Psycho Sunday: Badass Women in Combat Gear #3.5

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Raise your hand if you spent any part of the 1970s spinning around in your living room, hoping that this time, you’d gain superpowers, a golden lasso and maybe an invisible jet. Watching Diana Prince (Linda Carter) beat up the bad guys and save Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner) again was very fulfilling and set me up for two decades of disappointed TV watching until the mid-1990s came around and Wonder Women’s spiritual daughters, Xena and Buffy, appeared kicking ass and dusting their enemies.

And while Linda Carter will always be Wonder Woman to me, the new DC comics movie is coming out this spring, with Gal Gadot in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Given that Gadot will be in the solo Wonder Woman film in 2017, I have hopes that the actor, writers and directors step up to the plate. I had always hoped for a Joss Whedon written/directed film with Lucy Lawless in the title role, but such vain hopes were not to be.

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I still want some bullet-repelling bracelets in case I need to travel outside of New England, but I suppose if they were out there on the market, the NRA would try to make them go away.

Badass Women in Combat Gear: Valentine’s Day Edition, Or, Dorothy Parker Was Wrong

((For those of you who, like me, were not Math Majors in college, I apologize. But this particular blog post seems to need a ridiculous number of parentheses and a rather surprising number of braces {curly} and brackets [square]. Be warned.))

There is a fairly famous rhyming couplet by the 1920s Algonquin Round Table wit, Dorothy Parker, that has been widely anthologized (and it suddenly occurs to me that a whole slew [this is a technical literary term] of the editors anthologizing this were {white} men], which says, “Men don’t make passes/At girls who wear glasses.”

I have been thinking about this since Mike Allegra (heylookawriterfellow) asked me to add to my BWCG series some BWCGs who wear glasses. I thought of this most recently after viewing a teaser for this coming Tuesday’s Agent Carter, in which Agent Sousa (the delightful Enver Gokaj) says to (an injured and therefore unavailable-for-the-mission) Agent Peggy Carter (the even more delightful Hayley Atwell) that what they need for the coming mission is someone who can “blend in with the glamour and throw down in the gutter.” Damn, Spanky, I LOVE the writers on this show!

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Any Gentle Reader who has spent any time at all reading this blog will recognize that this is not only the dual nature of what I look for in my Female Leads of TV, Film, and Life, but also a micro-blueprint of who I would like to eventually be. I have to admit that the second part sounds much less painful to me than the first part, because as Agent Dana Scully admits in the most recent New X-Files episode, running/fighting in three-inch heels is no country for really anyone, but absolutely not Women, Older Men or Sane People of any Gender. Okay, she didn’t say that.

But as Jane Austen might have said, “It was nowhere said, but everywhere implied.” Come on. Amy Acker has said that at one point her only “stunt ability was running in heels” (Citation, as Wikipedia would point out, desperately needed. My guess? A ComiCon. San Diego? Maybe. Who knows?).

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My point here is simply that Dorothy Parker was wrong and Mike Allegra is right. (Full disclosure: I wear glasses. So sue me. {Twenty-odd years at MIT’s Writing Center (some of them more odd than others) has made me as blind as my cat Musashi, if not as a bat or a possum. [If M. were a little boy, he’d be wearing Coke bottle glasses and a bowtie]}.

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So in honor of a Sunday-facing Valentine’s Day (black Tuesday meets the Lord’s day), I offer you some of my favorite female actors (Nope, don’t call me a teacheress, professoress, editoress or martial artistess; I avoid calling them actresses for the same reason) in glasses.

 

I tried very hard to chase down the pics I have seen online of Lucy Lawless as herself, rather than Xena, wearing glasses, to no avail. Similarly, her soul-grandmother, Linda Carter (the always-and-everywhere Wonder Woman, despite DC’s brilliant work with Gal Gadot).

And because I believe it is important to look back and forward at the same time, I also give you Ingrid Bergman and Scarlet Johansson.

Also, the classic, brilliant, unimitatable Katherine Hepburn on a skateboard, because duh.

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To my pal, Mike Allegra, men and women who love women in glasses or, you know, on skateboards: YOU’RE WELCOME. HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY. NOW WE WILL LET THE WEATHER BECOME WARM AGAIN.

Psycho Sunday: Badass Women in Combat Gear #4

Again with the Joss Whedon ladies. Now there’s a surprise. Number Four is Melinda May and All the Other Women on Agents of SHIELD.

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Agent Melinda May is an older Asian beauty with badass combat skills and a lack of extraneous affect. The character went through some serious shit back in Bahrain and hasn’t been the same since. And although we are always wary of badass chicks with psychological baggage getting in the way of their having a normal life, we can’t not appreciate the badassery of May.

The thing is, though, that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is chock full of bad ass women, from Utterly Badass to Seriously badass to Gradually Badass to Occasionally Badass to–what?–Administratively/Categorically Badass?

And the rest, in order from Utterly Badass down to Eventually Badass are:

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Isabelle Hartley. When Bobbi Morse says to her, “You know I just love your whole thing, right?” you know Izzie’s Utterly Badass.

 

ADRIANNE PALICKI

MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. – “A Fractured House” – The world turns against S.H.I.E.L.D. when Hydra impersonates them to attack The United Nations, and an unexpected enemy leads the charge to bring about their downfall, on “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” TUESDAY, OCTOBER 28 (9:00-10:00 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Kelsey McNeal) ADRIANNE PALICKI

Bobbi “Mockingbird” Morse. Her superpowers are sarcasm, escrima batons, and having sex with her ex-husband in the back of an SUV.

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Skye. Sorry, Daisy Johnson. You will always be Skye to me.

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Maria Hill. Hers is mostly an administrative badassery, but somebody has to do it. (Also, she looks so much sexier in the SHIELD uniform of Avengers than she does in the pencil skirt and four-inch heels of Avengers/Ultron. Bleh. Joss Whedon, you have disappointed me.)

 

Jemma Simmons. She has, as Coulson points out, “two PhDs in fields I can’t even pronounce” and a really cute wardrobe. Also, she loves Leo Fitz, who deserves to be loved by a super genius like himself.

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Victoria Hand. Because how many administrators of huge national security operations can get away with red streaks in their hair?

The Problems of the Epic Fantasy Fan Poet: Subtext that Has Been Seen Cannot Be Unseen

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A poet, among other things, is a problem solver. (Ha! Bet you didn’t see that coming.) It’s true. We try to find a thing to say and then say it in the clearest and/or most beautiful way we can. A fan poet, like a fan fiction writer, is also trying to resolve the problems in an original piece of fiction/television caused by the original creators and writers. Sometimes this is about bringing Characters Who Shouldn’t Have Died back to life; more frequently, it is about fulfilling the subtext romantic possibilities of a pair of characters, whether or not that relationship ever happened in the official canon or not.

Back in the 1990s, I never saw the romantic subtext between Xena and Gabrielle. I just thought they were really great friends who had each other’s back no matter what. I thought this up until Season 6, episodes 19 and 20, two episodes right before the series finale, by which time, to quote Rupert Giles, “the subtext [was] rapidly becoming text.” Including a poem by Sappho, fer cryin’ out loud. Even I with my firmly established Straight Brain couldn’t ignore that.

Part of the difference in how I see the show now is the difference in the time it takes to view it. In the nineties, when I was watching a 45-minute episode once a week, it was easy to not see the way the relationship was changing. Now, when I can watch five episodes in four hours, the minor touches, the number of times Xena kisses Gabrielle on the head or touches her arm–it all stands out so much more.

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Part of the difference is simply how the world has changed in the last twenty years. In 1995, I thought I only knew half a dozen gay people. In 2008, my state, Massachusetts legalized gay marriage here, and I saw a lot of friends take advantage of this. In 2015 the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage as the law of the land, and increasingly in film and on television we have been seeing LGBTQ romantic storylines as, gasp!, text. Maintext: sometimes as side plots, as in Marvel’s Jessica Jones, and sometimes as main plots as in the film Carol.

So this led me to the motivating questions behind so much fan fiction: when did the two characters finally get together and how?

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It was clear to me from the beginning that Xena would have a hard time initiating anything. The six seasons show how most of the physical relationships Xena had in her past were manipulative and destructive, so she would be extremely cautious about expressing her desire, since passion had so often been entwined with power issues, perhaps in part to mask the vulnerability she had no interest in feeling or showing. Also, because Gabrielle is a virgin and has only ever shown an interest in men, Xena might feel hesitant to express her feelings, because if the answer is no, their journeying together will be awkward, or possibly even over. So I wrote this, which conveniently also explained the episodes when Lucy Lawless was attending conventions or doing publicity like the Jay Leno show where she broke her pelvis.

 

On the Road Alone, X. Explains Herself

 

Sometimes the heat builds up to such a pitch,

I have to leave you, make up a mission,

Far away–urgent–must rush–I will

Be back soon. You say, “Don’t forget me!”

As if I ever could. That’s why I go.

 

Only by riding away can I feel the heat

And weight of you, the one person in the world

I can’t have. I lie awake by the fire

Sweating for what I want, the one day

You turn and catch me looking, and understand.

 

Far away from you, I have space to imagine

What it could be like. Maybe your eyes close,

As you shudder when I run my hand

Down your arm, your leg. Maybe you breathe

Against my neck, wordless for a change.

 

Maybe you press yourself against me,

Urgent, your cool fingers finding, sharing

My warmth. Maybe you ask for more, and again,

And eventually lay your head against my shoulder.

Far away from you, I allow myself to imagine.

 

Far away, I can get you out of my system

For a little while, relieve the pressure of

My wanting deep in the belly, the knot

That ties me to you, that no one else can see,

Not even, or especially, not you.

Icons & Action Figures

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Every once in a while, I remember what this blog was supposed to be about: poetry. How to make it, how to fix it, how to think about words and lines and tropes and all that stuff. Somewhere along the way, my recent obsession with American popular culture has kicked in, in part because, duh, Joss Whedon, but also because I am fascinated with how we construct identity and community through interacting with symbols, whether the symbols be our clothes, as my friends Meredith and Amy have recently discussed in their blogs, or music, interior decoration, or their particular fandom.

It’s not just the Greek Orthodox Church that uses icons. We all carry around in our heads the picture of a grandparent, a teacher, a college friend, a movie star, and in different ways we refer back to them at different times. Whenever I write a long piece of nonfiction, I remember my high school English teacher, Sr. Kevin White, talking about conciseness.

In my first book, which is coming along eventually, I have poems about Barbie and Ken, Raggedy Ann and Dapper Dan, Amelia Earhart, Wonder Woman, Lucy Lawless, Sam Spade, and my friends at GreenFaith. In our modern world icons and action figures are increasingly interchangeable, for better or for worse. So I don’t have to write my poetry about some incredibly high culture narrative like Paradise Lost or the Ancient Mariner. Shakespeare was popular culture once; hence all the bawdy jokes even in the tragedies. And I’m not alone in writing about women warriors: Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene uses the character of Britomart, the virgin knight, to stand in for Queen Elizabeth I and British might (painting by Walter Crane). This reminds me of a folk singer who came to Middlebury College a million years ago. I still remember one of her original songs (in addition to the one about the Shrewsbury Moose):

A doll is someone who loves you,

Someone who hugs you when you cry.

I know a doll when I see one

And Rambo could be one

If he would only try!

So tell me peoples, who are your icons and action figures?CIMG1675

The Stories We Tell and Live Into

As a writer who is also a Christian, I find I think about Passover and Easter as being about the Story. We tell the stories of Exodus and the Passion of Christ at this sacred time of year to remind ourselves of who we are. That is what ritual is for: we eat specific food and tell specific stories and sing specific songs and we know ourselves as a people descended from the people who chose those foods, stories and songs, gathered or invented them and gave them meaning.

I think of this in the context of the popular cultural narratives that have been occupying my thoughts these last few weeks, in particular, the two separate and very different first century CE localities of ancient Greece and Rome, brought to us by Renaissance Pictures, Rob Tapert and Lucy Lawless, Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Xena: Warrior Princess. The more recent Spartacus (2010 to 2013) was about men (and women) bound to the gladiatorial arena. It was about despair and meaningless death. In contrast, the earlier XWP (1995 to 2001) was about changing one’s way and rising from death into something better.

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I have binge watched XWP more than once. I rented the DVDs of Spartacus once; while the half naked gladiators were nice, there is no way I would watch those shows again. They are too much like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, in that when blood sprayed across my computer screen, I automatically found myself throwing up my arms to keep the blood from splashing across my face.

Yep. That bad.

I think about all this now because of the two major interpretations of Christ’s death and resurrection. There are people who talk about Christ’s dying for our sins, as if God was so pissed off with humans that he (it is always he in these readings) needed to kill his own Son to make up for our sin. Weird shit, that. In contrast, a more liberal reading says that humans killed Jesus, but God the Father/Creator/Mother resurrected him to prove to us lame humans that death is not the end, that God can overcome this enormous problem.

So when I look at the stories I use to constitute my identity, I often choose the ones that are not about characters trying to see how much they can get away with but about characters engaged in rescue and redemption, rather like the Jewish idea of tikkun olam, the repair of the world. It is an ongoing project, a battle that never is entirely won. All you can do is stay on the road, take good friends with you for the journey, and keep telling yourselves the stories that remind you who you are, and how strong you can actually be.

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What the Eyes Want

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So I have once again been binge-watching Xena: Warrior Princess (XWP) on Netflix. Now I understand why I binge-watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS); it is a fairly aesthetically complete show, the writers quickly came to write with a consistent voice (Joss Whedon’s), and they were always, always true to the characters (no mysterious evil babies, unless you count Dawn Summers, as many people do). The villains are compelling and the power relations between Slayer, Scoobies, victims and other non-Scoobies get worked out in interesting ways; this last probably is held together by the high-school-as-horror framework that is the series’ origin story.

In comparison, XWP ranged wildly from overblown operatic tragedy to high camp, often from one episode to the next. The writers wrote narrative arcs that fans twenty years later are still lamenting. And there was not just one mysterious and/or evil baby; there were TWO. And do not EVEN get me started on the final two episodes; although they were aesthically very pretty, and Renee O’Connor handled her katana fight scenes with tremendous aplomb, the story-runners basically broke every rule in the book, betrayed the fans, and put a stink on something so many of us loved. I have taken to my self-styled deconstructionist friend, Jenna Tucker’s way of handling this and I write those two episodes out of the canon. Kaput.

Also, although the Hong Kong style of fighting was always very high quality, sometimes the production value was a bit cut rate or cheesy (think of the Evil Egg Men in “Prometheus”). So here is me with my master’s degrees and my interest in High Quality Popular Culture. Why do I keep going back to this show as a thirsty woman back to sparkling fountain?

And what went through my mind as I wrote that question is one key to the answer. My internal image was the cartoon man crawling through a desert; I had to consciously choose to replace the man with a woman to represent myself in the metaphor more accurately. XWP went off the air in 2001. Fourteen years later, the vast majority of TV shows and films still don’t pass the Bechdel Test, which is that a show must:

  1. Have at least two women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man.

(This is, one would think, NOT A HARD TEST TO PASS. And as other critics have noted it isn’t even the best test to see if a movie could be feminist, as a true feminist agenda has intersections with other groups striving for equality—race, class, LGBTQ, and disability are all groups who are institutionally under- or unrepresented in popular culture.)

So one simple answer is that XWP is still one of the best shows out there for showing strong women interested in a variety of things besides men—their work, their values, their artistic and redemptive goals, who catches the fish and who cooks it, and whether we ever owe the gods our allegiance. Male screenwriters would be surprised to find out what women ACTUALLY talk about, and that the large proportion of our thought really isn’t about them even if we are straight (and these two characters are arguably bisexual if you read the text and the subtext together). It is rare to see female friendship portrayed so richly (even if the two characters sometimes have epic fights, in part due to writerly manipulation To Heighten The Conflict).

Another reason might simply be the aesthetic appeal of seeing the beautiful and athletic Lucy Lawless, Renee O’Connor, and Hudson Leick doing this elaborate acrobatic fighting with the bad guys. And most writers enjoy seeing a writer as the maker of narrative within narrative, which Renee O’Connor’s Gabrielle the bard offers us, in both serious and humorous ways.

But what I think is more important is something I found in James Hillman’s book: The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. In a preface made of epigraphs, he quotes Vladimir Nabokov, who says, “Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that passed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life’s foolscap.” (From Speak, Memory)

I like this idea of a watermark on the soul, an image that resonates when it meets like images in the world. Hillman claims that the “acorn” of a person’s “genius” (in the Roman sense) often shows itself early in childhood. So I think back to the earliest period of insomnia I can remember, around three, when I would lie in bed and retell myself stories like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, generally recast with myself as the princess with the sword and the horse, racing off to save the kidnapped prince. Sounds like a just woman warrior watermark to me.

And the fact that I have studied martial arts off and on for two decades and been a poet for more than three decades, have studied voice, and teach writing: So Xena is the big, tough woman warrior I always wanted to be and Gabrielle is the short blonde bard I have become. I begin to think I watch the show to help me figure out how to integrate these images/roles within myself.

Also, it makes me laugh.

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James Hillman. The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. New York: Random