On Teachers

So, it’s been almost a year since I last posted. This is my blog so I owe nobody an explanation but suffice to say that life got in the way. Anyway, let’s see how long I can keep this up. Because I’m still a little rusty I’m going to do what most Millennials do best – use The Simpsons to illustrate my points.

Today I want to talk about teachers. I could tell you that they’re overworked and underpaid, but that’s pointless unless I can explain how valuable they are.

Teachers are indispensable, and we are losing them in droves due to the stress and sheer exhausting nature of the job. But if it weren’t for teachers I definitely wouldn’t be a writer.

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When I was in grade one, around seven years old, my class teacher was Mrs. Green. She was a jolly, plump woman with kind eyes, an easy laugh and a consuming love of literature. Every few days she would give us creative writing time in the afternoons when we could just sit and write whatever we wanted. While she could never quite get me to spell properly, she did germinate my love for writing stories. During a parent-teacher interview, she told my mother that my brain goes faster than my hand and that I would often skip words. This is still true unless I’m typing. But she encouraged me to keep putting pen to paper, even though my spelling was wrong, words were skipped and my penmanship was awful. This was the year that I realised I wanted to be a writer.

When I was in grade six, my teacher was Mrs. Higgins. She once pulled me aside and told me that the short story I had written for a class assignment had captivated her. Do you know how big that is to hear for a kid who actually enjoys school? I wasn’t a cool kid, I actually liked learning stuff and the other kids picked on me because I was an insufferable know-it-all, but when a teacher tells a twelve-year-old that they actually enjoyed something they wrote nothing else really mattered. It made me even more determined to write better stories.

When I was in year seven my English teacher was Ms. O’Meara. Miss O’Meara was over-enthusiastic, to say the least. We were sophisticated high-schoolers now! We didn’t want some constantly cheerful middle-aged woman trying to get us psyched up to read Romeo and Juliet. I’m ashamed to say that I mocked her along with my classmates during lunchtime bitching sessions, even though she read some of my woeful Harry Potter fan fiction and told me to keep going with it. I was embarrassed to admit to my classmates that I actually liked Ms. O’Meara, and I especially liked that she set creative writing assignments.

When I was in year eight my English teacher was Ms. VanMaanen. She was the first person to properly ram home how effective allegory could be – we were studying Orwell’s Animal Farm that year, and it blew my fourteen-year-old mind.

My year twelve English Literature teacher was Mr. Lawrence. He was a cool, laid-back guy with shaggy salt-and-pepper hair…and he never gave me an A. I knew that my essays were good, but he thought they could be better. He was right. He taught me to work at my writing, not to just rely on my “way with words”, for want of a better term.

It wasn’t just English teachers who nurtured my love for writing. In year twelve I studied Studio Art, with a focus on Photography. My teacher was Ms. Dowley, and she was one of those rare teachers that commanded such a deep respect in her students that we just couldn’t bear to disappoint her. When I told her that I wanted to create a photo series using Lego characters and turn it into a wall-hanging sized comic page, she told me to read Sandman by Neil Gaiman. This catalyst formed an interest in graphic novels that not only opened up a whole new world of storytelling but also gave me something in common with my current partner. We’ve had eight happy years of comic book buying sprees and Sunday mornings reading Batman in bed with cups of tea or coffee, all because Ms. Dowley suggested I try reading a medium which I didn’t realise could also be for adults.

This instance also led me to fall in love with the writing of Neil Gaiman, a person who inspires me daily. For those of you who haven’t read his work, the best way to describe Gaiman’s fantasy style is…dreamlike. The in one of the ten issues of Sandman Trade Paperbacks (I forget which one) there’s an introduction (I forget by whom) which describes Gaiman as living in that place where you’re not quite asleep but not yet awake either. His work is magical, and if I could be a tenth of the creator he is I’d be incredibly proud of my work. I may never have found him if it weren’t for Ms. Dowley.

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Gaiman is Edison to my Homer. Even the chart is accurate.

 

Finally, in year twelve my Drama teacher was Ms. Connolly. She was another one of those teachers who believed in you so fervently that you didn’t want to disappoint her. I’m still haunted by the look on her face from the one occasion when I neglected to hand in homework. One of the requirements for VCE drama was to devise and perform a seven-minute solo performance. Seven minutes may seem like a long time to perform in front of a panel of examiners but given the litany of things that needed to be included we soon found that the issue was trimming our pieces down to seven minutes, not stretching them out. A day or two before our assessment she and I were having a chat, and she told me that the examiners would be able to tell that my piece was “very clever and well-written.” I realise now that was her kindest way of saying that I was a crummy actor but I could definitely write. I’m pretty sure I got a B+ on that exam.

This is all a round-about way of saying that if it weren’t for teachers I wouldn’t be a writer. I didn’t even know it was an option until I was seven, and I had plenty of time to get disenfranchised with education, especially given how much I was bullied. I was a very lucky kid to encounter so many teachers who took an interest in my ambitions, and I wouldn’t be the person I am without them.

I’m not published yet. I hope one day that will change. When it does, I would love for them to attend my book launch so I can thank them in person. A lofty, fantastic dream, maybe, but these are the people who taught me how to dream in the first place.

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Dry Your Eyes. Get Mad. Make Art.

You may have noticed I’ve been quiet lately. My apologies- I’m in the midst of a transitional period, much like the rest of the world.

I am not a religious person. Someone once asked me what I do believe in, if not a god, many gods or some other spirituality based on the moon and the planets and their positions in the sky and their effect on your life. I had to think about it for a bit, but I realised that what I believe in is fundamental human rights – that all people should  be able to live peacefully and be treated with dignity and respect as a fellow human being. That conversation was almost a decade ago, but I still believe in this principle and have since built on this thought.

I believe in the capacity for people to do good things and be kind to one another.

I believe you should treat others better than you want to be treated.

I believe that if you see a stranger sobbing you should ask them if they need a hug (but you should pick your moment).

I believe everyone should be free to pursue their own happiness, as long as they don’t harm others in the process.

I believe in body autonomy.

I believe that if you have the capacity to contribute more to society and to help others, then it’s your duty to do so.

I believe we need to do all we can to protect our environment and learn to live within it, not in spite of it.

I believe that education can change a life.

I believe that if you don’t enjoy reading you probably haven’t found the right book yet.

I believe that the arts and storytelling are far more important than they get credit for.

I believe the undervaluing of art is why people won’t pay for it – “just download it!” “I don’t want my tax dollars to pay for this!” “Can you do it for free? It’ll be great exposure!”

But I also believe, truly, that art has the power to change the world.

Social and political upheaval always inspires great artistic works. Entire genres of music were born from the struggle for equal rights and the disenfranchisement of the working class. Some of our greatest painters and writers created with a political goal.

George Orwell.

Marcel Duchamp.

Pablo Picasso.

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Kurt Vonnegut.

The Sex Pistols.

The Clash.

Nina Simone.

Salman Rushdie.

Bruce Springsteen.

(No, this is NOT a happy song)

Midnight Oil.

The Cranberries.

Rammstein.

A Perfect Circle (originally by John Lennon, but APC brought out an album of covers in protest of the Iraq war).

Hell, even Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” is one of their biggest hits, and that was about Vietnam.

Come to think of it, a LOT of amazing music was produced to protest the Vietnam war. “I Was Only 19” by Redgum helped to unite Australians to finally recognise the sacrifice of Vietnam veterans over a decade after they came home.

Rock and Roll, DADA, Punk Rock and the Blues were all born from the intense desire for change. It’s time for another art revolution. Even now, just 24 hours after the US election result was called, I’ve seen an astonishing amount of writers, musicians and other artists on my social media – some friends, others idols – announcing that they have become galvanised into action. They have become inspired to do what they do best – make art to protest the regressive and punitive fascism which is enveloping the world.

The Australian government are trying to pass a bill that will prohibit refugees from gaining citizenship if they arrived by boat. Britain looks poised to leave the EU. Trump has been elected president of the USA and really, nobody is entirely sure what that might mean, but white men are already acting as though they have carte blanche to abuse whoever they will.

Now is when we make art that matters. Now is when we write to reach hearts and minds. Now is when we capture and document the world. Now is when we protest bigotry, hatred and intolerance with art because art can affect the soul and by extension affect the world. We can move people on a visceral level, in a way that nothing else can.

Now we stand.

Now we create.

Now we document.

Now we shine a flaming torch into the gloom.

Now we make art.

I believe in artists.

Pam Poovey: A Lesson in Subverting Stereotypes

Following on from last week’s blog about Lana Kane, this week I want to discuss one of my other favourite Archer characters, Pam Poovey.

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When I watched Archer for the first time I initially wrote Pam off as just another ‘fat girl’ stereotype. She’s the head of HR at ISIS (International Secret Intelligence Service) and seems to take her job seriously, but given that none of her co-workers take her seriously her effectiveness is limited.

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Once the show got off the ground Pam slowly got more and more badass. They hint in episode two that she’s bisexual when she watches Lana walking past–

 Cheryl: …are you totally just gay for her?

Pam: I’m the Human Recources Director, little miss ‘hostile work environment’.

Cheryl: [whispers] she’s riddled with herpes.

Pam: Hey! Innapropriate workplace topic! … and also a dealbreaker.

 She gets steadily more inappropriate from here, egged on by Cheryl who’s just plain nuts. The episode Skytanic begins the long-running trope of Pam and Cheryl turning up unexpectedly on away missions; over the run of the show they’ve snuck aboard a ridged airship, a space shuttle and a submarine. In Skytanic, Cheryl tricks Pam into sneaking aboard the airship and at first she’s angry about it, but her attitude toward these things completely changes by the end of the season.

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The episode that I see as being Pam’s real turning point, in the eyes of both her co-workers and the audience, is season two episode ten – El Secuestro. It begins with Pam and Cheryl walking to work and being attacked by a bunch of guys in balaclavas. They’re trying to kidnap Cheryl but grab Pam by mistake. Cheryl is then forced to reveal to her co-workers that she is in fact an heiress, and hires ISIS to protect her and recue Pam. Pam, to her credit, copes with being kidnapped fairly well.

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Kidnapper 1: [Looking at Pam’s identification] You idiot! This isn’t Cheryl Tunt!

Pam: That’s what I’ve been trying to tell ya, between this little gal’s love taps.

[Kindapper 2 punches her in the face]

Pam: Seriously, maybe see if your daddy will give you a roll of nickels.

Kidnapper 1: First of all, how are you still even conscious?

Pam: [Laughing] How do ya think I paid for college?

[Flashback to a few years ago, Pam is wearing a white tank top and is splattered with blood. She’s counting money.]

Pam: Two-sixty, two-eighty, and Jackson makes three. And sorry about your homie…homies.

[Camera pans out to show Pam surrounded by a bunch of tough looking dudes, and a body covered with a sheet at her feet.]

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Yeah, Pam kicked arse at underground fighting to pay her way through higher education.

Anyway, when Mallory tells the kidnappers that she’ll only give them $5000 for their hostage they decide they should probably kill Pam, until she convinces them that she’s the only person who can help them kidnap Cheryl. Once they break into the ISIS underground car park they make like they’re going to shoot her again, but Pam keeps her cool.

Kidnapper: Hey, thanks for getting us inside, Pam. Somebody shoot her.

Pam: Oh, okay. Then good luck getting past all the biometric scanners. I mean, unless you wanna chop off my fingertips and slice out my retinas.

[silence]

Pam: Oh, don’t be dicks.  

Instead once they break into the building, the kidnappers decide to use Pam as a hostage/human shield.

Kidnapper: Drop your weapons or she dies!

[Archer, Lana and Ray raise their weapons higher and take aim]

Pam: Oh, seriously?!

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This leads to a firefight. All of the kidnappers die except for the one holding on to Pam. He steps back and raises his hands in surrender, but Pam has finally had enough. She snaps the guy’s neck.

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Pam: Do you people even give a shit? Cheryl’s dumb ass gets me kidnapped and the shit kicked out of me all day and nobody even tries to rescue me?!

Ray: Archer’s fault.

Archer: Shut up.

Pam: YOU shut up! Mr ‘Pam’s not worth it’! Then you stupid a-holes shoot a jillion stupid a-hole bullets at me.

Mallory: Not me! I wasn’t shooting!

Pam: Aaaand YOU! [Pam advances on Mallory, poking a finger into her chest] The worst of the bunch.

Mallory: Me? Why me?

Pam: Five thousand measly dollars?

Mallory: Well, maybe I low-balled him at first but I had some wiggle room!

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Pam: Yeah? Well let’s see how much you wiggle when I’m whippin’ five thousand bucks of your ass!

Lana: Hey, woah!

Archer: Lana, let her have this one.

Mallory: Sterling! Anybody?

Pam: Yeah? Anybody? [Pam pulls off her tank top, revealing a Lord Byron poem tattooed across her back] Anybody want a piece of this?

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[Long pause]

Lana: Nope.

 

This is the episode where all of the tiresome fat jokes directed at Pam finally turn around- Pam is a certifiable badass, and she only gets more awesome as the series continues.

Aside from having sex with everyone in the core cast, and Archer saying that she is the best he’s ever been with, Pam also has a rich life outside of the office, which you rarely get to see for secondary characters.

In season three, episode seven, Drift Problem, Archer gets a supped-up Dodge Challenger for his birthday. When it goes missing he asks Lana for help infiltrating the gangs that steal the best cars in the city, but it turns out that Pam knows way more about this topic than anyone else. Why? Because Pam races drift cars with the Yakuza. Not only does Archer have to pretend to be Pam’s subordinate, he has to trust her to rescue them by driving like a pro.

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By this point she’s finally able to come out of her shell and, like all of the other characters, finally be herself. Pam is confident in herself as a sexual being, something which Mallory struggles with. In season three, episode ten, Crossing Over, Mallory is upset because she never gets to go out anywhere with her boyfriend Burt Reynolds (yes, really). Apparently she thinks it’s because he’s ashamed to be seen with her, and he wants to keep their relationship quiet. During this episode Pam is going through the same thing with Archer, but she doesn’t mind at all.

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Pam: My point is, if you’re confident in yourself as a woman, who cares if he wants to keep it on the D.L?

Mallory: Well, yes, but…

Pam: But nothin’, because who’s to say you’re not using him for sex?

Mallory: Pam, don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re not nearly as stupid as you look.

 

Pam then goes to see Archer again, but she lays down some ground rules. We don’t know what they are, but that she has no trouble with a secret friends-with-benefits relationship and she’s able to keep Archer in line shows remarkable fortitude and self-possession.

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Still, you can’t have a character who’s only identifiers are being the tough and sexually-adventurous fat chick who makes gross-out jokes. Really good character depth comes from vulnerability and insight, which we get to see in season five, the Archer: Vice series. In this series ISIS gets shut down by the government, so they decide to try running cocaine. Unfortunately, Pam gets hooked on their product. Her cocaine addiction causes rapid weight loss, but it doesn’t properly get talked about until episode five, Southbound and Down.

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This episode is one of my favourites for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a parody of one of Archer’s favourite movies, Smokey and the Bandit. When they have to drive a tour bus from New York to Texas in 24 hours, Archer buys a Trans Am for a blocker car and dresses up like Burt Reynolds. They get chased by bikers and cops. Cheryl (now called Shirleen) sings ‘Eastbound and Down.’ It’s beautiful.

Secondly, while Archer and Pam are trying to outrun the cops in the blocker car, they have this beautifully written exchange.

Pam: Oh my God, I can’t feel my face.

Archer: Gee Pam, I wonder if that’s got anything to do with your cocaine only diet.

Pam: Well…It’s a small price to pay for beauty.

[…]

Archer: Back up a sec. You’re endangering your life for beauty?

Pam: Yes. Duh! Look, how hot am I now? Let me answer that for you: AS BALLS. That’s why everybody likes me now.

Archer: Who, your trucker buddies? They only like you because you have coke, Pam.

Pam: Well, and the snowballs, but…

Archer: And for what it’s worth, we all kinda liked you the way you were.

Pam: Really?

Archer: Well, we hated you less. You’ve kinda turned into a ginormous asshole.

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Pam: Yeah, with ginormous big tittays!

Archer: Pam, who cares? That’s just subcutaneous adipose tissue. Albeit a shitload of it. But I can’t bang you if you die from an overdose.

Pam: Aw, you wanna bang me?

Pam spends the rest of the season addicted to coke or, as she calls herself, ‘a cocaine enthusiast.’ She becomes skinnier and more emaciated until finally, in the next season she goes to a therapist and kicks the cocaine habit. She replaces it with food and sex, so really she’s back at square one, but at least she’s not endangering her life.

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We also get hints throughout the series about Pam’s childhood growing up on a dairy farm. Aside to numerous references to Poovey farms cropping up throughout the show, in the final episode of the Vice season Pam helps Lana give birth in a war zone, because she has helped plenty of cows (and her sister) give birth in a barn.

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We get to learn more about Pam’s family in season six, episode four Edie’s Wedding. The episode begins with Pam crying because her sister is getting married and she asked Pam to be a bridesmaid. Pam is upset because she has no date. This wouldn’t normally be a problem for our self-assured Pam but, as we come to empathise through the episode, going back home to the people who judged you throughout your vulnerable teen years can make you feel fragile all over again. Archer volunteers to go with her to the wedding with barely any prompting, because Pam is his friend and she’s visibly upset.

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Unfortunately, when Archer and Pam get to Wisconsin, Pam and her sister Edie revert to the same roles they had as teens- with Edie tearing shreds off of Pam and Pam not being able to defend herself. But, right before the rehearsal dinner, Pam gets kidnapped by Barry (a cyborg working for the Russians who has a vendetta against Archer). When Archer and Edie eventually find Pam, Barry has strung her up with ropes in an old grain barn. While Barry is beating the crap out of Archer, Pam asks her sister for help.

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Pam: Edie! Cut me down!

Edie: Oh boy, where to start… Even in a new dress, you still look like ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag. The whole town thinks you’re a giant asshole for moving to New Your City.

Archer: [while being thrown around by Barry] You can just say New York.

Edie: Oh, and Dad was right, you’ll never find a husband unless you convince a blind man that you’re a seeing-eye pig.

Pam: [Sobbing] I meant cut me down from here!

Edie: Yeah. Duh.

Barrie: [While trying to crush Archer’s skull with his bare hands.] Yeah, but you know you’re no prize, right?

Edie: Excuse me?

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Edie then tackles Barry, who easily overpowers her and begins to strangle the life out of her. Using sheer strength and willpower, Pam manages to literally break out of her bonds, pick up a shotgun and shoot Barry in the chest and face, rescuing her sister. Edie doesn’t thank them. She just tells Pam, yet again, that she’ll never find a husband.

The end of the episode, however, is sweet. Edie gets a phone call saying that the wedding is off, because her fiancé got tired of waiting for her at the rehearsal dinner and wound up getting a blow job from Midge Olerude (Edie’s best friend, and the girl who did the same to a guy Pam liked back in high school just to upset her).

Pam is finally happy. So is Archer.

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Yes, Pam could try rising above her awful sister’s behaviour and hurtful barbs, but Pam isn’t written to be perfect. The writers for Archer begin with awful people as characters and have them very slowly overcome their flaws, but also try and explain their flaws to a certain extent. They also begin with stereotypes (the sad fat woman, the angry black woman, the deranged scientist, the sassy gay man, the man-child with mummy issues) and then set out to subvert them. These methods create compelling, layered characters that keep the show interesting for seven seasons and beyond.

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Lana Kane: A Lesson in Subtle Character Development

I’d like to take this moment to state that while good female role models are necessary, not every female character has to be a good person. I’d rather watch a funny show where everyone is flawed than something that puts women up on pedestals. I’ll also be the first to admit that Archer is a fucked up show. A cartoon by FX Network, the show follows the world’s number one secret agent Sterling Archer and his mal-adjusted co-workers. Episodes equally revolve around the character’s personal lives as well as the inner-workings of the International Secret Intelligence Service… or ISIS (yeeeah…this show is about seven years/seasons old).

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The agency is run by Sterling’s mother, Mallory, and the two have one of the most messed-up relationships on TV. Sterling is an overgrown man-baby, but as the show goes on he does change and grow. Still, after seven seasons you’d want the characters to show some growth, otherwise the concept gets stale.

The characters in Archer spend a lot of time tearing each other to shreds, but they all still manage to triumph in their own ways. The comedy comes from a mix of witty one-liners, completely ridiculous situations, and from the cast’s mix of personalities, not from lazy writing.

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Take Pam, for example. She starts out kind of how you’d expect; made fun of for being overweight and conventionally ‘un-fuckable,’ but by the end of the show’s run she has slept with everyone in the office, is revealed to be a fierce bare-knuckle boxer, drift-races against the Yukuza and rescues her sister from being murdered by a psychotic robot.

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Anyway, one of the best characters is Lana Kane, voiced by the magnificent Aisha Tyler. She’s a highly intelligent, tall, sexy black woman who kicks serious arse at her job. She carries two fully-loaded tech nine’s as a matter of course, which I normally wouldn’t count as a positive except her job makes it necessary.

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Lana is arguably the least mal-adjusted of all of the whole cast, but that doesn’t mean she lacks depth. She spends a lot of time reigning in Archer’s antics and making sure that they come through their missions in one piece. She’s incredibly smart and strong, but has a very short temper. This can probably be put down to growing up as a tall and gawky teenager, as she doesn’t tend to let insults slide. Having said this, she doesn’t just slip into the stereotypical ‘angry sassy black woman’ trope, and they don’t just make fun of her anger. The seven seasons (so far) show Lana trying to find the right balance between her work and her femininity, eventually having a child by IVF because dating is shitty when you work 24/7 and your office is full of jerks.

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At the beginning of the show she’s dating Cyril, the ISIS comptroller and resident wuss sack. I’ll admit, when I first watched Archer I felt bad for Cyril, but as time went on I came to the conclusion that although he seems kind and smooshy on the outside, on the inside he’s an entitled, misogynistic shit-bag. Yes, I know, Archer is also an entitled misogynistic shit-bag, but unlike Cyril Archer doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Cyril actually thinks he’s a nice guy and maintains that he’s nicer than his co-workers, but then he goes and does something super dickish like abandon his friends for dead or cheat on Lana or slut shame her or become a South American dictator and force a woman to marry him at gunpoint. But anyway, enough about Cyril the shitbag…

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Lana dates Cyril because he’s the exact opposite of Archer and she can control the parameters of the relationship. Cyril ends up cheating on her because he’s a hugely insecure jerk, a condition which he self-diagnoses as being a sex-addict, and Lana dumps him right away. When she finds out the extent of his cheating (season one, episode 10, Dial M for Mother) she exacts revenge specifically targeted at Cyril’s possessive ego.

Lana:  Okay, get out.

Cyril:  Of my own office?

Lana:  Yup.

Cyril:  Why?

Lana:  Oh, you don’t want to be here when I bang every last dude in the building…

Cyril:  WHAT?!

Lana:  Right here, on your blotter.

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Cyril:  NO!

Lana: Yuuup!

Cyril:  You can’t do that!

Lana:  Really? Is it opposite day already?

Lana then presses the intercom button and makes an announcement to the building –

Lana:  Hi, this is Agent Kane, and if you want to have ball-slappy sex with me on Cyril’s desk, please line up and take a number.

 A crowd immediately forms outside of Cyril’s office, and Lana charges them all $600 to say that she had sex with them.

Brett: Wait, what?

Lana: What what? What part of ‘you pay me $600 do you not get?”

Brett: The part where we don’t have sex?

Lana: You get to say we did, which is like half the reason men have sex

Brett: But that’s a lot of money

Lana: Not compared to rotator-cuff surgery, which you’re going to need after the jillion high-fives you give your little bros.

Brett: Okay, I’m in.

Lana’s condition with all of these guys is that the first person they tell is Cyril, and that they make up the sickest story they can think of, purely to get him mad. Because, dammit, he has no right to be petty and possessive and jealous of Lana after cheating on her multiple times.

So while the better course of action may have been for Lana to take the high road, she makes the low road look fantastic.

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Still, Lana eventually grows out of the need for petty revenge. By season four she decides she’s ready to start her own family, but given the void of stable men in her life she decides to get pregnant by IVF, which she finally reveals at the end of season four in the episode Sea Tunt part 2. After this her priorities change, as you’d expect. She still has her moments of being completely out of line, however, which proves she still has some growing to do. Take, for example, the first episode of Archer: Vice titled White Elephant.

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Lana:  I could start smoking crack TODAY and [the baby] would still turn out better than you!

Archer:  And why is that? Because I never had a father, Lana. So why don’t you shut up and then also marry me.

Lana:  Whaaat?

Archer:  I’m serious. We can go underground, get new identities and spend the rest of our lives together, Lana. Be a family. You, me the baby and your not-that-weird-looking vagina.

Lana:  Okay, don’t take this the wrong way… but I would rather lose the baby.

Archer:  But-..I…

Lana:  Wait that wasn’t… I didn’t…

Archer:  Excuse me.

Archer leaves the scene, visably hurt.

I actually like that they threw this in there, because it means that Lana doesn’t always say or do the right thing – despite her growth she is still a flawed character, and it keeps her relatable. She is completely out of line, and the expression on her face says that she knows this immediately, but there are some things you can’t take back. That Archer then comes back into the room and laughs, saying, “come on, you idiot” as though completely unfazed by what she said, but that doesn’t mean that Lana isn’t freaked out by her own behaviour.

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After her child is born at the end of season five (the Archer Vice series) Lana reveals to Sterling that he’s the father. After some initial panic, Archer actually steps up and tries to be a father, albeit in his own functional-alcoholic kind of way. He even agrees to meet Lana’s parents in the season six episode The Kanes. This episode is probably the most overt in Lana’s character progression, because she finally tells her parents what she and Archer do for a living. The following happens during a car chase through the streets of Los Angeles.

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Lana: You see? This is why I never told you! I knew you wouldn’t understand.

Dr Kane: Because you could have been a great scientist, Lana. How could you have just thrown away your God-given talent?

Lana: But it wasn’t my talent, Daddy. You and Mom just wanted it to be.

Dr Kane: Oh, come on now! You used to love going to all those science fairs!

Lana: I used to hate it! Remember I always threw up in the car on the way there?

Dr Kane: From excitement!

Lana: From terror! But I was always so afraid of letting you and Mom down that I could never tell you how I felt.

Dr Kane: Hey, come on now. You could never let us down, honey. I hope you know that.

Lana: Really? Dr Kane: Oh, Lana, we’ll always be proud of you, and we’ll always love you, even when you make stupid, stupid, stupid choices like him.

Dr Kane glares at Archer.

Archer: Aww. Well I think we’ve made some real progress here.

 During this same car-chase and shootout Dr Kane invites Archer to the Kane family reunion, because even though he’s an idiot he’s still the father of Lana’s child.

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So, since the start of the series Lana has been slowly learning to trust people again, especially Archer. But as Archer becomes less of a douche Lana is able to very slowly let her guard down.

Archer is a show that masks its character development behind horrific jokes and innuendo, but long-term viewers are rewarded with characters that grow and change by subtle degrees without losing their core personalities. This is more realistic than a lot of other characterisation – people don’t drastically change overnight. That all of the characters in Archer are seriously dysfunctional is less realistic, but it makes for great TV.

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I’m back! Let’s talk MWF16

I know, I know, I know… three months is a long time to be away from the blog. All I can say is that life got in the way, as it does when you aren’t looking. You put your blog down for a moment to pick up another piece of writing, or a book you’ve always wanted to read, or maybe to (sigh) go out and earn some money to keep a roof over your head, and all of a sudden life has gotten tangled around your feet because you forgot to look down, weaving itself around your legs like a cat, and then you go to move and wind up pitching head-first into the kitchen bench and need to go to hospital for stitches, while life is yowling at you to feed it and clean its litter box.

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I pushed that metaphor a bit too hard, didn’t I?

Anyway, my point is that life stuff has been getting in the way of other stuff. The last few months has seen me meet some incredible people and make some wonderful contacts, as well as doing enough soul-crushing grind work to be classified as ’employed.’

So to ease back into the routine of regular blog writing, I’m going to keep it simple and talk about the Melbourne Writers Festival.

I know, it’s a departure from the usual content, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least say a few words about some of the events I went to on Sunday the 28th.

My morning began with a talk titled “The Art of Fiction,” in which novelist Hannah Kent interviewed the Miles Franklin Award Winning author Anna Funder. The discussion revolved around the way we tend to base fiction on reality, and all of the trials inherent in that. Funder commented that she feels obliged to do her characters justice, be they real or imaginary, and that properly representing them was important.

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She also discussed how tricky it is to make the truth seem credible in fiction, because reality is often so much stranger than fiction. You often have to “reign in and tone done reality to make it credible,” which I had never really considered before.

To illustrate this point, Funder told the room about the German launch of her debut non-fiction book Stasiland, which is about people living in Berlin who worked for or resisted the East German regime. She said that during the launch, as she went up to read passages of the book in German, she saw that the first two rows were taken up by several older men wearing bomber jackets and lots of brylcream- obviously former Stasi, now members of “The Society for the Protections of the Civil Liberties of Man” (I think I got that name right). As she began to read, all of them took out notepads and pens from the top pocket of their jackets at the same time and began taking notes.

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A while later, while she was back home in Sydney, Funder got an email from her German publisher saying that they were being sued by the former Stasi members. When she then went to make a cup of tea to help steady her nerves and calm down, no water came out of the tap.

See, if that was written into a novel it might seem a bit over the top, wouldn’t it? But it happened.

Funder also raised the point that in fiction you are able to write a version of truth that is more interesting than fact; a truth with structure and elegance and satisfying endings, as opposed to reality when, quite often, we don’t know what happened in the end and if our protagonist survived their ordeal or exactly what happened to them.

She signed my copy of Stasiland afterward. Her latest, The Girl With the Dogs, has been added to my reading list.

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Later in the day I attended the Fantasy Fiction session with Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, and Rainbow Rowell, who wrote Fangirl and Carry On. They were interviewed by Kate Eltham.

The discussion revolved around the idea of creating universes that are both unique and familiar.

Rowell pointed out that Fantasy and Pop Culture are common knowledge that we all share as readers and consumers, so when we write fantasy work we tap into the tropes of the genre in order to create something new. However, because we are using common themes (ie: Magic) we need to come up with new ways to express them, which is what makes The Magicians different to Harry Potter, even though both are about young men attending magic school. It’s why we don’t get tired of the Orphan trope – as Rowell put it, “Every orphan in literature was sent to save the world.”

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“The Magicians” has been adapted into a TV series by the SyFy network

Also discussed was the joy of using footnotes as a way to slow the story down a bit, and to add texture and detail to the world your characters inhabit without completely derailing the narration.

It was actually quite a lot to cover in an hour.

Anyway, the 2016 Melbourne Writer’s festival is still going for another week, so if you get the chance to catch any more events I can definitely recommend it. Take a look at the program here.

 

 

OITNB Character Masterclass #1 – Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett

Countdown! Only 10 days until season 4! Who’s excited?

I’ve been putting off writing about Orange is the New Black for a while now, purely because it’s so intimidating to write about. This show has so many characters, and each episode adds layers and layers of depth to the main cast. The characters evolve so much so that you actually go from sympathising with the ‘main’ character, Piper, to being completely pissed off at her by the end of the second season.  Conversely, characters that are seen as antagonistic in the first season become sympathetic, and even likable, further down the line. The writers achieve this in a number of ways, the most obvious being allocating all the flashbacks in one episode to a particular character’s back story.

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I’m going to work on the assumption that most of the people reading this have already watched OITNB, perhaps more than once, so I’m not going to go into depth explaining who all of the characters are. Instead, as we eagerly await season four, the next few blogs will focus on some of the best examples of character development and female-oriented storytelling across the first three seasons.

Okay, so Trigger Warning here… we’re going to start with Tiffany Doggett, AKA Pennsatucky.

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Doggett goes through some of the biggest transformations in the entire run so far. She first appears in the fifth episode of season one and quickly becomes a major antagonist. She’s an evangelical Christian and uses her religion as an excuse to treat other people with contempt. She’s transphobic toward Sophia, homophobic toward multiple other women and generally pretty damn ignorant. She starts a feud with Piper, the embodiment of the perpetual victim complex, and by the end of the first season becomes fucking terrifying as she and her cronies resort to attempted murder.

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Season two, however, sees Doggett abandoned by her friends. They used to follow her around and do her bidding, like Crabbe and Goyle to her Malfoy, but when she went to SHU for a while they realised that life was a lot easier without her telling them what to do and getting them into trouble all the time. This is the catalyst for Doggett’s shift from murderous to ‘just trying her best’, and when we began to realise that not everything is as simple as protagonist versus antagonist.

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Doggett has some serious anger issues which get worked out in season two. She was sent to prison in the first place for shooting up an abortion clinic, but it’s revealed that she did it because the nurse working the front counter disrespected her. A local evangelical church got in her corner and paid for her legal proceedings because of her actions, not because of her beliefs, so it’s fair to say that her extreme beliefs are shaky at best. Her friends abandoning her also leads her to start questioning her faith.

She seeks solace with councillor Healey (don’t get me started on that arsehole’s issues). She also gets to know Big Boo, particularly in episode 12 It Was the Change. Healey warns her to stay away from Boo because he thinks there is a “Lesbian Agenda” to make men obsolete, because heaven forbid that some women just aren’t into guys – there must be some kind of conspiracy behind it. Doggett points out that men being in charge hasn’t really done her any good, then goes on to have this fantastic conversation with Boo.

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Doggett:  Hey… how does this whole ‘agenda’ thing work?

Boo:  I got a lotta those. Specify.

Doggett:  The gay agenda, to take over the world.

Boo looks at her for a moment, deciding how to react.

Boo:  (whispering) Okay, first of all, keep your voice down because this shit is top secret.

Doggett: (whispering) are you gonna let all the men die out?

Boo: Oh, fuck no. We need slaves, you know, for bookkeeping, janitorial, fetch and carry, that kinda shit.

Doggett: Yeah, what about for sex? ‘Cause I know I like how they smell kind of funky, and they’re big, and they have dicks and all that.

Boo:  Well, maybe… but when you’re done you gotta toss ’em away like trash. I mean the whole point of this is chicks digging each other and being in charge.

Doggett:  Let’s say I wanna join, right…

Boo:  Okay, let’s say that.

Doggett:  Would I have to do anything disgusting against the word of God?

Boo looks perplexed.

Doggett:  You know? … I’m talking about eating pussy if you catch my drift.

Boo:  Yeah, I hear you. And that is a big part of it, I’m not gonna lie. But since you have these religious convictions, eh, we can probably give you an exemption. I mean, we’re not unreasonable.

Doggett:  Really? That’d be great.

Boo: Mmm. Of course, you’re still gonna have to go through the initiation.

Doggett:  Yeah, I figured.

Boo:  Yeah.

Boo then looks up at Doggett, struggling to keep a straight face.

 

By the first episode of season three Boo has, like us, softened toward Doggett, even going as far as to making her feel better about getting several abortions when she was younger.

 

 

This is the moment that cements their friendship, so that later when serious shit goes down they have each other’s back. Doggett gets given van duty with a new guard, Officer Coates, and I’m sure you remember how that turned out. Doggett doesn’t realise right away that she was raped, which would have seemed surprising if we hadn’t already been given a piece of her back story as context in the same episode. We learn that she was taught to just ‘give men what they want’ from an early age, and that if a guy does something nice for her she’s obliged to repay him with sex, so when she’s assaulted by this guard whom she considered a friend she figured she did something to provoke it. We also learn that she’s been raped before, even if she won’t acknowledge it. It’s not until Boo goes to pains to explain that what happened was actually rape that Doggett realises just how messed up the situation, and her life, really is.

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While Doggett comes to terms with her situation, justice isn’t served on the perpetrator. She and Boo come close to exacting revenge – they had planned to drug Coates’ coffee and then rape him with a broom handle in his backside. When it comes down to it, though, the two of them can’t bring themselves to violate someone like that. When Boo tells Doggett that it will help her work out her rage and anger, Dogget replies “I don’t have rage. I’m just sad.” They never tell the authorities because Doggett might get in trouble, so instead she fakes an epileptic seizure while driving the van so they’ll change her work duty and she won’t have to be around him anymore. She’s replaced by the cute little Ramos as the van’s driver, and it’s assumed that Coates will probably repeat the process over again.

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This story line drew some criticism for the way it was resolved, mainly because justice wasn’t served and that Doggett simply quit her job to get away from him. These criticisms make me wonder if the reviewers have been watching the show at all – the whole point of this series is that justice is rarely served and that life isn’t fair. Her changing her own routine is not seen as a positive step, overall. The fact of the matter is that a huge number of rapes go unreported, and the ones that do rarely make it to trial. Many victims would rather re-arrange their whole lives so as to not see their rapist again, rather than go through the ordeal of prosecution.

Rape is an important subject and I absolutely think that we need to talk about it. But as I have said before, it’s a subject that needs to be handled very, very carefully. In this story, rape hasn’t been used to re-affirm how evil the perpetrator is, or to make the show seem darker and edgier, or to make a male protagonist want to get revenge. It’s not flippant. Instead, the plot follows the victim all the way through, and it focuses on her rather than pushing her to the background or killing her off so we don’t have to deal with her. During the incidences, the camera focuses on her face. The two rape scenes advance the characters involved, not the plot. The emotional consequences are explored in detail – the writing is far from lazy.

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Kudos should also be given to Taryn Manning for being able to successfully bring this character to life and to make us really believe in her story. Serious Kudos. Emmy Award Kudos.

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On the Excellence that is Miss Fisher

 

If you are not at all familiar with the Honourable Phryne Fisher, then prepare for a crash course in fabulousness. This week we discuss Australia’s most beloved lady detective, including her books and the three-season TV show, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

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Phryne Fisher emerged from the incredible brain of Melbourne’s own Kerry Greenwood. She’s a 1920’s heiress, independently wealthy thanks to an inherited title. She was born into a poor family in Richmond, but as the war wiped out most of her wealthy British relations she and her father were both elevated in status pretty much by default. This combination of wealth and an impoverished background leads her to fighting for the underdog, as she has the means and social conscience to do so. It also means she has an absolutely killer wardrobe.

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In the first book of the series, Cocaine Blues, Phryne is living in London when she is asked by her friend, Colonel Andrews, to head to Australia to check up on his daughter, who he suspects is being poisoned by her husband.  Phryne is happy to oblige, returning to Melbourne so that she could put off settling down for a few months. At the end of the book she decides that she’d much rather stay in Melbourne than go back to the boring London social scene, and so sets herself up as a ‘Lady Detective.’

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The TV series differs slightly from the books because they wanted to give season one a continuing narrative to tie the episodes together. In the show, Phryne comes to Melbourne to delve into her own past and investigate the death of her sister when they were children. Within the first few episodes of the show, she acquires a housemaid and social secretary named Dorothy (Dot) Williams, as well as a ward named Jane, a Butler named Mr. Butler and two red-ragger hangers on named Burt and Cec. She also meets with her old friend, Dr Elizabeth McMillan (or Dr. Mac) who works as a surgeon at the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women.

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The TV series does follow the books in a lot of respects, with one or two notable exceptions, mainly the character of Detective Inspector Jack Robinson. Working out of City South police station, Jack and Constable Hugh Collins lend Phryne some legal legitimacy. After their first few adventures together they get used to Phryne showing up on cases, and they work together very well once Jack finally acknowledges that Phryne is actually a damn good detective.

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The huge difference between Book-Jack and TV-Jack is  that Book-Jack is happily married while TV-Jack is divorced, which leads to an agonising will-they-won’t-they situation that spans the course of three seasons. This doesn’t really alter Phryne’s character, though. Her bohemian lifestyle is inspired by her time as an ambulance nurse in the war, and like many young people who lived through ‘the war to end all wars’ her personal mantra is to seize the day and party like there is no tomorrow. She dresses fabulously, drinks elaborate cocktails and will invite to her bed any man who takes her fancy (and, as with everything else, she has impeccable taste in men); she’s not just going to wait around for Jack (which, incidentally, ruffled a few feathers when it was first released on Netflix in the USA).

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She also carries a gun, drives a Hispano Suiza and can handle herself in a fight. Really, she’s a 1970’s woman who accidentally wandered into the 1920’s and stayed for the cocktails and frocks.

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Like all great detective duo’s, Jack and Phryne work best as a team. What I adore about these two are that Phryne isn’t the damsel in distress – sure, sometimes she needs Jack’s help, other times he needs hers. They take turns rescuing each other, which is a subtle but welcome departure from the norm. No judgment is passed -by anyone, really – about Phryne’s views regarding sex and her willingness to engage in sex with anyone she chooses. Her attitude regarding social mores is pretty well summed up in the first episode in a conversation with Dr. Mac –

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Each book, and subsequently most episodes of the TV series, focus on some pretty big issues. Right off the bat Cocaine Blues tackles both drug addiction and abortion, set in a time when cocaine was legal with a doctor’s prescription but abortion was performed in back alleys. Scores of women died while trying to be rid of unwanted pregnancies, going to opportunistic fiends who had barely a clue what they were doing but were happy to take money from a desperate woman. Phryne, Burt and Cec go after one such fiend, as well as trying to bring down the head of a crime syndicate who are smuggling drugs into Melbourne via the local bathhouse.

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1928 was a time when women were being more accepted in the professions, which is how we have Dr. Mac, who happens to be a lesbian (or, as they referred to them at the time, a Sapphic). There are a stories based around women working in factories and fashion, as well as women in professional sport and car racing. There’s also issues regarding gay rights, slut-shaming and the treatment of women for ‘hysteria’ when really they’re just mad about being oppressed.

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The “percussor” was often used to treat women for ‘uncontrollable urges’ outside of the marriage bed.

 

Phryne comes to us as a fully realised and self-assured character, but with a couple of stories that delve into her past we are able to learn how she came to be the woman she is – her experiences during the war, within an abusive relationship and with her wayward father all inform her character. She does, however, act as a catalyst for the development of the other characters in her circle. The main one is Dot, who’s origin story is different between book and TV, in this case to help streamline the story. Dot begins as a scared little mouse afraid to use electric appliances, and by the end of the first episode is already learning new things about being an independent woman. By the start of the third season she’s relaxed a hell of a lot, including coming to the realisation that she doesn’t want to quit working after she gets married.

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I’ll admit, some of the acting is a bit patchy. However, it’s interesting to watch some of the less-experienced actors learning at the feet of some of the greats, including the sensational Essie Davis as Phryne and BAFTA award-winning Miriam Margolyes as Aunt Prudence. These minor details are easily overlooked when you get engrossed by the story, aided by the on-point production details, witty one-liners and, of course, the urge to figure out whodunnit before Phryne does.

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Marion Boyce, who I mentioned last week, is the show’s costume designer. She manages to make Phryne look enviably stylish in every single scene, as well as dressing the other characters in ways that perfectly suit the era and their personality. The show is filmed around Melbourne at sites which were actually standing in 1928, including Ripponlee estate. Some backgrounds had to be altered digitally to remove more modern additions such as skyscrapers, but all up the attention to detail is impeccable.

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All of this is informed by Kerry Greenwood’s superb writing. According to interviews, Greenwood does enough research to fill three books for every one she actually publishes. She makes sure that every detail, be it integral or incidental, are absolutely correct for the time the book is set. Greenwood was also heavily involved in the TV production process.

Once you’re sufficiently hooked on the show, you should also take  a look at Text’s From Phryne Fisher for gems like this one –

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If I haven’t convinced you to give the books or the show a go, maybe Kerry Greenwood can. Seasons 1&2 can be streamed on Netflix, while all three seasons are out on DVD her in Australia.

 

Next week I’m going to do an in-depth view at Orange is the New Black in the lead up to the launch of season 4. In the meantime, stay fabulous and always prepared!

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Support Australian Films – Watch The Dressmaker

I am ashamed.

I am a proud Australian writer, a proud Australian woman and an avid believer in supporting our unique Australian culture and stories. Yet I have not discussed any Aussie works in my blog. For shame, Simpson.

So, this week I wish to discuss one of the standout Aussie films of 2015, The Dressmaker.

Based on the novel by Rosalie Ham, The Dressmaker stars a cavalcade of actors whom you might not have known were Aussies if you happen to live anywhere else (hello to all of my international readers). The only non-Australian actor involved is Kate Winslet. She plays our protagonist, Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, and pulls off such a convincing Aussie accent that we’re about ready to claim her as our own.

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“The Man From Snowy River” is an example of the classic ‘Aussie Look’ in film

 

I saw this movie at the Cinema and fell in love right away. I didn’t go in with high expectations. It seems that the bulk of what is considered classic Aussie cinema is set in the outback or dustbowl country towns, and this is what tends to identify us internationally; Priscilla, My Brilliant Career, Crocodile Dundee and the Sydney Opera House. So when I saw previews for another Australian film set in a dusty country town I wasn’t overly fussed, but my mother said she wanted to see it with me, followed by these two magic words: “I’ll pay”.

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Set in 1951, the opening scene shows Tilly stepping off a bus carrying a Singer sewing machine and looking immaculate in a Dior-inspired dress. She looks around the Dungatar town square, taking in the general store, the agent and the chemist before lighting a cigarette and proclaiming, “I’m back, you bastards.” She’s back and looking for revenge, reminding us of the classic old Western. This feel of an old Western narrative also informs the set design, in particular the pub and general store, as well as the way the shots are composed.

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If you get the chance to see this film on the big screen, do it. The cinematography is beautiful. Filmed just outside of the You Yangs mountains, the scenery is particularly striking. There is barely a shot that isn’t beautifully composed and balanced. The colour palette begins drab and faded, the better to showcase the magnificent costumes that arrive in town along with Tilly. These outfits are her weapons; her skill as a dressmaker is akin to Clint Eastwood’s quick draw.

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She is greeted by the only policeman in the town of Dungatar, Sargent Farrett, played by Hugo Weaving (yes, Elrond is one of ours). She asks after her mother. His response of “Molly doesn’t get out much these days” is an understatement – when Tilly steps inside her mother’s old house on the hill she discovers a total mess, full of junk and dirt and complete with a resident brushtail possum. Molly doesn’t look much better.

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The next day, Tilly is standing outside the house at the top of the hill overlooking the rest of the town. She’s wearing a gorgeously tailored golfing outfit, complete with little slots for her golf tees. She pulls out a tee like a gunslinger reloading her weapon. She places the ball, lines up her shot and says to Molly

Do you remember Ms Harradine, the schoolteacher?”

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She then takes her shot and the ball goes flying, ringing the school bell and smashing one of Ms Harradine’s hanging flower pots.

Tilly: What about Mr Almanac, the chemist?

Molly: I don’t even know who you are.

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Tilly then lines up her shot and the ball lands on the roof of the chemist, startling Mr Almanac as he’s perving on some customer’s photographs.

Tilly: What about Shire President Pettyman? Now there’s a reason to vote!

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This time, Tilly’s golf ball lands on Mr Pettyman’s roof, causing him to jump while he’s cutting out yet another press clipping of himself.

Molly: I don’t know why you’ve come to this hole. There’s nothin’ here.

Tilly: I came because I need you to remember me, Mum.

Molly: Mum?!

Tilly: I need you to remember so I can remember.

Molly: Remember what? Being my daughter?

Tilly: That too.

Molly: Fat chance. What else?

Tilly sits down and looks her mum in the eye.

Tilly: Did I commit a murder?

Molly: (Laughing) What?

Tilly: Am I a murderer? Is that why I’m cursed?

Molly: You don’t remember committing a murder?

Tilly: No.

Molly: It’s not something you’re likely to forget.

Tilly: No.

Molly: What if you are a murderer?

Tilly: I wouldn’t be in the least surprised.

The very next scene involves Tilly trying to get Molly to take a bath, complete with Molly screaming “MURDER!” at the top of her lungs. Tilly then gets to work cleaning up the house and lighting a bonfre, which draws the attention of the rest of the townsfolk.

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Meanwhile, one of the town’s most eligible bachelors has returned home. William is shown off around town by his overly proud mother while Gertrude Pratt (her father runs the general store) pines over him, knowing that her plain looks will never win him over.

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The next day, Tilly goes to the local football grand final match. Her outfit causes a huge stir and distracts the players, to the point where Teddy, Liam Hemsworth (yes, we have the Hemsworths too!), asks her to please get changed.

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Teddy: Your getup’s distracting my players.

Tilly: Well I do have an unusual talent for bias cutting.

Teddy: Yeah, listen Myrtle…

Tiily: I prefer Tilly

Teddy: Tilly, the only reason these bastards haven’t run us McSwineys out of town too is because me dad empties their shithouses and I win ‘em the footie. We lose this match, all I’ve got left is the shit.

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So Tilly gets changed. Just after she does, she gives her business card to Gertrude Pratt, suggesting that if Gert wanted to go to the footballer’s dance next Saturday Tilly could make her something.

Gertrude: A dress can’t change anything!

Tilly: Watch and learn, Gert. Watch and learn.

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Tilly’s wardrobe change proceeds to win the Dungatar boys the match. Gertrude takes her up on the offer. When the rest of the town see how stunning Gertrude looks in her new couture dress, all of the women are asking Tilly to make them gorgeous things to wear.

Sarah Snook The Dressmaker

They flock to Tilly every time she gets a new tea chest full of fabrics from an exotic location. Seargent Farrat is even more enamoured with Tilly’s fabrics than the ladies – he’s been living as a closeted crossdresser all of his life. Hugo Weaving Sergent Farrat

In a moment reminiscent of Priscilla, we get to see Hugo Weaving wrap himself in some striking red fabric and let it flutter in the breeze as he gazes at himself in a mirror tree. Tilly uses her skills to win over the women and Sergent Farrat so she can work out what happened twenty years ago, but not everyone is forthcoming.

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That’s about as much of the plot as I’m prepared to give away. If you want to know what happens you’ll need to watch it.

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"You could Be married in this suit" Judy Davis

"Yeah, I could be" Liam Hemsworth

"Snapped up by some eligible spinster or...hag" Judy Davis

The Dressmaker manages to perfectly blend dark comedy and drama. Most of the comedy and one-liners come from Molly, delivered by veteran Judy Davis with expert timing, although the other characters pull some magnificent facial expressions, deliver hilarious deadpan dialogue and perform marvellous slapstick.

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There is a romantic element to this film, but it manages to stay secondary to the main revenge plot. Liam Hemsworth plays the romantic lead, in a story that is more “you and me against the world” than “I’m going to protect you from the world” – he knows who the rest of the town really are, and sees a kindred spirit in Tilly as they are both outsiders who are only tolerated for their skills. I should also point out that this casting bucks the usual Hollywood tradition of casting an older man with a much younger woman – Kate Winslet is forty years old, but Liam Hemsworth is only twenty-six.

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The Dressmaker is a stellar example of characterisation and costuming. The costumes are by Marion Boyce, the genius artist behind Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries’ wardrobe department. Tilly’s clothes give the townswomen confidence and help to bring out their true nature, which isn’t to be confused with bringing out the best in them. Some help Tilly when things go wrong, but most just hurt her until they need something from her again.

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Tilly herself transitions from being hard-nosed and closed off to opening up to those close to her, but when things go south she still maintains her edge. This is partially due to Molly’s influence. Molly has been alone and neglected for twenty years, but when Tilly comes home she has care, companionship and mental stimulation she goes from being “Mad Molly” to the strong, quick-witted woman she once was.

This sensational film brings together dark comedy, romance, drama, slapstick and even elements of horror to deliver a rich story with iconic characters. There is so much symbolism and beautiful imagery I would love to discuss, but for that to happen I need for more people to see this movie.

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The most important thing, though, is that this is a movie written and directed by women, where stories of fashion, downtrodden women and battered wives are central. This is a film for the female gaze. Women are celebrated, not objectified. Liam Hemsworth is shirtless for a couple of scenes. As such, most of the reviews are divided along gender lines – this movie was panned by plenty of male reviewers. But if you care about great stories about women or just great stories in general, watch this movie.

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So…

Please get yourself a copy of The Dressmaker. Please don’t pirate it, it deserves your actual money-dollars. I picked up a DVD at JB HiFi for $16, but if that’s too much you can probably get it on some streaming services. I’d also like to reiterate that if you’re a fan of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (and by next week’s blog you will be) you’ll adore this film for the costuming as well as all the other great stuff.

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Trust me, the ending is killer.

Films Within Films, Tropes Within Tropes: The Final Girls Movie

Just when I’m about to get detached retinas from rolling my eyes at yet another misogynistic piece of pop culture, fate hands me some relief (and blog material).

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Today we discuss the Plesantville of the Horror genre, The Final Girls (released in 2015).

Really, it’s relationship to Pleasantville is only due to the premise – it actually reminded me more of Steel Magnolias. That comparison may sound completely wrong on the surface, but both films are an interesting take on certain aspects of American culture, they both explore relationships between mothers and daughters, they are both hilarious, and they are both utterly heartbreaking. Or maybe I’m just a sap.

Oh, by the way, very mild spoilers. Well, I consider them mild – I’m not going to tell you the ending, but if you’d rather go in knowing nothing I suggest viewing The Final Girls first.

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For the uninitiated, the Final Girls title is a reference to the classic slasher movie trope that the villain can only be killed by the last protagonist character, and that last character left is usually a girl and almost always a virgin. Anyone who has sex in the film is brutally murdered.

There is a swathe of articles, dissertations, and even websites based around discussing this trope; is having a woman subdue the bloodthirsty and sex-obsessed villain feminist, or is killing off anyone who has sex (particularly girls who lose their virginity) actually a patriarchal and puritanical statement? Nobody can seem to come to an agreement on this. On the one hand, sex is a normal part of life and should be celebrated. On the other, it’s depicted in films mostly because tits and arse sell movie tickets.

A fantastic documentary called American Grindhouse explains the origin of this trope to a certain extent.

Back in the 1930s and 40s a lot of filmmakers were unable to get their films shown in public cinemas unless they were billed as “cautionary tales” –  Reefer Madness and She Shoulda Said No (Aka Wild Weed) could only be shown because they portrayed the (unrealistic) worst case scenario of what happens when teens try drugs. These exploitation films (named as such because they exploited whatever topic was trendy at the time) would use the promise of sex and violence to get people in the door and a cautionary ending to keep them from being run out of town. Controversy just served to sell more tickets.

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When censorship laws were relaxed a bit in the 60’s and 70’s the concept of people being punished for promiscuity and drug use had firmly embedded itself as a safe trope to fall back on. So, we just have anyone take out the monster as long as they’re virginal? Well, no. Because in that misogynistic day and age,

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A) nobody is going to believe in a lead male character who isn’t trying to have sex with the girls,

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“Selfie time!”

B) nobody will believe male character being genuinely terrified of a machete-wielding maniac and

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C) nobody wants to see a male character ‘penetrate’ another male character with a machete/sword/sharp-pointy-thing, because the knife is an analogy for the killer’s frustrated penis. We can’t have our hero being even remotely gay (but the bad guy can, because he’s the bad guy).

At least, that’s what the tropes tend to suggest. Yes, there are plenty of exceptions to all of these rules (including one I watched a few weeks ago called “The Burning”…which was awful), but they’re generally pretty bad and not considered to be ‘classics’ by any stretch.

Therefore, the final victor has to be a girl because we’ll believe she’s really afraid, believe she’s a virgin, and she won’t have any homoerotic overtones. But we still have to make her masculine enough that you believe she can actually defeat the monster, so she’s imbibed with traditionally “masculine” traits – investigative, tough, and often has a gender-ambiguous name.

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So by the end she is not a damsel in distress, but a sex-deprived tomboy taking her sexual and power frustrations out on the villain by stealing his penis machete and stabbing him with it. Which, if you think about it, is a pretty powerful feminist statement if you ignore that she has to be masculinised in order to win.

Got all that?

I could spend pages and pages delving into this concept but in 1992 a much smarter woman named Carol Clover released a book called Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in Modern Horror Film, and I recommend reading it if you are interested in this topic. Personally, I don’t think the genre progressed in a feminist sense until the 1990’s when we were blessed Scream and Buffy­­– two productions where the final girl gets to have sex and kill the monsters- but that’s a discussion for another day.

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Okay, so on to The Final Girls itself.

I absolutely have to be in the right mood to enjoy a slasher film and turn off my feminist lens, but The Final Girls is, first and foremost, a genre parody, and it manages to both mock and pay loving tribute to all of the slasher flick tropes we’ve come to expect. It’s exploring and picking apart the genre using humour, and as such the film is not actually scary at all. Having said this, my horror-loving partner absolutely adores it, and I’m writing a glowing review even though I’m a complete horror wuss; it appeals to all kinds.

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The Final Girls begins with the trailer to the fictional 1980’s classic, “Camp Bloodbath”.

 

The character of “Nancy” (the blonde one) is played by our protagonist’s mother, Amanda Cartwright. The role made Amanda famous as a scream queen, and she hasn’t been able to get any decent roles in film or TV since. When she dies, her daughter Max (note the gender-neutral name) is sent to live with her aunt. Three years later, Max is hanging out with her best friend, Gertie, and possible future boyfriend, Chris, when Gertie’s step brother, Duncan, invites them to an anniversary screening of “Camp Bloodbath”. Also at the screening is Chris’ ex-girlfriend Vicki, so right away we have the normal chick, the funny friend, the cute guy, the dorky guy and the mean girl.

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Needless to say, Max is conflicted by the whole thing and isn’t actually that thrilled to watch her mum in the role that defined and ruined her short career. While they’re watching the screening, a series of thoughtless occurrences cause the cinema to catch on fire. In their attempt to escape, Max and co end up…in the movie! *dun dun duuuun!*

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Instantly we see a shift in both camera technique and colour palette. The world of Camp Bloodbath is almost painfully bright in comparison to the ‘real world’, which has been a trope since The Wizard of Oz.

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Max and the others aren’t sure where they are until they see a yellow van rolling down the road with most of the characters from the film – Kurt the douchebag jock, Tina the slut, Blake the token black sidekick, Mimi the promiscuous hippy who dies within the first five minutes, and cute blonde Nancy, AKA Max’s mother. Ninety-two minutes later, the van goes past again. Another ninety-two minutes and the kids get the courage to ask for a ride because there’s no other way forward than to follow the plot of the movie. Unfortunately, with extra people interacting with the original characters, the plot plays out a little differently. Max and her friends have to explain to the others that they’re in a slasher movie and if they want to survive they have to keep their clothes on. So from here they make a plan to kill Billy Murphey, the machete-wielding maniac.

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The really interesting thing about this film is that, rather than being an old-school morality tale, it actually focuses more on regret. Max spends most of the time trying to keep Nancy safe, even though Nancy isn’t really her mother. But as the film goes on, you remember that a character is a mixture of what is written for them and what the actor brings to the role, so Nancy is really more like Amanda than we first thought. There are a few very touching and emotional scenes between Max and Nancy which I feel really add some extra depth to what would otherwise be a very simple story.

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The relationships between the characters are exceptionally well-written, and an exercise in contrast. Max, Chris, Gertie, Duncan and Vicki have some serious depth to their characters. Vicki is pretty, spoiled and bitchy, but she’s also under a lot of pressure to do well at school and is taking Adderall to cope. She and Max were best friends before Max’s mum died, and she still holds some resentment that Max pushed her away. Her 1980’s counterpart is Tina, who’s only real identifiers are that she’s pretty, promiscuous and dumb.

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2015 Chris is handsome, smart and was raised by gay dads. He also shows way, way more respect for women than 1980’s Kurt, who spends most of his time talking about boobs and his dick.

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Common movie-making techniques become the source of some brilliant comedic material. Flashbacks and slow-motion sequences are played up for laughs, as are the changes in culture (“Well, at least now I can save myself for George Michael!” “Oh, honey…”).

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Some of the best comedy comes from Tina. They know that Billy appears whenever someone takes their top off, so they go to great lengths to make sure that Tina doesn’t draw him in until they’re ready. Their awareness of the genre tropes turns this film from being another mindless gore-fest into a funny commentary on changes in attitudes over the decades.

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I’m not going to spoil the ending for you because I’m not a monster, but if you’re familiar with the genre you can pretty much predict how it’s going to go. I will say that if, after seeing The Final Girls, you can listen to “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes without tearing up a little bit you have a heart of cold, dead wood.

As it never had an Australian cinema release you can probably pick this up in the JB-HiFi bargain bin, but it has all the makings of a cult classic.

I Believe in Supergirl

This one may have flown under the radar for some of you, but I really want to talk about Supergirl. The first season just ended and I’m already hanging out for season two.

Before I do, though,  you should know that around the time I started watching this show I was also listening to Halestorm a LOT. As such, the show will always be linked to this song in my mind. To really get into the zone, press play then keep reading. Also, while I have tried not to give away too much in the way of plot points and twists, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like any spoilers at all then you probably shouldn’t read this. Hell, you probably shouldn’t be on the internet.

For those of you not overly familiar with the character or her backstory, I’ll give you a basic run-down.

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Supergirl is otherwise known as Kara Zor-El from the planet Krypton. As Superman’s older cousin, she was sent to earth to protect baby Superman while their parents tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent their planet from imploding. Supergirl’s stasis space pod was knocked off-course and she spent about twenty years or so asleep in the Phantom Zone of weird timey-wimey thingies. By the time the pod get her to earth, she’s still a thirteen-year-old girl but her baby cousin has become the strapping, twenty-something Superman we all know and love. He brings her to a family he trusts to raise her like one of their own, and thus Kara Zor-El becomes Kara Danvers.

With me so far?

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She then spends most of her life hiding her powers and pursuing a career in journalism, becoming the personal assistant to media mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart). She has two close friends at work – Winn Schott and James Olsen (yes, that Jimmy Olsen. He’s way less annoying in this version than the skinny redhead was).

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In the first episode, a plane is about to crash into Central City and Kara manages to guide it into a more gentle landing in the bay. Supergirl is born.

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I’ll admit from the outset that I’ve not read any Supergirl comics – I have my hands full with the Bat Family as it is – and with the exception of the occasional Justice League appearance I’ve not really had much to do with her until now, so I have no idea if this backstory resembles the source material in any way. However, just reading DC superhero comics in general can still provide a broad idea of what the characters stand for, and the Supe’s are primarily about hope.

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To many people, Superman is the ultimate boy-scout, always out to Do The Right Thing, even when what’s right is a bit ambiguous.  Supergirl follows in this story-telling tradition of ‘hope springs eternal’, and is a departure from its older sibling Arrow. Indeed, the creators intentionally set out to make an antidote to the current grim dark superhero shoes currently on offer – this aint Jessica Jones (having said that… I loved Jessica Jones, too).

Admittedly, the first season has some teething problems. It suffers from a typical first-season TV budget, so the special effects can sometimes come off as a tad cheesy, but hey, I like cheese.

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The show seems to pull its punches – on a few occasions they have concocted a situation rich in themes to explore, but they don’t always manage to stick the landing. When they do try and tackle something huge, as in the season finale, they seemed to lose their nerve when it came to actually tackling the big issues they were alluding to (such as climate change). They also tried to cram all of the big, high-stakes moments in to the very end, tying up all of the storylines at once when spacing them out over the two episodes would have probably been more impactful. And finally, they should have either gone for the series-long arc with more gusto or committed to a new story every week rather than try and do both. The loose ends are tied up rather messily, and some characters with serious potential as great villains were given the short end of the stick.

Having said all this, there is a lot it does well. There isn’t a single “main gang” character that I dislike, and they are all cast particularly well. Melissa Benoist as Kara Danvers is particularly talented. She does goofy and embarrassed just as well as angry and frightened, and seems to have a deep understanding of the complexities of her character. 4d7d394ec1941acaee7a3e8d8880ad23

Supergirl is starting out hero-ing, and suffers from many of the same teething problems that her cousin did (collateral damage, how to get out of work to rescue people and not get fired, finding the right super suit), but also faces another barrier – sexism. Pure and simple, she faces far more scrutiny than her cousin did purely because she’s female.They tackle this issue really well in the episode “Red Faced”.

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Kara faces a series of incidents (as both herself and Supergirl) that would make anyone a tad testy, and when it finally all comes to a head she lets her anger boil over. This might cause some shock if she were a regular person, but when she’s wearing a cape it’s downright terrifying.0e6a7111e285be234b78177846b5eadf

She also makes the mistake of snapping at her boss. But rather than the expected reprimand, Cat Grant does something much better – she takes Kara out for a martini.

Cat:  When I was working at the Daily Planet, Perry White picked up a chair and he threw it out of the window because somebody missed a deadline and, no, he did not open the window first. If I had thrown a chair, or my god if I had thrown a napkin, it would have been all over the   papers. It would have been professional and cultural suicide.

Kara:  Then what do you do?”

Cat:  Well, you need to find a release. You need to take up some boxing or start screaming at      your housekeeper but the real key Keira is that you need to figure out what’s really bothering          you. For example, I am so furious with my mother so I took it out on you and you’re so mad at me  but, and this is the important bit, you’re not really mad at me.”

Kara:  Actually, I kinda was.

 Cat:  No. Uh uh. You were really mad at something else. And you need to find the anger behind  the anger. And you need to figure out what is really making you  mad.

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So, Kara takes her advice. She invites James to let off some steam – him with an old-fashioned punching bag, Kara by beating up an old car.

James:  I never really noticed Clark having to get his rage on.

 Kara:  Because he’s a man. Girls are taught to smile and keep it on the inside.

 James: Well it’s not like black men are encouraged to be angry in public.

Kara: Well then, this will work for both of us.

And as the two of them work out their aggression, Kara finally realises what is the anger behind the anger – that she’ll never get to have a normal life.33288628bd39edc09.gif

While this episode didn’t get particularly favourable reviews, I was really able to relate to it on a personal level. It’s also a great example of why, I think, female and minority superheroes have the potential to be particularly interesting characters – they have a lot of pent-up rage that they wouldn’t necessarily get to release anywhere else, and they have so much to be personally mad about. Kara finally channels this rage into her heat-vision to take out that week’s villain, in a scene that actually gave me chills.

Aside from the obvious feminist bent, I adored Supergirl for its ensemble cast.  One of the major themes is that no man -or woman- is an island; “I get by with a little help from my friends.” Yes, I know that this theme has been done to death, but we have never before seen a superhero show that also delves into the relationships women have with each other.

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Kara’s relationship with her boss, Cat Grant, is probably my favourite thing about this series. She refuses to learn most of her employees names – she calls Kara “Keira” and forgets Winn almost entirely. Cat is arrogant, self-serving, snarky, utterly ruthless and uncompromising. She does what she has to in order to achieve her goals. All the traits required, in other words, to be a successful capitalist ruler of a media empire. She’s not exactly beloved by her workers or the public at large, but she genuinely doesn’t care, because if she did she could never do her job.

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Honestly, if she were my boss I’d probably hate her guts, but I’ve never exactly been a model working cog in the machine. But Cat has a soft spot, particularly for women with ambition and heart. That’s why she mentors Kara, and is one of Supergirl’s most staunch champions…and critics.

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While she mentors Kara and Supergirl, she’s not soft with her. She delivers tough but fair criticism, which is really the only way Kara can learn and improve. Calista Flockhart plays Cat so well that we can tell she has hidden depths that may be revealed over time.

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She tries not to let this soft spot show for obvious reasons, but Supergirl‘s writers manage to make Cat endearing to us without falling into the old trope of “she’s mean because she needs a man/she suffered past trauma.”  She even gives an amazing speech about how yes, women can have it all, but not all at once – juggle two balls before you add a third. She’s a media mogul, mentor and a single mum, all things that she learned to do over time, not all at the same time.

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Another important relationship in this show is between Kara and Alex, her adopted sister. Alex Danvers works for the Department of Extra-Normal Operations (the DEO), a government black-ops task force established to deal with aliens and people with super abilities. Alex takes her role as protective big sister very seriously, and although she resists Kara becoming Supergirl at first she soon decides to help. Alex helps her to train in hand-to-hand combat, because although Kara is fine when fighting your average bank robber, she has plenty of super-powered villains to take on as well, and powers won’t be enough.

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Alex is constantly struggling to reconcile her instinct to protect her little sister with the fact that Kara is embracing her role as Supergirl. Alex is more grounded, better trained and less naive than her sister. They work well as a team, but Kara still has some maturing to do. Alex, meanwhile has found a father-figure in her boss at the DEO, Hank Henshaw (he has some rather awesome stuff going on too, but I’m not going to spoil it for you).

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Supergirl  has a huge emphasis on family and loves to explore the ties that bind. As well as Alex, we get to see Kara’s adoptive mother Eliza from time to time. We also get to meet her birth mother, Alura, via flashbacks. Most important is Kara’s aunt Astra.

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Astra and her husband Non are the two big baddies for this season, I won’t go into huge details why, but this leads to an interesting dynamic as Kara tries to figure out how to navigate the situation. On the one hand she’s trying to protect her new home and her adopted family, on the other she’s trying to maintain a link to some of the last blood family she has left.

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Finally, added to all of this is a cast of fun, occasionally campy villains that are amusing to watch in their own right. There’s Maxwell  Lord, the duplicitous industrialist who’s solutions to problems usually involve having bigger and better toys than everyone else.

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My personal favourite is Livewire, a former shock-jock turned super villain who has a serious beef with Cat Grant. It leads to a rather predictable line from Livewire about there being more than one way to skin a cat. Grant’s response is so wonderful I may need to save this gif for future use.

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As usual, there’s plenty more I could say about this show. Ultimately it’s up to the individual to decide if it’s their cup of tea. I’m able to get past some of the clunky dialogue because of everything else Supergirl has going for it, whereas I’ve been unable to say the same for, say, Arrow.  I love that there is a wide range of women in this show who display strength in entirely different ways, and who I find very relatable. Yeah, I’m biased, but fuck it. In a world of Superhero shows and movies that insist that everything has to be dark, it’s wonderful to have a bunch of women shining a light.

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