Thursday, 27 November 2008

The Sublime Beauty of Polish Film Posters

Ah yes, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which Kirk, Spock et al traverse an Escher-esque landscape. Good times.

I deserve rainbows

I'm not usually a huge fan of these "answer a handful of questions and we'll tell you everything you need to know about your personality by fitting you into one of these dozen neat categories" things. There's a number of reasons why I don't like them. However, I've never had the opportunity to put one up onto my blog before, and I'm still a massive sucker for "ooh, something new that I can do with this techy thing!"

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Happy Thanksgiving! No, I don't celebrate another country's national holidays

At my University there were a great many non-British students. However, some, it seems, never quite cottoned on to the fact that Britain, despite speaking the same language that they do in the United States (although that much is debateable), is not actually the United States. Hence, I sometimes seemed to find myself incredulously fielding questions about what I'd be doing to celebrate a coming Independence Day or Thanksgiving.

I do occasionally get asked about Guy Fawkes Night (although Americans almost always call it a Day), but that seems to be primarily because of the influence of a certain film...

Anyway, it may not be Thanksgiving over here, but it is in a certain somewhere in the world (or will be soon, when they catch up to today). Happy Thanksgiving, whatever American readers I may have!

More Divynls!

Mighty J_0 Off

How many video games can you name that have only female characters?

Now, there are a number of games with female protagonists, from the Tomb Raider series, of course, to a sizable chunk of the Resident Evil games (perhaps most of them? all of them? I'm not so up on RE lore). However, these girls are still in the minority, and there are whole genres that are still predominantly based around the masculine hero. Games like the Final Fantasy series in particular, with its affinity for phallus-wielding heroes and sacrificial girlfriends springs to mind.* A lot of games provide the option of playing as a male or female protagonist: Niobe or Ghost, boy Pokemon trainer or girl Pokemon trainer, but that really seems to sidestep the issue, and here, I want to focus on games where one is not given a choice, and ideas of gender are hard-wired into the story and make-up of the game itself.

Some games get the idea of a female protagonist totally wrong. This is often because of a "hey, let's put a heroine in here instead of a hero," way of thinking, which often still normalises a male hero and views female protaginists as exceptional. And often, these female characters are still tied into the gender dynamics of a male-dominated game. Take the relatively recent Princess Peach platformer, for example, which came under a lot of critical fire. The game supposedlyclaimed it would present Peach finally as a strong leading woman, but actually presented her more as a hysterical mess of emotions prone to fits of histrionic bawling.

The problem here is that, quite simply, Peach is not leading woman material. It's not her fault. It's the fault of the fact that she was created a long time ago (in terms of video game history) for a game that had her simply as a damsel in distress; a prize for the hero to obtain through his trials. Peach wasn't even animate, she was a single-sprite object; a sleeping beauty, of sorts. And indeed, that fairytale analogy really isn't too much of a stretch. A great many games, from Super Mario through to Prince of Persia (yes, even the modern updating where the princess is at least given some lines), are based on models/myths of masculinity and feminity cribbed from fairytales. Mario's story is ultimately one that posits him as a white knight** who must slay vicious dragons in order to save his beautiful princess - the object of his affections - from the castle tower.

So yes, ultimately, a character born from such a scenario may in fact not make the best leading heroine material, unlike those who are created quite a way from such a storytelling tradition. And yes, video games do, of course, tell stories.

I have to give a massive hat tip to the wonderful auntie pixelante, for inspiring me to even think along these lines (this blog post could not have come to be without her and her unknowing influence on my thought processes). Her creations, like the game Mighty Jill Off or the story "the princess is in another castle" are neatly subversive in their approach to classic video game storytelling in the Mario mold. They illuminate the inherent supposed gender roles whilst simultaneously irreverently perverting them.

There are many things to like about Mighty Jill Off. There's the fact that the "princess" (in this updated to "queen") is no passive victim but instead a demanding domme who insists upon our protagonist's dangerous journey to the hights of the tower in which she keeps herself (she is not "kept") in order to prove her worthiness. Again, this explodes the themes underlying certain classic games at the same time as it playfully messes with and reinvents them.

Another is that this is a game that has an entirely female cast, and for me, what that does is illuminate just how many games there are that feature the exact opposite, to the exclusion of women or the total reduction of their roles in gameplay that they ultimately become nullified completely. I hate to keep harping on Mario, but really, can Peach even be called a "character" in that game, in any real sense of the phrase? It's much easier to see the conflict and antagonism between Mario and Bowser (or, in the earlier Donkey Kong, between Mario and the eponymous antagonist of that game) than it is to see the relationship between Mario and Peach (Rose). You can't have a relationship with a single sprite. In Mighty Jill Off, the queen is in fact the one playfully antagonising the heroine. She is both Peach and Bowser and she is also neither.

The relationship between Jill and the queen is seemingly mirrored in the only other females-only game that I can think of, and another that features only two characters at all: Portal***. In this game, GLaDOS is literally testing the protagonist, putting her through her paces and determining her worth. All the while she teases and provokes the heroine, too. I know for a fact that I'm not the first person to see this relationship between the characters and again, I imagine that if one goes through the archives on auntie's own site one will see her own ruminations of Portal and the relationships presented within.

Classic video games are like fairy tales in that they tend to tell seemingly simple stories of love, desire and struggling through hardships, all mitigated through the technology/economics (another quarter buys you another chance) of the era, but also some very simplified gender roles, too. I'm so glad that there are those who realise this and seek to exploit/undermine/reimagine this.

Can you believe that I originally intended to insert a mini-essay about women in film, too? Another day, perhaps...

Much love to auntie pixelante

*And even then, there was of course the female-heavy Final Fantasy X2, but isn't that simply a case of the exception proving the rule/trend?
**When fully powered, Mario does indeed become clad in mostly white, but that's a total coincidence.
***The only "male" in Portal is a brief sound of a disembodied snarl, supposed to represent a part of GLaDOS' whole personality. It's only slightly less of a "character" than the original Peach.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Just a little atheist vignette

"Societies [are] worse off 'when they have God on their side'" claims this article (found via here) and to be honest, I can't say I'm much surprised. Firstly, I've seen reports and articles that've come to much the same conclusion before. Secondly, I've believed for quite some time that people are more likely to have a decent grasp of right & wrong (which would then, presumably, bring down rates of major crime, one of the factors mentioned in the article) if they actually think about why certain things are right and others are wrong. And of course, no, "because [x holy book] says so" does not qualify as thinking. Then again, that's probably fodder for a whole other post, really.

But one additional thing that caught my eye is this bit towards the end of the article, where the idea of "scientific proof" of God is mentioned. The person bringing up the idea is evidently not religious, but lots of people in the past - from Anselm to Aquinas - have claimed to have discovered rational "proof" of God. Now, I'm certainly not the first atheist to bring this up, but doesn't it entirely undermine your entire anti-atheist argument of "you can't apply scientific thinking to God" (i.e "don't expect to understand God; he's magical") if you do evidently bow down to rationalist, scientific evidence? Again, I'm not the first person to bring this up, but if someone found absolutely definitive proof of the existence of God tomorrow, would religious people stick to their guns and ignore it?

Saturday, 22 November 2008


Two very different takes on Sleeping Beauty

I'm a huge fairy tale geek and a Queen Adreena fan, so this music video by Daisy Chainsaw - the proto-Queen Adreena - for "Hope Your Dreams Come True" is pretty much one of my favourite things ever. The story is taken from Angela Carter's subversive take on Sleeping Beauty: "The Lady of the House of Love" aka "Vampirella," in which the vampiric Beauty is essentially asleep until a fresh, virginal victim boy awakens her.

And from the sublime to the ridiculous, here's a slightly different take on a more "adult" Sleeping Beauty:

Friday, 21 November 2008

Buffy the ubermensch

Ok, I just finished reading "Wolves at the Gate," the latest volume in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer "season eight" comic book series and it got me thinking.

The comics seem to be treading ground that is a lot closer to superhero terrority than what was dealt with on the show itself. I'm not saying that people are gearing up in capes and tights or anything, but the whole idea of Buffy leading a team of super-powered warriors is now looking a lot more like something out of a Wildstorm comic than it ever did back when the characters were three-dimensional and attending high school.

One of the weird things about this, though, is that these characters do have a background in something more "real." Something that seems tangible and three-dimensional, even if it essentially is just as fake. More importantly, the series did have its roots firmly grounded in reality - despite having its branches far above it - and ultimately was a series that was primarily about a group of young people growing up, not a bunch of people fighting monsters.

What I'm getting at, I suppose, is that all of this makes you think about the events of the comic somewhat differently than how you might otherwise be inclined to think. You see events that don't seem particularly out of place in superhero fiction and you find yourself looking at them through a somewhat more realist lens. Or perhaps I really can just never look at superhero fiction the same way again after it was pretty much thoroughly dissected in The Dark Knight.

As has been expressed before, though, there comes a point where you realise that the more realism you insert into the superhero genre, the more you simply serve to highlight the depths of absurdity that lie at the heart of that genre (and now, I suppose, I've given up on the idea that it's possible to not think about the Buffy comics as superhero comics, by value of their generic traits). Additionally, in things like The Dark Knight, you end up explicitly raising questions about what the real-world implications would be if people started acting the way that people like Batman do. If Batman really existed, would he be right to do what he did?

If we keep the realm of the superhero a completely fantastical one, then one could make the case that questions like this hardly matter. After all, questioning the morality and the political and polemical implications of superhero comics might become like pointing out that fairy tales - which are heavily based on themes of murder, child abuse and cannibalism - might be just a little bit violent (I'm no stranger to fairy tale studies, but there comes a point when one really is just pointing out the absurdly and harmlessly obvious). But still, when things are not only grounded in a certain degree of realism, and additionally, when the creators involved have explicitly said that they're approaching a piece of work with a specific political agenda, it becomes difficult to not think about things in real terms rather than as simply the way a particular genre simply is.

All of which brings me to my point about the Buffy comics, which is this: whilst I understood the basic message of the series, that Buffy was supposed to represent the "everygirl," and her gradual coming in to her own was supposed to represent the growing up processes of many girls and boys worldwide, how can one possibly apply that same message to a comic that instead seems to have at its centre the message of "these people are the ubermensch, so to them, the rules do not apply?" I mean, seriously, has anyone even checked to see what is going on in these comics? Buffy has set up an army of supergirls and goes around doing what she wants and answering to no-one, and all just because she has superstrength. I really hate to find myself siding with the villains of a series, who have pointed out much the same, but really, this is just absurd. I guess ultimately, any superhero fiction is like this in a way. To whom are the JLA accountable? Are they not equally a bunch of renegades who've placed themselves above the law? Why is it that Superman can do whatever the hell he wants, just because he can fly? It's questions like this that lead to things like Civil War being written.

But ultimately though, things like this only get considered when you decide to utilise that realist lens; when the veil of fantasy drops away. There's nothing wrong with thinking about the fiction you're consuming and questioning it's inherent morality, in fact it's something I highly recommend. However, I think there's a vast difference between Green Lantern fighting killer bugs in outer space and a 2D Sarah Michelle Gellar running a fascist society where the rules don't apply to those with superior physical abilities. When I look at a comic and can only see the real world impications and how stupid/scary they'd be, the comic is either being very clever or really is rather fundamentally flawed.* I really, honestly enjoyed Wolves at the Gate, but it still looks like I'm leaning towards the latter.

Plus, the added realism only makes me question the truly bizarre bits all the more. Would the series ever pull a giant Mecha-Dawn out of thin air?

Seriously though. GIANT. MECHA. DAWN. What the hell?

*I'd cite Millar's Wanted as a good example of the "Hey, look how scary this'd really be" thing done quite deliberately.


I've noticed a few different posts here and there recently (in particular, one at feminist website feministing and another at comics & feminism blog Occasional Superheroine) dealing with the same topic: the bizarre nature of the highly gendered ads on facebook.

Now, the idea of using the internet to gather personal information about potential consumers so that you can then market stuff to them more effectively is nothing new (once again, I'm going to heavily suggest the (sadly out of print) novel Nearly Roadkill, which deals with a lot of these themes) and its not just an internet-only phenomenon, either. Flicking through magazines or switching between channels also gives an insight into this sort of thing, and for the most part, it's simply sensible, intelligent marketing. Countdown is - supposedly - primarily watched by older viewers, so they advertise things that are aimed at primarily an older audience.

However, when it comes to advertising, one of the clearest divides is between items aimed at one gender or another, and frankly, often this extremely gendered advertising strays into just transparent sexism, or simple idiocy and naivety. Sarah Haskins has a great series of videos over at Current.TV dealing with exactly this, in particular the absurd and frequently patronising  undertones of adverts in the U.S. that are aimed at women.

Facebook though really has taken this to an extreme, as their adverts, based on the information provided by users, often seem to only look for one particular criteria: "has vagina: yes or no".* And, as the commenters I mentioned above have discovered to their dismay, it seems that as far as facebook's advertising clients are concerned, women are primarily concerned with only one thing: losing weight. Now, I really can't add to much to the Feministing post linked above, which deals with just how bizarre this is, and how it's a sign of an all-pervading attack on women's self-esteem and body image, but I just wanted to add a couple of thoughts.

What first struck me about this issue was how, if no women had brought it up, I genuinely might never have noticed it. Facebook advertising isn't like television advertising, where one could easily not fit into the desired demographic that the advertisements around a particular show are clearly aimed at (doesn't Countdown also attract a large student audience, for example? And what about the straight men who watch Sex and the City? I know that they exist), and therefore might be easily exposed to "other people's" adverts. With facebook, it selects the advertisements to show you based on something a little bit more sophisticated than "watches [x programme] therefore must fit into [demographic y]" as you've given the damned thing your details. I identify as male on facebook and therefore have never once seen the ads in question when logging in to check my account. I don't make a habit of looking over people's shoulders when they check their accounts, either. So really, this was an essentially invisible to problem to me until someone else brought it up (talk about invisible male privelege). I've noticed trends in the adverts that I've been exposed to myself, but I was obviously not really paying them much attention, as it took me a while to realise that they must be tailored to my demographic. Ironically enough, it was the homogenous nature of the ads that I received that at first led me to believe that they must in fact be just generic ads that everyone gets.

When I finally did start to notice the ads, I realised that with me, they all seem to focus on two things: a) that I am male, and b) that I am single. Hence, I've been bombarded with guilt-tripping, self-esteem attacking ads along the lines of "[my age] and still single?" (said, no doubt, in a voice equal parts surprise and pity, or like a sterotypical Jewish mother).

One could of course always simply not tell Facebook one's gender. It's not like that isn't a viable option (thankfully). However, I really am split on this one. On the one hand, I encourage those who refuse the gender binary, but on the other hand, I can't help but feel that this sort of action is just a kind of closeting oneself rather than addressing the real problem. Idiocy in incredibly and ludicrously gendered advertising isn't going to go away just because a bunch of people decide not to look at it (despite what a certain Treehouse of Horror might tell you), at least, not unless everyone looks away, and I can't see that happening anytime soon. 

So yeah, facebook advertisers assuming that all women need to be told how to diet. I realise can't argue with Valerie D'Orazio's conclusion on this one.

*Thanks to Cruella, via Feministing, for that one.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Ok, I lied about that being my last post for today


Carey vs Marcotte

Ok, I'm posting a lot of things in quick succession here, so I promise this'll be my last one for now. I just wanted to point out how weird it is that Pandagon, one of my favourite progressive blogs, have put a post up about Mariah Carey and her attitude to sex/marriage.

Now I'm not saying for a second that this sort of thing is innapropriate for a political blog, as even - in fact, often especially - pop culture is responsible for a lot of the prevailing attitudes that a society has, so I'm not for a second asking, as some of the commenters have, "why are you even bothering with this?" No, I'm bringing this up because I actually consider myself a not-so-closeted Mariah Carey fan.

Now, just a caveat, I swear that I do like other, better types of music too. Just a little bit of discretion, my favourite band in the whole wide world are the wonderful The Dresden Dolls (perhaps not better than Mariah Carey, dependent on one's personal taste). But what can I say? I suppose I just have a soft spot for polished pop-ballads performed by someone with an unmistakeable natural talent.

Still, sometimes I do wish that she would just keep her mouth shut when she's not singing, as otherwise I find myself doing ever more complex feats of cognitive dissonance to keep myself liking her while a lot of her admitted ideas and politics are so transparently slightly backwards and/or stupid. Pandagon has just gone and underscored a great example of this.

Bizarre amazon review of the day

David Cross' "Shut Up, You Fucking Baby", reviewed by L. Hicklin

"As an Arrested Development fan, I bought this just for David Cross, but there's no Tobias here! It's funny, sometimes extremely so, but I think he gets too involved with politics, somthing dangerous for comedians."

Ok, let's look at that last line again, shall we? "...He gets too involved with politics, somthing (sic) dangeorus for comedians." Frankly, this deserves a massive "what the hell?" Since when was political satire off the menu? Since when did it not in fact often serve to raise a comedian's profile? Everyone from Stephen Colbert to Rory Bremner might not agree with this guy.

On internet anonymity and avatar attachment

I keep toying with the idea of setting up a blog that would deal with things that I'd rather not publish on a blog that I know has been visited by people that I know in real life. I.E. a blog that would deal with some more clandestine things.

Bizarrely though, one thing that keeps tripping me up - aside from my own shyness and ambivalence about the whole process of writing and/or archivism - is my attachment to my own net avatar, the inauspicious "Jayunderscorezero" or "J_0". The other day, I tried to utilise a brand new handle and found that I just simply couldn't. I went back and changed what I'd put down to "Jayunderscorezero". It's a weird little phenomenon, probably revealing a deep ambivalence about my own net handle: I don't want to go by my "irl" name, but I don't want to go by a name other than the one I've carved out for myself in the virtual space of the internet.

I'm the same in video games. My friend's copy of Rock Band being a great example, as in that I've developed a great attachment to my avatar, and have spent some time in the game deciding how best to outfit them. It's weird the little emotional attachments we invest in these things, isn't it?

Anyway, loads and loads has been written on the subject of online avatars, the relationships we have with them and where they fit within our wholesale models of ourselves. Personally, I'd particularly recommend Stone's "The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age" as well as the novel "Nearly Roadkill" by Kate Bornstein and Caitlin Sullivan. Bring a handy knowledge of/interest in postmodernist attitudes to identity and the body to both.

Not funny

Apparently I'm a lot funnier than I think I am (despite the best efforts of this very blog to ptove otherwise).

The reason I say this is because I just had the rather odd experience of seeing a comment on an old post at someone else's blog and thinking "Hey, that's pretty funny," sometime before noticing that it was in fact I who had written the original comment.

I'm not at all surprised that I had written a comment and then forgotten about it. After all, I must have written thousands of the things over the years. What surprised me was my reaction to my own writing, which seemed so alien to my reaction to my own writing when I know that it's my writing.

I guess that typically I view my own writing with so much ingrained self-criticism and doubt that I of course find myself totally unable to judge my work objectively. My writing for this very blog is no exception. As a matter of fact, it's for this very reason that I tend not to write so much here. It's also the reason that I am yet to find a discernable theme for this blog and also why every single post (as if there are enough for me to come out with a statement like that) ends up becoming somewhat of an essay on the blog itself mixed with a self-deprecating apology of sorts.*

The weirdest thing? I was thinking about writing a post about a writer's inability to be objective about his own words just the other day, before the above event happened. Jungian synchronicity, perhaps?

*In the words of Mike Sterling, "blogging about blogging is a sin."

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

On starting off on the wrong foot

Ok, now I feel like a dick for starting off my posting with such a bitchy little dig at a series of books I haven't even read. Still, I know my own writing style, I come off as bland and insipid when I'm trying to be "nice". I'm usually only ever inspired to write anything at all when I'm some variation of angry or pissed off. Still, elation, total fannish geekery and nerdy crushes of all sorts tend to get me in the writing mood, too, so I hope to see more of the latter, more positive type of posting in the future.

Although that doesn't mean that there won't be any venting from now on. However, I'll try to keep the angry venting to actually important things like, say, politics. Man could I have written a lot on here during certain recent political events. Still, luckily I did all that writing on facebook where some people I know actually read it. I might want to wait until a little trickle of readers comes in before I start putting things on here that I actually want to be read. Though maybe that's a chicken & egg scenario and I need to put the important stuff on here first...

Either way, I can't guarantee that every post on here will be either important or positive. Expect me to be capricious in my posting, I guess. ("Expect capriciousness?" What the hell am I even typing?)

I have a theory about the Twilight books...

...Which basically boils down to the idea that the reason they're as successful as they are is primarily because they are aimed at a teenaged audience, which means an audience likely too young to realise just how incredibly cliched and done-before the ideas within are.

Case in point, a conversation I had with someone about the books in question:

Other person: Hey, you know the Twilight books?
Me: Aren't those the ones that are just Kelley Armstrong and Lauren K. Hamilton books but with all the sex removed?
Other person: Who?