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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For what it’s worth: A Batman Vs Superman Review

How’s this for an unpopular statement – I liked Batman vs Superman. Yep, I’m aware of the irony – the feminist with whom watching movies is a pain in the arse actually liked the film everyone is panning.  I am going to attempt to explain myself.

Also, SPOILER WARNING. Don’t read unless you’ve seen it. Anyhoo..here goes…

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I liked Batman vs Superman for a number of reasons. Firstly, for a superhero film it hits remarkably close to home, because it revolves around the notion that people tend to believe the worst of others, especially of “the other”. When Clark Kent learns of the return of the Bat vigilante who attacks crooks and brands the worst of them, unimpeded by the GCPD,  he naturally thinks that Batman is going too far – many would agree with him.

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Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, sees the destruction and havoc wreaked in Superman’s wake and is naturally distrustful of a seemingly all-powerful being.

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This is a story of a clash of ideologies (easily applied as a metaphor for any number of global conflicts and social issues) that ultimately causes more problems than it solves. While the two boys are fighting, Lex Luthor is off creating an even bigger monster to take them both out.

All three men had drastically different childhood experiences which inform their current worldview – Superman was  raised by loving parents to be a boy scout and to always do what is best. Batman saw his parents die “pointlessly in the gutter,” and as such as a nihilistic outlook. Lex Luthor was abused by his father and came to the conclusion that God is either a complete bastard or not as all-powerful as people say. When God comes to earth in the form of Superman, he sees an immediate threat that must be annihilated at all costs.

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While we’re on the topic of Luthor, nobody seems to be sure if he’s meant to be the same Lex Luthor from the DC canon, or if he’s Lex Luthor’s son. Maybe he’s a mix of both? Anyway, pretty much everyone can agree that Jesse Eisenberg may have employed a bit too much of the Joker in his portrayal. There were moments when he excelled (“Don’t let anyone take my seat!”) and others where he absolutely needed to dial it back a few notches. However, we need to remember that a mad and manic Lex Luthor is comic book canon – he was first and foremost a mad scientist, particularly in DC’s silver age comics.

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Up against a stoically god-like Superman and a thoroughly disillusioned and depressed Batman, playing Luthor like the cold industrialist from the 90’s that many of my generation remember just wouldn’t work.

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Someone had to lighten the mood and add some balance. Unfortunately, he went too far in the other direction and was unbelievable as the head of a multinational company; he needed to be less awkward and more charming.

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Another criticism I’ve seen thrown around is that nobody would ever believe that Superman would blow up a building full of people, or shoot a bunch of terrorists, because everyone loves Superman and he doesn’t kill.  My response to that is…are you sure? Because we now live in a world where people think vaccines cause autism, that Obama is a terrorist and that Trump is a viable presidential candidate. Is it really that much of a stretch, in a world when our most base fears are preyed upon, that people would be sceptical that the all-powerful alien only means us well?

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Which brings us to one of the core concepts of the film – consequences. Superman and Batman may have saved us from some of the worst rogues the DC Universe has to offer, but so much destruction is left in their wake that it would be hard to see the greater good of it all  when you’re standing at ground zero. Superheroes, governments and the populace alike need to remember that actions have consequences, and sometimes a real human cost. As much as you want to deny it, Batman has killed people.

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One of the biggest criticisms of BvS is that Batman killed people in a number of scenes. One of these scenes was a premonition of the end of the world (caused by the Flash travelling back in time to give him a warning…it’s confusing but will probably be cleared up in the Justice League Movie). We don’t get any confirmation that the beings he shoots are people – let’s wait for a little context on this one, eh? The point of this premonition is to freak Bruce Wayne the fuck out, and presenting him with a future where he is forced to break his one big rule about killing is a great way to do it.

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The other scenes with a Batman-induced body count include when he’s chasing the truck full of Kryptonite and when he rescues Mrs Kent by setting her captor on fire. I’d like to take this moment to point out that he’s not doing anything that we haven’t already seen in previous Batman films – behold, the Batman Movie Kill Counter! The only difference in those instances is that other directors didn’t linger on the human cost nearly as much as Snyder, which is the whole point. Batman in the comics doesn’t kill on purpose, but do you really think that all of the henchmen he’s punched out or knocked out with a batterang in the comics got up again? Concussions kill, too. As Sterling Archer would say, that’s super bad for you.

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For those watching carefully and with a knowledge of the major Batman comic story events, it’s easy to pinpoint where we are in Batman’s timeline – the bullet-ridden and graffiti-covered Robin suit on display in Bruce’s hallway indicates that these events occur after those of Death in the Family” (1988-1989) when The Joker murders the second Robin, Jason Todd (yes, he was beaten to death with a crowbar, but it’s much more effective to show bullet-holes on screen).

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This event happened at around the same time as The Killing Joke (1988), in which The Joker shoots Batgirl in the spine and she becomes a paraplegic.

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The Killing Joke: Another classic with a whole other set of problems

 

Yes, I got all of that from this one shot –

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So, after all of this we can make the assumption that Bruce hung up the cowl until his first encounter with Superman. He has also abandoned the original Wayne Manor. With all that has happened to him, Bruce is already at the end of his tether. His world has been spinning out of control since his parents died and there is nothing he can do about it. It’s not until he realises that Superman was coming to him for help rescuing Martha Kent that he stops and recognises what he has become. He has become so cynical, frustrated and enraged by the world that he was ready to kill a man who just wanted his help. By the end of the film he starts to pull back from the brink – he doesn’t brand Lex Luthor (it would amount to a death sentence for a prison inmate), he mourns Clark and vows to carry on Superman’s legacy by getting more Supe’s into the fight for justice.

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Another criticism levelled was that a film doesn’t have to be visually darker to be considered a ‘dark’ film, and that the symbolism in this instance was very juvenile. I submit to you that the film wasn’t visually dark because to suit the themes. In fact, most of the Superman-focused scenes were well-lit. The contrasting colour pallets and lighting was to draw a distinction between Batman and Superman, Gotham and Metropolis, optimism and nihilism. If you read a Batman comic alongside a Superman comic you’ll see a vast difference in colour palette, which is what (I think) Snyder was trying to emulate.

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I suspect that a lot of people went into this movie expecting a humorous and formulaic romp, à la the last few Marvel offerings. That’s not what we got, and that’s one of the reasons why I liked it. I’ve never re-watched a Marvel movie and discovered new levels of nuance or symbolism – everything is on the surface and there to see. Hopefully this will change with Civil War, but I’m not holding my breath.

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Okay. With all that out of the way… Batman Vs Superman was less disappointing from a feminist standpoint than most other action movies I have seen. Yes, I am aware that that is a very, VERY low bar, but so many films still manage to whack their shins on it.

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Nobody’s wife or girlfriend got “fridged” (unless you count Martha Wayne, but I don’t because Thomas died at the same time and it’s been established since the 40’s). They avoided the Smurfette principle by including Lois Lane, June Finch and Wonder Woman in key roles (although unless some more women pop up in the Justice League, the next movie is going to fall down in this area), and Wonder Woman was the factor that turned the tide against the final fight with Doomsday.

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I won’t deny that when she appeared, saving Bats from a deadly blast to the face while her bitching guitar riff played, I had a grin from ear to ear. FUCKING YES! And then when they all took down Doomsday together, they did it in ways that were completely consistent with their characters. Wonder Woman never hesitated to go at him with her sword, but when Batman finally had time to regroup and shoot Doomsday with his Kryptonite gas (using brains before brawn, which is absolutely our Bats) she then had her chance to hold monster down with her lasso and let Superman go in for the final blow.

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Some have argued that Wonder Woman was out of character by knowing how to use technology, but I’d like to point out that she’s now been around for over 100 years, and that a Wonder Woman having simple concepts explained to her by Bruce and Clark would have been a VERY BAD MOVE. Do you really want to watch an entire movie of men explaining simple modern concepts to the strongest woman on the screen?

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Speaking of Strong Women™, let’s talk about Lois. People are bitching that she had to be rescued a lot in this film, and normally I’d be right there with them if it weren’t for two very important factors. Firstly, the writers went to pains to point out that Clark constantly going to Lois’ rescue is not always a good thing. Him saving her from the warlord at the start of the film causes a huge international incident that kills several civilians – his actions have consequences. When he saves her from drowning at the end of the film he has to take time out from fighting Doomsday, essentially leaving Batman and Wonder Woman to fend for themselves for a while. He then goes duck diving for the Kryptonite Spear and almost drowns, because Kryptonite. Duh. Lois then has to rescue him because he didn’t think his actions through.

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Secondly, Lois was the only character who figured out that Luthor paid the mercenaries at the start of the film, and the only one who asked the right questions – the boys were too distracted by each other.

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The character of June Finch, who lead the senate committee investigating Superman, was a stand-out for me. Yes, she mostly existed to block Lex Luthor’s plans, but again she was the only person with the balls to try and stop him in the first place. Holly Hunter took a character who had relatively little screen time or development and still delivered a powerhouse performance with more nuance than Henry Cavill has ever managed.

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I am pissed off, however, about Martha Kent. She exists to soothe and console, then to be kidnapped, tied to a chair and rescued. We’re not really given any more about her character – she appeared just to give Superman one final reason to kill Batman. While I loved her dialogue exchange with Batman – “I’m a friend of your son.” “I figured. The cape” – and that once she was rescued she seemed pretty chill about the whole ordeal, they could have dispensed with that scene entirely and the plot still would have made sense. Simply have Superman ask that his mother be looked after while he has the kryptonite spear pointed at his throat, the two dudes bond over being mother’s boys, then they go to investigate the weird shit over at Lex Corp.  

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Also, I felt that Lois finding out Clark had planned on proposing was unnecessary – that’s the dead male equivalent of a fictional husband finding out that his newly-murdered wife had been pregnant.  It’s done to tug the heart-strings, is really lazy and, in this case, wasn’t needed – we already knew how much they loved each other.

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I feel like a lot of the details were lost because they went by so fast – Snyder was trying to fit in too much information. This lead to a movie that felt too long and contained important details that were easily missed.

In conclusion, yes this film has some issues but I don’t think it deserves nearly the level of vitriol it’s been getting.

That said, I’m going to be enraged if the Wonder Woman movie isn’t near-perfect.

Yeah, You Should Probably Watch Gravity Falls

While this blog has been focusing on TV shows and movies with well-rounded female leads, there is one show I want to focus on which deserves a much bigger fandom than it already has.  It’s a fantastic example of a well-written seasonal arc, combined with individual episode stories and quirky characters. It doesn’t talk down to the viewer, and is enjoyed by a wide range of people. I speak to you of a magical place called Gravity Falls.

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It should come as no surprise to regular readers that I love cartoons. I’m part of a generation who grew up with The Simpsons and can quote most lines from seasons one to twelve, usually within context of a conversation. I love that Harley Quinn was such a popular new character in the Batman animated series that they gave her a comic book series. Captain Planet made me into a habitual recycler. When people mention Mark Hamill I immediately think of the Joker before Luke Skywalker. My first series of blog posts were about Daria, for goodness sake! I adore cartoons.

Well, this generation of kids who grew up on 90’s cartoons are now in our 20s and 30s, and are making shows that they themselves would want to watch. So now we have a smorgasbord of cartoons that appeal to all ages, including Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Rick and Morty and Gravity Falls. The creator of Gravity Falls is Alex Hirsch, and he was born in 1985.

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I’m going to try and give away as little as possible while convincing you to watch. Here it goes.

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The show follows twelve-year-old Dipper Pines and his twin sister Mabel, who are based on Hirsch and his own twin sister, Ariel. It’s a long American summer, and they’ve been sent to spend the holidays with their Great Uncle Stan. Gruncle Stan runs a tourist trap called “The Mystery Shack” in the fictional town of Gravity Falls in Ohio. While all of the mysteries in the Mystery Shack are hilariously fake, Gravity Falls has plenty of real mysteries of its own, and the kids soon find themselves going on weird and wacky adventures. In the very first episode, Dipper finds an abandoned journal which documents weird phenomena that occurs in the area. The journal is informative when it comes to, say, defeating the forest gnomes who want to make Mabel their queen.

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It also contains plenty of codes to decipher, a favourite pastime of both Dipper and diehard fans watching at home. The keen-eyed observer will also notice that each episode has hidden clues and codes in the backgrounds of most scenes. There is symbolism everywhere, both hidden and overt – Mable has a new jumper every week, which sometimes depicts or foreshadows something about the end of the episode, other times it’s just a fun jumper. Unlike most other cartoons, things don’t tend to go back to normal at the end of an episode, so you really get a sense that they’re actually leading toward something at the end of the series (and oh BOY are they leading to something! Holy shitballs!).

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While the show leans heavily on overarching plot and general weirdness, at its core it’s a show about relationships between family and friends. Dipper and Mabel may be twins, but they are different in a lot of ways – he’s quiet, reserved, studious and cautious, while she’s boisterous, confident, hilarious and impulsive. She loves boy bands, glitter, sleepovers, and when Gruncle Stan tell the kids they can have one thing from the gift shop, she chooses a grappling hook over anything else in the Mystery Shack.

 

Mabel: And I will have a….Grappling Hook! Yes!

Stan:   Wouldn’t you rather have, like, a doll or something?

Mabel:  Grappling Hook!

Stan:  Fair enough!

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Mabel is far more confident than her twin, which is helpful when Dipper develops his first crush on Wendy, a teen who works at the Mystery shack. Mabel figures it out from day one, and keeps trying to get him to confess his feelings.

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Alex Hirsch said that all of the writers just threw in the character traits of the coolest people they knew, and they came up with Wendy. She’s smart, tough, perceptive and knows how to climb a tree like a lumberjack.

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She’s laid back, but knows when to be honest and how to keep a secret – no wonder Dipper gets a crush on her. Wendy is fifteen years old – at that age three years is a huge difference – and there’s no way they’ll ever work out, but Dipper never blames her for how he feels. This is in stark contrast to Robbie, Dipper’s rival for Wendy’s affections who keeps bugging Wendy after they break up (highlight to reveal spoiler).

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All of the main reoccurring characters get a substantial amount of development throughout the show, particularly toward the end of season two. Soos (short for Jesus) works as a handy man at the Mystery Shack and is a generally amiable and lovable buffoon, but even he has a back story that’s thought out and provides more depth than would first appear. That’s the thing I’ve been noticing about modern cartoons – a lot of them manage to fit in way more character development and depth than their predecessors, and are able to portray messages without ramming ideas down the viewer’s throats. Messages such as,

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“everyone is insecure and you’re not as alone as you think,”

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“don’t let traditional gender stereotypes define your worth as a man/woman”

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“being the boss is more stressful than you think”

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“never trust a unicorn”

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and “eating expired candy will make you trip balls”

 

The show only runs for two seasons and just finished this year, which is great for you because you won’t have to endure the agony that was a two year hiatus between seasons.

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I also recommend watching it twice – once for the overall plot, then a second time to see how everything links together, and to catch stuff in the background you may have missed the first time. There’s also a ton of voices you’ll probably recognise, such as Nick Offerman, Welcome to Night Vale‘s Cecil Baldwin, Nathan Fillion, Will Forte and, of course, Kristen Schaal as Mabel.

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Normally I’d go into a lot more detail with regard to character development and plot progression, but I just need you to trust me on this one – check it out, and get ready for some delightfully weird shit.

Oh, and watch out for this guy…

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He’ll mess up your day.

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Finally, if all of that doesn’t convince you, check out this.

 

Let’s Talk About Peggy

Forgive me blogosphere for I have sinned. It has been one month since my last entry, and for that I apologise. Except I don’t really. Screw your expectations, I do what I want!

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Long story short, I’ve been away because I had the opportunity to earn some money in a paying gig for a month or so. No, this wasn’t a particularly creative endeavour (unless you count my inventive lies told to customers to get them off of our backs), and as a result I have a backlog of half-baked story ideas that need fleshing out. Be prepared for a long, ill-advised rant on the subjects of defunding of the arts, how story-telling is unappreciated and all other related issues later – today I want to talk to you about Agent Carter.

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In the grand scheme of things, women have had a pretty raw deal when it comes to comic books and tie-in franchises. Until relatively recently, comics were (in the main) written by men for men and boys. This means plenty of male characters, male story lines, and female characters were mostly there as gratuitous T&A. If I had a dollar for every time I was disappointed by an artistic choice or plotline for one of my favourite super-ladies I would have enough cash to write full time and not feel guilty about it. Seriously…being a Catwoman fan is problematic for me, to say the least.

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…and a Chiropractor. It’s ass or tits in one frame boys, not both.

It has started to get better relatively recently, largely due to the recent avalanche of superhero movies and the realisation that there is just as many (if not more) women fans watching these films as there are men. More women have been proudly reading comics and are involved in the creative process.

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However, to this date comic/superhero movies with female leads are few and far between. Since both Marvel and DC’s affiliated studios re-booted their franchises (beginning with Iron Man in 2008 and Batman Begins in 2005, respectively) we have seen no lady leads. Before the reboot we had Catwoman in 2004 and Elektra in 2005 (shudder on both counts). Before that was Supergirl in 1984, Tank Girl in 1995 and…nope that’s the lot.  That is every live-action, cinema-released comic-book movie with a lone female lead.

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Next year we will see the first female-fronted movie since the re-boots – Wonder Woman. It’s filming right now, and we need to support the hell out of it because if it tanks we won’t get another lady lead for at least the next decade. Catwoman and Elektra were phoned in from the get-go, their scripts both completely trashed to the point where you wonder why they even bothered making them, yet they were held up as the reason that female super-hero movies don’t work. No matter how well-written, directed, acted and produced it is, if Wonder Woman tanks at the box office it won’t bode well. The same can be said for Captain Marvel, which is currently in pre-production. I haven’t even broached the concept of an LGBT superhero movie because, to be frank, that we’re having so much trouble bringing women to the fore is a pretty good indication that a gay lead is still a ways off (but OMG how awesome would a Batwoman movie/TV series be?).

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Batwoman, aka Kat Kane, and her girlfriend Maggie in the New 52 Batwoman series

Hollywood have announced that around sixty-four new comic-based movies are in the pipeline for the next few years. Of these there are approximately three women as leads in a non-ensemble situation (Ant Man and Wasp doesn’t count). Three. Go ahead and count, I’ll wait. Black Widow isn’t even on the list, and she is easily one of the most, if not THE most complex and interesting character in the Avengers canon. Yes, I said it. Fight me. There is one school of thought on the Black Widow issue, however, with which I tend to agree – a two-hour movie wouldn’t do her story justice. This is where TV excels.

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Green Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Daredevil and Jessica Jones all have their own shiny new TV series, as does S.H.I.E.L.D. While on the surface this may be because they are considered second-tier characters who are not on the same level as the Avengers or Justice League, the television medium provides far more time to flesh out these characters than a film ever could, particularly for female characters who are juggling with the expectations of their gender and their jobs saving the world. None showcases this better than the series Agent Carter. See, I told you we’d get here eventually.

(One last thing before I talk about Agent Carter in more detail…how awesome would a Black Widow TV show be? She could spend each episode crossing red out of her ledger, like Name Is Earl with more hand grenades and less plaid.)

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You could call it “My Name is Natasha” ! Or….or not…

We first meet Special Agent Margaret “Peggy” Carter of the Strategic Scientific Reserve in the movie Captain America: The First Avenger, where she serves as a love interest to Steve Rogers. Having said this, she’s not the damsel in distress but rather the Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire – she can do anything he does but backward and in high heels. She struggles to be the best agent she can when the whole patriarchal world is telling her that she can’t, something the wimpy Steve Rogers can relate to – neither are ‘man enough.’

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Anyway, after Steve becomes a ‘Capsicle’ at the end of the film, Peggy appears as an old woman in Captain America: Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant Man. She founded S.H.I.E.L.D, had a family, and lived a full life since the events of CA:tFA, and lucky for us we get to see some of it on TV!

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Agent Carter begins shortly after the second world war ends. Peggy is working at the New York division of the SSR, but she’s far away from Tommy Lee Jones and anybody in the army who took her seriously. Most of the men she works with think that her time with the army involved keeping Captain America happy, nudge nudge wink wink. The only assignments she gets involve answering phones when everyone is out, filing paperwork, or fetching lunch and coffee orders. While this is intensely frustrating for her, it means that she has plenty of free time when Harold Stark comes and asks her for help when he’s implicated for treason. Harold is the only person still around who believes in Peg and her capabilities, and she’s quite possibly the only woman in his life whom he genuinely respects. His butler, Edwin Jarvis, becomes an invaluable asset as she seeks to clear Stark’s name.

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She also finds a friend in Daniel Sousa, SSR agent and war veteran. While Sousa is not the only veteran in their office, he is the only one with a visible injury and as such he’s sidelined almost as much as Peggy is. His limp means he needs to learn to rely on his brains more than his brawn, something which fellow veteran and agent Jack Thompson doesn’t have to deal with. Thompson is Sousa’s antithesis – misogynistic and posturing, with a huge chip on his shoulder, Thompson sees Carter and Sousa as hindrances more than help.

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One of the things I adore most about Agent Carter is that examples of sexism, racism and general patriarchal bullshit are writ large, and it’s believable because it’s set in the post-war era. Brave, tough and intelligent Peggy is reduced to answering phones while the boys go out and play (how many offices have a men working reception, or men routinely asked to make tea and coffee for the boss, or where men are expected to maintain the communal spaces? I have never seen a man in an office empty a dishwasher, just putting that out there). They routinely underestimate her and expect her to eventually quit to have a family, something women are still dealing with in 2016.  Another example is the radio show “The Captain America Adventure Hour,” where Peggie is portrayed as a high-pitched bimbo who’s constantly being rescued – we’re almost as frustrated by that trope as she is, and it still happens now!

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I’ll be honest with you, I watched season one a while ago. I just finished watching season two and it blew me away, so I’m going to focus on that now, okay? Spoiler alert. You have been warned.

Season two begins with the boys in the New York office  being fiercely proud of our Peggie for foiling the Russian spies of series one. They even look to her for leadership, although Jack Thompson is in charge. Sousa, meanwhile, has moved to Los Angeles to start a west-cost SSR office. When he calls Thompson for help on a case and asks him to send over a spare agent, Thompson sees it as the perfect opportunity to get Peggy out of his hair. Thus our story re-locates to LA, which also happens to be where Howard Stark and Jarvis are living, because Stark’s latest endeavour is making motion pictures. The main reason I love this season, however, is that it has some seriously awesome women in it.

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Let’s start with Mrs Ana Jarvis. Yes, that’s right, we get to meet Mrs Jarvis! All through the first season it was lovely to see a man and a woman working side by side, sharing quick witty banter and British accents without a hint of sexual tension. This is helped by Jarvis mentioning his wife within his first few minutes on screen –

Jarvis:  Call me any time before nine.

Peggy:  What happens after nine?

Jarvis:  My wife and I go to bed.

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We finally get to meet Ana in the season two premiere in one of my favourite scenes. Peggie is going to spend her stay in LA with the Jarvises in Howards house, and when she walks in she is greeted by a delighted Ana and a huge hug. When Mr Jarvis goes to leave, Ana calls him back and bestows a long, passionate kiss on him right in front of Peggy. At first the viewer might think that this is Ana ‘staking her claim’ in front of the other woman, but then they break apart, Mr Jarvis blushes and says “she’s an embarrassing creature,” and walks away. Ana’s laugh of “He’s too easy!” makes us realise that she was simply trying to ruffle his feathers, and that she’s completely secure in her relationship. What follows is the beginning of a beautiful friendship –

Ana:  What’s that look?

Peggie:  I–I don’t know. I suppose I was expecting someone more…

Ana:  Like Mr Jarvis in a girdle?

Peggie:  (laughing) Precisely.

Ana:  From his tales of your heroics I was picturing a circus strong man in a wig.

(Ana giggles. Peggie looks oddly flattered.)

I’ve selected a few ensembles for (Peg to wear to) the racetrack, but I’ve also sewed you this.

(Ana holds out what looks like undergarments)

Peggie:  What is it?

Ana:  A garter…

 (Ana pulls out a very small gun).

  …that’s also a holster

Peggie:  (gasps) You are fantastic!

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We next see Mrs Jarvis in the following episode. Peggy and Jarvis are sparring, and Jarvis manages to pin Peggy after she had flipped him on his back.

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Of course, Ana walks in at this very moment. The audience can be forgiven for thinking that the green-eyed monster is about to be unleashed, but instead we’re treated to the following dialogue –

Ana:  Good morning you two!

(Ana gives them a sideways look)

Did he catch you with his patented ‘tortoise of fury’?

Peggy:  Oh, is that what he’s calling it?

 (Jarvis helps Peggy to her feet.)

Jarvis:  Ana has been my sparring partner for the last few months. She knows all my strengths and weaknesses.

Ana:  He’s never more lethal than when he’s flat on his back.

Throughout the rest of the show, there is absolutely no doubt as to the strength of the Jarvises marriage. Ana makes it clear that she’s worried for her husband’s safety, but at no point is she holding him back. There’s no jealousy there, either. The two present a united front against the world, built on a solid foundation of trust, apple tort and outwitting the Nazi’s. As a result, Ana and Peggy become firm friends as opposed to two women snarling over a man. When you think of it, this sort of friendship is incredibly rare to see in entertainment – it would have been so easy to cast Ana as the jealous harpy who scolds Jarvis and tells him what to do, hissing at poor Peggy to ‘stay away from her man.’ But instead the creators decided to depict an example of a happy and solid relationship – the only one in the show, as it turns out.

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The possibility of a different ‘stay away from my man’ situation rears its head in episode two, when we learn that Sousa is in a relationship with a nurse named Violet and plans to propose.  Violet gets along with Peggy as soon as they meet, and why wouldn’t she – Peggy’s delightful! It’s not until much, much later that Violet realises that Sousa is still in love with Peggy, and decides to break off their engagement. Rather than sharpening her nails and attacking Peg, or blaming Peggy in any way, she instead lays the fault at Sousa’s feet where it belongs, then steps aside like any self-respecting woman would.

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Meanwhile, Peggy is getting on very well with a hunky new character, Dr Jason Wilkes. As a black scientist in the 1940’s, he’s someone else in whom Peggy finds a kindred spirit. Wilkes’ back story of struggle is a painful one – he grew up on an orange grove, then got a job as a janitor to save money to go to college. He got his degree and joined the Navy during World War II,  where he became an engineer and worked in weapons propulsion.  When the war was over he applied to sixteen different companies for a job, but the evil Isodyne Energy were the only ones that offered him the chance to work in a lab. It is later revealed that he wasn’t hired for his mind, but because his loyalty was guaranteed to the only company willing to take him on.

Jason flirts with Peggy when they first meet, but it’s not until she rescues him from a kidnapping and yells at a racist shopkeeper on his behalf that the two properly click. This leads to some interesting tension between her, Wilkes and Sousa, and fortunately the show manages to not lay it on too thick. Neither man blames Peggy for their predicament, and neither tries to overtly compete for her or make her choose – they just get on with the damn job and hope that the mess sorts itself out. They even talk to each other about it toward the end, because after you’ve saved the world with a guy everything else seems kind of petty by comparison.

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The character I really want to talk about, though, is Whitney Frost. Goddess help me, I love a well-written villainess! She’s a fantastic, comic-book-style example of what happens when you muzzle a person’s intellect and creativity. She’s introduced as a Hollywood actress and the wife of Calvin Chadwick, the head of Isodyne Energy who also happens to be running for Senator. It becomes quickly apparent, however, that Whitney is the brains of the outfit. She’s very involved with the research that Isodyne is conducting, particularly involving the Zero Matter particle.

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A few episodes in we are treated to a glimpse into her childhood. Obviously highly intelligent, young Whitney -then called Agnes Cully- is interested in science and engineering. She’s not interested in being a pretty girl who smiles at people to put them at ease. Given that her mother is “doing what she has to” by sleeping with a married man in order to keep a roof over their heads, she knows form a young age how the world sees women. Her mother tells her flat out that she’d never get to be a scientist, so she’d better learn to smile at the right people and charm her way to a stable existence. She grows up and gets a job as a Hollywood actress, makes some contacts with the mob and manages to charm Calvin Chadwick. She understands the implications of the Zero Matter particle far better than her husband does, and will do anything to keep studying it. Unfortunately, when her plans start to unravel thanks to her husband’s wandering penis, she’s exposed to Dark Matter. It possesses her, and she becomes obsessed with opening a rift to another dimension and finding more, which would bring about the end of the world.

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Whitney Frost’s lust for power is heightened by the Dark Matter, but you’ve got to admire a female antagonist who isn’t a femme fatal, or seeking revenge, or a scorned lover, but who is power hungry and willing to do anything to achieve her goals, including shooting Ana Jarvis!

She’s a mad scientist who has the same issues with the world around her that Peggy does, but she goes about overcoming them in an entirely different way. Whitney Frost is a genius all on her own, Dark Matter just pushes her over the edge. She becomes so ruthless that even the mob are afraid of her, and she even manages to take over a shadowy board who secretly control the country – and they have a strict ‘old crotchety white dude’s only’ policy.

Simply put, Agent Carter is unapologetically, bombastically feminist. Every time I thought they were about to let me down they completely switched the situation on me. The script is well-written, and it’s brought to life by some sensational acting, particularly Hally Atwell and James D’Arcy. They manage to avoid the worst clichés, and we’ll worn tropes are re-imagined and changed around to surprise the viewer. Throw in two more sensational women -Rose Roberts and Dotti Underwood, who I would go into in more depth if this thing wasn’t already overlong – and you have a show that hits all the right marks.

However, even though it does so many things so well, it still hasn’t been confirmed for a third season. So, get the word out people! Watch it, share it, spread the love around, buy the DVDs and merchandise, because if we don’t support more badass women it might be a while before we get another chance like this. Shows like Supergirl and Jessica Jones are also only in their infancy, but if these three can make it we might see more in the future.

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Nerds, ASSEMBLE!

Parks and Recreation: A Character Development Masterclass -April Ludgate-Dwyer

Welcome to our latest character development Masterclass. In this instalment we’re focusing on everyone’s favourite unenthused intern, April Ludgate-Dwyer from Parks and Recreation.

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I have a lot of love for April. Plenty of us wish we could be that apathetic in the workplace. She begins the series as an intern in the Parks and Recreation department and you kind of have to wonder how she got the job in the first place.

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April is a fantastic study in solid character development, and I urge you to watch her scenes closely – it takes masterful writing and acting to create a character who stays true to themselves while growing up. April is aloof and cynical with a sense of humour as dry as sandpaper and dark as peat. She uses this humour to keep people at bay, and as an excuse not to try at anything. If you try you might fail, if you let people in you can let them down. Growing up is realising that trying is better than not going anywhere at all.

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In the first two seasons, she’s in a relationship of sorts with a guy named Derek who is also dating a guy named Ben. The three of them hang out together and seem to spend most of their time ripping on other people and mainstream life in general. April seems perfectly content to coast along like this until she meets Andy, the only person who can make her smile. The two develop a close friendship based around goofing off and pulling pranks. It’s not until the season two episode, Galentines Day that April finally gets fed up with Derek and Ben covering everything they do in “fifteen layers of irony,” and breaks up with them when they insult Andy. She’s outgrown them.

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April also undergoes considerable professional development. In season two she volunteers as Ron’s assistant when her internship is up. Admittedly, this is because she wishes to be close to Andy, but it leads to opening up her horizons. April is perfect for the role – Ron doesn’t want to be bothered by the public, and she doesn’t have to be nice to them to get them to go away. Her only major screw up is scheduling meetings for people on the 31st of March, thinking that March only had 30 days. This means that she and Ron have to deal with ninety-three meetings in one day. April feels so badly about it that she resigns, but when Andy successfully argues to Ron that he’ll never find another assistant like her, Ron gives April her job back.

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In season three Chris asks her to be his assistant, and then to work for him when he goes back to Indianapolis. She declines his offer, but it does open her eyes to the other opportunities that are out there. At the end of season four Leslie needs to focus on the election, so April takes on a few of her duties. This includes running public forums, and while she’s not as positive as Leslie, her straight forward and blunt nature appeals to the townspeople. She later helps Ben run an election campaign in Washington, and is the only one able to whip the interns into shape. When she returns to Pawnee she fights to get lot 48 turned into a dog park, eventually convincing Leslie that it’s the right thing to do even though it had been a personal project and Leslie had her own plans for the space.

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April then decides to follow her passion for animal welfare by studying veterinary medicine and asks Ann for a recommendation letter, despite her feigned dislike for Ann. Meanwhile, April becomes the head of the Animal Control department after suggesting it be absorbed into Parks and Rec. In the final season, April properly takes her career in hand – she decides she wants to work at a higher level in order to pursue her dream job. She goes to work in the American Service Foundatiuon in Washington. In the course of seven seasons she goes from apathetic intern to federal employee at an organisation she believes in.

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I should also point out that April and Andy’s relationship revolves around them encouraging each other to take chances – yes, April stays at Parks and Rec for Andy, but when they get married Andy decides to join the police force so he can better provide for their future together. April encourages Andy to go after his goals and seize opportunities, even when it means him working in London for a while. He also encourages her, even though it means her working with Ben in Washington in season five. In season seven April feels guilty about wanting to move to Washington to work at the American Service foundation because it would mean Andy giving up his dream job as a kids television entertainer, but he tells her that she’s been supporting his career long enough, and that she deserves his support too. This is a fantastic example of two people growing up and maturing together in a positive way, and is rather unique to see on modern television – a relationship of equals.

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You don’t undergo this kind of professional and interpersonal growth without maturing on a personal level. April fights tooth and nail against becoming “boring,” but in the end learns that being a grown-up and being interesting are not diametrically opposed. In the season three episode Jerry’s Painting, Ben moves in with her and Andy as a roommate and is disappointed to find the place in a shambles. After explaining to them that they can’t continue to eat food off of Frisbees, he sends them to Bed Bath and Beyond to buy basic home stuff.

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They go a bit nuts filling their cart up with fun stuff until Andy comes to his senses and starts to put everything back, and April worries that they’re becoming boring.

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It’s not until season seven, when April and Andy buy a creepy house together,that April finally learns that growing up doesn’t mean growing dull. Like every other character in this show, April’s evolution is so subtle it’s barely noticeable until you look back to where she began. When you look at her compared to Leslie, Ann and Donna, you realise how varied these characters are, without being hugely stereotypical. It’s a shame Parks and Rec had to end, but the quality of the writing and acting will ensure that it lives on in hearts, minds and re-runs for decades to come.

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Parks and Recreation: A Character Development Masterclass Part 2 – Ann Perkins

Welcome to part two of our Parks and Recreation character analysis. This week we discuss the development of Ann Perkins.

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Ann Perkins is a character who undergoes some immense changes throughout Parks and Recreation’s run. When we first meet her in season one, Ann is a disgruntled townsperson who wants the pit in the lot at the back of her house filled in. She’s working overtime as a nurse to support herself and her boyfriend Andy, who broke both of his legs when he fell in the pit.

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Leslie goes into overdrive when presented with a new project. Reluctant at first, Ann is swept into Leslie’s wake. In her rare free time, Ann helps Leslie canvas the neighbourhood and raise funds to turn the pit into a park. The disruption to her routine and the addition of a positive influence in Leslie causes Ann to finally realise what the viewer already knows; that Andy is selfish and lazy and needs to go. She finally kicks him out when she learns that he lied to her about his legs still being broken so he wouldn’t have to get a job. Ann’s strength and self-esteem grow exponentially after she befriends Leslie, because Leslie’s main pleasures come from helping and encouraging the people she loves.

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The keen observer will notice an odd trend throughout the first four seasons; Anne mimics whoever she’s dating. You don’t see it when she starts seeing Mark, but when she dates fitness freak Chris she spends a lot of time exercising and talking about vitamin supplements. She even takes on some of his personal mannerisms, such as when they go out to dinner:

Chris: “I would like a local beer. I’d like it in a bottle. I’d like the bottle to be cold.”

Ann: “I would like a glass of white wine. I would like it to be chardonnay, and I would like that with one ice cube, thanks.”

They decide to really play this up in later seasons, even going as far as putting Ann in cowgirl outfits for an entire episode when she’s dating a rodeo rider.

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This tendency to ‘morph’ into one’s partner is more common than you might think, and can stem from three major relationship issues – one partner could be domineering and passively demanding that the other conform to their style and world-view, causing a loss of independence (plenty of people have gone through something like this, usually in youthful relationships). It could be because one partner has low self-esteem and are eager to please, becoming immersed in the other’s hobbies in order to keep them interested. Or it might be because they have nothing in common and one partner is trying to compensate. In Ann’s case it’s the latter, and Leslie has the good grace to call her on it.

When Ann finally does settle down it’s in a relatively unconventional way – she decides she wants to have a child and starts looking for a donor. She decides on Chris because they are still relatively good friends and he is a very healthy physical specimen, and he agrees to be an involved parent with her. They start with IVF, but wind up developing feelings for each other and Ann falls pregnant the old fashioned way. By this point, Ann is self-possessed and confident enough that she doesn’t feel she needs to change who she is to keep Chris around. When they have problems she can actually talk to him about them, something she always shied away from in the past.

In true Parks and Recreation fashion, Anne’s character transformation is not limited to romantic relationships. She grows as a friend and professionally, and this is mostly because of her increasing confidence. Of course, it’s hard not to have improved confidence when you have a friend who calls you a “beautiful tropical fish” and “the best nurse in the world.”

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Ann goes to great lengths to get closer to April, possibly because April starts off despising her so much. April has always been a misanthrope, but her dislike of Ann stems from her jealousy of Ann’s dating Andy. Then, just as it looks like April and Andy are getting together, Ann kissed him.

 

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“This slutty nurse is trying to kill me! Stay back, slut!”

 

So we begin season three, and a few episodes in the flu sweeps the town of Pawnee, and April is hospitalised. Ann is her nurse. It’s not pretty. Still, April warms up to Ann over season four, and their friendship is really expanded upon in season five. When April reveals that she wants to study veterinary medicine, Ann goes with her to a college open day in Bloomington. April decides then and there that it’s not for her, and Ann expresses her disappointment that April would pike out so easily. The viewer expects April to be convinced to give it a try, but instead we’re treated to something better: April teaching Ann how to trust her gut.

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Ann: Can we please talk about what happened back there?

April: What, Ann? I just stole your phone and texted every guy in it that the baby was theirs. It’s not that big of a deal.

Ann: Listen, I know you don’t believe this, but I care about your future, and I’m just a little disappointed that you’re just not following through with this.

April: Yeah, it’s not about following through, okay? I was on the fence about whether I wanted to do it, and as soon as I got there, I just had a gut feeling that it wasn’t right for me, that’s all.

Ann: So, just like that, boom–huge life decision made?

April: That’s how I make all my life decisions. My gut is always right, okay? It was right about marrying Andy, and it was right when it told me that you would be the worst person I would ever meet in my life. And I’ve met Guy Fieri, Ann.

Ann: [Chuckles] So gross! How do you get your gut to talk to you? You don’t get your gut to talk to you.

April: You just listen when it says something.

Ann: Well, right now my gut is saying that we are going to listen to Mariah Carey the whole way home.

 

Later in this episode Ann goes with her gut and talks with Chris about moving somewhere else to raise their baby.

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More than anything else, Parks and Recreation is about friendships, particularly between women. Ann learns and grows with the help of the entire cast, and she helps them in turn. Donna gives her plenty of practical dating advice, Ron teaches her practical skills (during a Halloween house party, no less), and of course Leslie teaches her what it means to have a true, trusting friend.

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Parks and Recreation: A Character Development Masterclass Part 1 – Leslie Knope

Parks and Recreation is the show I watch when I’m having a lousy day…or week. It never fails to cheer me up, especially from season three onward. I think this is due to a number of reasons – a cast of well-rounded characters, witty scripts, a cheery theme song and brilliant character actors.

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The show follows Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), the deputy head of Parks and Recreation, a mid-level government department in the city council of her home town, Pawnee Indiana. Her relatively low-level job belies her ambition; it’s clear from the outset that she wants to rise high in politics. Unlike a lot of ambitious people, however, Leslie genuinely wants make the world a better place. She cares deeply about her town and is hugely enthusiastic about her job. She is a fantastic example of a strong female character – she’s not necessarily physically strong, and she has some definite character flaws, but her strength comes from her determination and from how much she cares about the people around her.

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Leslie’s character transformation is subtle but immense. She remains ambitious, generous and kind, as well as obsessive, but she learns to focus that obsessive positivity into more productive areas.

The first series involves Leslie fighting tooth and nail to achieve something that should be relatively simple – to turn a dangerous pit into a park. The pit is brought to her attention by Ann Perkins (Radisha Jones), a local nurse whose house is right in front of the pit. Ann’s boyfriend, Andy (Chris Pratt), fell into the pit and broke both of his legs. Leslie and Ann work together to make the park a reality, and while they don’t succeed for several seasons they do become firm friends. Leslie also has a huge crush on Mark, the city planner.

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Season one is relatively short, and is really like one long pilot episode. Season two moves things along by having Leslie move on from Mark and start dating other people, but her love life takes more of a back seat. Instead, the show focuses on her new friendship with Ann, who acts as a support and also helps to keep Leslie grounded and focused. Leslie becomes closer to her co-workers as the show progresses, but Ann is her one real confidant. This close friendship between two women is relatively rare to see on TV – even rarer that they spend plenty of time talking about issues other than men (although they do discuss the men in their lives). Parks and Rec manages to tread the very fine line between “too much” and “not enough” romantic intrigue, and focusing on other interpersonal relationships is a huge part of this dynamic, as is the focus on Leslie’s career.

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In the very first episode of season two she holds a wedding for two penguins at the zoo, who turn out to be male penguins, and has to fight against a right-wing Christian group who demand her head on a platter. She says in this episode that as a government worker she doesn’t want to take sides on any issues, but by the end Leslie learns that people will make their minds up about you anyway. In the episode Beauty Pageant, Leslie is a judge for Miss Pawnee, and is determined that the award go to the contestant who is smart and dedicated as well as pretty, firmly taking a pro-feminist stand. Unfortunately, the prize goes to the contestant that the other judges dub “the hot one.”

Having characters who don’t always get what they want is crucial to their growth; later in season two Leslie tries to prevent a historical monument from being torn down and ultimately fails. Leslie doesn’t let these moments of defeat define who she is; she picks herself up with the help of her friends, eats some waffles, then goes back to tilting at windmills. She teaches us that you can only win if you get back in the game, something that so many of us forget – myself included.

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At the end of season two, we learn that the city budget has been massively mismanaged and we are introduced to two government auditors, Chris Trager (Rob Lowe) and Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) who are there to slash and burn. Leslie tries desperately to save the jobs of everyone in her department and comes up with a viable plan…until Ben and Chris inform her that the entire government needs to be shut down while the mess is sorted out. Leslie is deemed “non-essential staff,” but that doesn’t stop her from trying to do her job. She manages to gather several volunteers to put on a kids concert that had previously been cancelled due to the shut-down. It’s no coincidence that when Leslie succeeds it’s because she asks her friends for help – this trait reminds us that when you take the time to care for your friends they will take the time to care for you (and they can usually tell when you’re being disingenuous, so don’t try to fake being nice to people so they’ll do what you want. A person I used to work with did that… it went down like lumpy milk).

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In season three she succeeds in staging the Harvest Festival, in season four she runs a campaign for city council. In season five she manages to pass a series of city council bills, despite huge political backlash and sniping. She achieves all of these things because of her own determination and because her friends want to help her. And they want to help her because she makes time for them. For Ron’s birthday she creates the perfect dinner for him to eat by himself because he hates people and loves meat and whisky. She later brings him with her to England and sends him on a scavenger hunt that leads him to a remote scotch distillery – his idea of heaven.

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She backs Tom in all of his insane business ventures, including promoting Snake Juice, his high-end liqueur that gets the entire club absolutely wasted. She uses his company, Entertainment 720 to run her campaign for councillor – he completely blows it and the company goes bankrupt, but that was his own fault.

She constantly tries to encourage April to be enthusiastic and get involved with the community, something which doesn’t properly sink in for a few seasons because April is a determined misanthrope.

Leslie Knope is a sensational friend.

In the initial seasons, we see that Leslie will go to any lengths to achieve her goals. In season five she concedes that she needs to cut back on work hours in order to devote more time to the campaign – this is a huge step for someone who loves her job and cares as much as she does.

In season six she makes a huge decision – to put other people’s rights ahead of her own interest. By the end of season five Leslie has made many sensible, and therefore unpopular, changes to Pawnee legislature. So now she’s facing a recall election. While this is happening, their rival neighbouring town of Eagleton has gone bankrupt and needs to be incorporated into Pawnee. As much as Leslie despises Eagleton, she campaigns to incorporate the two towns so that a whole bunch of people can keep their jobs. As unpopular as this makes her with her home constituents, she does it anyway because it’s the right thing to do. The only upside for her is that she now has hundreds of new citizens who see her as a saviour and will vote for her in the recall election.

Except, there’s this guy.

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Jamm. He’s one of Leslie’s fellow councilmen, and he’s worse than a cockroach. Anyway, he tries to pass a bill that says only people with official Pawnee addresses will get to vote in the election, and Leslie has no choice but to filibuster while wearing roller skates (for my Australian readers who are unfamiliar with the concept of a filibuster and have never seen “Mr Smith Goes to Washington”, link here. The last Australian filibuster was in 1918, after which they passed a law limiting speech times to twenty minutes).

Toward the end of her filibuster, Ben informs Leslie that the Eagletonians won’t be voting for her in the recall election as they wish to elect someone who will represent their own interests.

Leslie: I’m not going to yield. I need some time to think, and because I must keep talking I’m going to think out loud. Okay… if Eagletonians vote for someone else, then it would be in my best interests to stop, right? So they can’t vote.

Jamm: A-doy! Yield!

Leslie: Or I keep going, because the right to vote is fundamental in any democracy and this is bigger than me, or anyone. I don’t care if I lose. No-one prevents people in my town from voting. Not on my watch. The filibuster is on!

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This move means that Leslie ultimately loses the recall election, but she couldn’t live with herself otherwise. This is a big difference to the tunnel-visioned Leslie of season one.

Toward the end of this season, one of the other council members is exposed in his umpteenth sex scandal and finally steps down. Leslie wants to run for council again, and her now husband Ben does exactly the right thing to convince her otherwise – he calls in the political consultant who helped to nearly beat Leslie in the original election.

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Ben: You know, I’ve been thinking for weeks of what to get you as a “last day in city council” present, and I finally figured it out. You remember Jen Barclay, political consultant and powerbroker?

(…)

Leslie: So they recall me, after all I’ve done for them.

Jen: That’s ridiculous.

Leslie: But Dexheart now has another sex scandal –

Jen: Of course he does.

Leslie: -and the plan is I’m going to run for his seat, because how do I lose to a guy like that? It’s a great idea, right?

Jen: It’s a terrible idea.

Leslie: I knew it! Wait, what?

Jen: First of all, you could lose to a guy like that. Terrible people defeat great people all the time. I should know; those terrible people have paid me so much money that I have a condo on every virgin island. Now, you might win. You’re smart, Ben is smart, you might win. But why would you want to?

Leslie: Because it’s my dream job.

Jen: Then dream bigger. Look, you love this town, it’s being run by monsters and morons? Get a better job! Rise above their heads! Affect change at a higher level! Don’t be the kid that graduates high school and hangs out in the school parking lot! Be the woman who moves away, climbs the ladder and then confidently comes back and has sex with her hot old English teacher just for kicks!

Leslie:… is that what you did?

Jen: Yeah. Mr Baker. Sex was pretty good, thanks to me. Look, Pawnee has done you a favour. You’ve outgrown them. You’ve got talent, you’ve got name recognition, which means you have a bright, wide-open future with a thousand options! State senate, federal jobs, even congress. All of these are do-able for you. And trust me, because I don’t care enough about you to lie.

 

Leslie takes Jen’s advice. She realises that as much as she loves her town, and loves getting her hands dirty by affecting change on a micro level, there is no way that she can make the kind of difference she wants to make by staying in her home town. As much as she loves Pawnee, she needs to move on.

Which brings me to my final point – Ben and Leslie. So many TV show writes bring in romantic interests as comic foils, as incomplete people who are finally complete when they find “the one” in the protagonist. That is not Ben and Leslie – they work so well because they are both complete characters already. They also have enough in common that it’s not weird that they’re together (ie: the Odd Couple trope), and they have enough differences and personal problems that the other can get to know them. Another trope that irks is when one fails to change the other – Ben first starts to fall for Leslie when he sees her give a perfect speech while she’s delirious from flu, he doesn’t try and change who she is.

Ben and Leslie are also immensely supportive of each other, and they are constantly trying to help each other achieve their dreams. Ben resigns his job so that Leslie can run for council and still be in a relationship with him. He then runs her election campaign. After the campaign he is headhunted by Jen Barclay to work on a congressional campaign and spend six months in Washington, and as much as Leslie will miss him she tells him to go for it. He then gets a job working for Sweetums, a company which is trying to get Leslie recalled, and they still make it work… until she accidentally gets him fired. But then he takes a job as city manager, so it all works out. Ben does make the odd sacrifice to be with Leslie, such as only working on the one congressional campaign rather than taking up another one, but it’s a welcome change from what we’re used to seeing, which is usually the woman giving up her own dreams or begging her man not to pursue his.

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There is so much more that I could say about Leslie, but I don’t have the space in this blog. Her character shies away from the usual female clichés and instead creates someone that people can admire, despite her flaws. She makes me want to be a better friend, a better writer and a better me.

There will be more Parks and Rec talk next week. Until then, go catch your dreams.

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Goodbye, Ziggy.

I was going to write a post about Parks and Recreation today. But I can’t. Because someone I truly admire died yesterday.

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I know it’s hugely self-indulgent to write about how one who affected so many influenced me personally, although we had never met. But this is my blog, and I can do what I like. If I can’t be self-indulgent here, where can I?

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When the news of David Bowie’s passing popped up on my news feed I was convinced it was a hoax. I went back to playing a video game, annoyed that someone would actually find this kind of trickery funny. It stuck in the back of my mind, though, and I went back to the internet with some trepidation. As more and more confirmation rolled in over the next forty-five minutes I tried desperately to remain in denial. He’d just released an album, for goodness sakes! Web sites can be hacked, Facebook pages exploited. I finally messaged my partner to see if he’d heard the news. He was convinced that I’d  made a typo. And, because nothing is really real to me until I tell him about it, I finally buried my face in the lounge room rug and wept.

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Like many, I became properly appreciative of David Bowie in my teens. I’m a sucker for incredible guitar playing – I was and always will be a devotee of music played with instruments, call me a snob if you will. Bowie had been one of those musicians of my parent’s generation, and it wasn’t until I raided their CD collection so I could digitally transfer the cream of the crop onto my MP3 player that I properly started to appreciate Bowie. It began with Changes, his best-of, but I soon started listening to his entire discography.

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A rare first edition of the Diamond Dogs album, before his junk was airbrushed out for subsequent releases.

 

During VCE English, our assigned reading was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Our School Assessed Coursework for the unit was to sit an essay test about the book where we could pick the topic, as long as it related closely to the text. I decided to research how the novel had affected modern culture, and lo and behold, I discovered that Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs was a concept piece based on Orwell’s work.  It’s pretty obvious when you look at the song titles and lyrics – Diamond Dogs is the same story distilled to its essence, with additional Bowie flair. He had originally planned to write a musical based on the book, but Orwell’s estate denied him the rights. So instead we have an album that begins with an introductory track, Future Legend, that describes a post-apocalyptic world. Then follows the titular track Diamond Dogs, which introduces the main character Halloween Jack (long before Nightmare Before Christmas) who lives on top of Manhattan Chase, placing the work in New York City. It also introduces the Diamond Dogs, gangs of mutated punks who hunt in packs, Todd Browning’s Freaks you was,” referring to the film Freaks.

Sweet Thing and Candidate are the story of love in a city ruled by the Diamond Dogs, beautiful and perilous.  Rebel Rebel is a rocking interlude, a classic rock song that Bowie wrote because he knew the style would piss off Mick Jagger (indeed, the opening notes could be easily mistaken for a Stones number). We then get into Rock and Roll With Me, We Are the Dead, 1984, and Big Brother,  when we realised just how doomed Jack and his lover really are. Finally, the Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family ends the album with a jaunty tune that suddenly becomes eerie and creepy as the first syllable of “brother” is repeated over and over. Underneath all of Bowie’s jaunty radio-friendly hits was work that was intrigued with the idea of isolation, doom and destruction.

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From there I went back and listened to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, arguably one of Bowie’s most well-known works, and listened to the story of a rock star from space who came to bring a message to the people of earth, who have only five years left to live before the earth died. He was a bi-sexual, drug-taking, promiscuous messenger who delivered hope, peace and love who was destroyed by his own creativity.

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From there I delved into Aladdin Sane, back to Hunky Dory and forward to Let’s Dance. I marvelled at the way Bowie adapted his look and sound – rather than remain stagnant in the glam era he kept trying new sounds, new techniques, and new costumes. He was constantly reaching new generations of fans, particularly teens who were unsure of who they were. He was a safe shelter for misfits everywhere, and he collaborated with other artists that misfits related to – The Rolling Stones, Queen, Tina Turner, Trent Reznor, Placebo and Lou Reed. Here was a man who cross-dressed on and off stage, who flouted conventional ideas around sexuality and gender, who’s music told you that it was okay to be weird. As an adult who works in a creative space, originality and weirdness is generally praised, but being creative and weird as a teenager gets you ostracised. Bowie taught me not to just accept my weirdness, but to embrace it, and to wear it as a badge of honour. He taught me that story-telling could be anything you want it to be, and how to write symbolism. Even now, I listen to his lyrics and find new meaning. I suspect I always will. His music never fails to provide me with inspiration.

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He released his last album, Blackstar, just a few days ago. Just as the world was starting to listen and attempt to decipher meaning, he died. And the album took on a whole new meaning just two days after its release.

According to Bowie’s producer, Lazarus was intended as an epitaph, and Blackstar as a swan song – Bowie’s last gift to his fans. The imagery of a black star, of a brightly burning light that has finally gone out.  The video’s released for the title track and Lazarus now, in context, are like watching him plan his own funeral. The video for Blackstar shows an alien woman discovering the dead body of an astronaut, and taking his jewel-encrusted skull back to a nearby, ancient-looking town to perform a funeral rite. To me, this is the final end of Ziggy, or even Major Tom. Hell, Bowie was both and more, wasn’t he?

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I could go into talking more about his work and symbolism, about Major Tom and the Thin White Duke, and all of his other characters. But the discovery of Bowie’s work is a journey that one needs to undertake on their own, and it’s one that will never really end. David Bowie was an incredible musician, yes. But for me he will always be the ultimate story-teller, a bard who tells tales straight from the imagination.

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 Finally, if any of you reading this are Bowie fans who haven’t seen Venture Brothers, do it. There are more references to his work than you can shake a stick at, and I giggle every time I hear, “Changes One! I love that album!” “Can you be a bigger poser? Changes was a best-of!”  He also jumps into battle yelling, “Make way for the homo superior!” You’ll love it.

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine: A Character Development Masterclass, Part 3 – Amy Santiago

Welcome back to my character development masterclasses! Without further ado, I bring you an exploration of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Amy Santiago.

It wasn’t until reading this sensational article by Everydy Feminism that I realised yet another stereotype that Brooklyn Nine-Nine goes against, even though it’s so glaringly obvious that I’m kicking myself for not picking up on it. You can say plenty of things about Amy Santiago and Rosa Diaz, but one thing they are NOT is the “spicy latinia” stereotype.

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Yes, I’ve used this gif before, but I love it.

 

Let’s face it, a large chunk of Latinx representation in pop-culture hinges on a few  particular stereotypes – the curvy vixen/charming lover who’s going to seduce your partner, the housemaid or cleaner who barely speaks English, and the ‘spicy’ woman with a temper who flares up and starts yelling at the slightest provocation.

I’ve already covered Rosa’s character extensively in a previous post, however I’d like to point out that while she has a temper and is a somewhat frightening character, it is far from the ‘in-your-face’ stereotype we’ve seen over and over again, with raised voices and gesticulating. Additionally, while Rosa and Amy both talk about dating and generally enjoying sex, it’s a far cry from the virgin/whore dichotomy we are used to seeing with Latina characters. It’s as though the writers created these two women to be…people! giphy (1)

Anyway, on to Amy’s character development….

Amy Santiago is introduced as being a thorough, competitive woman who’s attention to detail and sharp mind make her an excellent detective. She has seven brothers, which fostered a thirst to prove herself.

She’s a dork and a stickler for the rules, but her constant need to impress comes over more endearing than annoying. This is because the creators have made sure that she’s more than just the ‘class swot’, they show us other aspects of her personality. Amy knows when and how to have fun and is a great friend to her co-workers. Her only real rivalry is with Jake, and even that is just a bit of friendly fun.

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To cap it, she’s good at her job but doesn’t seek praise for it – doing your job is baseline, she rightly doesn’t expect a cookie and a pat on the head for only doing what’s required. She only looks for approval by going above and beyond for people, for trying to be a better version of herself, not better than her co-workers. This, in combination with her awkward nature, makes her a hugely relatable and likeable character – she reminds me of Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter novels, and we all know how many women relate to Hermione.

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Not related to the paragraphs above or below, just a really adorkable line.

 

This combination of doing her job well by default and also going above and beyond to help people is showcased magnificently in the season one episode M.E Time. Holt is in a bad mood, and nobody can figure out why. Amy spends the episode trying to work out exactly what’s wrong. First, she thinks that it’s because he despises the framed photo of himself on the office wall. When Terry draws a spot-on suspect sketch, Amy enlists him to paint a portrait of the captain to hang in place of the photo. This does not go down as well as she expects.

Amy:  I know you’re having a bad day… I think you’re having a bad day. So, to cheer you up I had Terry paint you this painting to replace the photo you hated.

Holt:  I threw away the photo because I think it’s ostentatious to hang pictures of yourself, especially when you haven’t earned a place on the wall.

Amy:  Oh.

Holt: But you would have me hang a baroque oil painting of myself like I’m a North Korean dictator. What, no ornate gold frame? Why am I not astride my noble steed, clad in armour?

Amy:  … we could add a horse.

Holt: You just wasted your time, Terry’s time and now my time on this when you should have been filing a report on the purse snatcher.

Amy:  Oh, I did. It’s already in the system.

Holt: Oh. Good. Thank you. Dismissed.

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This exchange makes Amy realise what’s really affecting Holt’s mood – he’s worried about the monthly crime statistics (as it’s his first month as chief of the precinct). Amy then trawls through the last twelve years of crime stats, informing Holt that stats get worse rather than better in the first month a new commander takes over the precinct. The stats for Holt’s first month, however, are exactly the same as the previous month. She also tells him that “moral is much higher, people are working harder. You’re well on your way to earning a place on that wall.”

This care she shows for her friends and co-workers is something that runs through every character in the show and makes Brooklyn Nine-Nine stand out – there is genuine camaraderie among the characters.

In the episode Sal’s Pizzeria, we get to see Amy’s ambition and competitive nature temporarily get the better of her affection for her friends. When Rosa is offered a job as a police captain in Ropesburg New Jersey, Amy is stunned and envious. Rosa finally gets tired of Amy’s passive-aggressive sniping and drives her out to visit the Ropesburg PD. It’s the most boring place in the country. Their conversation on the drive home is illuminating.

Rosa:  So what did you think of Ropesburg?

Amy:  It’s, ah, quaint!

Rosa: It’s wack and you know it. Their number one crime is tricycle theft. There’s a bakery attached to the precinct. Come on, Santiago! You never would have taken that job so why do you even care if they offered it to me?

Amy:  I can’t help it! I’m competitive! I have seven brothers and I was the only girl, I always had to fight for a place at the table.

Rosa:  Well, you’re not the only girl at the table any more. We work at a police force full of dudes, we’ve gotta have each other’s backs, okay?

Amy:  You saying you have my back?

Rosa:  Yeah I got your back. Don’t smile, I’m still mad at you.

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To Amy’s credit, she never lets her competitiveness get too out of control again. She learns how to be happy for her co-workers successes.

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Amy isn’t secretive about her ambitions – she wants to be captain one day and knows that in order to get there she needs people to teach her how. This is the reason she obsesses over getting Holt to mentor her, and he knows that he’ll get the best results from her if he makes her really work for his praise. Amy has learned how to handle criticism, however. In the episode Thanksgiving she’s thrilled when Holt gives her notes on her Thanksgiving speech because it means she’s getting advice from him – she knows that advice and criticism leads to improvement.

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Amy’s biggest flaw is her need to do everything perfectly, from speaking with proper grammar, to her clothes being perfectly neat.

She’s so put off by the idea of doing the wrong thing that she’ll either take too long to make a decision, or get flustered and freak out. She’s also a smoker, and so ashamed of this imperfection about herself that she tries to hide it from her boyfriend. Holt, Terry and Gina take it on themselves to help her quit. Terry recommends getting rid of the cravings by dunking her head in ice water.  Holt recommends exercise, and Amy wants so desperately to impress him that she hides in a port-a-john to so he won’t see her smoking (it doesn’t work, fyi).Gina tries to help her meditate. It’s not until Holt tells her to stop putting so much pressure on herself that Amy actually stands a chance of quitting.

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Holt:  Santiago, you’re putting yourself under too much pressure, and that stress is making it even harder for you to quit. Some things might come easier to you if you stop   being such a perfectionist. A concept you should become….familiar with.

Amy:  “Familiar with”? A dangling preposition?

Holt:  I’m setting an example. I made an error and I’m not going to correct it. I’m just gonna let it dangle, dangle, dangle.

Amy:  (pause) Thank you, Captain.

It’s unclear if Amy ever quits, but I think it’s safe to say she won’t – she’s so tightly wound that smoking is a stress-relief, and without another outlet she’ll likely be a smoker forever.

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The writers develop Amy’s character further by forcing her into situations in which she needs to improvise. In the season two episode The Jimmy Jab Games, Amy can finally let her fiercely competitive side show without any negative consequences, because everybody wants to win. The premise of the episode is a great one – the precinct have some downtime for three hours while they wait for motorcade duty, and with Terry and Holt out at 1 Police Plaza, that means Peralta and the gang have time for the Twelfth Jimmy Jab games (named for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or at least, how Jake pronounces his name).

There are four events the competitors must complete – The eating of month-old Chinese food found in the fridge, running a foot race while wearing bulky bomb suits, crafting an undercover persona that doesn’t get recognised by other cops,

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and finally, an office obstacle course. This episode features a fantastic conversation between Amy and Jake where he is surprisingly insightful –

Amy:  I can’t believe I lost again. I was so psyched up for this, what happened?

Jake:  Well, maybe being so psyched up is what happened. Like, every time we’re doing police work you’re always super smart and you stay calm and take your time, but every time we do dumb games like this you act all frantic and act like a crazy idiot. My advice – next time, don’t act like a crazy idiot.

He’s right – Amy ultimately wins the games because she stops for a moment and calms down, sees past her own blinding panic and comes up with a solution to the problem of fire extinguishers being blasted in her face.

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Season two continues to slowly unwind Amy by throwing her in the deep end. In the episode The Road Trip, Jake and Amy have to drive upstate to pick up a prisoner and transport him back to the city. As they’re driving up the day beforehand, they are booked into a hotel for the evening. Jake invites his girlfriend, Sophia, and when Amy says that her boyfriend Teddy would never be this spontaneous, Jake calls Teddy and tells him to come up and surprise Amy. When he tells Amy of the super-awesome-best-friend thing he’s done for her, Amy freaks out – turns out she’s been trying to avoid Teddy because she wants to break up with him.

Amy:  Jake, this is gonna be a disaster!

Jake:  This is fine, alright, I’ll figure it out. I’m just gonna call Teddy, tell him to turn around and go home.

Amy: No. He’s a really good detective, he’ll figure out something’s wrong. I had an air-tight breakup plan in place. I made a reservation next Thursday at a well-lit Korean restaurant in midtown. It’s the least romantic place I could think of.

Jake:  Scully’s bathroom, but go on.

Amy:  Teddy’s a really good guy and I don’t want to say the wrong thing and hurt him more than I have to. That’s why I started writing out a breakup speech, but now he’s on his way and I’m only halfway through the outline!

When Teddy finally arrives, Amy starts to panic and say awkward things, until she finally bursts out “I want to break it up! Us. I want to break us up.” Her explanation of why she wants to break up is no less awkward and no more eloquent – “this is why I wanted to write it down!” – but she admits later that she’s happier having “ripped off the bandaid”.

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Amy’s character still has a lot of potential to be developed further. Like Rosa and Holt’s people skills, Amy’s neuroses and panic would take a long time to properly overcome. Having said this, the writers have given themselves a lot to work with, and if they continue to defy all-too-common tropes and clichés then Amy’s character development is going to be very interesting. She’s slowly learning to be more spontaneous and to trust her instincts – in my post about Holt I mentioned that Amy stood up to him in the episode Chocolate Milk, something she would never have done in season one. As the show continues, Amy is definitely one to watch… especially for her sweet dance moves.

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Yes, Hermione can be black. Stop being ridiculous, you shame yourself and the fandom.

 

I had planned to take a break from the blog this week. I’ve been busy with the holiday season and wanted to take a bit of time, but then this happened.

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Or, more specifically, the uproar by morons over this innocuous casting decision happened.

 

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I could have put in plenty more examples, but I value my sanity and blood pressure.

 

Fair warning – this post will get angry. Very, frustratedly, mind-bendingly angry.

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Full confession; like many of my generation I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter series. My copies of the books are tattered from multiple re-readings, I endured the excruciating wait between Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix by writing fan-fiction, and I had a well-documented crush on Sirius Black. I know all of the words to the Hogwarts school song. I listen to the audiobooks when I can’t sleep. I was sorted into Gryffindor on Pottermore, and own a pair of Gryffindor leggings.

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Like many readers, I brought my own interpretation and ideas to my imaginings of the magical world. For example, the first time I read Chamber of Secrets I imagined Dobby being blue. I don’t know why; it didn’t say anywhere that he was or wasn’t blue. Rowling describes his bat-like ears, huge green eyes and long nose. It wasn’t until I saw the previews for the 2002 film adaption of CoS that I realised that he was never described as having blue skin in the books – I even went back and checked. My mental image of Ron was tall and rail thin like one of my cousins, whereas Rupert Grint wound up rather stocky. The look for Richard Harris’ Dumbledore was dead on how I imagined, but the voice wasn’t right. Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall was exactly on target, though.

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My point is that everybody brings a portion of their own experience and ideas to fiction, as both writers and readers. I’m a white girl who grew up in a predominately white part of suburban Australia, and I’ll confess that, unless otherwise indicated by the writer, my default setting for imagining characters was ‘white.’ This includes Hermione Granger, especially because I identified with her so much while growing up. People who lived different experiences than mine may have had an entirely different idea of what Hermione looked like; it wasn’t until I was much older that it even occurred to me that she might be black. But the fact is that bushy brown hair, large front teeth and high intelligence are the only real identifiers we are given for Hermione – the rest is up to us. Plenty of children of different ethnicities had, in fact, placed themselves in the role of Hermione in the same way I did.

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Original art here – http://mariannewiththesteadyhands.tumblr.com/post/107840627952/hermione-for-awfulreference-merry-christmas-micky

So, when I saw the casting announcement for Ron, Harry and Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, my first response was “awesome!” When I read about the credentials of the three actors and realised that Noma Dumezweni was in Dr Who I thought, “she’ll be brilliant!” And when I saw the uproar in the comments sections and on twitter, my reaction was “…of course” topped with an eye-roll and an exasperated sigh. Then I went to pace in the angry dome and swam a few rage laps at the local pool (one of those actually happened).

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As I have stated time and again on this blog, representation MATTERS. It’s important. While reading this awesome Buzzfeed article I stumbled upon a quote by Pulitzer winning writer Junot Diaz:

“There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in the mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at a cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

You can listen to the full quote on the FanBrosShow podcast here.

To turn around and say to people “no, your imagination is wrong, Hermione can only be white” is to take away this reflection of themselves. I connected with Hermione because I was picked on for being moderately intelligent and unapologetic about it. Many non-white readers connected with Hermione because of this and/or a much deeper reason – her muggle-born status.

As much as I hate to assume that everyone notices the same clues when reading, it’s hard to miss the glaring allegories in the Harry Potter series. We have Remus Lupin, shunned from society and trying to deny himself the right to happiness and love, as an allegory for AIDS patients. Half-giant Hagrid as a lesson about judging people for the content of their character rather than their parentage or appearance. Dementors are representative of depression. The bigotry against muggles is an allegory for racism and xenophobia.

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Hermione, like many witches and wizards, is muggle born. As her parents were non-magic folk, there are many who believes this makes her blood ‘un-pure’. This topic is first raised in Chamber of Secrets, when the pure-blood Draco Malfoy calls Hermione a ‘mudblood,’ an obvious ethnic slur. That Hermione is an incredibly powerful and talented witch, or that wizards would have died out if they hadn’t started shacking up with muggles to diversify their genes, means nothing to pure-blood zealots.

When Lord Voldemort rises to power in Deathly Hallows, he and his Death Eaters take over the government and start weeding out muggle born wizards and witches. He also makes the muggle studies subject at Hogwarts compulsory for all students, and they are forced to listen to propaganda about how muggles are stupid and dirty, and the natural order is for wizards to be on top. This propaganda is analogous of Hitler and Nazi ideology, as well as right-wing KKK ideas regarding the separation of the races.

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Pretty bloody obvious, right? So it’s understandable that people of a non-white background would connect with a character who is constantly maligned because of her roots, and is give lower status in society, regardless of her talent. Add to this that she’s trying to convince house elves – essentially a race of slaves – that they deserve fair wages, time off and proper clothes to wear. Hermione is a fictional civil rights icon trying to unionise slaves, and people want to deny the idea that she could be black? Did these people miss the message of the series entirely?

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In my perusal of the social-media feedback regarding Hermione, I have seen five major arguments as to how she can’t possibly be portrayed by a black actress. I will now proceed to systematically tear every one of these arguments to shreds like Ron attacking the breakfast buffet.

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“JK’s only doing it as an afterthought to be PC, like when she said Dumbledore is gay after the books came out.”

 

J.K Rowling has stated on twitter that she loves the idea of a black Hermione. Many cynics have said that she only did this to be politically correct, and that she obviously didn’t write Hermione as a black character.

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Firstly, if you are familiar with the books at all you would know that J.K Rowling has progressive, left-wing views. She’s not trying to appease anyone, she’s just open minded. No, she didn’t write Hermione specifically as a black character, and probably didn’t have that in mind, but she hasn’t come out and said flat-out that Hermione is black. She never said that she’s white, or any other colour. The whole point is that we bring our own ideas and imaginations to the text. J.K is supportive of a black Hermione because there is no reason not to be.

And while I’m here, to those who are cynical regarding the “Dumbledore is gay” revelations…

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Have you EVER spent any time with a creative person, particularly a writer? Because if you had, you’d know writers create hugely elaborate worlds and have plenty of facts about their creations stored away in their heads that just don’t make it into the final publication. J.K first revealed Dumbledore’s sexuality during a table-read for the Half-Blood Prince movie, where they’d put in a line where Dumbledore reminisces about a girl he used to love. J.K had to let them know to change it, because it had just never come up before. Still not convinced? Watch this vid from about the 29-minute mark.

If you still have problems with Dumbledore’s sexuality, fine. Just imagine him as straight, the same way that other people may imagine that Hermione is not white. It’s your imagination, you can do whatever you like!

“Then why was Emma Watson cast in the films?”

A great deal of people are asking “Why was Emma Watson cast in the movies if Hermione is black?”

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Firstly, as stated above, her race was never specified in the books, so she could be any colour.

Secondly, I’m willing to bet a lot of people were disappointed (but not surprised) that Hermione was played by a white girl – we don’t always get what we want, even though it may seem that way to the privileged in society.

Thirdly, the films are an ADAPTATION of the books; they’re not cannon. There’s no Peeves in the movies either, does that mean he suddenly doesn’t exist in the stories?

The play is a sequel to the books, not the films. The performance is also an ADAPTION  of this play based in the world of the books.

Fourthly, the realm of theatre is far more open to casting decisions being based on acting ability rather than race and gender. If a grown woman can historically play a prepubescent Peter Pan on stage, then a black woman can play Hermione.

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Mary Martin as Peter Pan, 1960

Fifth, if we’re going purely on looks, Emma Watson wasn’t right for the part either.

Yup. I said it.

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Hermione is meant to be relatively plain, not pretty; her allure lies in her brains and personality. J.K herself says in this amazing documentary-

“…I was more worried about [the casting of] Hermione than anyone else. I thought, you know, ‘are you gonna get a girl and put her in glasses because that shows she’s clever?’ How many times have we seen that happen? And then I spoke to Emma on the phone and she was very young, I think she was ten, and I thought ‘you are going to be able to play a very bright and articulate girl with conviction because that’s who you are’ […] in creating Hermione I felt I created a girl who was a heroine, but she wasn’t sexy, nor was she the girl in glasses who’s entirely sexless, you know what I mean? She’s a real girl!”

Emma Watson, we can all acknowledge, is far from plain. But she works as Hermione because of her personality. In an interview special she did with Daniel Radcliffe (here) J.K says,

“It’s really lucky that I spoke to Emma on the phone before I met her, because I fell absolutely in love with her. She said to me ‘I’ve only ever acted in school drama plays before and oh my god I can’t believe I got the part!’ and she spoke like that (very fast) for sixty seconds at least without drawing breath, and I said ‘Emma, you’re perfect.’ And then when I met her and she was this very beautiful […] girl, I just had to go, okay, it’s film, deal with it. I still see my gawky, geeky, ugly duckling Hermione in my mind.”

 

“But J.K Rowling drew pictures of Hermione as a white girl! And she’s white in all the cover art!”

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So? That doesn’t preclude an adaptation from re-imagining Hermione as black. L Frank Baum didn’t necessarily write any black characters in the Wizard of Oz, but The Wiz is still a hugely successful and popular interpretation of his work.

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The original film cast of The Wiz

I’ll say it again, we’re not saying Hermione can’t be white, but there are plenty of open possibilities regarding her ethnicity. As soon as an artist puts work out into the world it’s open to all manner of interpretation, despite what the author originally planned, because we all bring our own experiences to the text. As much as I hate saying it, The Author is Dead.

J.K Rowling is fine with it, why can’t you just be cool?

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“HA! But what about this passage from Prisoner of Azkaban?”

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“White face” indicates fear in this instance, not race. Besides, if you’re going to play that card, I’m going to play this one from the same book.

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Yes, this is from my very old and water-damaged copy.

 

Sure, she could have got a tan from being on holiday. Or maybe not. But if you get to pull that bullshit then so do I.

 “It’s just not how I pictured her.”

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And that’s fine. But I didn’t picture Dobby as being white, either. I pictured him blue.

Some people do picture a black Hermione when they read the books. Now, they’re finally getting some damn representation.

It doesn’t hurt you in any way at all.

 

Fucking deal with it.