Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Superheroines on the Big Screen, Or: Why Do Studios Hate Women?

This post is an elaboration of a tweet storm I wrote the day it occurred. Recent events have inspired me to expand on the idea. Contains some salty language. Consider yourself warned.

A few weeks ago at the end of our weekly comic discussion group, we ended up talking about female-led [live action] comic book movies. We ticked off the films we could recall: Supergirl (1984), Red Sonja (1985), Tank Girl (1995), Barb Wire (1996), Catwoman (2004), and Elektra (2005). We forgot Sheena (1984) and Josie and the Pussycats (2001).

Eight. We remembered six of eight films in more than 30 years

Just to put that in perspective, Batman has had NINE movies, not counting direct to video or animated, since 1966. Counting the direct to vid and/or animated, Batman has 32. Superman also has nine, since 1951, but only 18 counting animated and DtV. Spider-Man? five since 1977, eight counting TV movies.

There are also made for television movies, and a direct-to-video movie: Wonder Woman (1974, TV movie/failed pilot starring Cathy Lee Crosby), Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996, TV movie/pilot, other TV movies: '98, '99), Vampirella (1996, direct to video), Witchblade (2000, TV movie/pilot), and Painkiller Jane (2005, TV movie/pilot). Now, to be clear, there are other female-led movies based on comics/graphic novels. I'm being a little arbitrary in how I'm looking at "comic book movies." I'm looking at superheroes, here, for the purpose of keeping this reasonably tight.

So here are the Eight (live action, big screen):

Supergirl (1984) Starring Helen Slater
Budget: $35M, box office: $14.3M, loss: $20.7M
It was produced, directed, and the screenplay written, by dudes. (Shocking, right?) I've been trying to get my hands on a used DVD of this to revisit it. Oddly, if it's such an awful film, you'd think it'd be easy to find a used copy. You'd be wrong.

Sheena (1984) Starring Tanya Roberts
Budget: $25M, box office: $5.8M, loss: $19.2M
This screenplay was also written by a couple of dudes. I haven't seen this in years so I can't really comment on its specific terribleness. Ebert apparently thought it was more suited for the Playboy channel. I believe my husband recalls this movie with some adolescent fondness...

Red Sonja (1985) Starring Brigitte Nielsen
Budget: $17.9M, box office: $6.9M, loss: $11M
All dudes, again. But one of the things that sunk this ship was that Nielsen was a model, not an actress, picked up only weeks before shooting began. Naturally, she wasn't much of an actress in the film, because she wasn't an actress in the first place. (Also, the script sucked, guys. No amount of good acting could have saved it.)

Tank Girl (1995) Starring Lori Petty and Naomi Watts
Budget: $25M, box office: $6M, loss: $19M
A woman (Rachel Talalay) directed this, but it was written and produced by dudes. I have to assume that the world wasn't ready for Lori Petty in 1995, because this movie rocks, and I have no idea why it didn't do any better than that. Ms Talalay: Thank you for this gift you gave the world.

Barb Wire (1996) Starring Pamela Anderson
Budget: $9M, box office: $3.8M, loss: $5.2M
Directed and produced by dudes, story by Ilene Chaiken, who co-wrote the screenplay. Can't comment personally, as I haven't seen it other than snips and pieces. Enough to see Pam can't act. (Ugh.)

Josie and the Pussycats (2001) Starring Rachael Lee Cook, Tara Reid and Rosario Dawson
Budget: $39M, box office: $14.9M, loss: $24.1M
The writers Harry Effont (who has a cameo) and Deborah Kaplan also directed this film, produced by dudes. I have not seen it, but wow does it sound stupid. (Not as stupid as the Jem movie, but we're not going there...)

Catwoman (2004) Starring Halle Barry
Budget: $100M, box office: $82.1M, loss: $17.9M
Theresa Rebeck wrote the story with John Brancato and Michael Ferris, and those dudes wrote the screenplay with John Rogers (no idea what happened to Rebeck on the screenplay, why she wrote the story but not that). Denise De Novi produced it with Edward L. McDonnell, and it was directed by a dude. (Natch -- this movie was so male-gazy, could it have been anything other than a man directing it?) The story was bad, the script was bad, the fact that the Catwoman origin was so stupid was bad. And that fucking costume...

Elektra (2005) Starring Jennifer Garner
Budget: $43M, box office: $56.7M, on paper this made $13.7M (commercial failure)
Written, produced and directed by dudes. Now, of the 8 movies this one did the "least bad." It made money, or at least made back the budget, but that's gross, so it's probably still a net loss in the books. It's been a while since I've seen this one, too, I don't remember being that impressed with Garner. (Wikipedia is kinder, but it's been a very long time.)

Why did these movies fail? 

1. Poorly written scripts.
Write a better script, and you'll get a better movie. It's AMAZING! Invest some time into those characters, maybe hire a woman, since many of the men in Hollywood don't seem to understand how women think/act in real life. Can only women right female characters? Nope! Talk to Greg Rucka, who writes some of the best female characters in comics, it can be done. Sadly, he's not a scriptwriter... that I know of.
2. Poorly-chosen actors. (Or not actors at all, coughNielsencough.)
Not every actor is the right person for the job. Sometimes you get someone who turns out to be so damned perfect, you can't imagine anyone else, ever again, in that role. Who else other than Ryan Reynolds could be Deadpool? Who else other than Chris Evans could be Captain America (even though he was not-quite-right for Johnny Storm)? And yeah, I'm going there: who else other than Chris Reeve can be Superman? And Lynda Carter was an amazing Wonder Woman; that's a tough torch to pass. (I don't envy Gadot.)
3. Poorly designed wardrobe.
If you want women to come to your movies, maybe don't turn your female heroes into sexpots. Honest to god, Red Sonja looked less sexualized than Catwoman did, and she was wearing less. Male Gaze is a thing, y'all, and it's killing the movies for us women! So much about that Catwoman movie screamed "this movie is not for you, it's for the fanboys" while I watched it. Michelle Pfeiffer in her vinyl getup was less fetishizing than Berry was. Pfeiffer made me want to go find people to punch; Berry made me want to go wash. Is that really what you want your moviegoers to come away with? an urge to get clean?
4. Poorly promoted features.
If you don't promote your movie, how will people get excited about it? How will people know you have faith in your film? This is especially true today with social media. Who's promoting the movie? Anyone, actors, studio heads, directors? Are there toys? Cereal tie-ins? Trailers? Bus stand ads? Ads in the comics themselves? If we don't see these things, we will think you don't believe in your project, and if you don't believe in it, why should we?

Which brings me to my segue...

Why haven't we seen any Wonder Woman promotion?

This is Wonder Woman's 75th anniversary. Why is DC not hyping the shit out of this movie? Why am I not seeing Gal Gadot's face everywhere? This is the first major superheroine on the big screen since 1984. It's been 33 years since DC gave us Supergirl (when they were capitalizing on Superman's fame and success, or trying to). Thirty-three years. We haven't had Wonder Woman since Lynda Carter's television series ran from 1975-1979.

Am I concerned about the lack of visibility of Wonder Woman in the media right now? You betcha! If this movie flops, the way those eight up there flopped, the studios will all say, "See, superheroine movies don't work, even WONDER WOMAN can't make box office cash, so we're never doing it again!" and pull the plug on any super lady projects for every and ever, amen. Never mind the fact that Snyder has his dark and gritty fingers messing up the hope and light that is Diana... Never mind the fact that I'm already hearing that Pine is taking a forward role when Steve Trevor should be in the background... Never mind the fact that they aren't promoting this film...

And if it's that they don't know how to market to women..? I dunno, maybe hire some fucking women to your marketing staff and ask them?? Here's a hint: it doesn't need to be pink to sell it to us. In fact, if it's pink with a Wonder Woman logo on it, I won't buy it. 

And this has significant ramifications for future films. What about Captain Marvel, that's been pushed back, what? twice now? If Wonder Woman fails, I bet you they pull the plug on Captain Marvel so fast... And we can kiss Batgirl goodbye, too, even if "make 'em suffer" Whedon is writing it. You know execs are watching to see what happens with Wonder Woman, to see whether or not to go forward with their stuff.

Anyway... I'm looking at a list of "upcoming" comic book films and I'm seeing so many more superdudes... and I am so done with superdudes. One more fucking remake of one more fucking dude movie and I swear I will scream. But here's the thing: because the comics don't bother to develop their superheroines, they're hard to turn into movies. They're not much more than two-dimensional characters (if you'll pardon the expression) because so much more time and attention has been given to all the dudes. Goddamn ANT-MAN got a movie before Captain Marvel. Before She-Hulk. Before Spider-Woman. Before A-Force (I would watch the shit out of A-Force, man, oh please someone give me an A-Force movie). Give more life to those female characters on the page, and give them life on the screen. Make them people the same way the male characters are people. It's really that simple. Then the comics will sell better (they really will! honest!) and then you have material to make a movie from, which you can then promote, and make more money.

Look, the whole point of comics is to make money, and it's not sustainable if you don't bring in new readers. Well, there won't be any new readers if the publisher keep pandering to the middle-aged white guys by saying shit like "diversity doesn't sell." No. You don't sell diversity because you won't promote it. Big diff, my dudes. But if you want to keep on with the same old white guy BS that you're shilling, and the male gazy crap in the movies, then I can take my dollars and spend it somewhere else... Lumberjanes is friggin awesome. Too bad a dude is writing the screenplay for that film... (/facepalm)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Dr. Lepore, Meet Prof. Blanch

You've seen it, right? That ridiculous article Dr. Jill Lepore (author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman) wrote in the New Yorker, titled "Looking at Female Superheroes with Ten-Year-Old Boys" is devoid of context. She admitted that she was an academic, not a pop culture nerd, when she wrote her Wonder Woman book, and researching a single character from that angle is an interesting idea -- a fresh perspective, even. For this, she relies on a ten year old boy (and her own biases) for her information about the characters, because everyone knows young boys are right about everything.

Here's where I might have a few strong opinions*. To suggest that "they all look like porn stars" on the cover of A-Force #1 is completely ignorant, literally ignorant. One only had to survive comics in the 90s, in those dark "bad girls" days, to know what "porn stars" look like in a comics context. (See Lady Death, Witchblade, Avengelyne et al. if you want porn stars.)

"Their power is their allure, which, looked at another way, is the absence of power. Even their bodies are not their own. They are without force." There's another utterly stupid thing to say. First of all, technically, none of their bodies are their own, because all of the characters are subject to the whims of the artists and writers currently on the books; that is true of male and female characters. Secondly, she knows nothing about these characters, what their stories are, to be able to say something like that with conviction. She-Hulk, for example, has a helluva lot of agency. She's a character who's had love affairs (often disastrous ones), plus a career, plus be a hero... Jen Walters rocks! She's big and green and has mighty cleavage, but is having boobs a sin now? I have a pretty substantial rack, too. Perhaps I should start binding my chest, since that seems to be a bad thing.

It's true that a lot of the female characters were created as female mirrors to the male, often to lock down the trademarks so no one else could. It's also true that for a lot of their histories, these female characters have been portrayed in a very male-gazey sort of way. But to suggest they have no power, no force, is bullshit. Plus, things are changing. To take these characters and "reclaim" them for a new generation of comics readers is a good thing. If she can't see that, then she's also not paying attention to what the industry is trying to do, even though she admits that's what Marvel is trying to do.

The snide attitude throughout the whole article prompted me to remove the Wonder Woman book from my Amazon wish list. I don't like the stuck-up tone that vibrates off the screen, and if that's how she wrote The Secret History, I'll pass. (And frankly, the clumsy way she stuck that barely-contextual Marston research in the middle of the Marvel/A-Force article, doesn't give me much faith in her abilities, either.)

I suggest that Jill Lepore needs to take a class or three from Christy Blanch at the first opportunity, if (soon to be Dr.) Blanch gets another Super MOOC going. Lepore could learn an awful lot in a Gender and/or Social Issue Through Comic Books class. Assuming her Ivy League tower would let her lower herself that far...

You can be an academic without being a jerk about it. You can be nerdy and geeky and talk about Batman's PTSD and whether or not race-changing affects characters for good or ill. My fellow Super MOOC "graduates" do it every day, in a very civilized and academic way, discussing everything from video game portrayals to gendered toy aisles to mental health in comics. And not one of us has that snarky, superior tone that Lepore does, because she clearly thinks comics are not really worth discussing seriously, and it shows.

I hope she reads the open letter Leia Calderon wrote her. I hope she reads G. Willow Wilson's piece, too. Frankly, I don't care if she reads this or not. She won't like what she reads here, and she wouldn't take me seriously anyway; I'm only a B.S.†, not a Ph.D.

*I always have strong opinions. Ask anyone.
†Bachelor of Science, Psychology, with minors in Philosophy & Sociology

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

I Am Elemental! Action Figures Review

This is a review I meant to write some five months ago, and somehow things just slipped away from me. How is it May already??

I backed a Kickstarter campaign for a set of "action figures for girls" that promised to be both feminine and fierce, without having the ridiculous body-toppling proportions that so many of the female action figures have now. When I saw the campaign, I was all over the whole idea. Girls need this stuff, need to have the tools for imaginative play that allows them to be the heroes of their own stories, and innovative products like this would enable exactly that. I didn't hesitate, and pledged at the $65 level that included:
  • All 7 action figures 
  • IAmElemental journal
  • Drawstring bag
  • Bracelet (the figures' shields double as charms for the bracelet) 
  • Trading cards
  • Carry case
The project was fully funded, shipped on time and I received my package in time for Christmas, even. (They really hustled to make that happen -- major kudos to them for that.) I snapped a phone pic of my loot before I got busy with family stuff:

Merry Xmas to me!

Here's a bunch more photos, better than that one. The box is a metal "lunchbox" style, 10x7x4", white with a black handle. The cardboard sleeve in the first two photos shows the action figures, front and back, and a list of the enclosed items. The box itself has the "I Am Elemental™" mask logo and "Play With Power™" slogan on the front and back. The side has the figures' elemental symbols.

Each figure was packaged like this.
There were actually two trading cards with each figure, one to keep and one to trade. Collecting all the cards reveals a message when they're arranged in the right order.

Yes, I did try to pose them like they appear on their cards.

The "secret message" is a quote from Joan of Arc, and when I put them in order and saw it for the first time, I admit, I got chills. The good kind. Then I flipped through the journal that came with everything and wanted to cheer. The outside is grey with the logo design repeating all over it, not all that remarkable, but the stuff inside is dynamite.

There are coloring pages, activity pages, inspirational quote, and guided journal pages. It's a really nifty way for girls to consider and explore their own strengths, or "powers." I love this addition. Yes, these are action figures, but there's no reason why girls can't also do some serious thinking when they're done playing. It's a big world out there; they have a lot to get ready for!

The seven 4-inch action figures, have slender but realistic female bodies (no impossibly tiny waists, no porn star boobs), in bright colors that suggest feminine without being pastel pink and sugary. They are wearing, for the most part, identical pewter-colored uniforms (Fear's is more gunmetal than pewter, just a shade darker), with variations in their boots or shinguards, and gloves or wristguards. Their armor coordinates with an "undershirt" -- Honesty's teal wings coordinate with her boots, bracers and undershirt. They are all wearing black domino masks to hide their true identities. Each heroine has her own unique hairstyle, which is one of the few distinguishing characteristics. Each has accessories that can be swapped interchangeably with the others. They are not "flesh-colored" -- not any race -- instead, they are orange, red, dark pink, and purple. However, their faces do have narrow Caucasian features, with small noses and not-too-generous lips.

Flat feet! These girls can stand on their own!
From left: Persistence, Energy, Enthusiasm, Honesty, Fear, Bravery and Industry
Accessories removed. Heads pop off to remove shoulder pieces.
Two of the accessories make the figures a little back-heavy; Honesty's wings and Persistence's cape tend to make them a little off-balance, but considering the issues I've had trying to balance the massive hair and ...chest... of some of my other figures, a cape is no problem.

Each of the figures also came with a shield that doubles as a charm that can be worn on silicone bracelet. Interestingly, Industry and Enthusiasm have hands molded to hold the shield in their left hands, while the other four have hands molded to hold the shield in their right. Fear alone has a weapon, a hand-held snake-looking thing that matches her spaulders, so she can't use her shield and the weapon simultaneously.

The figures have 9 points of articulation: head (swivels, limited up/down movement), shoulders (rotate and bend), elbows (rotate and bend), hips (somewhat limited rotation), and knees (rotate and bend). I won't criticize the limited hip rotation because the trade-off there is that when she sits, her legs don't splay open. And while it would be nice to have some wrist or ankle articulation, these are only 4-inch figures, intended for children (who are going to play with them), and wrist and ankle joints at that size are going to break. As it is, the arms on these figures feel really slim, not so much proportionally, but in my hands -- but I am not their target play group.

In the photos below, I tried to highlight some of the flexibility of the figures, using Bravery to illustrate. In the first image, she's sitting on a block of sticky notes and you can see that she can sit pretty normally, and almost cross her legs (ankle-to-knee). The second image shows her shoulder and hip flexibility. With her armor off, she can get her arms much higher over her head (almost making the "A" in YMCA). The third image was me trying to get her to do some semblance of yoga.

So reasonably flexible, able to stand up, but not able to stand in a lot of "action" poses -- that's where the ankle articulation would be awesome -- but once again, these are toys, they're meant to be played with, not posed and admired. The girls who receive these are going to have adventures with them (I hope), not stand them up and take a bunch of photos. (That's for weird grownups to do...)

I'd like to see more variation in the faces, more ethnic variation specifically. The bodies are fine. We want to promote health and realistic bodies, and these action figures have healthy-looking bodies, and tooling is expensive! BUT those faces are small, making variant faces would (I think, I don't know) be less costly than making a lot of variant bodies. Faces that have rounder features, wider noses, more generous mouths -- because not every girl has that narrow Western European profile.

A few "cons": When I took Fear out of the package, the top of her helmet was off, and I initially thought this was so her shoulder armor could come off, but I realized that it was because there was a slight flaw in the molding of the helmet piece; the hole is too large for it to fit snugly on the peg on her head. I used a small dot of E6000 glue and it's fixed.

I'd also like the both hands to be able to hold the shield, since typically a shield is held in the non-dominant hand while the dominant hand holds a weapon, and most people are right-handed. As it's molded right now, the hand that isn't intended to hold the shield can't really hold anything, it's basically a relaxed open hand. The last con, and it's nitpicky, is the metallic paint. It's going to scratch. I do like the look of it because it looks like armor, but it's not going to hold up very well to play.

Truly, my complaints, such as they are, are miniscule. I think these action figures are tremendous. I wish I had had them when I was a girl. I wish my daughter had had them when she was small. I wish every parent of a young daughter sees these and gets them for her to play and dream and imagine... One of the slogans of IAmElemental is, "If you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story.™" That's an exciting idea, isn't it?

There was one other thing in with the figures, a flyer marked Series #1/Courage that promises "Coming soon, Series #2/Wisdom." I can't wait.

For more info or to order, visit

Friday, October 17, 2014

Nope: Why I Refuse to Buy the Supergirl Abomination

Look, I know that I have plenty of action figures that are problematic. Some are just plain ugly, others are so over-the-top sexualized it's ridiculous. I have a small Supergirl figure from the animated series. She's cute. Small, but cute. Adorable, even.

I would like to have a larger figure more on the same scale as the other figures, but this New 52 Supergirl... ugh.

I hate it. I hate everything about it. Others have commented that the cape is ok, but honestly... that red bit over her crotch... it's like a sign: Hey! Look at my pubes! Who thought that was a good idea?? The boots are asinine too. Why are there cutouts at the knee? You can see them better in the product shot:


So, nope. Won't be buying it, DC. I hate the redesign, think the red pubic triangle looks idiotic; you can keep your plastic and I'll keep my $25. Give me something that doesn't look so freakin' stupid, and we'll talk.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Book Review

Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics
©2013 by Mike Madrid
Forward by Maria Elena Buszek, Ph.D.
ISBN: 978-1-935259-23-7 (print)
978-1-935259-24-4 (ebook)
Exterminating Angel Press

Madrid's first book, The Supergirls (reviewed here) is a wonderful overview of the women of comics. This book takes a closer look at some of the heroines time has mostly forgotten from the Golden Age*, and includes complete black and white† reprinted stories from some of them.

In the introduction, Madrid confesses his own geeky and nostalgic love of Golden Age comics, and how reader response to The Supergirls made him feel like he'd inspired readers of his book the way some of the '70s nostalgia writers had inspired him as a kid. I know it inspired me to want to learn more about those lesser-known heroines! 

He also gives a brief history of Golden Age comics, but here's a bit that nearly jumped off the page for me:
In these very early days of comic books, there weren't as many established rules about how women characters should or shouldn't act. As a result, many of these Golden Age heroines feel bold and modern as we read them today. They are presented as fearless and unapologetic about their strength. 
(If that doesn't fill your heart with excitement about Golden Age heroines, I don't understand why you're even here, because this is the wrong blog for you...) When comics were young, the art and stories were simpler, but they weren't strictly for kids. This was inexpensive entertainment in a troubled world, and "a time when comics were fun."
  • In the section Women at War, Madrid paints a vivid picture of how American comic book heroes and heroines entered WWII before Pearl Harbor; they backed the war effort before the U.S. entered the war! 
  • In Mystery Women, he talks about the concept of the masked vigilante, something we're quite used to today, but cautions "these women are tough."
  • Daring Dames introduces us a different kind of heroine, ones who didn't wear masks but fought bad guys just the same. 
  • The section 20th Century Goddesses contains superheroines more like we're accustomed to now, super-powered humans who can do extraordinary things.
  • The final section is Warriors & Queens, and according to Madrid, "[t]he heroes of comic book fantasy tales were often women." It's probably just as well this is the last section, because it's just getting depressing to consider all these awesome heroines that just... slipped away, vanishing into history.
I have encountered few people who write with the passion and enthusiasm for these characters as Mike Madrid does. His notes and commentary on the characters he's selected (some of them had 5 or fewer appearance in comics), the history, and the artists are pure gold. The brief biographies he provides for each of the heroines just whets the appetite for more, encouraging his readers once more to seek them out. Plus, of course you should buy this book for the amazing comics inside. But if you're expecting camp, you're in for a surprise. These Divas, Dames & Daredevils don't mess around!

This is more than just an homage to "lost heroines," it's a time capsule§. Crack it open and look inside at what heroines used to be like. Then go look at what they're doing today and tell me he's wrong when he says "how far comics of today still need to go."

I'm really excited and pleased to note that there's a companion book to this one due out very soon. Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Lost Villainesses of the Golden Age is due out in October 2014! Since I love bad girls more than anything, I can't wait! Edited: I didn't have to; I received an ARC and reviewed it for the Geek Girl Con blog - find my review here.

* The Golden Age is generally considered to have been from the late 1930s through the mid 1950s. The debut of Superman in Action Comic #1 is what most enthusiasts and historians see as the catalyst that started this "golden age" of comics.
† Yes, black and white, no whining. The book would have been at least twice the cost if it had been printed in full color. Seek out color Golden Age comics at the Digital Comics Museum.
§ A note on the comics themselves: they do contain some pretty bad ethnic stereotypes. The comics of the 1940s were not known for their kindness to Asian people especially, so keep that in mind while you’re reading. It was a different time and place. The world was at war, and xenophobia was rampant. (Not that it has entirely vanished today…)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Brilliant Idea (Or, "Why I Hate My Brain")

A while back, I read about someone who had artwork of a superheroine that she loved that she took and asked for various creators to autograph not because they created the work but because their work had meaning to her, too. *wince* I'm recalling this poorly, I know, and I wish I could remember where I'd seen it, so I could link to it properly. (If you have any idea what I'm talking about, please let me know in the comments so I can have that properly referenced -- thanks!)

In any event, I had a similar idea, but naturally one that makes me hate my brain that much more, because it means more work. Way more work. But it's so perfect (for me) that I don't think there's any way I can't follow through with it. What I'd love to do is create an altered book, one that includes quotes and biographies and images of amazing women. And then I'd like to leave it up to the various creators where they'd like to sign their names inside. It will be loud and colorful and full of the most amazing women... and then it will be even more full. Bursting with inspiration and touched by genius, quite literally.

At least, that's what I see in my head, the reality is something else. Great ideas require the right materials. The base book will be something that I'll "know it when I see it." The other things will have to be gathered over time, and won't be completed quickly, even though I'd like to have it done in time for the next convention I attend. Especially considering I still have a costume to fabricate...

...And that is why I hate my brain, because I needed another project like I need a hole in my head.