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Night in the Woods

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Until the final chapter of Night in the Woods, I was convinced I was going to give it a rapturous review. The game follows the daily life of Mae, a girl who just dropped out of college for reasons unmentioned and returned to her small hometown. It’s mostly a slice-of-life visual-novel-with-minigames, as you explore the slowly dying town, reconnect with Mae’s friends, explore her relationship with her parents, and have Mae try to recover from whatever happened at college and find her place at home again.

The game has so many things to recommend it. It’s witty and poignant. The dialogue feels real, the friendships genuine, the heartbreak heartaching. And the animation is pretty darn pretty too. One of the game’s main themes is the dying town — all the stores are closing, the young people are leaving, and opportunity is vanishing bit by bit. This is a town with no cell phone service, because no one considers it worth building the infrastructure. It’s a place where there’s only one doctor, and he does everything from offering therapy to removing teeth.

And although the game was in development before the 2016 elections, a lot of its small town themes feel particularly relevant now. The older people in this dying town are resentful of the big cities and big businesses that are killing their home, and there’s a quite on-the-nose story thread about sacrificing those less noticed by society in order to protect their own way of life a little bit longer. They don’t like doing it, but they will do it, because they see it as necessary for survival.

But the most poignant part, to me, was the gradual exploration of Mae’s depression. Mae, we learn as the story unfolds, suffers from disassociation and anxiety so bad that she was unable to leave her dorm room in college and finally came home to where things are safe and familiar, only to find that things aren’t so safe and familiar, because the town is dying, the people she loves are leaving, and there are no opportunities for her here. Her parents spent all their money making her the first person in the family to go to college, and now she’s back, feeling a failure, struggling with nightmares and anger issues, completely lost about what to do next.

Night in the Woods is most affecting in its quiet moments. It’s talking to one character about how he blamed himself for his childhood abuse. It’s walking in the graveyard with another character, who has come to visit her mom’s grave. It’s the heartbreak of Mae’s best friend planning to move to another town with his boyfriend, leaving Mae not knowing where she fits into his life.

And although Night in the Woods is something of a decision-based game, in that you can choose what to say and who you talk to and which friendships to build, many bad decisions are out of your hands. You can’t stop Mae from being self-destructive, perhaps because, due to her illness, she can’t stop herself either.

But then we get into deep spoiler territory, where all that emotional exploration seems undercut by the supernatural.

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Quick Questions from the Search Terms

An idea stolen, with much love and appreciation, from Captain Awkward.

Why Cersei is not a feminist hero

You can take your pick, really. She murders people. She expressea a lot of internalised misogyny, explicitly hating pretty much every woman who isn’t herself. She tortures people. She killed Lady! She murders people. You can argue that she’s a feminist character in the sense that she’s an emotionally complex female villain, but she’s neither feminist nor a hero herself.

Are Bronte and Austen different?

So, so different. And not just because Charlotte Bronte hated Jane Austen’s books. They lived and wrote more than 50 years apart, in very different English societies — Austen lived in genteel southern England during the aftermath of the French and American revolutions, and the Brontes were much poorer, the daughters of a clergyman who lost a lot of family members and lived in the colder and wilder north 50 years later. To oversimplify a lot, Jane Austen writes like a woman sitting in a drawing room with a wry smile, mocking the fake propriety of everyone around her and using wit to critique an era, while Bronte writes like a woman running wild on the moors, traipsing through mud, desperate for freedom.

There’s a lot more to it than that, but they’re not similar just because they’re both female authors from the 19th century.

Why female authors always write about male characters

If you’re asking why female authors include significant male characters in their work, well, it’s because men exist, so they should appear in fiction. If you’re asking why female writers often write about male protagonists, it’s because male protagonists are seen as more “mainstream,” so those books can be easier to sell to publishing houses, get good marketing budgets, and receive more acclaim. According to a lot of people, women are the subject of romance. Men are the subject of serious literature. So female authors who want to be taken seriously might decide that writing a male protagonist is the only way to succeed.

Why does work of fiction need female characters?

Because women exist, and unless you’re explicitly writing about a world where they don’t exist, and dealing with the consequences of that, then they should feature just as much as men do.

Is Katniss Everdeen black?

The books never specify Katniss’s ethnicity. She’s described as having “straight black hair, olive skin… [and] grey eyes.” Many readers interpret that as Katniss being hispanic, Native American or mixed race.

Books like The Fault in our Stars with a female protagonist

Try If I Stay by Gayle Forman, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, or Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall.

What episode was there a rape scene of Claire on Outlander?

Like, all of them. It’s a very rapey show.

Recommendation of video games

For some fun, feminist games, I recommend the newly-released Night in the WoodsLife is Strange, Undertale, or Long Live the Queen. Or, for a longer game, try the Dragon Age series.

Did Eliza burn Hamilton’s letters?

Hamilton’s letters to Eliza still survive, but we don’t have any of Eliza’s letters to Hamilton. Chernow’s biography (which inspired the musical) claims that Eliza destroyed them, although we don’t know when or why.

Problems with the Bechdel test

The Bechdel test is only useful for looking at general trends in media as a whole. It’s for saying “hey, look, Hollywood movies sure do lack female characters,” and not for measuring whether any particular movie is “feminist” or “unfeminist.” All it can tell you is whether there are women present in a movie. It tells you nothing about how those women are actually presented.

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Struggling with Sexism in East Asian Dramas

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When it comes to “problematic things I enjoy anyway,” my biggest guilty pleasure is East Asian dramas. Typically Japanese ones, as that’s the language that I (sort of) speak, but now I’ve started to study Chinese, I’ve added those to my viewing line-up too.

Most recently, I’ve been watching a very silly Taiwanese drama called Miss In Kiss, which is a remake of a remake of a Japanese manga called Itazura na Kiss, or Mischievous Kiss. The show’s tropey romcom set-up is pretty typical of these sorts of dramas — the girl (Xiang Yue, in this version) is in love with the smartest and most popular boy in school, but he dismisses her as too stupid to pay attention to. When her house is destroyed in an accident, she and her dad move in with her dad’s best friend and his family — including her crush. Misadventures ensue.

It can be a fun show to watch. The bright colors and zany adventures are definitely refreshing compared to a lot of western dramas. But the supposed love interest is consistently a cruel jerk to the protagonist, and any vague sign of decency on his part is treated as a Hint of True Love. Meanwhile, another guy decides that he has ownership over the protagonist, because he loves her, and so he calls her father “dad,” insists they’re basically married, and plans his life around “protecting” her and building comic schemes to kickstart their love.

If you’ve never seen East Asian drama, this sort of set-up is pretty par for the course. I’d love to argue that there’s some hidden feminism in watching these shows, but nope. Although not every drama is like this, many of them are, and whenever I watch them, it’s with the knowledge that I’m enjoying the lighthearted drama and practicing my language skills at the price of attempting to ignore pretty consistent narrative misogyny.

I’m not sure if it’s just because it’s been a while since I watched one of these dramas, but Miss in Kiss seems particularly bad. We’ve got the “they MUST be together” trope, despite the guy’s indifference and cruelty to her. We’ve got the forceful hand slamming into the wall beside her head (multiple times), the grabbing her by the wrist to pull her around (multiple times), the guy she’s not even interested in getting violent to protect her honor from the guy she likes (multiple times) and basically acting as a stalker (almost every episode). It’s a really messed up representation of romance. And sure, it’s a silly show. But it’s uncomfortable to dismiss those elements as “well, that’s just the genre,” even though, in many ways, that is the genre.

I hit my limit about 20 episodes in, when the “oh my god, are you kidding me??” elements overwhelmed any possible benefits, and I quit. I wouldn’t have even lasted that long if I didn’t desperately need the practice listening to fairly straightforward Chinese. But as I spent my days writing about feminism in media and spent my evenings watching this “lighthearted” but messed-up romance, it got me thinking, again, about what it means to watch something that you know is problematic. I don’t just watch these series for language practice. I enjoy them. I like the music, the bright colors, the often farcical plotlines, especially the epic melodramatic romantic moments. My favorite in college was Hana Yori Dango, which has such gems as “guy and girl get trapped in broken elevator” and “guy gets amnesia,” as well as the familiar arc of “guy is horrible to protagonist but actually they’re in love.” I watch for pure entertainment value, with bonus learning on the side. But I’ve watched many of them while studiously ignoring certain elements, and quit several when those elements got too much.

I think, for me, it depends how far the story takes these elements, and how integral they are to the plot. These dramas aren’t doing anything particular new with their sexist plots, and they’re not doing anything that feels like it was taken from the 19th century either. These are all very familiar tropes, in series full of familiar tropes. They fit comfortably in that context, so it’s much easier to ignore them and accept them as just part of that sort of show. And we are all experts at ignoring run-of-the-mill sexism in entertainment. It’s presented as normal, so we either take it as normal, or accept it as a price for watching whatever the most popular shows and movies of the day are.

And so, honestly, I’ve trained myself to accept a certain level of “weak girl, controlling guy” sexism in my East Asian dramas, just as I’ve trained myself to often watch American series with two brains — the “I’m enjoying this” brain, and the “critical thinking” brain. And the same divide comes into play here. If the sexism is emphasized too much, or plays too big a role, I may quit, but a certain level of it… well, if I was writing about the show, I’d analyze it to death, but if I’m just watching for light entertainment, I often accept it as an unfortunate price of admission. I don’t really think that’s a good thing, but perhaps it is a necessary one.

But if anyone has any recommendations for any cute but non-sexist dramas in Japanese or Chinese, I’m eager to hear about them! Especially if they’re on Netflix. 🙂

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The Legends of Catherine Howard

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It’s almost impossible to find fiction (or even non-fiction) about Catherine Howard that doesn’t paint her in an extremely negative light.

The historical facts, in brief, are like this: the teenage Catherine came to Henry VIII’s court as a maid in waiting to the new queen, Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Henry married Catherine very soon after annulling his marriage to Anne, who he considered dull and ugly, and was apparently besotted with Catherine. However, Catherine had an affair with a courtier called Thomas Culpepper, as well as an apparent prior engagement from before she came to court with a man called Francis Dereham. When Henry found out, she was locked up, stripped of her title of queen, and ultimately beheaded. And, for flavor, one of the most famous stories about Catherine tells us that she asked for the execution block the night before her beheading, so that she could practice how she would lay her head on the block.

I’ve read multiple novels set during her rise and fall now, including The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory, Gilt by Katherine Longshore, and the newly released Maid at the King’s Court by Lucy Worsley, which inspired this post. These books frequently tell the story from another character’s perspective — Gilt is about Catherine’s best friend, Kitty Tilney, while Maid at the King’s Court is about Catherine’s invented cousin, Elizabeth — and, inevitably, they all portray Catherine as incredibly vain and overambitious. She’s an idiot, overconfident, cruel to other characters, and full of her own self-importance. Manipulative, simpering, positively evil. Most importantly, she is completely responsible for her own rise and for her own ensuing downfall.

It’s a compelling narrative for both fiction and history to fall into. Catherine was a teenage girl who stepped above her station, acted recklessly and foolishly, and was punished for it. It’s easy to portray this as a cautionary tale, a story of a girl getting her just desserts, or, at its most sympathetic, a tale of Icarus, flying too close to the sun.

But this is also a narrative provided by people’s biases, not necessarily by history. It’s people looking at the facts in the most unsympathetic light, expecting Catherine, as the beheaded teen wife, to be somehow responsible for what happened. Catherine may have been charismatic and somewhat vain, but she was also only either 15 or 16 when she married the old and incredibly dangerous Henry. In the couple of years before this marriage, he had killed Anne Boleyn and many of his close courtiers, including his closest advisor, Thomas Cromwell. His fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, narrowly escaped a similar fate. The message in court was more than clear — don’t disagree with the king, don’t fail to give him what he wants, and don’t make any mistakes.

Meanwhile, Catherine Howard was the niece of Thomas Howard, Anne Boleyn’s uncle, the man who pursued Anne’s rise to facilitate his own rise to power, and then threw her to the wolves when she was no longer useful. He was partly responsible for bringing down Cromwell after Henry’s failed married to Anne of Cleves, with Catherine marrying Henry on the same day as Cromwell’s execution. And although many of Catherine’s relatives were locked up in the Tower during her downfall, Thomas Howard somehow managed to escape punishment. He used young female relatives for his own ambitions, and both of them ended up dead as a result, while he continued on.

So Catherine is about 15, in a family fighting for the power that they lost after Anne’s downfall. The king no one should ever disagree with likes her, she’s catapulted to a position of great influence, but one with certain caveats — keep the king happy at all costs and make sure you have a son. Is her rise and fall any surprise, in that context?

By all accounts, Catherine Howard was not a particularly nice person, but then, neither was Anne Boleyn. She was clearly charismatic, and perhaps vain and frivolous, but that doesn’t mean she deserved her own execution at 17. Yet people always suggest she married Henry because she was conniving and manipulative, and she fell because she was an idiot who got too confident in herself. Add in some historical slut-shaming, and you’ve got yourself a legend.

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Tangled: Before Ever After

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Disclaimer: Tangled is my favorite movie. Not just my favorite Disney movie. My favorite movie. So when Disney announced they were making an animated TV show, I was very excited and very skeptical. I couldn’t wait to watch it.

So, was it good? The short answer is yes. If you like Disney and cuteness and badass female characters, it is definitely worth a watch.

The series opens with an hour-long special set six months after the end of the movie. It’s finally time for Rapunzel’s coronation, but she’s feeling stifled by her “happily ever after.” She dreamed of being able to go and see the world once she left Mother Gothel’s tower, but instead, she’s locked up behind another wall for her protection, learning all the rules on how to be a good princess. After spending eighteen years with very little social interaction, she struggles to interact with strangers, as well to adapt to strange inventions like shoes, and clearly misses the one single day of adventure she had in the movie. She wants her escape from Mother Gothel to mean freedom, while her father sees it as a second chance to keep her safe.

Which leads to an interesting setup, because although the show does provide a more traditional villain, the real enemy is still Mother Gothel and the after-effects of her cruelty. Rapunzel’s father is terrified that something is going to happen to her again. Rapunzel is terrified of what happens when someone gets too much control over you and walls you off from the world. And the conflict between these two fears, and between Rapunzel’s dreams and the reality of “happily ever after,” appears to be the driving force of the series.

That said, the TV movie is a lot of fun as well. The writing is sharp and funny, and the animation is gorgeous, although the change in style takes some getting used to. Obviously, there’s a shift in feel as the story moves from the context of a feature length Disney movie to a TV cartoon, and so, despite what I mentioned above, it does often have the light tone similar to Disney’s mini-sequels like Frozen Fever. I’ve never really enjoyed those that much, but there are enough clever jokes and thoughtful emotional arcs here to make it work.

Not to mention the show’s great cast of female characters. I already love Cassandra, Rapunzel’s “lady in waiting” who has picked up a trick or two as the daughter of the captain of the guard. Rapunzel’s mother also gets her own backstory and important role to play, and even the one-off villain is the incredibly cool-looking Lady Caine.

The shippiness between Rapunzel and Eugene is also A+. No spoilers here, but… it’s so good, y’all. I especially like the contrasting perspectives of Rapunzel and Eugene. Eugene wants to stay in the palace forever, because he’s been out and seen the world, and struggled in it, and so this luxury and permanence is appealing. For Rapunzel, who has only ever been in one “safe” and comfortable place, the same set-up is stifling.

Oh, and did I mention Alan Menken is back to write songs for the show? I am obsessed with them already.

If you want a fun cartoon, I really recommend it. It’s clearly a kids’ show — we’re not talking Adventure Time here — but it’s really enjoyable to watch, at least so far. I could definitely see myself binge watching the first season after it all comes out, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m not going to be able to wait. It’s fun, it’s true to the movie, and it has songs by Alan Menken. I can’t wait for more.

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Twenty Years of Buffy

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Today is the twentieth anniversary of the start of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It is not the twentieth anniversary of me watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because I was a wimpy eight year old at the time, and when my parents watched the show, I would run through the living room with my hands clamped over my ears in case I heard anything too scary. My time with Buffy started with the launch of Season 6 in the UK, and I only started watching then because it aired at the same time as the new season of Friends, and my parents insisted that the family TV would show Buffy first, and Friends later. Two hours of sulky Buffy watching later, and I was in love.

I haven’t watched Buffy in years, and I’m almost scared to rewatch it now, because it meant so much to me as a teenager, and I don’t know how well it would hold up. A lot of things that felt progressive at the time feel outdated now, and I’m sure I could fill this site with musings on how terrible all the romances are, cringing at my past self’s shipping choices.

But it feels unfair to tear apart a favorite from 20 years ago without considering the hugely positive impact that it once had. I don’t know much about the TV landscape that Buffy launched into, because I was too young at the time, and, after FriendsBuffy was the first “grown up” TV show I watched. And fell in love with. And obsessed over.

But it was a genre show that put a powerful female character front and center. Thirteen-year-old me didn’t even realise how revolutionary that was, because Buffy just handed it to me. It gave me a protagonist who was a leader and a fighter, but who also felt like a real person, with a bunch of female friends who had different and complex relationships with one another, who had different strengths and powers, and who worked together to save the world.

I’m almost 100% sure I didn’t always get it. But in those years, the Scooby Gang were my greatest inspiration and comfort. They let me grow up in a TV landscape where female genre protagonists felt normal. Where magic and adventure and fighting bad guys and saving the world belonged to girls first, in my understanding of the fictional world. Of course, I eventually realised that wasn’t generally true, but the strength and the wit of these characters created a fictional “normal” for me that had a huge influence on me as a person and as a writer.

I rewatched it constantly. I bought the magazines. I had the script books. I read the junky companion novels and played the not-so-quality video games and went to the Buffy conventions, like the full-on nerd that I am. It taught me things about narrative and compelling storytelling, but it also taught me to love genre fiction, as my first obsession that was actually about female characters. Not Harry Potter, not Pokemon, not Lord of the Rings. Even if I wasn’t familiar with all the tropes that Buffy subverted, that subversion still provided me with a world to get lost in and a choice of capable and powerful female characters to look up to.

If it launched now, I’m sure I’d have lots to say about Buffy’s “faux feminism.” I’d be in fits of rage about how Charisma Carpenter was treated on Angel. The series doesn’t feel that progressive any more. But it did, and it was, at least to a 13 year old looking for a story to connect to. And Buffy is, in many ways, the impetus behind its own outdatedness. It inspired other female-led teen genre shows, a certain blend of wit and serious drama seen in series like Veronica Mars and the more recent iZombie. So many creators grew up on or were seriously influenced by Buffy. Writers and networks saw that female genre protagonists can lead successful series, that genre shows can be serious and thought-provoking, that the concerns of female teen viewers are worth exploring. The landscape has progressed over the past twenty years, becoming more progressive and more inclusive (although, obviously, still with many missteps), and that’s because of the work that Buffy started twenty years ago. It may not appear to be the revolutionary show that people promise to anyone stumbling across it now, but it has always been important to television, and it’s always been important to me.

Of course, now I’ve written this, I’m itching to rewatch and dig into the good, the bad, and the ugly of the show. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. But whatever I decide, I think it’s important to remember not just what Buffy is now, but what it was then. And that is a groundbreaking, inspiring, and influential series of female strength.

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The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

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The Bone Witch wasn’t at all what I expected. Although the cover is gorgeous, I wonder if it does a disservice to the book, because it implies a very different story from the one it contains. It may be the tone of the series as a whole, but it’s not the tone of this particular volume.

The Bone Witch has a Memoirs of a Geisha-esque set-up. The story is framed by a narrator, with a bard meeting our protagonist, Tea, in the future, but most of the action takes place in a sort of fantasy Kyoto, where asha — powerful female magic users who are also entertainers — live, train and perform. When Tea accidentally resurrects her brother and is discovered to be a Bone Witch, she’s quickly swept away from her village before the mob can kill her, and brought to this new world, where she must work her way up from servant to asha, while learning her magic, fighting people’s fear of her, and discovering the darker costs of her power.

While I picked up the book expecting epic fantasy and drama, it’s the quieter moments that work the best. The lessons, the training, the dresses, the friendships. Tea’s trials and successes. The book is far more world and character-based than I think the packaging implies, as that seems to reflect the ‘bone witch’ met by the bard, and not the one we spend most of the story with, but Tea has a great voice, and the setting means the story is packed with interesting and varied female characters.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot unsaid that needs more explanation, like why these female warriors are also entertainers at all. They use their magic for many things other than dancing, so why do they act like geisha? Or the fact that bone witches are persecuted, yet everyone is fascinated with Tea, to the point that she also seems genuinely popular. The book is full of interesting ideas that are not necessarily followed through or explored, either in the world building or in their impact on the plot. At least, not yet. As this is the first in a series, and the book’s ending implies a lot of drama in the future, perhaps this stuff will all be explored eventually.

But for now, I enjoyed the low-key nature of much of the book. If you’re looking for a book all about action and dark magic, this one might not satisfy, although it does have both. But if you’re looking for female-focussed fantasy that’s more focussed on life and character than on action, then it’s a promising, absorbing read, with a lot of potential for the future of the series.

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Unlikeable Rory Gilmore

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When I was a teen, I loved Rory Gilmore. She was one of my biggest fictional role models, along with Hermione Granger and Veronica Mars, a smart, driven, ambitious bookworm who wanted to learn everything there was to learn and then go out and change the world.

So it’s weird to rewatch the show’s later seasons as a 28 year old and wonder: how did Rory become to unlikeable to me?

At least, why did she become temporarily unlikeable. I made some notes for this post while watching Season 4, and I was so irritated by Rory that I almost quit the rewatch. Now I’m in late Season 6, and my feelings about Rory have changed again, back to far more positive ones, despite her privileged behavior.

And I think the difference is all about perspective. When her grievances seem legitimate (at least, for her age) and her efforts seem genuine, it’s easy to root for her. At Chilton, Rory was the outsider studying hard to achieve her dream. But the moment she steps into Yale, she loses that outsider status. She moves into a privileged position and yet acts like the things that were handed to her still aren’t enough, and it’s this, rather than the ambition and privilege itself, that makes her suddenly hard to like.

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Crazy Ex Girlfriend, the Non-Romantic Comedy

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Crazy Ex Girlfriend is not here for your Rom Com nonsense.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about how Crazy Ex Girlfriend is the best show you’re not watching, but to fully get into why, we have to dig deeper into spoiler territory. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is hilarious, heartbreaking and groundbreakingly feminist because of its attitude towards romance tropes and RomCom narratives — mainly, that they’re complete harmful BS, and need subverting as often as possible.

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