Race in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt


What’s the line between racist stereotypes and social commentary? To what extent can discrimination be a source of comedy? Is it OK to use exaggerated racial stereotypes when all the characters are exaggerated stereotypes? Are some things too serious for quirky comedy?

These are the questions that ran through my head as I finished watching Tina Fey’s new Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt over the weekend. Because while Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is adorable and hilarious and has some really cutting commentary mixed in, it’s also got a big problem with race. Or a little problem with race. Or… no problem with race. Everyone seems to disagree.

For my part, I’m pretty sure Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt stumbled over the line of send-up vs racism and faceplanted straight into offensiveness, no matter how pointed and deliberate it seemed to be. It is, as the Daily Dot said, “hipster racism,” using self-awareness and “irony” to excuse the perpetuation of offensive stereotypes without really challenging them at all.

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The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma


“Ori’s dead because of what happened out behind the theater, in the tunnel made out of trees. She’s dead because she got sent to that place upstate, locked up with those monsters. And she got sent there because of me.”

The Walls Around Us is a ghostly story of suspense told in two voices–one still living and one long dead. On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement. On the inside, within the walls of a girls’ juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom. Tying these two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries.

I love books with unlikeable female characters. I love books where all their cruelty and their flaws and their raw anger are open for the reader to see. I especially love books with female characters that challenge you not to like them, but who you somehow end up feeling for anyway.

The Walls Around Us is a book of these characters. Half-set in a juvenile detention center for girls who have committed serious crimes, half set in the outside world of star ballerina Violet, it’s full of angry, uncertain, unstable, painfully vivid characters.

The novel is told through two voices — the ballerina, Violet, and long-time young convict, Amber. Three years ago, Violet’s best friend Orianna was found guilty of murder and locked up upstate, where she became Amber’s cellmate. Through Amber’s story of three years ago and Violet’s story of now, we learn what really happened to Orianna, but, more significantly, we learn who these girls really are. Both characters are unreliable narrators, lying to others, lying to themselves, obscuring details and imagining how they would prefer things to be. Things are left unsaid, dark topics are avoided, and the novel’s real focus is getting under all these layers to reveal the truth, or as close to it as we can get.

Nova Ren Suma has an enviable literary voice that is as gorgeous as it is easy to read. Always beautiful, never self-conscious, it pulls you into the story and refuses to let you go until long after you’ve turned the final page.

Because of the nature of the book, I can’t really talk about the plot beyond what I’ve said, because all of the twists and the drama are internal, and they’re revealed slowly, piece by piece. It’s a book of creeping dread, not one of monsters leaping out of the dark.

My only issue with the book was the ending, where things went from subtly supernatural to totally supernatural, and the plot wrapped up far too neatly for such a complicated and emotionally messy book. But that doesn’t change how beautiful and challenging the rest of the book is, or how its characters and plot line hit me in the gut again and again.

A must read.

Anita Sarkeesian: What I Couldn’t Say

Last week, Anita Sarkeesian spoke at the All About Women conference in Sydney about how almost three years of harassment has affected her life and what she’s been unable to say to those who target her. In it, she talks about how death threats become routine, how she’s forced to suppress any emotional reaction at risk of being seen as “hysterical” and further discredited, how she can no longer use humor in her work, how she has to watch herself wherever she goes.

As far as I know, this is the first time Anita Sarkeesian has talked so openly about the impact that her harassment has had on her. It’s a powerful and important speech, and at only four minutes long, I think everyone should take the time to hear it.

I also think it’s important to remember why Anita Sarkeesian has been continually harassed and threatened, both on and offline, for almost three years.

She made a Kickstarter to fund a new incarnation of her Tropes vs Women series, Tropes vs Women in Video Games.

That’s it. That’s what led to not only to an avalanche of rape and death threats every week (as if that wasn’t enough), but also to bomb and mass shooting threats against her speaking engagements, a flash game where you get to beat her up, and threats against her family that drove them out of their home. She thought she had something worth saying, and she thought others might be willing to fund her to say it. And as she wanted to talk about sexism, and specifically sexism in video games, that was deemed worthy of literally years of constant harassment.

I’ve included a transcript of her speech below the cut.

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Under A Painted Sky by Stacey Lee


Stacey Lee’s debut novel Under A Painted Sky came out yesterday, and everyone needs to go and read it. Right now.

I promise, you’ve never read a book like this before. It’s a diverse, feminist western Young Adult novel, about a Chinese-American violinist called Samantha and a runaway slave called Annamae, disguised as boys and on the run on the Oregon Trail.

Going into this, I knew pretty much nothing about the Oregon Trail. I’d never read or watched a western in my life (Firefly excluded). So when I started the book, I was both really excited by the unique concept, and not entirely sure if it was for me. But honestly, this book is amazing. The prose is lyrical yet readable, the historical details are vivid and absorbing, and the characters all feel incredibly real.

At its heart, Under a Painted Sky is a story of female friendship, of two girls protecting one another and fighting against the odds for survival. It’s also a massive challenge to the idea that historical fiction is allowed to be an all-white genre, that the 19th century doesn’t have space for interesting stories about female characters or minorities, let alone about female minorities.

And it’s also simply a gripping story, beautifully told. Go pick up a copy. You won’t regret it.

Revisiting Tyrion Lannister


I’ve been writing on Feminist Fiction for over three years now, and that means there are some pretty old opinions floating around here that still get read fairly frequently (especially if they happen to be about Sansa Stark). Usually I let those posts and opinions stand as they were and clarify things in the comments if I feel the need, but there’s one that I want to revisit.

After reading this post on ASOIAF University, I’ve been thinking about an old article from 2012, The Misogyny of Tyrion Lannister. In it, I talk about how Tyrion is a subversion of the underdog trope, in part through his deep-seated misogyny that grows throughout the series.

One thing that I don’t mention, except vaguely through the terms of the “underdog trope,” is how Tyrion’s situation is shaped by ableism. Although Tyrion does benefit from Lannister riches and status, his entire life has been affected by people’s negative reactions to him and his disability. His father doesn’t want him as an heir. His sister has always been awful to him. People constantly villainize him, even when he’s saving their lives. If he’s bitter and hateful, it’s because the people around him made him that way.

The ASOIAF University post criticized the article on Tyrion for dismissing the discrimination that Tyrion faces and turning a complex issue into one purely about male entitlement. And I have to say, I’m not entirely happy with my original post, upon rereading it now. Some of the phrasing is problematic and I sacrificed some nuance in favor of arguing against the strongly pro-Tyrion stance that was everywhere at the time. But I really want to talk about this idea of ableism vs misogyny, and the suggestion that the existence of one excuses or negates the other.

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The Case for More Female Characters

When writing a female character, sometimes you really can’t win.

If she’s quiet and unsure, she’s too weak. If she’s a fighting badass, she’s either a Strong Female Character (TM) or a Mary Sue. If she has stereotypically feminine traits, she’s suggesting that girls can’t have masculine traits, and if she has stereotypically masculine traits, she’s suggesting that feminine traits are bad. Even a well-conceived and well-written female character can become trapped in “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” criticism, where any choice is scrutinized for what it Says About Women.

It’s enough, I’m sure, to put many writers off trying. Why include a female character when you’ll just be criticized anyway and nothing you do will ever be good enough? Better to avoid the whole issue.

But people who flinch from this kind of criticism miss the most important part. “When writing a female character.” A character. Just one.

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Questions from Google

It’s always fascinating to dive into the “search terms” area of this site’s statistics. A lot of people find Feminist Fiction through a good old-fashioned search of “title/character name + feminism,” and a scarily large number of other people stumble confused here after Googling weird misogynistic things. But among all that, there are always questions. Lots and lots of questions, about Game of Thrones, about feminism, about where to find illegal copies of books (again, those people were pretty lost when they ended up here).

So here are the answers to some of the questions on Google’s mind this February:

1. Why was HIMYM problematic?

How I Met Your Mother was a fun show, but wow did it screw up in the end. There are too many things to quickly summarize, but:

  • It turned Barney from a playboy who wanted “legendary” adventures into someone solely obsessed with tricking women into sleeping with him, and it did so after he had genuine three-dimensional character development, so that he no longer seemed like a parody of a bro pick-up artist and instead seemed like a character we were supposed to like non-ironically.
  • It erased Robin’s personality for the benefit of her “romantic” plotlines, and ended with her pining for the guy she rejected years and years before.
  • All women want children. Even those who say they don’t.
  • The racism. Oh god, the racism.

2. Is Long Live the Queen game feminist?

I mean, it’s a fairly short and simple game, so it’s hard for it to have overt feminist themes, but Long Live the Queen IS a great game, with lots of powerful female characters, and where you’re just as likely to win with poise and singing ability as you are with sword-fighting and military strategy.

3. Is Tyrion the villain?

I don’t think so. I think it goes against the point of Game of Thrones to have one “villain” character. He does some cruel, perhaps even villainous, things, but you can’t dismiss his complex psychology as just being a “villain” and call it a day. If anything, I think he’s a commentary on the anti-hero trope, where the dismissed underdog doesn’t triumph, but ultimately is so broken by his circumstances and how others treat him that he actually becomes more and more like the horrific person they all think him to be.

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Gone Girl: Trope Busting, Liars and the Feminism of Horrible People


Note: this post is just about the movie version of Gone GirlI’ve yet to read the book, so any differences between the two versions or adaptation-related criticisms are totally lost on me.

Before finally seeing Gone Girl this past weekend, I had heard it described as every incarnation of “feminist” and “anti-feminist” under the sun. It was “feminist” because Strong Female Character. It was “feminist” because it showed how psychotic feminists want to treat men. It was “anti-feminist” because all the women in the movie are awful or because it made Nick sympathetic and Amy unsympathetic. It was “misogynistic” because it portrayed the kind of villainous female character that anti-feminists imagine most women to be. And on and on and on.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that Gone Girl didn’t fit any of those descriptions. Gone Girl is not a “feminist story,” in the sense that Amy is a feminist character, although I think it does have some intriguing feminist angles hidden inside it. And it’s not an “anti-feminist” story, in a “women are lying psychopaths and we should all feel sorry for Nick” sort of way. It’s far too surprising and morally complicated for both of those readings.

It is, in essence, a story about a whole bunch of really horrible people, doing horrible things to one another. It eschews every narrative and character trope we know, and it uses those tropish expectations to outwit both the viewer and the characters themselves. No one fits into the simple boxes that we might like to place them in. If you read Amy as a representation of “women” as a whole, you’re missing the point, just as you’re missing the point if you see Nick as a victim, or, god forbid, Amy as a Strong Female Character.

Unless, of course, you’re reading Amy as a criticism of a Strong Female Character (TM). Because if Gone Girl has any message to convey about female characters or about people in general, it’s that none of them are as straightforward or as good as you would like to believe.

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The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury


The Sin Eater’s Daughter is a fascinating book. The protagonist, Twylla, is the gods’ chosen, a girl who can survive poison and kill with a single touch. Isolated from everyone because of her powers, she executes the kingdom’s traitors on the gods’ behalf and is destined to marry the prince, despite her commoner status.

But Twylla is afraid of the cruel queen who dictates her every move, and she resents both her role as executioner and the way that everyone else fears her. When she begins to question first her safety under the queen’s rule and then her entire role as the gods’ chosen killer,

I can’t really discuss what I loved about this book without revealing massive spoilers. The story takes some exciting twists, and one plot development in particular provided a wonderful opportunity for some great character depth. The book in general is a fantastic exploration of questions of duty and self-sacrifice and personal responsibility, and although the evil queen is somewhat two-dimensional, Twylla and her mother are both fully realized and challenging characters. Their broken relationship, and each of their attitudes to fate and responsibility, are definitely the most powerful parts of the book.

One big downside was the romance. The main couple in The Sin Eater’s Daughter does have chemistry and some interesting moments, but overall I couldn’t buy into their Epic Love — and since their “we love one another but can’t be together” relationship is key to many parts of the plot, that was a bit of an issue.

Still, The Sin Eater’s Daughter is definitely worth reading, for the intriguing concept and unusual female protagonist alone. Romance aside, it provides something different and delicious to the YA fantasy genre, and anyone who would like a gripping and thought-provoking read should definitely give it a try.