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