28 June 2012

The Travelling Fantasy Round Table : Part 4 : Sexuality in Fantasy

Part 4 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, our roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature, is up at Deborah J Ross' blog.  This month we're looking into sexuality in fantasy.

17 June 2012

Brave

No spoilers till marked point.

Brave has many great points.  It's fun, funny, has a wonderful main character who is vivid and alive, and some personal growth going on.  It's also beautiful to look at, lovely music, and quite touching in its conclusion.  It's not without some problematic worldbuilding/issues with its use of women, so it falls down a little when you start to pick at it, but I recommend letting yourself have fun with it, enjoy the story...and pick it apart later. ;)

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Okay, so about those problems. 

Brave, as everyone's sure to know by now, is the first Pixar movie featuring a female main character, and it even revolves around the character's relationship with her mother.  Merida, boistrous ball of fiery curls, loves nothing more than archery and racing about having fun and being daring.  Her issues with her mother revolve around her mother wanting her to behave in ways Merida finds boring ('like a princess').  The breaking point of the relationship is a 'tradition' where the sons of the various lords get to compete for the princess's hand in marriage - something which they've neglected to tell Merida about till the last moment.

Merida wins the competition for her own hand, leaves all the lords upset and at each other's throats, has a fight with her mother, slashes a family tapestry her mother has just completed, and races off into the forest, where will-o-wisps lead her to a witch (amusingly pretending to be a woodcarver, because the witching never works out).  Buying a spell "to change her fate by changing her mother", Merida returns with a cake, which she offers to her mother.  Her mother eats it, turns into a bear, and Merida has to race to find a way to undo the spell before either the clans descend to war, or her mother is killed in bear form.

There are some positive sides to bear form, however.  Taking away her mother's ability to speak, and forcing her out into the forest which is Merida's playground, leads to some quality mother-daughter bonding time, and the risk to her mother certainly reminds Merida that she loves her mother.

However - in this female-led story, we have the following women:

- Merida - fantastic at what she does, full of action and adventure, brave and true.

- Merida's mother - loves her family, but completely focused on her idea of how Merida should be as a princess, blinded by some thought of keeping up tradition.

- The Witch - amusing (and not evil) but not exactly a major player (and, of course, incompetently selling spells of the 'careful what you wish for' variety).

- A maid/cook whose only dialogue is to shriek "BEAR!" and is what I think of as a "chicken woman": clucks about, always getting in or out of the way, comedically frightened (and further comedy in her enormous decolletage).

Merida has no female friends - nor any female rivals or enemies.  The three clans which come to vie for Merida's hand bring no women with them.  No women are shown in the feasting hall except for Merida and her mother.  There are 'background women' in the halls - servants primarily - and some women visible in passing at the outside events, but they don't speak and have no impact on the story.  So what we have is an exceptional woman and her Mum story.

The worldbuilding fail is made clear toward the end of the story, when Merida is stepping up into her mother's diplomat/princess role, and stopping the fighting between the clans by reminding them how their kingdom was formed.  And suddenly that whole tradition issue which is a foundation of the plot falls over, because the kingdom was formed a couple of decades ago by Merida's father as one of four clan leaders, who saved each other's lives fighting off a common enemy.  They decided Merida's Dad would make a good king and united to form a kingdom.

So where the hell did this 'tradition' that the clan leaders' sons compete to marry the princess come from?

[Note: an alternate explanation is that Merida's mother was the only child of the previous ruler, and that the decision was not to form a kingdom, but to allow Merida's father to marry Merida's mother.  In either case, the only person seen to care about the tradition is Merida's mother, who actively invites the clan leaders to come compete.]

And, oh look, none of the sons of the clan leaders want the tradition either!  And the clansleaders are big softies who will agree to dumping the 'tradition' after a rousing speech.  This non-tradition must have been something which Merida's father agreed to with his clan leader buddies when his first child was a daughter, not a son.  Merida's father doesn't even seem keen to tell her about it - he's never the bad guy in this ever, never anything but indulgent, while Merida's mother gets to be the disciplinarian.

And there we come to the problem in this story - the only 'bad guy' is Merida's mother.

The only pressure we ever see for Merida to behave "like a princess" is from her mother.  Her father doesn't seem to want to enforce any kind of princessish behaviour on her.  None of the servants/clanspeople show any sign of being distressed or offended or outraged that she races around with arrows.  They're boisterous clanspeople!  One wouldn't be surprised if they cheered at her skills at archery and her ability to ride madcap through the forest!  Even the witch isn't a bad person.  The only person who acts negatively in the entire story (besides a bear) is Merida's mother.

One could argue that Merida also acts negatively - she basically poisons her mother and shows an incredible lack of concern while her mother appears to be poisoned - but Merida's negative actions are entirely a response to her mother's restrictive behaviour.

This is a misnamed movie, really.  Merida - everyone except chicken-woman really - is shown to already be brave, and we don't see Merida overcoming fear in this story, we see her remembering she loves her mother - that there was a time when her mother was much nicer to her, before she got all tight-assed about princessy behaviour.  A more descriptive title for the movie would be: Mum Needs to Lighten Up.  Because that's the big progression - Merida's mother lightens up, corrects her restrictive behaviour, and all is well again.

It wouldn't take much to fix this movie.  Show the father as insisting on the 'tradition' instead of always the good guy.  Show her mother under pressure from the expectations of people about her daughter's bad behaviour.  Make the story not just about the restrictions on Merida, but on other girls.  Give Merida a bunch of little rapscallion girlfriends to race through the forest with - make her a Peter Pan with her own set of Lost Girls.  Show the kingdom is broken because of restrictions not just on Merida, a princess, but on expectations placed on all girls, so that Merida is truly 'brave' going her own way instead of falling in with those expectations.

Instead, this is just a story about an exceptional girl whose Mum finally lightened up.

13 June 2012

Tomb Raider reboot: One Less Game to Play

Back when a Playstation first came into our household, I played a lot of Tomb Raider.  Yes, Lara had silly proportions, but the puzzles were fun, she had unflappable attitude, said cool things in a neat accent, and it was a change to play a female character who could hold her own.  I played her through many different incarnations, and a while back I saw a little animation for a reboot origin story.

And it was kinda skeevy.  Doe-eyed torture porn skeevy.

Wait for the game, I figured.  Probably just a bad clip.  But then this interview surfaces:
But in the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot, things will be different. She hasn't become that woman yet. And executive producer Ron Rosenberg says you'll want to keep her safe.

"When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character," Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist.

"They're more like 'I want to protect her.' There's this sort of dynamic of 'I'm going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'"

So is she still the hero? I asked Rosenberg if we should expect to look at Lara a little bit differently than we have in the past.

"She's definitely the hero but— you're kind of like her helper," he said. "When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character."

The new Lara Croft isn't just less battle-hardened; she's less voluptuous. Gone are her ridiculous proportions and skimpy clothing. This Lara feels more human, more real. That's intentional, Rosenberg says.

"The ability to see her as a human is even more enticing to me than the more sexualized version of yesteryear," he said. "She literally goes from zero to hero... we're sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again."

In the new Tomb Raider, Lara Croft will suffer. Her best friend will be kidnapped. She'll get taken prisoner by island scavengers. And then, Rosenberg says, those scavengers will try to rape her.

"She is literally turned into a cornered animal," Rosenberg said. "It's a huge step in her evolution: she's forced to either fight back or die."
This is causing a bit of a furore, and I'm one of the many crossing this game off the play list.  Some say "wait for the game, it mightn't be as bad as it sounds", and to that I offer up a little word substitution game:

"When people play Master Chief, they don't really project themselves into the character," Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a male protagonist.

"They're more like 'I want to protect him.' There's this sort of dynamic of 'I'm going to this adventure with him and trying to protect him.'"

So is he still the hero? I asked Rosenberg if we should expect to look at Master Chief a little bit differently than we have in the past.

"He's definitely the hero but— you're kind of like his helper," he said. "When you see him have to face these challenges, you start to root for him in a way that you might not root for a self-reliant character."

The new Master Chief isn't just less battle-hardened; he's less muscled. Gone are his ridiculous proportions and all-covering armor. This Master Chief feels more human, more real. That's intentional, Rosenberg says.

"The ability to see him as a human is even more enticing to me than the more idealized version of yesteryear," he said. "He literally goes from zero to hero... we're sort of building him up and just when he gets confident, we break him down again."

In the new Halo, Master Chief will suffer. His best friend will be kidnapped. He'll get taken prisoner by island scavengers. And then, Rosenberg says, those scavengers will try to rape him.

"He is literally turned into a cornered animal," Rosenberg said. "It's a huge step in his evolution: he's forced to either fight back or die."

Would you wait for that game?  I think I'll pass.  Thanks.

07 June 2012

Prometheus

Spoilers after the second paragraph.

Overall this is a brilliantly filmed, badly plotted story which is beautiful to look at, but fails to make you care about any of the characters, or really produce any noteworthy SF-nal musings.  It's worth watching, but isn't a re-watch movie.

The story focuses on Elizabeth Shaw, whose father (a devout Christian) died of ebola (and whose mother, as usual, was off the scene even earlier).  Shaw appears to be a variety of Raelian (someone who believes that humans were created or uplifted by aliens) and has discovered a series of images from many different cultures across many years showing humans worshipping a larger humanoid, and also what amounts to a star map.  She believes this is an invitation to go visit humanity's creators, and convinces the head of Weyland Corp to fund a scientific expedition.

There's no indication as to why Shaw believes humanity was created by aliens, or why she thinks the creatures pictured being worshipped are aliens instead of gods.  The same configuration of dots does suggest some link between the images (which were created thousands of years apart) but why not as visitors rather than creators?  [Or as actual Prometheans, teaching humanity.]  Tellingly, Shaw wears her father's cross, and when asked about the contradiction of beliefs, remarks that she might believe humans were created by what she called the Engineers, but that does not answer who created the Engineers.  Shaw comes across as a very nice fanatic - hopeful, naive and obsessed.

The story's second protagonist, if it could be said to have one, is David.  The question I expect most viewers will be wondering is whether David is a Bishop or an Ash - good robot or bad robot.  We see him spying on Shaw's dreams while in cryostorage (making us all wonder why the hell she's _dreaming_ in _cryostorage_), (inexplicably) eating a meal he doesn't need, playing basketball on a bicycle, and watching Lawrence of Arabia - clearly modelling himself after Lawrence.  Given Lawrence's story, this may either signal that he considers himself something of an alien among those around him, or that he has divided allegiences.

David fits into the creation story as the creation of the creation.  If the Engineers made humans, humans have then made him.  But he is an imperfect creation, without emotion, as Holloway (Shaw's boyfriend-colleague) insists on rubbing in at every opportunity.  This particular David is referenced by a hologram of Weyland as his son.  David dutifully wakes the humans up and is helpful and yet oddly passive aggressive - constantly making comments which drift through the edges of insult.

Once everyone is woken, we have several distinct groups.  Shaw and Holloway, shiny-eyed idealists.  The Crew (Idris Elba as Captain, and a few other people, just doing their job).  Meredith Vickers, Company Woman, who seems to serve no purpose on the mission beyond being annoyed by it, and hating David.  A Lot.  Two token scientists - a geologist and what I think must have been a biologist.  In the debriefing, it appears that many of these people have never met before, because there's nothing more logical than sending people to explore planets without telling them that beforehand.

They land.  They find an underground installation.  They set out to investigate.  And here's where the plot and logic begins to fall apart.  There's the usual idiocy of "this is a scientific mission, we don't need guns" which suggests that Shaw has no concept of, say, tigers in the jungle.  David is clearly doing all sorts of stuff outside "look around, don't touch anything".  The token scientists snark and quail, are surly and then stomp off as soon as things look worrying.  Naturally, despite the computer generated mapping technology and the fact that their positions show up on it clearly, they get lost.  They Get Lost.  And nobody notices!

Scary chamber of goo is located.  David secretly takes goo sample.  Head of dead alien is brought back, and theoretically establishes that these very tall, white-skinned, black-eyed people have the near-same DNA as humans, thus somehow proving that they made us...  'kay...?

Unnecessary storm drama.  Someone finally notices token scientists are stuck in the alien installation overnight, until the storm dies.  What the two token scientists get up to, alone overnight and weaponless, is so unspeakably idiotic I can't even bring myself to detail it.

Why do they send such stupid people on trillion dollar scientific missions?

To untangle what's going on afterward, it's fairly clear at around this point that Weyland has brought himself along in cryostorage, hoping for a jolt of immortality from humanity's "creators", and is ordering David to investigate on his own, and do little experiments like give some black goo to Holloway to drink, to see what happens.  [Which leads to yet another variation of alien baby, and Shaw having an emergency caesarian and then doing tons of dramatic running about afterwards.  Shaw is superwoman.]

David finds one last Engineer still alive in stasis, and removes Weyland from cryostorage to take him down to wake the Engineer and ask for some immortality plz.  Vickers, his daughter, thinks this is suicidal but she's obedient to his commands, as is David and the rest of the crew.  The behaviour of everyone at this point is surreal - Shaw is running around all bloody after her self-inflicted caesarian and dead Mr Weyland is heading into the dig and everyone is just...disconnected, doing their own thing.  I presume that everyone except Shaw and Holloway (and the two token scientists) knew the true purpose of the mission, but there's such an air of complete unreality about it all.

It's pretty damn obviously clear that the ship is totally full of jars of alien goo, and David later helpfully tells them it was heading to Earth, but only Shaw and the ship crew care about this.  They figure that this world is some kind of bioweapon research facility and that the Engineers, after creating humans, decided to destroy them, and the goo is the bioweapon they planned to use, but it got out of hand and killed them.

Uninterested in this, all but Vickers and three core crew members head down to wake up the surviving Engineer and ask for some immortality plz.  Weyland has David wake the Engineers and ask for immortality plz and the Engineer kills them all.  Oops.  Shaw sensibly runs away and warns the ship crew.  Vickers is all for just leaving, but ship crew heroically sacrifices themselves to knock alien ship out of the sky, leaving Vickers to eject.  Alien ship crashes, Vickers and Shaw run away, Vickers gets squished.  [I think Vickers got squished because she was logical and selfish and driven and the character (other than the ship captain) I actually found by far the most interesting in the story.  I wanted her to live.]

Shaw has obligatory final alien encounter, then retrieves David's head and sets off (in a handy other ship) to hunt down the Engineers' home world and again ask them why.

Yeah, total mess.  I think we're supposed to come out of the film wondering about the creation of humanity, and what it means to create life in turn, and how Holloway was so dismissive of David, and David helpless to do anything but what Weyland ordered him to, while the Engineers in turn seem hellbent on destroying humanity for whatever reason.

So, you know Mary Shelley's Frankenstein?  Subtitled "The Modern Prometheus"?  We're meant to come out of this movie wondering if we're the Doctor or the Monster.

I came out of this movie thinking: "Why do they send such stupid people on trillion dollar scientific missions?"