Friday, October 24, 2008

Uma Thurman: Living Weapon or Why I'm Sick Of Kick-Ass Babes

I've got a lot to do this morning and here I am making a blog post. Like I keep saying, blogcessive compulsive. Today's thoughts were sparked by a conversation I had with the missus a couple of hours ago. (Yeah, she gets the insomnia too. It's almost worth it for the sake of talking in the dark, he said sentimentally.)

So there's a common... archetype isn't the right word. Model? Stereotype? Anyway, the warrior woman has been making a serious comeback in popular culture over the past couple of decades. But I'm not talking about Anne Bonney or Boadicea. I am flat-out in favor of women being able to handle themselves in a combat situation. While I don't want my granddaughter and nieces to engage in combat, if they are unfortunate enough to face violence I want them to win.

I'm talking about the oo-la-la sexy babe with an oversize weapon and armor that's basically shiny lingerie. I'm talking about armed Japanese schoolgirls with their little plaid skirts. I'm talking about Uma Thurman: Living Weapon.

First off, it's fetish stuff. (Louis Royo, I'm looking at you!) Nothing wrong with that, live it up. Me, I dig fat chicks. Chacun a son gout, baby. These kinds of fiction are fantasies and other people's fantasies are always a little weird.

But there's a certain point where things start going bad. For me one of the breaking points was the promotional campaign they've got going for The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The perfectly lovely young actress Summer Glau plays a Terminator, in case you're lucky enough to be able to avoid the mass media.

There have been a number of images of her that I frankly find offensive. Anyone who's read much of my fiction might be startled to find out that I can be offended -- but yeah. This shit is degraded and degrading. I think it's bad for the culture.

I'm not going to put the images here. The one that I just spotted in a comic book was one that showed Ms. Glau with her shirt off, back to the audience, with a series of bloody wounds that has peeled her flesh off to reveal the metal underneath. The combination of raw meat and a shapely body is torture porn. Right now someone's stroking it to that image right now.

(As an aside, my favorite euphemism for masturbation is 'counting to one.')

But far worse was...

Okay, if you're not a comic book reader you aren't familiar with this form of promotion. From time to time when I buy my comics they come in a specially printed plastic bag bearing an advertisement for something related to genre culture. Just before The Sarah Connor Chronicles (which I watched for a couple of episodes before dropping out to to excruciating boredom -- I hear it's gotten better) started airing I got a bag with an image of Ms. Glau on it.

It showed her fucking head and chest hanging from a rail, wires and mechanical connections dangling from the stumps of her arm and waist. She's nude; her nipples are covered by a couple of locks of her hair (man, that method of hiding nipples is old; next time why not try a couple of slices of pepperoni?) and she is gazing directly at the viewer.

This was fucking pornography. Not just pornography; it was robot amputee pornography. And my suspicion is that those bags were used for every purchase made in that comic store.

There is a sick part of me that thinks it's hilarious that children were given free robot amputee porn. But there's an even sicker part of me that thinks maybe we need to be paying attention to this stuff. At the very least parents should sit down and talk to their children about robot amputee porn openly and frankly.

This is an extreme example. But it is part of the whole hot chick kicks ass phenomenon.

I've talked to women who really enjoy seeing a female character kicking ass. I think this is part of something that doesn't get discussed very often -- one of the reasons why guy stuff is so predominant in a lot of cultural arenas is that a lot of women respond to it -- that by targeting guys you also target a lot of women. When I went to see Kill Bill I saw it with my buddy Megan. (It's more or less her fault that I'm writing -- I owe her a lot.)

She liked the movie a lot more than I did.

So why was Kill Bill an eh for me? Again, the woman warrior was part of it -- when I see an action scene in a movie I'm always thinking of how I'd fight if I were in that position. Now there are plenty of women in the world who can kick my ass. Some of them are, in fact, very attractive. I've got no more problem with that than I do with the fact that I can't go hand to hand with a grizzly or a bulldozer.

(What I mean here is that I've got a fucking huge problem with it. I won't be able to feel at ease until I'm cabable of rending humans limb from limb, tearing buildings apart, smashing holes in the crust of the Earth, crushing the universe in my hands. Anyone know a martial art that could teach me to do this?)

But watching Kill Bill I wound up instinctively imagining myself fighting Uma Thurman. That was grotesque. I mean, she weighs what, eight pounds? I don't want to think about fighting Uma Thurman!

(Who was it who said, "How can you fight a woman? There's no place on 'em you can hit!")

And of course that's my problem. Kill Bill was about someone else's fetishes. The thing is, is that no matter what I'm told I don't really see it as healthy.

That's because I don't see a capacity for violence as genuinely empowering.

I'm not arguing against the study of martial (Just misspelled that as marital -- thank you, Dr. Freud!) arts and I'm not saying that for some folks knowing that they have a capacity for violence is important to their sense of security.

But violence, as much a part of life as it is, is bad fucking news. It's not good for you. People who have been exposed to violence tend to get damaged by it both physically and emotionally. If you really do need to feel like a bad-ass it means that you have a wound. And there's something about combining it with sexy bodies that really bothers me.

It makes violence pretty and sex ugly. It takes things that have consequences in real life, things that we all have to deal with one way or another and it trivializes them.

If women find a sense of empowerment in images of dangerous females that's no worse than men finding a sense of empowerment in images of dangerous males. Hey, I read pulp fiction and comic books and I watch action movies and so on and so forth. I can understand the appeal. I get a serious charge out of extremely brutal depictions of violence.

But I'm nuts -- and I know that there's something degraded about my tastes. I do have a certain critical distance that lets me process this stuff and regulate my own exposure. (For instance, I've kicked my forensic textbook habit and my taste for true crime.)

I think what bothers me about the depictions of violent women in popular culture is that they almost always come from a male perspective -- and very often the sexy warrior babe is, in terms of character, more or less a dude. For example, Molly Millions/Kolodny/etc. from William Gibson's Sprawl stories is a dude. (Given the setting this may actually be the case.)

It is possible to handle this sterotype well, though. The missus got me hooked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it came out on DVD. One of the things that I really liked about it was that as the show went on, you could see Sarah Michelle Gellar's character grow more and more angry, alienated, and miserable as the show went on. For the last few seasons she was pretty damned unlikeable unless you understood what had driven her to that point.

That's what real fighting does to you. Not the controlled and consensual fighting of the dojo, of course. But when you are really fighting because someone really wants to hurt you and you really want to hurt them...

... it will make you a shittier human being. By showing that truth Buffy the Vampire Slayer managed to use the stereotype and subvert it at the same time. Buffy's being a bad-ass made her a worse person -- but she had no real choice.

As silly as the show was in many ways (Why did every single vampire know kung fu?), once you got past the obligatory thrilling action scenes it had a sense of the weight of violence.

If women want to kick ass, they are going to have to pay the price.

I grew up with powerful women. I like powerful women -- if I didn't, me and the missus wouldn't get along. My mom was a powerful woman. My grandmother was a powerful woman. My sister's like Molly Kolodny, though. She's a dude -- but still a powerful woman.

In my novel I am consciously trying to depict women that I would like in real life. Strong, purposeful, and effective when they're at their best.

But I'm not going to make them fight. And while violence is a subject -- and I do use it for adventure thrills here and there -- I'm trying to show how damaging it is. And I want the real turning points and climaxes to come from the rejection of violence rather than its expression.

At the end of the day I don't want it to seem as though kicking ass is cool or fun. Painful, stupid, or necessary -- yeah.

But kicking ass is not cool.

Now if you'll excuse me, for my homework I have to design some wallpaper for a boy's room. I'm going for a blood-spattered reptilian head with crossed chainswords motif.

At least there won't be any cleavage.


robp said...

Well, this hits on a couple of points that have been on my mind regarding my own writing. And it mentions Summer Glau, who I recognized in a commercial for whatever this Terminator show is called because she was in Firefly, which featured some actors who'd been in Angel, which was a sequel to Buffy (all three shows had the same creator.) Now, as Summer Glau played a torture victim on Firefly, someone who'd undergone government brain experimentation (which I think should only be allowed on candidates for office) to the extent that she was often barely recognizable as a human, I had to look her up and make sure it was the same actress. The page I found contained one photo after another of Ms. Glau looking attractive in standard glamour shots, Hollywood red carpet type things. So I find it interesting that she's taken at least two roles in science fiction shows that seem to obscure/distort her natural appearance. In Firefly this distortion was admirable (although I generally found her character - and her brother's - irritating as hell on a show I otherwise loved). Your description of Chronicles paints a far uglier portrait, one I find easy to believe (had you seen commercials for this show before you watched it? They killed any curiosity I might have had).

As to how this stuff affects my own writing - I'm currently working on three different short stories, two of which are significantly different retellings of the same fact-based story. All three stories feature extremely violent protagonists. I'm trying to write each of these stories in a way that actually addresses my own attitude toward violence, which is similar to what you've written here.

Here's where my difficulties come up against some of the main points you make in this post. The stories that are based on a true story - it's about a violent man who has to a large degree gotten away with his crimes. I wanted to tell a version of this with a darkly sardonic theme, basically that this is how life is, and I liked enough of the details in the true story that I was unsure how to fictionalize it. So, thinking of Firefly, I thought I'd set the thing in outer space, in the future. And although I may still wind up writing it this way, if I do this will become a much longer piece than I'd intended - it will require the creation of a vast number of details, and I will probably have to read a lot of science to make it work because I hate reading sf and finding something factually wrong, and I know there are a lot of sf readers who know a lot more science than I do. I'm amused when the Star Trek Enterprise flies north, but I don't want anything similar in my own writing.

So then I started another version, with a female protagonist. Actually I was starting another story altogether, created a tough chick character and realized that if I made her tougher and cruel I could retell my true story this way. I'm still leaning in this direction, but several pages into the story I thought, oh god, not another tough chick story. It's something that's been stereotyped cartoonishly by Hollywood, and I have to be very careful not to veer in that direction. I mean, I can go there, but pop culture has taken the moronically obvious "twist" - oh, she's strong and she's pretty - and used it so many times that I don't want to take a single step in that direction.

I haven't seen much Buffy but you make a point about her unlikeability being understandable if you know how she got there. A lot of this "let's torture the beautiful woman but we'll make her strong so we can pass off our sadism as empowerment" crap is inflicted on us by people who haven't gone to the trouble of creating an actual character. Feel the asshole's pain before you have them act like assholes, and don't feel like you've accomplished something because what you've written helps you deal with your own pain - if it's going to be effective write something that makes you recognize the pain you've inflicted on others. Show your guilt, not what an asshole you've become because of it - the author should treat himself and his character pretty much as complete opposites. Inflict pain on self, not on audience.

Sean Craven said...

Now that Ms. Glau has accepted two of those roles don't be surprised if she gets more of them...

One thing that's interesting is that it is entirely possible to use female warriors as a way of highlighting the grotesquery of war -- Alan Moore and Ian Gibson pulled it off in the Halo Jones comics. (I didn't appreciate it, though -- taking a light comic with menacing undertones and going all Heart of Darkness seemed like a mistake.)

There's a whole back-and-forth thing with Joss Whedon and violent females. He seems to understand something of the nature of violence and its effects on people but he just can't stay away from the stuff and he can't help making attractive women the biggest badasses. I do think he's sincere about empowering women -- but my big complaint with his work is that he's never seemed to be in full control of his material.

And that's the thing. Violence is an arena where power and potency are very clear-cut and power and potency are very attractive. As a generalization we either want power and potency for ourselves or we want to be affiliated with someone powerful and potent. Or both.

And for a few of us sick fucks it all ties in to that boiling cauldron of inchoate adolescent rage that we carry with us all the fucking time. At least in my case my fascination with violence is due to a combination of self-destructiveness and misanthropy.

(It was either my music buddy or my dad who once told me that it was impossible for someone who didn't know me to be able to understand my misanthropy -- that you needed to know how much superior I think I am and how desperately I hate myself before you can understand how much I hate the human species. Fair enough.)

As an artist it's impossible to get past your pathologies without recognizing them and attempting to correct them in the art.

And that hurts. It really, really does. But it's healthy -- honestly, as much as my fiction has traumatized me it's also helped me grow and heal, the dork said.

I do have to cop to trying to hurt the audience at times, though. When I was workshopping Paved a number of people said they wanted to stop reading it but they couldn't, that it gave them nightmares. I felt undiluted pride when I heard that kind of thing. "Mission accomplished." But I maintain that that story has a strong moral compass. The fact that it points away from the characters doesn't mean that it's not there.

I think making the audience identify with characters whose actions and attitudes they deplore is a legitimate strategy for forcing a contemplation of values. (Jesus, I'm a pretentious dick -- I just hope my fiction doesn't reflect that to an unnecessary degree.) I think Whedon tried for this in Buffy and I think he pulled it off. And I think that particular aspect of Buffy was a moral and healthy artistic decision.

Oh, well. I will say this -- I've made a promise to myself. No nihilism over seventy-five thousand words. If someone's going to invest time in a big novel I want them to leave with more emotional topsoil than they came in with. (I'm regarding Songs of Stray Souls as one novel for that purpose, though. The ending of volume two is a bit of a bummer...)

Anyway, if you'd like someone off of whom to bounce SF ideas, I'd be more than happy. You know I love that stuff.

Sean Craven said...

Well, I just tried to post a link to this on some Whedon-related site -- it struck me that some of his fans might have an interest in this stuff -- and I ran across a quote from him.


“I’m not an adult! I don’t want to create responsible shows with lawyers in them. I want to invade people’s dreams.”

I'm not going to argue with that creative stance -- but I will say that for me it's important to be absolutely free in conception and as disciplined as possible in execution. I think this sums up most of my negative feelings about Whedon's oeuvre. Like it, have watched it repeatedly, own it on DVD -- but I'm still bothered by a lot of things that always seemed like sloppiness and bad craftsmanship to me. I think this attitude might just be at the root of things.