A Small Break

The combination of the latest episode of Outlander and the latest episode of Game of Thrones has left me more than a little drained, so Feminist Fiction is going to be on hiatus for the rest of the week.

In the meantime, check out this great video from PBS Game/Show on “How I Became a Video Game Feminist.”

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Beyond Love Interests

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So, I’m a bit of a shipper. I love a good romantic subplot in a story, and that investment in a potential couple is often what pushes me from liking a series to all-out obsession.

But Black Widow’s role in Age of Ultron has once again got people talking about whether romance has a place in the plot arcs of “strong female characters,” and whether giving a character a love interest makes her somehow lesser or more cliche. In short, can a character have a love interest and also be feminist?

The answer to that question, of course, is an obvious yes. There’s nothing anti-feminist about love. A character isn’t weaker because she has a romantic plotline. But these romantic plotlines can be representative of a much bigger problem, where a female character only exists in relation to her male love interest. In these scenarios, it’s easy for people to roll their eyes and claim that the romance itself is the problem, but there is nothing wrong with a romantic plotline in and of itself — it’s all in how it’s treated, and how the female character is portrayed outside it.

Basically: does the character have a love interest, or are they nothing but a love interest? Are they a character who has a romantic subplot as part of their own rich story, or are they defined by their romantic connection to another?

1. Does the character have goals and ambitions of her own?

Finding true love excluded, of course.

2. Does she deal with conflicts that aren’t just about true love?

Anything, really. Career problems. Family tension. Fighting Ultron to save the world. Whatever. Is she struggling with something in the story other than her relationship?

3. Does she actually talk about or address these conflicts or ambitions? Are they mentioned even vaguely as much as their love troubles?

Aka does she actually have ambitions and conflicts, or are they just name-dropped in order to make her look more rounded out than she is?

4. If she’s part of an ensemble cast, does she have concerns of her own, beyond a vague connection to the big plot?

“Stopping the big bad” isn’t really motivation enough if everyone else shares the same story.

5. If the answer to all the above questions is “no,” are the other characters in the story similarly preoccupied with romance?

I’m not sure the result would be a particularly good movie, but if Jane Foster cares about absolutely nothing but Thor, and Thor cares about absolutely nothing but Jane Foster, then it’s not a problem of sexism, because each character is equally wrapped up in the other.

So let’s talk about Black Widow in Age of Ultron again. Although her out-of-nowhere romance with Bruce Banner was frustrating, it’s not a problem, in and of itself. She’s allowed to have a romantic subplot as part of her character. It only becomes a problem if all of Black Widow’s other characteristics vanish in the face of this romance.

And, unfortunately, I think her ability to pass the test is debatable here. Yes, she has a goal and a conflict beyond her romance — she wants to stop Ultron and save the world — but that’s a shared goal, not unique to her, and most of her screentime, when not in battle, is spent talking about her potential relationship. Bruce Banner, on the other hand, wants to stop Ultron AND deals with his relationship with Black Widow AND struggles with the question of whether he’s a monster or a hero and whether it’s safe for him to continue to fight. His problems come up in relation to himself, while Black Widow’s problems (like the infamous “I’m a monster too” scene) come up in relation to her love interest and what he needs.

It’s not an obvious fail, because Black Widow is an already established character and so automatically has more depth, and there are hints of development in her flashbacks, but it’s enough to raise questions. Whether it’s a problem just with Black Widow or with the writing in general, or even whether it’s a problem at all, is definitely up for debate. And that debate is complicated by the fact that it’s a new movie, and people can only judge it based on the emotional memories that it left them.

But no. Contrary to the tone of some recent discussions around Age of Ultron, there is nothing wrong with a female character having a love interest. She just needs to have other characteristics too.

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Jane the Virgin

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Jane the Virgin aired the final episode of its first season this week, and if you haven’t been watching, you’ve been missing out on the greatest new thing of the year.

It’s a show that shouldn’t work. The premise is off-puttingly strange, as the protagonist is accidentally artificially inseminated and becomes pregnant with the child of a rich crush from five years before. The plot twists are non-stop and insane. A narrator guides us through the story. The romance is so unapologetically earnest. Ironic Twitter hashtags appear on screen. But the show has a magic about it that makes everything just fit. It has great fun playing in telenovella tropes — murders, villains, fake identities, amnesia, revelations, swooning romance and epic betrayals — but it grounds these dramatics in a sharp sense of humor and a genuine heart, creating a series which is simultaneously one of the funniest and one of the sweetest things on TV.

Despite all its romance (and it does have a lot), the show’s heart is the relationship between three female generations of the Villanueva family — practical, romance-loving student-teacher Jane, her aspiring singer-dancer mother Xiomara, and her kindhearted traditional grandmother Alba. Although they have their differences and struggles, they are always there to support one another, and the familial love between them is rock upon which the rest of the show stands.

And they’re surrounded by a wonderful cast of characters who inspire laughter and tears in equal measure. Jane the Virgin takes soap opera stereotypes that should be unlikeable or over-the-top or unbelievable and instead makes us feel, oh-so-deeply, for the characters and their predicaments. I commented when I first reviewed the show that the only two-dimensional character was love interest Rafael’s scheming wife Petra, but I was completely mistaken there. Despite all the terrible things that she does, I found myself sympathizing with Petra, understanding her, willing her to succeed.

And that, really, is what makes the show so wonderful. It’s full of melodramatic plots, racing along at break-neck pace, with larger than life characters, but it takes the time to make every one of them feel genuine and human. It throws out accidental artificial insemination and supervillains who can change their faces, and then it explores the human reactions to that, the emotional consequences, perfectly balancing the tongue-in-cheek drama and the effect that it would actually have. We fall for Jane as a protagonist, and even as we laugh at how ridiculous things become, we genuinely feel for her. When she cries, we cry. And because of that emotional connection, when she swoons, when the music swells for the big romantic moments, we swoon too. We believe in her world and her story, because we believe in her.

I could talk about how feminist this show is, how diverse, how progressive… and that would all be true. But it’s also just plain excellent. And I can’t wait until it returns to our screens in the fall. Meanwhile, if you haven’t been watching it… well, you’re in for a treat.

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Game of Thrones: Kill the Boy

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Kill the Boy was a relatively quiet episode of Game of Thrones, focussing on a few plotlines in satisfying detail. Compared to last week’s offering, it was radically uneventful, with very little bloodshed, but everything felt tenser, weightier, as the show dug deeper into three particular plotlines — Sansa’s, Jon Snow’s and Daenerys’ — and gave them room to breathe. (more…)

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How to be a female superhero, according to Age of Ultron

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Another spring, another blockbuster Marvel movie, another conversation about women in superhero stories.

Overall, Age of Ultron was a pretty fun movie, although I thought it suffered from an overflow of undeveloped ideas and an insistence on Whedon-esque witty dialogue over consistent tone. But several moments unsettled me as I watched it, and that feeling of disquiet grew the more I thought about it after the movie ended. By the time I’d finished making my notes on the movie, I realized I wasn’t lukewarm about the movie any more: I was angry.

Because although Age of Ultron had more female characters than we might have grown to expect from a Marvel movie, it had some serious issues with those female character’s plot arcs, especially when it came to Black Widow. And it had some very worrying implications about what a female character should be.

And so, without further ado, I present to you the Age of Ultron guide to being a female superhero.

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Game of Thrones: The Sons of the Harpy

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The Sons of the Harpy was an episode with a lot of violence, and not much cohesive action. It felt like a collection of scenes that reflected on the past and prepared for the future, rather than an episode that moved things forward, and although the scenes were enjoyable in isolation, they didn’t come together in any cohesive way.

This was unfortunate, because there were some very good scenes, and some very important plot developments — they just got muddled by the episode’s segmented nature. All in all, it felt like a lot of attempt at drama, without much actually taking place.

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The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey

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The Girl at Midnight is going to be massively popular. At least, it should be. It has all the things a big hit needs: inventive world building, fun characters, non-stop action, a sense of humor, end-of-the-world stakes, and more than a little dash of magic.

Seventeen year old Echo has grown up among the Avicen, a society of feathered people who live alongside our own in secret parts of New York. Magic is real, Echo can use it, and she spends her days jumping around the globe, stealing the valuable and the interesting for herself and her adoptive family. But when Echo steals something that seems to hint toward the location of the Firebird — a mythical creature that could end the wars between the Avicen and their enemies, the dragon-like Drakharin — she’s tasked with finding it before the Drakharin do and ending the war in her adopted people’s favor. But many among the Avicen do not want her help, and the Drakharin will not let her take it without a fight.

It’s a difficult book to describe, but an incredibly fun book to read. Frequent readers of YA fantasy will find that the second world theme and the whirlwind tour of international cities is reminiscent of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, while readers of Cassandra Clare’s series will find a lot of the banter-filled dialogue and characterization familiar. But The Girl at Midnight also has a strong voice of its own, with plenty of world building and plot-twistiness to ensure it feels unique. It’s a diverse read, with lots of female friendship and mentorship, an unusual protagonist, and a really fun romance, and it practically demands you devour it at a breakneck pace before begging for its sequel.

If you’re a fan of YA, definitely pick this one up, especially if you have a vacation or a long plane ride in your near future. It’ll suck you in and make the time fly by.

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Game of Thrones by Telltale Games

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When I finally picked up a copy of Telltale Game’s ongoing, episodic adaptation of Game of Thrones, I was more than a little bit skeptical. Video game adaptations don’t exactly have a reputation for quality, and the last attempt at a Game of Thrones game was considered pretty terrible even without taking its lack of female characters into consideration.

But Telltale Games do things differently, in the best possible way. The game is less of an RPG and more of a visual Choose Your Own Adventure (albeit one with pretty subpar graphics), where the player gets to select dialogue options and character choices, but where the movement itself is mostly out of your hands. It’s focussed on character and plot, and not on fighting at all.

The game has several playable protagonists, all related to House Forrester, bannermen to House Stark struggling to survive after the Red Wedding. Their lord and his heir are both dead, a young boy is now in charge, and the Boltons are threatening to take everything they have left away. Through that young boy lord, a squire who survived the Red Wedding, and Margaery’s handmaid/Forrester daughter Mira, as well as a few extras later on, the game considers the different ways that characters can contribute to, or disrupt, the delicate political web, and how each of their unique positions can help or hinder House Forrester’s recovery.

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Why Sansa’s new plotline is NOT about empowerment

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This post contains spoilers for The High Sparrow and for A Dance With Dragons.

I don’t think this can be said forcefully enough: Sansa’s plotline this season is not about empowerment. It’s about the idea of empowerment being used to manipulate her, while she continues to be a victim of an incredibly dangerous situation.

Yes, there’s something intriguing about the moment she meets Roose Bolton, when she visibly hides her feelings and switches on her courtesies. And yes, there are hints of a rebellion in Sansa’s favor, especially in the servant’s comment that “the North remembers.” But she’s still a victim, still a pawn, just under a different guise.

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