The queen is dead. Long live the queen.
Last week, Lupita Nyong’o triumphed in her internet-created rivalry with Jennifer Lawrence, walking home with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, the generally-agreed title of “best dressed” and the crown of most beloved Hollywood It Girl. Meanwhile, Jennifer Lawrence, who was the darling of the ball last year, walked home to mutters that ranged from teasing to scathing.
Lupita Nyong’o certainly deserves all of the praise she’s received. She is, after all, a gorgeous, talented and sophisticated woman who is fluent in four languages, writes and directs, and has an MFA from Yale. But can’t we admire one A List female actress without designating another to hate?
Last year, it was Jennifer Lawrence vs Anne Hathaway, with Jennifer Lawrence our designated heroine, as a down-to-earth girl of the people who shunned dieting and tripped on her way to the stage (but still looked gorgeous along the way), while the quieter, elegant Anne Hathaway was considered too try-hard and overall too thirsty for her Oscar. As far as I can tell, Anne Hathaway never did anything except eloquently speak against sexism a few times, but she was definitely the “witch” to Jennifer Lawrence’s beloved star.
But that was an entire twelve months ago, and like all previously beloved female stars, Jennifer Lawrence is now facing backlash. And, like all female stars, she can’t simply move back from “most beloved” status when another actress takes her place. She must instead be thrown into a position that varies from disdain to utter loathing. Last year, her trip on the Oscar stage was seen as adorable and endearing. This year, people insist that her stumble over a cone on the red carpet must have been staged, because no one could be genuinely clumsy twice. Last year’s “refreshingly real” is this year’s “totally fake.” Meanwhile, the media and the internet hyped up a rivalry with Lupita Nyong’o, with huge backlash against Jennifer Lawrence when she dared to win the Golden Globe over her 12 Years a Slave rival. People accused the Golden Globes of racism in its choice, but Jennifer Lawrence is hardly responsible for how people vote or which awards she receives. Yet a new Hollywood It Girl was rising, and so she had to fall.
The strangest part of the entire cycle is that Lupita Nyong’o is like Anna Hathaway. Both are elegant and soft-spoken, giving beautiful speeches and exuding a sophisticated Disney-princess-esque air. They both studied acting at university and have a background on the stage, and overall have a feminine glamor about them. Jennifer Lawrence, on the other hand, is more jokey and outspoken, tomboyish and seemingly more down-to-earth. Last year, everyone adored her untraditional attitude that seemed to rebel against the ridiculous standards of Hollywood, and hated Anne Hathaway for seeming to embrace those fake standards. But now, apparently, we’ve tired of rebellion and consider that fake, swinging back to wanting our favorite star to be feminine and sophisticated as well as talented.
I’m sure in 2015 we’ll be hating Lupita Nyong’o's “totally fake” style and praising a new tomboy instead. But maybe we could try, you know, not doing that? Wouldn’t it be awesome if more than one female actress was allowed to be praised at a time, and if we could love a variety of personalities at once? If we could swoon over Lupita Nyong’o's glamor and admire her amazing acceptance speech, while simultaneously relating to Jennifer Lawrence, and respecting and enjoying the talent of them both? Why must there only be one?
It’s almost that time of year again. Game of Thrones Season 4 starts airing in a month.
I’ve written about Game of Thrones every year since this blog started, and every year has been the same. I’ve been gleefully excited over some moments. I’ve been disgusted and horrified over others. I’ve talked about character assassination and the disturbing levels of misogyny, I’ve squeed and praised the show’s good elements, and overall I’ve questioned why a show that’s capable of getting things so right decides to mar its episodes each week with almost off-hand, completely unnecessary misogyny and racism.
I should probably quit the show, for the sake of my blood pressure. But I come back every year, because I love the books, and I love many of the actors (Lena Headey as Cersei! Sophie Turner as Sansa!), and I’m excited about many of the scenes to come. Every year, I summon up some desperate optimism, and every year I’m disappointed.
So here we go again. Season Four covers the second half of A Storm of Swords and some of the early parts of A Feast For Crows/A Dance with Dragons. And that means there are a lot of exciting things to look forward to. And a fair few things to worry about.
MAJOR SPOILERS for the books. Major. Don’t read if you don’t know how A Storm of Swords ends. Seriously.
This is the Oscars’ tribute video to heroes in film. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, Katniss Everdeen… they’re all there. But I doubt I’m the only one who noticed, as the montage continued, that the featured heroes were rather male. In fact, by my rather unscientific count, there were only 7 heroines appearing in the montage (8 if you count Pepper Potts, which I don’t, because she’s only there to kiss Iron Man), only one of whom appeared prominently twice (that being, of course, Katniss).
It was a very uncomfortable moment, and part of me wishes that the editors had included more famous female characters. But another part of me is glad that they made this omission. Sure, they could have filled this montage with Hermione Granger and Princess Leia and other well-known female characters, and I would have been excited to see it. But including them in the heroes montage would have covered up the fact that they’re not the heroes of their stories. Star Wars is about Luke Skywalker. Harry Potter is about Harry Potter. The women in the stories are great characters, but they’re also the sidekicks, the allies, the secondary protagonists at best. If we take “hero” to mean “the courageous character that the movie is ultimately about,” they don’t make the cut.
And so we have Katniss, Sandra Bullock in Gravity, and a group shot of the Avengers. And although I spent the minutes after the montage frowning at the screen, wondering why they cut to Emma Watson when she wasn’t featured at all, I think this is better than the filmmakers putting in whatever secondary female characters they can find. They did miss some popular female heroines — Mako Mori comes to mind — but not enough big protagonist names were omitted to have brought the count anything close to equal. And nothing reveals the sexism in the film industry more clearly and visually than trying to create a montage of heroic protagonists and realizing you don’t have any women to include.
Last year, I did a series on the classic Disney princess movies, analyzing them to see whether they are as traditional and anti-feminist as some people believe. In a couple of weeks, I’m going to revive the series with a look at movies from the Disney Renaissance. But first, I want to look at a non-Disney movie from that era that should be counted in the canon, for theme and animation and music and general awesomeness, if not for the studio that produced it.
Because Anastasia is a fantastic movie. Historical accuracy is not its forte, but it’s also not meant to be. It has zombie Rasputin singing about his hatred of the Romanovs from limbo with a backing choir of luminescent bugs. Clearly, some creative license is going on here. At its heart, Anastasia is an animated fairy tale, adding an optimistic, happily-ever-after, zombie-filled spin on one of the most popular romanticized myths of the 20th century: that the Princess Anastasia somehow survived the revolution and would one day reemerge and find happiness after an otherwise traumatic period of history.
And although it’s not a faithful presentation of Anastasia’s tale, I’d argue that it is a wonderful and feminist movie (as well as being just so darn fun and adorable).
I’m going to be on vacation for the rest of the week. In the meantime, here are a few links from around the internet in February.
The Daily Dots asks “Why does the man behind Doctor Who and Sherlock still have a job?”, with a devastating roundup of Moffat’s many sexist statements and actions over the years.
Donna Bray, from Balzer & Bray at HarperCollins, talks about the challenges of publishing diverse YA literature.
Meanwhile, Diversity in YA has updated its exploration of diversity in the Best Fiction for Young Adults lists for 2014.
Turns out, some famous sci-fi/fantasy authors really don’t like the idea of women writing in their genre.
From Tumblr: the importance of the unlikeable heroine.
Who gets to be a superhero? Race and identity in comics.
Last week, Emily emailed me, looking for recommendations for New Adult novels:
“I’m getting so very tired of reading NA novels that don’t pass the Bechdel test. I know that a story doesn’t necessarily have to pass the test to be a neat feminist read, but I’d still like to try something with a little more in-depth communication between the female characters.”
I wish I had a list of books to recommend. My own forays into the new adult genre have generally been incredibly disappointing. But it’s been several months since I checked in on things, and I’m really hopeful that, as the genre grows, more good stuff will emerge. So, does anyone have any feminist New Adult novels to recommend? Books with believable female characters who actually interact with one another?
For my part, a couple of books come to mind:
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. This is marketed and sold as YA, but it’s about a freshman in college, which I think puts it in the NA bracket. It’s about fandom, but it’s also about a girl with social anxiety as she struggles to find her place in college, including dealing with her somewhat belligerent but ultimately roommate and once-best-friend, now-acting-distant twin sister. A great read.
Brooklyn Girls by Gemma Burgess. I had mixed feelings about this book, because the protagonist was a bit ridiculous and parts of the plot were over the top and resolved far too easily. But it’s a new adult novel about a group of recent college grads, living together in Brooklyn and attempting to figure out life. It has a wide range of female characters, it’s a fun read, and when it nails life as an early twenty-something, it really nails it.
Just One Day by Gayle Forman. Another book that’s sold as YA but is about college. It’s fun and heartbreaking, and the fading high school friendship between two girls is one of the main themes.
Know Not Why by Hannah Johnson. This one is a rare Bechdel test despite being from the perspective of a male character. It’s about a guy who’s very dissatisfied with his life, gets a job at a craft store to find a girlfriend, and falls for the male manager instead. It’s funny and Gilmore Girls-y and fanfic-y and has a great cast of female characters, from the other employees to the protagonist’s best friend to his mom, the Jane Austen sequel writer. Recommended!
Let us know your New Adult recommends in the comments!
In case you haven’t heard, it’s cool to hate Taylor Swift.
And I mean hate. Really, really, really hate. That blonde hair, that red lipstick, those catching pop songs and the semi-retro styling… my god, the world has never seen a pop star so worthy of vitriol. The hatred is aggressive and disturbing.
And it really needs to stop.
I think there are two sides to this hatred of Taylor Swift. One very definitely comes from a deeply sexist space, where she’s criticized and dismissed as a manipulative dumb pretty girl who (gasp) writes songs about her own relationships. It feels mildly ludicrous to suggest that a rich and beautiful white girl is popularly hated because of those attributes, and she’s certainly better off than most other women as a result. But I think the fact that she looks like a perfect angelic blonde girly girl fuels a lot of the vitriol against her. She’s a pretty and feminine songwriter who demands our attention and asks for our respect. Of course our culture, which seems to spin a wheel every year and loathe whichever random female celebrities come up, has turned against her.
But the other side of Taylor Swift hate comes from feminist circles. It argues that she’s anti-feminist, because of the content of her songs and how she presents herself. There’s certainly more traction here, especially if you focus on her earliest album. But even arguments based on valid points reach a level of vitriol that’s frankly disturbing and seems based on an eagerness to tear her apart, rather than any desire to critique a successful female artist in a feminist way. And calling her a “feminist’s nightmare,” as Jezebel famously did in 2010, is, to put it frankly, ridiculous. She’s an incredibly successful performer who writes her own songs. It’s my feminist nightmare that successful women can be hated so violently by so-called feminists, based on such awful crimes as “she’s girly” and “she writes songs about boys.”
So let’s look at some of the reasons that Taylor Swift is despised.
Let’s talk about John Green and the NYT bestseller list, shall we?
I have no statistics, but based on time in bookstores, my own bookshelves, and the cohort of debut 2015 YA authors, I’d say that the majority of people writing YA are women. Unsurprisingly, it’s therefore often portrayed as a shallow, pointless genre, perpetuated by the “damned mob of scribbling women” that has been reviled by “serious” authors and readers since the 1800s at least.
But when it comes to bestseller status and critical acclaim, those women are all but invisible. Last week’s NYT bestseller list featured eight titles by men and two titles by women. This week’s only has one title by a woman, and that one in tenth place. And these two bold women on the bestseller list? Both of them have been seriously promoted by John Green, the male YA author who holds four out of ten places on the list right now. Rainbow Rowell, whose book Eleanor & Park was held the 10th spot last week, received a serious sales boost after John Green reviewed the book in the New York Times. Although the success was well deserved, it didn’t occur because of the book alone. And the other book by a female author, This Star Won’t Go Out, is a memoir that is so closely connected to John Green that I’m surprised the publishers didn’t write “The real story of the Fault in Our Stars” on the cover.
Of course, John Green’s domination of the list right now doesn’t end with his own books and those female authors he supports. Two spots on both lists are filled by Ransom Riggs, another author who has been heavily supported by John Green. The other books on the list are fairly old titles (at least in the world of YA), also written by male authors: The Book Thief, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Thirteen Reasons Why. I’m assuming The Book Thief has had a spike of popularity because of the movie. And The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Thirteen Reasons Why are in the John Green school of YA (or John Green is in the Perks of Being a Wallflower school of YA) — dark and angsty contemporary YA novels about death, depression and other such things, usually with a male protagonist and written by a man.
How can this be the case in a genre that’s supposedly “dominated” by women? How can the bestsellers of a genre that is mostly read by female readers, written by female writers, and about female characters by 90% written by male authors, with 7/9 of the novels starring a male protagonist?
The obvious and easy answer, of course, is The Fault in Our Stars. Combine John Green’s internet presence (nearly 2 million Youtube subscribers) with the fact that The Fault in Our Stars mixes romance, angst and cancer to create the perfect emotional smash hit, and it’s understandable that the book went nuclear in popularity, that people then bought John Green’s backlist of books, and that they pick up books with his endorsement on the cover. But The Fault in Our Stars simply isn’t that good. Not that it isn’t good, of course. But it isn’t head and shoulders above other YA novels, even those within the same subcategory. There are many novels by female authors that fit a similar bill and are just as emotional and accomplished, if not more so. Books by Gayle Forman. Courtney Summers. Sara Zarr.
Other women have held prominent places in the bestseller list — Stephenie Meyer and Veronica Roth, to name two. But I don’t ever recall seeing this sort of domination. Or consider Cassandra Clare, whose initial success could be attributed to her fame in the old world of Harry Potter fandom. She’s had NYT bestselling titles, certainly. But sticking a recommendation from her on the front of a book isn’t going to catapult it to success.
Another easy answer is that successful female authors write series, while men are more likely to write standalone books. All of those bestselling female authors I just named are genre series writers. And if you look at the NYT bestselling children’s series list this week, 6 out of 10 authors are women. But there are a couple of very uncomfortable implications here. The NYT added a children’s bestseller list in 2000 because Harry Potter had dominated the list for a couple of years and seemed to be getting a greater hold with each new release. I also have the sense that the series list is an even more recent invention of the NYT (although my google search hasn’t brought up any dates), shifting books that would otherwise hold places on the main list (currently including Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, The Hunger Games series and The Mortal Instrument series, which has more than three books — the criteria for a “series” — but is incomplete) onto a secondary list, and gathering several successful books by female authors into one single item. John Green writes standalones, so he can hold four places on the list. These successful female authors do not, so they can only hold one.
So firstly, genre novels are more likely to be series, and more likely to be moved off the main list. But the greater problem is the idea that female authors only write genre. That the women are writing dystopia or vampires, and the men are writing the serious literary stuff about cancer and war and death. But this is also patently untrue. For every John Green book, there are many similarly wonderful, literary, contemporary YA novels written by women. I named just a few of the authors who are writing them above. And yet, unless they’re promoted by John Green, they don’t feature. And The Book Thief is fabulous, but where is Code Name Verity or Between Shades of Grey or other similar amazing WWII novels with female authors?
I don’t have any answers to these questions. Perhaps it’s because books by male authors are marketed differently. Perhaps it’s because of crossover appeal to adult readers (after all, The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t look like YA). There are a million potential “perhaps,” and I’m not really in a position to pick out a definitive answer. But the questions definitely need to be asked. And, considering John Green’s presence on Tumblr and Youtube, it’s something that I wish he’d weigh in on. Not because it’s his fault, and not because he has the answers, but because his words seem to carry more weight than anybody’s in YA right now. And this is something that needs to be talked about.
If you haven’t read Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, and you like fairy tales, science fiction, YA, or just good books, run out and get the first book, Cinder, immediately.
If you’ve already read the first two books in the series, then Cress is a great addition. In this third book in the series, we see Cinder, Scarlet, Wolf and Captain Thorne continue to fight to stop Levana’s wedding to Emperor Kai, while also meeting Cress, a Lunar shell who has spent the last seven years alone on a satellite, spying on Earthen leaders and concealing Lunar ships. Yet Cress’s hacking skills go far beyond anything that her captors imagine, and although she’s been ordered to find Cinder, she’s been concealing her ship, in the hope that she’ll be able to stop Levana and possibly even rescue Cress in the process.
Warning: the overarching Queen Levana plot mostly pauses for the middle 50% of the book, where the story mostly focusses on retelling the Rapunzel fairy tale. As all the other plotlines are mostly paused for various reasons, I actually found myself frustrated when chapters returned to Cinder’s perspective, since I got pretty invested in Cress’s story.
Cress is an adorable character. I think some people might take issue with her, because she’s very much the naive damsel, but I absolutely love her. She’s a romantic daydreamer who develops a massive crush on Captain Thorne before she ever meets him, but her whole narrative plays with this idea of being a damsel in distress with the handsome hero who rescues her, and the result, at least to me, is pretty darn fulfilling.
And Cress is very much not a “Strong Female Character (TM).” Instead, she mixes strengths and weaknesses, silliness and awesomeness to be a very compelling and believable female character. My favorite kind! She dreams that her life will be like some epic drama, she’s melodramatic as all hell, and she gets through frightening moments by make-believing that she’s an actress or an adventurer, which is, I think, a totally fun and valid way of dealing with fear. She is very girly, loves twirling in gorgeous dresses and imagining romance, but she’s also a real badass hacker, combining “shallow girly” traits and “nerdy masculine” traits into one totally original, totally believable character. And although she’s forced to wait for rescue in her satellite, she’s hardly the kind who sits back and lets other people do all the hard work for her. She’s never going to be running headfirst into battle, but she’s fierce and brave in her own way.
It also seems fitting that I’m writing this review on Valentine’s Day, because Cress definitely ups the series’ romantic stakes, and the story between Cress and Captain Thorne is laugh-out-loud and swoonworthy in equal measure. If you like your fairy tale retellings with Han Solo-esque heroes and hilarious melodramatic declarations of “I’m going to die and I’ve never been kissed, this is the biggest tragedy in the history of the world!”, then step right up. “Do you think fate brought us together?” Cress asks at one point. “No, I’m pretty sure it was Cinder,” Thorne replies. I’m in love.
In short, The Lunar Chronicles is still a fab fairy tale series. The only downside? The next and final book, Winter, is now a year away.
One of the first posts I ever wrote for FeministFiction was about the dearth of women in BBC comedy panel shows. I don’t know whether it’s exciting or depressing to say that, almost two and a half years later, something has finally changed. The BBC has now announced that they will no longer make any panels shows without any female guests.
It’s frustrating that, in 2014, the BBC has to actually make a rule banning all-male line-ups, and that they’ve warned that shows made or planned before this ruling may still lack any women whatsoever, but hey. At least it’s progress. Sort of.
Because as Michele Hanson points out in the Guardian, having one token woman in screen isn’t exactly an achievement. QI has five people on screen each week (including a male regular and male presenter). Would I Lie To You has seven (including two male regulars and a presenter), as does Mock The Week. So women are now guaranteed to make up 14% of the people on those shows. That’s not far from 17%, which is a number that’s been discussed quite a lot recently — as the percentage of women in crowd scenes in movies, a percentage that is perceived as a 50/50 split.
So yes, the BBC’s decision is progress, and that’s good. But it’s hardly good enough.