Archive for April, 2008

“I saw amazing things, out there in space–but there is strangeness to be found, wherever you turn. Life on Earth can be an adventure too… you just need to know where to look!”-Sarah Jane Smith

The Sarah Jane Adventures couldn’t have come at a better time for me, as this month I’m researching and writing my chapters on parents. As I’ve mentioned before one of the overwhelming themes in stories about the female super, or action, hero is that they have absent mothers and are raised or mentored by men.

A short list of examples includes: Nancy Drew, Araña Corazon , Barbara Gordon, Joanna Dark, Lara Croft, Elektra Natchios, Chloe Sullivan, Sydney Bristow, Veronica Mars, Honey West, Ms. Tree, Zoë Carter , and The Powerpuff Girls. Even Buffy, who descends from matrilineage of superheroes is trained by a man.

I have no problem with father figures or single Daddies per se, having been raised by the latter myself. And as a woman who always identified with her father more than her mother (even before their separation) the exploration of who I am as an adult W-O-M-A-N has, is and will always be of profound spiritual importance to me — as much so as the search for female role models in real life and in popular culture.

While it’s wonderful to see depictions of fathers who take an active role in their daughters’ lives, when we don’t see women teaching women, the message an audience receives is that these virtual Athenas, whether sprung from their father’s heads or mentored by sage men, can only be as independent as they are because they lack a mother’s womanly—almost always implied as passive—influence.

As I’ll discuss further in the book, there are a few notable exceptions:

• Reciprocal mentorship was an outstanding feature of the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, and they learned from other women as well (including Lao Ma, and the Amazons). But we never got to see either the Warrior Princess or the Battling Bard of Potidaea raise either of their own daughters.

• Trina Robbins’ and Anne Timmons’ Go Girl! series features a kick-ass mother, AND a kick-ass daughter who have a deep and meaningful bond.*

• Beatrix Kiddo, of Kill Bill, has a daughter, and in keeping with the homage to Lady Snowblood, Tarantino has noted that he would like to make sequels that feature daughters avenging their mother’s deaths (think of Vernita Green’s daughter Nikki Bell–who we know will, in fact, still be sore that Beatrix killed her mother). Whether this pans out, or would even feature women in mentor roles is totally up in the air.

• In the movie Elektra, the title character teaches Abby–a young martial arts prodigy played by an actress with a Red Belt in Tae Kwon Do.

• In some versions of Wonder Woman (particularly the original) she has a close bond with her mother and with sister Amazons. And of course, Wonder Woman sets an example for everyone.

• In the comic book series Birds of Prey, particularly Gail Simone’s run, we see instances of sisterhood, which is an important counter to the perennial catfight, but is also different from an adult/child relationship. (I haven’t yet read the issues with Black Canary and Sin.)

• In the final season of Alias, Sydney Bristow mentored Rachel Gibson and presumably her daughter, Isabelle Bristow Vaughn.

• In the final season of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Buffy, Willow, Faith, and Anya train the Potentials.

• It appears that Araña Corazon has been mentored by Ms. Marvel (but I haven’t read those issues yet, and therefore can’t speak to them).

Now it seems I can add another “exception” to add to my list!**

Serendipitously, right when I started collecting and organizing my research for these two chapters (Fathers and Daughters, and Mothers and Daughters) Ryan pointed out that the Sci Fi channel was running ads for a series called The Sarah Jane Adventures and noted that it looked like it could be of interest to me (the ad posted above is from the BBC, by way of YouTube). When I caught the commercials myself, I looked into the series on the Net and discovered it’s a spin-off of Doctor Who intended for children.*** Elisabeth Sladen who has embodied the investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith off and on for over 35 years stars.

Sarah was a companion to the third and fourth doctors (Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, respectively) and appeared regularly over the years 1973-1976. Sladen has since revisited the character a number of times—including in a pilot featuring Sarah and the robot dog, K-9 (K-9 and Company didn’t evolve into a series but is rumored to be released on DVD this Summer) as well as in a special feature-length episode of Doctor Who called “The Five Doctors.” Sladen also reprised the role in the second season of the recently revitalized Doctor Who alongside David Tennant’s Doctor (the tenth incarnation) and Billie Piper’s Rose in the episode “School Reunion.”

The Sarah Jane Adventures debuted in the UK with an hour-long special shown on New Year’s Day, 2007, called “Invasion of the Bane,” In it, we meet a thirteen-year-old girl named Maria Jackson (Yasmin Paige) who has just moved to West London with her dad after her parents’ recent divorce. Dad is a stand-up guy, and while Mom is flighty, she frequently drops by for hellos, meals, and family time. Her living situation (a daughter with a single father) could have made Maria yet another victim of the female hero-sans-female mentor trope that has plagued myth from ancient through modern times, but her mother isn’t dead, drunk, ill, or vindictive; she’s just elsewhere, and, has kind of a difficult personality.

Her first night in her new home, Maria is awakened by a strange pinkish glowing light emanating from outside. She sneaks out of the house and across the street to spy Sarah Jane conversing with a floaty, ethereal, otherwordly creature (who we later discover is a Star Poet who’d gotten lost on her journey and sought Sarah’s assistance with directions).

Maria is understandably curious, but Sarah Jane is terse and standoffish with her neighbors, believing that others should not be subject to the danger involved in her investigative work.

When Maria and her friend, Kelsey, take a tour of the Bubbleshock Soda Company they run into Sarah at the factory trying to expose the soda makers for who they really are—tentacled aliens whose mother bug secrets a substance marketed as the “organic!” additive “Bane” — actually an alien chemical used in the soda to turn humans into easily controlled zombies (fortunately, Sarah and Maria prefer tea to soda pop).

In the process of escaping the factory they encounter a human boy, called “The Archetype,” who was designed by the Bane species to find out why 2% of the population didn’t like Bubbleshock Soda, and is made up of the thoughts and wishes of over 10,000 people. Sarah and Maria rescue the child, and at first, when he asks if he can live with Sarah she says no, but she ultimately “adopts” him into her home.

Sarah recognizes Maria’s inner strength and sees her as a kindred spirit. While figuring a way to stop the Bane she tells her new young friend, “Maria, there are two types of people in the world. Those who panic, and then there’s us. Got it?” Maria understands and affirms, “Got it.”

Over the course of the episode Sarah recognizes, even respects, the children’s ability to make choices for themselves. And, she’s remarkably honest with them. She tells Maria, and the Archetype–who chooses the name “Luke” that:

“When I was your age, I used to think ‘Oh, when I’m grown up, I’ll know what I want, I’ll be sorted.’ But you never really know what you want. You never feel grown up, not really. You never sort it all out… so I thought, I could handle life on my own. But after today… I don’t want to!”

The series may tap into the lives and thoughts of children, but scenes like these can resonate with adults. Life never happens as you expect it to. You just have to stick to your values and go with the flow of the adventure. And as Sarah Jane proves, if things aren’t working as they are you can always change your mind and do things differently.

At the end of the episode, when I bubbled over how happy it made me, Ryan noted that while he also enjoyed it very much, he was bothered that Sarah was given a child at the end. He felt that it was a crass attempt to restabilize her normative position as a traditionally gendered woman, and it was a shame that they didn’t allow her to maintain her status as an independent adventurer who happens to work with children, rather than a Mommy (He’s been reading and editing my chapters!).

The child issue didn’t quite bother me as much as I thought it might, and I think it has to do with context. The adoption of Luke was presented as simply a part of her journey rather than the motivation for it. What bothered me much more was that she couldn’t or wouldn’t find a partner because after The Doctor, “No man could quite compare,” or something like that. Instead, she has playfully named her computer “Mr. Smith.”

A reviewer for the Chicago Tribune praised SJA, as well as Sladen, saying it was a

“wise choice to bring Sladen back with her own show. The actress projects an air of trustworthiness, courage and unapologetic independence, and though Sarah Jane’s attitude is brisk and unsentimental, it leaves room for plenty of wonder at the stranger things in the universe. And by the way, how many series feature a middle-aged woman as the lead — and even let her battle many-tentacled aliens? Score one for the Brits.”

A reviewer for Variety panned the series, calling it “modestly entertaining for the moppet crowd” but patience trying for adults.” (He also calls Sarah Jane “a rather boring heroine”!)

From the two episodes I’ve seen, SJA is a children’s show in the way that the early Harry Potter novels are children’s books—they are ostensibly for children but have plenty of self-consciousness and intelligence to appeal to adults. (SJA does feature some farting aliens — justifiably suitable for a munchkin audience.)

The series is wickedly smart, with over-the-top villains who shout B-Lines such as “The time of man is over!” and “ In the words of your young Earth children – bring it on.” Sarah Jane Smith is one of the only female leaders, teachers, or matriarchs of a group. But most importantly, most progressively, even revolutionary, is that Sarah Jane and Maria gift us with the all-too-rare example of a woman mentoring a woman.

A series of ten, half-hour episodes premiered in the UK in September 2007. SJA debuted in the states on the Sci-Fi Network on April 11, 2008. At least one, if not two more seasons have been ordered. Episodes air on the Sci Fi Channel Fridays from 8-8:30 pm. Cheers to Sci Fi for airing the series, Jeers to Sci Fi Magazine (the official rag of the channel) for not including Lis Sladen in their current issue “TV’s Hot New Superwomen”–which has a subsection on “Familiar Faces in Fresh New Roles” as well as one on “Brit Girls”)

*Trina and Anne should totally do a SJA comic!It’s sooooo up their alley!

**(Hopefully, with this new generation of superwomen giving birth to daughters, and occasionally mentoring girls, we are seeing the beginnings of a progressive female heroic tradition, because generally, strong women are depicted raising savior sons (Sarah Connor, Lady Jessica—they’re mothers, not messiahs) or protecting daughters (Ripley, Charly Baltimore). One of the feminist critiques of Joseph Campbell is that in his classic The Hero With a Thousand Faces he notes that the hero can male or female, but then goes on to describe women as markers in the male quest (as goddesses, temptresses, mothers, etc . . .) and not as questers themselves. While this devalues female experience by making male experience the norm, it is also indicative of hero myths to date; Campbell could likely find few featuring women and/or ignored the experiences that make a female life heroic.)

***(I have yet to get into Doctor Who –even though Roz has told me that “Rose is so one of your women” and that I should include her in the book. Unfortunately, I don’t know if I’ll have time. –Perhaps for the next edition!)

I thought this column by sex educator and writer Violet Blue for the San Francisco Chronicle was worth posting here, considering how many blog postings I’ve read where women, particularly self-proclaimed feminists, describe instances in which they have been the victims of sexist and/or misogynistic trollers who either bait writers on said writer’s site (which should be a safe space for free expression) OR take quotes from a post to a message board (or blog) elsewhere to talk about how “ugly,” “fat,” and “repressed” these “horrible feminists” must assuredly be. (As if appearance had any sort of relevance.)

I have to admit, even knowing the statistics on violence against women, it continues to shock me how aggressive and cruel trollers are, and how much they get off on their antagonism. (Through googling my own blog, I’ve found terrible things said about me, and refused to play into the bait. Particularly since their commentary has nothing to do with me personally, but with their feelings about women in general.)

Violet writes:

Like I, or any woman worth her weight in vagina, should give a toss what “viking116,” “toadytenderloins” or “bigdaddyhouston54” say about what we look like, our sexiness, or its relation to what we’re saying. No, that’s why we have friends (and editors, and in my case, agents and publishers). Everyone knows comments like that are from trolls who make any publication they’re associated with look bad, and they should be bitch-slapped from here to … at least the Tenderloin and back. They’re off-topic and thus easy to discount nonetheless, but would political sex and culture commentary from someone who looks like Pamela Anderson actually be taken seriously? Maybe by the editors at Maxim, but honestly, what girl wants the adoration of psychotic anonymous trolls?
I just write and talk about sex. But every woman on the Internet gets called slutty and ugly and fat (to put it lightly) no matter what; all we have to be is female.

The rest of the piece can be found via:

Ugly Violet
Every girl online is fat, ugly and unsexy. Here’s how to get over it.

Caught this fabulous, scathing, poignant, and funny commentary on gender discrimination presented by Kristen Schaal on The Daily Show. One of those daring pieces that you could tell made the audience really uncomfortable (as it should have) and ended so brilliantly I actually clapped at the television!

Hurray for The New Progressive Mascots of the Olympics!

! Power! Possibility! Stay at Home Dad! and Anonymous Sperm Donor!

See also her piece on Women Presidents:

The Daily Show has always presented progressive comedy, and while Nancy Walls, and Samantha Bee have been formidable comedians they were no where near as blatantly feminist as Schaal. I loved her as the adorably creepy fan, Mel, on Flight of the Conchords and hope we see more of her soon. In fact, she should get a cover story on BUST, and I should write it!

Not long ago our dear friend brought his children over for a late afternoon visit, and to play with our doggie, Giles. They had spent the day at their grandmother’s house, and the three-year-old and younger of the two, proceeded to share with us the wondrous details of her adventure, as only a child can.

“I had hot chocolate. I ate a cookie. And I pooped.”

I relate this story because this charming description of the events of her day are all also the very elements that made up the highlights of last week’s brilliant episode of “30 Rock.”

And a shout out to Tina Fey is in order.

From the wicked social commentary of MILF Island (a reality-show in the vein of Survivor that features bikini clad MILFs and eighth grade boys) to the base “He can eat my poo.” (a joke that only Fey can make sound adorable, and that manages to get funnier every time she says the word, “poo” –such an accomplishment could only come from a comedienne with a child in potty training) the show consistently manages to do what so little comedy can—appeal to the masses, as well as the very smart.

And Tina Fey is very, very smart.

Her work adroitly addresses gender issues such as unequal representation in the workplace (see the writers room on “30 Rock”), and women’s body issues (as in the scathing episode where Jenna realizes that she’s more popular when overweight and is excited to see a t-shirt for sale with her tagline “Me Want Food!”).

In the October 2007 issue of Geek Magazine Fey said these sorts of issues interest her “because there is this sorta weird double standard that women want to not care about that stuff [body image and interplay of men and women] but then we all still do care about it and talk about it.” She said her goal with comedy is “talking about it but also calling bullshit on it.” Adding, “It’s a weird thing of we shouldn’t care about our bodies but if you’re gonna be Britney Spears, you’d better keep that weight off.”

Fey’s work reflects a self-consciousness about gender — yet I’m concerned that most Americans are not likely to get that her work is deeply layered, and with her snarky observations that Fey is getting the last laugh. It even took me several episodes for this to become clear, and I was originally disappointed that Fey’s alter ego Liz Lemon was a junk food addict (how the hell does she metabolize that stuff?!?) as well as a validation junkie.

Writer Sarah Seltzer shared these concerns in a Love it/Shove it column for Bitch magazine’s Summer 2007 issue in which she noted that Fey’s status as one of the premiere female comedic writers of our time should make her a feminist role model, but laments that Fey trades “on sexist stereotypes at the expense of herself—and smart girls everywhere.” She was disappointed that Fey presents Liz as a consistent fuck-up, “saddled with stereotypes attached to powerful females . . . woefully single . . .allegedly unattractive . . . eating junk food to drown her sorrows . . .”

Fey clearly writes Lemon as a geek-grrrl version of Carrie Bradshaw—can’t keep a man (because she makes tragically bad partner choices in the first place), royally screws up with network executives, and destroys a chance to own real estate when she spends the night drinking bottles of wine as she makes obsessive drunken phone calls to the co-op board (whom she thinks gave her a fake number):

Liz Lemon’s self-deprecation and the jokes on herself, are in fact, a joke on the audience. (Though I’m glad Seltzer called the question out—especially in the pages of an astute magazine such as Bitch—because it’s important to interrogate pop culture before we come to a conclusion about what it might possibly mean or represent.)

Take for example the hilarious bit from last week’s episode when Kenneth is confronting Liz for accidentally being quoted in a gossip column for calling her boss, Jack Donaghy, a “Class A Moron,” and Tracy runs up to them holding a copy of the newspaper.

Tracy: “Ms. Lemon, I can’t believe they put what you said in the paper!”

Liz: “Shhhh. How do you know about that!?!”

He hands her the paper.

Liz: “This is a Cathy cartoon.”

Tracy: “Yeah. That cartoon copied exactly what you said the other day.”

In perfect imitation we cut to a flashback of Liz waving her hands in exasperation as she says

Liz: “Chocolate! Chocolate! Chocolate! AACK!!!!!”

And so, in one episode we have the stereotype of women obsessed with chocolate, the cookie Cougars of MILF Island, and good-girl Liz incapable of saying anything dirtier than “poo.” (On top of Tracy’s irreverence, Jack’s schemes, and Kenneth, the Page.) The Cathy reference proves that Fey is smart enough, and savvy enough to know what she’s doing; making fun of the way we make fun of women. The question is, are American viewers of “30 Rock” getting the joke?

The current issue of ET Weekly has an interview with Tina Fey available here.