Our Handmaid's Tale

Hulu just released their new adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. I haven't seen it yet -- it's not available in the UK -- but, like for a lot of people, the book has been prominent in my thoughts for the past several months. The novel from 1985 reimagines America as a totalitarian theocracy, and many people have commented on the eerie prescience of Atwood's vision compared to recent politics in the US. Women in Texas last month even used the striking red imagery of Atwood's handmaids to protest a new bill that gives doctors the right to lie to their patients if they think telling them the truth may lead them to have an abortion.

Margaret Atwood said in a recent article in the New York Times that the book wasn't meant to be a prediction of the future -- "the main premise seemed — even to me — fairly outrageous" -- but now views it as an "anti-prediction." "If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either."

Like for the protesters in Texas, books like The Handmaid's Tale -- and TV shows that make their imagery more widely recognisable -- provide us with a way of talking about these otherwise very complicated issues in clear and compelling ways. We can say things are "very 1984" and know we're talking about intense surveillance, thoughtcrimes, manipulating language and truth. Big Brother is Watching You. Similarly, we can say things are "very Handmaid's Tale" when talking about the oppression of women and the loss of women's rights. It's an extreme image, but that extremity is important. It's a worst-case scenario, and a striking way of communicating that a current situation is dangerous.

Generally speaking, of course, the "slippery slope" argument can be dangerous. But dystopias, like The Handmaid's Tale, are written as reflections of our society, taking certain troubling elements and pushing them to their most extreme conclusion. They're not necessarily saying "we will end up like this," but highlighting certain elements of our world and providing a new way to think about them. By putting them into the extreme, and allowing us to see a logical connection from now to then, they can provide a more striking critique of the now than any straightforward argument ever could. 

When I read the book in 2006, it was one of the most disturbing books I'd ever read. I was just becoming aware of feminism as A Thing, and I'd recently got home from a summer at Harvard, where the book is set, so I could imagine all of the locations vividly. And perhaps it's a reflection of the truth of The Handmaid's Tale that it's not invoked more often when talking about current politics. The Trump administration is mainly compared to 1984, but that book's authoritarian setup is pretty much the complete opposite of what the current government seems to want. It's a book where a man is front and center, and all female characters are lifeless accessories to his story, but in Trump's America, the straight white man doesn't need to worry about politics interfering with their personal freedoms.

The Handmaid's Tale feels like a more terrifying possibility. It rings so true that just a trailer of it attracted a lot of vitriol from people who didn't know this was a novel from 1985, and thought it was a thinly veiled critique of Trump himself. And, in a way, it is. But only because he's acting in a manner that fits the book, not because the book is any sort of response to him. After all, thirty years ago, Atwood herself thought it might all be too farfetched.

Quick Questions from the Search Terms

An idea stolen, with much love and appreciation, from Captain Awkward. Why Cersei is not a feminist hero

You can take your pick, really. She murders people. She expressea a lot of internalised misogyny, explicitly hating pretty much every woman who isn't herself. She tortures people. She killed Lady! She murders people. You can argue that she's a feminist character in the sense that she's an emotionally complex female villain, but she's neither feminist nor a hero herself.

Are Bronte and Austen different?

So, so different. And not just because Charlotte Bronte hated Jane Austen's books. They lived and wrote more than 50 years apart, in very different English societies -- Austen lived in genteel southern England during the aftermath of the French and American revolutions, and the Brontes were much poorer, the daughters of a clergyman who lost a lot of family members and lived in the colder and wilder north 50 years later. To oversimplify a lot, Jane Austen writes like a woman sitting in a drawing room with a wry smile, mocking the fake propriety of everyone around her and using wit to critique an era, while Bronte writes like a woman running wild on the moors, traipsing through mud, desperate for freedom.

There's a lot more to it than that, but they're not similar just because they're both female authors from the 19th century.

Why female authors always write about male characters

If you're asking why female authors include significant male characters in their work, well, it's because men exist, so they should appear in fiction. If you're asking why female writers often write about male protagonists, it's because male protagonists are seen as more "mainstream," so those books can be easier to sell to publishing houses, get good marketing budgets, and receive more acclaim. According to a lot of people, women are the subject of romance. Men are the subject of serious literature. So female authors who want to be taken seriously might decide that writing a male protagonist is the only way to succeed.

Why does work of fiction need female characters?

Because women exist, and unless you're explicitly writing about a world where they don't exist, and dealing with the consequences of that, then they should feature just as much as men do.

Is Katniss Everdeen black?

The books never specify Katniss's ethnicity. She's described as having "straight black hair, olive skin... [and] grey eyes." Many readers interpret that as Katniss being hispanic, Native American or mixed race.

Books like The Fault in our Stars with a female protagonist

Try If I Stay by Gayle Forman, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, or Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall.

What episode was there a rape scene of Claire on Outlander?

Like, all of them. It's a very rapey show.

Recommendation of video games

For some fun, feminist games, I recommend the newly-released Night in the WoodsLife is Strange, Undertale, or Long Live the Queen. Or, for a longer game, try the Dragon Age series.

Did Eliza burn Hamilton's letters?

Hamilton's letters to Eliza still survive, but we don't have any of Eliza's letters to Hamilton. Chernow's biography (which inspired the musical) claims that Eliza destroyed them, although we don't know when or why.

Problems with the Bechdel test

The Bechdel test is only useful for looking at general trends in media as a whole. It's for saying "hey, look, Hollywood movies sure do lack female characters," and not for measuring whether any particular movie is "feminist" or "unfeminist." All it can tell you is whether there are women present in a movie. It tells you nothing about how those women are actually presented.

Struggling with Sexism in East Asian Dramas

miss-in-kiss-itazura-na-kissit-started-with-a-kiss-remakeit-a-kiss When it comes to "problematic things I enjoy anyway," my biggest guilty pleasure is East Asian dramas. Typically Japanese ones, as that's the language that I (sort of) speak, but now I've started to study Chinese, I've added those to my viewing line-up too.

Most recently, I've been watching a very silly Taiwanese drama called Miss In Kiss, which is a remake of a remake of a Japanese manga called Itazura na Kiss, or Mischievous Kiss. The show's tropey romcom set-up is pretty typical of these sorts of dramas -- the girl (Xiang Yue, in this version) is in love with the smartest and most popular boy in school, but he dismisses her as too stupid to pay attention to. When her house is destroyed in an accident, she and her dad move in with her dad's best friend and his family -- including her crush. Misadventures ensue.

It can be a fun show to watch. The bright colors and zany adventures are definitely refreshing compared to a lot of western dramas. But the supposed love interest is consistently a cruel jerk to the protagonist, and any vague sign of decency on his part is treated as a Hint of True Love. Meanwhile, another guy decides that he has ownership over the protagonist, because he loves her, and so he calls her father "dad," insists they're basically married, and plans his life around "protecting" her and building comic schemes to kickstart their love.

If you've never seen East Asian drama, this sort of set-up is pretty par for the course. I'd love to argue that there's some hidden feminism in watching these shows, but nope. Although not every drama is like this, many of them are, and whenever I watch them, it's with the knowledge that I'm enjoying the lighthearted drama and practicing my language skills at the price of attempting to ignore pretty consistent narrative misogyny.

I'm not sure if it's just because it's been a while since I watched one of these dramas, but Miss in Kiss seems particularly bad. We've got the "they MUST be together" trope, despite the guy's indifference and cruelty to her. We've got the forceful hand slamming into the wall beside her head (multiple times), the grabbing her by the wrist to pull her around (multiple times), the guy she's not even interested in getting violent to protect her honor from the guy she likes (multiple times) and basically acting as a stalker (almost every episode). It's a really messed up representation of romance. And sure, it's a silly show. But it's uncomfortable to dismiss those elements as "well, that's just the genre," even though, in many ways, that is the genre.

I hit my limit about 20 episodes in, when the "oh my god, are you kidding me??" elements overwhelmed any possible benefits, and I quit. I wouldn't have even lasted that long if I didn't desperately need the practice listening to fairly straightforward Chinese. But as I spent my days writing about feminism in media and spent my evenings watching this "lighthearted" but messed-up romance, it got me thinking, again, about what it means to watch something that you know is problematic. I don't just watch these series for language practice. I enjoy them. I like the music, the bright colors, the often farcical plotlines, especially the epic melodramatic romantic moments. My favorite in college was Hana Yori Dango, which has such gems as "guy and girl get trapped in broken elevator" and "guy gets amnesia," as well as the familiar arc of "guy is horrible to protagonist but actually they're in love." I watch for pure entertainment value, with bonus learning on the side. But I've watched many of them while studiously ignoring certain elements, and quit several when those elements got too much.

I think, for me, it depends how far the story takes these elements, and how integral they are to the plot. These dramas aren't doing anything particular new with their sexist plots, and they're not doing anything that feels like it was taken from the 19th century either. These are all very familiar tropes, in series full of familiar tropes. They fit comfortably in that context, so it's much easier to ignore them and accept them as just part of that sort of show. And we are all experts at ignoring run-of-the-mill sexism in entertainment. It's presented as normal, so we either take it as normal, or accept it as a price for watching whatever the most popular shows and movies of the day are.

And so, honestly, I've trained myself to accept a certain level of "weak girl, controlling guy" sexism in my East Asian dramas, just as I've trained myself to often watch American series with two brains -- the "I'm enjoying this" brain, and the "critical thinking" brain. And the same divide comes into play here. If the sexism is emphasized too much, or plays too big a role, I may quit, but a certain level of it... well, if I was writing about the show, I'd analyze it to death, but if I'm just watching for light entertainment, I often accept it as an unfortunate price of admission. I don't really think that's a good thing, but perhaps it is a necessary one.

But if anyone has any recommendations for any cute but non-sexist dramas in Japanese or Chinese, I'm eager to hear about them! Especially if they're on Netflix. :)

The Legends of Catherine Howard

HowardCatherine02 It's almost impossible to find fiction (or even non-fiction) about Catherine Howard that doesn't paint her in an extremely negative light.

The historical facts, in brief, are like this: the teenage Catherine came to Henry VIII's court as a maid in waiting to the new queen, Henry's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Henry married Catherine very soon after annulling his marriage to Anne, who he considered dull and ugly, and was apparently besotted with Catherine. However, Catherine had an affair with a courtier called Thomas Culpepper, as well as an apparent prior engagement from before she came to court with a man called Francis Dereham. When Henry found out, she was locked up, stripped of her title of queen, and ultimately beheaded. And, for flavor, one of the most famous stories about Catherine tells us that she asked for the execution block the night before her beheading, so that she could practice how she would lay her head on the block.

I've read multiple novels set during her rise and fall now, including The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory, Gilt by Katherine Longshore, and the newly released Maid at the King's Court by Lucy Worsley, which inspired this post. These books frequently tell the story from another character's perspective -- Gilt is about Catherine's best friend, Kitty Tilney, while Maid at the King's Court is about Catherine's invented cousin, Elizabeth -- and, inevitably, they all portray Catherine as incredibly vain and overambitious. She's an idiot, overconfident, cruel to other characters, and full of her own self-importance. Manipulative, simpering, positively evil. Most importantly, she is completely responsible for her own rise and for her own ensuing downfall.

It's a compelling narrative for both fiction and history to fall into. Catherine was a teenage girl who stepped above her station, acted recklessly and foolishly, and was punished for it. It's easy to portray this as a cautionary tale, a story of a girl getting her just desserts, or, at its most sympathetic, a tale of Icarus, flying too close to the sun.

But this is also a narrative provided by people's biases, not necessarily by history. It's people looking at the facts in the most unsympathetic light, expecting Catherine, as the beheaded teen wife, to be somehow responsible for what happened. Catherine may have been charismatic and somewhat vain, but she was also only either 15 or 16 when she married the old and incredibly dangerous Henry. In the couple of years before this marriage, he had killed Anne Boleyn and many of his close courtiers, including his closest advisor, Thomas Cromwell. His fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, narrowly escaped a similar fate. The message in court was more than clear -- don't disagree with the king, don't fail to give him what he wants, and don't make any mistakes.

Meanwhile, Catherine Howard was the niece of Thomas Howard, Anne Boleyn's uncle, the man who pursued Anne's rise to facilitate his own rise to power, and then threw her to the wolves when she was no longer useful. He was partly responsible for bringing down Cromwell after Henry's failed married to Anne of Cleves, with Catherine marrying Henry on the same day as Cromwell's execution. And although many of Catherine's relatives were locked up in the Tower during her downfall, Thomas Howard somehow managed to escape punishment. He used young female relatives for his own ambitions, and both of them ended up dead as a result, while he continued on.

So Catherine is about 15, in a family fighting for the power that they lost after Anne's downfall. The king no one should ever disagree with likes her, she's catapulted to a position of great influence, but one with certain caveats -- keep the king happy at all costs and make sure you have a son. Is her rise and fall any surprise, in that context?

By all accounts, Catherine Howard was not a particularly nice person, but then, neither was Anne Boleyn. She was clearly charismatic, and perhaps vain and frivolous, but that doesn't mean she deserved her own execution at 17. Yet people always suggest she married Henry because she was conniving and manipulative, and she fell because she was an idiot who got too confident in herself. Add in some historical slut-shaming, and you've got yourself a legend.

Tangled: Before Ever After

tangled-before-ever-after Disclaimer: Tangled is my favorite movie. Not just my favorite Disney movie. My favorite movie. So when Disney announced they were making an animated TV show, I was very excited and very skeptical. I couldn't wait to watch it.

So, was it good? The short answer is yes. If you like Disney and cuteness and badass female characters, it is definitely worth a watch.

The series opens with an hour-long special set six months after the end of the movie. It's finally time for Rapunzel's coronation, but she's feeling stifled by her "happily ever after." She dreamed of being able to go and see the world once she left Mother Gothel's tower, but instead, she's locked up behind another wall for her protection, learning all the rules on how to be a good princess. After spending eighteen years with very little social interaction, she struggles to interact with strangers, as well to adapt to strange inventions like shoes, and clearly misses the one single day of adventure she had in the movie. She wants her escape from Mother Gothel to mean freedom, while her father sees it as a second chance to keep her safe.

Which leads to an interesting setup, because although the show does provide a more traditional villain, the real enemy is still Mother Gothel and the after-effects of her cruelty. Rapunzel's father is terrified that something is going to happen to her again. Rapunzel is terrified of what happens when someone gets too much control over you and walls you off from the world. And the conflict between these two fears, and between Rapunzel's dreams and the reality of "happily ever after," appears to be the driving force of the series.

That said, the TV movie is a lot of fun as well. The writing is sharp and funny, and the animation is gorgeous, although the change in style takes some getting used to. Obviously, there's a shift in feel as the story moves from the context of a feature length Disney movie to a TV cartoon, and so, despite what I mentioned above, it does often have the light tone similar to Disney's mini-sequels like Frozen Fever. I've never really enjoyed those that much, but there are enough clever jokes and thoughtful emotional arcs here to make it work.

Not to mention the show's great cast of female characters. I already love Cassandra, Rapunzel's "lady in waiting" who has picked up a trick or two as the daughter of the captain of the guard. Rapunzel's mother also gets her own backstory and important role to play, and even the one-off villain is the incredibly cool-looking Lady Caine.

The shippiness between Rapunzel and Eugene is also A+. No spoilers here, but... it's so good, y'all. I especially like the contrasting perspectives of Rapunzel and Eugene. Eugene wants to stay in the palace forever, because he's been out and seen the world, and struggled in it, and so this luxury and permanence is appealing. For Rapunzel, who has only ever been in one "safe" and comfortable place, the same set-up is stifling.

Oh, and did I mention Alan Menken is back to write songs for the show? I am obsessed with them already.

If you want a fun cartoon, I really recommend it. It's clearly a kids' show -- we're not talking Adventure Time here -- but it's really enjoyable to watch, at least so far. I could definitely see myself binge watching the first season after it all comes out, if it wasn't for the fact that I'm not going to be able to wait. It's fun, it's true to the movie, and it has songs by Alan Menken. I can't wait for more.

Twenty Years of Buffy

buffy-1 Today is the twentieth anniversary of the start of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It is not the twentieth anniversary of me watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because I was a wimpy eight year old at the time, and when my parents watched the show, I would run through the living room with my hands clamped over my ears in case I heard anything too scary. My time with Buffy started with the launch of Season 6 in the UK, and I only started watching then because it aired at the same time as the new season of Friends, and my parents insisted that the family TV would show Buffy first, and Friends later. Two hours of sulky Buffy watching later, and I was in love.

I haven't watched Buffy in years, and I'm almost scared to rewatch it now, because it meant so much to me as a teenager, and I don't know how well it would hold up. A lot of things that felt progressive at the time feel outdated now, and I'm sure I could fill this site with musings on how terrible all the romances are, cringing at my past self's shipping choices.

But it feels unfair to tear apart a favorite from 20 years ago without considering the hugely positive impact that it once had. I don't know much about the TV landscape that Buffy launched into, because I was too young at the time, and, after FriendsBuffy was the first "grown up" TV show I watched. And fell in love with. And obsessed over.

But it was a genre show that put a powerful female character front and center. Thirteen-year-old me didn't even realise how revolutionary that was, because Buffy just handed it to me. It gave me a protagonist who was a leader and a fighter, but who also felt like a real person, with a bunch of female friends who had different and complex relationships with one another, who had different strengths and powers, and who worked together to save the world.

I'm almost 100% sure I didn't always get it. But in those years, the Scooby Gang were my greatest inspiration and comfort. They let me grow up in a TV landscape where female genre protagonists felt normal. Where magic and adventure and fighting bad guys and saving the world belonged to girls first, in my understanding of the fictional world. Of course, I eventually realised that wasn't generally true, but the strength and the wit of these characters created a fictional "normal" for me that had a huge influence on me as a person and as a writer.

I rewatched it constantly. I bought the magazines. I had the script books. I read the junky companion novels and played the not-so-quality video games and went to the Buffy conventions, like the full-on nerd that I am. It taught me things about narrative and compelling storytelling, but it also taught me to love genre fiction, as my first obsession that was actually about female characters. Not Harry Potter, not Pokemon, not Lord of the Rings. Even if I wasn't familiar with all the tropes that Buffy subverted, that subversion still provided me with a world to get lost in and a choice of capable and powerful female characters to look up to.

If it launched now, I'm sure I'd have lots to say about Buffy's "faux feminism." I'd be in fits of rage about how Charisma Carpenter was treated on Angel. The series doesn't feel that progressive any more. But it did, and it was, at least to a 13 year old looking for a story to connect to. And Buffy is, in many ways, the impetus behind its own outdatedness. It inspired other female-led teen genre shows, a certain blend of wit and serious drama seen in series like Veronica Mars and the more recent iZombie. So many creators grew up on or were seriously influenced by Buffy. Writers and networks saw that female genre protagonists can lead successful series, that genre shows can be serious and thought-provoking, that the concerns of female teen viewers are worth exploring. The landscape has progressed over the past twenty years, becoming more progressive and more inclusive (although, obviously, still with many missteps), and that's because of the work that Buffy started twenty years ago. It may not appear to be the revolutionary show that people promise to anyone stumbling across it now, but it has always been important to television, and it's always been important to me.

Of course, now I've written this, I'm itching to rewatch and dig into the good, the bad, and the ugly of the show. Maybe I will, maybe I won't. But whatever I decide, I think it's important to remember not just what Buffy is now, but what it was then. And that is a groundbreaking, inspiring, and influential series of female strength.