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Category: Feminism

“We can’t damn the torrent of death and injustice”

I wanted to write about Identity Crisis, but it’s as if I’m being stalked by the post I meant to write. I ended up thinking about it while writing about Eightball, and then while Steven was writing I ended up reading Daredevil: Guardian Devil, Kevin Smith’s epic and awful attempt to Make Daredevil’s Life Hell. (No, I don’t know why I’ve been driven to capitalize important words lately in a way I know everyone finds frustrating, and I don’t know why I write asides like this either, to head off complaints on that front.)

Guardian Devil is horrible in many ways, from the constant in-jokes (ooh, Silent Bob says nothing about Catcher in the Rye! Dogma is showing at the theaters Daredevil passes!) to the hideous Cabbage Patch Kid at the core of the story to the spectacularly dreadful dialogue. And then there’s the story! See, it’s really about consent and forgiveness and the pure vision inspired by pure, true love, but that’s trapped under layers of craziness and blood. I’m not even sure how to summarize, so I’ll just hit the highlights. Matt Murdock is Daredevil, of course, and his girlfriend at the beginning of the story is Karen Page. The story starts with Matt in the confessional, perhaps about to mention he’s been sleeping with Karen or something like that, but really just because Kevin Smith is obsessed with bad ring structure and an early confessional joke leaves room for later ones. There’s a throwaway line about how lapsed Catholics just return to the church for Christmas and confession, but unless “confession” was a typo for “Easter,” most of the many lapsed Catholics I know must be so extreme they’re not even living up to their lapsed-Catholic duty to seek out Mother Church after nasty breakups. I know Kevin Smith’s is not my mother’s Catholicism, but he seems to get things wrong so much more often than he gets them right that I don’t understand his insistence in harping on Catholicism.

And speaking of harping on things, let’s get back to Karen Page. See, she’s a radio dj now, but back in the good old days she was involved in less wholesome entertainment as a means of financing her drug habit. While Daredevil let her back into his life (and that was very sweet of him, I’m sure) she is sure he hasn’t been able to forget her past and that he can’t look at her as anything but sullied, and so she decides the time has come to become Matt’s ex-girlfriend. And I need to pick up the pace if I hope to ever escape even the first issue, not to mention the whole story. Matt/DD runs out of the confessional to save a teenaged girl and her little baby from being run down by a car going 90 in Hell’s Kitchen. And while he manages to save them, both baby and girl disappear in the ensuing craziness. Oh, and I forgot to mention the silly, portentous narration to inform us that a maternity ward(s?) has blown up, which returns to be a major plot point when the villain admits that this was a total coincidence and nothing more.

Anyway, Matt goes to his law office, where his partner Foggy is smitten with a client in a divorce case, a woman who plans to get a lot of money from the husband who had her sterilized without her knowledge or consent. Foggy is in a serious relationship with Liz Osborn, but that’s not getting in the way of anything here. Daredevil hears and then loses the heartbeats of the missing girl and baby, but is saved from another super-keen chase scene by the girl’s appearance at the law firm, because an angel has told her that Matt Murdock is Daredevil and that he’ll take her baby, which he does, before she disappears again. And people who are not absolute morons who think it’s normal for mothers of two-month-olds to refer to their babies as “it” will be really shocked in another issue or so when it turns out this baby, potentially the Antichrist, is a girl. Icky! Well, probably the ickier point is that the baby might be the Antichrist, polluting all it touches, according to an old man who mysteriously confronts Matt with secrets about his own past and secret identity. So poor Matt, unwilling to do so much as change a diaper, is able to pass the baby off to his other ex-girlfriend, the Black Widow, whose ridiculous maternal instinct makes her keep Matt from dropping the baby from several stories to the ground to rid the world of this absolute evil.

Wow, this is getting long. Once the Black Widow is gone, Karen shows back up to tell Matt that her HIV test has come back positive and then she collapses in tears before he can talk about how much it sucks to be the foster dad to the Antichrist, maybe. Meanwhile Foggy has been discussing his case with his client, Lydia, and things get a little hot ‘n’ heavy, and the next thing you know, Lydia’s been thrown through a window and Foggy’s getting jailed on murder charges. Foggy’s mother, who runs the law firm, fires him but Matt nobly leaves Karen in her misery to get to work and even more nobly resigns his own position at the firm, which does nothing to shore up support for Foggy’s case. Meanwhile Karen gets a visit from the same weird old man, as yet unnamed, who tells her that she’s been polluted with AIDS because the wicked baby’s miasma destroys everything it touches, and although this is the first she’s heard of the baby, she finds the story plausible enough that she agrees to help get the baby handed over to the old man’s organization, Sheol. Clear so far?

Anyway, Matt tries to get the baby back from the Black Widow to kill her (the baby, who perhaps generally goes by “it” because it resembles the Joker’s hideous dollbombs in The Dark Knight Returns more than it does any real child) and in the process does some serious damage to the Black Widow. Matt, as Daredevil, tries to stop a crime only to realize it’s a setup, and gets knocked out and captured. He’s able to eventually fight his way away from his captor, Baal, and escapes, bruised and ill. He decides to pay a visit to his mother, a nun who runs a mission downtown somewhere. Sister Maggie takes in Daredevil and the baby, and he sleeps for two days while Foggy is suffering (and because I forgot to write about Matt’s meeting with Foggy, I’ll just note for the record that the obligatory prison rape “joke” is made then) and Karen is presumably hysterical and maybe the Black Widow has regained consciousness. Then Sister Maggie and Matt share some touching moments talking about whether God exists and Sister Maggie slaps Matt across the face for suggesting that God might not be what she expects. Then Karen has tracked Matt to the shelter and asks to be given the baby so she can give her away to Sheol and clean up their lives. Matt, being perceptive for a change, remembers that he’s never told Karen about the baby and that she’s part of an Evil Trap.

Matt escapes and visits Dr. Strange, who deduces Matt has been given a colorless, odorless, tasteless drug and is hallucinating. Oops, that’s going to mean an awkward apology to the ex he just beat up!! Then they both talk to the demon Mephisto, even though Matt has promised he won’t talk to Mephisto, and Mephisto is apparently more up on his holy scripture than either of the humans, because he reminds them that the Antichrist should be a fully-grown adult man, not a baby girl. Matt Murdock’s convinced, but this reminds me that I forgot to say the baby’s mother, Gwyneth, claimed to be a virgin and that her heartbeat told Matt that She Was Not Lying. Also she escaped and was running in the first place because someone was in the process of slicing up her newly dead parents, but this part isn’t particularly relevant, but just gruesome for its own sake.

Ruminating on a cryptic quip from Mephisto, Matt decides to swing back to the shelter, only to find his mother and the other nuns and the poor innocents who came to the mission downed in blood. Bullseye is there, looking for the baby. Karen offers to give her to him, but it turns out she’s just given him a statue of The Baby Jesus. Meanwhile Sister Maggie, bleeding profusely, tries to sneak the baby out of the mission. Bullseye, not amused by this, manages to skewer Karen with one of her own true love’s sticks, and she dies in Matt’s arms in an egregious Pieta scene in front of the altar.

Then Matt’s off after the bad guys, knowing someone must have hired Bullseye. But who could it be? Artfully placed newspapers let us know that the aged representative of Sheol is John (later Jonathan) Curtain, which is not how you spell the name, people, but then his pseudonym “Macabes” is not exactly “Maccabee,” if that’s what it’s supposed to suggest. But who is this guy and what does he want with Daredevil? All becomes clear when Matt fights his way through a bunch of outclassed ninjas and then meets Baal again, who claims to be Matt’s guardian angel. Matt is able to figure out he’s not a real angel/demon but just some guy in a suit (and his real name’s Gabriel, ha ha!) and so is able to disable him and head on to see the main bad guy. It turns out this is Mysterio, Master of Special Effects. He’s dying because of illness caused by the plastics he’s used in his special effects and costumes for all these years, and he thought it would be fun to utterly destroy a superhero. The obvious choice would have been Spider-Man, but apparently he worried that clone fears would make this less satisfying. Luckily everyone knows Daredevil’s identity can be easily bought from the Kingpin, as well as information about his Catholic guilt and women trouble, and so it was easy to unmake the Man without Fear. All it took was a guy in a weird marble-headed suit dressing up in the latex skin (at least I think that’s what happened) to be old John Curtain and put the fear of God into Matt and Karen. Oh, and then slipping Matt a hallucinogenic talisman and hiring Bullseye in the first place. And most of his bodyguards were apparently doped up too.

And Doctor Strange’s skills of perception must not have been as faulty as he feared, because his prediction that frat boys and athletic teams would just love this mystery hallucinogen proves to have been borne out when it is used as a date-rape drug… against Foggy! Yup, Lydia was a plant all along, given false memories or something to trick Foggy into believing her story of forced sterilization enough to take the case and be seduced and then be framed for her murder, which is either some sort of suicide or she’s destroyed by some weird demon-thing and is not herself the demon-thing. Unclear, but all part of Mysterio’s plan! And then there was that baby, a symbol of the purity Daredevil idealizes and hopes to protect, but Mysterio was able to make Daredevil believe it was an evil baby almost to the point where he would have destroyed it. And it turns out the poor kid was the result of a virgin birth, since Mysterio’s henchmen had kidnapped the mother and artificially inseminated her, then using the magical drug to make her believe she’d seen angels sending her to Daredevil. All becomes clear! And Mysterio dressed up as a doctor to give Karen a false positive reading on her HIV test, just to make Matt hate her more for being an evil whore who’d put Matt’s very life at risk by having sex with him. The fact that he was completely covered in her blood during her last moment doesn’t seem to have caused him any worry, but luckily it didn’t matter since she probably was HIV-negative anyway.

Laughing at the way he has ruined all aspects of Matt’s life, and most of all his faith and hope, Mysterio commits suicide, although it’s not clear whether this is totally intentional. And that’s that, except not. Matt still has to search the building to find the baby, who still has a role to play in the touching epilogue in which Matt is reunited with a healing Sister Maggie outside a non-exploded maternity ward and decides to name the soon-to-be-adopted non-Antichrist baby … (wait for it) Karen!. And then he does manage to apologize to Black Widow, who is more sympathetic now that Matt has just lost his girlfriend. And Foggy gets to apologize to his girlfriend, who doesn’t care that he was drugged and unable to consent to anything or understand reality, because he chose to spend the night with another woman and therefore They Are Through. And Spider-Man commiserates with Matt about how difficult it is to lose someone you love to a bad guy you hate, which is a lesson Matt has already learned about 6 million times with his previous ex-girlfriends, and then Matt heads off to confession again only to (ha ha!) skip out once more to defeat evildoers as Daredevil!

And if you thought that synopsis makes Guardian Devil sound like an excellent story, be warned that the writing has such sophisticated errors as the one in this post’s title, part of a sentence in which “everyday” is used as a noun. And the art is just bizarre, with grotesque characters who are recognizable from one scene to the next mostly because of their distinctive garb. And if you’re not sure why you suffered through that whole explanation, you may be wondering what all of this has to do with Identity Crisis. In my mind at least, a lot.

Identity Crisis #1 features the mysterious murder of Sue Dibny, non-superpowered wife of the Elongated Man, with the shocking twist being that she’s pregnant, though there are no hints that the baby would have been the Antichrist. Then in issue #2 it turns out that a long time ago she was hanging out at the JLA space station while the heroes were off taking care of some disaster and Dr. Light managed to find his way onto the space station, where he sexually assaulted her. The response of the heroes was to cart her off to a hospital and psychically lobotomize him so he couldn’t follow through on his threats to do the same to other women who consort with the JLA. Since the members of the JLA who weren’t involved in meddling with Dr. Light are unaware of what went on, we can assume that the Justice League of America didn’t urge Sue Dibny to testify against him, despite having plenty of physical evidence as well as witnesses to the assault. Or maybe we’ll learn that Sue chose not to testify, chose never to be open about this part of her life,which is why we readers are just now learning about it.

Identity Crisis is not painful at every turn the way Guardian Devil is, but I’m worried it could become every bit as muddled and bad in the way it deals with gender imbalances and interactions. So far what we see is that it’s easy for superheroes to forget that regular people can control their own lives, make their own decisions. And admittedly it would probably be hard for heroes to keep on the right side of the line between being heroic and meddling and micromanaging. Still, there’s more than this. It’s not just that non-superpowered women can’t defend themselves against supervillains, but that all the male characters are worried about protecting all the female characters. Sure, Black Canary is dismissive of their concerns, pointing out that she hasn’t even been killed, but I hope the JLA don’t equate being protectors of the weak and powerless with protecting and overprotecting women.

There’s plenty of time to further flesh out Sue’s role in all this, show how she dealt with the pain of her assault and its aftermath and her recovery, how the decisions she made to remain with her husband (whose lack of a secret identity prompts the crisis in the title) affected her later life, her years spent in an over-secured apartment that still proved permeable. And if this doesn’t happen, if this is just a story about how much it annoys men when you break their toys or women, I’m going to be unhapy. And I’m making this more essentialist than I ought to, since Black Canary and Zatanna were both part of the group that chose to punish Dr. Light for assaulting Sue, for assaulting the sanctity of their base and their perceived safety, but we’ll see how this plays out.

I have more to say, but for now it’s time for an end-of-episode moral on behalf of Sue Dibny and myself:
If you learn a friend has been sexually assaulted or abused, don’t be like the JLA; saying “I’m going to track down that bastard and make him (or potentially her) pay” takes the power to make that decision away from your already friend, who is already dealing with the pain of forcible loss of power and choice. Be supportive, be sympathetic, be hurt and sad and angry, but be respectful and fair, and your friend will probably appreciate it.

Not Really More Eightball #23

So, this weekend I read Eightball #23, and I’m still not sure what to say about it. I can’t say I’ve ever liked anything I’ve read by Dan Clowes, and yet I keep reading his books. So here I am, with yet another story I’d describe as vapid just because it’s nothing but surface and not a surface I find interesting. Here’s another story in which there’s no internal life for the protagonist and no external world, either, since he interacts only with his delusions. I’d call the work soulless, except that that implies I think there are souls in other things. For me, Clowes’s work here and elsewhere is always flat, dull, uninspiring, and I haven’t been able to figure out what it is that causes such a spark in other readers.

I don’t want to play the gender card because this I don’t think this is about my gender, but because of my own experiences and general orientation toward the world, I’m just not really interested in seeing any stories about how great men think they are when they sadistically protect women from the Big Bad Male World. This goes for Identity Crisis, too, and more so. I’m sick of reading about poor, oppressed boring white men and their whiny hangups about how much women suck. I just really don’t care. At all. I suppose I’d be happy enough reading things like this if I didn’t ever have to come across it in real/internet life, if it were some exotic phenomenon and therefore had some peculiar depth and insight, but that’s not the way things seem to go. And depth and insight are what I’m looking for here, some evidence that maybe the people who do these sorts of things have at least the possibility of looking at themselves and realizing how stupid and cruel and self-defeating their actions are, but I probably shouldn’t go to literature looking for false hope.

I’m not saying I can’t come up with a critique of Eightball, only that I get so annoyed or bored by other concerns that I don’t want to bother. So this isn’t backlash or review, just bemusement and a reminder that I don’t have whatever thing it is that allows people to love Dan Clowes, and I think I’m ok with that anyway and will be if it changes too. Then again, this moving is getting to me and I’m clearly not myself. I spent part of the weekend actually wanting to dust and vacuum. Weird.

Gunk and Gender: Preliminary Filth Thoughts

Jim Henley wanted to know what women think of The Filth. I finished it last night and I think it’s Grant Morrison all right, and you’re not going to get much more out of me tonight, because my head is rebelling and I need medicine that works or, failing that, sleep. Ok, and what I need most of all is pictures of little kids with superimposed ants’ heads. Lots. I very much need this. I suppose pictures of rotund fellows with eye-bellies would be acceptable, at least the utopian sort, but not as good.

Anyway, the reason Jim Henley wants to know what women think is that he’s worried (or perhaps not worried) that The Filth is a guy thing. I don’t have a good answer to that question. I’m not comfortable with the idea that women deal with filth and bodies more or earlier than men (speaking of course in huge generalizations) do. Yeah, yeah, we’ve got menstruation and the awkwardness of breasts and having to deal with being an object of attraction, and I’ve managed to make my peace with the first of those things at least. But even as a young adolescent when I wanted to be anything but feminine, I wouldn’t have wanted to have to deal with random erections and wet dreams and all that hideously sexual guy-stuff. Also booger jokes. Ugh.

I think maybe a keener difference lies in ownership of sexuality, though this probably relies on even grander generalizations. Especially when it comes to sexuality, men are trained to think they’re in control of themselves. I don’t know to what extent they believe this, but that seems to be the paradigm, and that makes it really difficult to have sexual assault training for men (and here I’m talking about college guys because this is all I’ve had to deal with) who think they could never be assaulted and are sure they and all their friends are nice guys who would never assault anyone else. One way people get around this problem is with a horrible, offensive program that says to men, “Think how much you’d hate yourself if a man raped you! And imagine how you would feel if someone raped your girlfriend!” If the only way to remind men that they’re not in control is by calling on their ick-factor homophobia or urging them to be mindful of people they’re supposed to own, that’s not a good state of affairs. But that’s to some degree what’s going on in The Filth. Male desire (and I think Jim’s right that women aren’t fleshed out in the story, but mostly in that they’re not protagonists even of their subplots much) has gotten out of control. Desire for control is taking over the world, and it’s up to the members of The Hand to be Super-Men, to assert control over the sexually power-mad men. Whether we’re dealing with bad guys releasing hordes of super sperm that seem to destroy rather than impregnate their targets or goodish guys who don’t bother to close the window when masturbating to copious porn and don’t notice the porn in the street, or even possibly unreal has-beens who while away the hours watching their wives engage in hardcore sex with all their old friends and foes, we’re dealing with some ugly stuff and unpleasant guys. So what makes this a Guy Book? Is it because it’s a chance to explore otherwise hidden frailties while still sympathizing with the powerful main character(s)? Is it because it’s a chance to say, “Hee! Erection jokes! Prison rape jokes!” without noticing that their unqualified acceptance isn’t really supported by the text?

I dunno. I’m sure that’s not why Jim liked it, or Dave Intermittent or David Fiore or Steven, but I’m not sure if they have peculiarly gendered responses. I liked The Filth, too, though I think I prefer the pretentiousness of The Invisibles. That I’m not entirely sure may be a sign I’m skewing toward the center of the mind/body scale, our Little Rose growing up! Not hating my body was an important, difficult lesson to learn, but I still don’t love or privilege it either.

And thinking of hating my body brings me back to my impending migraine and thus departure, with assurances that more commentary will come in time. That Animal Man stuff is still in my head, too, while I’m making rash promises, but no more for tonight nor tomorrow, when I watch my brother test his physicality in the all-star game, the end of his high-school football career. He spent four years wallowing in sweat and bruises and bashing, and that’s all Filth to me. I’ll be the bitchy one aching in the bleachers.

Why Don’t I Dig This?

I’m home sick from work today but, as my dad always says, too sick to enjoy it, alas. I’m assuming it’s a mild flu (complete with respiratory symptoms!) but it’s annoying. This is all a prelude to ranting, letting you know there’s a mild chance when I come to my senses I’ll think everything I’m saying is insane. But onward!

I’ve been thinking about Barb Lien-Cooper’s opinion piece “Why Don’t Chicks Dig Comics? Well, Why Don’t You ASK One?” and several things about it have been nagging at me.

First, and maybe most importantly, there’s this:

In addition, in spite of the fact that women are made to feel somewhat more welcome in comic book stores, there’s still a slight majority of stores that WANT to be like Floyd’s Barbershop or whatever. Some places REVEL in being the last place on earth a man can hang out without having to deal with women or their objections to how women are treated as customers, as readers, as creators, and as characters in comics. I’ve been to some stores where I have been made to feel unwelcome because of my gender. Those experiences were like accidentally stepping into a men’s locker room.

Relatedly, Alex de Campi said that German comics stores are more girl-friendly. I have no way of knowing whether the German part is true. I didn’t find any specialty comics shops in Turkey, and I suppose the Spanish stores I was in would have been friendly to girls who liked Conan and porn. But I’m bothered by the constant references to offensive behaviors in stores. I’ve never had any myself, but I stand up for myself. The problem is that if these kinds of things are going on, we need to know details. If there are stores with systematic discrimination towards women or where there’s a hostile shopping environment, there needs to be a list of names all over the internet so the managers can explain themselves and improve and be aware that this is a problem, and so that the rest of us who care about this issue can choose to shop accordingly. It seems like the most basic site for comics activism, and yet I’ve never seen anything beyond such vague complaints.

But then there’s the whole issue of why women need to be reading comics anyway. I’ve participated in lots of male-dominated fields and never considered that much of a problem or a barrier, nor did it deter me from following things that interested me. I’m also a knitter, a stereotypically female activity, and in reading message boards and knitting blogs there are plenty of entreaties to remember that men knit too and not to assume that all knitters are women as well as comments to the pattern makers that they should include more clothing for men, but I haven’t seen much widespread activism to get men as a group more involved in knitting. So why do comics readers get hung up on this kind of Affirmative Action, tricks to get women to read comics? As Barb points out, lots of women do read comics, especially manga. So where exactly is the problem?

I have yet to meet a comics reader who’s really just happy with the status quo. Whether it’s wanting writers to conform more closely to their view of the Platonic form of Green Arrow or wanting new writers (or a return of old writers) or different art styles or more or less editorial involvement, comics fans all want to make comics better. So when the thesis of such gender-driven articles invariably is that comics should be written better with more awareness of interpersonal interaction and characterization, why is this in any way special to women? To me, that feels patronizing; it’s not enough to say “Smart, sensible people want comics that read well and make sense,” but you have to add, “and chicks would dig it too!” I guess what I’m saying is that “what women want in comics” always turns out to be about what the writer wants in comics, which makes sense, but might be more useful if given in a more direct manner. The Class of Women is not a good demographic. Barb wisely suggests aiming for women who are already geeks, which I think is one place where comics have made significant inroads among female readers – or at least comics published by Vertigo and Slave Labor Graphics, as well as the aforementioned manga.

And one more gripe:

Right now, we are a hermetically sealed off order from the mainstream, with more terms of art, jargon, rituals, secret symbols, inside jokes, and offshoots than one can shake a stick at. We’re the bloody Masons of subcultures! And, that’s the way a lot of us like it. We make it difficult for newbies to come inside, as we make it so only those who are willing to study the subculture and take its ways to heart feel welcome.

Maybe that’s true. Certainly superhero continuity seems like a ridiculous mess to an uninterested outsider, but that’s not all of “comics.” And I think what’s just been described is true of just about any self-selecting hobby group. There’s a new language you have to learn to be a part of any subculture, and having gone through several, I strongly disagree that it’s harder to learn to speak comics than it is to get into any other subculture. I started reading comics 4 or 5 years ago and have figured out how to get by, and I have absolutely horrible visual skills: it can’t be that difficult. I’ve also seen many people who do welcome new or potential readers, both online and real-life folks in general, as well as organizations like Sequential Tart and Friends of Lulu, both of which are explicitly interested in helping women transition into The Comics Lifestyle, whatever that is.

None of this means that I don’t want more women reading comics! Most of my comics-reading friends offline have been women, and plenty of the online ones are, too. I just don’t look at myself as being somehow special or privileged for being a woman who (gasp!) reads comics, even the superhero kind! But trying to use women as an excuse to advocate the kind of comics you like is stupid and demeaning. In Barb’s defense, she’s not just talking. Her comic Gun Street Girl was created to fill what she considered gaps in the range of comics currently available. And I agree wholeheartedly that sexist discourse among and from comics professionals and fans needs to stop. I’m just sick of reading about what women want instead of reading good comics, and the ones I consider good won’t be good for all women. I’m ok with that. In fact, I think it’s great. But at least Barb didn’t advocate beefcake. Ick!

“The loaded table made her feel gluttonous”

Before any substance, I apologize for yet more lack of Animal Man, but it’s been a crazy week at work and home and I haven’t gotten around to rereading or getting my thoughts in order. Poor Steven has very limited internet access now, so he’s not going to be posting either until that situation improves.

So instead of comics, I’ll quickly review the book I finished early in the week, sowing that I haven’t actually kept to my plan of just quickly reviewing all the books I read. This was Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, copyright 1969. The copy I have is a paperback from the thrift store, the cover a woman-shaped refrigerator in a dark kitchen with an overflowing sink. The worst thing about it, though, is the blurb on the back cover:

Ever since her engagement, the strangest thing has been happening to Marian McAlpin: she can’t eat. First meat. Then eggs, vegetables, cake, pumpkin seeds – everything! Worse yet, she has the crazy feeling that she’s being eaten. She really ought to feel consumed with passion. But she just feels…consumed.

That’s not really what the book’s about, but it’s an interesting story itself. I don’t know why they thought a feminist horror book would sell, although perhaps that is sort of what The Edible Woman is, if a strange and ambiguous one. It’s set during the sexual revolution, when nice single women of middle-class backgrounds want to have sex and enjoy themselves and still be considered respectable by the sort of people who don’t approve of such things. At least that’s Marian’s situation when she agrees to marry her dull but functional boyfriend, and then her life gets much more strange. She’s losing her identity, her willingness to say what she thinks or what she wants, but at the same time she’s beginning to arrange trysts with an enigmatic, cadaverous literature grad student. Food becomes a weapon, but she’s not sure how to wield it, not sure how her body will betray her next in refusing to accept various forms of nourishment. She doesn’t know what pleasures are the ones she wants and whether they’ll be pleasures if she takes them.

I read my first Atwood as a very young teenager, Surfacing. The writing was lovely, but I found the story incomprehensible. The only story element I liked was a segment in which an Anglophone character remembers being mocked at school for translating vers libre as “free worms.” A decade later I understand well how educated women make foolish choices that leave them furiously searching for a source for their own unhappiness, so The Edible Woman makes sense. And that’s what I think is going on. It doesn’t matter how great or awful Marian’s fiance is if having a fiance is making her turn into something she hates and doesn’t recognize. It’s not a horror story in which an evil man is the villain, but interaction with a corrupt and confusing society. It’s a story about a quest for autonomy and self-awareness, not exactly achievable goals.

The Edible Woman lacks the poetry of later Atwood writings and its metaphors and trajectory are obvious even to the characters. And yet I liked it enough to stay up too late two nights reading it, though not enough to devour it in one. I still prefer Marge Piercy for frothy feminist novels, but Marian made a compelling protagonist, especially because of her ambiguous and only somewhat self-conscious analyses of herself and her peers. I was especially interested in it as a historical document of a setting where women can retire upon marriage and where even when you can be mistaken for a prostitute while wearing a girdle. The frivolous male grad students are a fascinating group, too, and are smugly excited by how shocking topics like S&M in Lewis Carroll are. All in all, it’s a very quick read and in many ways a frustrating one, but I enjoyed it.

Kill More Kill Bill PSAs!

Sean Collins annoyed people this morning by saying that Kill Bill detractors should be ignored because they’re misunderstanding a great movie. I disagree with Sean that any of the characters renounce violence, except maybe the Tiny Yakuza who brings out Beatrix’s motherly side. And if they don’t renounce violence, are they all getting punished? Actually, I realize what he said was that “characters who refuse to renounce violence and deceit are inevitably punished for that refusal.” So maybe Beatrix escapes on a technicality for not managing to tell lies while dosed with truth serum, and limbless Sophie Fatale didn’t become headless too because she’s a coward who squealed. But that’s not what I’m focusing on here.

In an email, he clarified his thoughts on the aspect of sexual violence that had bothered Steven and me:

Anyway, I’d talk about the sexualized and exploitative violence–if, that is, I thought there was any, which I didn’t. Not all violence against women is sexualized, and I didn’t think any of it in Kill Bill was. No fetishizing shots of breasts, nipples, legs, crothces, asses, or even hair, really, just by way of a for instance. At any rate, it’s tough to think of a stronger female character than the Bride, who’s easily the best action heroine ever (depending, I guess, on whether you like her better than Lt. Ellen Ripley).

So maybe it boils down a problem with definitions, what makes some violence sexual and some not. I didn’t mean the violence was problematic because it involved femmes fatales in boob socks, which seems to be Sean’s definition of sexual violence. Well, I say it’s spinach and I say to hell with it. Without talking about which “worked” for me as story elements and which didn’t, I’m going to make an incomplete list of categorically grouped sex-related violence from both my hazy memories of Kill Bill Vol. 1 and the more recent volume.

There’s some straight-up sexual violence. Buck has been accepting money to let men rape Beatrix while she’s comatose. I’d argue that the murders in response to this fall in the same general category. Beatrix has no reason to murder these two men except that she’s been their victim, so she’s trying to “right” the power balance because there’s nothing she can do about the sex part, which of course is the point. And Esteban slicing up the faces of his prostitutes, that seems like violence as payback for infractions related to sex and power, though we never learn the details.

Then there’s gender-based or sexist violence. When Gogo slices through the businessman who propositions her, she’s upsetting social norms and doing something unexpected for a woman. She’s penetrating and controlling someone who sought to do the same to her. O-Ren has to do the same thing, beat the men at their game of brutality to lead the Yakuza. If Bill is to believed, Pai Mei is a sexist who makes the women in his tutelage work harder and suffer more to prove their ability.

And there’s no lack of violence in/and romantic or just sexual relationships. Maybe Esteban’s role as a sometimes violent pimp fits better here. I don’t just mean standard intimate violence, but the way sex and violence are intertwined for the characters. Elle kills Budd so she can take credit for offing Beatrix, thinking it will endear her to Bill, not to mention knock out a rival for his affections. And when Elle and Beatrix finally fight, is the extra brutality payback for old hurts or the old girlfriend going after the rival who’s taken her place? Most obvious, though, is that Bill and Beatrix were obviously having sex, and Bill killed Beatrix after she left him. Whether or not it had to do with his jealousy that he was being replaced in her heart and womb, when you kill someone you’ve been sleeping with, it’s intimate violence and it’s not uncommon in our world either.

Objectification seems too subjective to catalogue and was something I didn’t find too problematic, perhaps because it’s what Tarantino understands best. I thought the parallel between the prostitutes in the brothel and Bill’s Assassin Squad was an insightful one that added depth to the story. And I haven’t quite figured out the mechanics, but I liked the way Budd didn’t objectify the strippers he worked with but did treat Beatrix as subhuman when burying her. He treats women who are nothing more than puppets in the movie as characters and belittles (and thus underestimates) the two fully realized women he deals with in the movie.

I’m sure if I spent time thinking about it I could come up with more than this, but there isn’t much of a point. These are issues that hit close to home with me, so I know I’ll be more strongly affected by them than most viewers, but I don’t know how anyone could ignore them all or be unaffected by them. I didn’t think the movie was necessarily exploitative in a porny way, making Uma Thurman some kind of fetish object, but the violence exploited the audience.

Sean also says he’s avoided analyzing Kill Bill Vol. 2 because he likes it too much to have critical distance. I hope he reconsiders, because I think I can see what aspects people would like, but I’d love to hear what they actually are. It’s usually easier to do negative reviews and it can be difficult and self-revealing to talk in any detail about what you like. One of my goals in writing here is to get more comfortable doing both sorts of reviews. I’m still working on that part, but apparently have no qualms about pressuring others to do what I don’t. And Mr. John Jakala, this means you! We who haven’t yet seen Dogville want to know why we should!

Kill Bill: “My baby shot me down”

The real climax of Kill Bill Vol. 2 comes at the end of the credits. The Bride has found herself a new identity, one that’s not chosen for her but actually chosen. Just because she drives off into the sunset as Mommy doesn’t mean she’ll be Mommy forever, but it is a new start. There’s a liminal moment where this change begins to take hold, in a doorway no less! Gun in hand, Beatrix spins to face the most cunning trap Bill could have set, beatific B.B. holding a toy gun. After a painfully long moment of shock, Mommy falls, in the clearest (and maybe first) display of real emotion in all of Kill Bill.

Of course, Daddy has been a bad Daddy, and not just because he lets B.B. stay up past her bedtime to watch Shogun Assassin. Bill tried to kill Beatrix in what he describes as a fit of agony over lost love, which also included anger and betrayal that he’s lost his favorite toy. Daddy metes out gentle punishment to B.B., firmly discussing the death of her fish and the guilt she feels over her role in it. He hasn’t grown more kind or fair to B.B.’s mommy, whom he shoots again, this time with a dart that gives him the power to extract truth from her against her will. Can this “marriage” be saved?

Beatrix has made a lot of choices in her life, but we don’t get to see them. Her only backstory is a glimpse of what she was with Bill, a lovelorn assassin, and what she is because of Bill, the vengeful Bride. Bill and the Vipers wiped out the wedding party and the hope of a new life, and Beatrix has done in the Vipers, so those two identities have been destroyed. “Beatrix Kiddo” is a name suitable for the sort of jokes it inspires in the movies, and she doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to go back to that. But suddenly on the floor of a California mansion she finds an alternative. Her story won’t be over when she kills Bill because now she once again has something to live for!

Beatrix and Bill have been locked in a power struggle for years. Young Beatrix submits to Pai Mei both to prove to Bill that she can (thus proving his warnings wrong) and to make him proud, and indeed it turns out she succeeds more thoroughly than Bill realized at the time. Bill enjoys his control over Beatrix and the Viper Squad disintegrates once that link is lost. Is this mutually destructive bond some Grand Passion or just a standard abusive cycle? And how does little B.B. fit in? Daddy and Mommy both love her very much (or do they?) but they don’t love each other anymore (right?) and so it’s better for everybody if they resolve their disputed custody with a fight to the death! It makes no difference to little B.B. whether Daddy cared for her out of love or for Beatrix or to atone for his violent past (and present) or just because he knew it would make Beatrix more angry. She had a Daddy and she had a life, and now she has a Mommy and a new life. Has anything really changed?

In Westerns, a cowboy heads off into the sunset because he hasn’t been domesticated, hasn’t settled down. If he wanted to complete his Oedipal trajectory, he’d find a nice woman (or make a woman nice) and start a solid life for himself in town or on a homestead. In becoming Mommy, Beatrix is trying to twist this. She’s domesticating herself, switching from murderer to caregiver in a matter of minutes. It may not work this way and may not work for good, since she’s left two little girls half-orphans in a revenge culture, but she’s a determined woman when she puts her mind to a task. She’s still defining herself through her relation to someone else, but that’s what has to happen to some extent if you live in society, and now she has someone who depends on her, has power she can use to do great good. It’s a wide horizon, full of promise, and mother and daugher are heading right in, not looking back.

Kill Bill Foundations: Self-Righteous Indignation

As Steven said, we saw Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2 this weekend, and in preparation for saying more, I’m reposting my comments on Vol. 1 from the older version of our blog. I’ve standardized formatting and switched to gendered pronouns from Spivak varient nongendered pronouns.

Originally posted 29 October 2003

Last week was a much-needed vacation not from work but, to a large extent, from the Internet. Now I’m back, refreshed and exhausted and working 10-hour days.

In the interim, though, I saw Kill Bill and I’ve been writing and thinking about it in relation to everything else I run into. It was a very frustrating half-movie, all the more so because I feel unable to critique it fully without recourse to the story’s end. All I’ve got are a bunch of references and reminders and preliminary theories, and they all make me want more. I’m not sure if that means it’s a good movie. I don’t think I’d talk about it in those terms, but it’s compelling to me and I enjoyed watching the later parts, although the first half hour or so (maybe hour, one of the benefits of wearing no watch) left me awkwardly uncomfortable.

I held off posting at first after seeing it because what I was going to say was too personal, and because I thought that most of the failure was my own. It’s not that I’ve changed these views, but just that I don’t see the point of not saying anything just because I’m unable to escape autobiographical criticism.

I have very strong views about rape. It’s an issue that impacts me directly and strongly. I’m interested in theory that surrounds sexual assault and can discuss it intellectually, but that doesn’t mean that I can give up my instinctual emotional impact, either. And Kill Bill really annoyed me on this front. I now have an alternate explanation for the way the scenes went, but I want to talk about my immediate understanding of and annoyance with the scenes involving The Bride and Buck, the hospital worker who sold her body while she was comatose.

First of all, Kill Bill is in many ways a superficial movie that seems basically devoid of social commentary. I mean, it’s not terribly difficult to interpret various stances and arguments into the movie, but, particularly because we don’t have all the data, it’s very difficult to see if there are moral judgments at work or just what Tarantino is doing. I know this.

Still, it seemed to me problematic and cowardly that Tarantino broadly stereotyped the rapists in the film in the way he did. Buck and the hapless redneck whose name I didn’t catch (if it was ever given) are nasty, miserable, ugly people. Both of them die in nasty, bloody ways as The Bride awakens to begin her arc of revenge, taking as spoils Buck’s outrageous “Pussy Wagon.”

The trouble for me is that unlike anyone the Bride kills later (in “real” chronological, not the movie’s narrative, order) they are both just caricatures of brainless hormones, Bad People. Or are we not supposed to read them that way? Are they just pitiful exaggerations of particularly sex-starved “normal” guys, albeit hideous and filthy ones?

The reason I called this depiction cowardly is because it’s easy. I mean, if they’d been black rather than white, it might have raised an outcry about the perils of racial stereotyping. However audiences just rolled with this characterization, laughing a bit in the audience I sat with. What makes this crime different from the others in the movie is that while most of the people in the audience haven’t executed an entire wedding party or disemboweled a man at a bar, a fair portion of what I presume is the target audience has (or knows someone who has) had sex with someone who wasn’t entirely awake or sober or otherwise consenting. To have the characters in the movie who do this be vapid idiots seems to me to allow viewers not to have any thoughts that might indict them or the sorts of things they believe in, since there is no entry for identification with these characters.

I don’t think Tarantino has any responsibility to advance my political views, and I’m not surprised he doesn’t seem do so. I was just troubled by this in the context all the violence toward and between woman, and the audience reactions to all of it. I’m not sure what I’m asking for, which is why I’ve come to different views of the scene, but it was upsetting to me basically because it doesn’t humanize a very human issue and because it lets stupid guys (and I’m stereotyping on gender and many other grounds, I know) go on being stupid guys when there was a clear chance to challenge them. I shouldn’t be looking for verisimilitude in a movie like this, but it’s there to some extent, in a chilling and emotionally compelling scene, and yet it could have been so much more and, for me, made the movie so much less.

“I said exactly what I wanted to say, exactly the way I wanted to say it.”

Dave Sim was actually interviewed by The Onion (not a permalink), and this is the quote that sticks with me most:

“There was no “storm of misinterpretation” following Cerebus’ “marriage” to Astoria. I’m not sure the quotes belong on there. That was part of my point. If Cerebus is the Pope and he declares himself married to Astoria and has sex with her, is that rape? There were a number of levels to that one, but that was the joke as far as I was concerned.”

I’ve never read Cerebus, mostly because I didn’t really see the point in giving money to someone who doesn’t think I deserve to be able to make such weighty decisions. Then as the end drew near and other comics bloggers talked about all the interesting things going on in Cerebus I got more and more convinced that I should give it a chance. But I haven’t yet, and it’s partly what’s contained in that quote that holds me back. I realize I may sound like the sort of “hysterical” feminist Sim so despises on this one (and, let’s be honest, that’s basically my normal state) but I’m utterly put off by a writer who can’t think of a better way to deal with an abstract concept like “what level of power makes you able to make something true/real/existent just by saying it?” without throwing in a “joke” sequence in which his main character rapes the character based on the author’s by-then-ex-wife?

And I hope I can be emotional without proving Sim right about the nature of women, but this all hits me far too close to home and I really don’t understand how it gets to be such a laughing matter. So an established, nuanced character gets raped (or maybe not, since apparently in Simworld there’s no such thing as marital rape) to lend gravitas to some adolescent musings on language and meaning and that’s supposed to just make the point stronger or something. Perhaps it does, but not in the way Sim intended. I realize that the tragedy is that people who weren’t themselves adolescent fanboys were reading and were betrayed by writing like this, not to mention Astoria’s human counterpart. And I just don’t know whether I could read and enjoy this, even without the question of what my money supports. I know other people read and I trust their judgment, but I don’t know how to make this decision.

Not really switching gears, my interpretational fixation just before we began this version of the blog was how people can do wicked, hurtful things and be utterly convinced they’re doing something right. Dave Sim seems to be one of those people, sure of himself and utterly remorseless, although it’s unfair of me to say that when he’s perhaps repented in his way for the things he did before his vow of chastity and so on. What he’s done, though, is build a world in which he doesn’t even seem to have the “number of levels” he put in Cerebus. He knows what’s right and what’s real and what’s best, and never seems to question whether things he says are so. At least he realizes his own thoughts are out of step with many other people’s. They are with mine, and I think because of who I am this may be a fatal disconnect. I don’t know whether or not that’s a good thing.