find it amusing to go into a bookstore and ask about comics. I’ve also asked about graphic novels. This was particularly hilarious when I was a teenager in the early 2000s; I had at least one bookstore employee think I was talking about porn.
I’ll admit that I tend to preach the Gospel of Comics According to Scott McCloud, i.e. that “comics” is an umbrella term which covers single-page or single-issue short comics, serialized comics in issues or in bound forms, and graphic novels. I use the term “graphic novel” to refer to a single, self-contained comics story that is published all in one go, such as MAUS, Fun Home, or Black Hole. I write short comics. The longest thing I’ve written is three standard issues long. And yet, here I am with an MFA degree in Graphic Novel (and Fiction).
My most cynical self says that people in academia we refer to “graphic novel” because it sounds more, well, academic than “comics.” Novels are now a thing that we can accept as a legit art form. But the genesis of the novel echoes the genesis of the comic book in terms of popular literature. In his book The Rise of the Novel, scholar Ian Watt discusses the English novel of the 18th century. While books were expensive and literacy was relatively rare, with the advent of industrialization came more leisure time and the beginnings of a middle class with disposable income. Newspapers, chapbooks, and small volumes called duodecimos often printed serialized novels. Most of Charles Dickens’ novels in the 19th century were published serially. Shakespeare’s plays were a popular art form at the time. So I find the 20th/21st century emphasis on Literary Fiction vs Popular Fiction to be a bit of a false dichotomy in the first place.
Am I throwing the baby out with the bathwater here? Clearly, pulp sci-fi novels of the 60s are not the same as Phillip K. Dick novels of the 60s. If these distinctions important, why?
This post will contain significant spoilers for the film Mad Max: Fury Road.
I strongly suggest you go see it before reading the post. However, should you need convincing that it’s a film worth your time, I offer the following things I loved about it:
The world-building is consistent, amazing, deeply satisfying. It’s set in a world poisoned, dead, polluted, with disposable people and a constant resource shortage/control system that means constant conflict and oppression. It’s a dying world evoked wonderfully through chrome, explosions, and cars. There is a guitar that shoots flames. There are muscle cars stacked on top of other muscle cars.
It’s really well-written. Structurally, it’s great. This is what I’m going to talk about during the post below.
The action sequences are intense and frequent; somehow also there is a lot of character building at the same time. Like at least four characters have character arcs. Whoa.
Charlize Theron portraying a great action hero PLUS a disabled character who isn’t pitiable, “inspiration porn,” or defined by her disability. (She has a RAD mechanical arm.)
The film is an action classic and also a feminist action classic, as many have pointed out in tones both admiring and revolted. I mean, this film pissed of Men’s Rights Activists, which means it’s totally worth seeing. 🙂
Right, then, spoilers ahoy:
Best Buddy Road Trip Flick 2015
After seeing Mad Max: Fury Road, a friend of mine posted on Facebook: “It was the best buddy road trip flick of 2015.” She’s not wrong. The structural bones of the film are that of a road trip flick: protagonist goes on trip with Very Important Purpose, finds not what they expected to find but something else, something about themselves, and then returns home with new-found confidence, purpose, etc. Some examples of the Road Trip Flick: Blues Brothers, Little Miss Sunshine, O Brother Where Art Thou, Dirty Girl (which is on Netflix right now and also fantastic, go watch it). The Road Trip Flick structure is pretty darn closely aligned to the Hero’s Journey structure, where the hero must venture to the “special world” to gain allies, defeat foes, and bring the elixir of life back to their people.
So in that respect, Mad Max has a very traditional structure, and it cracks me up that a lot of articles are crying “this film breaks the mold!” I mean, it doesn’t and it does. It certainly doesn’t fall back of the tropes of toxic masculinity that many action films use–it addresses toxic masculinity, but from a place of dismantling rather than blind acceptance. So what about the plot structure is nonstandard? Well, there’s a female main character and a lot of women. And they are subjects, not objects, even the ones who were sex slaves. I wish that wasn’t such a big deal, but it Action Movie Land, it totally is.
Belle vs Max
One thing I find helpful when looking at a film is to figure out who’s the viewpoint character and whose story the film is following. Sometimes this is the same person, sometimes it is not. In this case, it’s not. Like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the viewpoint character is not the one the movie’s overall story is about. In the case of Beauty and the Beast, we’re meant to see the tale through Belle’s eyes, but it’s Beast’s story. In Mad Max: Fury Road, we’re meant to see the film through Max’s eyes, but it’s Imperator Furiosa’s story. This is what’s pissing off the sexists: this is a film about a woman and her heroic journey to gain allies (one of whom is Max), defeat foes, and very literally bring the water *cough* I mean elixir of life back to her people.
Unlike Belle, though, Max has agency throughout the film. Max’s motives are clear: survival (which he’s very clear about), and also redemption (which he doesn’t consciously know at first that he needs, but we sure do). These are the same motivations that Imperator Furiosa has, except that she’s consciously seeking redemption, thus her quest for the Green Place of Many Mothers. Max is along for the ride at first; although he is still acting in the best interest of his primary motive, survival. At some point, though, both Max and Furiosa make a conscious choice to trust each other. When Furiosa needs a driver during their passage through the mountain pass, she has Max do it. Max realizes that despite having gathered all the women’s weapons and technically holding the women at gunpoint for some time, that he and Furiosa both want escape, survival, and yes, redemption. Once he’s been trusted by Furiosa, he slowly morphs from Other to Ally. In some of the relatively sparse dialogue, Furiosa asks him what they should do if he doesn’t return from a mysterious mission to blow some shit up that’s chasing them in the fog. He looks at her funny and replies: “Keep driving.”
Max is often the catalyst for action. He sometimes serves as a fulcrum for the team. This has pulled him in to what several folks at FANgirl blog have identified as a key component of “heroine’s journey” stories: working with a team or otherwise affecting the entire society, not just the self. Notice in this scene (WHICH IS A HUGE SPOILER SO IF YOU HAVE IGNORED ME BEFORE GO WATCH THE FILM ALREADY, SHEESH) who’s making the plan, and how the camera focuses on the group as a whole:
Furiosa’s arc could follow a number of traditional hero’s journeys. My favorite version of the hero’s journey comes from The Writers’ Journey by Christopher Vogler, although Furiosa is also very much following the Heroine’s Journey as outlined by Maureen Murdock in her book of the same name. Essentially, Furiosa’s Hero’s Journey narrative goes like this:
Inciting Incident: Setting off on her journey in the War Rig.
Mentor: None. While there are figures who fall into the mentor archetype later in the film
Tests, Allies, Enemies: Max (shapeshifter), “Wives” (ally), Nux (shapeshifter), Immortan Joe (enemy), all the other desert factions in the first half of the film (enemy)
Midpoint/First Big Test: The mountain passage
Boon: Full allyship with Max, then later Nux
The Road Home: finding the Vuvalini (there’s that mentor archetype, y’all), realizing that the Green Place is no more, deciding to come back home
Showdown/Climax: Final road battle that results in the death of Immortan Joe, where she kills him.
Return: Furiosa’s return home, flowing water, Action Hero Nod with Max as he leaves, etc.
There’s a lot more about this movie that I will probably talk about. We all know how big a fan I am of symbolic props, and gosh, this film used them incredibly well. But for now I say, Huzzah, a film where almost every character had at least some development and most of them had full character arcs! Huzzah, a film well-structured and well-plotted. Oh, what a film! What a glorious film!
So what am I doing in this “writing outside your demographic” series? I realize that by “outside your demographic” I secretly mean “a demographic more socially marginalized than you.” So what’s my intention?
I want authors to think about issues of representation, demographics, and Othering in the work that they read and write. This includes both critical engagement with what you’re reading/watching and critical engagement with your own work.
In this series, I’m mostly focusing on writers of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction that has an element of world building. I think many of the topics covered are relevant for wider reasons, but if I’m being self-aware of my own secret agendas, that’s it.
However, here are things that I am not trying to do:
Keep my focus solely on works written by or written about white folks, straight folks, male folks, able-bodied folks, etc.
Neglect critical voices and theory by traditionally marginalized populations.
Reduce creative works down to their creators or the creative intent behind them.
So with that in mind, I want to start featuring some resources that may help writers illuminate how demographics, power, and privilege function in literature.
This is a collection of three essays of Morrison’s that look at how race plays out in “canonical” U.S. literature written by white folks. It’s short, important, and revelatory. It was written in 1992, and I am sad that I didn’t discover it until this year, because it gets to the essence of some very important stuff.
[…] I have been thinking about the validity or vulnerability of a certain set of assumptions […] circulated as “knowledge.” This knowledge hold that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African-Americans in the United States.
The contemplation of this black presence is central to any understanding of our national literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination.”
(from her essay “Black Matters”)
Morrison’s arguments are profound and subtle. She engages with race in American literature in a way that incorporates, yet is more than, literary theory. She looks at works by Poe, O’Connor, Melville, Hemingway, and more.
Morrison introduces the term “American Africanism”, which is a shorthand for “the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify [in the U.S.] as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, reading, and misreading that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people.” (also from “Black Matters”)