This blog is what I was trying to use to get my Delilah Douglass pen name off the ground, but since I decided to abandon that name I’m mothballing this site and moving most of its content over to the forthcoming blog at worlddominationcommittee.com. If you go there right now you’ll get either a “this domain has been registered” page or a WordPress configuration error page. It should be live by the end of the weekend however, so if you want to see more writing from me you should bookmark that page now and come back to it later.
I don’t want to get into fat shaming because that’s bullshit, but I’m not happy with the shape of my body. I’m also suffering from depression brought on by financial instability. So this morning I decided to exercise. This was probably the first serious workout I’ve had since, oh, 2008, 2010, sometime around then. My apartment building has a small gym with a cool elliptical I wanted to try out, so at about 8:30 in the morning I went down there and gave it a shot.
At the start, I thought “I’ll go for 30 minutes and then see how I feel, see if I want to go to 45.”
At minute ten, I was firmly in the aerobic phase, and feeling pretty good.
At minute twenty, I was having second thoughts about this “let’s go to 45” plan.
At minute twenty five I was counting seconds.
At minute thirty, with some feeling of triumph, I slowed and then came to a stop. I took a step off the elliptical and nearly fell over. I had just entered Noodle Leg Town, Population Me. After two minutes of stretching during which I developed serious concerns about my ability to climb the stairs to my apartment again, I made my way out of the gym, legs shaking and knocking at every step.
Tomorrow I’m going to do another thirty. It’s pretty satisfying to feel that first bead of sweat fall down the side of my face.
I play Borderlands.
So do a lot of other women. The game is notable, in fact, for its large and vocal community of female fans. No matter what the dudebros down at Gamestop tell you, women play all sorts of games, even very violent shooters like Gears of War and Call of Duty. The fandom of Borderlands, however, is much more visibly gender mixed than many other mainstream games.
There are two main components to Borderlands’ success with female characters: variety and flaws.
Borderlands 2, like Borderlands 1, only has a single female character who is playable out of the box, despite having four playable characters included with the game. (There is a 3rd female character named Gaige who can be bought as a DLC.) Taken by itself, this could be a troubling sign of tokenism, and in truth I do grumble about it endlessly to my friends. And sadly, despite being a playable character, Maya is perhaps the least developed of the women I’ll profile here. She is competent, friendly with the other Vault Hunters, and isn’t any more or less psychopathic than anyone else in the game. (Oh, by the way, everyone in Borderlands is an unrepentant murderer. I can’t think of a single character who hasn’t at least asked someone else to kill someone for them.) She’s not actually that interesting. Her back story is pretty simple: she was raised by a religious order to be their tool of domination over the population of her home planet, but rebelled and then came to Pandora, the planet where the games take place, in order to learn more about what it means to be a Siren, one of the six women in the universe who have super powers.
And that’s it. If that’s all Borderlands had to offer, I’d be very disappointed. Luckily, my disappointment with Maya is contained by the otherwise excellent cast of women in both games. It turns out, and this is really shocking so hold on, it turns out that if you have lots and lots of women in your story, it doesn’t matter so much when one of them is boring. Imagine that!
Lilith is a psychopath. (Just like everyone else on Pandora.) While playing her in the first game, the player is treated to a vicarious experience of gleeful power. Lilith has fucking super powers and she knows just how awesome that is. Mocking laughter and taunts burst forth from her when she’s in a firefight against the poor, unfortunate, and dreadfully outclassed bandits who are foolish enough to fight her. She is strong, deadly, competent, and unwaveringly dedicated to being as awesome as she can possibly be. She’s also kind of pathetic, and this is why I love her.
In the second game we see new sides of her through private audio recordings. Among the things we learn is that she is a nervous wreck when it comes to talking to men she likes, is kinda-sorta addicted to a substance which makes her powers stronger, and is a bit too ready to be flattered by a homicidal cult that started burning people alive in her name. And none of this is used to undercut how much of a badass she is. She’s a take-no-prisoners power fantasy for women–something that is in chronically short supply–and also a rounded person with fears and failings and weaknesses. Both, at once.
Let’s take a brief diversion: power fantasies? What’s up with that? Power fantasies are an important part of our culture, and there is no point in denying that. Just look at, oh, I don’t know, any random movie about how One Man Stands In Their Way that’s been released this week. Clearly there is something there that we as a culture value. Should we? I dunno, that’s beyond the scope of this article. I would suggest two points however.
First, historically disenfranchised groups such as women or ethnic minorities (or, gasp, women who are part of an ethnic minority!) are very frequently starved of images of people like them being powerful and important. Straight white guys get constantly flattered with images of people just like them saving the world and generally embodying all that is good and just, but other groups don’t get that same treatment. This has a real impact on our self-assessment and judgement of our worth and capabilities, and with good reason. It’s a pretty strong signal that you don’t matter to the culture at large when simply wanting a book or a movie or a video game that stars someone who looks like you is somehow a specialty interest, when the same story staring a white dude is “more mainstream.”
Second, denying women or other groups power fantasies of their own denies them full participation in our culture. Everything from Die Hard to Superman is about straight white men being The Most Important People Ever, and our culture celebrates and reflects that endlessly. But if you just once try to make a black woman the center of a power fantasy, people lose their fucking minds. And what that says is that people who aren’t straight white guys should not be allowed to participate in our culture to the same extent, since they must necessarily do so by vicariously living through someone else’s fantasy, rather than a fantasy that stars someone they really identify with.
And the real stubborn part about this problem is that efforts to address the issue can actually make it worse. Unless you really think about how patterns of disenfranchisement work, it’s very easy to perpetuate some harmful memes.
I can’t stress how important this is enough. Over and over we see Strong Female Characters who are perfect, hyper-competent badasses, but who lack any kind of human depth. Women whose competence is essentially just another feature to make them more desirable to the (always, always, male) protagonist. When Megan Fox’s character in the Transformers movies is shown to be a mechanic, that’s not because she’s a well-rounded character with motivations and interests of her own; it’s so that Shia LaBeouf’s character can have a girlfriend who is so awesome she knows how to fix his car. (And also so she can pose like this.) It’s even worse when, despite being played up as some kind of strong, independent woman ™ she ends up captured or otherwise imperiled and needs to be saved by the slovenly slacker she will inexplicably fall in love with just before the credits roll. The modern Strong Female Character is just a warmed over version of that Victorian trap of worshiping an ideal of womanhood that doesn’t exist.
A real woman is never cross, never flustered, always primped, always presentable, always protects her virtue goes the lie. This transmutes to, a real woman is always strong, always competent, always beautiful, always available, but never a slut; you know, Girl Power!
It’s Victorian bullshit in a sports bra: pretending to flatter women by raising the standards of femininity so high that they can’t be reached. And when you fail that standard–and you will–that failure will be used to police you, to restrict you, to dismiss you, to silence you, to punish you, to ignore you. Real Women ™ are whatever patriarchy needs them to be right this moment, but don’t forget to be ready to radically change everything about yourself to conform to the new, completely contradictory standard that is going to be rolled out tomorrow. Right now, patriarchy is on the defensive, and so it needs men to flatter themselves that they aren’t sexist so that they can continue to ignore the problem. Thus, Strong Female Characters.
So how do you create a power fantasy for women without falling into that same trap? You make the power sit comfortably alongside vulnerabilities and relatable flaws. Lilith is vain, and that vanity that is born of her insecurities, a problem a lot of us (ahem) can identify with. Lilith is a powerful person in her world, but she’s a person first and foremost. She has wants and needs and fears and failings. In having flaws, she is granted dignity. We see her as a worthwhile person beyond and in spite of her flaws; they are never used to undercut her value to her friends or her strength in the world. They’re just parts of who she is, a big glorious mixed-up fuckup who also kicks ass and takes names as necessary.
There is dignity in failure. There is dignity in being recognized as having worth and value even in your moments of weakness. Male characters are granted this allowance pretty much all the time. Bruce Wayne is a neurotic mess. Tony Stark is a substance abuser. John McClaine is a terrible husband and father (No seriously, what the fuck, John?). But can you think of any female characters who have that level of flaw or weakness in their characterization, and yet are still treated as being worthy of being a hero? Or hell, let’s make it easier, who even get to be protagonists? It’s a lot harder, and if you add the further caveat that they should have the same level of exposure as the three male characters I mentioned, it becomes basically impossible.
Now, I don’t know, but I suspect that some well-meaning creative types out there fall for this trap again and again because they’re scared that if they make the main female character in their work flawed in one of these ways, that this will be taken as a condemnation of all women everywhere. We can’t have the main woman in the story be self-conscious and insecure, because then people will say we think women are obsessed with what others think of them! Oh noes!
That’s where the second half of the solution comes in: you want to include not just strongly written female characters, but MORE female characters. A lot more. If there is a particular narrative reason that you can’t have a lot of women in your story, then that is okay as long as the reason isn’t just a bullshit excuse. If you’re writing a war drama set in the trenches of WW1, then yeah, maybe you won’t have many women in the cast. If the story is set in a modern hospital, however, you’ll need a much better excuse to get away with throwing a sausage party.
Having a lot of women in your story allows you to have diverse female characters, each with their own issues and strengths and weaknesses. And now, through the magic of admitting that half the fucking species are women, you have freed yourself from the shackles of needing to treat your female characters as if each one of them was meant to represent what you think the strengths and failings are of all women everywhere. I know, it’s fucking amazing, right? Get this, by displaying a wide variety of women doing a lot of different things, you can even have women enjoying activities that are traditionally coded feminine without worrying that people will presume that means you think all women should inhabit one specific social role!
And it’s one that Borderlands gets so, so very right. You see, as much as it is disappointing that only 25% of the initially-available player characters are women, the supporting cast of NPCs is much, much better about being balanced between men and women. And since the point of these games is that Pandora is a dangerous place whose population spans the gambit from the very eccentric to the recreationally homicidal, more or less all the women in the cast get to be as delightfully damaged and bizarre as the men. None of the women is saddled with being the burden of representing all women, so they get to be personalized and inscribed with their own hangups, motivations, wants, and fears. They get to be individuals. They get to be human.
When we meet Moxxi she is presiding over a murderous pit fighting ring which she flatly admits she maintains to be able to indulge in her fondness for cruelty and brutality. She is an irrepressible sex pot whose cleavage is so famous on Pandora that it her wanted poster is a sketch of her chest. She is also the mother of two of the other major NPCs. A femme fatale who is gleefully murderous…and is a mother. When was the last time you saw a mother depicted in any part of pop culture that didn’t depict moms as extensions of their children or husbands? When you become a mother you are a sexless appendage to the greater glory of your husband’s sperm, or so pop culture goes. Mothers are the worriers, the nags, the wet blankets. They never get to be the ones screaming “HIT HIM AGAIN! THAT WAS FUCKING AWESOME!” But in Borderlands, they do.
Ellie is a mechanic who lives in the middle of fucking nowhere, beset on all sides by bloodthirsty maniacs, and that’s just the way she likes it. Interestingly, one of the reasons she moved out into the badlands is because she was tired of her mother (Moxxi) telling her to slim down. Yes, folks, this game has a fat chick who gets fed up with body policing and does something about it. The jokes about her aren’t really that she’s fat; they’re more that she’s crass, impulsive, violent, and kind of a redneck. (Much like her brother Scooter, in fact.) There actually aren’t a whole lot of jokes centered around Ellie, in fact. She’s sort of the only sane woman on Pandora, and her pathos mainly comes from the loneliness she experiences as a result of having fled the stifling expectations of her mother. She’s still a hoot to hang out with, though.
If Ellie is the only sane woman in Borderlands 2, then Helena Pierce is fulfills that role in Borderlands 1. (Yes, I know I’m posting these way out of the order they appear in.) I’m fond of her, but she doesn’t really have any glaring flaws or weaknesses that are immediately apparent. Of all the women on Pandora, she comes the closest to falling into the Strong Female Character trap, but avoids it on the basis of two excellent choices in characterization. First, she has a disability (and she’s not the only character in the game to have one, as well). The way her disability is treated is very matter of fact, and allows the player to contextualize her no-nonsense attitude towards protecting the people under her care. Helena is a badass because she took her knocks and earned her scars and she knows that somebody has to be the one to make sure shit gets done.
Second, her badassery is mainly limited to being an extremely competent administrator (it’s cooler than it sounds); this enmeshes her in a social fabric, and gives her a plausible reason not to be out there shooting up the bandits in person. She knows where her strengths lay, and has no objections to letting those more capable at violence handle the firefights. That kind of self-knowledge is real power, people. But more importantly, her responsibilities to the people of New Haven pretty much rule her out as a love interest; even if this game had romance subplots, she probably wouldn’t have the time or desire to get into a relationship.
You’ve noticed that Strong Female Characters almost never have anything tying them down that would make them turn down a male hero’s advances, right? Helena is a widow who, I suspect, is still in mourning. She’s implied to be a workaholic, and we learn in the second game that her husband died horribly when a local carnivore attacked them after he unknowingly gave her a ring that put out mating pheromones. Helena’s conspicuous displays of strength and competence are, I believe, the result of her burying her grief. She never really comes to terms with his loss, and so while she’s the one character in the game who appears, at least on the surface, to be an uncomplicated hyper-competent badass, she’s about as far from a romantic reward for a male character as you could imagine. The flaw that makes her human is one that strikes directly at the heart of what I hate in so many depictions of women in pop culture, that we are essentially accessories to a man’s story, and that is why I love her.
Oh, also? I think her scars are kinda hot, but that’s just me.
I love, love, love Dr. Tannis. She’s the brilliant scientist with a PhD in exposition that any sci-fi setting needs, and she is also completely out to lunch. A series of horrifying and tragic log recordings in the first game chronicle her spiral down into (exaggerated, cartoony, and utterly unrealistic) mental illness. But even as she enjoys the company of her best friend, a chair, she’s never made to be incompetent. What I love about Dr. Tannis so much is that we never laugh at her for being crazy as if it was somehow a failing of hers, or something that undercut her value as a person. The horror of what has happened to her is very much present in every interaction, and that horror is enhanced by how we are coached to empathize with her. In many depictions of mental illness, the illness is used as a way to distance and dehumanize the character, but Tannis is brought in closer, and made more human the longer you speak to her. She’s a tragicomic foil to the entire setting of Pandora, and that doesn’t work unless you care about her as a person. The things she says are funny, sure, but the game never lets you forget that she’s this way because of the things that were done to her, and never makes her the butt of the joke. Patricia Tannis helps us laugh in the face of horror, while we empathize with the pain she is fighting through just to be lucid.
I’ll be a bit personal here: I have had, and continue to have, mental health issues. Not at this (exaggerated, cartoony, and utterly unrealistic) level, no, but I have had nervous breakdowns and I have been suicidal and I have sometimes found myself riding the bus to a destination I don’t remember quietly muttering “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” over and over and over again. There are careers I really wanted to have that I am permanently locked out of because of my health. So Patricia speaks to me, in a way. She’s a way of laughing at my own darkest moments, and how they must have looked like on the outside. And the fact that she’s still doing what she loves, even through the illness, that makes my throat go tight when I think about it. Maybe that’s not enough of a basis to build a feminist critique off of. I don’t care. Dr. Tannis makes the fucking game, as far as I’m concerned.
And these are just the women who I have something I want to say about. This post is getting pretty long, and I haven’t even encountered the full cast of both games, so an exhaustive listing won’t be covered here. I never did finish Borderlands 1 (it got too grindy for me) and I have yet to complete Borderlands 2 (although that should be happening soon). Looking at the NPC list on the wiki indicates that there are plenty more women in the casts of both games that I have yet to encounter. Why can’t every ensemble cast be this gender balanced? Why does it have to be so unusual? It shouldn’t be that hard, right? The two golden ingredients–flawed women, and lots of them–have combined in this series to create a wonderful, rich cast with plenty of colorful women who are given the same respect as the men, in most important regards. (I would have liked to see some female bandits out in the wasteland, similar to how Mass Effect has female mercs and goons all over the place.) They get to be flawed–sometimes egregiously so–and they get to have fears and failures and problems. But they also get to be competent, and powerful, and strong, and important in their world. Both, at the same time. Borderlands isn’t a series that is flawless. I’ve got some problems with how they handle short people. Tiny Tina…uh, Tiny Tina needs her own blog post. But even with those flaws, it manages something that is all too rare these days: it treats women with respect, by allowing them to exist in large numbers and also be just as fucked up and weird as the men around them.
When the people try to dehumanize you by holding you to a standard of perfection, there is dignity in being pathetic. On Pandora, everyone is pathetic in one way or another.
[Note: Friends inform me that events in the later part of Borderlands 2 may make it necessary for me to write a follow on post to this one, so be on the lookout for that, maybe, if I get around to it.]
Pacific Rim came out today and everybody loves it. It’s got mecha and kaiju and it’s a stomping good time. This is all true. The fight scenes are thrilling, the story (mostly) works, the cinematography is fantastic and Idris Elba gives a career-making performance.
It’s also kinda sexist.
It’s not that the men talk down to the women and pat them on the butt. It’s quieter than that, and in a way more insidious because of how unconscious and oblivious it seems about its own acceptance of a sexist standard that says men are more important and interesting than women. There are sixteen men and boys with speaking parts, many of whom have complicated, multi-layered relationships with each other. There are two women with speaking parts, who never have a scene together. One is a bit part, and the other–Mako, the co-pilot of the “hero” mecha Gypsy Danger–is barely more than a supporting character. Men drive the plot and women, when they are allowed on screen at all, are mostly along for the ride. Once the fight scenes start, Mako basically shuts up and lets Riley drive. I think she spoke once during a battle. Maybe. She certainly doesn’t have as much to do as her co-pilot Riley, getting conveniently knocked out of action in the final fight scene. (Oh I’m sorry, did I spoil that for you? Suck it up.)
It feels like a slap in the face. The press for this movie was all about MECHA! KAIJU! HUMANITY BANDING TOGETHER! and then they all but ignored half of our species. There is no reason, no reason at all, that more of those supporting roles couldn’t have been given to women. The film makes several almost-shot-for-shot homages to Neon Genesis Evangelion, but has only a fraction of that show’s understanding that humanity is more than IMPORTANT MEN (and the women who stand next to them). This movie was couched as a love letter to nerds and monster freaks everywhere. I grew up watching Godzilla, and the first time I saw Gundam I freaked out with joy. Here was a movie that was going to celebrate the things I grew up loving, that says yes, I remember those too and they were AWESOME. All summer long we’re getting pumped for this thing…
…and then it comes out and it becomes clear that they were really only thinking about the men who grew up loving this stuff. They’re only interested in creating something for little boys to fall in love with. The little girls who like Godzilla? Who like robots and fighting and saving the world? Well, they’ve got Mako and that Russian chick without a name, so it doesn’t matter that they’re sort of pushed off to the side, right?
No. No that’s not all right. It’s 20-fucking-13, and we still have movies that are almost entirely about men. In fact, it’s getting worse. This is not acceptable. We can’t tolerate this from our culture. Women exist and they matter and it’s absurd that our biggest forms of entertainment need to be reminded of that. The Chinese jager could have been piloted by sisters, or the ground control team could have had more (by which I mean any) women in it. The Australian father-son team could have been a father-daughter team (even I’m not optimistic enough to think Hollywood would ever show a soldier who was also a mother). The scientists could have been a bickering slap-slap-kiss-kiss couple. The friggin black marketeer could have been a woman! Any or all of these parts could have been gender swapped and it would have made the movie so much stronger if only to reinforce its stated theme of being about humanity fighting back. Instead it’s about men fighting back, with a few chicks thrown in for variety.
This could have been a movie for the ages, a true popcorn masterpiece that combined heart with intelligence with style and fun. It could have reminded us why movies can be great. Instead it reminds us–well, the half of us that notice we’re not on screen very often–that movies can kind of suck even when they’re being really amazingly well made.
I just realized something. Nuclear power doesn’t exist in the Christopher Nolan Batman ‘verse. Bane proves, time and again, to be the master of the cunning plan, with almost limitless resources at his disposal. When he decides he wants to hold Gotham hostage, instead of simply breaking into a US or Russian military base and hijacking a nuclear warhead–which, given some of the other stunts he pulls of we can reasonably assume he would be capable of; hell John Travolta did it, and he’s an idiot–he goes through an incredibly torturous process of obtaining an experimental fusion reactor and weaponizing it.
Earlier, Bruce Wayne shuts down work on that same reactor because of its potential for destruction, instead of simply insisting that it be designed in such a manner as to be extremely difficult to turn into a bomb. There is never any mention of how the world has already be living and surviving with the threat of everything from backpack-sized atomic demolitions charges to missiles tipped with multi-megaton hydrogen bombs, and thus could probably deal with the threat of a improvised nuke so large it requires a heavy cargo hauler to transport.
Bruce’s atavistic fear of the potential destruction of the fusion reactor, and his unwillingness to let it go forward in a safer configuration seems to indicate that the science of nuclear fusion is poorly understood; perhaps they had not yet developed the technology to the point where they could be sure a reactor *would* be safe. It seems strange to shut down work on clean energy if one (very minor, and highly unlikely) side effect could be that it was turned into a bomb; his concerns become much more reasonable if he is a resident of a world that has no sense of context for nuclear blasts, and has thus not developed any methods of preventing them from happening, or have any firm idea of what scale the damage would be in other than a vague notion that it could destroy a whole city.
This theory is further supported by the fact that they never attempt to find the bomb using radiological sensors, which are installed in all real-world American port cities to attempt to prevent just this kind of scenario from happening.
This raises an interesting question. How did the United States and her allies force the capitulation of Imperial Japan at the conclusion of World War Two? The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were what gave the Emperor the political excuse he needed to force his government to surrender, and even they weren’t enough to prevent an attempted 11th hour coup d’etat against him.
My theory? The timely advent of Superman, who must have traveled back in time to ensure that the stage was set properly for his peaceful upbringing in the heartland of a victorious post-War America. I expect the post-trailer JLA tease in Man of Steel to back me up, perhaps with an appearance by Clock King.
I’m writing a query letter for my first book, and it is very difficult. You can think of a query letter as a text version of a movie trailer; it is a dramatic bit of text meant to entice the reader, packaged with basic details about the book–author, genre, length, etc–and a whole bunch of spoilers. Queries are generally not something that readers will see, and the agents and editors you send yours off to want to know what they’re getting in their book. If, for example, your dark fantasy about a paladin’s experience with slavery takes a hard right turn off into a bunch of kinky sex (ahem), the agent is going to want to want to know to that up front.
A good query letter tells the reader who the major characters are, which one of them is the protagonist and which is the antagonist, what the major conflict is, and where/when the book is set. Ideally it should also showcase your writing, be entertaining in its own right, and be about a page in length. It’s ad copy, basically, where the ad itself is considered to be a direct representation of the skill of the person who crafted the product.
Or, at least, this is what I think a query letter is supposed to be. It’s what my research tells me it is. The truth is, I’ve never done this before, and it’s kicking my ass. My lack of real world experience with the publishing industry is a big obstacle here, one I intend to overcome, just as soon as I stop quivering in the corner with the fear that I’m DOING IT ALL WRONG and will get put on the big scary blacklist that agents pass around to make sure that people who use the wrong font never get published. How do you know there’s no blacklist? Maybe they don’t tell you because you’re not in the club! (The paranoia isn’t an official part of the process, but that doesn’t keep it from being popular.)
I’m on my third or fourth draft of my query. I hope to have something ready to send out by the end of the month. Or, alternately, I hope that the Book Contract Fairy will leave a 2-book deal under my pillow if I’m a good girl. Clap your hands if you believe!
 Assuming your book has a protagonist and antagonist, and not an ensemble cast. If it has one of those, you need to be clear about that.