Pam Poovey: A Lesson in Subverting Stereotypes

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

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

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

 Cheryl: …are you totally just gay for her?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Kindapper 2 punches her in the face]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[silence]

Pam: Oh, don’t be dicks.  

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

Kidnapper: Drop your weapons or she dies!

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

Pam: Oh, seriously?!

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

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

Ray: Archer’s fault.

Archer: Shut up.

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

Mallory: Not me! I wasn’t shooting!

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

Mallory: Me? Why me?

Pam: Five thousand measly dollars?

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

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

Lana: Hey, woah!

Archer: Lana, let her have this one.

Mallory: Sterling! Anybody?

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

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[Long pause]

Lana: Nope.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Mallory: Well, yes, but…

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Pam: Oh my God, I can’t feel my face.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Pam: Well, and the snowballs, but…

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

Pam: Really?

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

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Pam: Yeah, with ginormous big tittays!

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

Pam: Aw, you wanna bang me?

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

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

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

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

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Pam: Edie! Cut me down!

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

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

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

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

Edie: Yeah. Duh.

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

Edie: Excuse me?

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

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

Pam is finally happy. So is Archer.

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

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Lana Kane: A Lesson in Subtle Character Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lana:  Okay, get out.

Cyril:  Of my own office?

Lana:  Yup.

Cyril:  Why?

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

Cyril:  WHAT?!

Lana:  Right here, on your blotter.

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Cyril:  NO!

Lana: Yuuup!

Cyril:  You can’t do that!

Lana:  Really? Is it opposite day already?

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

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

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

Brett: Wait, what?

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

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

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

Brett: But that’s a lot of money

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

Brett: Okay, I’m in.

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

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

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

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

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

Lana:  Whaaat?

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

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

Archer:  But-..I…

Lana:  Wait that wasn’t… I didn’t…

Archer:  Excuse me.

Archer leaves the scene, visably hurt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Kane: From excitement!

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

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

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

Dr Kane glares at Archer.

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

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

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

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

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OITNB Character Masterclass #1 – Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boo:  I got a lotta those. Specify.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boo:  Okay, let’s say that.

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

Boo looks perplexed.

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

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

Doggett:  Really? That’d be great.

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

Doggett:  Yeah, I figured.

Boo:  Yeah.

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Support Australian Films – Watch The Dressmaker

I am ashamed.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Do you remember Ms Harradine, the schoolteacher?”

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

Tilly: What about Mr Almanac, the chemist?

Molly: I don’t even know who you are.

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

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

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

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

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

Molly: Mum?!

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

Molly: Remember what? Being my daughter?

Tilly: That too.

Molly: Fat chance. What else?

Tilly sits down and looks her mum in the eye.

Tilly: Did I commit a murder?

Molly: (Laughing) What?

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

Molly: You don’t remember committing a murder?

Tilly: No.

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

Tilly: No.

Molly: What if you are a murderer?

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

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

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

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

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Teddy: Your getup’s distracting my players.

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

Teddy: Yeah, listen Myrtle…

Tiily: I prefer Tilly

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

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

Gertrude: A dress can’t change anything!

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

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

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

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

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

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"You could Be married in this suit" Judy Davis

"Yeah, I could be" Liam Hemsworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So…

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

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Trust me, the ending is killer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Selfie time!”

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

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

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

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

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

Got all that?

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

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Okay, so on to The Final Girls itself.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Believe in Supergirl

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

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

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

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

With me so far?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kara:  Then what do you do?”

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

Kara:  Actually, I kinda was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 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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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.