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.

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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!

Don’t Watch Movies With Me

Tauriel from The Hobbit

I am an impossible person with which to watch movies. Unless I am totally blown away by a film, it is very difficult for me not to wind up critiquing it. When I see films with other people (particularly my partner), I try to keep my mouth shut as we leave the cinema because I want to let them enjoy the afterglow of the latest blockbuster, but in the end I always wind up saying, “yeah, but…”

That’s not to say that I don’t like watching films and relaxing with mindless pap from time to time —I’m only human— but it’s always a horrible feeling when you realise that you just can’t turn off your inclusive feminist filter. I’m not sure what’s worse; the general discomfort of watching a film that you know from the outset is going to treat women and non-white races as props and second-class citizens, or the stinging disappointment of having a film build up your hopes all the way through by hitting all the right marks only to dash them in the last few scenes.

When a film begins with the Women in refrigerators trope right off the bat, I’ve pretty much lost interest. This trope is named for a Green Lantern story where he comes home and finds his girlfriend murdered by villain Major Force and shoved into their fridge. Women in pop culture are killed, raped or otherwise disempowered in order to give the male protagonist a motive ALL. THE. TIME. A great many Bond girls have been sacrificed to this cause. It takes a little while, but the death of the wife and child in Mad Max is what causes the iconic Mel Gibson character to begin his revenge spree. Wolverine’s wife is murdered in X-Men Origins: Wolverine to motivate his actions through the rest of the film. Hell, even the first episode of Supernatural features two women who seem to exist solely to be killed off to motivate the men.

If a piece of pop culture gets past this first hurdle, there are still a number of other tired cliché stumbling blocks it needs to navigate to avoid disappointment. First we have the classic “Smurfette Phenomenon,” particularly common in media aimed at children. It refers to a cast predominantly made up of male characters with one token female and/or token minority character thrown in to make the show appear more inclusive than it really is. It should also be noted that by the end of the film these women usually wind up dating or married to a male character. Many remakes suffer from this, as they sacrifice inclusion for remaining faithful to the sexist source material. Uhura in the Star Trek  reboot is one example (one woman on the bridge, winds up with Spok), as is Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy. Black Widow in the Avengers movies is another (I was particularly disappointed with the way her character was handled in Age of Ultron, actually, but that’s another blog post. She wound up with Hulk). Even Miss Piggy in The Muppets is a Smurfette, as she is the only female character with a regular speaking role.

The Hobbit is an interesting case, as Peter Jackson added the character of Tauriel simply so the film wouldn’t be such a damn sausage fest. This leads me neatly into my main disappointment with the final instalment of The Hobbit series. *SPOILERS AHEAD*

From a perspective of female representation it wasn’t going too badly. We had that wonderful scene with the women refusing to wait around while the village men fought and died, instead deciding to stand beside their men and fight for their homes (which happened often throughout history, even if we have a problem depicting it in Fantasy fiction). We had Tauriel kicking all kinds of orc butt. But at the end, when she is left to take on Bolg (son of the Orc Chief Azog), she has to be rescued TWICE! First by Kili, who steps in when Tauriel is injured and is in turn killed. Tauriel then, in her rage and grief, throws Bolg off the mountain and is dragged down with him. Does she plummet heroically to her death, taking the bad guy with her? No. They both survive, and Legolas swans in to stab Bolg in the head. Then Tauriel cries over the death of Kili who she sort of liked. Because we can’t have a token female without some kind of love story. Is it too much to ask that if you throw in a token lady sidekick she at least get to win a contest? No, she’s only allowed to win when she’s fighting another woman.

Next we get to the more complex conundrums of “strong female characters” in general. If your character is strong because she acts like a man, this is troublesome on  a number of levels. Firstly, it says that to be considered strong you have to be able to do a ton of push-ups/fire a gun on target/kick harder and faster, wear boots and pants with no makeup, and that these are the only acceptable ways to prove how strong you are. Secondly, it reinforces the false notion that men have to be physically strong to be considered worth admiration. Strength and fortitude comes in a wide variety of guises. Intelligence. Humour. Empathy for others. The ability to know when to tough out a bad situation, and when to cut your losses and walk away. The will to support other people, be it financially, emotionally, or by using your smarts to get them out of a tough situation. It’s not just about being able to punch your way out of trouble.

Now I want to turn my attention to villains. There aren’t too many female villains out there, especially in Spec Fic. But women can be bad. Women can be downright evil. It’s allowed (narratively speaking). Some of our best, most reviled baddies in literary and film history have been women. So why do we insist on being able to make excuses for them? I get that you may want to give your antagonist more complexity and layers other than “she’s just bad,” but why not give her a hobby? She’s evil, but she also enjoys bonsai or carving ducks out of driftwood. In the live-action 101 Dalmatians, Cruella DeVille wanted to kill the puppies because she was vain and sociopathic, but she also ran her own haute couture fashion house. If she gets a Maleficent style remake I might just lose my shit.

For what it’s worth, there were many aspects to Maleficent that I enjoyed, but did we really have to re-invent her back story to explain that, actually, she is kind of motherly and a big softy deep down? OZ The Great And Powerful also did something similar to the Witch of the West, as did Wicked (made up for in the novel, at least, by making Elphaba into a revolutionary).

If we have to explain why a female character is bad, try, “she’s bad because she’s greedy”, or “She’s bad because she’s selfish and is going after what she wants with no thought to the consequences for others”, and the most powerful of all, “she believes she’s actually doing the right thing.”

Finally, a trigger warning here because I want to discuss the biggest red flag of all. The biggest “nope, go back to the drawing board, get a new idea” lazy story-telling you can possibly employ –  rape for the sake of rape. As discussed brilliantly in more detail by The Mary Sue, the historical eras you are basing your fantasy series on may be full of rape, but that is no reason to bring that particular element to the fore “just because.” In worlds with fairies, dragons and wise-cracking trolls we really aren’t looking for realism. The same goes for dystopian sci-fi, action, thrillers… any genre, really, where a woman (or man) might be put in danger. The problem is you have to be very, very careful about how you use this particular issue.

The worst example of rape as a device I can think of is in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Humungus and his band of marauders capture, rape and kill a woman, tie her to the bonnet of their car and show the body off to her friends at the compound. It was completely unnecessary, in that we already knew that the Marauders were bad guys. The only thing it added was cheap shock value, which the film has coming out of its ears anyway.

Another example is The Crow. I know, I know, we all love The Crow, but consider this: It wasn’t enough that Eric’s fiancée was murdered, she had to be raped, too, because it’s the ultimate evil and we needed to prove that the bad guys were especially bad. We also see plenty of rape in the Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones series, something covered enough already by the media. I’m sure you can think of plenty of other examples.

My point is that, much like the Women in Refrigerator’s trope, Rape is used way too often to show that the world is a dark place and that the bad guy is truly evil. There’s a common perception that rape makes something darker and edgier, when really it’s just unnecessary. I’m not saying that we should never use fiction to talk about sexual assault – we should. We should talk about how it affects the victim, how not all victims are the same. It should not be just flippantly used for shock value, or for the motivation of the Male hero. 1 in 5 women in Australia will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. Think of your audience. Do you really think they want their experiences to become fodder because you’re too lazy to come up with anything better?

I enjoy plenty of movies that are problematic. I watch them because so few of my beloved action and fantasy films don’t have problems. But unless you can show me

  1. a cast of more than two women who are more than just wives, mothers, or token tough/evil-chicks with anger issues because of some past trauma
  2. women not needing to be rescued by a dude
  3. no rape (or, if you must include it, a respectful exploration of its effects)

then I’m not going to be singing its praises.

I’ll probably elaborate more on this topic in future posts. Until then, I’ll write the sort of stories that I actually want to read.