Feminist Science Fiction, Fantasy & Utopia
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A little bit of magic realism let me slide this one in. What I really liked about this movie is that it centered on mother-daughter relations, and a strong woman. Not as good as "Antonia's Line," the movie nonetheless managed to show a lot of interesting women characters taking control of their own lives.
No sense that this is a feminist film; it's possibly even anti-feminist / feminist backlash. But note the portrayal of a matriarchal government with lesbian overtones [albeit ruled by a "cartel"].
See review at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~lormand/agenda/0109/movies.htm
Highlights & lowlights: First the bad news: There's some extraordinarily disturbing violence against women, including one rape-murder that is just disgusting. There's also some casually dismissed violence against people of color. Lenny, viewing a recording of a robbery, lets pass without comment violence -- maybe murder -- against people of color in a restaurant / grocery. He rejects the recording because the recorder dies--he doesn't deal in "snuff." But the actual violence and death of other people didn't seem to disturb him at all--it's suggested this is what he deals in.
Violence permeates the film and is treated with extreme casualness by everyone, except when the violence is targeted at real characters. In part this is just the way many movies handle violence these days; and in part it's an attempt to show a near future when violence is so widely accepted. But the violence isn't all entirely unproblematic: as with the odd double standard at the beginning of the movie, there is an extremity of violence shown against women. And in one scene near the end of the movie police beat Angela Bassett's character in a way that is shocking and horrifying. Yes, it's intended to make a point about police brutality and racism. But still it was troubling.
Good news: Angela Bassett is awesome. She kicks ass and saves Lenny Nero, the male protagonist, numerous times. Of course, we're not really sure why she loves him, except for one tender little scene which shows a better side of Nero than we've seen in the movie. But aside from that plot hole, the movie is worth watching basically for Angela Bassett's character. She is totally in command and calm, as well as smart and principled.
More good news: The movie, while I thought it did have some troubling issues around its representations of violence against people of color, nevertheless is, at least in part, an exploration of those issues. The beating of Angela Bassett at the end of the film recalls the brutal beating of Rodney King. The murder of a prominent, politically active, Black artist, seems throughout the movie as if it might be the result of some sort of conspiracy; at the least it is the result of racism and extreme police brutality. Racial tensions throughout LA, caused by these problems, are the backdrop for the violence: you see constant scenes of cops in military drag, with shields and masks and clubs, implicitly targeting civilians, often people of color. And those racial tensions underlie a significant plot of the movie: what will happen in LA if and when the truth is revealed about the murder of the Black artist?
Lesbians may be interested to note that, in addition to Angela Bassett being simply gorgeous & awesome, Juliette Lewis appears in a variety of virtually non-existent outfits. And there are a number of lesbian couples and woman-on-woman action scattered through the movie.
characters of particular note:
Babylon 5 offers some of the best examples of strong female roles on television. Most important are the characters of the Mimbari Ambassador Delenn and Earthforce Commander Susan Ivanova.
Delenn is an alien who sacrifices herself and defies her government to become half human. She then organises and helps lead (along with Captain John Sheridan, who she also recruited) a secret army called the Rangers.
The character of Ivanova is simply a stroke of genius, a complex lead role given true justice by actress Claudia Christian. While having weaknesses that make her human, these don't come across in any way as fragility. Situations which could have made her a victim (her mother committed suicide as a telepath, her brother died in the war, her father died, and she is an illegal telepath) has simply made her more independent and dedicated to what and who she believes in. She's intelligent, domineering when necessary, funny, loyal, and affectionate. She's on of the first science-fiction characters on American television to have a lesbian affair (aired the same season as Lt. Jadzia Dax's kiss with her past wife on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). More than a sidekick, she has often saved the station (and quite possibly the human race) by taking over where Captain Sheridan should have been.
All of the women in this programme are commendable, be they heros or villians, and especially when you can't tell which are which.
The Ivanova Mantra: 'Ivanova is always right. I will listen to Ivanova. I will not ignore Ivanova's recommendations. Ivanova is God. And if this ever happens again, Ivanova wil personally rip your lungs out. Babylon Control out. [looking up] Just kidding about the God part. No offense.'
Buffy carries the "woman action hero gimmick" to a new level: not the action hero you'd expect, Buffy was a fluffy cheerleader in the 1992 movie, who developed skills and a personality throughout the movie. The concept really came into play in the TV series, which has developed some excellent writing and character development, and is not afraid to take TV risks (for example, the lesbian relationship between Tara and Willow; the almost realistic depiction of teens' sexual fears, romantic relationships; etc.). The series has maintained a remarkably high level of quality through its seven seasons, despite complaints about various seasons (season 6 is depressing, season 4 is boring). One hopes only that the creators can wind it to a more attractive close than happened with "The X-Files."
From a feminist perspective, Buffy is deeply interesting.
First, its groundbreaking (for primetime TV) depictions of female and teen sexuality. Showing young women's sexuality, while simultaneously remaining both non-exploitive and non-after-school-special, is surely a trick. While TV in general has been approaching greater realism around teen sexuality, "Buffy" has surely taken it to a new level by, again, centering it shamelessly on the woman's perspective. Women, like men, are interested in sex. In season 7, for instance, Anya, a female character known for her bluntness on sexual matters, bangs on the bathroom door when Andrew has been taking too long. "Why can't you be masturbating like the rest of us?" she asks him. A minor throw-away line, but it uses the m-word--rare on TV--and makes it not a source of shame but a source of casual sexual fulfillment--and for girls! "Buffy" has excelled at pushing the boundaries in this casual fashion. (See also side character Larry Blaisdell's coming out in season 2's "Phases"; Larry shows up in about two other episodes [Larry Bagby III]; vampire Willow is "kinda gay" in "Dopplegangland".)
Second, frankly, the basic concept of a line of teenage girls who save the world, is buttressed by an entire cast of strong women characters, who routinely save and/or threaten the world. The excellent writing has developed an emotional realism for the young characters, rarely matched on "realistic" shows. So while the female characters sometimes talk about "girly girls," main characters male and female are portrayed as whole, complex people, regardless of their gender. Well, maybe not whole--sometimes they're soulless or otherwise troubled--but always complex. The show is imbued with feminism, without explicitly referencing it ever, and some episodes show Buffy explicitly confronting sexism or sexist attitudes ("Ted": Buffy fights a man from the 50s who tells her women don't talk back to him; "Phases": Buffy gets to show up a werewolf-hunter who disrespects her because she's a girl; "I Only Have Eyes For You": Buffy references male violence with some anger, and then grows beyond her own assumptions).
Flaws: In some ways the show has not strayed far from Hollywood norms: the cast is notably middle-class WASPy, despite token references to Xander's working class and Willow's Jewish background and occasional non-white characters. Even though the primary cast, and the side characters, are non-stereotyped, villains are most frequently boys. And the show, even when breaking ground, is still bound by certain TV production norms: Willow & Tara's relationship was left a vague teaser for a long time, then portrayed in a relatively sexless way for an even longer time, while straight couples clearly Do It with frequency and gusto. The entire sexual orientation issue seems to be played more as a way to be politically correct, and demonstrate lesbian acceptance, than as actual character development. Given the attention devoted to other explorations of sexuality, one might reasonably have expected more attention to questions of Willow's coming out, bisexuality or lesbianism, the group's acceptance of her relationship, maybe even a little realistic homophobia. However, despite the criticisms, this is also a pretty good attempt at normalizing same-sex sexuality, within the constraints of prime-time broadcast TV. As such, fans looking for representations of same-sex sexuality, and teens struggling with sexuality issues, had a positive icon, albeit one not deeply explored.
And there are oddities, too, that are interesting from gender analysis perspectives. For instance, serious Oedipal themes: Drusilla / Spike; Riley / Maggie Walsh.
"Star Trek" (the original) [1966-1969; 47 minutes; 79 episodes] Applauded for having a diverse cast, including Nichelle Nichols, a Black woman, and being the first TV series to show an interracial kiss. Uhuru the character was the Communications Officer--in practice a glorified switchboard operator--but her role, and the series, were groundbreaking in many respects.
"Star Trek: The Next Generation" (ST:TNG) [1987-1994; 45 minutes; 178 episodes]. Some well-developed female characters. Aside from the initial presentation and quick death of the female Chief Security Officer, women, although Highly Respected, were in nurturing roles: doctor, ship's counselor, etc. TNG played with some interesting concepts, though, and did a pretty good job of updating the original and continuing to explore political issues through thinly veiled alien cultures and conflicts. However, the cast seemed to have hardly moved forward diversity-wise. Human diversity seemed to have migrated to other species, with a few exceptions.
"Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" [1993-1999; 60 minutes; 176 episodes]. Oddly timed with "Babylon Five," this very similarly-premised show about a space station, intended as a symbol of peace in a quadrant of the galaxy riddled with conflict, nevertheless did go its own way. Ultimately, DSN seemed more Star Trekky than B5-ish; less story arced and more episodic, although there was more long-term story development in DSN (and Voyager) than in the prior ST series. DSN and Voyager, started in the mid-90s, both made greater strides towards diversity, although they still seem to have some problems with sexual diversity. DSN managed to have a transgender species (sort of) character, and to deliberately dodge some of the gendered nurturing / feisty characteristics. The doctor was a boy, for instance, and there was a feisty headstrong female character. But DSN still managed to seem a little leery of dealing with the whole sexual orientation question raised by its transgender species characters, toying with same-sex sexuality but worried about expressing it too much. The plots seemed less interesting than the character development, over all.
"Star Trek: Voyager." [1995-2001; 60 minutes; 172 episodes.] The only ST with a female captain, and ST took some heat for it. Boys generally don't like Captain Janeway, saying basically that she's not "cool" enough. IMO she was plenty cool, and plenty tough. The show screwed up when it gave her all these maternal-type roles: mothering Kim, mothering 7-of-9. Picard in TNG had a paternal role with Will, but it was more distant, removed; for Voyager, the creators really wanted to focus on Janeway-the-woman more often than they focused on Picard-the-man, for instance. Be that as it may, the voyage home was interesting enough; filled with a variety of war-like cultures and a few interesting subplots. Some of the darkest ST episodes I've seen were in Voyager, a lapse from the series' usual optimism. Some more intresting female characters including Barbie Borg (7-of-9) who was actually an interesting character. Diversity -- still trying, still not making it. Sexuality: still straight and narrow.
"Star Trek: Enterprise." [2001- ]I haven't seen anything new in the few episodes of this I've watched. The ST franchise is still exploring the same old themes: conflict, humanity, morality. All very well and good, but they're not pushing themselves. It's sad.
-- lq, 1/25/2003
Scully and Mulder, Mulder and Scully. Scully is the attractive female half of a team that investigates odd, often supernatural, occurrences, often discovering underlying government conspiracies. Here are a few good things to note about "The X-Files": One, Scully is very attractive but is not a cookie-cutter model-type. Two, Scully is a rational, scientific, doctor-type. Three, Scully and Mulder are equals; they both managed to rescue and get rescued by the other numerous times.
As a series, the show really got into its stride during the middle of its run. It had enough time to establish and develop the characters and the long-term plot angles, and in seasons 3-5 the show had some incredibly well-written episodes. It hit on numerous themes, sf'al and real, and mixed humor, tenderness, creepiness, and postmodern paranoia brilliantly. Alas, it ran too long. The last couple of years really ran out of steam, and brought us plot devices that just, well, screwed up the whole thing. Oh well. Watch the first 5 or 6 seasons on DVD and then drop it.
-- lq, 1/25/2003
"Xena" was a fun little show. Started with fairly low ambition, to be an alternative-network not-quite-primetime filler, the show's creators and actors quickly saw its potential, and had fun playing with it. The sexual tension between Xena and Gabrielle was played with but never really explored. Xena was unquestionably a hero, with good and dark sides, and well in line with the kick-ass women heroes of the turn of the center. But it was really the development of the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle that made the show worth watching on a more than occasional basis. The last episodes were a little bit of a disappointment: why did Xena have to die, exactly? And if she died, why couldn't she just stay dead? The schmaltzy hoaky haunting of Gabrielle just depressed me. -- lq, 1/25/2003
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updated 06/13/07 .