The Sketchy Feminist

Staring down the male gaze, or: Looking at looking at women in popular culture

Tag: TV

Now that Friends is on Netflix, let’s all take a moment to hate Ross Geller

Full disclosure: I don’t have a lot to say about Ross in general that Ana Mardoll hasn’t already covered in her Ross-related Friends deconstruction posts over at Ana Mardoll’s Rambling. So, I recommend you go check those out.

And Mardoll is not the only person to have pointed out what a horrible, horrible Nice Guy (TM) Ross is. (Though honestly, a quick Google search for “Ross Geller nice guy tm” yields fewer immediate results than I would have expected.) That being said, I think there’s still plenty of room in this world for more hatred of the fictional character Ross Geller. And I’d like to contribute some of my own hate to that hatred pool.

Content Note for: rude gestures, cursing, vitriolic hatred of a fictional character, discussion of unwanted touching in a fictional scene

Mac and I frequently eat meals together at home, and when we do, we like to watch TV. Right now, we’re alternating between Friends and Syfy’s special effects makeup elimination show, Face Off. (OMG, y’all. We are such huge fans of Face Off it’s not even funny. Go Team Laura!) We started at Friends episode 1 and we’re now in season 3. And we really like it! It’s cute, it’s frequently funny, and I even like the cheesy theme song. (It also has a host of flaws — like presenting a weirdly whitewashed New York — that I’m not going to go into right now, as this post is devoted to hating Ross.) So, Mac and I are eating, and we’re watching, and I eat pretty slowly (a holdover from a former eating disorder). And I had never seen Friends before. OK, that’s a lie, because I grew up with television in the 90s, but I had never seen the show in order before. And sometimes I would want to say something to Mac about my feelings on the show, but I would be busy enjoying my food and wouldn’t find actual talking worth the effort. Also, what I wanted to say about Ross (or to or at Ross, as it were, when the character was on screen) tended not to vary very much.

. . . which is what led to the middle finger on my left hand being dubbed “the Ross Finger.” (Which sounds way dirtier than it is, but being that it’s a rude gesture, is still actually pretty dirty?) Because sometimes you just have to flip a fictional character off.

Because Ross is terrible. Just so, so bad. In the show, Ross is a “nerd” (well, he likes dinosaurs, science and Slave Leia, at least) and he’s “shy”. And I think both of these traits are supposed to be endearing. The dinosaur thing is cute, I’ll grant you — and I find it legit adorbs that he spun his childhood love of dinosaurs into a paleontology career — but as a socially awkward nerd myself, I’m offended by Ross. His “shyness” is all about protecting his own feelings at the expense of other people, and that’s just not OK. He treats Rachel, the supposed love of his life, as a prize to be won, and that’s super-duper not OK. He kept an illegal exotic monkey as a pet, and then asked Rachel, his crush, to watch it at the apartment she shared with his sister, without telling either of them that the monkey was, in fact, an illegal exotic, and then yelled at Rachel for calling animal control when she lost track of the animal. And even if I can sympathize with yelling at someone for losing your pet, (a) dude shouldn’t have implicated the Girl He’s Totally-for-Realsies in Love With in his illegal activities without her consent (or, y’know, at all) and (b) there are actual legit reasons not to keep an illegal exotic animal as a pet in the first place, and the regulations you’re flouting largely have to do with the health and well-being of the animal, and WTF is wrong with you, Ross!?? (You can’t see it, but I’m totally holding up my Ross Finger right now.)

Anyway, one of the reasons I wanted to talk about my visceral hatred of Ross (aside from finding complaining about the character fun, which I do) was so that I could talk about a particular scene, from season 3, episode 16, “The One with the Morning After.” This takes place after the infamous “we were on a break” stuff, and Ross is trying to pressure Rachel to get back together with her after she’s found out that he slept with another woman. I actually think that the entire scene is well-acted and well-written. I also think that it beautifully highlights a lot of the most horrible things about Ross, and, as such, I believe it deserves a closer look (transcript taken from http://www.friendstranscripts.tk/):

[Later, in the living room, Rachel is sitting on the couch, Ross is on the chair.]

Ross: What, now you’re not even taking to me? (moves over to the coffee table) Look Rachel, I-I’m sorry, okay, I’m sorry, I was out of my mind. I thought I’d lost you, I didn’t know what to do. Come on! Come on, how insane must I have been to do something like this? Huh? I-I don’t cheat right, I, that’s not me, I’m not Joey!

Let’s break this down a little. In the above exchange, Ross starts off by criticizing Rachel’s behavior:

Ross: What, now you’re not even taking to me? (moves over to the coffee table)

Maybe she doesn’t feel like talking to you right now, Ross. Gee, what could be the reason . . .

Ross [cont’d]: Look Rachel, I-I’m sorry, okay, I’m sorry, I was out of my mind.

Well, at least there’s an apology in there somewhere. I mean, it’s framed by a command (“Look Rachel,” which roughly translates into “You have to listen to me because you’re just not seeing things properly let me explain”) and an ableist, responsibility-deflecting excuse (“I was out of my mind”), but there are two “I’m sorry”s in there, so good job boy here’s a cookie. He follows this up with:

Ross [cont’d]: I thought I’d lost you, I didn’t know what to do. Come on! Come on, how insane must I have been to do something like this? Huh?

“Come on, Eileen!” Every time I see “come on” now, it reminds me of Jenny Trout’s 50 Shades deconstructions (at least I think that’s where this was, as I can’t remember the exact chapter or post) and her pointing out that Christian tells Ana to “come” whenever he wants her to follow him somewhere and to “come on” whenever he wants her to actually come. Anyway, “come on” is something you say to a person when (a) you want them to follow you, (b) they are being unreasonable and you’re trying to call their attention to it or (c) when you’re Christian Grey and you want Anastasia Steele to orgasm. Here’s the Urban Dictionary page for “come on.” Ross has no business saying “come on” here. Also, bonus douche points for the bonus ableism. It wasn’t his fault, because temporary insanity!

Ross [cont’d]: I-I don’t cheat right, I, that’s not me, I’m not Joey!

Dude, leave Joey out of this. Rachel wasn’t dating Joey. This here, what Ross is doing right here? It really bothers me. It’s a really human thing to do, and doing it is a really easy trap to fall into, but it leads to so much bad. This is the “I’m not a bad person” defense, and it sucks and is usually irrelevant to the issue at hand. Related versions are the “I am not a racist” defense and the “I am not a sexist” defense. The standard argument goes something like, “I am not bad, therefore I could not have done a bad thing,” and there’s just no arguing with that kind of logic, because it is not logic. (OK, it’s a kind of logic, but it’s based on the two assumptions that people can be essentially good and that essentially good people never do bad things, because Good people are like Asimov robots except that they follow the Three Laws of Absolute Moral Virtue instead of the Three Laws of Robotics.)

Just yesterday, I was watching this TED talk by Brené Brown — Because TED talks are on Netflix now too. Who knew, right? — called “Listening to Shame.” In it, Brown talks about how shame relates to how we see ourselves (“I am a bad person”) while guilt relates to the knowledge that we’ve done something bad (“I did a bad thing, and I’m sorry”). Guilt is the useful emotion that helps us with empathy and with learning to not do crappy stuff in the future. Shame is the significantly less useful emotion that corresponds positively with depression and other lovely stuff like that. Here, Ross is so focused on shielding himself from shame that he refuses to acknowledge the possibility of his own guilt.

And then he flips the script on Rachel with this lovely follow-up:

Ross: Y’know what, y’know what, I’m-I’m not the one that wanted that, that break, okay. You’re the one that bailed on us. You’re the one that, that ran when things got just a little rough!

Rachel: That’s….

Ross: That’s what?!

Rachel: That is neither here nor there.

Ross: Okay, well here we are. Now we’re in a tough spot again, Rach. What do you want to do? How do you want to handle it? Huh? Do you wanna fight for us? Or, do you wanna bail? (sits down next to her)

Dude, are you daring her to get back together with you? Also: you were the one who went full-throttle “I don’t feel like I have a girlfriend” when she had to work on your anniversary. (Never heard of rescheduling? I’ve rescheduled birthdays, Christmases and lots of other celebrations for friends and family. That’s what you do when someone is busy, but you still want to celebrate an event.) And then went to her office and made a bunch of noise while she was in the middle of a work phone call at the first job she has ever loved and then (accidentally, but still) set her desk on fire with romantic candlelight. And then slept with someone else when you thought you were on that “break.” Also, way to move responsibility for your own actions onto her.

Ross [cont’d]: Look, I, (on the verge of tears) I did a terrible, stupid, stupid thing. Okay? And I’m sorry, I wish I could take it back, but I can’t.

This is much better than the previous apology. And it even includes the acknowledgment on Ross’s part that Ross did a bad thing! Yay!

Then there’s this:

Ross [cont’d]: I just can’t see us throwing away something we know is so damn good. Rachel, I love you so much.

(He kisses her on her shoulder, then her neck, then the side of her face, then just before he kisses her on the lips….)

Rachel: No Ross!! (stands up and moves away from him) Don’t! You can’t just kiss me and think you’re gonna make it all go away, okay? It doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t just make it better. Okay?

Ross: Okay, okay, okay.

Ew, ew, ew. This really creeped me out. So much. The creepy. You just slept with someone else and while it wasn’t cheating in your head, it feels like you cheated to her, and this is not the time to be kissing her. Ew, so gross. Hands off. This is emotional manipulation and unwanted touching, and she already feels violated from the huge emotional betrayal stuff. Also, I love Rachel here for explaining to Ross (and the at-home viewers) at least a little of why this behavior is bad. Really, she shouldn’t have to explain it, but she’s cool like that.

Rachel: (softly) I think you should go.

Ross: What?

Rachel: (softly) I really think you need to go now.

Ross: (moving over to stand in front of her) Okay, okay.

Um, what? Why are you saying “okay” when she asks you to go but still moving closer to her? Moving closer isn’t going away. Bad Ross! Shoo!

Ross [cont’s]: This morning you said there was nothing so big that we couldn’t work past it together…

Rachel: Yeah, what the hell did I know!

Ross: Look, look, there’s got to be a way we can work past this. Okay, (takes a hold of one of her arms.) I can’t imagine, I can’t imagine my life without you. (Both of them are starting to cry.) Without, without these arms, and your face, and this heart. Your good heart Rach, (drops to his knees and hugs her around her waist) and, and….

Urgh, this is appalling. Realistic and appalling. Way to ratchet up the aforementioned emotional manipulation. This move is really unfair to Rachel. Ross is on his knees now, so he seems vulnerable and penitent and stuff, making it harder for Rachel to rebuff him without worrying that she’ll hurt his special Ross-feelings. At the same time, she just asked him to leave, and earlier told him to stop kissing her and moved away from his touch. Now he’s hugging her waist, literally making it harder for her to move away from him if/when she wants to.

After we watched this scene (which both the Boyfriend and I really enjoyed from a scene-quality perspective), Mac turned to me and said, “There was a moment there when I was really worried that Ross was going to rape Rachel.” And I was all, “Yeah, me too.” Even though we knew the show would never go there. (Because it’s a sitcom, because Ross is a “good person”, because we definitely would have heard about it before now, etc, etc.) But we both had the sense that Rachel was in danger in this scene. At first Ross is trying to (erotically) kiss his way back into Rachel’s good graces, and when she asks him to stop, he stops only temporarily before escalating the physical aspects of his behavior, first by grabbing her arm, then by (again, because I cannot stress this enough, after she asks him to leave) kneeling and hugging her.

And I was just so uncomfortable watching this.

Rachel: (crying) No. I can’t, you’re a totally different person to me now. I used to think of you as somebody that would never, ever hurt me, ever. God, and now I just can’t stop picturing with her, I can’t, (Ross stands up and backs away) it doesn’t matter what you say, or what you do, Ross. It’s just changed, everything. Forever.

Rachel is way more mature than Ross is. She’s not deflecting responsibility, she’s not even (at the moment, though this argument will rear its head later) harping on the were they / weren’t they on a break thing. She’s just honestly telling Ross her emotional reaction and what it means for her relationship with him. Does it hurt him to hear this stuff? Probably. (My heart bleeds.)

Ross: (crying) Yeah, but this can’t be it, I mean.

(Pause)

Rachel: Then how come it is?

This (somewhat pat) ending to an otherwise fairly realistic (as well as harrowing) scene sets up that, from this episode on (for the next few episodes, anyway), Ross and Rachel will be living in contradicting realities: to Ross, they will continue to be a couple, and he will bitch and moan and snark whenever she behaves in ways that do not reinforce his persistent belief that they are still a couple (in other words, he will behave in much the same way as he did when he first thought they were a couple but hadn’t told Rachel about it yet, except now he will be actively mean to her instead of faux-nice); to Rachel, they will become a former couple, and she will mourn for the lost relationship and try to move on with her life. Y’know, like a real grownup.

And on the supposed “break” . . . 

Yeah, you know where my loyalties lie. Rachel (rightfully) points out that Ross is trying to get out of the accusation of cheating on a “technicality.” Well, I’ve got a technicality for you, Ross. To the transcript!:

Rachel: I don’t know, I don’t know. Urrrgh! Look, maybe we should take a break.

Ross: Okay, okay, fine, you’re right. Let’s ah, let’s take a break, (goes to the door) let’s cool off, okay, let’s get some frozen yogart, or something.. (opens the door)

Rachel: No. (Ross is standing in the doorway.) A break from us.

(Ross looks at her, then leaves slamming the door behind him.)

See that there? She says “maybe we should take a break.” Not “we’re on a break.” Not “I’m breaking up with you.” She introduces the possibility that maybe they should take a break. And he never says, “Let’s do that, then. OK, we’re on a break now.” He just up and leaves. And he has the gall to call her the one who bailed.

This guy, man.

::rude gesture in Ross’s general direction::

This fucking guy.

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Some Thoughts on Supernatural, Season 10, Episode 1, “Black” or “Who the Blank are These People?”

Yep, so I saw last week’s Supernatural Season 10 premiere.

It was terrible.

And I seriously thought about ending my review right there. Because what else is there to say, really? I didn’t like it. At all. I think it had maybe one or two good lines (courtesy of Crowley) and that’s about it for the good parts.

And the show was written by long-time showrunner Jeremy Carver and directed by long-time showrunner Robert Singer, and this was, naturally, announced in the opening credits (y’know, where episode writing and directing credits usually go) so my hopes were all up.

Aaaand then I watched the episode.

The episode opens with Sam torturing and killing a woman (or a presumably female demon in a possibly-dead-but-possibly-not female human body). This, of course, pings my “SPN random-acts-of-violence-against-female-characters” detector, but this sort of thing is such a common occurrence in the SPN ‘verse that after nine seasons, I don’t have much of a reaction to it. (And maybe my lack of reaction itself indicates the insidious potential effect of these scenes, or maybe this scene in particular is just boring.) The boys, for their part, haven’t batted their long-lashed eyelids at torturing and killing the human vessels of demons for years now. And yet the demon Sam is torturing is all, “Wow, you’re far gone. You must be the demon brother.” Like she thinks that a Winchester torturing a demon is somehow an event worthy of note.

Guess she’s new in town.

My subjective opinions on the episode can be found under the cut:

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Some Thoughts on Supernatural, Season 9, Episode 10, “Road Trip”

I very much doubt I am going to get the next 13 of these things up before SPN Season 10 kicks off on the 7th, but here’s another “Some Thoughts” on Supernatural, anyway. With even more random “thoughts” than usual. It will probably be pretty confusing if you haven’t watched the episode recently. (It also might be confusing if you have watched it recently.)

“Road Trip” was written by Andrew Dabb and directed by Robert Singer.

WARNING: SPOILERS.

The Title

I got nothin’.

The Premise

Dean is guilt tripping over Kevin’s death in classic self-flagellating “Global warming: that’s on me” fashion. To be fair, Kevin’s death is partially his fault. As is global warming! (Baby’s not exactly environmentally friendly.) Re-Graced Castiel comes back to the bunker and Dean tells him all about how he let not-Ezekiel possess Sam to save Sam’s life. They decide they have to find not-Ezekiel and communicate with possessed!Sam so that Sam can cast not-Ezekiel out. They enlist the captive Crowley to help them, and they all head off in Castiel’s pimpmobile car.

CROWLEY: Really? What are you, a pimp?

CASTIEL: I like it.

Dean makes Crowley and Castiel sit in the back together, and away they go.

Further “random thoughts” under the cut:

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Some Thoughts on Supernatural, Season 9, Episode 9, “Holy Terror”

“Holy Terror” was written by Eugenie Ross-Leming and Brad Buckner and directed by Thomas J. Wright.

Warning: This review is full of SPOILERS. But it is also very, very late, so it will probably not spoil anybody.

The Title

Uh, I really hope this isn’t a reference to Frank Miller’s self-professed propaganda comic of the same name.

But it seems about as likely as anything else. Here’s the Wikipedia disambiguation page for the phrase “Holy Terror.” Maybe there’s something in there: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Terror

For now, I’m going to assume that this title was chosen because it sounded like a familiar phrase and could be tied to angels, while working as a reference both to the large-scale threat of the angelic ‘holy war’ and the small-scale threat presented by specific angels.

The Premise

This episode starts out with two gangs of angels (one a church glee club, one a biker gang) facing off against each other. The church glee club (composed entirely of women) wins! The biker gang is K/Oed. Just kidding! They all die.

Sam and Dean roll into town to investigate.

When they arrive on the scene impersonating FBI agents, they find Castiel. When last we saw Cas, he was homeless and working a low-income job at a gas station. Now Castiel, too, is impersonating an FBI agent.

So many questions! Where did Cas get his new suit? Where did he get the money for his new suit? Is it a rental? How did he manage transportation to the crime scene? Is his car a rental? Did he bus here? Did he call out of work for this? Does he have a home now?

None of these questions are answered! (As in: never. Unless they address this stuff in Season 10.) I feel like the show skipped an episode.

Anyway, the boys greet Castiel. Sam looks amused; Dean looks annoyed. Castiel explains, “I still have that badge you gave me,” which–what? Dean gave Cas his fake badge in Season 5, Episode 3, “Free to be You and Me.” Which means that, even though Cas has exploded twice since then, been submerged in a lake, gotten amnesia, lost his Grace and gotten rid of all his clothes, his (well, Jimmy’s) wallet made it through intact. I guess I knew that, since he used money in Season 8’s “Clip Show” (though I always wondered if he acquired that wad of cash elsewhere) but this is still a little weird. And a little sweet. It reminds me of how Dean kept Cas’s trench in Season 7.

Aww, they’re like pack rats.

Moving right along. Cas proceeds to be painfully adorable and Team Free Will sits down for a beer–that is, until Ezekiel-in-Sam’s-body shows up to Destiel block. One of Ezekiel’s biggest plot functions is keep Cas away from Dean. This does not endear Ezekiel to me. At Ezekiel’s prompting, Dean gives Cas the “It’s not you; it’s me” speech.

Thus making all the fangirls cry.

Hey, Metatron!

Metatron shows up, removing himself from my “Missing in Action” list.

Metatron lets us all know that Ezekiel is really Gadreel. Apparently, Gadreel was the angelic guard who let “evil” into the garden of Eden, thus making him responsible for the Fall of Man and pretty much all the evil on Earth. And he’s been being punished for his failure for thousands of years. No wonder he’s always so twitchy.

And Metatron recruits Gadreel, saying that together, they can fix Heaven. This should sound familiar from when Metatron used almost the exact same rhetoric on Cas in Season 8. So this should end well. Also, the creepy music in the background is kind of a giveaway that this is a bad idea.

Later in the episode, Metatron asks Gadreel to prove his “fidelity” by killing people Metatron wants killed. And Gadreel accepts this, because–well, honestly, I think that after millenia of being blamed for all things bad, Gadreel is just desperate for approval from somebody.

Back in the Plot

There is more angelic infighting between the Bartholomew faction and the Malachi faction! This time, Bart’s people kill one angel and a bunch of vessels. OK, then.

Castiel Prays!

Castiel prays! Every which way he can think of. Like someone throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks. I don’t know why he’s hedging his bets so much, considering how entrenched Supernatural is in Judeo-Christian mythology, but it’s a little hard to care about that one way or the other.

Because seriously? This is so cute. It’s wrong how cute this is.

It’s also just about the most ill-considered thing that Castiel could do, on account of how he’s Heaven’s Most Wanted and he has zero angelic allies.

Fortunately for him and all of his fans, a friendly angel does answer his prayer. She’s all, “Wow, this was stupid of you.” Here’s the reasoning he gives her for why he thought broadcasting his thoughts to thousands of superpowered people who want him dead might not be the worst idea in the history of ever:

CASTIEL: I’m warded, and my Grace is gone, and I was hoping that I would seem like just another desperate human that the … the militants couldn’t care less about.

Weak, Castiel. Very weak. There are so very many conditions that need to be met for this course of action to work out.

You’re trusting a lot to faith there, Cas.

Oh, yeah …

And the rest of my recap/review is under the cut:

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Review: Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) Season One

"Can I come in?" Screencap of a skinless titan in the first episode of Attack on Titan.

“Can I come in?” Screencap of a skinless titan in the first episode of Attack on Titan.

Hey, it’s been a while!

Blah blah excuses blah blah life stuff.

Anyway, let’s talk Attack on Titan.

Hanging out at the various Internet fandom hubs that I do, I had been hearing a lot lately about how Attack on Titan is the best thing since bread became sliced bread and then that sliced bread became toast with butter and jam. (Or cinnamon sugar. I strongly recommend toast with butter and cinnamon sugar.)

So, when the Boyfriend and I were trying to decide on an anime to watch together, I was all, “Hey, Attack on Titan. That seems like the In thing to do right now. And also I will finally be able to understand the slash pairings I keep coming across on fanfiction sites.” So we watched it. And now I am reviewing it. Note that I am reviewing the anime as it is available on Netflix (which means no retrospective or extras), and that I have not read the manga.

Minor SPOILERS ahead.

Attack on Titan
Directed by Tetsurō Araki
Based on the manga by Hajime Isayama

The Deal: Humanity lives behind walls. Titans live outside the walls. Titans are naked, junkless, sometimes skinless giants who eat humans. Sometimes they encroach within the walls in order to eat more humans. Eren Yeager is a young man who joins the Scout Regiment (the branch of the military that scouts beyond the walls) in order to fight titans. Many titans are fought, and many humans are eaten.

Verdict: It is very good.

For me, Attack on Titan's biggest success is that it is a very well-executed version of what it is. Structurally, it’s like a lot of other shōnen titles in that it is the coming-of-age story of a young man, series protagonist Eren Yeager, who discovers a Mysterious Power, becomes the Last Hope of Mankind, and goes around fighting things and getting stronger. So, on that very basic, structural level, this reminds me of stuff I’ve seen. Think your Narutos, your Bleaches, your Katekyō Hitman Reborn!s.[*]

Of course, Shingeki no Kyojin takes the classic action shōnen plot structure and mixes it up with giant zombies (face it: in the current zombie climate, you knew they were coming) and a realistic take on the horrors of war.

So, there’s that.

Whenever I start a new anime, especially a shōnen title, I get nervous. You see, I have my own spinoff of the “Bechdel Test” that I apply to media. Let’s call it the Sketchy Test, which sounds terrible, but that’s what I named this blog, so whatever. To apply this Sketchy Test to a piece of media, I ask myself, “Does this make me feel sad about being a woman?” If the answer is yes (Naruto, James Cameron’s Avatar, most Alan Moore comics, all Frank Miller comics), then that piece of media fails the test. Now, this has nowhere near the broad applicability of the Bechdel Test, which is based upon something kind of objective that you can kind of measure. (Are women talking to each other? About something not a dude?) My version is more subjective, but it works for me.

Sidebar: Attack on Titan passes the actual Bechdel test by like the third episode, which is pretty impressive for a shōnen show.

The problem I have with the representation of women in a lot of shōnen shows is that, even when they seem strong or talented or important at first (Sakura in Naruto, Bianchi in Reborn!), they can get relegated to a kind of emotional support cheerleader role pretty quickly. Or they can start off as emotional support cheerleaders (Kyoko and Haru in Reborn!). Or they can seem strong at first and end up playing the damsel in distress role (Rukia in Bleach). And, within the shōnen genre, all of these things are just A LOT MORE COMMON than the presence of important female characters (especially in the central cast) who learn stuff and do stuff and level up alongside their male counterparts. Like, SO MUCH MORE COMMON. Because boys are the ones who do stuff, and the reason to have a “strong” female character in the first place is often so that the male hero has (a romantically/sexually desirable) someone who can be properly impressed by him when he surpasses her in every possible way. Excuse me while I catch my breath from that rant. (Yes, I know it’s a written rant. So what?)

With Attack on Titan, so far I am both nervous and tentatively hopeful about representation of women.

The Good: All of the characterization is really strong. As are all the character designs. All the characters, men and women, have distinct personalities. They also all look distinct from one another, with different facial features–hairlines, noses, eyes, height, etc. This isn’t one of those times when you have to depend on hair color to recognize who’s who. Even with the female characters! (You get extra chocolate chips in your cookies for that, Attack on Titan.)

Also, there are enough female characters that it’s actually kind of important for me to be able to tell them apart. (Premium belgian dark chocolate chips. These are high-quality chips we’re talking about here.)

The Less Good: Except for one squad captain, all the people in positions of power are men. All the high-muckety-muck political leaders are men. Of course, this series is going for realism, and sometimes realism looks a lot like sexism. Because reasons. Then again, this begs the question: how can giant maneating zombies[**] be the central conceit of a show, but the very presence of a female general might require too much suspension of disbelief? This is one of those “I don’t really take issue with the show itself, but this seems symptomatic of a larger problem” moments.

The Hopeful-But-Nervous: Mikasa. Mikasa makes me hopeful but nervous. Mikasa graduates from giant-zombie-fighting bootcamp at the top of her class, which makes me nervous because that kind of power (amazing skills and abilities) often gets overshadowed in anime by the all-important Indomitable Will of our male hero protagonist, who accomplishes stuff via abstract, bullheaded means like ‘trying hard’ and ‘wanting a lot’.[***] And of course, the ever-popular ‘training’.

So, Mikasa makes me nervous because she seems like the kind of character who starts out really cool but ends up relegated to a support role after realizing the protagonist’s greatness.

Except, Mikasa starts out obsessively supporting the protagonist. Mikasa is Eren’s adoptive sister, and her world seriously revolves around him. In a determined and single-minded way that everyone seems to recognize is Not Normal, even if no one has out-and-out called it unhealthy yet. (Eren whines, but that’s just because he feels smothered. And because he’s a whiner who doesn’t appreciate his sister.) So, if Mikasa stays fairly central to the anime–instead of just being conveniently forgotten or killed off–and if she gets an arc of her own, it may very well be the arc of her learning to live her life outside of Eren’s orbit. Which would be pretty cool.

And difficult to accomplish, as Eren’s pretty important right now for plot reasons, and a lot of his fellow soldiers are having to come to terms with the fact that their lives have to revolve around him. Honestly? I think that this situation would make Mikasa’s coming into her own all the more interesting. So here’s hoping I get to see that in Season 2, which, according to the Internet, will probably not come out for another few years.

But really, it could go either way.

My Favorite Character: Probably Armin, the blond, big-eyed crybaby. Armin spends a lot of his time early on whinging about how Eren and Mikasa are so much stronger than he is and how he only has useless book-smarts, so he’s a burden to them. In a kind of awesome move, his two besties eventually straight up tell him that they depend on his book-smarts because he’s the only one of the three of them who can strategize. From that moment on, whenever Eren and Mikasa are in a tight spot, if Armin is anywhere nearby, they will just kind of stare at him blankly and wait for instructions. Which makes me laugh so hard. So maybe it’s less that Armin is my favorite character and more that the three of them together are my favorite grouping of characters. I love how upfront Mikasa and Eren are about not being able to think for themselves. And how accurate their assessment is. Because seriously, they are so bad at planning. Poor Armin. He has opened a door he can now never close. Be careful what you wish for, Armin.

My favorite quote from watching this with the Boyfriend: Some character was telling another character about how Eren, Mikasa and Armin had good odds of survival because Mikasa was a great fighter, Armin was a great thinker and Eren was in possession of an indomitable will. At which point Mac yelled at the screen, “If only they were the same person!”

The Selling Point: What Attack on Titan really has going for it is a nuanced portrayal of the horrors of war. This is a story about trauma, and not an anime for the faint of heart. If you want all of your anime characters to stay alive, this is not the title for you.

Final Thoughts [AND MORE SPOILERS]: Even though certain classic shōnen elements are in play, Attack on Titan fights its own generic formula as much as it depends on it. The main character is a brash hothead with a lot of willpower, but in some moments, skill (embodied in characters like Mikasa and Levi) or strategy (Armin, Erwin) is more important than willpower. The thing I love best about this title, thematically, is that its only consistent lesson is that there are no easy answers. Even though Eren is learning lessons and growing and changing in true protagonist fashion, those lessons are never clear-cut.

For example, in one episode Eren ‘learns’ to trust his comrades rather than fight alone, only to have the entire mission fail. And yet, at other points in the series, Eren going it alone is also not a good option. Later, characters ‘learn’ to sacrifice their humanity for the greater good, and end up with a Pyrrhic victory. As fan-favorite Captain Levi tells our hero, “no one knows” what is going to happen. There is no clear recipe for success.

I appreciate that, in a genre so often focused on the rush of fighting and winning, this war-themed title looks more closely at the importance of accepting the unknown, and living without regrets.

***

[*] I love Katekyō Hitman Reborn!, though I would be hard-pressed to explain why I love it. I mean, it’s kind of full of gender essentialism (not much of a selling point) and toddler mafiosi (which–why?).

[**] OK, so they might not be zombies. Just giant shambling dead-eyed people eaters. I say: close enough.

[***] See: why Captain Kirk has no special powers, but can overcome mind control that affects everybody else who is not Captain Kirk.

Some Thoughts on Supernatural Season 9, Episode 2, “Devil May Care”

Here be my incredibly SPOILERY reactions for “Devil May Care,” Supernatural Season 9, Episode 2. (Directed by Guy Norman Bee; Written by Andrew Dabb.) The following is full of SPOILERS.

The Title

“Devil May Care”? Meh, they’ve done better.

Dean

Oh, Dean.

Dean keeps a secret from Sam. Dean feels guilt. Dean drinks. See Dean drink.

So, back in Episode 1, Dean agreed to let the angel Ezekiel possess Sam’s body to save Sam’s life. Sam is in the driver’s seat most of the time, but Ezekiel is still in there. Now Dean feels all bad about the angel deal he made, but he won’t go back on it or fess up, because then Sam could evict Zeke and die without the angelic healing mojo Ezekiel is pumping into his system.

I get that Dean feels like he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. It’s either let this angel possess Sam’s body or let Sam die, and neither of those options are good. Still. What Dean and Ezekiel are doing to Sam is reprehensible.

I do like that Dean has started calling Ezekiel “Zeke.” Because he wants Zeke to be the new Cas, clearly.

My favorite Dean moment in the episode is when he tells Kevin that he’s family, and that the four of them, Dean, Sam, Castiel and Kevin, are all a part of that family. Dean, I just knew you were meant to play mother hen to everybody. I hope Castiel moves into the bunker soon so that the whole family (plus a body-sharing angel and a captive demon) can all start living under the same roof.

Samzekiel

Possession-without-true-consent issues aside, Ezekiel seems really nice. Too nice. “Oh, sure, you want me to ride in the backseat of your brother’s mind, healing what would have been the fatal damage from his Hell trials, never letting on that I’m there or interfering in his life in any way, except on–and ONLY on–those occasions when I can save him from certain death. And once he’s healed and I’m healed I’ll leave and never bother you again. And in return all I ask is a brief ride in the Sammobile, during which ride I will main as unobtrusive as fallen-angelically possible.”

I’m not sure even Castiel at his pushoveriest was this accommodating an angel.

And while I can’t stop waiting for the other shoe to drop (at which point we will surely discover Zeke is some kind of Lucifer-and/or-Michael-supporting baddie, or something along those lines), I really hope Ezekiel turns out to be trustworthy. Because all the consent vs. free will stuff surrounding this very odd situation is just so much more interesting if Ezekiel really is just trying to help.

My new, dearest hope for Sam this season: Sam comes to terms with sharing his body with Ezekiel. Then, whenever he’s in a tight spot, he shouts “Shazam!” to summon his angelic alter-ego.

I know it’s not going to happen.

But … please? I really really want it to happen.

My sketch of Samzekiel in Supernatural 9x02, "Devil May Care"

Shazam, bitches.

Abaddon

Yay, Abaddon’s back!

Wow, Abaddon is really attached to her Alaina-Huffman-shaped meat-suit. I mean, she could have just gone out and possessed any one of millions of bodies that have not been shot, minced, buried alive, dug up, sewn together and immolated, but instead she gets a henchman to practice necromancy to revive her favorite body.

So if, as it seemed, Abaddon spent some time as smoke while waiting for her favorite meat-suit to come back from the figurative dry-cleaners, does that mean that Josie got a chance to go to the afterlife? Or do human souls return when their bodies are cured of the whole being-dead thing? I think this show needs to put out an “ABCs of Possession” handbook: Angels and Demons and the People They Wear, because this is all very confusing.

Abaddon rises from the bathtub where her henchman performs the dark necromantic ritual on her favorite fleshly outfit, and we see a few blurry, tantalizing glimpses of Abaddon’s (Josie’s) naked body. Because she’s the sexy kind of evil.

My sketch of Abaddon in Supernatural 9x02, "Devil May Care"

Her clothes burned away, but her makeup, hairspray and nail polish were somehow reconstituted. Don’t ask.

Apparently, Abaddon is now thinking of upgrading her meat-suit to Dean Winchester, whom she sees as a superior vessel (well, Michael wanted him; she’s probably got a point). That’s what she tells Dean, anyway, once she’s got him in her well-manicured clutches. Honestly, it seems like an empty threat considering how clearly attached she still is to Josie’s body. Why else would she have gone through all that trouble to get it back?

So now I have this fantasy that the season will eventually include an Abaddon-in-Dean vs. Ezekiel-in-Sam showdown, which would be pretty cool. And hey, maybe somebody could possess Cas, too, just for fun. (Like, maybe a demon could possess Cas, and then get ‘healed’ by the Winchesters, and then an angel could possess the healed demon in Cas, who would still be possessing Jimmy, and it would be like possession nesting dolls. Because why not?)

So, Abaddon seems pretty set to become the Queen of Hell. With Crowley still in the Winchesters’ dungeon, there’s not a lot standing in her way.

And the rest of my Supernatural, Season 9, Episode 2 reaction is under the cut:

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Some thoughts on the Supernatural Season 9 Premiere, “I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here”

First off: SPOILERS EVERYWHERE, for everything in Supernatural up to and including this episode. Proceed at your own risk.

The Road So Far

The recap kicks off with the Impala zooming down a road and Charlie’s disembodied voice saying, “There’s pretty much nothing the Winchesters can’t do if they work together.” This is a sweet sentiment. Inaccurate, but sweet. The Winchesters have failed plenty of times and that’s why I love them.

After a few seconds, the music picks up. Oh, hells yeah.

It sounds like this “Road So Far” is set to the George Thorogood & the Destroyers cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love.” Because I am an English major and not a rock star, it will forever bother me that the song does not go “whom do you love,” but I can’t have everything. And also, that would sound terrible.

Anyway, the song is good, and consistent with the tone of the show. The refrain of “Who do you love?” serves to remind us of how much the central characters have sacrificed, or at least tried to sacrifice, for their loved ones. There are also several moments when the line “Who do you love?” comes right before a cut from Dean to Castiel or a cut from Dean to Sam, which surely makes for excellent fodder for those dedicated Destiel and Wincest fans out there. There’s less grist for the Sastiel and Moosely mills, but slash fans can’t have everything, either.*

The song also makes incorporating Crowley’s big “I deserve to be loved” moment into the recap really easy. It’s like a call/response thing. The song asks, “Who do you love?” and Crowley screams, “I deserve to be loved!” Piece of cake. And you just know that this was a priority for the producers. If you have seen a single Supernatural interview between last season’s finale and this season’s premiere, you know that the showrunners, cast and crew cannot get over how awesome they think the Sam/Crowley church scene was. They pretty much went fanboy for themselves, really.

And hey, it’s not like they were wrong. It is a good scene, and it’s nice to see it here.

The Title

Fun fact: “I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here” is a song from the musical Annie. (There’s also this version with Audra McDonald.) This continues the long tradition of Supernatural naming its episodes after song titles. This episode name, of course, brings with it the added bonus of referencing a Broadway show tune sung by (and to) Little Orphan Annie.

My sketch of Death in Supernatural's Season 9 premier episode, "I Think I'm Gonna Like it Here"

Does that make Death Daddy Warbucks?

Also, like most of the SPN episode titles, this one has a nicely layered meaning, working as a potential reference for both Sam in Limbo, contemplating the afterlife, and Castiel–and his fallen brethren–trying to deal with being stuck on Earth. (This is especially appropriate for Castiel’s arc, considering his initial optimism regarding his siblings’ potential for assimilation.) But two layers doesn’t make for much of a layer cake, so of course the title also applies to Ezekiel taking up residence in Sam’s body.

Sadly, I cannot stretch the title’s meaning to apply to Crowley, who spends the episode in the trunk of Dean’s car.

And the rest of my reaction is under the cut:

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Men. Men in Cages.

It’s time. The Supernatural Season 9 premiere is upon us at long last. I would like to take a moment, in these last hours before the season begins, to look back on one of the more recent Season 9 promotions and my reaction to it.

At the end of September, this happened:

My sketch of Dean in his Supernatural Season 9 Character Promotional Poster.

Dean in a cage. Staring at you.

The Powers That Be over at the CW decided to give us a series of posters featuring the leading men of Supernatural–in other words, Dean, Sam, Castiel and Crowley–in cages.

There are bars. There are chains. Nobody is in the chains, and the posters don’t show the cage doors, so … it’s not at all clear how locked these cages are, or how easy and/or difficult they would be to escape.

But still: cages. Men in cages.

In 1999, Susan Bordo wrote The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and Private. In that book, in the much-excerpted chapter “Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body,” Bordo describes her reaction upon finding a particularly evocative Calvin Klein underwear ad in her New York Times Magazine:

[…] I had my first real taste of what it’s like to inhabit this visual culture as a man. It was the first time in my experience that I had encountered a commercial representation of a male body that seemed to deliberately invite me to linger over it. Let me make that stronger–that seemed to reach out to me, interrupting my mundane but peaceful Sunday morning, and provoke me into erotic consciousness, whether or not I wanted it.

[–Excerpt taken from page 131 of David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky’s 2008 anthology, Ways of Reading*]

What was evocative, for Bordo, was not the model’s mostly nude state (though she certainly did not mind it), but the way that the model was posed: head down and eyes averted, sinuously muscled body held in a gentle S-curve. The model was enticing in a submissive way that bucked the trend of hard, cold, hyper-masculine male models that were the go-to standard of advertising at the time. This ad was different, and it spoke to Bordo in a way that other mainstream advertisements displaying male bodies–advertisements painstakingly designed so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of a heterosexual male gaze–did not.

Right now, I feel kind of like Bordo in the spring of ’95 (when she first saw the ad, and knocked over her coffee).

Because, for me, with my own particular erotic inclinations, these promotional posters for Supernatural come as a similar shock. These posters are jarring for me–an interruption, though a welcome and enticing one. And they certainly “provoke me into erotic consciousness.”

Yeah. These posters kind of do it for me. And not in a way that I encounter in popular culture on a daily basis, except on those days when I embark on deliberate searches for such stimuli. I can certainly find this kind of thing when I go looking for it; it is just that it does not usually find me.

These are, by far, the most evocative, and most provocative, Supernatural posters (or DVD covers, or photo stills, or what have you) that I have yet encountered. Because they appeal to me, to my taste. They seem almost as if they were designed with me in mind. As if I am, for once, the target audience, and not just someone who happens to enjoy a product that was aimed at somebody else.

In the first place, these posters of the leading SPN men present them in poses and attitudes that actually look, well, in-character. Appropriately enough. And that can sometimes be hard to find.

For example, my parents once bought me a Spike-themed Buffy the Vampire Slayer wall calendar. As Buffy was a show I just about lived for then, and I had a huge, open crush on Spike, this was a very thoughtful and appropriate gift. (And yes, I do realize now why crushing on Spike is so very problematic, but that is not the point at the moment.) I loved the character and I appreciated the calendar. However, there was something dissatisfying about the calendar’s monthly images.

They were mostly just . . . pictures of Spike. Which, I know, I know, is what I signed up for, yes, but these pictures were all so static. Spike standing around. Spike showing some fang. Spike looking cool. The thing is, what had made me fall in love with the character in the first place was his vulnerability. The way he had of always getting in his own way. The wounded look he would get when someone hurt his feelings. How he wanted to be the Big Bad, but still yearned to submit to someone else’s authority. The trademark James Marsters head tilt, indicating absolute bewilderment. I liked Spike because of all of those moments in the show when he wasn’t calm, cool and collected.

And this calendar didn’t include any of those. In fact, some (if not most) of the pictures in it seemed like they weren’t of Spike at all, but of James Marsters in his Spike costume, at a studio shoot somewhere, being told where to stand by the photographer. Which still made for images that were pretty easy on the eyes. They just weren’t what I wanted.

I tried. I tried to look at these studio-polished stills and reawaken the erotic charge that I had felt during the last five minutes of “Fool For Love” (Season 5), or during all of “Intervention” (Season 5), or while singing along with Spike’s solo in “Once More With Feeling” (Season 6). And it worked, to an extent, but it was an exercise of recall, not an appreciation of the calendar’s images in their own right.

In the second place–Hey, remember that there was a “first place” before I went off on that huge Spike tangent?–the CW has a nasty habit of releasing promotional images that are Photoshopped so obviously and so awkwardly, they end up grotesque. (I’m looking at you, Vampire Diaries.) And while I’m sure Photoshop (or some similar piece of software) was involved in the making of these posters, these posters nonetheless do not look grotesque. They look good. The men in them look pretty good, too.

Furthermore, I just like looking at pictures of men in cages. (Disclaimer: when and only when those pictures represent fictional scenarios.) Because BDSM is fun.

My one-poster-at-a-time take (Analysis! Sketches! Also probably some SPOILERS for Supernatural!) on each of the four cage-themed promotional images is below the cut:

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In which Uncle Iroh helps me in my ongoing struggle with depression

My last post was about Avatar: The Last Airbender, for no particular reason other than that I like Avatar: The Last Airbender. And I wasn’t planning to bring up Avatar again so soon … but plans are worth what you pay for them, really. (And most plans are homemade.)

So, the Boyfriend and I have been marathoning ATLA again. Because we like it and because he gave me the DVDs as a birthday prezzie (yay!). And we just finished up Book 2: Earth (Avatar calls its seasons “books”), which means we just got to the episode where Aang asks Iroh a question, and Iroh answers with this:

Iroh: I don’t know the answer. Sometimes life is like this dark tunnel. You can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you just keep moving …

[They enter a well-lit cave full of shining crystals.]

Iroh: You will come to a better place.

And I know, I know, it’s not exactly the most original sentiment (A “light at the end of the tunnel”? Please.) but this moment spoke to me anyway.

Maybe it’s because Iroh never says “Look for the light at the end of the tunnel.” Because if we can’t see the light, then looking for it’s not likely to do us much good. What I really like about Iroh’s little speech is that it’s not so so much the “light” that matters as it is the movement. What matters is to keep moving, even without any sign that things will get better.

Especially without any sign that things will get better.

Because sometimes, all you can do is keep moving.

Recommended Viewing: Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of my favorite TV shows of all time.

Of all time, people. It is, hands-down, my favorite animated series produced in English, and it has some of the best plotting and characterization that I have ever seen on TV.

Yeah. A Nickelodeon show. Who knew? (OK, a lot of people knew. It has a large and devoted fan-base.)

I’m not going to bother summarizing the basic plot and premise, because the opening sequence of the show has already done that for us. Tidily.

The opening sequence:

KATARA’S VOICE: Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them, but when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world. [Transcript taken from the Avatar wiki, here.]

The above narration plays over the opening animation of just about every episode, reiterating the series’ premise. I assume that this narration is primarily for the benefit of new viewers, so that people catching it out-of-order on air still have a chance to understand what’s going on. However, it also serves to remind regular viewers of the core premise of the series. Basically, everything in the show somehow connects with or boils down to the quest outlined above.

The thing about Avatar is: all its characters are good. (As in well-written.) Not just “It has sympathetic villains” or “Its heroes are good role models” or “It has strong female leads,” but all of that. It’s one of those shows where I can’t pick my favorite character because they are. All. So. Good. And so well-developed. Pretty much everyone in the central cast has at least one character arc in which they change and grow over time. Most of them have more than one.

Now, I’m not going to argue that every single episode is gold-pressed latinum, or anything. It has its hits and misses. But even the episodes I found difficult to get through the first time (due to cheese or silliness or what-have-you) still have something going for them. And the show’s retrospective episode–in which the characters watch a staged play of their own adventures–is the single best retrospective episode I have ever seen of anything. Seriously. Do not skip the retrospective.

The thing I find most compelling about Avatar as a series is its setting. And I don’t mean the fantasy universe with Inuit-inspired ice villages and East-Asia-inspired city designs. (Though that’s cool too, and it makes a nice change-up from kids’ shows which assume that “fantasy” means “it has a European castle somewhere.” Not that I have anything against European castles. Honestly, I’d like to see more children’s fantasy TV of every stripe.) The thing that really resonates with me in Avatar, and which is vital to the series from the first episode on, is that it takes place in a world ravaged by war. “Everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked,” remember?

Here is one of my favorite lines from the first episode:

KATARA: Aang, this is the entire village. [Gestures to entire village.] Entire village, Aang.

And I find this line so significant–significant enough that I put it all by itself in a block quote–because the “entire village” consists of nine women and ten children. And one dog. Twelve children if you add Katara and Sokka, whom Aang has already met.

This moment is played as cute and funny–a kind of “Katara’s village is so small that …” joke–but it delivers important information. There are no men in Katara’s village. There are no men because the men are at war.

Also from the first episode:

SOKKA: Now men, it’s important that you show no fear when you face a firebender. In the Water Tribe, we fight to the last man standing. For without courage, how can we call ourselves men?
[Cut to an audience of six wide-eyed little boys]
Boy: [raises hand] I gotta pee!
SOKKA: Listen! Until your fathers return from the war, they’re counting on you to be the men of this tribe. And that means no potty breaks.
Boy: But I really gotta go.
SOKKA: [sighs] OK. Who else has to go?
[They all raise their hands.]

Sokka, the oldest male human left in the village, is trying to take on a more adult role by training the village’s next generation of “warriors”–who are at this point all still little kids. This is another moment played for laughs, and yet it brings home the trauma that is integral to the entire series.

I really like this central conceit–of the world of a children’s show being at war–from a narrative standpoint, because it provides a reason for the world’s heroes to be children. The adults are busy–either fighting battles or recovering from their aftermaths. So it’s time for a team of kids to step up and save the world.

Over the course of the series, it is established that most of its main characters (almost all children) are haunted by trauma of one kind or another, much of it either a direct or indirect result of the war that it takes the three seasons of Avatar to resolve. I won’t give you the backstories now, however, because many of them are revealed gradually, and that would be some major spoilage.

More review, some minor SPOILERS and a brief discussion of The Legend of Korra under the cut:

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