No Girls Allowed – Why Marvel Needs to Take the Next Step

My wife and I went to see Avengers 2 this weekend, which is unusual. It’s a rarity for us to go see a movie in the theater in the first place (young kids and all), let alone on opening weekend, but the hype was sufficient, we enjoyed the original. Further into the mix, we are both big fans of James Spader ever since his stint as the inimitable Alan Shore on Boston Legal a few years back, so… well, there we were.

And the movie’s great. Exactly what it says on the tin: a good time, tons of action, more than a few explosions, not too heavy on the brain. Good stuff. I pointed out, more or less in jest, to my wife after the fact that for all Marvel’s trying to make itself more female friendly (see the new Thor for example), their biggest franchise in the Avengers doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. (If you can’t be bothered, the Bechdel test is a rule-of-thumb, exceedingly low bar for a film to pass to qualify as not-entirely-chauvinistic-in-its-portrayal-of-women.) Now, you might argue, and you might be right, that the films’ primary audience is men. But you don’t have to look far to find female fans of not just the Marvel universe, but of comics in general, and of popular cinema for that matter. My wife and I are perfect examples; I don’t think I’ve ever cracked a comic book and I’d bet dollars to donuts that my wife hasn’t, but we love the recent spate of superhero movies nonetheless.

So we go home, and my wife discovers the “news” story that Mark Ruffalo tweeted at Marvel calling them out for the lack of gender equality in their Avengers merchandise. Not in so many words. He simply stated that it would be nice for his nieces and daughters to be able to find their favorite figures from the films in the toy stores and on the t-shirts they’re buying. Now, that surprised me, except that it didn’t. Because as much as Black Widow has become a face of the franchise, and as much as Scarlet Witch impacts the new story, they are still girls.

Right? Sure, you say, they’re girls, but only until a certain point. Black Widow single-handedly tames the Hulk, for example, and becomes one of the trainers for the newly reformed SHIELD unit at the end of the film. Not to mention the numerous asses she kicks along the way. Her kung fu is strong. Scarlet Witch manipulates the minds of virtually everybody in the film, including a demigod, for goodness sake, and then is solely responsible for the defense of the MacGuffin at the end of the film, dispatching baddies to the left and the right with little more than a flick of her brain stem.

And that’s awesome!

But.

Black Widow is still exceedingly feminine, in that she tames Hulk with the calming, gentle gestures that only a woman (in the world of this film) could effect. And her primary arc at the end of the film shows her as a lovelorn, heartbroken woman after the Hulk takes off. She’s a badass, but her badassitude is mitigated in no small part by the fact that she still plays into the roles we expect.

Scarlet Witch, too, as part of a genetically-modified duo together with her brother, falls into the same trap. You’ve got twins granted superpowers through some undisclosed don’t-ask-questions science thing. One gets super speed, the other gets the ability to manipulate minds… which one do you think goes to the boy, and which to the girl? You could have just as easily gone the other way and let the girl have the super speed for once (looking at you, The FlashSupermanNightcrawler, etc) instead of making her a master manipulator (and there’s nothing woman-phobic in that, promise), but no, we’ll make her eyes turn red and give her these mind powers.

Okay, okay. I don’t mean to deconstruct the film. Fact is, Marvel is trying, and the further fact is, they are succeeding in a lot of ways at giving their female characters depth, realism, dark sides, and the unpredictability that we expect from its male characters. They’re still women, but they’re not “women” the way women are women in movies.

But why, then, are they not embracing the female fans in their audience? Or the males who (rightly) think a character like Black Widow or Scarlet Witch has something admirable or worthy of emulation about her? Sure, we can put those characters front and center when it’s time to put together a promo spot, but let’s not monetize those characters. Who would want that?

Except they don’t even make the ladies front and center. Look at how far from center the women are in this promo! Not one, not two, but three slots away from the place your eye goes to when you look at the picture. They’re there, sure, but they’re so removed from top billing they’re almost an afterthought.

There’s a problem here, and it’s a self-fulfilling problem. The problem is that Marvel thinks they’re not going to make any money on the sale of merchandise that features its females (and let’s not argue that it’s about anything other than money; if they felt it would sell, they would be overflowing the shelves with it). So they don’t make the merchandise, which of course ensures that they won’t make any money on it. And they market the hell out of the male-centric toys and apparel, which ensures that girls buying the stuff are an outlier rather than a focus. But is the problem a real problem, or is it a problem they assume is true? Maybe the audience has evolved; maybe there’s more market than ever for female superheroes, but we’d never know it, because we’re holding onto an outmoded way of thinking. Make hulk hands and replicas of Thor’s hammer and Iron Man gloves so that little boys can pretend to be those guys, but if a girl wants to imitate her favorites, well… send her to the Barbie aisle, point her at the Disney Princess outfits.

I’m reminded of Field of Dreams. Guy gets the idea to build a baseball diamond in the middle of nowhere — and, yeah, the idea comes from a disembodied voice in a cornfield, but you know, roll with it — but nobody supports him because there’s no market for it. Nobody’s going to come to a rinkydink baseball diamond on a farm. But in true hollywood fashion, he builds it anyway, and lo and behold, people start to come. Sure, the ghosts of dearly departed baseballers coming to noodle around on the field helps. But the point remains: he didn’t accept the way things were, he insists on at least trying his idea before he’ll take no for an answer.

I have a feeling that we’re having that If you build it, he will come moment here, except it’s a lot bigger than one person — it’s a whole gender. The whole town (the existing industry) is telling Marvel that it doesn’t make sense to market the female superheroes, but I have a feeling that if they can have the courage to build a baseball diamond in the cornfield (roll out some female-targeted merchandise), the consumers will come. And let’s be honest. Marvel has the money for this gamble.

All they need is the courage to phone up a bulldozer and knock down some corn.


Search History Stories

Chuck’s challenge this week: Tell a story using search terms.

Sounds weird; is weird; is also tons of fun. I wrote one, then while thinking of something completely different, another one struck me. So here’s two for the price of one, and I might just return to this format.

Make your own honey
Amateur beekeeping
Increase beehive productivity
decrease beehive productivity
controlling beehive population
webMD how many bee stings are fatal
webMD buzzing in my sleep
webMD urge to eat sunflowers
how to attract a mate through dance

meteor shower viewing
identifying a meteorite fragment
webMD strange rash on hands
webMD rash on entire body
are meteorites radioactive?
visions of the future are they real
biggest lottery jackpot america
private islands for sale


A Complimentary First Review

So the first non-me reader of my novel has finished it, and gave me a pretty solid compliment. She said that she loved the concept, and wished there was more to the book because she was enjoying it so much.

Okay, so the reader is my wife, which perhaps makes her review a little less than perfectly objective. She does have several notebook pages of notes compiled, though, and pointed out some errors that I overlooked, and some that I downplayed in my own mind despite the fact that they are actually pretty significant.

In short, a mixed review, which is actually exactly what I was hoping for. Good news is she didn’t feel it was a waste of her time or mine, in fact just the opposite. She told me it would make a good movie, and that it would do really well as a series. All the things a wife is supposed to say to her husband who is thrashing around in the riptide trying to find an artistic identity.

In fact, her feedback couldn’t have come at a better time; I’ve started working on my next major project and, much though I love the raw rush of creating from nothingness, it’s leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. Maybe bitter isn’t the word for it: I tried to describe the sensation to my wife, and the best I could come up with (though I actually rather like the simile) is oatmeal.

Writing the new project, at the moment, is kinda like eating oatmeal. The right things are happening, I feel like I’m building a solid foundation for the story to come, and in general the development of the project feels good. But it’s lacking flavor, and I can’t put my finger on why. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m writing the story explicitly from one character’s point of view, but I’m writing it in the 3rd person. Like, if I got into the character’s headspace, I could develop her voice with a bit more flair and verve, but from outside, I’m stuck describing events simply as they happen, and it feels… well, like oatmeal. Also, there’s the fact that I haven’t 100% decided exactly where this story leads — I know some major landmarks along the way but I don’t yet have an ending in mind yet. As a result, I’m moving through it a little tentatively, and that makes me nervous to take risks, which leaves the writing feeling… yeah. Bland.

So maybe I’ll toy with some 1st person perspective over the next couple chapters, or then again, maybe I’ll hold off, since the action is about to start crackling. Blerg. Should I be focusing on infusing a bit more flash and style into this piece to complement the story, or should I just focus on the events first and nail down the delivery later?

I would have thought that, having written a 90,000 word draft before, I’d know what I wanted to accomplish in this new story when I tried to come around and do it again. But apparently not. I blazed a path through the jungle only to discover that writing the next novel will be a hike across the endless desert.

Writer problems. I complain, but these are good problems to have, because the words are flowing, and a lot of writers can’t say that. Nothing to do but press forward. No way out but through.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


Collector’s Item

Chuck’s challenge this week: Literary Mash-Up.

I’m not sure if I’ve properly grasped the concept… I end up literally smashing the stories in question together rather than combining elements of each story’s genre, but this is a fun exercise, regardless.

Anyway, my mash-up victims were The Great Gatsby, which I love, and Pulp Fiction, which I double love. Let that serve as a warning that here there be gratuitous violence (thanks Pulp Fiction) language (thanks Pulp Fiction) booze and debauchery (thanks Great Gatsby) and possibly a deeper meaning hinted at but not in the least delivered (thanks BOTH).

Here, then, is Collector’s Item.

Collector’s Item

“We should have Tommyguns.”

Bruce propped one hand on the wheel and leaned his other elbow against the door, letting his fingers massage his bald scalp. Against his better judgment, he answered. “How many are there?”

“Six or seven, what I heard.”

“Hmm.” Bruce didn’t know how he felt about busting into a room with six or seven guys hopped up on moonshine and god knows what else, but he trusted Mr. G., even if Fitz was edgy. He changed the subject. “Where’d you get those shoes?”

Fitz had on a pair of wingtips polished to a blinding sheen. He angled his leg to get a better look at them. “Gypsies.”

“Get the hell out of here. Gypsies.”

“If I’m lyin’, I’m cryin’, sport. Band of gypsies.”

“Where did you find gypsies around here?”

Fitz sniffed and leaned back in the bucket seat, cupping a match to a cigarette and taking a deep drag. “Couple miles outside of town. They have a camp set up out there. Well, had a camp. Moved on since then. Wherever the fuck gypsies go.”

“And how, if I may ask, did you get a gypsy to part with a pair of shoes like that?”

“Gave him my .38.”

Bruce fought back the urge to slap Fitz across the face. “You traded a gun for a pair of sissyfied leather shoes?”

“I traded my old gun for a pair of designer alligator-skin shoes. One of a kind.”

“One of a kind, made out of hundred dollar bills, I don’t care; you don’t trade a fine piece of equipment like that for some shoes.”

“You do, if you have any taste. Look at your feet, man. What are you wearing, dime store loafers?”

“I promise you this: when I’m dropping bullets into somebody’s head, the last thing they’re thinking about is what’s on my feet.”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong. A man looks good, he feels good.”

Bruce shook his head and wiped a trickle of summer sweat off his brow. Fitz would argue the point until the moon got tired and went home. “This is it.”

The lights of the Hilton rose up like a luminescent palm tree in the night. Bruce maneuvered the car around to the service entrance, and in minutes, they had taken the stairs up to the 12th floor. There was some big event in the ballroom keeping everybody occupied; nobody even looked sideways at the two men in black, or at Fitz’s alligator-skin shoes.

“What I don’t understand is,” Fitz continued, having hardly stopped chattering all eleven flights up, “how big G makes all that money in such a short amount of time.”

This again. Fitz was always asking questions about the big boss. Whenever he did, Bruce could feel snakes sliding along the back of his neck. Boss had eyes and ears everywhere, and you didn’t go talking bad about a guy like Mr. G. Not if you wanted to keep your head on your shoulders.

“Do you get paid?”

“What?” Fitz wasn’t a child, but he could damn sure act like one.

“Do … you … get … paid?”

“The hell kinda question is that?”

“We’re on this job. Pays a couple hundred. Now, whether that comes from Mr. G. or from Sweeney or from whoever else, those couple hundred spend the same. Who cares where they get the money from? Long as I get my cut, I’m happy.”

“All right, all right.” Fitz spread his arms out wide, the classic gesture of a man showing you he’s unarmed and means no harm. The twin holsters revealed at his belt as his jacket flapped open belied the gesture somewhat.

Bruce flicked his watch up to his face.  “It’s time.”

Fitz knocked on the door. That damn “shave and a haircut” rhythm: tap, ta-ta-tap, tap… Thick door. Heavy. Maybe oak or something, Bruce didn’t know. Smooth green paint, numbers in gold, fancy carpets all lush underfoot. Nice place to spend a weekend, if you could afford it.

A blaring trumped assaulted their ears as the door swung open on a scene straight out of a … what was that word…

“Can I help you?” The smarmy-looking guy who opened the door leaned in toward them in a haze of booze and cigarette smoke. His eyes drifted in and out of focus as he swept his gaze back and forth across them. Guy was as hammered as a carpenter’s bench.

“Hey, we heard you all were having some kind of party or something,” Fitz said, turning on a positively magnetic smile.

“You heard right, partner! Come on in, the more the merr–” he hiccuped violently then, almost losing his balance. With a grand gesture he flung the door open and stepped aside to allow Bruce and Fitz in.

“Bacchanalia,” Bruce whispered, the word finally coming to him.

There were no less than a dozen people around the room, in various states of drunken disorder. In the middle of the room, one couple danced violently and out of time with the music. Near them, collapsed on the floor, was another couple ignoring the music entirely in their attempt, apparently, to devour each other’s face. The breathy sounds of their kissing and moaning could be heard above the penetrating music. One armchair held a woman drowsily staring at a spot about five inches in front of her face. The couch held two fellows in shirtsleeves passed out on each other’s shoulder. In a poorly-lit corner, one nervous, parrot-eyed man hung on the arm of a woman who looked as bored with him as she probably was with the world, given the clattering assortment of priceless jewelry adorning the arms folded across her chest. All of them, besides the unconscious ones, had that stumbledrunk heaviness to their movement.

The man who had greeted them beelined to the bar, a grand affair of mirrors and gold trim, hosting a litany of bottles with expensive-sounding monikers, all very English sounding. He uncorked a bottle of clear spirits and poured three glasses at once with a swirling of the bottle, splashing booze everywhere. He proffered one to Bruce, who waved it away with a curt flash of the hand.

“I don’t imbibe.”

Undeterred, the man shifted toward Fitz with the drink.

“Not tonight, buddy.”

“More for me, then!” With a mad grin, their host slammed back one of the glasses at one gulp, dribbling about half the drink down his rumpled shirtfront. Then he turned and sashayed back into the madness.

Bruce, meanwhile, had found the record player and dragged the needle, silencing the music with that unmistakable scratch. It was as if he had pulled the plug on a carousel; all the motion in the room ground to a jerking halt. Fitz, meanwhile, hit the lights, and the partygoers blinked in the sudden blinding whiteness.

“Don’t get up,” Bruce said, in a not-exactly-friendly tone, to one of the sleepers, who had woken and rose toward him. Wisely, the man sat down. Every eye in the room followed Bruce as he stalked like a panther among the drunks. He came to rest in front of the only man in the room who wasn’t drunk, a broad-shouldered affair with a weaselly look despite his lustrous blond hair.

“You must be Tom.”

“Who wants to know?” This the man said confidently, smugly, stroking the back of the woman sitting on his knee. Her hand rested daintily on his chest. If Tom wasn’t recognizable by his size and his stare, the woman was recognizable in that she looked as if the angels themselves had set her in the midst of this den of debauchery. Her golden curls tumbled past her shoulders, diamonds festooned her fingers, and her expression was flighty, bemused, and a little otherworldly. Daisy.

Bruce smiled, sliding his hands into his pockets; just chit-chat, here. “I thought so. Great party. Was that Duke I heard before?”

“I don’t know much about music. More important things on my mind.”

Bruce’s eyes glinted, and he pointed a knowing finger at Tom. “Like the way you think, Tom. Like your taste in booze, too, though I don’t drink myself. But I can tell you’re an individual who discerns. Only the finest.” He flicked his eyes momentarily at Daisy.

Tom nodded, cool, in control, but his mouth curled in a sneer. He didn’t care for Bruce’s eyes on his wife.

Fitz had glided soundlessly to stand with his back against the front door, hands resting lazily on his belt. Bruce glanced his way and Fitz nodded the most imperceptible of nods.

“Well, Tom,” said Bruce, “there’s no easy way to say this, but you’ve got something that belongs to my friend, Mr. G.”

“Who the hell is –“

Like a cobra uncoiling, Bruce drew his pistol and fired into the face of the man he’d asked to sit down. His brains and blood fountained all over the other man on the sofa, waking him up. There was an instant of cacophony in which everybody in the room began to scream, but Bruce shot the other man and things got deathly quiet.

“I don’t think we need to pretend, Tom.” Bruce grinned around his gun arm. “You’re smarter than that. We’re here to collect Daisy.”

“Over my dead –“

“Careful, Tom.” Bruce drew back the hammer on his pistol for effect. “She’s going with us. Whether you’re alive or dead when she does is up to you.”

Through all this, Daisy wore a horrified look pasted across her wispy features, but her eyes registered something else entirely, like she knew how she was supposed to act but couldn’t keep her excitement from bubbling through. She yelped when Tom swatted her on the bottom and nudged her up from her perch.

“I guess you’d better go on with… I didn’t catch your name.”

“Didn’t give it,” Fitz chimed in, smiling that winning smile from the door.

Dammit.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Tom spat, and his bulk unfolded itself, springing out of the chair and throwing Daisy aside. He reached for the pistol at his belt but three bright blooms erupted from his chest – BLAM BLAM BLAM – and he staggered back into the chair, blood and spittle flying from his lips.

The men in the room, who’d seemed a bunch of harmless drunks before, lurched into action, reaching for concealed weapons or diving at the assassins. Intoxicated, though, they were woefully slow. Gunfire thundered off the walls of the little room, and ropes and sprays of blood mingled with the abstract artwork, soaked into the plush white carpet.

Daisy, her blond hair now red with blood, her newly crimson gown clinging to her body, stood trembling in the midst of a mass of death. The few other women in the room were screaming, the shrill sound echoing and magnifying itself in the small space. A dull thwack thwack thwack pounded on the edge of his consciousness; his heart pounding in his ears. It didn’t have to be this way.

With a heavy sigh, Bruce holstered his weapon and looked around for Fitz. Fitz knelt, his weapons spent, pounding the butt of his pistol into the ruined shape of one man’s head.

“Fitz.”

Thwack.

“Fitz!”

Fitz whirled, his gun above his head, mid-swing. A manic glee boiled behind his eyes. “Yeah?”

“We happy?”

Fitz smashed his gun into the man’s head one last time and shoved himself to his feet, sniffing derisively. “Yeah, we’re happy.”

“Miss Daisy,” Bruce said, holding his hand out for her with a little bow. Dreamlike, she took it, and allowed herself to be led from the room.

Fitz shoved his gun back into its holster and cast one last appraising look around the room. “We should have fucking Tommyguns.”


Why There May Be Hope for Humanity (an anti-vaxxer redemption reflection)

Who doesn’t love a good case of poetic justice?

The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe pointed me to this story at the Times Union, which tells how a mother of seven has suddenly flip-flopped like a foundering fish.

The tl;dr version is this: this mother, while in the midst of a vaccine schedule for her existing three children, got taken in by the anti-vaxxer movement. She stopped vaccinations on her existing children and did not vaccinate any of her subsequent progeny. Fast forward a few years. At the moment, she and her family are under quarantine — quarantine! — because one of the kids caught Whooping Cough and it ravaged the household like a grizzly bear in a sandwich factory. (I know sandwiches aren’t made in factories, okay? Just… geez.) As a result, she has rethought her position on vaccinations and is planning to vaccinate her kids as much as possibly immediately.

Now, look. I don’t endorse the dark, seedy place in our hearts whence comes Schadenfreude, but I’d be lying if I said Schadenfreude didn’t tickle my nethers when I heard this story. I don’t know if there is a more selfish and misinformed segment of the population than the anti-vax crowd; my blood boils when I hear one of them proclaiming with snobbish smuggery that they haven’t vaccinated their kids and they are perfectly healthy! Claims like this fail, of course, to understand that those who self-righteously choose not to vaccinate overlook the benefits they’re reaping from everybody else who does (see Herd Immunity), or quote ridiculous statistics from bogus studies about the incidence of illness or complication arising from vaccinations themselves.

Erg, it would be so easy to derail into a tirade about the lunacy of the anti-vaxxer movement, but that’s not my point. It’s easy to kick a dead horse, but it doesn’t help anybody, least of all the horse.

My point is that there is hope for humanity.

Look, this woman got taken in by some bad information and scare-mongering. She stopped vaccinating her kids. Maybe that’s not you, but any of us could be taken in by information just as bad, scare-mongering just as … scare… mongery. Maybe I start to believe that gay marriage will destroy our society. Maybe I start to believe that the earth is flat. Maybe I go off and do something really crazy, like vote Republican.

The point isn’t that she got taken in, the point is that she came back from the edge. True, it took her entire household coughing like a misfiring Edsel to see the error of her ways, but she saw it.

I think it’s a commonly-held belief that people just aren’t going to change their minds. Try to have a conversation with somebody on the other side of the abortion issue, for instance. We get so caught up in all the extra, non-issuey stuff (“he’s an idiot! How could he possibly think that??”) that a lot of times, the issue itself gets lost in the shuffle. And a lot of the time, that may be true. But not every time.

Not this time.

When I first heard this story, I couldn’t help chuckling just a bit in a self-satisfied, “well, that’s what you get” kind of way. I couldn’t help it — out it burst, like an alien from the chest cavity, ugly and raw. She got what she deserved. But the more productive way to look at it is this: for better or worse, regardless of the circumstances, she is now correcting an error. And while she can’t do anything now to avert the house of plague that’s swirling around her, at least she can do the right thing to protect her family in the future.

Which is what it’s all about, innit? Making the best decisions we can with the information that’s available to us.

If we can do that, we’d all be living better lives.

Also, vaccinate your kids.


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