OurSharedShelf: My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

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At the start of the year, Emma Watson launched an online feminist book club as part of her work for UN Women. Every month, she’s encouraging people around the world to join her in reading a feminist piece of fiction or non-fiction and discussing it on Goodreads. January’s book was feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem’s 2015 memoir, My Life on the Road

As it’s currently February 10th, I’m obviously a little behind. And now is an odd time to be discussing Gloria Steinem, thanks to the furor over her recent comments about the Democrat primary elections. But I always meant to write about my own reactions to these books (some of which I may have read before, many of which I assume will be new to me), and My Life on the Road was a fantastic place to start.

In My Life on the Road, Steinem presents herself as an organizer, bringing others together throughout her life to talk and initiate change, whether it’s on a college campus level or a US government level. The book’s main point is the important of “talking circles” — discussions where everyone is encouraged to contribute, and where the people most affected by issues can have their voices heard and suggest their own solutions. It’s a book about the need for communication and community — and what could be more relevant to a new online feminist bookclub, hoping to bring people around the globe together to discuss feminist issues?

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Inside Depression

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I was told Inside Out was a movie about depression.

I was very late watching Pixar’s latest tear-jerker offering (as in, I watched it for the first time last week), so I had plenty of time to hear what other people thought about the movie, and that was the message that stuck. Inside Out is about depression.

So imagine my surprise when I finally saw it, and didn’t think it was about depression at all. Not even metaphorically. It sounds like it should be — Joy and Sadness go missing, leaving Anger, Fear and Disgust to control a twelve year old girl’s brain — but the story only covers a couple of days, and the ultimate message is more about what happens when a person feels unable to express sadness than about mental illness. Although it’s a good tool to approach discussions of depression, especially with children, it’s really a story about mental wellness, and the importance of accepting and processing all emotions, including negative ones.

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We have to stop debating Mary Sues

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Let’s talk about Mary Sues. Again.

As I discussed a couple of weeks ago, Star Wars has got people talking once again about Mary Sues, after people criticized Rey for being too capable to be believable. This “Mary Sue” label has been critiqued to death, with many, many people pointing out its sexist connotations.

But I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how the term “Mary Sue” isn’t just annoying, but actively harmful to younger viewers. The label “Mary Sue” suggests that a character is poorly written, and that only undiscerning and uncultured people could like them. This probably doesn’t change our opinions on characters when we’re older, but it definitely influenced me as a teenager, and I doubt I’m the only one. By allowing the term “Mary Sue” to masquerade as literary criticism, even by discussing how “Mary Sue-ish” or un-“Mary Sue-ish” a character might be, we reinforce this idea that a female protagonist can be too powerful, and end up taking empowering narratives away from readers and viewers.

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Getting Meta with Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

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Anyone who’s read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl will recognize Simon Snow. He’s that universe’s stand-in for Harry Potter, a magical Chosen One fighting an evil villain while attempting to attend a magic boarding school. Fangirl‘s protagonist Cath is obsessed with the series, and is the author of a very popular slash fic between Simon and Draco Malfoy stand-in, Baz.

So the mere existence of Carry On is a bit strange. Our universe already has a Harry Potter. We don’t another (fictional) universe’s Harry Potter too. It’s too many levels of meta. An actual bestselling novel inspired by a fictional bestselling series that was based on an actual bestselling series. Add in the fact that Cath’s story in Fangirl is called Carry On, Simon, and you’ve basically got an actual bestselling novel inspired by a fictional popular fanfic inspired by a fictional bestselling series that’s closely based on an actual bestselling series.

My head hurts already.

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Loveable Murderers and The Wrath and the Dawn

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Everyone loves a good hate to love relationship. It’s fun to watch characters who think they loathe one another finding out that they actually kinda like each other after all, and the shifting relationship can be a great way to explore character development.

But here’s the thing: the “hate to love” trope only works if the characters don’t actually have good reasons to hate one another. Either they’re just full of Han and Leia bickeryness, or they hate each other based on misconceptions that’ll all get sorted out once they’re forced to go on an adventure together. At most, the characters can get over their justified hatred by undergoing major character development and learning pretty significant things that they didn’t know before, but that’s only in the hands of a very gifted storyteller across several novels.

Which brings me to The Wrath and the Dawn, a Thousand and One Nights retelling by Renee Abdieh. The basic premise is that young King Khalid keeps murdering his wives, including our protagonist Shahrzad’s best friend, so Shahzrad volunteers to marry him in order to get revenge and kill him.

Obviously, Shahrzad is going to despise him for most of the book, and then find out what’s really been going on, and maybe feel a little bit of sympathy for him. And then, if the book insists on having those two get together, their relationship will grow from there. Right?

Actually, Shahrzad has known Khalid for about three days when she starts to think about how handsome and lovely and kind he is. She still thinks he murdered her best friend for no good reason, but he doesn’t seem like a murdering psychopath when she talks to him, and he hasn’t killed her yet, so she’ll start to fall for him instead. It’s basically Stockholm Syndrome: Arabian Nights edition.

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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

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I wouldn’t have chosen to read The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl myself. I mean, it’s a Marvel comic about a girl with squirrel powers. What even are “squirrel powers”? Why would a superhero have them??

But I got a copy for Christmas, and I’m so glad I did. This comic is amazing. And hilarious. And amazing.

Doreen Green is the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl — unbeatable, because, through sheer skill (or ridiculous luck), she’s never been beaten in battle, not even by the Avengers’ most nefarious enemies. And Squirrel Girl because, well, she’s a squirrel girl. She has a tail. She can command a tiny squirrel army. It’s a whole big mutant-y thing. She and her best friend Tippy Toe the Adorable Squirrel have been living secretly in the attic of the Avengers Mansion, but now it’s time for her to improve her superhero-ing skills by going to college.

She composes and sings her own theme tune. She talks to squirrels. She’s a TOTALLY NORMAL COLLEGE STUDENT, you guys. It’s a shame her flawless secret identity is threatened by all those villainous villains showing up. And that Iron Man’s ignoring her despite totally saying she could be his fighting partner or whatever that one time. Guess she’ll have to save the world by herself.

Watch her face off against famous Marvel nemeses! Learn their weak points through her handy-dandy set of Deadpool-approved supervillain trading cards! See how she manages to steal Iron Man’s suit, cos she needs it right now and it’s not like he’s using it, jeez!

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is so incredibly funny. It’s self-referential and genre aware, and it is absolutely unafraid to have some fun with the Marvel universe. The joke is never on Squirrel Girl or her powers — she’s just a really fun character in an innately hilarious world. And despite its references to Marvel canon, it’s also a great comic for “I’m not really that into comics” people like myself. I might have missed a couple of the jokes, but it was still laugh-out-loud funny and enjoyable from the first page. A little bit of Marvel Movie Universe knowledge helps, but otherwise, you can just pick it up and go, thanks, in part, to those super handy supervillain cards, courtesy of Deadpool, telling you everything you need to know.

And the characters themselves are fantastic. The incredibly confident, adorable, nigh-unfazeable Doreen Green. Her blunt, badass, cat-obsessed roommate Nancy. The cute if rather perplexed Resident Love Interest, Tomas. And, like, Iron Man and Galactus and stuff.

Plus there are tiny comments from the writers at the bottom of every page. And the art is really cute. And even the fight scenes are hilarious. And. And. And.

It’s honestly great. If you want a lighthearted pick-me-up, go grab a copy.

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The Force Awakens breaks the record

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On Wednesday, The Force Awakens passed Avatar as the highest grossing movie in the North American box office, just twenty days after its release.

For comparison, Avatar set its record of $760.5 million after being in theaters for seven months and then later re-released. And Star Wars is probably going to take a whole lot more money before it’s done.

Obviously, The Force Awakens set this record because it’s a Star Wars movie. An excellent Star Wars movie, after a very long break. First people didn’t expect it to ever exist, then people didn’t expect it to ever be good, and now Star Wars fever has taken over, and most people are seeing it at least twice.

But that doesn’t change the fact that this is a Star Wars movie with a female protagonist. An awesome female protagonist. And a lead trio of one white girl, a black guy, and a Hispanic guy. And a low-key brewing interracial romance between that girl and the black guy (or between the two guys, depending on who you ask).

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The Impostor Queen by Sarah Fine

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The Impostor Queen is an amazing fantasy novel. It’s fast-paced fun, with a compelling protagonist, enthralling world-building, an intriguing magic system, and some great romance for flavor.

Elli has grown up knowing she’s fated to be the Valtia, the most powerful woman in the land, who uses her control over fire and ice to ensure peace and prosperity in the kingdom. Isolated from the rest of the world, she’s been taught to always trust her priests and to put her kingdom first. But when the old Valtia dies, Elli does not inherit her powers. After being forced to endure increasingly dangerous trials to unleash her magic, Elli learns that her priests plan to murder her, and she’s forced to flee the only life she’s ever known.

Although The Impostor Queen is epic fantasy full of magic and danger, at its heart, it’s very character driven — a story of characters figuring out who they are. As the story develops, it has lots of fantastic feminist themes: of self empowerment, of definition, of strength and courage in many forms. Elli isn’t the Valtia, so who is she? At first, she dismisses herself as a weak no-one, no use to anybody. The Impostor Queen is really about Elli learning to define herself separately from her title and deciding who she wants to be.

The book is also full of fascinating female relationships, particularly the one between the Valtia and her young successor, and the strong emotional bond they share despite other people’s attempts to control and isolate them.

Of course, all my favorite things about the novel are huge spoilers, as is often the case in books full of big plot twists and characters’ self discovery. But it is a wonderful, absorbing and compelling novel, with a lot of things to say. The first in a series, but a satisfying story in itself, and definitely worth a read.

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Rey and the Hero’s Journey

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I could fangirl about Rey from The Force Awakens all day. She is amazing, to the point that I could barely write anything of substance about her in my review of the movie, since my first-watch reaction was mostly just an excited squealing noise in my head. (And, I’ll admit, out loud).

But I think it’s time to get a tiny bit meta, and talk about Rey as a protagonist, and as a Star Wars protagonist in particular.

The Force Awakens is a perfect Star Wars sequel because it blends the old and the new, feeling fresh and innovative while also echoing A New Hope, and Rey embodies that combination. She’s the lost hero on a desert planet who stumbles across a droid and goes on an adventure, and in the process, her story echoes Luke Skywalker’s narratively, thematically and even visually. Yet she’s not a traditional or even particularly familiar genre protagonist. She follows in the footsteps of Luke’s Hero’s Journey, marking her as the clear protagonist of the story, but she’s also a female lead in a movie aimed at all viewers, in a franchise often seen as one for male viewers in particular.

Rey is a reimagining of the classic hero, but the most significant and innovative thing about her character is how traditional she really is.

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