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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Women of the Year: A Brief Retrospective

This time last year I was optimistic about the future of female characters in entertainment media. After all, 2015 was the year of Imperator Furiosa, Katniss Everdeen, Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, Supergirl and Rey (Skywalker?) Aside from the obvious caveat that they were all white women, it was a banquet of three-dimensional and critically acclaimed lead females.
By comparison, 2016 was the year female characters were slaughtered en masse. Laurel Lance, Abbie Mills, Vanessa Ives, Liz Keen, Elektra Natchios – sure, some of these deaths were (or will be) reversed, but the shocking thing is that they were all the female leads of their respective shows.
Supporting characters didn't fare much better: Lexa from The 100, Camilla Marks from Empire, Mary and Nora from The Vampire Diaries, Denise Cloyd from The Walking Dead, Root from Person of Interest, Poussey from Orange is the New Black – what makes it especially chilling is that each and every one of these women were queer.
In the space of a week I watched Kaira get shot in the head at point-blank range on Indian Summers; followed by Vikings dispatching two of its reoccurring characters in a single episode: Yidu was viciously drowned in a river and Princess Kwenthrith stabbed to death. The show returned six months later and promptly shot Aslaug in the back.
In fact, the only death of a woman that was handled with dignity and respect was that of Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones. And seriously, if Game of Thrones has the best example of how a female character's demise should be handled, then something has gone terrifyingly wrong.
Other iconic characters were treated badly: Agent Carter was cancelled, Uhura was wasted in Star Trek Beyond, and most of the publicity surrounding the second season of Supergirl revolved around the introduction of her male cousin (to be honest, I wasn't particularly fazed by this, but it was definitely a talking point for a lot of people).
It was relentless.
Yes, we had Ghostbusters – but just look at the sheer amount of vitriol that surrounded its release, with the actresses enduring misogynistic and racial harassment on-line. Honestly, the next time I hear a guy say women are too emotional, I'm going to secretly think about the hysterical meltdown those dudes had over this movie and laugh my head off.
There is some light on the horizon, with Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel heading their own movies next year – but again, we're talking about white women. Black women, Asian women, First Nation women, Latina women ... they all deserve complex and three-dimensional heroes too, and God knows they deserve it after this garbage fire of a year.
Edit: since originally writing this, Sonequa Martin-Green has just been cast as the lead on Star Trek: Discovery, so – whoo hoo!
Edit: since that update, we've lost Carrie Fisher, our irreplaceable Space Princess. Because 2016 is determined to suck right till the end. 
Yet for all of this, I'm an optimist. I truly believe that things can and will get better; that progress is being made – and will keep being made, even if it can feel excruciatingly slow sometimes, or that for every two steps forward we take one back. 2017 is going to be a difficult year in so many different ways, but it's when times are tough that artists get to work; telling stories that inspire, that galvanise, that punch holes in the status quo. And for my part, I'm going to do my best to promote them.
***
I've decided to present this retrospective in the same way I did last year, by simply listing the female characters I discovered, enjoyed and appreciated in 2016 but who (for reasons of there only being twelve months in a year) didn't make it onto any of my Women of the Month posts.
Some of them were introduced to the world in 2016; others arrived much earlier but only came to my attention this year. In each case, the woman in question piqued my imagination, either through her design, characterization or place within the narrative. Unfortunately there's not as much diversity here as there is in the "official" women of the month posts, and neither are there as many characters featured as last year – but in the latter case we'll just have to call it quality over quantity.

Jyn Erso from Rogue One
I feel on the defensive when it comes to our latest Star Wars heroine. Her reception was lukewarm, and though I can understand (and share) some of the criticisms, I also think many of them were unwarranted.
Some have been saying she was defined and motivated by her relationships to men, that she was never given any clear personality traits, that she was robbed of the opportunity to avenge her mother – and for what it's worth, I'm convinced that a lot of her material ended up on the cutting room floor.
The trailers depicted a young woman who was surly and insouciant (that infamous "this is a rebellion; I rebel" line is gone from the finished product) so there's a good chance a higher-up got nervous that she was coming across as too unlikeable. Which is a damn shame, as somewhere out there is a completely different film with a very different female protagonist.
But what do we have? I profoundly disagree with the notion that her role was contingent on her importance to men (Galen, Saw, Cassian) as in all cases it's the wider context of the Rebellion/Empire conflict that she sits at the centre of. The circumstances of her parentage are incidental to who she is, even as they shape her entire life. Like all the members of Rogue One, she's simply an ordinary person in the right time and place who makes a decision to act.    
And that makes her unique among the leading ladies of the Star Wars franchise: not only is she completely removed from any notions of Destiny or the Force, but her gender is completely irrelevant. Unlike Leia or Padme or Rey (who all had to be women) Jyn could have been Galen's son and there would have been no dramatic changes in the story – and doubtlessly, a lot less criticism as well.
Bottom line: yes she was underwritten, and yes it's obvious at this stage that the franchise has problems with casting women of colour. But Jyn is the second non-sexualised female protagonist in a Star Wars movie in as many years, one who is determined and uncompromising and victorious in the most heartrending way possible. I can't help being just a little bit thrilled about that.
Jillian Holtzmann from Ghostbusters
When I first started this project I made a strict rule with myself that I would only ever showcase one female character per film/show/book, and the fact that Patty Tolan was Woman of the Month in August means I had to eliminate the rest of the Ghostbusters from the spotlight. But it would be entirely remiss of me not to mention Kate McKinnon's brilliant performance as Jillian Holtzmann in this post – a type of female character that I'm not sure has ever been seen before.
There's been some interesting discourse about how she ticks a lot of boxes on the autism spectrum, and Paul Feige has pretty much confirmed that she (like her actress) is gay. But most of the buzz that surrounds her can be summed up in this article:
It was the scene I had always wanted, and never before been given. The scene where the demolitions guy, the mad genius, the crazy science motherfucker was a woman. It was there, right there on the screen. The scene I had always wanted, rendered lovingly and perfectly just for me. No coy winks and skin-tight suits, no impractical shoes, no body twisting ass shots during the fight, no “well, I have five brothers.” Not one single compromise made to make my glorious demolitions expert more palatable to the male gaze.
I know the sequel is up in the air at the moment, but I can't really make myself believe we've seen the last of these ladies.
Jaylah from Star Trek Beyond
The latest Star Trek movie was simultaneously an improvement on the franchise, and a fairly ho-hum sequel – yet among the returning cast of characters it was newcomer Jaylah that proved to be an unexpected delight. A young alien woman whose father died to free her from slavery, she's been living the life of Robinson Crusoe: isolated and lonely in the wilderness, without any allies or companionship.
But that doesn’t make her helpless. Years of training and preparation have resulted not only in an environment teeming with booby traps, but a ship ready to carry the crew of the Enterprise home – with a little teamwork, of course.
She's not only an integral part of the plot, but a three-dimensional character in her own right: a prickly personality, resourcefulness, survivor's instinct, deep-seated grief, a love of heavy metal – it all came together beautifully. Let's hope we'll see her again soon.
Judy Hopps from Zootopia
Okay, I've just realized this is the fourth female character in a row whose name starts with the letter J! I promise it's a coincidence.
I was late arriving to Zootopia, knowing only that it excited the furries and went surprisingly deep with issues of prejudice. Having finally settled down to watch, it soon became clear that the film had managed that rare triple victory: great plot, great world-building, great characters.
Foremost amongst the latter is Judy Hopps, a diminutive but determined rabbit whose ambition in life is to become a police officer. When her well-meaning parents gently try to puncture this dream by telling her there's never been a police-bunny before, she shrugs her shoulders and says: "Then I'll be the first one."
If Amy Poehler had not already voiced Joy in last year's Inside Out, I expect she would have been the first choice for Judy – instead the task goes to Once Upon a Time's Ginnifer Goodwin, who works just as well. Leslie Knope and Snow White are clear kin to Judy, and there's no challenge that Judy doesn't face with a genuine attempt at a smile.
Often it feels like optimistic characters are designed to be broken, but in Judy's case it's not physical obstacles or the cynicism of others that takes her to her darkest point: she (temporarily) quits her job because she feels she's made an ethical error, having failed in her duties by inadvertently spreading fear and prejudice among the citizens of Zootopia. If only all public servants could be so honourable.
Jessica Jones from Jessica Jones
Another J? Now it's getting spooky. As it happens, I loved every second of Jessica Jones. I can't remember the last time I watched a show so completely for and about women: old women, young women, straight women, gay women, innocent women, corrupt women, complicated women, messy women – the only obvious omission is the one this genre has constant trouble with: anything other than white women.
But Krysten Ritter is perfect as Jessica, a thirtysomething woman with super strength, a detective agency, and a serious case of PTSD. She’s already struggling emotionally and financially, but her life takes a turn for the even worse when she realizes that her abusive ex-boyfriend Kilgrave is still alive (after being presumed dead in a car accident) and out for revenge.
What makes him so terrifying is that he has the power of persuasion. Any verbal command he gives must be instantly obeyed by whoever hears it, and he’s been honing this talent for his entire adult life. It’s this cat-and-mouse game between the two of them that makes Jessica Jones so riveting: there’s none of the alien invasions or planetary destruction prevalent in the big-screen Marvel films – just one good woman versus one bad man.
I'm a sucker for tough exteriors hiding vulnerable centres, and Jessica takes this contrast to extremes: she's surly, sullen, sarcastic, even nihilistic at times – yet for all of that, nothing can dampen or hide her boundless compassion and her admirable struggle to fight a monster without becoming one herself.
Kara Danvers from Supergirl
The truth is that Supergirl isn't a particularly great show – despite my superhero fatigue I still managed to be riveted by Jessica Jones in a way I simply wasn't by Supergirl, which follows very familiar paths when it comes to its storytelling.
But as was mentioned frequently at the time Supergirl first aired, Kara Danvers was the polar opposite of Jessica Jones in nearly every conceivable way. To have two female superheroes headlining their own television shows concurrently was something that had never happened before, and the compulsion to contrast/compare them was too much for most critics and viewers to resist.
Yet the most basic difference between them was simply a matter of tone. Whereas Jessica worked in the shadows, Kara embraced the light. With the personality of an overexcited puppy, Kara dons the blue and red suit with the noblest of intentions: to protect and serve the people of National City.
And for the most part, the show vindicates her faith in people. She's brimming with hope and warmth and optimism, and the citizens respond to her in kind. It's a relief to take a break from the grimdark worlds of Arrow and Daredevil (and all their assorted DC/Marvel spin-offs) and instead enjoy a heroine who is the personification of light and sunshine.
Princess Isabella from Galavant
Forget all these recycled live-action Disney remakes – there was an original Disney Princess that sang, stomped and sassed her way through 2016, and that was Galavant's Princess Isabella.
And she really does tick all the boxes of what we've come to expect from the modern day Disney Princesses: she's spunky, witty, beautiful, selfless, brave – but also occasionally snippy and rather stuck-up. Karen David is the epitome of Badass Adorable, taking what is (by this stage) a pretty staple "feisty princess" role and making it infinitely more charming than obnoxious.
Full name Isabella Maria Lucia Elisabetta, and self-described as "ethnically hard to pin down", she undergoes a dangerous mission after her kingdom of Valencia is invaded by King Richard – except it's not what it first appears. Though Galavant believes she's hired him in order to win back her homeland, the truth is her parents' lives are at stake if she can't lead Richard's rival into the trap that's been laid.
Although season two has her spent just a bit too much time under a love spell, she eventually breaks free in order to rally her kingdom's forces and take back what's hers – grappling with Galavant's perceived betrayal as she does so. There's a trope called Earn Your Happy Ending, and it definitely applies to Isabella.
Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad
This movie was a hot mess, but Margot Robbie's take on Harley Quinn was one of its indisputable highpoints: so much so, that a spin-off starring her and the Gotham Sirens was almost immediately green-lit.
The character was originally conceived as a sidekick for the Joker on Batman: The Animated Series back in the Nineties, and she quickly became the show's Breakout Character. Her leap to comic book continuity was inevitable, and from there it was only a matter of time before this: her first live-action appearance on the big screen.
And Margot Robbie (despite a slightly wonky Brooklyn accent) captured what is so loved about the character: that grab-bag of insanity, vulnerability, sexuality, cunning, violence, and dehabilitating, mind-destroying, utterly self-destructive love for the Joker. Whenever you see them together you want to yell: "run girl!" but of course, this relationship is the lynchpin of her characterization; the defining aspect of her life.
For now at least, she's stuck with him and his toxic influence – but as they're already promising Poison Ivy in the Gotham Sirens spin-off, the future looks a little more hopeful.
Amberle and Eretria from The Chronicles of Shannara
I quit reviewing The Chronicles of Shannara about halfway through the first season, though I kept watching out of fondness for the source material and its two young heroines. 

By themselves Amberle and Eretria aren't that interesting, slotting fairly neatly into the Tomboy and Girly Girl roles of an elf princess and a nomadic thief. Equally dispiriting is the fact they end up in a love triangle with one of the most boring white male protagonists of recent memory (who gets to sleep with both of them over the course of the season).
So why are they here? Well, I appreciate the fact that despite their mutual interest in Wil, the show doesn't pit them against each together in any serious way – in fact it spends just as much time on their rivalry-turned-friendship as it does on their flirtations with Wil. (Heck, once Eretria is established as bisexual, there's some pretty blatant Ship Teasing between them).
And when was the last time you saw a fantasy Power Trio comprised of one man and two women? I can only think of Buffy, Xander and Willow, and that was way back in the Nineties.
Shannon Mullins from The Heat
Melissa McCarthy is a divisive figure as of late, but screw it – I find her hilarious, though it wasn't until this year that I got around to watching three of her films for the first time: GhostbustersSpy and The Heat (still haven't tracked down Bridesmaids).
It was The Heat that made me laugh the most, in which she played a character that became surprisingly complex as the movie progressed. At first it seems that the humour of Shannon Mullins is built on no more than the fact she's more foul-mouthed than a sailor, but an interesting development soon emerges after her partner realizes she's estranged from her family (a woman driving past flips the bird at Shannon; on being asked who that was, she sighs and says: "just my mum").
It transpires that Shannon put her own brother behind bars after he was caught up in a drug deal, something he is actually grateful to her for, though it earns her the ire of the rest of her family. Her integrity is commendable, and though she lives in the heightened comedy realm of the outrageous (in which most of the stuff she says and does would get her immediately fired) you can't ever doubt her tenacity or commitment to the job.
Also worth noting: at no point does she undergo any glamourous makeover during the course of the story, and her rapport with Sandra Bullock's Sarah Ashburn really is a joy. They nail the good cop/bad cop components of their roles perfectly.
Samantha Stewart from Foyle's War
I've been slowly but surely making my way through Foyle's War, and one of its most charming elements is Honeysuckle Weeks as Samantha Stewart, initially introduced as Detective Foyle's driver but soon proving her mettle as an investigator in her own right.
As the daughter of a clergyman, the character's most appealing trait is her innocence and unfailing cheerfulness – something the show is in no hurry to ridicule or tear away from her (though even Foyle himself seems to get a tad weary of her chirpiness at times).
Perhaps my favourite moment is when she decides to attempt a Honey Trap in the hopes of gleaning some information from a suspect – only to be immediately rumbled by her complete inability to pass herself off as even remotely seductive. It's actually a very sweet demonstration of her upbringing – even as she rebels a little against her father, she remains innately true to herself and her values.
Billy's Mother from Gremlins
So I made an erroneous mistake in my Woman of the Month post back in November, stating that there were no female characters of note in Gremlins. But though Kate Beringer makes for a bland love interest (her bizarre story about why she hates Christmas not withstanding) it was totally remiss of me to overlook Billy's mother!
In a single scene she turns on a blender while a gremlin is inside it, stabs another one to death with a kitchen knife, and sprays a third with insect repellent before forcing it into the microwave where it explodes. She takes out three of them by herself, armed only with kitchen appliances! You can watch the whole thing here:
Bad. Ass. Bitch.

4 comments:

  1. So, so pleased to see Sam Stewart on this list! Also Judy, since I just watched (and fell in love with) Zootopia. A great list all-up.

    I think your optimism may be warranted - one silver lining to the carnage this year is that the issue of women and minorities dying on TV was given (comparatively) a lot of attention, and the backlash to The 100 in particular will hopefully make showrunners think twice before writing more of them. (My pick for the most egregious culprit is actually Last Tango in Halifax, which killed a lesbian of colour despite not being a genre show or a show that in any way required death in its narrative.) And hey, at least Abbie's death allowed me to quit Sleepy Hollow when I can never normally quit shows once I'm caught up with them. *forced grimace*

    One tiny correction: it's Karen David who plays Isabella, not Karen Page, who is Daredevil's secretary. :)

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    1. Glad you enjoyed Zootopia! I'm still a little surprised at just how well that turned out.

      A part of me feels I'm optimistic because I HAVE to be optimistic, but I also truly believe that a lot of people got a wake-up call this year.

      it's Karen David who plays Isabella, not Karen Page, who is Daredevil's secretary

      Whoops! I just finished season 2 of Daredevil, so she was obviously on my mind!

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  2. Not on topic I'm afraid, but wondering if you were planning to review the new Jonathan Creek special? Thought it was a marked improvement on the dreadful series they did two years ago (but still afflicted with some of the same problems) so interested to see what you make of it.

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    1. I had no idea there was another one out! The first three (maybe four) seasons of JC are honestly my favourite thing in the world, and it killed me when the quality started going downhill - but I keep tuning in anyway, so it'll probably end up on my next reading/watching log.

      Thanks for telling me it was out there!

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