*This review does not contain spoilers.*

The recently released, Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, is visually stunning with amazing cinematography that  gives audience members the sense of being out there in space, detached from earth.

Detachment is a key theme of the film (“Detached” is also the title of the teaser trailer released last summer). Related to this, the film has many visual images that evoke birth and gestation. Though pulsing with umbilical cord imagery, it is far from a typical exploration of the meaning of life, birth, and death — and particularly because it places a woman, Dr Ryan Stone (played by Sandar Bullock) front and center – and not AS a woman, but as a human.

Though the movie is about a shuttle mission, the matter of extreme importance at its center has nothing to do with space travel, the vastness of space, nor the technological wizardry that makes space travel come alive for the audience – no, the matter of great importance at the center of the film is human survival.  The film, as noted in this review, “gives a visceral charge to the metaphorical sense of being lost and alone in the universe”

Bullock captures this existential exploration of life with not only great dignity, but in a way that captivates the audience, pulling them to the edge of their seats, tugging at their emotions, and amping their adrenaline.

Why is this important for feminists?

Because all too often movies that make audiences hearts’ race or adrenaline rush feature only male leads and incorporate violent packed action.

Gravity is an important film as it proves that YES, a woman can anchor an action-packed blockbuster, and that NO, “action-packed” does not have to include violence, superheroes, weapons, and/or huge death tolls.

Bullock is stupendous in the role. So good, in fact, that I have already added Speed, The Blind Side, The Proposal, Miss Congeniality, The Heat, and yes, even All About Steve, to my “watch again” list. Thankfully, Alfonso Cuaron had the ovaries to defend his choice of casting a female lead. Which brings me to another matter of grave importance…

The fact that such a defense is necessary.  As this Women and Hollywood  post notes, “We hear lots of anecdotal remarks from female directors about the scripts they pitch with female leads and how they are asked to change the gender, but hearing this come from an A-List director is pretty rare.”  As the post later queries, “….If Cuaron is getting shit for writing a woman, imagine what the rest of the people down the line are getting.” Indeed. The fact Cuaron, a male A-list director, has to fight for his choice to cast a female lead in 2013 is disheartening to say the least.

So, what can we as feminists do? Well, the least we can do is SEE THE MOVIE.

Hollywood listens to box office numbers. We need to put our butts in seats and show there is a mass audience for female-led movies. We can also make sure that we get non-female butts in seats so that the spin about women-led movies only appealing to female audiences can die a long overdue death.

Like Bullock, who shared her hope that Cuaron’s casting of female leads would become the norm at Comic-Con, I too hope that one day soon it will not be a matter of note that a big-budget, action-packed blockbuster has a female protagonist.

I hope that just as Ryan is released from the grip of earth’s gravitational pull, we can be released from Hollywood patriarchy and the limited films it offers us.

Here’s to many more films like Gravity, that convey women ARE human, and to the realization that our successful survival as women is profoundly shaped via the ways in which media and popular culture depicts us (or fails to depict us).

Feel that, feminists? It’s a gravitational pull forcing tugging at you to look up show times in your area…

I enjoy going to Comic-Con. The creative costumes and the variety of people in them, old and young, fat and thin, gender normative and gender queer, as well as the diversity of non-costumed attendees gleefully taking pictures with those in costumes make the event feel like a huge, four-day long Halloween. I also enjoy the coverage of shows and movies I love, the throng of people devoted to their love of “geeky” or “nerdy” stuff, the fact that the crowds are as diverse as the shows, texts, writers, and so on the Con features. In short, I am a fan of Comic-Con. That doesn’t mean I can’t also be critical of it. What am I critical of? Well, two things in particular. One, the fact that women are now at least 40% of the attendees but are not anywhere near 40% represented on panels or in Con content. And two, the misogynistic, prurient atmosphere that sometimes rears its drooling, leering head wherein (usually females) are objectified and/or harassed by others.

Regarding content, the panels themselves are still largely a “male domain.” This has not changed in the past three years I have attended. As in the media world generally, most directors, writers, producers and lead actors featured are male. And, even when there are females on the panels, males often dominate discussion. As a case in point, the Divergent panel.

Neil Burger (the director of the Divergent film) did most of the talking even when the moderator directed questions to the AUTHOR of the series, Veronica Roth. Burger was much like the dominator of the Doctor Who panel, Steven Moffat, who did the majority of the talking. Acting as if he had CREATED Doctor Who, Moffat said at one point, “the only way to write anything is to write for yourself.” An interesting claim while sitting in a hall filled with 6,500 fans who apparently don’t mean a thing as it’s all about YOU Steven. In contrast to the egotistical-sounding Moffat, Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman were very personable and funny and THANKED the fans.

A nice variance to these white male dominators was Alfonso Cuaron, director of the upcoming Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock, who defended his choice of casting a female lead and noted his dismay that such defenses are still necessary (for a post on this, see here).

Though Cuaron displayed an awareness of the gender disparities within entertainment media, neither the Divergent panel nor the Doctor Who panel offered much commentary on gender, something that seemed glaringly absent given the Katniss-esque awesomeness of the main character Triss in Divergent as well as the recent buzz about casting the Doctor as a female (as here).

On a positive note, during the Supernatural panel, Jensen Ackles (Sam) compared the new character Kevin to Katniss (how often are males praised for being like females, let alone male characters praised for being like a female character?!?) and Felicia Day (Charlie) pointed out the nearly all male cast and creators of Supernatural, ribbing others on the panel that “I think the show needs a Teflon vagina.”

Speaking of Teflon vaginas, a show that has multiple of these is Dexter, and during the panel Michael C. Hall insisted a key part of why the show is so good and so successful is that the writing staff is half female. (Other shows, please take note!!!!)

The Vampire Diaries panel, another show with female writers, also deserves a shout-out for the panelists astute handling of the creepy question from a mother in the audience who shared that she is trying to teach her daughter the “values of abstinence” by showing her “edited” episodes of the show and asked if the panelists would support her abstinence endeavor. After friendly joking regarding how she sees viewing Vampire Diaries as “abstinence training,” the panelists vehemently refused to support her abstinence agenda with reference to sex as pleasurable, important, and natural.

And, though Comic-Con tends to be more about loving shows and geeking out over what would happen if Hans Solo met Indiana Jones (a question posed to Harrison Ford during the Ender’s Game panel), political analysis was not entirely absent. Ford, for example, made references to Ender’s Game being very much about militarism and moral complexity while Terry Gilliam mocked NSA spying practices in his spoof about his upcoming film Zero Theorem.

I was unable to attend any of the panels focused on females which tend to have the most pointed discussions of gender – an illustration of a point often made by Women’s Studies professors, that if you don’t have “Women” in the title or description of courses (or, in this case, panels) they are often left out, as if “male” equaled “human.”

Holly Derr, writing on some of these gender-specific Con panels for Bitch noted the takeaway she got was “the female experience is the human experience, people just aren’t trained to think that way.” Indeed. If they were, we would not need gender-specific panels in order to have more gender equitable panels.  Alas, as “male” is still perceived as the human norm, many Comic-Con panels are predominantly, if not all, males.

Sadly, this was the case at the “Zombies in Popular Cutlure” panel, one of the panels I was most looking forward to given I am currently working on a book analyzing the zombie genre from a feminist perspective.

Oh well, despite not one female on the panel, nor any discussion of gender in the zombie oeuvre, I did see a number of fabulous females dressed as zombies or in zombie-related costumes – one of which was a telling commentary on, well, quite a bit. She wore a tank top and shorts. Nothing unique in San Diego. What turned her outfit into a costume with a subtext of political commentary was what she had written on her shirt in blood-colored paint: “Slutty Victim.” Whether she meant this as a feminist statement or not, I do not know. But I took it as one. The cursive claim emblazoned across her chest calls to mind the rape culture in which we reside, in which women “ask for it,” as well as the Comic-Con culture wherein some attendees feel entitled to ogle and, in some cases, sexually harass and/or assault, the females that to them are no more than “slutty victims” for their violating gazes and gropes.

Admittedly, there are many positive interactions surrounding the costume features of the Con. For example, one can hear mutual compliments between those in innovative, creative costumes and witness humans of all varieties anxious to take pictures of costumed attendees, a practice that is usually filled with appreciation and revelry. As my professor friend describes it, this gives the Con a carnivalesque atmosphere that allows for positive expressions of geekdom, sexuality, and gender expression.

On her experience as a first time Con-attendee she writes, “As a feminist, I was a little nervous about what it would be like at the Con…because of the reputation of geek culture as male (or masculinist—with its scantily-clad women with impossible curves) but I really found it to be quite friendly and welcoming. In fact, for me, I felt like it was a relatively safe space for women to express their sexualities publically and positively.  I saw a range of women of different ages, body sizes, ethnicities, and class backgrounds dressed in revealing or sexualized outfits or costumes, and I personally felt safe enough to wear what I considered to be a “sexy” outfit on Saturday.  The ubiquitous presence of cosplayers is one of the (many) things that gives the Con a carnivalesque atmosphere in which certain norms about sexuality (such as who can be considered attractive, who “should” wear revealing clothes, or what it means when someone is wearing a sexy costume) can be tested and perhaps temporarily transcended.  But, among all of the costumes and scantily-clad women, there also seemed to be a profound acceptance for the “non-sexy” woman, or the awkward geek who does not perform the various rituals of femininity as expected, which added to the welcoming, carnivalesque atmosphere.”

Though I agree the Con provides a carnivalesque atmosphere, sometimes the more freeing aspects of carnival transform into behavior that is more in line with domination and assault. On that note, what I don’t love about Comic-Con are is its hyper-pornified aspects (though these are thankfully not its predominant aspects), not only because I take my 14-year-old daughter with me, but because there are LOTS of children in attendance. I could say the same thing of the world in general – it is far too hyper-sexualized in a negative, objectifying way, and there are LOTS of children in the world. Can we shield children from sex? Should we? Of course not! But must we give them the message that when other humans dress in a certain way, particularly female humans, that unwarranted grabs/comments/leering is A-ok? I think not. Admittedly, this hyper-porn feel was much more readily apparent outside the walls of the convention than inside it, especially in the surrounding Gaslamp area and the food truck lot. This inside/outside dichotomy is interesting, and one I hope to explore further next year. Is the Convention Center more “conventional” and “safe” due to the fact only ticket holders can enter, to its formal convention hall feel, to the ubiquity of Comic-Con staff and volunteers, to the fact no alcohol is sold inside? Whatever the reasons, “inside” was less-pornified than “outside” – not because there weren’t sexy, flesh-baring costumes – there were  – in spades! – but because the reactions to such costumes were generally less objectifying. To clarify, I would class “objectifying” reactions as those that treat another human as an OBJECT rather than as a person. It’s when the eyes of another takes on a leering, intrusive, non-consensual gaze that feels predatory. This objectifying gaze, when accompanied by comments or actions, can easily slide into harassment. (For posts of sexual harassment at Con’s see here and here and here. For the Con Anti-Harassment project see here.)

Thankfully, the atmosphere was overall more carnivalesque than prurient this year, a factor I appreciated very much given the first year I attended felt far more pornified and icky, especially in the exhibit hall and surrounding outside areas of the Con.

Now, if only we could have the Con content represent the fact that the female experience is the human experience by including women on the majority of panels. Even in cases where casts and creators and writers and illustrators are all male, there is no reason female moderators can’t be utilized. And, how about some acknowledgement of the fact that male dominated shows/films/comics etc are a PROBELM?

I may be waiting awhile to see gender equitable panels and a Con devoid of females treated as “slutty victims”, but, until then, I will revel in the Con’s more enjoyable aspects while keeping a critical eye on those areas in dire need of improvement.

Walking out of movies, I often disagree with the sentiments of the crowd. As they enthuse “That was so awesome!” and “Great action scenes!,” I silently bemoan the lack of female characters, the unnecessary booty shots (as in the recent Star Trek: Into Darkness), and the preponderance of blow-em-up-and-kill-em-dead scenes.

As I left the theatre following After Earth, the new Will and Jaden Smith movie venture, I disagreed with audience sentiment, but for different reasons. As I heard people complaining the movie was too slow, didn’t have enough action, that there wasn’t enough death, I was thinking about how great the father/son relationship was depicted, about the sister so strong she protects her brother even after death, about the tech-genius mom who lures her son and husband away from the warrior world of killing aliens.

My fondness for the film was not shared by those exiting the theatre with me – nor is it shared by other critics – at least none that have reviewed the film yet. Instead, the general reaction seems to be “yawn.”

Now, the fact some audiences judge how good a movie is by death count aside…what worries me about movies (and thrilled me about After Earth) circulates around the fact that most movies are still telling us the same old regressive, outdated, power-happy stories where men rule the universe and women get naked (or rescued). Even in futuristic, fantasy, sci-fi, super-hero and animated movies, where there is the possibility to rewrite what humanity, gender, race, existence and so on mean, more movies than not stick to the same script. Man is hero. Woman is in background. Person of color is villain. America is savior. “Others” whether they be aliens, monsters, foreigners, LGBTQ, or simply from a different neighborhood, are killed off or assimilated.

This is where After Earth is different. Yes, it has male heroes, but it also has female ones. The heroes are people of color. The “savior” is not a nation or even a planet, but a family that loves one another. There are some evil Others (ursa aliens) but the film shows that assuming evil/malice on the part of Others often is misguided – as when the young Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) assumes the bird who will ultimately save his life is trying to kill him (this savior bird is a female while the evil ursa is a he – another nice flip of the usual script).

At the outset of the movie, we learn earth has been destroyed as images of destruction flood the screen. The images are not futuristic, but of present-day earth – humans attack one another, cars wash away in giant tsunami waves, animals struggle in the latest sludge dump from yet another mega-corporation. In contrast, the sleek world of Nova Prime (the planet humans have relocated to) looks like a lovely location kitted out by Ikea.

The United Ranger Corps (the new global military) could serve as an advertisement for diversity – they are male and female, racially diverse, differ in age and size. This future force is not your typical muscled-up, all-male fighting force. This might seem like a small matter, but how often are such filmic elite forces represented with the true diversity that makes up our world? Hardly ever. Further, how often do they not have guns? This military core does NOT have guns (nor the futuristic equivalent of guns). And this is exactly what disappoints many film critics.

While some grieve the lack of action scenes, referring to the “potential” for “intense action sequences” that bewilderingly are not taken advantage of (“it cashes in on only a few of them,”) others caustically lament the lack of guns, as here:  “the script …fails to explain why future warriors, whose technology allows for a ‘cutlass’ whose two ends morph into any type of blade the user requires, choose not to use guns or lasers against the mighty Ursa. One assumes it’s because somebody saw Darth Maul and thought his double-trouble light saber looked cool.”  Yeah, because choosing NOT to use guns is flat out CRAAAAZZZZY.

So, what did I, unlike other reviewers, like about this film?

For one, there is a powerful mother in it. She is not dead. She is not evil. She is not a cartoon of femininity. (Disney, I am talking to you.) No. She is smart, articulate, say-it-as-it-is woman. I would bet she is a feminist. She has no qualms about telling her warrior husband Cypher Raige (Will Smith) that he is failing as a father, informing him “that boy in there is trying to find you…he doesn’t need a commanding officer, he needs a father.”

And the fact the film is critical of Cypher for being such a gung-ho warrior, right down to mocking hyper-masculinity via his symbolic last name, Raige? Swoon. And that it ends with the battle weary Kitai telling his Prime Commander father that he no longer wants to be a Ranger but instead work with his tech-savvy mom? That when he says “dad, I want to work with mom,” Cypher responds “me too”? Double triple swoon.

Further, as my daughter pointed out on our drive home, the film showed heroes need more than strength and weapons – they need strategy and smarts and drive – and they need each other – as when Cypher and Kitai must help one another in order to survive, despite the animosity and hard-feelings that have built up over the years. These are no Iron Men or Men of Steel or whatever other HARD MALE super-hero you want to throw in the mix. No, they are neither uber-hard or uber-male. Rather, they are human. How sad that such a depiction is so rare in this genre of movie as to seem like a revelation.

More sad still is that reviewers are bewailing that Jaden is not ‘man enough’ to be an action hero, as in the New York Daily News review that quips “It’s not Jaden’s fault his voice is still a few octaves too high for an action star, but it doesn’t do him any favors when his character is lifted to the nest of a giant eagle that decides to mother him.” Ah, yes, how emasculating! A less-than-baritone voice and being mothered! What are these reviewers drinking? Straight testosterone with a chaser of misogyny?!?

Such critics do not mention the depiction of family relationships the film proffers. I suppose such matters don’t have enough “action” to be worthy of comment. But, the exploration of family the film offered included something not often explored in films – dealing with the death of a sibling. Young Kitai is still traumatized by watching his older sister Senshi (Zoe Isabella Kravitz) be brutally impaled by an alien, and his father still blames him for it. Said sister visits him in his dreams as he makes his dangerous trek across the now hostile earth, saving his life by waking him up when needed.

As for the father/son relationship at the heart of the film? While I was besotted by the crash scene in which dad Cypher helps the panicking Kitai breathe through his mask, I was equally enamored of the many other scenes that captured something that is not a mainstay of the big screen – a father’s love for his son. Here, and throughout, the film was refreshingly free of macho bravado.  In fact, the various nods to Moby Dick in the film hint that Cypher is debilitated by his own hunger for power, much like Captain Ahab and his relentless quest for the great white whale. (Moby Dick is the only “real” book the Raige family has ever seen in the post-book world of Nova Prime)

As with that literary classic, the film has its philosophical moments. Cypher’s refrain to his son is “take a knee” –  an action that calls for kneeling down to the ground to “root yourself in this present moment.” Intoning “recognize your power…this will be your creation,” Cypher is like a more serious, more male Oprah, cheering on his son with the power of now. In another part of the film, he echoes the sentiment that we create our own realities, noting that we are “telling ourselves a story.”

If there is truth in this idea, that we at least partially create our reality by the stories we tell ourselves, then we had better worry about the fact many film critics and film goers seem to want stories saturated with violence and action – where the violence should be action-packed and the action should be violent.

Films are telling us all a story, stories which shape our experiences of – and expectations about – reality. I enjoy stories like those told in After Earth – stories where parents love their children, where sisters protect their brothers, where giant mother birds morn the violent deaths of their baby birds so much that they turn to mothering a lost human boy on an inhospitable planet – a planet that became uninhabitable because of … you guessed it… violent action.

If you are a crazy peacenik feminist like me, with a soft spot for movies that value love and non-violence and collaboration and an image of the future that is not dominated by Tom Cruise or Chris Pine or Robert Downy Junior knock-offs, go see After Earth. If you want explosions and death and booty shots, well, I am sure there are plenty of summer blockbusters in the pipeline that will deliver.

While reading the Hunger Games trilogy, I relished Suzanne Collins loving descriptions of food, especially given they were accompanied by a wider critique of the politics of hunger. As I read, I shook my head in dismay along with Katniss at the capitol’s fondness for purging tonic and obeisance to the body beautiful. More recently, I was dismayed to find this beloved series has been purged of its more political components on its journey to the big screen, not only via the heightened focus on romance, but also via the purging of the political critique of hunger.

Katniss Everdeen, our intrepid heroine, comes from the food impoverished District 12, where starving to death is a pressing, daily concern. Food shortages serve as a driving part of the narrative, and the astute Katniss realizes the capitol deliberately uses food as a weapon to manipulate the populace, that food is “just another tool to cause misery…A way to plant hatred between the starving workers of the Seam and those who can generally count on Supper.”

But food is more than a weapon in the book – the procuring and sharing of it is an act not only of survival, but of love. The book’s heroic characters – Katniss, Gale, Peeta  – all provide food for others while the villains – the Capitol, the Career tributes – hoard and waste food. In the book, the perennially hungry Katniss (how refreshing to see a female character that appreciates food!) is astonished by the lavish meals at the Capitol, noting “I’ve never had food like this.” When presented with delectable rich soup and irresistible desserts she shares “probably the best thing I can do between now and the Games is put on a few pounds” (again, how refreshing, a female that wants to GAIN weight!) Here, Katniss is thinking strategy – she wants to nourish herself for the games. She also realizes, though, the work required to put on such a meal, noting she would have had to hunt and gather for days to even approximate such a sumptuous meal. In a political analysis typical of her character, she muses

“What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?”

Alas, Hollywood, like the citizens of the Capitol, seems more interested in decorating bodies and mass-producing “entertainment” than in bringing the more political messages of Collins book to life. While the film does not completely jettison the book’s focus on hunger, it is by no means a driving part of the narrative – food is relegated to a side table, so to speak, with a loaf of bread captured on screen here, a fancy dessert propped before Katniss there. But, Katniss is not driven by the threat of starvation like she is in the books, nor is Panem society excoriated for its 99%-1% divide.

While Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant in the role, and while the visual feel of the film is mesmerizing, I left the theatre feeling hungry, feeling a bit like it was one of those “hollow days” described by Katniss in the book, where her empty belly echoes the gaping maw of injustice in the society in which she struggles to survive. “I’ve lost a lot of weight in the arena, I need some extra calories,” she noted at this point in the book. The film, like Katniss’ in the games, is emaciated, lacking the weight of the densely caloric book with its meaty political analysis.

If only the filmmakers had taken Katniss’ comment in the book to heart, “I mean, it’s the Hunger Games, right?” Here, she is strategizing with Rue regarding taking action against the Career Tributes, and explaining that taking out their food supply is key. Katniss recognizes that forcing the privileged Career Tributes to be hungry, as she has been most of her life, could turn the tide of the games. If only viewers would be forced to be hungry in the same way – to have the appetizing visuals removed, the romance made less palatable, the sweet, fast-food narrative rendered harder to chew, maybe we too could experience some game-changing hunger. If only the film had not lost the more weighty dealings with food, and given us a richer, more politicized meal…




Though two new shows in the fall line-up – Once Upon a Time and Grimm – both use fairy tales as the basis for their narratives, blending the ‘real world’ with the ‘fairy tale’ world, the similarities pretty much stop there. The two shows are radically different – and especially so in their representation of gender. Grimm has far less of a female focus and frames women as victims, functioning like CSI: The Fairy Tale Version while Once Upon a Time is centered around strong female characters, functioning as a sort of Snow White: Disney Princess Slayer.

Much like Hoodwinked, Grimm functions as a fairy-tale crime scene retake. However, while Hoodwinked gave us a wise-talking Red and a go-to Granny, Grimm focuses on a male detective and thus far has put females on the sidelines – and, in accordance with rape culture – represents them as potential victims who had better “stay out of the forest” it they want to stay safe.

The season premiere opened with a young woman jogging in a red-sweatshirt listening to the Eurhythmics song Sweet Dreams, a song that will later be hummed by her wolfy attacker as he ominously adds another red sweatshirt to his basement wardrobe collection, indicating he has kidnapped and killed quite a few ‘litte Reds.’ As the use of the Eurhythmics song suggests “some of them want to abuse you.” Never fear though, as the intrepid male detective duo of Nick Burckhardt (David Guintoli) and Hank Griffin (Russell Hornsby) are on the wolf’s track, serving as would-be woodsmen to save red damsels in distress.

Earlier, these same two detectives watch women walking down a street. Hank asks David “What you looking at?,” to which David notes that something seems remiss about one of the women, noting her low salary does not match her Armani outfit. Hank scoffs in reply “Why can’t you just watch her ass like the rest of us?” This may be the most obvious moment of a sexualized male gaze in the premiere, but other aspects of the show indicate it will be more akin to Supernatural (where two male leads are the key demon hunters) than to Alias (where a strong woman was front and center).

Granted the premiere introduces us to Mary – Nick’s guardian since he was 12. She is the one strong woman thus far, telling Nick about his true “fairy tale hunter” identity and then battling a monstrous baddie. This fight lands her in hospital (and if male-hero Nick hadn’t shot the monster, would have likely resulted in her death). This, and the fact she earlier told Nick she’s been given only weeks to live, suggests Mary won’t be around for long – too bad, as putting  (good) strong women at the helm of fairy tales is a rare occurrence – there are plenty of evil female villains, but not many heroines, unless you consider talking to animals or finding a prince a particularly heroic trait.

The most intriguing plot point of the premiere comes when Nick targets the wrong creature, a reformed wolf. The wolf/human insists on his innocence, angrily telling Nick “you people started profiling us over 200 years ago.” It will be interesting to see if the show builds on ideas of racial profiling or if (please!) it includes some strong women and non-prince charming detectives, until it does, I will get my strong-women-in-fairy-tales fix watching Once Upon a Time.

Once features not only a re-vamped Snow White, but her kick-butt daughter, Emma Swan.

While in Grimm, the setting is modern-day Oregon, in Once, the characters are trapped between two worlds – the fairy-tale past and the modern world, including the town of Storybrooke, where an evil spell cast by the Queen has frozen all the fairy-tale characters in time and taken away their awareness of who they are. In the modern world, The Queen is Storybrooke’s dictatorial mayor, and her adoptive son Henry is on a quest to save the day. He seeks out Emma Swan, the daughter of Snow White, who lives in Boston and works as a bail bondsperson that reveals the “evil” of philandering men. Not knowing her “true identity,” Emma goes with Henry to Storybroooke, staying there when he convinces her only she can undo the curse.

Thus far, it is not clear who knows they are stuck in a fairy tale and who doesn’t, but the lavish costumes, special effects, and attention to fairy-tale detail makes for a show that is far more enchanting than the film Enchantment – Disney’s attempt at a fairy tale redux that, in spite of excellent turns by Amy Adams as princess and Susan Sarandon as Evil Queen, ultimately gave us the same old message – someday your prince will come, he will “save” you, and your “happy ending” equals being  a happy wife/mother.

Where Enchantment failed in a typical Disney way – by trying to “modernize” a sexy message and make it palatable via the inclusion of catchy tunes and cute talking animals, Once succeeds by NOT being cute – instead we have the nasty Rumpelstilskin morphed into the modern evil capitalist Mr. Gold, the newfangled Snow as an excellent, caring elementary school teacher, little Red and the Fairy Godmother as hotel proprietors, and Jiminy Cricket as child therapist. Further, though the show accords with the “evil stepmother” meme of fairy tales – it complicates it as well, suggesting that “evil” women might just  be the result of a society that does not value single mothers and questions powerful women in the workforce.

But, the biggest difference is the fact Emma Swan is framed as the heroine – that her “happy ending” is NOT about finding a man or going to a ball all gussied up, but about detective work, about building a relationship with her son Henry, and about seeking the “truth” as to why time stands still in the corrupt Storybrooke world. For once a female is poised to be the hero – and with no prince charming by her side. Woot!

The themes and content of the show thus far circulate around issues of gender, class, education, mothering/parenting, beauty, aging, and power – yes, these are common fairy tale concerns, but the difference is Once – at least so far – takes fairy tale tropes and give them a feminist/social justice twist.

The queen/mayor is not just an evil witch of the all powerful women are bad, but a woman stuck within capitalist patriarchy – where Mr. Gold (Rumplestilskin) calls the shots. Even more intriguingly, Maleficent (played by True Blood’s Kristin Bauer van Straten) is portrayed as recognizing the bind inherent in the good/evil binary and the way it too simplistically frames some women as witches, and others as princesses. In one humorous scene, The Queen and Maleficent complain about Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, noting how those prissies ruined their lives. Underneath this banter lies the suggestion that what really turned them evil was neither Snow or Sleeping, but patriarchy and the marriage imperative imposed by fathers.

The show also interestingly puts a new twist on “true love” – the focus of so many fairy tales. When the Queen wants to release her dark curse, Rumplestilskin tells her she must sacrifice “the heart of the thing you love most,” which we soon discover is not some Prince Charming character, but her father.  Just before she kills him, her father tells her “Power is seductive, but so is love, you can have that again…I believe given a chance we can find happiness again, but the choice is yours.”  Alas, she chooses power over love and kills him, using his heart for the curse that transports the fairy tale inhabitants to Storybrooke and freezes them forever in time.

Henry, who bears the namesake of the slain father of the Queen, seeks Emma out to release the curse, telling her she is the only one who has the power to do so. Embedded within this quest is Henry’s own search for true motherly love. However, the show is careful not to suggest that Emma’s love is “better” or “natural” because she is his biological mother – rather, it suggests that, as a good person, she cannot help but help Henry, and in doing so, she disproves her claim that she is “not fit to be a mother.” The show also is careful not to demonize her for putting Henry up for adoption and notes the age/class factors that contributed to her decision. Moreover, it opens out what “mothering” means – it is not about having money and power (like the Queen/Mayor), but about the type of nurturing both Emma and the newfangled Snow White (Henry’s elementary school teacher) offer Henry.

Emma of course doesn’t believe she can save Henry nor Storybrooke, but, as Henry points out,  “the hero never believes at first, if they did, it wouldn’t be a very good story.”

As for me, I believe this is going to be one heck of a good story, and I hope against hope that it will lead to the “happy ending” of finally FINALLY! having a mainstream fairy-tale that doesn’t sideline females or suggest they are only good for cleaning up after dwarves, marrying princes, or beautifully sleeping.  As for me, I am not awaiting “true love’s kiss” – nope, I am counting the days until episode two of Once Upon a Time.

In “Mad, Bad Romance” an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald, a large Australian paper, Christopher Scanlon explores the popularity of male characters that have the markers of “compensated psychopaths.” While Scanlon admits that mad, bad male characters have long populated literature and film, he argues there is a new twist to the male baddie – he is now framed specifically as “boyfriend material.”

While Scanlon’s article focuses on Edward Cullen (and kindly quotes my take on Twilight), the compensated psychopath Cullen represents is widespread in popular television dramas as well.

The article describes compensated psychopaths as people who have a “limited emotional repertoire,” are “incapable of feeling compassion or remorse,” are “socially withdrawn,” “controlling,” and “psychologically immature,” and, perhaps most dangerously, are “able to ‘pass’ as normal.” Don Draper of Mad Men,  Damon and Stefan in The Vampire Diaries, Sam and Dean of Supernatural, Eric and Bill of True Blood, Dr. House of House, Dexter Morgan of Dexter, heck, even Simon Cowell of The X Factor all accord with many of these descriptors of  a compensated psychopath. (Granted, The X Factor is not a drama in the traditional sense, but there is plenty of drama on the show that has, thus far, pitted the male judges against the female ones. Cowell has lately been trying to “play the nice guy” and frame Abdul as the baddie, presumably to hide his compensated psychopath attributes that have been readily apparent for many seasons of American Idol).

In addition to the fact the psycho males in television drama are framed as mate material, these characters (and reality show celebrities) are becoming MORE bad while simultaneously being more often framed as romantic, desirable, and sexy.

The bad-boy Byronic hero (which has been particularly associated with Edward Cullen) is by no means new.* However, in older iterations this type was undoubtedly “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” (as famously described by Caroline Lamb, one of Lord Byron’s lovers), but he was also punished rather than rewarded for his badness. Edward Rochester is blinded (a metaphorical emasculation) in Jane Eyre. Heatchliff did not get the girl.

Yet, today’s dramatic bad boys don’t suffer much literal let alone psychological punishment. Moreover, though they may not be familiar with open communication or able to articulate their open relationship desires (hello Don Draper!), and though they lie, commit extreme acts of violence, and largely treat females as pawns (Eric, Bill, Damon), they are generally represented as oh-so-hot. This being the case, the mock personal ad that opens Scanlon’s article:  “PSYCHOLOGICALLY immature and nihilistic M. incapable of love with barely restrained urge to murder seeks F. for fun times and possible romantic relationship” seems particularly apt.

A few of these “bad boys” are, though frequent killers, less “bad” in other ways. For example, Dexter, a serial killer, is more “nice” than many current bad boys. Sure, he has murderous compulsions, but he is a good brother to Deborah, a caring father, and a committed partner. As a bonus, he has a zero tolerance policy for rapists and pedophiles. Sure, this zero tolerance translates into murder, but the underlying message is Dexter is “punishing” those the law fails to.Sam and Dean  also have good intentions — they are trying to make the world demon-free with their badness. And they do feel remorse and display psychological and emotional maturity. Simon Cowell? Not so much.

However, even these “likeable” compensated psychopaths are hardly uber-positive models of masculinity. Where, in today’s television drama, is a good partner, BFF, or good brother/father/son material? (Please share your “good guy” characters in comments!)

Thankfully, there are a few good men out there in TV-land. It’s just that most of them reside in comedy and sitcom, not drama. I would gladly invite Cam, Mitchell and Phil of Modern Family over to dinner. Sure, they have their hang ups, but controlling women and lacking compassion are not among them. And I would love to have Kurt, Finn or Arty of Glee as male voices in my women’s studies classes.

The new fall line-up isn’t looking too promising so far in terms of positive  male characters in dramas goes – at least not in shows such as The Playboy Club, Pan Am, Terra Nova, and Charlie’s Angels. Pan Am has the (so far) fairly likeable Dean, but my gut-reading tells me his co-pilot will turn out to be a compensated psycho. In Terra Nova, the “paradise” of the past that is supposed to represent hope for an entirely fresh start, militaristic white dudes still call the shots. This poster says it all, with Jim Shannon in a hyper-masculine stance and Commander Nathaniel Taylor standing on an armored vehicle wielding an automatic weapon. Jim’s family? They’re in the background.

Scanlon asks in his article, seemingly only partially joking, “Should the Twilight books and films come with a health warning?” Admittedly, not all males in media are mad and bad, but many are – more problematically, these baddies are now framed as THE good boyfriends, good fathers, and good leaders – as the heroes rather than the rakes.

Scanlon closes the piece noting that “as the father of a two-year-old girl I would prefer that her future media diet isn’t saturated by men whose emotional lives resemble those of the undead.” I echo his sentiment, hoping that all of our television diets can be made more palatable via the inclusion of positive male characters – not only for our daughters, but also for our sons.

Heck, reshaping norms of masculinity to be less violent, or less psychopathic, would be beneficial to society as a whole. And yes, before someone chimes in saying “it’s just entertainment,” let me pre-empt – nothing is ever just entertainment – as the sociologist quoted in Scanlon’s article eloquently puts it – “The media play an important pedagogical role in the socialization of young people” – and, I would add, in the socialization of all of us.



*For more on this line of argument, see “Rewriting the Byronic Hero,” by  Jessica Groper in Theorizing Twilight.


I loved doing dot-to-dots as a child. There was something grand about linking all the tiny dots together to reveal a bigger picture. As an adult, I still love dot-to-dot, but now I attempt to link various “dots” into larger pictures that reveal cultural trends and ideologies.

This week, a number of “dots” sat scattered across my computer screen, in the form of various posts and podcasts, waiting for me to have time to more thoroughly connect them – the wonderful “Letter to Bella” post from Ms. Blog, Are Boys Natural Born Killers?, a podcast about war and gender, the “Born to Breed” interview with author Vyckie Garrison, news about JC Penney’s t-shirt “Too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me” t-shirt, and, as I am about to head off to Forks, Washington to speak at Stephenie Meyer Day, a number of Twilight related posts.

When the metaphorical dots between all these pieces are connected, the picture I am left with is one of a world that has definitely not gone “beyond pink and blue” (to borrow the title of another Girl with Pen column).

As Melissa Wardy points out in one “dot”, her post to the young Bella, “grown ups try to fit kids into little boxes that are labeled ‘Boy’ or ‘Girl’, and then they only let certain colors or ideas into each box.” As Wardy further points out, four year olds are sadly more likely to “know that girls can like or do anything boys can” than their grown up counterparts.

This claim was confirmed by heated comments in my War Literature class last evening. I had students listen to one of the dots coloring my desktop, the podcast Are Boys Natural Born Killers?, which includes Professor Joshua Goldstein, author of War and Gender, talking about the fact that boys are not “natural warriors” and that the only biological claim that seems to hold up this widely held cultural view is their propensity for more upper body strength. Though the entire podcast emphasized that gender is constructed and downplayed biological essentialism, the one comment made by Goldstein about upper body strength was latched onto. One student, for example, insisted men are built to fight whereas women are not. In this “Me Strong, You Weak” debate, I found myself thinking back to yet another dot, to the “Born to Breed” piece I had read earlier in the week.

In the piece, Vyckie Garrison, a former member of the Quiverfull movement, talks about the growing religious movement and its grounding in the belief that “the husband is the head of the household and the wife is the submissive ‘helpmeet.’” As Garrison documents, “A Quiverfull daughter is taught from a young age that her purpose in life is to serve the man whom God has placed in authority over her,” as well as to have as many children as possible. As such, “Her education is geared toward developing domestic skills–college is generally considered unnecessary and even dangerous for her spiritual well-being.”

And this brings me to Twilight, that oh-so-popular saga that has the heroine Bella (who shares no resemblance to the blue-shoe-wearing four year old feminist Bella above), giving up college to marry Edward and bear his vampire/human baby.

As I argued in my piece Wed, Bed and Bruised but Certainly Not Equal, the romanticization of sexual violence that texts like Twilight entail is part and parcel of the continuing inequality of our society. But, as lamented in “In Defense of Twilight,” this type of criticism is, like, a major bummer. The author writes: “Have you noticed Twilight gets attacked a lot? It gets attacked by men & feminists all the time & also by other fandoms. The latest thing I’ve heard is how Twilight romanticizes “domestic violence” & supports “inequality.” What a downer!” What a downer indeed. Far better to take the view enthusiastically supported by the author of the post that “It’s a love story and nothing more.”

Supportive of this enthusiastic love of love is the tendency to frame females and males as entirely opposite species, as in the post “Julia Jones Calls ‘Twilight’ Wolf Pack a Boys’ Club.” Author Brooke Tarnoff starts her gender essentialist piece with the following: “You might think you understand the plight of a woman in traditionally male-dominated fields — but none of them have anything on Julia Jones.” Suggesting that being an actress playing the lone female werewolf in an otherwise all male pack is far more heinous, say, than being the only female soldier in your regiment or than a lifetime of butting your head against the glass ceiling, Tarnoff’s piece not only brushes off male domination as something to joke about, but is also grounded in the “opposites attract” type of mentality that keeps heterosexism firmly in place.

The actress Jones, discussing her time working with the “ wolf boys club” notes “I kind of got to a place where I felt like I… know how to think like a guy,” which, Tarnoff suggests, entails learning “how gross they really are.” While admittedly this is a light piece joking about having to deal with “male talk” when one is the only female on the job, it nevertheless reflects a deeper issue – the still widely held belief that men and women naturally think, talk, and act differently – a belief that belies the social construction of gender and acts as if other markers of difference – race, class, sexuality, and so on, don’t matter.

This belief is echoed in the last weekly news story in my dot-to-dot puzzle – the JC Penny t-shirt that reads “Too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me.”

Like four-year-old Bella who is told blue shoes are not for her, like the Quiverfull movement that claims men are meant to lead and women to breed, like the male student that suggested women are weak, like the Twilight texts and the surrounding fan culture that tends to frame males as “wolfish boys” and females as selfless romantics, this t-shirt echoes our continuing entrenchment in the gender binary.

Strung together, all these dots show one big, ugly patriarchal picture.

Thankfully, some of the dots – for example, the stories about the feminist actions that resulted in the JC Penney shirt being pulled, muddle this patriarchal image, making it less stable.

Let’s hope we can keep connecting the dots in order to show how everything from the gendering of children to the upswing in religious fundamentalism is colored by the sexism of our culture. Further, let’s not forget how important it is to forge our own dots — our own points of connection — so as to create a new, more inclusive societal picture for the benefit of us all.



I initially gulped down Kathryn’s Stockett’s The Help, the book, applauding its nascent feminist representation of women – both black and white – and their experiences in Jackson, Missippi in the Jim Crow South. Anxious to support female writers in our still male privileged publishing world, I tore through its pages after receiving the book as a Christmas gift.

In hindsight, I now more fully recognize its failings – the nostalgic framing, the failure to really grapple with structural inequalities, the privileging of the white narrator’s voice, and the reliance on stock characters. Nevertheless, it is a good read, and one that at least nods towards the structural inequalities that still shape US culture.

However, I am less torn about the film, which I did not like. I wanted to – especially as it’s an ensemble film with a powerhouse line-up of female actors. As such, it is especially disappointing that the movie falls short and will likely add more grist to the mill that such films are “special interest chick flicks” unable to draw in male viewers or generate huge earnings. It is also unsatisfactory in its Blind-Side-type take on racism, wherein inequality is framed as an individual problem best solved by nice, white ladies (whether played by Sandra Bullock or Emma Stone).

Most pervasively though, as I argue in my Ms. Blog review, the film is unsavory for its attempt to feed the audience the same type of poop-laced- pie Minnie, one of the black female heroines, feeds Hilly, the arch-villainess (who becomes even more of a one-note character in the book). Or, as the friend I saw the film put it, “the whole issue of race, gender and class relations is one big shit joke. Bathrooms and toilets and pie, oh my!”

Not only are we served up this objectionable slice of syrupy-sweet nostalgia, but it comes with extra heapings of whiteness.

As Martha Southgate writes in her review of the book, “Implicit in The Help and a number of other popular works that deal with the civil rights era is the notion that a white character is somehow crucial or even necessary to tell this particular tale of black liberation.”

More often than not, films set in the past are helmed by white male characters and frame them as the heroes (Missippi Burning, as noted here, being one example). At least The Help departs from this trend, placing females front and center. But, problematically, the white females are depicted as the prime movers and shakers, whether for good (Skeeter) or bad (Hilly), or, even just for comic relief (Celia). Such a focus denies, to use Southgate’s words, that “Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help” (emphasis mine). As similarly noted in this Colorlines piece, “precisely at the time that ‘The Help’ transpires, African Americans across Mississippi were registering to vote and agitating for political change. In other words, they were helping themselves.” Alas, in the movie, African Americans are busy sneaking poop into chocolate pie, stealing their employers jewelry, or laughing heartily (whether in church or prison)… Yes, cuz racism is so much fun!

As a feminist film and book junkie who wants to support female authors and actresses, I yearn for these types of books and movies to be better – and, I question why Hollywood keeps shoveling sugar-coated versions of the world down our throats, as if we will swallow any old sh*t.

Don’t hate me Potterites, but I would have preferred the Harry Potter series had been instead the Hermione Granger series. Sure, Harry is great and all, but, given that male protagonists still vastly outnumber female ones, I wish J.K. Rowling had chosen to frame her saga around a female character.

Thankfully, many recent popular saga’s do just that. Alas, some of the most popular (ahem, Twilight) have fairly week protagonists a little too focused on romance and not nearly focused enough on charging through complex narratives.

Instead of talking about Edward’s golden eyes a bazillion times, how about some heroines with wit, intelligence, bravery and charisma? For that type of character, my recent favorite is Katniss from The Hunger Games.

This summer, I am on a mission to find another Katniss-fix for my daughter and I (heck, for my mom and son too, who also loved the series). I have thus far turned to Matched, Divergent, and Uglies.

I was disappointed with Cassia’s Matched. The book’s love triangle focus smacked very much of Twilight with similar undertones of pro-abstinence and you-need-a-man-to-be-complete messages.

In contrast, Tris, from Divergent, gave me the Katniss chutzpah and Hermione intellect I yearn for rolled into one. And, so far, Uglies’ Tally and Shay read like feminist rebels in training.

Sadly, films with strong young female protagonists have proven non-existent this summer. While I loved

Alice in Super 8, I was underwhelmed by the typical damsel-in-distress narrative she ultimately inhabited. Though I commend (and appreiceate) J Boursaw’s coverage of five recent strong females in family films, I would argue that strong female leads are much rarer in film than in YA fiction. While the Goodreads list of “Best Feminist Young Adult Books” started by Jessica Stites of Ms. Magazine swells with 512 titles, movies aimed at the YA set predominantly feature male leads. For a visual of these male-helmed films, take a gander at Margot Magowan’s gallery of 2011 kids movie posters here.

Unfortunately, most Harry Potter posters could be included in this gallery as they feature Harry, not Hermione. I will admit that I have already purchased my midnight tickets of the final Potter film for July 14, but that doesn’t mean I’ve given up on a saga as popular and influential as Rowling’s that features a female at the helm.

Thankfully, The Hunger Games film adaptation is in the works, with the wonderful Jennifer Lawrence (of Winter’s Bone) as the lead. Though I fear Hollywood will up the love triangle quotient of the story and downgrade Katniss’ feminist awesomeness, I am still hoping this saga can finally prove that female-helmed narratives can attract large, diverse audiences and lay that “boys will only read about (or watch films with) male leads” claim to rest.

Ah, if only I had the power to enact an “Imperio” curse and make Hollywood and the book publishing world fill our pages and screens with females of the Hermione/Katniss ilk! Or, maybe a new spell is needed – Arrresto Bella! Hermione Engorgio! – meaning stop with the Bella-esque characters and let narratives swell with Hermione magnificence.



If you wanted to convince the remaining unconvinced populace that the F word is not so scary, Tina Fey would be the perfect conduit. In her new book, Bossypants, Fey, like a jocular Mary Poppins, gives readers many spoonfuls of sugar to make the feminist medicine go down. Coating incisive points about sexism with sweet comedic flare, her prose is easy to swallow, much like her infamous Sarah Palin impersonations, of which she writes “You all watched a sketch about feminism and you didn’t even realize it because of all the jokes. It’s like when Jessica Seinfeld puts spinach in kids’ brownies. Suckers!” (216-7).

In the introduction, Fey explains the book’s title, noting that as an executive producer people often ask “Is it hard for you being the boss?” to which Fey deadpans “You know, in the same way they say, ‘Gosh, Mr. Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?” (5).


Many sections mock female beauty norms, as when Fey discusses “Twelve Tenets of Looking Amazing Forever.” In the chapter, she relates an embarrassing mother-daughter bra fitting story, admitting that “This early breast-related humiliation prevented me from ever needing to participate in ‘Girls Gone Wild’ in my twenties” (104). Here, Fey alludes to lots of big feminist ideas – the institution of motherhood and how mothers often enforce patriarchal norms that are detrimental to themselves and their children, the hyper-vigilance expected of the female body, and the mainstream media’s sexualization of women – all in a simple couple of sentences that most who have ever worn a bra can likely relate to.

Though a celebrity herself, Fey ridicules the cult of celebrity throughout, framing it as a ruse. In her typically understated tone, she advises “You have to remember that actors are human beings. Which is hard sometimes because they look so much better than human beings” (122). Her section on magazine cover shoots reveals all the effort and artifice that goes into celebrification. Noting “at five foot four I have the waist of a seven-foot model,” Fey pokes fun at body ideals promoted in the media, offering a sort of ode to Photoshop, which she names “America’s most serious and pressing issue” (157). Acceding that “Retouching is here to stay,” Fey puts a comical spin on the inanity, arguing “At least with Photoshop you don’t really have to alter your body. It’s better than all these disgusting injectibles and implants. Isn’t it better to have a computer to it do your picture than to have a doctor do it to your face?” (161).

Later, in the same vein, she laments “I’ve never understood why every character being ‘hot’ was necessary for enjoying a TV show” (193), admitting “I personally like a cast with a lot of different-shaped faces and weird little bodies and a diverse array of weak chins, because it helps me tell the characters apart” (192).


Perhaps my favorite section is “Dear Internet” in which Fey answers some of the more insulting missives directed at her online. To “jerkstore” who claims “she completely ruined SNL” by virtue of being too celebrated because she’s a woman, Fey sarcastically agrees “Women in this country have been over-celebrated for too long…I want to hear what men of the world have been up to. What fun new guns have they invented? What are they raping these days?”

Her mantra “Do your thing and don’t care if they like it” (145) coincides with what she titles her “Bossypants Managerial Technique”:

“I hire the most talented of people who are the least likely to throw a punch in the workplace. If this is contributing to the demasculinization of America, I say hold a telethon and let me know how it goes. I don’t ever want to get punched in the face over a joke – or even screamed at” (175).

Lamenting that women, especially comedians, are labeled “’crazy’ after a certain age” (270), Fey offers the following theory on Hollywood’s infamous inability to write roles for females ‘of a certain age’: “I have a suspicion that the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking after no one wants to fuck her anymore.”

Fey is particularly astute about how the media (and society) is more critical of women than men, relating “There was an assumption that I was personally attacking Sarah Palin by impersonating her on TV. No one ever said it was ‘mean’ when Chevy Chase played Gerald Ford falling down all the time. No one ever accused Darrell Hammond or Dan Aykroyd of ‘going too far’ in their political impressions. You see what I’m getting at here. I am not mean and Mrs. Palin is not fragile. Too imply otherwise is a disservice to us both” (234).

Neither is Fey the overbearing ball buster indicated by her title “Bossypants” – it is just that our society, as her book so humorously reveals, still likes it women in certain types of boxes – and the boss box  isn’t one of them. But, and let me put this in my bossiest tone, “Do yourself a service! Read this feminist comedic treat!”