Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Eye of the World, chapters 41 and 42, in which questions are often raised and never answered

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends.  This is how we live now: reading the Wheel of Time (Book One), which we are more than three-quarters of the way through and yet somehow only just finishing what feels like the prologue.  Sometimes the chapter numbers seem to change when I'm not looking, sneaking down lower, shuffling themselves around.  Did I already read this part, or are they just going into round one of recapping?  Maybe the things they're recapping haven't happened yet.  Maybe they happened a long time ago, too.  We are beyond the ideas of past and future now.  There is only this page, standing at the forefront of the legions that surround it.  There is only ever this page.

The Eye of the World: p. 619--645
Chapter Forty-One: Old Friends and New Threats

Rand returns to the inn, finds his latest plot-recruited helpful innkeeper playing a game with Loial the elf-ogre, and spends several pages recapping the spectacularly improbable events which we literally just read in the previous two chapters.  The innkeeper is at first skeptical, while Loial just mutters 'ta'veren', listens intently, and asks to join the quest.  Rand and Mat must leave the city immediately, apparently?  I'm not clear on why, but they seem pretty sure that Chief Wizard Elaida is going to send guards to hunt Rand down again imminently, despite the queen declaring him innocent and setting him free.  Does Elaida regularly ignore the queen's decisions?  Do we have a precedent?  This is an important thing to know in any circumstance, but no one says anything like 'she'll have you grabbed quietly in the night, just like that shady diplomat who vanished off his boat two days away from the city'.  Is this just part of typical anti-Aes Sedai mistrust and propaganda?  I mean, Rand is specifically running to Tar Valon, which is basically the Greater Wizardtropolitan Area, so isn't he in at least as much danger there?  For that matter, might Elaida not be very interested in helping him get there, if he explained that it was Moiraine's idea?  Does Rand have any idea what faction of wizard Elaida is from?

Only Robert Jordan could raise this many questions (and answer none of them) for no good reason in such a short period of time while mostly talking about rats and those vile vile anti-monarchists.

Rand get outright angry when Loial uses the same phrasing as Elaida, saying that "The Pattern weaves itself around you, and you stand in the heart of it".  I feel like after 600 pages Rand should have picked up enough characterisation that I would know why he's angry at the prospect of having a really dramatic fate.  Is he so intensely humble that the notion of being important offends him?  Is he scared to death of conflict and wants to believe that once he gets to Tar Valon everything will be peaceful and boring forever after?  Did he have hopes and aspirations for his life that he feels have been taken away from him?  Is he just really opposed to the notion of destiny overriding free will?  Throw me a bone, Jordan.

We have a brief and unnecessary interlude with whitecloaks in the inn's common room, who are armed and armored and angry but are inexplicably driven out by the out-of-nowhere, natural-20-intimidation-check warnings that the innkeeper gives them.  (We do get the informational tidbit that the whitecloaks "hold no writ in Caemlyn", though it's not clear to me what that means.  Are they not tax-exempt?  Do they have to obey all of the laws instead of only some of them?)

The whitecloaks are also very dismissive of the queen, which is clearly supposed to further outline how villainous they are, but to my mind it raises yet another damned question: why do we like Queen Morgase?  She's apparently abandoned substantial tracts of her queendom for generations, even as the number of monsters roaming the world increases.  She allows religious extremists to wander her cities harassing people at random.  She has no great diplomatic successes we're aware of.  She does apparently maintain some kind of substantial food security program within the capital, although the rules under which it functions aren't clear and we have no indication if it helps on other issues of health, shelter, or safety.  The two things we really know about her for certain are that she decided to let Rand go literally right after her Chief Wizard said he was super plot-relevant, and that she regularly receives prophecies from said wizard that are so mystically vague that no one has the slightest clue what they mean.  Neither of these choices reflect well on her as a protector of her realm and its inhabitants.  Near as I can tell, we're supposed to like her because she's got a crown, her family is attractive, and she was nice to the protagonist (sort of).

Just saying it's possible the white-flag revolutionaries have a point.  Of course, they don't seem to have any ideas about what they want instead of the queen, because they are evil and therefore heavily organised around the idea of taking things apart, not creating something new.  Those are the rules.

Let's get a move on, plotwise.  The moment we're done with the whitecloak interlude, someone else shows up looking for Rand and Mat, and at gorram last it's the rest of the party: Moiraine, Lan, Egwene, Nynaeve, and Perrin.  Rand hugs the girls (who of course bury themselves face-first in his chest) while also shaking Perrin's hand AS MEN DO, and the innkeeper falls all over himself for a couple of pages in subservience to Moiraine.  Rand takes them all to see Mat, and praise Buddha they immediately identify that there's something the fuck wrong with him as he hacks at them like Gollum bingeing on conspiracy theory websites and The Exorcist.
"How do you know they're really who they look like? [....] Perrin?  Is that you? You've changed, haven't you? [....] A Wisdom isn't suppose to think of herself as a woman, is she? Not a pretty woman. But you do, don't you? Now. You can't make yourself forget that you're a pretty woman, no, and it frightens you."
Nynaeve just thinks he's got a fever, but Moiraine arrives and all but leaps on him.  She quickly infodumps all the stuff we already knew about Shadar Logoth being cursed, and Mat attacks her with the knife he stole, gets stopped by Lan, and Moiraine sets about wizard medicine.  The knife is apparently a beacon of evil as well, and thus why Rand and Mat have been endlessly plagued by darkfriends and trollocs on their journey, and why (Lan informs us) the Fades are building a trolloc army outside Caemlyn in preparation to take the city.

You had one job, Rand.

Chapter Forty-Two: Remembrance of Dreams

Leaving Moiraine to exorcise Mat, Rand introduces the party to Loial in the Double Secret Parlour, where Perrin immediately starts asking Loial about steddings and whether they're really magic havens.  I have to assume at this point that Robert Jordan was badly distracted by something, or perhaps looked up from the keyboard and realised thatthe manuscript was due tomorrow, because it's only been two pages and Moiraine shows up with Mat, a bit spaced and embarrassed but otherwise completely cured of his evil possession.

Well.  That de-escalated quickly.

Moiraine quickly and quietly explains to Rand that Mat still has the knife and it's still magically bound to him, but she has purged the evil from Mat's system for now and they can get a permanent fix in Tar Valon, but Moiraine is vague about whether that's where they're going next after all.  She also warns Loial that all of the other Aes Sedai are Red Ajah, which--okay, screw it, there's a glossary in the back of this book and I am tired.
Ajah (AH-jah): Societies among the Aes Sedai, to which all Aes Sedai belong. They are designated by colours: [Blue, Red, White, Green, Brown, Yellow, and Gray]. [...] The Red Ajah bends all its energies to finding and gentling men who are attempting to wield the Power.
Well, they did just bring in the Renegade Man Wizard Logain, so maybe that's not startling, although surely Elaida isn't included in "every one but I".  I can't imagine that spending all of her time giving vague advice to the queen counts as bending all her energy to 'gentling' men.

There is yet more recapping again as Rand tells the rest about meeting the queen, and if I were running with my theory of 'the queen is actually not inherently good by right of being the queen', I would get Manchurian Candidate vibes from the way Rand spaces out as soon as he thinks of her:
"Can you imagine me meeting a Queen? She's beautiful, like the queens in stories.  So is Elayne. And Gawyn... you'd like Gawyn, Perrin."
Very nice wingmanning, Rand.  Your buddy just got into town and already you're trying to hook him up with a hot prince. (Egwene, of course, is quietly very jealous that Rand said the princess was cute, because Robert Jordan solved feminist fantasy forever.  Egwene, whom we may recall was cheerfully all up in that Traveller boy's business a few... weeks ago?  I'm fuzzy on timelines here.)  Perrin mentions the Travellers, which sets Loial talking about the Travellers who wanted to learn the tree songs from the ogiers back in his home stedding of Shangtai--

Wot.

I can cope with a lot of this nonsense, I really can.  I can roll with Mosk and Merk the warring giants, and I will roll with the cool descriptions of places and vitally important magical locations and objects that we'll apparently never see again, but when the ever-helpful non-human servitor-race guy comes from a place called Shangtai I just want to bite through someone's neck.  I desperately hope that's just a throwaway thing and not an indication that the ogiers are going to be the fantasy Asians here.  It's bad enough Rand is apparently a pasty redhead of the noble desert tribes.

Loial gets around to repeating a story that the Dark One seeks to blind the Eye of the World, and Egwene and Perrin mention hearing the same from the Travellers, and the boys finally get around to admitting to Moiraine that they've been having dreams with the devil hassling them.  Praise be to Gargamel, no more attempting to draw out tension by having people just not talk.  (For now.)

Moiraine concludes that all three boys are ta'veren (what, not Egwene and Nynaeve, previously described as potentially the most powerful wizards of the age?) and they need to leave Caemlyn immediately by unorthodox means.  She also gives us this destiny explanation:
"Sometimes being ta'veren means the Pattern is forced to bend to you, and sometimes it means the Pattern forces you to the needed path."
So... how is that different from regular free will and chance, then?  People are self-evidently bad at prophecy, so it's not like you can tell in advance whether you're making a choice because you choose to or because you've been chosen to, so what are the practical consequences of this?  It sounds like an excuse to go about your life in a normal way but make regular exclamations about how mystical it all is.  "You stole my last cupcake!" "No, I was fated to eat the last cupcake."

Actually, that could be a fun way to live.  Try it out and report back in the comments.

Speaking of which, Moiraine and Loial debate for about a page on how to leave the city, using the Ways that they can reach from a Waygate that is probably buried under the New City and will lead them to Fal Dara that was once known as Mafal Dadaranell.  (That deluge of unexplained capitalisation is a taste of what this book is like without me as your buffer.  I do actually sometimes appreciate Jordan's persistence in giving things names that change over time, like how Mafal Dadaranell's name clearly got abbreviated, but good lord, does everything on this planet have a business card the size of a surfboard?)  Loial exclaims that if they enter the ways they will all die or "be swallowed by the Shadow", and on that no-context salvo of 'dun, dun, DUNNNNNNN', the chapter abruptly ends.  The next chapter starts up immediately on the next line, no scene break or anything, which makes that a really, really odd point to choose to cut us off, but I think I can live with it.

Next time: backstory, dimension-tunnelling, and Moiraine's instincts for manipulating the narrative.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Eye of the World, chapters 39 and 40, in which it appears that the plot starts up again

Sorry about the delayed post--I had written something up for Wednesday about Terminator Genisys, which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially in the way it recentered the storyline away from 'Sarah is important because she's the mother of Slab Hardcheese John "Manly War Messiah" Connor' and onto 'Sarah is important because she's a colossal badass who takes control of her own life, and her victory is that she reclaims her agency from the cycles of predestination'.  But reading that post over again, I found that I didn't have much else good to say about the movie in terms of politics or representation (the Dysons, a black father-son team of computer geniuses, get sidelined compared to T2, everyone is straight, and there's an awkward new patriarchal dynamic between Predestined Love Interest Kyle Reese and Sarah's foster dad).  So I shelved that post for future considerations and instead you get more WOT after all.  Take it.  Take it and feel my pain so that catharsis may purge your own anguish

(Content: villainously pretty men.  Fun content: villainously pretty men.)

The Eye of the World: p. 582--618
Chapter Thirty-Nine: Weaving of the Web

We're back in Randland, where Robert Jordan once again taunts me with the prospect of a timeskip that didn't actually happen:
Next to the day when Egwene and Perrin walked in, alive and laughing over what they had seen, this was the day he had been waiting for most.
Egwene and Perrin have not actually walked in yet; Rand is just looking forward to it.  Mat is exactly the same as he's been for the last 300 pages, surly and paranoid and not wanting to do anything, and I'm not clear on what this special day is that Rand has been looking forward to, but apparently it means everyone is rallying in the street.  The innkeeper informs Rand that a beggar has been seen in the city, asking for Rand and friends by name, and this is Deeply Suspicious--not because random strangers looking for visitors by name probably have secret motives, no, but because Caemlyn has a welfare program and therefore there's no excuse to beg.
"...Even with things as hard as they are. On High Days, the Queen gives it out with her own hands, and there's never anyone turned away for any reason. No one needs to beg in Caemlyn. Even a man under warrant can't be arrested while he's taking the Queen's Bounty."
Which: really?  Okay, but really?  Props to Caemlyn for establishing a no-questions-asked food program, but these matters are far too complicated to just be waved off.  Logistics: who decides how much bounty a person gets?  Can they collect for their family as well?  Who checks what they are and aren't allowed to take?  Can a person pick up the Bounty for their neighbours, and what kind of documentation is needed?  Or can a perfectly self-sufficient individual just pick some up anyway, since no one's turned away, and then deliver it to whomever they choose?  What if they need to pick up Bounty for multiple neighbours, because they live in a building that houses multiple seniors with mobility issues?  Can someone take the Bounty, drop it off elsewhere, and then get back in line for a second helping?  Is any kind of identification needed?

Is medication included in the Bounty?  What happens to the family head with a sole income who loses her job because of a fire in the dairy and not only has to get food enough for her husband (veteran, blinded in combat with those vile Darkfriends) and four children but also pay rent on the apartment and also pay the apothecary for regular elixirs to help Tiny al'Timmy with his bad lungs and her husband's frequent infections?  How much help does the Queen's Bounty give to her?

And you can't be arrested while taking the Bounty, okay, but what's the statute of limitations on that?  If the local cops decide that last week's murder was probably committed by Dayo ay'Oade, on the basis that he's foreign and brown and they just knew he couldn't be trusted, how safe is he when getting the Bounty?  Is he free game once he leaves the plaza, or after sunset, or what?  Is there anything at all to stop the cops from following Dayo six blocks away from the Queen and then making with the truncheon-based brutality?  Or grabbing him while he's on his way there?  What if Neal al'Caffrey runs into the Caemlyn Museum of Pretty Artifacts With Complicated Backstories, grabs The Sword That Was Broken And Reforged And Then Cracked Again But You Can Hardly Notice It, sprints out the door and straight into the welfare line?  Do the cops just have to stand there uselessly while our thief waits to get his municipally-allotted bread?  When are they allowed to start chasing him again?  Can honest citizen Strangleford ay'Killsman successfully avoid incarceration for his entire life by hanging onto the right baguettes?  IF YOU WANT TO WORLDBUILD FOREVER THEN AT LEAST JUSTIFY YOUR WORLDBUILDING, JORDAN.

But where was I?  Right: there are lots of reasons that the Queen's Bounty can't be as simple and perfect as we're told, and thus reasons why some people might beg anyway.

Rand leaves the inn, having been warned to keep an eye out for trouble.  We finally get a sense of the tensions, because people are wearing significant amounts of red or white around town, with political significance: red says "Yay Queen Morgase" and white means "The Queen and the wizards have ruined everything".  Rand didn't realise this when he decided to disguise his heron sword with a red wrapping, and now he's part of it too, to his regret, since the reds are heavily outnumbered.  But--ah, at last we get some explanation, because apparently people are celebrating the capture of the false Dragon, who is to be presented to the Queen today before he's dragged off to the wizards.

Rand, political genius, notices that a crowd of white-banded citizens charging down the street thinks nothing of intentionally shoving aside some Whitecloaks and stampeding onwards, showing a level of defiance and fearlessness that, in his estimation, means that could try to depose the Queen any day now.  Rand disappears into a singing crowd, providing us with this Tolkienesque lyric:
Forward the Lion / forward the Lion / the White Lion takes the field. / Roar defiance at the Shadow. / Forward the Lion / forward, Andor triumphant.
I can't make that scan, let alone fit a catchy tune, and it doesn't even pretend to have a rhyme.  That is maybe the worst rallying song I've ever heard.  Rand follows the crowd until it reaches the palace, guarded by red soldiers against a near-rioting crowd of white, but he's forced to run when the aforementioned beggar finally appears and spots him.  Rand thinks about going back to the inn, but isn't willing to miss his sole opportunity to ever see the Queen, having apparently forgotten that the Queen literally shows up to hand out food bundles to the poor on every holiday.

After a couple of vitally important pages of Rand running around the city to no avail, he finally climbs a hill and a wall to get a view of the plaza, and the procession arrives with hundreds of soldiers guarding a sixteen-horse wagon, flanked by Warders and bearing a cage guarded by eight Aes Sedai.  For a change, we get some description I actually like:
Logain was a king in every inch of him. The cage might as well not have been there. He held himself erect, head high, and looked over the crowd as if they had come to do him honor. And wherever his gaze swept, there the people fell silent, staring back in awe. When Logain's eyes left them, they screamed with redoubled fury as if to make up for their silence, but it made no difference in the way the man stood, or in the silence that passed along with him.
I'm assuming he's a villain, although right now I feel like I'd enjoy seeing him as a protagonist too, as long as he wasn't Our Hero.  A good guy who has his own goals and concerns that aren't identical to Rand.  Or if he's just a villain who wants something other than the end of the universe.  I'm good with either of these things.

Rand wonders what the Aes Sedai are there for, gets told by a previously-unnoticed little girl that they're stopping him from using magic, and is so surprised that he falls off the wall.  Cliffhanger!  Well.  Clifffaller.

Chapter Forty: The Web Tightens

Rand dream-hallucinates a bit and wakes up on the ground, bloodied and rattled.  The girl arrives, climbing down a tree in very fancy dress that goes on for a paragraph, including velvet slippers and much embroidered silk.
He could not begin to imagine who would choose to climb trees in clothes like that, but he was sure she had to be someone important.
This is it.  If ever anyone asks you to summarise the Wheel of Time book series for them, just flip to the second page of chapter forty and show them this line.  This is the truest most finely distilled essence of this book, cold-pressed and oak-aged until it could cut through anchorwood.  Reading this sentence and understanding its every nuance is exactly the same experience as reading the entire book.  You're welcome.

She's also, he can tell at a glance, deeply self-possessed and (shocker) stunningly beautiful (blond and red-lipped, which Rand possibly thinks is just how girls look, because he can't conceive of makeup).  She's different but, in his estimation, just as hot as Egwene.
He felt a twinge of guilt, but told himself that denying what his eyes saw would not bring Egwene safely to Caemlyn one whit faster.
I--wait, what?  He's creeping on some random girl who just startled him into injuring himself, his first thoughts on seeing her are '10/10, would bang like a gong', and he assuages his guilt at ogling someone who isn't his not-girlfriend by telling himself that he can't save her by not ogling other women?  Does that compute for anyone?

She's followed by her younger brother, and they quickly identify each other (unnecessarily, but for the reader's benefit) as Elayne and Gawyn, and since Elayne has a habit of playing vet to the injured animals she find, she immediately busts out her first aid kit to patch up Rand's skull.  While doing so, the siblings have a bizarrely private discussion that serves as a huge infodump about how the Queen is semi-secretly in love with her First Prince Regent and they both want to get married but neither one will 'bend' to... something that we're not clear on.  It becomes increasingly obvious, but eventually Rand needs them to spell out that they are children of...
"Morgase, by the Grace of the Light, Queen of Andor, Defender of the Realm, Protector of the People, High Seat of the House Trakand."
The prince and the 'Daughter-Heir' (ye gods that's a bad title--if the queen always rules, why isn't her daughter just 'heir'?) are legitimately surprised Rand didn't realise he had climbed into their backyard, and insist on knowing his name before he leaves.  On hearing he's from Two Rivers, Gawyn starts spouting off regional facts, until they get interrupted again:
The young man who stood there was the handsomest man Rand had ever seen, almost too handsome for masculinity.
I... wow.  He no-homo'd so hard he tried to reassign someone's gender.

Rand, if you think a dude is hot, that doesn't mean he's a woman, that means you think some dudes are hot.  It's not a big deal.  I was so much more comfortable with myself once I acknowledged that was a thing for me.  You can repeat "he's so smokin' I could almost swear he's a gender I'm attracted to" all you want, but if you want to insist that you're so straight you sleep on a bed of rulers, maybe don't follow that up with:
Dark of hair and eye, he wore his clothes [...] as if they were of no importance.
Aw yeah they aren't.  Just cast aside those unimportant clothes, Galad.  Apparently Galadedrid Damodred (I kid you not) is half-sibling to the royal kids, sharing a father but not the queen as his mom, and he's quite popular with both the loyal reds and unruly whites in the city.  He tries to convince Elayne to get rid of Rand immediately for her own safety, but Elayne tells him to shove off.
"I hate him," Elayne breathed. "He is vile and full of envy."
Ohhhh, right, villainous prettyboys, gotcha.  There is definitely something maliciously suspicious about beautiful men who go around making perfectly good straight boys question their orientations.  On the plus side, Gawyn vouches heavily for Galad, saying he's saved his life twice, so maybe there's a chance he's not evil?  Wait, I just remembered his name is Damodred.  Carry on.

The palace guards arrive and there's some back-and-forth of orders and superseding orders between the captain and Elayne until word arrives that the queen demands to see the intruder and also her kids, so they march off, though not before Jordan realises he forgot to give us a long description of the gardens, so Rand abruptly remembers that scenery exist and takes it all in before they leave.  There's another page of Rand trying to figure out what position to take in the procession and when he's dragged before the throne, and another describing the carved walls of the room and the woman seated behind the queen, knitting furiously.  The queen is of course beautiful and flawless and commanding, and the knitter quickly proves to be Elaida, the queen's personal wizard.  The children are scolded for going to get a look at Logain, ridiculously dangerous as he is, and questioned about Rand, but Elayne says that meeting a commoner face-to-face with no attendants has been an important bit of education.

Morgase rapidly rises several ranks in my listing of favourite characters by pointing out that Two Rivers hasn't been taxed or hosted royal soldiers in generations, which makes Rand's status as a queen's subject somewhat suspect.  I could have done with someone making that explicit five hundred pages ago, instead of leaving me wondering what in blazes this world was doing, but at least we have canon now.

Elaida in the meantime notes that Rand is a pasty ginger and thus unlikely to be from that region, and when she notices the heron sword, all the guards freak out.  There is much suspicion, et cetera, Elaida declares that the sword is rightly Rand's even if he's too young to have earned it, and that he's dangerous.  Morgase does what a queen must do: put exposition ahead of remotely natural dialogue.
"Is this a Foretelling, Elaida? Are you reading the Pattern? You say it comes on you when you least expect it and goes as suddenly as it comes. If this is a Foretelling Elaida, I command you to speak the truth clearly, without your usual habit of wrapping it in so much mystery that no one can tell if you have said yes or no."
That is definitely how real people talk to other real people with whom they have a long history of this exact process.  Sigh.  Elaida does indeed Foretell, but it boils down to the shocking plot twist that bad things are happening and Rand is plot-relevant.

They recommend locking him up, but Queen Morgase declares that she trusts him and she's willing to gamble that he isn't telling super-outrageous lies in the hopes that people will think no one would tell a lie that outrageous, and she commands him escorted away to go free.  Elayne takes a final opportunity to tell Rand he's hot, and Gawyn does the same tells Rand that while Morgase thinks Rand has a Two Rivers accent, he looks like an Aielman.

Wait, aren't the Aiel people from a desert or something?  What kind of vengeful author-god would populate a desert with pasty gingers?  (No points for the obvious answer: 'one who will eat his own hands before he makes someone brown plot-relevant'.)

Oi. That's enough recapping for now.  But for the first time in many weeks, I didn't feel like I could blithely skip past multiple pages at a time without commenting on the stuff contained, which I have to take as a sign that the plot has begun happening again, even if this chapter didn't apparently have any plot consequences apart from introducing us to the royals.  Unlike the parade of interchangeable wagon-drivers and innkeepers up to now, at least I can be confident we'll see all of these folks again.

There are fewer than two hundred pages left to go in this book, folks.  Who wants to lay bets on whether Jordan is capable of writing something that resembles a climactic sequence in that much time?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

404 Post devoured by the void

There was supposed to be a post today, I wrote one and everything, but as Will and I were editing it an Eldritch being popped into existence and the only way to keep it from consuming the world was to feed it my post on Bletchley circle.

Typical, right?

So no post from me this week, and tune in next Wednesday for Will's Wheel of Time.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Eye of the World, chapter 37 and 38, in which Egwene is best at everything

Apologies for the delayed post; it was my country's birthday and I had a torrential rainstorm to get caught in.

The Eye of the World: p. 557--581
Chapter Thirty-Seven: The Long Chase

The long chase?  Really?  I've been struck by a prophetic vision that this chapter will include lots of running around to create the illusion of plot development.

I have also formed a hypothesis there's some kind of rule every chapter must start with four pages that don't do anything to advance the plot or reveal character in any way.  Nynaeve, Moiraine, and Lan continue on Perrin's magic trail (not that they know which farmboy they're after) and eventually find the Whitecloak camp where we left him and Egwene.  Nynaeve snarks at Lan for implicitly impugning her willingness to face peril to save a neighbour, or her knowledge of wolf behaviours, which is presumably supposed to be a reminder of what a capable and courageous Lady Heroine Woman she is.  Personally, I think it'd have played better if Lan had been all 'You're a village Wisdom despite your youth and you've stuck with us this far, so obviously you're a colossal badass, here's what I need you to do'.  In fact, why hasn't Lan internalised that yet?  He's bonded with Moiraine; he knows better than to underestimate someone just because they're a woman or small enough to fit in his backpack.  Do better, Lan.
"There are two guards on that side of the camp, beyond the picket-lines, but if you are half as good as I think you are, they'll never see you." 
She swallowed hard. Stalking rabbits was one thing; guards, though, with spears and swords... So he thinks I'm good, does he? "I'll do it."
There's something ironic that the one skill of hers he is willing to notice is her ability to not be noticed.  Also, hasn't Nynaeve been fighting trollocs?  A few unwary guards don't strike me as unusual threat for her these days.  But she still freaks out a bit as she creeps in, dodges patrols, and starts cutting the ropes to loose the horses for purposes of distraction.  She almost runs after she's cut four out of five, and thinks for a moment about how Lan wouldn't judge her for running away now (given that she's just a little mortal), but Nynaeve is struck by a vision that if she leaves any horses secure, some of Our Heroes will die in the escape, and so cuts them loose too.  (The possibility that she just got an actual prophecy further freaks her out, because Nynaeve was trained to use magic but she didn't think it was Capital Letters Magic, I guess?)  The final group includes faithful horse Bela and another friendly one, and Nynaeve flees into the night with them as Moiraine starts fulminating the camp with a rain of lightning (go Moiraine), and wolves join in the fight, confusion, running, et cetera.

Well, that chapter wasn't nearly as prolonged as I expected it to be.  It helps, of course, that on my first read I accidentally skipped about a third of it and didn't notice.  Which is a reasonable measure of the breakneck crawl we're proceeding at.  Let's savour this opportunity to talk about Nynaeve, because she's one of my favourite characters so far.

We're more than 550 pages into the book, and Nynaeve's motivations are starkly few.  She chased after Our Heroes because she had no patience to sit around and wait for a Manly Decision, and she's stuck with them because it's her job to protect her neighbours.  That takes a hell of a lot of dedication.  She's been told that she has incredible potential to wield earthshakingly powerful magic, but she doesn't appear at all tempted by the prospect.  Admittedly, she doesn't have great reasons not to trust Aes Sedai, but tell the average person 'By the way, I can teach you to perform miracles' and see if that doesn't shake their convictions even a little.  Nynaeve doesn't even know that she's plot-relevant; she's just here because she knows who she is (or who she wants to be) and that person won't let her neighbour brats run off to get murdered on their own.

And somehow the main gorram character of this book still isn't her, but the brat who thinks it's insufficiently heroic that he has to sleep in haystacks while everyone tells him how incredibly important he is (quarry of the Darkfriends, warper of the Pattern of reality, first-name-basis with the fricking devil who hangs out in his dreams).

Rand al'Thor might be (shpoilersh) the Dragon Reborn, but as far as I'm concerned he's a case study in mediocre men inexplicably drawing attention away from extraordinary women.  I'm sure he's going to get 'character development', but I'm not at all convinced that said development will consist of him actually gaining sympathetic qualities to compare with Nynaeve's fierce loyalty, courage, and conviction.

Anyway, let's get back to Nynaeve and Moiraine saving the day.

Chapter Thirty-Eight: Rescue
Perrin
FIGHT ME ROBERT JORDAN.
Perrin shifted as best he could with his wrists bound behind him and finally gave up with a sigh.
Do y'all know why this book is precisely seven hundred million pages long?  Because Jordan thinks that it's quality storytelling to give us an unnecessarily long depiction of rescuers catching up with hostages, making plans, enacting plans to save the hostages, and then leaping backwards in time to show us yet more of what things were like for the hostages before they got rescued.  Surely we could just have Egwene recap for Moiraine what their captivity was like afterwards?  (If we get all this description and then a recap as well, I will burn down the sun.)

General advice: if you can timeskip something in a story and not leave the reader confused about how you got there, there's a good chance you should timeskip it.  More specific advice: if you can timeskip something in a story, for the love of gay shipping, please don't pretend to timeskip it and then go back to explain.  This is like episodes of TV shows that start with a Dramatic Scene, go to opening credits, and then come back with Three Days Earlier... which never fails to annoy me.  (Not least because it's used to set up shocking swerves like Why Are These Two Bros Pointing Guns At Each Other and then forty minutes later we discover they were both actually aiming at ambushers behind each other.)

Uuuuugh.

BUT BACK TO PERRIN.  He's spent the last few days walking tied to a horse and getting regular updates from Byar about the inventive ways the Questioners will torture him into confessing when they get to Amador.  They're also in a rush to Caemlyn, though, and one day Byar shows up, tosses him a sharp rock, and says it'd be much more convenient if Perrin somehow managed to cut himself loose and vanish into the night.  Perrin rolls just well enough to realise that there's something fishy about this generosity, but not quite enough to realise that if he makes a getaway they'd have ample reason to just kill him on the spot and wrap matters up that way.  He gets a telepathic ping from Dapple that there's a rescue coming, and stalls long enough for Lan to arrive and karate the guards into submission.

Lan, Egwene, and Perrin meet up with Moiraine, who reports that she's lost track of Nynaeve, whom she fears has "done something foolish".  Hey, why hasn't Moiraine given the rest of the party those tracker coins like she did the boys?  Can she only maintain three of that charm at once?  It's not like they haven't had time for her to make more.  Anyway, Lan turns and almost charges back to find Nynaeve, but Moiraine tries to stop him:
"Some things are more important than others. You know that. [....] Remember your oaths, al'Lan Mandragoran, Lord of the Seven Towers! What of the oath of a Diademed Battle Lord of the Malkieri?" 
Perrin blinked. Lan was all of that?
Lan was all of those things that we don't understand and have no context for and therefore I don't care about?  ASTONISHING.  (Also, I see Jordan is one of those authors who thinks that bemusement is best identified by a character's blinking, which strikes me as particularly weird in this high-tension high-action scene where presumably they're running around a lot and blinking away sweat or dust from one's eyes might be expected rather a lot.  Suggestion: if a character's shock is so understated that it can best be expressed through blinking while they flee homicidal religious zealots, maybe you're not dealing with as dramatic a moment as you'd like to think.  Shout something gaspworthy, at least.)

Nynaeve returns with the horses and as she leaps off to embrace Egwene she gets intercepted by Lan who just grabs her arm for an intense second.  He wants to tap that, if we hadn't noticed yet.  He wants to tap that like he's sending a telegram.  Nynaeve has picked up on this, as highlighted by the way she gives "a low laugh" as she runs to hug Egwene, which Perrin figures doesn't have "anything to do with happiness at seeing them again".

Let us take a moment to contemplate the situation: our split party has just started to mend itself after eight thousand chapters of running around scattered, they're being hunted by religious zealots, and this is the moment that Jordan has decided to drop in a romantic subplot with all the grace and versimilitude of a new fanfic author.  We got none of this last chapter, when Lan was actually talking to Nynaeve about sending her into danger, but now they're reunited and there is Needful Tension.  Priorities, Jordan.  Lan is the male character I hate least, but that's such a low bar.  Try to remember you had a plot in here somewhere.

They make their getaway, and the wolves leave Perrin with a mental note that they are ordained to meet again someday.  The next day, Nynaeve tends their wounds, treating us to a scene in which she rubs ointments all over Perrin's bare chest--he's been gruesomely bruised, but his ribs were protected from breakage because he's so incredibly ripped.

If you unlock the secret ninth ab, you become fireproof.

Nynaeve's ointments basically heal his mangled torso instantaneously, which either means they have some really sweet herbs in this world or she should have realised she was a gorram sorcerer a long time ago.  Nynaeve notices Perrin's wolf eyes, but doesn't know what they are; Moiraine does, but doesn't say what it means; Nynaeve is upset that Moiraine won't 'heal' Perrin's eyes, but is weirdly uninterested in knowing what's actually going on.  Lan just hears the name Elyas MacWolferson and says he used to be a Warder until the Red Ajah came after him, and assures Perrin that communing with wolves isn't of itself satanic.  He does note how improbable it is that Perrin would have the ancient gift and meet someone who was capable of teaching him:
"The Pattern is forming a Great Web, what some call the Lace of Ages, and you lads are central to it. I don't think there is much chance left in your lives, now."
In fairness, if Jordan doesn't find a new word to capitalise every four pages, his keyboard will explode.  Lace of Ages?  Honestly, at this point I almost want to congratulate him on so thoroughly committing: he actually made it an emphatic plot point that incredibly convenient coincidences and contrivances swarm around our heroes.  That's so much more audacious than just trying to make the story feel plausible.

I also feel like this chapter highlights a certain weakness of prophecy: Lan claims that Perrin's life is basically already set in the world, but it's only thanks to Lan's intervention just now that Perrin's life wasn't a very brief sprint in the night or several long days of torturous dying at the hands of the inquisition.  So, Perrin has no choice in what happens to him next, but Lan apparently does, since he had the option of turning and running.  Or a lucky whitecloak could have murdered them all with a few quick sword strokes.  At what proximity to Our Heroes do people stop having choices?  If there are certain people who bend fate around themselves, shouldn't the Dark One's central plan be to stay the hell away from those people as much as possible and stick to working with the people who have no fates at all and therefore might be capable of anything?  Lan implies that the Dark One can manipulate events a little, but when he says the three boys are definitely super-prophesied for either good or evil, he doesn't make it clear whether he thinks that has been determined yet.

Basically, what I'm saying is that there are at least three kinds of prophecy and it matters a lot which kind we're dealing with.  There's contingent prophecy ("If/unless this happens, this other thing is guaranteed to happen"), total predestination (choice is an illusion and all future events are fixed), and fate in the ancient Greek style ("No matter what choices you make, sooner or later you're going to X").  Lan doesn't appear to believe in predestination, but his talk about the lack of chance in Perrin's life implies that fate is a thing, except that he obviously still thinks Rand and Mat can be and need to be saved from evil, which suggests that his non-predetermined actions still matter.

Jordan could have saved me a headache by dropping the vague prophecy talk and just saying "The universe has willed that the three of you are main characters, so please do better".

That's it for me; come back next Wednesday to see if I managed to convince Erika to watch Bring It On for her next post!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Erika vs Gilmore Girls: Showdown in the Conversationdrome

I used to watch Gilmore Girls with my mother when it first came out. I think we, like a lot of mothers and daughters watching this show, wished we could be like Lorelei and Rory (bestest friends and, to quote the show, "freakishly bonded" parent and kid), when we were more like Emily and Lorelei--two people who loved each other because they were family but had no idea how to communicate despite their most earnest efforts, and just kept fighting. Which sums up the show pretty well for those of you who have never seen it: it's a comedy about mother/daughter relationships. I just finished re-watching it on Netflix from start to finish, so you all now get to be subjected to my thoughts on the matter.

First things first, here's some of what it gets wrong: There is not one canonical not-straight character in the whole series (although I will fight you that the town weirdo Kirk is bi but I'll get into that in the comments if anyone wants). The cast is very very white, although there are a few notable exceptions. There are characters who are supposed to be impoverished or struggling, yet everyone enjoys an asston of privilege, have nice homes, eat out constantly, and generally are never really shown leading a life that isn't upper middle class. The show is mainly about relationships, and while it started off being about non-romantic relationships it does develop a focus on it.

Its approach on pregnancy needs some detailing too. Lorelei Gilmore, the protagonist of the show, had her daughter, Rory, when she was 16. She then ran away from home and raised her on her own and boot-strapped her way to middle class. (Yeaaah. I mentioned this show is kind of classist, right? It has no earthly idea what anything below upper-middle-class looks like.)  The possibility of abortion for her (or anyone) is mentioned once in seven seasons, and quashed quickly and with disgust. It is not mentioned to her, but to her mother. We can assume that Lorelei wanted to have the baby, but at no point do we ever see her being offered an alternative. This is framed as having been the right call because her daughter is objectively perfect and if she did it then she wouldn't have her perfect kid! And her life is awesome now! Which is kind of nice in a way--it's a show that says over and over again "Fuck up. For glory. You can still fix it and bounce back."

In the last two seasons we see two women who are not happy to be pregnant. One is Lane, a newly wed and struggling musician who comes from a very religious household (though she mostly rejects that for herself) who gets pregnant on her honeymoon. With twins. She says, clearly, when she finds out she's pregnant that she doesn't want to be a mother. Not yet. Down the road sure, but right now? And with twins? But never does she think about an abortion, and never does someone else suggest it. Rory just tries to encourage her because she's sure she'll be a great mom! And who's ever ready for anything? They're twenty but, you know, have these kids!

The second is Sookie, Lorelei's best friend, co-worker, chef, and co-owner of a very successful small country inn. She is married with two children. After she gives birth for the second time, a nurse appears to take her husband for a vasectomy because, nope, she is done. Spoilers: He did not get the vasectomy, and he didn't tell her. At first there's no issue, but after some confusion about whether she's still on the pill she gets pregnant. She does not want to be pregnant. We see her freaking out, and Lorelai has to try and remind her of all the wonderful things about new babies to get her on board with the idea (The line "Think of that new baby smell" is used. I have never sniffed a baby; can someone who has weigh in here? Is this like people talking about eating babies feet?  Is it a 'new car smell' joke?) and slowly wins her over with "awww cute babies". I was cringing so hard I pulled a muscle in my neck in this scene. We do see her upset at her husband as an ongoing story line, which is a small mercy that cute babies doesn't fix all and also children are a huge deal. They eventually talk and resolve it, and then they're good, but this was huge to her. She was pregnant. She already had two kids. She did not want a third. Never does anyone say "You don't have to keep it", which distresses me. We have three instances of women who are pregnant who do not want to be, for very different reasons. Even if the answer each time was "No, I think I should keep the kid" clearly each time, it would have made me feel better. As it is, it made me feel like pregnancy is just... something that happens, and is ultimately a good thing because aww look at the little baby's itty bitty fingers!*

That is the bad. What do I like about this show? It is a show that at its heart is about women, relationships, and the relationships between women. In the early seasons this is specifically about mother-daughter relationships, and it isn't all sunshine and rainbows, but it isn't all doom and gloom, either. People fight, they make up, some relationships are happy and healthy, some are not! Emily, the grandmother, is downright abusive and manipulative at times (this eases up to cast her less as an antagonist and more as a real person as the show goes on). As the series progresses more romantic relationships become a central theme, but even then, the women around Lorelei and Rory remain important.

So let's talk about how the show handles its three notable characters of color. Rory's best friend in the world is Lane Kim, who's mother is a Seventh-Day Adventist. I am not terribly versed in Korean stereotypes, but I suspect they're played with by how often Lane says things like "Koreans do things like X" and there is a lot of kimchi. Mrs. Kim, Lane's mother is incredibly strict, and in the early seasons when Lane is young and living with her Mother still (I believe she's widowed, but it's never made explicit) we see Lane living under a very strict regime. She can only date Korean boys from church (who her Mother approves of) and their dates will be escorted. No chocolate or carbonated drinks in the house. No make up. Only approved music and clothes. We see Lane hiding reams and reams of cds in her floor boards to listen to at Rory's, we see her having a second bedroom set up in her closet which is her "real" room. She secretly joins a band. Her Mother eventually finds all of her illicit stashes and throws her out of the house. They eventually make up.

Despite all this, the show never vilifies Mrs. Kim. She is an antagonist, she's kind of scary, but she has motives that make sense. She ultimately loves her daughter and consistently does what she believes is best. Later on we see her shift to more middle ground stances as Lane gets older and more independent. Most of her strictness, her coldness, her rigidness is based within her being a Seventh Day Adventist, not Korean.

The other character of color is Michel. He is the concierge at the inn Lorelai and Sookie run, and a snooty French man. His character leans heavily on a lot of the prissy French man stereotypes or gay man stereotypes (strict diet and exercise, loves fashion, very "metrosexual"), but he is straight (or bi and never shown to be interested in men) and played by a black man. His character is very one-note, but at least they didn't opt to use stereotypes based on his race?

The lack of racial and sexual diversity sucks, but there are women of different ages, different body types, walks of life... Sookie is played by Melissa McCarthy. We have two other regular, reoccurring characters who are larger. We have aggressive type A "I will stab you in the throat to get my way" women, we have sweet kindergarten teachers, we have women who are a bit or both or a whole lot of neither. I love the wealth of women in this show, I love that they are (for most of the series) friends who care about each other. I love that the show is clever and never makes fat jokes. I love that fat women are shown as worthy of love, sexual attraction, and get to be happy. I love that it has antagonistic but not villainous women**. It all just feels so... novel to me. This is what it takes to make me happy you guys. "Here are a bunch of reasonably well written women" and I will binge watch 7 seasons. I hunger, ok? I admit it.

If you are looking for a comedy/drama that has a lot of relationship drama but never stuff that has you screaming "OH MY GOD JUST TALK TO THEM YOU JERK FACE", I highly recommend it. If you have any other recommendations for shows like that, toss 'em to me, I need something new to watch now.

Sound off in the comments for things you want to see me write about (movies preferred, but I'm not ridged) or things you've been enjoying yourselves lately (or yelling at). Tune in next week for Will's suffering!

*Ok, I get the baby finger thing. They are absurdly tiny. Like, how do you even get fingers that tiny? Cheat codes, probably.
**Save for early Paris, but she stops like halfway through season 1 I think?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Stories about terrible people doing terrible things

(Sorry for the lateness of this post--I have been busy and exhausted and there's only so much of The Wheel of Time that a man should be exposed to without protective gear and a powerful course of antibiotics.)

I've had a fair heap of free time this year, which means that, among other things, I watched the entirety of Breaking Bad a few months ago.  I was underwhelmed.  I'd heard that it was ultimately an indictment of the American healthcare system, but the show very quickly and immediately goes out of its way to give its protagonist other options (so he's not just forced into a life of crime to save his family) and frequently highlights that the real problem is that he's motivated entirely by pride and (intellectual white male) entitlement.  The show wasn't strictly badly written, but I never once had sympathy for Walter White, and I mostly watched to find out who would survive the shrapnel of his inevitable downfall.  It was a show about angry men doing violent things and daring anyone else to insult their power, grr, manly grr man guns I AM THE ONE WHO KNOCKS.

Breaking Bad was absurdly popular, in the same style as The Sopranos, in no small part because it was a power fantasy for men who never got to be terrifying manly villain-heroes in their own lives and feel like they somehow got short shrift.  Neal Stephenson spoke one of our world's great truths when he wrote:
Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.
Breaking Bad struck me as a show for people who were well past 25 and still had those fantasies, especially if they were science nerds.  Personally, I meet enough terrible people in my day-to-day existence and don't generally feel the need to hang around more of them.  Grim gritty stories about anti-heroes and murderer-protagonists really don't compel me.  And I have even less patience for 'he's a good guy, but he's flawed, so he's racist and misogynist and homophobic'--in these cases I really want people to reconsidered what their criteria for 'good guy' should be.

All of this brings me to a new show that my Science Mom introduced me to while visiting this week, called UnREAL, which you'll forgive me for just calling Unreal hereafter.  It's a story about people making a 'reality' television show in the style of The Bachelor, called 'Everlasting', with one dude and a dwindling phalanx of women trying to win his heart.  In order to ensure high viewership, of course, the producers are in charge of making something as close to an exploitation film as possible--manipulating and provoking the women into getting intoxicated, getting naked, getting into fights, and screaming heartfelt pleas and threats in front of the cameras.

Basically everyone is terrible.  Quinn, the executive producer, is really obviously terrible: on the first night of filming, the first contestant revealed on camera is a gorgeous black woman who approaches the dude while performing a violin solo, and Quinn's response behind the scenes is to demand who allowed a black woman to be first, insisting that 'the first one is always wife material--don't look at me like that; it's not my fault America is racist'.  Our Hero Rachel, a returning producer, is first introduced looking exhausted and wearing a grey "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like" t-shirt, and seems like the most likely person to have a conscience, except that she also has a downright satanic gift for whispering exactly the right wrong words into someone's ear, and she does so again and again to keep her job.

Both of Unreal and Breaking Bad are shows about terrible people doing terrible things, but I found Breaking Bad pretentious and crude while I've found Unreal fascinating and legitimately entertaining.  Why the stark difference?

There are some obvious objective differences--the 'terrible things' on Breaking Bad tended to be 'selling drugs to recovering addicts' or 'literally murdering people', while the terrible things on Unreal are more personal and emotional betrayals.  One of these things is easier to get over than the other.  But the most important difference is that where Breaking Bad used its premise as a justification for us to just watch crimes happen, Unreal is dogged in continually dissecting and revealing as much as it can about the details of the vices at play.

Rachel's producer friend Jay (a gay black man) pulls aside the two black contestants early on to "be real" with them, stating that no black woman in the history of the show has ever gotten past the 'final four' and that there are certain archetypes they need to play into (the aggressive, loud, independent-but-jealous type) if they want to be popular enough to stay that long.  One of the women declares that all she cares about is getting some fame to boost the business she plans to start after the show, while the other calls him an Uncle Tom and refuses to pander to racist white audiences.  Far from being a throwaway 'racism exists' scene, their choices continue to be reflected in subsequent events, with an ultimate conclusion that no, you can't win at racism.  In another scene, Our Hero Rachel tries to incite a good shouting match during a ballroom dance lesson, only to have her intended puppet back off at the last minute and quietly declare "I just realised I was about to slut-shame a woman on national television, and I'm not about that." (I said before that everyone is terrible, but of course part of the point of the show is that the contestants mostly are not, and that is why they have to be manipulated into doing terrible things to make for 'better' TV.)

I'm only four episodes in to what will be a ten-episode season, so I have no idea if the show will remain good or crash and burn or what.  There are forms of representation it could improve on (our one confirmed gay character is a guy with no hint of partner, and the cast is as implied mostly white).  There's a distinct lack of supportive female friendships, but a distinct lack of friendships in general--most people are either rivals or allies of convenience, and no one is supposed to have anything as vulnerable as feelings.  But there are so many women.  It's a show filled with women, varied women, women with amazing skills and terrible flaws and complicated motivations.  (Needless to say it passes Bechdel several times per episode.)

The connection that I want to make here is ultimately that one of these shows is For Men and the other one is For Women (Breaking Bad was on AMC; Unreal is on Lifetime) and that means that when they created stories about terrible people, one was a story about a lone dude who decided he didn't have to play by the rules anymore, and the other is a story about a host of women who have been varyingly shaped to operate on the wrong sets of rules, and to one degree or another know that the system they live in is wrong but question the power they have to change it...

Well, now we're talking about something relateable.

(If you want to check Unreal out and you don't have Lifetime, I recommend you grab your pirate hat.  Putlocker has been serving me well for the first episodes.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Erika vs Dredd

I feel the need to defend this week's choice first. The idea behind "surprisingly feminist media" is to take the lowest scrape-the-barrel "Hey, this movie is only minimally harmful!" media and analyse its strengths and weaknesses.  Which brings me to said choice of the week: the 2012 Dredd.

Content notes: murder, police violence, threats of sexual violence.

Picture: The title character Dredd in a helmet that covers his eyes, frowning, with flames reflected in his visor.

He makes that face the entire movie and talks like Batman. (The one from the Dark Knight Trilogy, not the perennially wonderful Adam West.) I won't pretend I don't replace half his dialog in my head with "I'M BATMAN" in my head, and it doesn't really change anything. It's wonderful.

Dredd is a movie is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity has built one giant mega-city (aptly named Mega-City One) and within this giant mega-city are giant apartment buildings (200+ floors). Because these cities are so huge and everything is corrupt and awful because there was some sort of apocalypse the new system of law enforcement is Judges, who are cops, but also juries and executioners. Sounds a bit like a wish fulfillment for some of the cops in the US, doesn't it? Our title character, the fascist Judge Dredd, is given a failed rookie to take with him to evaluate (she is a powerful psychic, which is why, even in a world of hard yes and no, they're testing her anyways). He will be the sole one to decide this, because this world is big on giving cops that sort of power. These two go to investigate a triple homicide in one of the mega blocks and then OH NO THEY'RE TRAPPED AND AN EVIL MOB BOSS HAS LOCKED THE PLACE DOWN AND SET EVERYONE IN THE BUILDING ON TRYING TO MURDER THEM!

If you are looking for an over the top DARK GRITTY ACTION MOVIE with super cheesy dialogue I will gesture emphatically at Dredd for you. (The Husbeast adores this movie, but is quick to point out that Dredd is supposed to be a fascist and they never address that at all. There are no overt politics, although as we're about to dive into, there are some disturbing implicit ones.)

So, the bad: Dredd is kind of racist. The movie, not the character. Maybe the character? He gets very little development so I legitimately can't say (I also know nothing about the comics, if someone else wants to chime in). The Rookie (Anderson) is cast as a pretty white woman:

Pictured: A pretty blond white woman wearing a fair bit of make up
She spends a fair portion of the movie fighting with a black villain in their custody, who (on three separate occasions) threatens her with sexualized violence. Yeah. Awk. In one super unnecessary scene occurring psychically in his head, he twists things to make her perform oral on him, but she quickly twists the 'dream' around on him and, long story short, he pisses himself and she walks away completely victorious. She also doesn't wear a helmet so we can keep seeing her pretty face, although I will give them points for justifying why she doesn't (it interferes with her psychic powers, if you were wondering). The movie is set in a mega-block which we're told has an unemployment rate of 96% and one of the highest crime rates in the area. It has some of the most diverse casting of background characters that I have ever seen, which would be great if this wasn't a building mostly full of criminals and the unemployed. (How can a 96% unemployment rate be sustained? Where do they get their food and other necessities?  They clearly can't be farming or ranching.  Do they steal from other blocks?  Does Mega-City One have a vast and abundant welfare program to go with its murderous ultra-cops?)


It would be nice seeing so many POC in the background if it didn't translate to Dredd and Anderson mowing through dozens of men of color without batting an eye. There are three times that we see hesitation from them: One is Anderson's first kill (a white man), another is a victim of violence (another white man, also Anderson being the one to hesitate), and the third is when Dredd tries to talk kids away and stuns them instead of shooting to kill (one is black, one is white). This is the only time we find out he has that capacity; it is never used again or mentioned, even when he is running dramatically low on ammunition.  There are a lot of ways in which feminist goals (the health, safety, and freedom of all women, not just the privileged white ones) aren't compatible with a fascist police state that routinely murders people on a whim, but for the sake of this post, we're working within its premise.

(The 'whim' nature of the judges is both highlighted and ignored--Dredd will enter a room with guns blazing and take out four suspected criminals to make a point, but then declare that he won't execute one of the captives on a mere 99% chance they are a murderous drug dealer.)

With all of that said, we get to the reasons that this movie qualified for SFM in the first place! (Did I mention the sweet action scenes and how all of Dredd's lines can be replaced with "I'M BATMAN"? Because I feel that's relevant.)

Also HOLY NONSEXUALIZED FEMALE CHARACTERS BATMAN! Am I making too many Batman jokes in this post? (Do I care?) Nah. There are two major female characters. Ma-Ma (Madeline Madrigal), the head of Ma-Ma Clan, who is a former sex worker who bit the dick off of her pimp and took over his holdings to become the top gang leader in the block. She's known not for being sexy or sultry, but for violence and cruelty. Her first scene is in the bath, and you see nothing. She's in opaque water up to her neck.  The point is instead to show us what the movie's narcotic Slo-Mo feels like to the user--everything is slow and sparkly, and sometimes the movie feels like Twilight if the vampires were perma-violent gun fanatics.  So, SFX porn, but not actual porn!

Then there's the rookie, Anderson. Her uniform is the same as Dredd's. They don't tighten it up or make it more fitted. They don't put her in awkward boobs and butt poses, she moves and behaves like someone who knows what they're doing. She is (and is treated as) competent. The only time we get anything remotely resembling "but ur a girl" is from villains. When Dredd doubts or questions her, it's because he's evaluating her, not because he doubts her for being a woman and (minor spoilers) by the end of the movie Dredd thoroughly relies on and trusts in her.

The movie on a few occasions actively subverts "sexy" tropes. Ma-Ma is a former sex worker but they never feel the need to show her acting "sexy". She isn't hanging out in heels and a cat suit ordering her minions around, we see her in loose shirt and in the war room. We see her taking action, and being the one to hold the knife to people herself. There's a set up for a GIRL FIGHT between Anderson and another woman, which the movie gleefully skips past by having Anderson psychically foresee the ambush and just shoot them down before carrying on her way. Later Anderson gets shot--it looked like a shoulder shot and when I first watched the movie I sighed. Great. Time for some awkward bloody cleavage. (Why bloody women in pain can be considered sexy yet people are so grossed out by periods baffles me.) But then: they don't do it. There are no weird bloody boobs. They unzip her uniform and she's not wearing a basically-see-through white tank top; she's wearing a dark t-shirt, and even though it looked like she got shot in the shoulder it's a gut wound.

Is Dredd groundbreaking in representation or writing? Absolutely not. It's awkward in how it handles it's POC characters (Dredd's boss is a black woman with two brief scenes, and that's about as good as it gets), and never tries to address the fact that it's about a fascist system of murder-cops. But it's a fun action flick that didn't leave me thinking "Why is it so hard to get action movies made with women as people?", which is depressingly rare.  Whatever credit Dredd could be granted doesn't come from displaying empowered women who are 'just as good as men', but by making characters who simply are women while being cops and criminals.  People who aren't written as if 'woman' is a personality trait, and who aren't just there to fuel sex fantasies.

(And yes, from all we've heard, Mad Max: Fury Road will definitely be the subject of an upcoming Surprisingly Feminist Media post.)

As always feedback and further suggestions for this feature are welcome. Tune in next week for more of Will suffering!