katniss and beyond

I was busy working on an international campaign to end gender-based violence when Catching Fire came out. My colleagues and I were in a rush to meet deadlines–chatting and emailing from Malaysia, Mexico, South Africa, Lebanon, and the US–and suddenly all we could talk about was Katniss.

Jennifer Lawrence, at only 23 years old, dominated the box office. Finally, studios are starting to understand that a woman can lead an action film and that audiences want female superheroes with their own stories. Catching Fire, like the rest of The Hunger Games trilogy, is all about Katniss. There are no subplots that are not part of her overall narrative, and she is a strong, independent, and dynamic protagonist. She is proving to the studio system that men and boys can care about the stories of women and girls. At the theatre I visited, the crowd was actually split pretty evenly.

I’m sure it’s been said many times that Katniss is the antidote to Bella, Twilight‘s insecure, moony lead whose vampire boyfriend won’t sleep with her because he’s afraid he’ll kill her. There may be a love triangle of sorts, but Katniss is no one’s girlfriend. In fact, as NPR pointed out recently, Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, takes on the role of movie girlfriend.

I was thrilled that my colleagues around the world felt as inspired by Katniss as I did, so I appreciated Black Girl Dangerous‘s post about disidentification and how “character subtleties can be reinterpreted and radicalized” by readers and audiences. She describes her identification with Katniss and JK Rowling’s Hermione, especially as Hermione’s hair struggles are shared by many girls of color.

That girls of color have found ways to make iconic characters their own really speaks to how pervasive the straight white male narrative remains in our society. Women and girls are used to reading themselves into male narratives, to finding something in any story to identify with, because that’s always been the expectation. But women and girls of color are further out in the margins, forced to also read themselves into white narratives. Have you seen these “10 life-changing books” lists going around Facebook lately? Yeah, Nabokov’s prose was stunning, but, white friends, can you start reading books by people who aren’t white men? There’s a whole world out there.

I love Katniss. LOVE. And I love Hermione. But we still need to make heroes of black girls and brown girls. If they zero in on Katniss’s olive skin in the books and decide she looks kind of like them, that’s great. But they could use someone who really does look like them. They deserve to see themselves on the big screen.

Geena Davis came up with a simple solution to gender inequality in film.

Step 1: Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?

Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don’t gather, I don’t know.

And there you have it. You have just quickly and easily boosted the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue.

The same could be done to include more people of color. It’s really that easy. If we start to see more women and girls of color onscreen, even in crowds, it will be seem natural when the next big trilogy premieres with a black girl as the hero. Studios just need to take some simple steps in that direction.

Men and boys should be expected to appreciate the narratives of women and girls, and they’ve proven they can by supporting movies like Catching Fire, The Heat, and Bridesmaids. But we also need to encourage white folks to support narratives of people of color. If we can all identify more with each other’s stories, more gender, racial, and economic equality will follow.

And that reminds me: I’ve been waiting for Dear White People to come out, and it’s on its way!

 

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reanimating diana: young woman as mythic hero

artemisI’ve spent the last week in bed with this miserable end-of-summer illness that’s going around, but the upshot is that I watched loads of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Years ago, when Buffy was already in its fifth season, I happened to catch an episode and was immediately hooked. I’d forgotten how much I once craved a female superhero. Coincidentally, this was also when Alias started, and though Sydney Bristow boasted no actual super powers, I still loved to watch her kick ass, especially in that bright red wig.

As a late 70s tot, I was a big fan of Linda Carter’s incarnation of Wonder Woman, Diana Prince, though I was far too young to understand much about the story. There’s a picture of me, about three years old, standing in the living room in my Wonder Woman Underoos, and I can barely contain my excitement.

As I got older, I searched for similar themes in books–not warriors necessarily but girls and women who took control, solved problems, made decisions, and changed the world in some way if only in their little communities. Therefore, I read a lot of Nancy Drew, and I was really drawn to the notion of a regular girl fighting crime because it made me feel like I could do that sort of thing.

And that’s what I liked about Buffy Summers and Sidney Bristow. One was a blond, outgoing high-school student and secret chosen one, while the other was a graduate student in English (just like me!) and world-class spy. While these shows had their flaws, I liked how Buffy addressed the good girl/bad girl binary: Buffy couldn’t be just one or the other; ultimately, she had to be both. She had to accept that her dark side was an essential part of her and was not such a terrible thing to embrace. A girl or woman could be multi-dimensional, have conflicting feelings, be tough and firm if she wanted to, and drive the story. She didn’t need to be anyone’s sidekick. She didn’t need saving. And she didn’t need to please everyone.

Has there been another good female superhero since then? I suppose Katniss is one, though she doesn’t have super powers and there’s that tiresome love triangle that guides much of her story. But who else? I admit that I’m not very knowledgeable about comics, but there’s a reason for that. The few women characters always seemed to be impossibly busty and done up in just a strip of leather. To the rescue: artist Alex Law’s Little Girls Are Better at Drawing Superheroes Than You displays little girls’ re-interpretations of superheroes, and they are uplifting and exciting. Little girl Hulk in a tutu might be the best thing ever.

There’s been an influx of superhero movies lately, but they’re mostly the same old stories of straight white dudes. Supposedly, Marvel is a pinch interested in making a female superhero movie because they see a hole they can fill, but they aren’t ready to move. Furthermore, this world is in dire need of more superheroes that aren’t white. Can we get a black Batman or Arab Harry Potter?

Enter Qahera, who breaks the mold and then some. Egyptian artist Deena’s veiled female Muslim superhero fights both misogyny and Islamophobia. Qahera deals with current, real-life scenarios such as sexual harassment and the sexist response of Egypt’s police to said harassment.

It’s fun to imagine having super powers and using them to kick a little ass, especially when faced with a corrupt police force or tyrannical regime, but Ciudad Juárez has its own superhero right now, minus actual super powers, one assumes. A woman calling herself Diana the Huntress (excellent name choice, though I prefer her Greek form, Artemis) has been shooting bus drivers in response to women’s frequent sexual abuse at the hands of the drivers. Authorities say she’s getting revenge, but considering the utter lack of police and government response to rampant femicide in Juarez, you might call it justice.

The thing is I don’t think violence really is a part of justice. I don’t actually want to respond to violence with violence. I think the value in a good superhero tale is not in graphic violence but in the symbolism. Buffy didn’t kill humans, only monsters, and those monsters were the physical manifestation of angsty teen emotions. One of the things I loved about Buffy was that it wasn’t just good vs. evil. Buffy was about accepting that there’s no such thing as perfectly packaged categories of good and evil. There are subversive feelings and ideas lurking beneath cheerleader smiles.

Rather tellingly, Juarez officials have put far more effort into catching this single woman who has killed two men (and wears a blond wig, by the way) than into finding the perpetrators of the mass rape and murder of the city’s female citizens. Clearly, serious cultural change–not violence–is what’s needed to end gender-based violence in Mexico, Egypt, or anywhere else. Transforming traditional narratives, especially superhero stories which are part of our collective consciousness (i.e., the mythic hero’s journey), are an important part of this necessary cultural change. Though that may be why Diana the Huntress chose an archetypal hero as her nom de guerre.

What I responded to most in superhero stories from Wonder Woman to Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the image of a curious, bold, strong, and smart girl or woman who could lead people and effect change. That’s why Nancy Drew was a kind of superhero to me. She saw problems in her world and found a way to solve them on her own. Like Nancy, Diana, and Buffy, I was never interested in being a damsel in distress (or fragile princess, a mythologized Diana of another kind), in letting life just happen to me. I wanted to make life happen, and I wanted to solve problems. That’s what the best superheroes do. If our superheroes reflected more diversity, we might be more inclined to see these strengths in people no matter their gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it feels like Athena is about to bust out of my skull, so I must get back to fighting the good fight against the simple cold.