Jack the Ripper is kind of a big deal in East London. Whether it’s a plaque in a pub, a BBC film crew or yet another walking tour, he pops up all over the place with his spooky hat and cloak. And to be honest, it’s pretty tiresome.
Regular readers will know that I love history, and that murder mysteries are just one of my many morbid interests. When I first started seeing my boyfriend, I took him on a date to Wilton’s Music Hall via Ratcliff Highway so I could tell him about the famous murder case there.
So I get it, I do. The Whitechapel murders of 1888 are grimly fascinating, and the question mark over the killer’s identity is a magnet for myths and stories. The study of the murders and their legacy illuminate the historical and the contemporary context in valuable ways. One example is Judith Walkowitz’s superb book, City of Dreadful Delight. And Madame Guillotine has a great post exploring her interest in Jack the Ripper as a feminist.
But there are other tales we could tell. There are plenty of morbid stories to choose from (our other major historical export is the Krays) and it might even be nice to talk about some East London history that doesn’t involve murder. Although we know nothing about him, Jack the Ripper overshadows a cast of amazing East End characters, and the Whitechapel murders draw far more attention than any number of incredible events. Just one example: this year is also the 125th anniversary of the Matchwomen’s strike which launched the modern trade union movement. Thanks to the efforts of Louise Raw, there was a commemorative event at the Bishopsgate Institute and a bit of media coverage. But will we be tripping over Matchwomen walking tours in Bow?
Jack and his victims
It’s not just the extent of it but the tone. Jack the Ripper is everybody’s favourite mystery serial killer. There is endless speculation about his identity, his knowledge of anatomy and even admiration for his ability to evade capture. In contrast, the women he murdered are reduced to objects for study or criminal evidence for analysis.
For example: my local paper recently contained a special 12 page Jack the Ripper supplement including a page entitled “The victims: How women met their gory deaths”, featuring detailed descriptions of the last movements and mutilated bodies of five women who were murdered – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Lizzie Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly – complete with pictures of their faces taken after death.
Where is the respect for these women? Poring over details like how drunk they were and how deep the gash in their throat was or how their intestines were arranged may be one thing in a history book, but why is it being printed in the Newham Recorder, along with photographs of their corpses? I don’t want these intimate and gruesome details exhumed for my entertainment.
Missing the big picture
Like almost all media coverage of the subject the article fails to connect the Whitechapel murders to any kind of context about violence against women then or now. Another article highlights the fact that six other women were murdered in the same area in the same year, three also working in prostitution and killed by punters (Emma Smith, Martha Tabram, Rose Mylett), three killed by their husbands.
Sadly this article reads like a masterclass in how to subtly blame victims and excuse perpetrators when it describes the three cases of women killed by their husbands – Hannah Potzdamer, Susan Barrell and Elizabeth Bartlett:
“ordinary people driven to the ultimate crime by circumstance, a fit of anger or a desire for revenge” (this is a quote from author Peter Stubley, included in the article)
“her throat is slashed… in a jealous rage”
“Hannah had left him and moved in with a bootmaker”
“Robert, suffering from delirium tremens, also shoots himself”
“she refused to give him money for drink”
Over a century on it’s felt necessary to include details like this which serve to exonerate the killers. I wish I could afford to send every journalist a copy of this guide to responsible media reporting of violence against women (PDF).
Whether blasé or breathlessly excited, the tone used to talk about Jack the Ripper almost everywhere makes me feel queasy. Have a look at this New York Times article about how All Saints clothing store makes use of “the romance of Jack the Ripper” and its location in “the Ripper’s hallowed stomping grounds”. Big stomper was he?
And did you know the Ten Bells pub in Spitalfields (where one of the victims had been drinking before she was killed) was at one point called ‘Jack The Ripper’? They used to sell T-shirts, and a blood-coloured cocktail called Ripper’s Tipple. Tasteful. Obviously there’s a difference between the crimes of one serial killer and the carnage of the First World War, but that has an anniversary coming up too – can you imagine a WWI-themed bar serving ham and mustard gas sandwiches? Although I guess we’re getting close with ‘Blitz parties’, but that’s a rant for another day.
Many people do seriously study the Whitechapel murders without celebrating ‘Jack’, but as this brave article explains, unintentional sexism abounds in Ripperologist circles. The focus is firmly on the suspects and not the victims, whose suffering is silent or sensationalised. The LIFT campaign in Tower Hamlets have subverted this with an alternative Ripper tour which talks about the lives and the communities of the women who were killed. There are some interesting tweets from the walk in this Storify.
Here’s a classic response to criticism of Ripperology:
We do not celebrate, we commemorate. We do not idealise, but we condemn him. We examine the harsh realities of that world to allow us to understand where we came from, how society has changed and why we should be thankful for these changes, and recognise where it has not and strive to put this right.
While this may be the aim, and I fully admit I haven’t had time to research this post very thoroughly, I haven’t seen many examples of Ripperologists striving to end violence against women.
Violence against women
That is the issue at the heart of this, and the reason I can’t join in the fun: violence against women is epidemic, often lethal but frequently trivialised. The most uncomfortable parallel I found between Ripper fandom and damaging contemporary attitudes to violence against women was this, on the London Dungeons profile page for Jack the Ripper:
DOs and DON’Ts
DO look over your shoulder.
DO dress conservatively.
DO go unnoticed.
DO NOT flirt.
DO NOT walk alone.
DO NOT accept his offer to buy you a drink.
This is advice that is seriously but unhelpfully issued to women today in the guise of rape prevention. It is also a classic example of the victim blaming which prevents many women reporting violence let alone seeing their attacker convicted. Repeated in this context it’s ghoulish, and not in a good way.
Now, as then, women working in prostitution are particularly vulnerable to violence – especially trans* women and migrant women. A woman working in prostitution is 18 times more likely to be murdered than the general population. While I don’t want to be a party pooper, I can’t get that figure out of my head. I’ll sign off with this quote on ‘Jack’, from feminist academic Deborah Cameron:
The question for society is not which individual man killed, but why so many men have done and still do.
A few weekends ago, I was immersed in geekdom. Yes, it was the first Nine Worlds Geekfest , and my main problem was that I couldn’t clone myself to go to all the panels I was interested in (read more about Team BadRep’s Nine Worlds experience here
One of the most amazing things I saw was, without question, the screening of the Wonder Women! : the Untold Story of American Heroines documentary.
I’d never heard of it before to be honest, which is hardly surprising as it’s an independent release (no screening near you? Organise one – there’s a link at the bottom of this post!). It’s basically a visual look at the intersections of Women Woman iconography and certain aspects of Second Wave American feminism.
Did you know that Wonder Woman was regarded by quite a few feminists as the ‘face’of Second Wave American feminism? Neither did I. Quite frankly, being a Marvel girl rather than DC, I’d always thought of Wonder Woman as one of the more tame, conservative superheroes. Didn’t she spend most of her time being tied up?
I’m now going to recount my new and shiny understanding of Wonder Woman, as gleaned from the documentary through a vague haze of alcohol. Bear with me.
The iconography of Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman, it turns out, is fairly awesome. She was developed during World War II, and was therefore off fighting the Nazis (alongside Captain America? That bit wasn’t very clear) after realising that she had to go off and save America. Because that’s what awesome heroes did. She even had to win some sort of Olympiad before she was able to do it! And then she fought some Nazis, and some criminals, and in the 50s this was deemed to be DREADFUL. So she was rewritten as having given up her powers. During this period she found she wanted to make cakes, and opened a beauty parlour. OF COURSE. Because nothing says ‘superhero’ like CUPCAKES!
Anyway, along came Second Wave feminism, looking for a face for the recently-launched Ms magazine. And there was poor Wonder Woman, an icon in need of reclaiming. Off came the apron and on went on the magic bracelets!
SURELY IT IS TIME FOR THE 70S?
I won’t recount the entire documentary. Suffice to say that when the 1970s and 1980s kicked off, along with them came a whole slew of female heroines, from Cagney and Lacey, Charlie’s Angels and Bionic Woman, straight through to the live-action Wonder Woman herself, Lynda Carter.
Here, have a photo of her being awesome:
Here are some other 1970s (& 1980s) heroines.
Ripley vs Van Damme
The 1980s also gave us hyper-masculinity along the lines of Van Damme, Schwarzenegger and Stallone. It also gave us Ellen Ripley and (in 1991 admittedly, therefore just in the 1990s) Sarah Connor. There are a bunch of others. The 1980s were pretty awesome for strong female heroines, which is a sentence I never thought I’d be writing. When I first saw Terminator 2 as a little girl, I didn’t even know that women could do chin-ups!
Grrrl Power dominoes
As well as the iconography of Wonder Woman herself, the documentary looked at the development of Grrrl Power. We are taken through the original use of the term through interviews with Kathleen Hanna, starting back with Riot Grrrl, and its appropriation by the Spice Girls into something commercial.
I’m not going to depress you by taking you through the deaths of all the ‘strong female characters’ on television in 2001. I think those of us in the UK were somewhat sheltered through the impact of that, having our reception of those shows delayed by several weeks or even months. We therefore did not experience their deaths as the American viewers would have: one after the other, falling down like dominoes in 2001.
Back to Wonder Woman…
… and to her fans, ages 2–99. In the documentary, there are interviews with small children and the role Wonder Woman has played in their lives. There are interviews with activists – up to and including Gloria Steinem – and their perspectives on how Wonder Woman influenced Second Wave (and in some case Third Wave) feminism – and vice versa. There are perspectives on women-saving-women and the creation of Wonder Woman Day. There’s even a Wonder-Woman-on-a-string-with-motor, making her fly around and around on a child’s ceiling. How awesome is that? I want one!
Not your grandmother’s feminism
Now let’s talk about what wasn’t there. The film isn’t marketed as a history of Second Wave Feminism, nor even the (entire) history of Wonder Woman. That’s important, because the intersections the film is talking about are intersections with white, heterosexual, cis feminism. It therefore falls down significantly on the feminism movement outside of that pretty narrowly defined range.
It was also a bit dispiriting to not have at least a mention that the original name for Ms. magazine was Sojourner. There is also little mention of the subversion of the Wonder Woman image and iconography outside of radfem activism.
That said, the film doesn’t pretend that it is in any way comprehensive, or representative of all feminism movements. And, as a look at the history of Wonder Woman and how she was reclaimed in the radfem part of Second (and Third) Wave American feminism… well, it’s pretty awesome.
Frankly, it’s worth watching for the interviews with her tiny modern-day fans alone. There is something deeply heartening about hearing a child draw strength from a feminist icon, however corrupted and reinterpreted that image has been over the years.
Not convinced? Have a look at the trailer:
- In the highly likely event that there are no screenings near you, you can contact the Outreach Coordinator at Wonder Women to arrange one.
A little late in being posted, perhaps, but hopefully still of interest! In which three BadReppers – Hannah Chutzpah, Stephen B and Viktoriya – chat about their experiences at Nine Worlds Geekfest this summer, and more generally about conventions, fandom and feminism.
A more inclusive con?
Stephen B: “I first noticed how unusually inclusive Nine Worlds was about two minutes after collecting my badge from the front desk. Wandering down the corridor I found myself in… a geek feminism session.
“I was greeted cheerfully and given a quick intro to what was going on, and then left to join the various groups sitting around the (very popular) room at tables and in small lively seated circles on the floor. The crowd in this room didn’t know my views or that I write for BadRep, and I’m a straight white male – generally not a famously marginalised group – but I felt immediately welcome.
“In the next room along, Bronies were playing guitar and handing out cupcakes. They also had a rave DJ. In that moment, I suspected this wasn’t going to be a typical SF convention.”
Viktoriya: “I went to Nine Worlds and I wasn’t groped, harassed, belittled or condescended to. I felt comfortable enough to walk around dressed in my own clothes, and not necessarily the elaborate armour of ballgowns, cosplay or similar I’d adopted when frequenting prior conventions.
“More to the point, I felt comfortable enough to go around ON MY OWN. I can’t stress this enough. I stopped going to conventions because it had become apparent to me that I was paying a great deal of money to attend an event where it was pretty much guaranteed that I would be assaulted in some way, whereas daily assault is something most women can have for free simply by walking down the street in London. Why pay for the privilege?”
“Not being groped, forcibly intoxicated, called a cocktease, an uppity feminist, a silly little girl, or asked to kiss someone for the amusement of male onlookers – it was like a whole new world.”
“Also, I managed to convince my work friend to come with me to Nine Worlds. You guys, you have no idea of the stress associated with this.
“What if someone was a dick to her? What if she was assaulted? What if she hated it? Then I would be the work friend who convinced her to spend money on the the thing that was dreadful.
“So not being groped, forcibly intoxicated, called a cocktease, an uppity feminist, a silly little girl, or asked to kiss someone for the amusement of male onlookers – it was like a whole new world.”
Stephen: “It seems that every big convention recently has had a wave of harassment and bad experiences for some attendees. NineWorlds appeared to do things right instead, with a kick-ass anti-harassment policy and some seriously great content.”
Running a content track
Hannah Chutzpah: “It was an honour and a privilege to be asked to run the creative writing track. I spent pretty much the whole run-up panicking and convinced my everything would be a huge disaster…. right up until the second session where my longtime frenemy – author Chris Farnell – gave a talk on ‘Working the Time Machine: writing time travel so it makes sense’.
“We had a packed out room, with people hanging out the doors. Then, as the crowds left and I patted Chris and myself on the back, starting to believe this whole thing might work – this toy car, sent by the Bronies (pictured) whirred through the door full of cupcakes.”
Fandom and atmosphere
Stephen: “Nine Worlds is set up to include a wide range of fandoms and geekery, and all the different fans are welcome in the same space. There was so much going on, I barely saw the other Team BadRep folks.”
“It wasn’t just ‘here’s the gay corner’, so it felt much more open to (say) the B and the T and the Q of ‘LGBTQ*’. Which – as a bi girl – I found very, very refreshing.”
Hannah: “I didn’t get out to as much of the rest of the fest as you two, but the main thing which spilled across every room, hallway, lobby, breakfast bar and so on was the extremely friendly and welcoming nature of the whole conference.
“The only other geek con I’ve been to was the SFX weekender, which wasn’t unfriendly , but I also can’t remember half as much mingling (or half as many reasons to mingle) as there were here.”
Stephen: “I’m not a convention-goer. The friendly atmosphere and lack of judging at Nine Worlds was the kind of pleasant, safe space I’d assume any good con would try for, but from everything I’ve heard in recent years this one got it unusually right.
“I saw tweets from people saying that having dedicated LGBTQ* content made such a difference to their time there. Even the Bronies didn’t seem to get the usual derision, mostly because they were just unrelentingly happy and frequently gave you cake.”
Hannah: The two standout workshops for me, personally, were fantasy novelist Tom Pollock’s creative writing workshop on Making Monsters – which generated at least one idea I’m going to be writing into a short story.
“Two takeaway things for me were her describing procrastination as a fear-based behaviour, and
that perfectionism is fear’s favourite coat. Emma – thank you. That stuff really spoke to me. Like, more than my shrink does.”
Viktoriya: “It was wonderful to have so many different tracks, and to NOT have diversity and inclusiveness be shunted off to the side with, “oh, well, we’re covering that in X track” – rather, you had panels on inclusiveness and discrimination across all the different tracks.
Hannah: “And since it wasn’t ‘here’s the gay corner’ it felt much more open to (say) the B and the T and the Q sections. Which – as a bi girl – I found very, very refreshing.”
Stephen: “On the Friday night I went to a swordfighting workshop with Miltos Yerolemou, the actor who played Syrio Forel in Game of Thrones.
“It was a lot of fun, and at least two thirds of the attendees were women (one of whom was you, Viktoriya, and I totally clocked your expression of demonic glee when you got to swing a very large wooden sword, which suggested you enjoyed the session!).”
Viktoriya: “I loved that there was a knitting track, and a My Little Pony track, and a board games track. It stressed the diversity of interests that are brought together under the fandom and geek umbrellas in a way that cannot be present in any single-show or single-theme convention.
“The fact that the ‘celebrity guests’ were actually there for panels, activities and workshops primarily, with singing autographs very much a secondary activity, was even better. I despair of the autograph factories modern conventions have become. Queueing for eight hours is not my idea of fun.”
Viktoriya: “Well, OK, let me argue with myself for a little bit. I’m going to nitpick here, not out of anger but because the organisers have shown a genuine interest in learning from their mistakes and in improving the experience in coming years.
“So, accessibility. I don’t know what the experience was for those attendees with limited mobility, but I am relatively able-bodied and even I found it a bit cumbersome navigating the stairs in two hotels with only the few lifts.
“Ultimately, that’s what I’m looking for in a convention: committing to doing better next time when mistakes are made.”
“Some of the multimedia was a little difficult to engage with without risking pain – strobe lighting, very loud soundscape, and so on.
“Bringing in a general warning system (a sign on the door?) of strobe lighting for those affected by it, and doing a soundcheck before launching the sound and leaving it at whatever level, would be good.”
Stephen: “I went to the board games hotel only briefly, and there were lots of steep stairs, but then that’s the one used for loads of much bigger cons, so I’m sure they must have a solution in place?”
Viktoriya: “Well, big cons tend to have a like it or lump it policy. They have priority queuing for fans with mobility issues, but that’s about it as far as I’m aware. Individual cons may have a better provision, but I don’t know.”
“Then there’s the issue of diversity in organisers and session leads. Part of this is maybe due to the fact that it was the first Nine Worlds, but the organisers, session leads and attendees were overwhelmingly white.
“Take the panel on Problematic Issues – some odd things were said during this sessions, and it was also an entirely white panel (so discussing representations of race was rather awkward). I think it was trying to cover too many fandom issues: racism in fanfic and fandom, fetishing gay sex, writing male characters and ignoring female ones, reaffirming heteronormative norms, etc. In an hour.
“Contrast this with the Racefail 101 panel in the Books track, which brought together awesome writers of colour to focus on writing characters of colour, and seeking out writers of colour.
“Given the number of tracks and the number of organisers required, I’d suggest that the lead organisers work on diversifying the track leads.”
“With accessibility, big cons tend to have a like-it-or-lump-it policy. They have priority queuing for fans with mobility issues, but often that’s about it.”
“Finally, I disagree with Steve on the inclusiveness extended to the Bronies, mostly because in the sessions I was present at, they were frequently the butt of the joke.
“Fundamentally, I think it’s uncool to include something as a track (and therefore give implicit approval of its existence) and then spend the weekend being a bit weirded out by it. I don’t claim to be part of the MLP fandom, but I thought it was a bit harsh.”
Stephen: “I didn’t see the panels where Bronies were mocked, but I did see a lot of people commenting out loud that this was their first experience of them and they thought Bronies were awesome.”
Viktoriya: “I wonder if part of it isn’t a reflexive ‘let’s build a hierarchy’ instinct. Certainly there was that feeling at times at the fanfic panels, and some of the comments re: board gaming from attendees. The Bronies were the only ones where I heard panellists commenting on it, though, and there is some evidence that attendees felt a bit singled out.”
“What I do think is great is that the organisers of the Problematic Issues panel realised what had gone wrong, and have publically acknowledged it and committed to doing better next time.
“Ultimately, that’s what I’m looking for in a convention. There were a few tweeted mentions of positive and negative feedback (which, to their credit, the Nine Worlds twitter feed retweeted).”
Let’s wrap this up…
Hannah: “I think everyone involved understands it was a first attempt at a huge thing and the learning curve was, and will continue to be, pretty damn steep – but I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of it or more excited about next year.”
Viktoriya: “Since there’s a year until the next Nine Worlds I guess I’ll conclude with some general links on the inclusion and harassment issues – if you’re thinking of going to a convention and are concerned about safety, or if you have been harassed at a convention and want to know how to report it, have a look at these resources:
- Elise Mathesen’s experience of reporting sexual harassment here, including a contact and resource list for reporting it here.
- Carrie Cuinn’s experiences and guide for reporting are here and here
- Finally, the odious Ted Beale was recently finally expelled from SFWA. NK Jemisin has written a blisteringy on-point post on racism and misogyny in SFF, Beale’s expulsion, and the behaviour which led to it.
“Most of all, I loved the fact that I enjoyed Nine Worlds so much, I have already decided I’m going next year. No uncertainty, no hmm-maybe and oh-yes-perhaps. I’m going next year because it was wonderful. How can you argue with that?”
We previously wrote a post on the amazing Mrs Edith Garrud, who taught Jujutsu to the suffragettes to help them avoid arrest. The story of those bodyguards has now inspired a new web-series, written by and starring Kathrynne Wolf. Our Stephen B couldn’t wait to find out more…
BadRep: Tell us a little bit about the series in your own words.
Kathrynne Wolf: The Scarlet Line is an action-drama about a secret lineage of female bodyguards who are, when on active duty, code-named “Scarlet”.
Our premise is that the Line started with the famous “Jujitsuffragette” bodyguard team in Edwardian London. In the world of our story, after the First World War the organisation – ‘The Scarlet Line’ – went international and Scarlets have operated ever since then, protecting people who need their help.
“We blow the Bechdel test straight out of the water.”
Our main character, Amanda, is a retired Scarlet whose very ordinary life is suddenly thrown into chaos. Details of the reasons for this disruption, the purpose, history and future of the line get revealed throughout the season.
BR: What gave you the idea to do this?
This is the sort of story I wanted to see on screen. It’s an old adage that you should write the story you want to read, be the change you want to see, and so on. I had been distressed by the narrow representation of women – and the UNDERrepresentation of interesting roles and stories for women in media – for a long time.
Two issues I find particularly insidious are the tendency for any female protagonist driving the story to be called a “Strong Female Character”, where this adjective seems unnecessary for a male protagonist, and the tendency for “Strong Female Characters” either to a) be somehow supernaturally or technologically augmented, or b) have a tendency to cry, even when on the job.
I wanted to see a story of a woman who kicks butt and takes names as a matter of course. It’s her job. She does her job, she does it well. The fact that she’s female is not excused, it’s not augmented, it’s not commented on; it is not, in fact, the point. The point is the story – there’s a crisis that needs solving, there are obstacles, stakes get raised, we wrestle with issues of morality, trust, crime, betrayal…
“The fact that she’s female is not excused, it’s not augmented, it’s not commented on; it is not, in fact, the point. The point is the story.”
The other major factor that made me want to tackle this project is that I come from a background of what is generally referred to as ‘Chicago Storefront Theatre’. We have over 150 small theatre companies in Chicago, producing shows in all kinds of spaces that weren’t originally intended to hold a theatre, because they have stories they want to tell. It’s very much a ‘do it yourself’ mindset.
That’s why I produced the web-series myself, rather than writing a screenplay and then sending it off to Hollywood, hoping it would catch someone’s eye and that it wouldn’t get lost in ‘option-land’… I wanted to see it happen.
BR: What made you decide to set the series in the US rather than Britain?
KW: The main factor is that I live in Chicago, and this is where I have connections, know the locations, and where it was, in fact, possible to produce the series.
That said, the ‘mythology’ of the Scarlet Line definitely lends itself to satellite stories. It would make a great CSI-style franchise. I would love to see The Scarlet Line: London, The Scarlet Line: Seattle, The Scarlet Line: Barcelona – I’d just need to figure out how to go about licensing the sucker.
BR: The lead Scarlet’s wig and makeup are very striking, and call to mind vigilante superheroes such as Catwoman, Silk Spectre from ‘Watchmen’ and Hit Girl from ‘Kick-Ass’. In other press, you’ve previously mentioned Wonder Woman in connection with the unusual ‘web’ weapon used by the Scarlets – are you inspired at all by comics, as well as martial arts and action cinema?
KW: I was raised on Wonder Woman and Kitty Pryde was my favourite X-Man. Like all storytellers, I can’t help but draw from everything I’ve studied, read and seen.
I would say the Scarlet character was drawn as much from The Equalizer and the Guardian Angels as from comic books and movies.
The lack of a current TV show like Wonder Woman is part of what goaded me into this. One of my oldest friends in the world had a baby daughter, and I had a “what will she WATCH???” moment of panic, as I considered the statistics that show that women’s representation in media has actually shrunk in the last few years.
I wanted to contribute to the ongoing development of a wider range of roles available to actresses and, therefore, role models available to young girls.
I don’t only mean morally upright ‘ideals’, I mean characters that represent the spectrum – that model all kinds of ways of being and behaving, living in the world, experiencing victories and consequences. The wider the spectrum presented, the more agency is given to young girls to figure out how they want to live for themselves.
The other major factor involved in the Scarlet wig and makeup is modern surveillance technology. The Scarlets have to keep their true identities secret, and research on the advances in facial recognition software led me to take the disguise angle to more extreme lengths than I’d originally planned.
It turns out that software has gotten scarily good at working around minor augmentations. Diana Prince’s glasses were NOT going to cut it.
BR: You perform quite a bit of realistic fighting in the episodes, as well as very kinetic movement with the Web weapons. Is it difficult to find film or theatre roles for women which showcase more realistic techniques?
KW: It is maddeningly difficult. For 13 years, I belonged to Babes With Blades Theatre Company, which is a Chicago company whose mission is to ‘place women and their stories centre stage’ using combat as a major part of their expressive vocabulary.
To do this, they’ve focused on developing new work, and they include an all-female-cast Shakespeare in every other season, as there simply are not many plays out there where women get to explore this range of human expression.
Again, it’s ridiculously rare in Western cinema, TV, and theatre that a female character is allowed to simply be proficient at combat without being superhuman, having a ‘super suit’, or being the ‘chosen one’.
Again, it’s ridiculously rare in Western cinema, TV, and theatre that a female character is allowed to simply be proficient at combat without being superhuman, having a ‘super suit’, or being the ‘chosen one’.
Don’t get me wrong – I love superhero stories, and am always happy for any opportunity actresses get to be that kind of hero. I just wanted to help open up the field so that they didn’t have to be somehow ‘other’ in order to do so.
BR: There are more women in TV and film who are action heroines these days, but they’re still often lone figures. Already in the trailers for early episodes we’re seeing that relationships (such as the one between Amanda and Marcus) are a big part of the story – are the relationships between female characters also focused on, alongside the ass-kicking?
KW: Most of the major characters in the series are women. We blow the Bechdel test straight out of the water.
The relationships are very important, and they’re explored much more deeply in Season 2. Season 1 is very much the set-up – it’s where the ball gets rolling. We introduce the major players, the major conflicts, the major themes, and some things get resolved by the final episode, but not all.
BR: What were the challenges of creating a web-series? Did the format give you more freedom to pursue feminist themes?
KW: The fact that we’re doing it all ourselves means we have no one to answer to. There’s no studio executive or marketing department saying ‘You have to include a male authority figure! She has to cry or it’s not believable!’ or any such nonsense.
The challenge, of course, is that we do not have studio resources. The good side of that is that no one is working on this project for any reason other than that they want to.
BR: What do you hope the series will achieve?
KW: I would love to inspire other folks with good stories to stop waiting for permission and MAKE THEM. I think the online short-form potential is evolving rapidly. The democratization of access to technical production capability is an amazingly wonderful thing, if you’ve got a story to tell.
I’d also like to help raise some awareness of some of the ass-kicking women of history – in fact, that is the subject of a panel I am doing at GeekGirlCon in Seattle in October – drawing from history to find inspirational stories of “non-super” superheroines.
If the series reaches some young (or not so young) folks who hadn’t yet realised that they’re allowed to take charge of their own stories and get them out there, and maybe some who hadn’t considered that there might be more roles for women than eye candy, damsel in distress or obstacle, even better.
- Huge thanks to Kathrynne Wolf for the interview, and we wish her all the best with the series! There’s a kickass trailer for Season 1 over here, and more info on the Facebook group and Scarlet Line website.
- Thanks also to Kathrynne’s husband Tony Wolf who wrote the book about the life of Edith Garrud, which prompted the original piece in our 2011 ‘Revolting Women’ series. Tony is currently working on a three-part graphic novel series inspired by the Ju-jutsuffragettes titled Mrs Pankhurst’s Amazons, due in 2014.
I HAVE BEEN MADE TO SWEAR A BLOOD-OATH TO YOU ALL THAT I WILL NOT MAKE ANY “RIM” JOKES IN THIS REVIEW ON PAIN OF MY NEW NEON GREEN KURT GEIGERS BEING CONFISCATED
OH, ALSO THERE’S MINOR SPOILERS
I ain’t gonna lie, readers; it took me a while to write this one. I got home from seeing Pacific Rim, irritated and betrayed (for reasons I’ll explain), and got on The Internet, ready to share my frustrations with the film with a giant swathe of the population that I assumed would doubtless have the same irritations I did.
I found no such people. In fact, I found a great number of people whose feminism and opinions I respected claiming it this great inclusive/representational victory and lauding the characterisation of the, um, one woman. My crest fell. I suddenly felt ashamed and cowed. Maybe they’re right, I thought. Maybe Pacific Rim is this Big Thing after all and I’m just this picky little boy who should swallow my face and look grateful.
Or maybe it’s like Avengers Assemble all over again, where everyone and their dog made Joss Whedon into a Maypole and danced around him, singing the praises of his Black Widow and how boss she was, and all I could think was “yeah but she still strangles men with her thighs in a black leather catsuit though doesn’t she”. It’s a step forward, but even further steps could have been so easy, yet weren’t taken.
Let’s look at Pacific Rim’s director, Guillermo del Toro. Now, Guillermo is my homeboy. We go way back. He’s made some of my favourite films in the world ever, and written some of the best women in filmland, and then put them in main roles (example: Pan’s Labyrinth).
Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) is good in Pacific Rim, sure, but despite what others say about her getting the protagonist’s development arc, she isn’t the protagonist, Boring Raleigh (Charlie Hannam) is, and that’s where the film focuses. It needn’t have done, as Mako does indeed get a nice narrative arc of her very own – but it really does focus on Raleigh instead. Why, Guillermo? Why?
Why focus on the boring guy? The boring inexplicable guy who is not only tedious, but a TERRIBLE choice for “massive robot pilot saviour of mankind” because he consistently makes awful decisions? Decisions so awful, in fact, that I thought that maybe his progress through the film would punish him for his reckless endangering of human lives – but then he was eventually lauded for them! I just. No. (There was a lot wrong with Raleigh, like why doesn’t his hideously traumatic co-death with his brother have more of an effect on him – but I honestly don’t have the wordcount to get into it!)
There were no end of cool background people that would have made the film a) more interesting and b) less inevitably-focussed-on-the-white-American-dudebro. Loads of internet has spaffed cheerful over the Soviet team (Heather Doerksen and Robert Maillet) – and they’re right to do so; they’re bossly and cute as hell (and let’s not forget that BLOODY SEXY Brutalist Jaeger design!!) but they get three lines, all of which are techy floundering and then they die. That’s… that’s not great, guys! Three lines! I had more lines when I was an extra at the local Methodist church panto when I was 14!
Mako wasn’t terrible. There was a standout bit for me where she pilots a Jaeger for the first time and loses it completely as Her Traumatic Past flings nightmare fuel into her face until she endangers the life of everyone else in the Jaeger playhouse – and yet her co-pilot Boring Raleigh somehow manages to swallow down and stamp on the MASSIVE PTSD that presumably he’d have (along with brain damage, surely??) from sharing a brain with his beloved brother as he died an extremely brutal death. I just. I don’t know. Maybe I’d have been less bothered by her shortcomings if she hadn’t been forced to carry the flag as literally the only woman in the film with lines.
“But they didn’t kiss at the end!” people have said, delightedly. And in a world where films appear to be literally impossible to put on celluloid without The Day Being Saved By Heterosexuality, that’s great. I’m all for non-sexual relationships. But that’s not how the film was shot or put together. If it was, it didn’t do enough to undermine the romantic overtures between Raleigh and Mako all the way through (Del Toro says that he did their fight scene “like a sex scene” even), so while no, they didn’t kiss – they honestly might as well have done, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had done.
Frustratingly, it’s not 100% crap. I say “frustratingly” because I’d love to just shit all over this thing wholesale and be done with it, but I can’t. The world of Pacific Rim is absolutely spectacular. Del Toro has done his worldbuilding trick where he’s made everything in the setting fantasticly beautiful, cruel and bleak. But then stitched the actual narrative and characterisation out of tropes. Tropes aren’t a bad thing per se – but I honestly felt that I had seen this film before in a million different cinema-sittings. When you can predict a character’s story before he (and it’s always a he) has even done it? Not great.
But the good bits are really good. The robots are heavy, work-worn and believable. The Kaiju are so beautiful they made me do facewaters on numerous occasions. You know when Newt (played by Charlie Day – but I’ll come back to him in a minute) braindives into their world to spy? That black passing body over the giant red sun? The fiery skies and the knowledge that Kaiju are their answers to mechs? The hot, prickly balloon of delight inflated in my chest and I felt this sudden desperation for Del Toro to make the film he’s clearly always wanted to, carry on from Hellboy II‘s overtones of human punishment monster Apocalypse, and give it the “and then everyone died” happy ending that I’ve always wanted to see him do.
“We terraformed it for them,” Newt says breathlessly. Humans have ruined the world, and now monsters want it to play in. I wept. “Yes!” I yelped in the cinema. “Stamasfodfpohssadjfdk!” I elaborated, which I think in this context meant, “Please give me all the monster Apocalypse porn I need to make my heart complete, Guillermo.” My boyfriend patted my knee sharply, which I think in this context meant, “Please stop making the sounds that will inevitably get us kicked out of the cinema”.
But it didn’t happen. I felt personally betrayed. Come on, Guillermo, I thought we were bros.
Speaking of bros, I did ship/love Newt and Herman (Burn Gorman, who is a hottie), the rivalrous, hilarious, day-saving, vitally-important-to-the-plot-and-yet-still-somehow-endearingly-rubbish scientists. “You can’t ship them!” cried my lovely housemate. “Did you see how they fumbled a *handshake*? That is what the sex would be like. Flapping, awkward and inaccurate.” Yes, it would. Just like regular sex.
Newt was great though. We follow him through the underground Kaiju-part trade as he shambles off on his quest to find this one particular drug-baron. Ron Perlman, of course, plays this…
s p e c i f i c c r i m
…no, I think we’re done here.
YOU SHOULD SEE THIS FILM BECAUSE:
- The monster/mech effects are literally the best I’ve ever seen
- The world Del Toro has built is compelling, beautiful and engrossing. The background detail makes it all feel really real and believable
- Idris Elba Is A Severe Hottie
- Do not underestimate how awe-inspiringly beautiful it is
YOU SHOULD NOT SEE THIS FILM BECAUSE:
- You have seen it before, in a million different hats, over the past twenty years
- The monsters don’t win AGAIN
- It hints at doing something fun and different but doesn’t actually
- What sort of a name is “Stacker Pentecost” anyway1
- Ed’s Note: “MY NEW NAME FROM NOW ON” [↩]
It’s been a long time since I’ve bought a paper comic. I was deeply in love with comics at one point in my life. I swore off them a while ago for reasons of both taste – I’d run out of titles with female characters that I was interested in – and budget: it was one too many expensive habits for a theatre professional, and in the end, red wine won the day.
I’ve kept a weather eye on the comics world, and the announcement of an all-female line-up for X-Men was enough to send me to Forbidden Planet. But what made me actually buy the thing despite the £3 price tag was writer Brian Wood (DMZ, Channel Zero and Northlanders) and colourist Laura Martin (Planetary, Authority and JLA Earth 2, which all sit beautiful and bold on my shelves thanks in part to her palette choices and ability to make heroes look truly heroic).
Marvel introduce the issue on their website as follows:
Because you demanded it! The X-Women finally get their own book!
So, a fan-based revolution in the world of comics? Perhaps. The title is part of Marvel NOW, the 2012 relaunch of the brand aiming to bring new readers into the market, or in my case, perhaps to bring readers back into the fold and into comic stores.
Could it be that the comic industry is tackling the gap in the market for mainstream titles that are interesting to women? I’m heartened by the weight put behind this comic; it doesn’t seem to be a gimmick or an afterthought. The issue was heavily trailed with an XX teaser campaign, which was hard not to notice. And what I’ve also been interested to note is the supportive voices around the line-up, with Bleeding Cool praising Marvel for “raising their game in this regard” and other commentators using the launch as an opportunity to dedicate space to interviews with women in the industry, and to the importance of more titles about women, for women.
There’s a good piece here in Clutch, an interview with editor Jeanine Schafer over at The Mary Sue, and another piece here at Bitch magazine.
To me, my reviewers!
The series features an all-female team including Storm, Jubilee, Rogue, Kitty Pryde, Rachel Grey (daughter of Scott and Jean) and Psylocke. They’re based at Jean Grey’s School for the Gifted and pitted against runaway trains, teenage tantrums in the hallway, and the arrival of John Sublime with a request for help.
I’m very pleased to see Storm’s mowhawk back in business, and Jubilee was always a favourite of mine from the TV series, even if she was often cast as a mutant girl version of Snarf. She spoke to me of teenage wish-fulfilment, her mutant power always waiting in the wings for the right moment to shine, exactly like mine. Except my mutant power hasn’t developed yet. I’m sure it will.
What’s good about it? Lots. Lots and lots. The storyline moves on nicely, with a strong introduction that sets up future intrigue. It’s issue one, so I’ve not got a lot to go on, but so far it feels well-paced and with good action scenes and themes of homecoming (positive and negative) alongside the usual “outsider” politics that have always been a solid foundation for mutant-related plot.
The main characters get set up nicely and all showcase their abilities, personalities and range of powers. Jubilee and Kitty are set at a similar age and look like they are set to play out the roles of younger, naive/vulnerable characters, although there are two pupils at the school who look like they might also fill that position, so we’ll see. In terms of more experienced or older figures, Storm takes centre stage on the cover and is the team leader and headmistress with Rachel Grey as her second-in-command. Rogue is the powerhouse, and is shown enjoying herself being gung-ho in saving the day during a classic runaway train sequence, whilst Psylocke is pleasingly intimidating in the role of bad cop when Rachel interviews John Sublime.
There’s the usual balance of action/adventure with high school drama, much as you might expect, so in the future I’m hoping for something along the lines of Grant Morrison’s New X Men. This is referenced clearly through the young people at the school, so in those panels you can play a fun game of Guess Who? Mutant High Edition. This does also tend to lead on to a less fun game of Where Are We In What Passes For Continuity Around Here, but generally I take the Doctor Who approach on that one, so try not to get cross-eyed, basically.
I can’t write this review without talking about how the characters look, partly because comics are a visual medium, but also because it’s so good to see a lot of the traditional problems of female representation overturned here. We have two non-white characters in the line-up, neither of whom are the xenophilia standard sexy blue lady. Almost all of the outfits in Olivier Coipel’s artwork are really nicely, thoughtfully designed and look very practical, including Rogue’s costume which comes complete with a hooded top. No spiked heels – or any of the break-your-legs Girl Power stacks of Frank Quitely – are in evidence. Everyone’s zippers go all the way up, with the sad exception of Storm who, in the words of a friend of mine, seems to have developed a secondary mutation allowing her outfit to stick to her breasts despite flying at speed. She’s clearly the Emma Frost replacement in the line-up.
I’m going to be charitable and say that the instances of female characters doing needlessly sexy poses is fairly low, but having passed the issue around a few friends (male and female) the mileage varies. That said, it’s certainly way below what I would have expected and certainly nowhere near the awful debacle that is DC’s recent treatment of Starfire. I could easily imagine a world in which an all-female X-Men line up could have been all bikinis, all the time…
If I’m being uncharitable, I could say that it’s sad all the women are quite so perfect in how they look. Mutation offers such a variety of bodies to the writer and artist that it would have been good to see a character who subverted traditional expectations of what heroic women in comics should look like. A woman with the glorious curves of Morrison’s Angel Salvadore before she got reworked into a “prettier” version. Similarly, it’s a shame not to have an older female character to give something of the sagacity of Professor Xavier (can we make Helen Mirren a mutant already?), not to mention the fact that without him and without Cyclops the line-up could perhaps be seen as somewhat ableist compared to other line-ups.
All said and done though, this is only the beginning, and only a few pages. And in case it wasn’t clear: I really enjoyed it. I’ll spend money on the next one. A slim volume cannot hope to achieve everything that I might have wanted from a comic, but even if it weren’t an engaging start that has me hooked, it has already done an awful lot to show what female superheroes can do when well-written and well-drawn: tell a fantastic story that makes you wish your mutant powers would hurry up and kick in…
Does this herald a much-needed change and a step in the right direction for the future of comics? I hope so. But I’m hedging my bets, just in case I’m once again entirely cut off from my source of illustrative imaginings. Instead, I’ve been out on the wild plains of internet comics, on the hunt for decent female protagonists and generally doing pretty well – more on that in another post. Watch this panel.
In the meantime, I leave you with this quote I found in the slew of Google searches that I pass off as “research”:
For a bulky segment of a century, I have been an avid follower of comic strips – all comic strips (…) I cannot remember how the habit started, and I am presently unable to explain why it persists. I only know that I’m hooked, by now, that’s all.
– Dorothy Parker, 1943
- This was originally posted on Sarah’s now defunct blog in 2010, re-posted here to mark 50 years since the first woman went into space.
What do you call a female astronaut? These are some of the ingenious words that journalists invented in the early 1960s to avoid having to say ‘astronaut’ when describing Jerrie Cobb, the first woman to pass NASA tests and qualify as an astronaut, although she never had a chance to go into space.
I’ve been thinking about astronauts recently for two reasons. Firstly, a friend of mine lent me this absorbing book about the ‘Mercury 13′ – women including Cobb who were trained as astronauts but never went into space because America wasn’t brave enough.
Secondly, I discovered a pile of my old school reports in my mum’s flat the other day and was astonished to read that my stated career ambition at age 11 was ‘astronaut’. I mean, I loved space and stars and rockets – are there any kids that don’t? And I do remember wanting to be an astronaut. But at 11? It makes me wonder how old I was when I gave up wanting to be a knight of the round table…
A dream for boys?
I’m not going to rant about how being an astronaut shouldn’t be a distant dream for a girl. Let’s face it, astronauting isn’t an easy line to get into – it’s a distant dream for most people. Apparently there have been 512 humans in space, of which 10% have been women (Wikipedia has a list of space travellers.) Unimpressive, I agree, but when you bear in mind that we can scarcely get women into the House of Commons (around 20% of MPs are women) getting them into space seems like less of a priority.
What really interests me is that women into space doesn’t really go even as a dream. Of course, there’s been an astronaut Barbie, but the gender stereotypes that so confused journalists back then are still very much in evidence in the aisles of toy shops today, as this post on Sociological Images neatly shows. Being an astronaut is a childhood dream for boys only.
A dream for men?
In fact, even in adult culture it seems we’re not totally cool with the dream of female astronauts. Here’s a brief, interesting article by Marie Lathers from Times Higher Ed about women astronauts in films, which takes in Alien, Contact, Apollo 13 and even I Dream of Jeannie (astronaut husband).
Lathers sees an identification of the feminine with mother earth and nature, setting them in opposition to space and even to science. Given this conflict she suggests that women in space are more frequently aligned with the alien (our old friend the Other) than with the human space adventurer. She sez:
Popular culture representations of women in space reveal a need to “ground” women by keeping them bound to Earth. Woman grounded is woman subjected to the weight of gravity; bodies in space defy gravity. Feminist theory needs to assess the possibilities that rethinking women in space affords. “Extraterrestrial” feminism may provide a way out of the essentialism that bottles us up.
It’s an interesting notion, and one that the arts student in me would like to pursue. However, I wanted to talk about some of the real female astronauts as well as the dream. I’ll just give a few examples from their stories – I couldn’t bear to pick just one of these incredible women.
‘A woman’s place is in the cockpit’
I mentioned poor Jerrie Cobb and the Mercury 13 who so narrowly missed being the first ‘feminauts’. Another fascinating woman is linked to the US Women in Space Program. Without beautician-turned-aviator Jackie Cochran – who held more speed, altitude and distance records than any other pilot in aviation history at the time of her death in 1980 – it may never have happened at all. Check out Right Stuff Wrong Sex for the story of a serious political operator at work.
Russian Valentina Tereshkova made it to first woman in space, in 1963 (beating the US by an appalling TWENTY YEARS) and launched skywards from a suitably proletarian background – she was a textile factory worker and an amateur parachutist who left school at 8 and continued her education through correspondence courses. She spent three days in space, and went round the earth 48 times.
Physicist Dr Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, in 1983, and one of our own (feminists, that is). Ride reportedly:
… refused to be seen in television downlinks doing food preparation or toilet cleaning, even though these were shared crew responsibilities. She refused to accept a bouquet of flowers from NASA after completing her first space mission. She pasted a bumper sticker to the front of her desk: “A woman’s place is in the cockpit”.
Ride went on to found science education organisation Sally Ride Science, which pleasingly promises to be “all science, all the time” and encourages girls to learn about and enjoy science and maths.
In 1992 scientist, doctor and peace worker Dr Mae Jemison became the first woman of colour in space. After her retirement from NASA, Jemison has led work supporting research into the use of technology in developing countries and science education for teenagers. AND she wins pop culture points by being the first real life astronaut to appear on Star Trek. Which is especially neat as she said that Lieutenant Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols) was one of her early heroes. Look at this awesome picture of them together.
Women to look up to
I think it’s particularly because I’m not from a tech or science background that female astronauts are like superheroes to me. That’s why I love this Flickr set of loosely inspired portraits Philip Bond has done. Obviously they’ve lovely things in themselves, but I like them because they look like collectible playing cards, or stickers. I want Tereshkova on a t-shirt. I want people to ask me who she is so I can tell them.
You know when I said earlier that getting women into space wasn’t really a priority? Not compared to getting women into Parliament, for example. Well, in a way that’s not true. It’s all a priority. Because real life role models give you the permission to have the dream.
Every girl who dreams of being an astronaut won’t become one. But she may become an engineer, or a physicist, a mathematician, a pilot, an athlete. She might teach science to other girls. She may be a leader.
There are exceptional individuals who blaze a trail, like the women above. But I think I can safely speak for most of us when I say it’s nice to have someone to look up to.
Why was I so keen on being an astronaut? I think it was as much to do with Helen Sharman, who became the first British person in space when I was 8, as it was to do with my love of stars.
You’ve probably deduced that I didn’t become an astronaut. But I did become a feminist, and it’s women like these that inspire me.
Welcome to the latest in my scattered series on ‘comics wot I love which are a bit feminist’ (previous posts include Battle Angel Alita, Black Orchid, and Tank Girl). I’ve been meaning to write this one since the good ship BadRep set sail nearly three years ago, but I’ve struggled because I love this comic series so hard I can’t really get it down in words.
Love. And. Rockets.
If you’re at all interested in comics or graphic novels you’ve probably heard of Love & Rockets, and you’ve probably had someone like me tell you about how amazing it is and how you should read it immediately. I’ll try not to labour the point, but it is really, really worth having a look.
The scope of the series, which ran from 1981-1996 – with further stories being added since 2001 – can be a bit daunting, which is why Fantagraphics have produced a guide to how to read Love & Rockets.
In brief: the Love & Rockets title encompasses two separate but slenderly-connected worlds, with Gilbert Hernandez writing about the fictional Central American village Palomar and its inhabitants, and brother Jaime Hernandez writing about the adventures of two punkeras in 1980s California.
Both sets of stories span decades, with meandering plots, sprawling casts, and for my money, the emotional depth and philosophical reach of any ‘great’ work of literature. There are touches of magic realism, and sex and violence feature prominently, although they are hardly glamourised. If anything, the comics focus on the mundane, everyday details of two tangles of human lives with the occasional connecting thread.
Women and humans
What makes each half of the series so compelling (and they are – I have pulled more than one all-nighter working my way to the end of a story arc) is the incredible ability of both artists to give their characters life. And more than that, to make them human, with all the cruelty, confusion and compassion that that involves. I’m trying to pick my way through a bog of clichés here, but for me the Hernandez brothers are up there with Shakespeare and George Eliot in their characterization.
And a hugely important part of that for me is that both worlds have magnificent, believable, complex, varied and interesting female characters. Tons and tons of them, and they get plot. In fact, they get the bulk of the plot. Some are ‘strong female characters’ in the most literal sense (rather than the hilarious Hark! A Vagrant sense) as the cast includes a number of women wrestlers and superheroes. That may sound ridiculous, but trust me, they pull it off.
There’s no way I could do justice to the whole series in a single post (but Colourlines has a good introduction) so I’m going to zoom in on my favourite, the ‘Locas’ stories by Jaime Hernandez, starring two of the most brilliant comic book heroines of all time: kind, adventure-prone Maggie the Mechanic, and spiky, compulsively subversive Hopey Glass.
Maggie and Hopey
We meet best friends and occasional lovers Maggie and Hopey in their late teens, in the fictional town of Hoppers in California. The fact that the two main protagonists in this world-famous, best-selling comic book series are queer latinas is almost enough on its own to recommend reading it as I’m sure you’ve noticed that the comics world isn’t exactly overflowing with such characters. Incidentally, Geek Feminism has a short list of comics featuring women of colour.
At the start Maggie takes a job as a ‘pro-solar’ engineer, and her early stories feature spaceships, dinosaurs and female wrestlers who moonlight as superheroes (there are a lot of these) but when she returns to Hoppers the story sheds a lot of the B-movie trappings and focuses on more earthbound challenges, including love requited and unrequited, friends, enemies, and age.
We follow them, together and apart, over the next 30 years, during which time they change considerably, including their appearance. Most famously, Maggie puts on a lot of weight.
Bodies and sex
At the Comica event Hernandez spoke at recently, he was asked how he responded to some fans’ complaints about Maggie’s weight and their persistent hope that she would lose it and get ‘pretty’ again. He replied: “Oh, I just have to say ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’. Maggie is heavy. She is the only heavy person in comics, still. Why is she the only heavy person in comics?”
While Maggie does worry a little about her weight, it never bothers her lovers, and she is not ostracised or ridiculed or any of the other things we are taught to fear may befall us if we get fat.
That’s something else I love about the Locas stories: they can be a good antidote to body image argh, not just because there’s a huge range of body types on show (there is a lot of nudity – again, it doesn’t tend to be glamorous) but because they are drawn with such skill and honesty that it is impossible to be ashamed.
And, well, the comics are sexy. Not in a brittle, cookie-cutter, performative way (although that is examined too when some of the characters begin working in a strip club1 ) but in the way that real people are sexy.
At the Comica event, Hernandez said he aims to treat sex just like anything else in the stories “because that’s how life is: you have sex, then make a sandwich. It’s that stream of life thing.” He added that even now he can’t draw a ‘pin up’ or deliberately ‘sexy’ female character without knowing anything about her.
Representation and truth
This sensitivity and radical theme of ‘women as humans’ was continued in Hernandez’ comments about the decision to make Maggie and Hopey lovers.
At the start, the comic was in ‘freefall’, breaking all then rules and comic conventions, so it was about doing something different. But he explained that “I knew I had to back it up – I could put in as many Latinos as I wanted because I am one, I know that world. But with relationships between women I was aware of my responsibility to listen and understand.”
I’m just going to end up fangirling all over the shop, so I’ll end the post here. But really, seriously, get hold of a copy of the Locas stories; you won’t regret it. As Jaime said, Love & Rockets doesn’t aim to be realistic, but truthful.
- YES, that’s right, it even portrays sex workers as real people! [↩]
Here’s some probably-not-very-surprising news: not many of our big national galleries have female directors. The Ashmolean, The Fitzwilliam, the National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery, The National Museums Scotland and National Galleries Scotland, the Natural History Museum, the Tate, The Wallace Collection, the V&A and the British Museum are all directed by men.
This is an especially grim state of affairs since in the rest of the museums, galleries and cultural heritage sector women actually outnumber their male colleagues – sixty percent to forty.
So it’s heartening that Dr Penelope Curtis, a specialist in sculpture and British art, should have taken up the mantle of Director of Tate Britain. Since her appointment in 2010 she has been largely overseeing The Millbank Project, whose most recent result is The Tate Rehang.
So they’ve got the hammer and nails out.
The London-dwellers among you might remember the old Tate Britain – pictures ordered roughly by category or theme. That big Pre-Raphaelites room with the dodgy John Martin landscapes next door. A room of Modernism. A room of sixteenth-century portraits. That’s all gone.
In its place is a ‘Walk through British Art’ – pictures ordered chronologically, swirling round the main hall, with a timeline at the beginning giving you not the potted history of art, but the history of the Tate itself.
Sugar pots and panopticons
The Tate was founded from a bequest of Henry Tate, of Tate & Lyle – who also did (and do) sugar and golden syrup.
Like the Tate Modern, which was converted from a mid-century factory, the Tate Britain partially re-appropriates an earlier space. The Millbank Prison was originally going to be Jeremy Bentham’s pilot Panopticon, but it didn’t work out and the National Penitentary was demolished and replaced by the National Gallery of British Art – which then became the Tate.
Built on Henry Tate’s sugar- (which in practice means ‘slave-‘) money, and sitting there on the site of Bentham’s prison overlooking the Thames, the Tate has always felt strangely emblematic to me.
Unlike the National Gallery, which has a noble heritage more akin to the great educative state institutions – the Louvre, say, or the Uffizi – the Tate has an intrinsically London spirit and a capitalist soul, with something of the Protestant Work Ethic hanging about it.
Indeed, today the Tate group as a whole earns over sixty percent of its income – staggering when you consider the average equivalent for its fellow UK museums is more like two to three percent.1
A woman’s work is never done
Most of the painting interpretation has now been stripped out entirely. I always read those explanations slavishly, but I have to say I didn’t miss them at all – in fact, I barely noticed they were gone.
But there is a little bit in one of my favourite new rooms of the rehang – the drawing and prints room covering the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On a preliminary drawing for John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s alt-Pre-Raphaelite Thoughts of the Past, the curators comment on the depicted ‘sex worker’ in her lodgings which (like the Tate) overlook the Thames.
Her industry is compared with that of the Thames itself, and its corruption with the corrupt contemporary society the picture implicitly comments upon.
What was interesting for me here was not only the correct use of the term ‘sex worker’ (I notice that the interpretation available for the final painting on the Tate’s website sticks to the more trad-Art History ‘prostitute’) but also the connection between her work and the city as a whole, its bustle, its trade, its work ethic.
This sits alongside the (for me, at least) unprecedented acknowledgment of female artists and their productions through the ages. We had Mary Beale – seventeenth century, claimed as ‘the first professional female English painter’ – Mary Sargent Florence, Vanessa Bell, Dora Carrington, Georgina Macdonald, Mabel Nicholson and many others, all on display.
There was nothing of the tokenistic about this: you just casually bumped into female names in much the same way you might casually notice a few Raphaels in the Renaissance rooms at the National Gallery. They were just there.
The work of painting
As an example of how ‘women’s painting’ was displayed, one particularly interesting juxtaposition for me was that of a self-portrait by Gwen John. It sat atop two paintings by male artists depicting female models – William Orpen’s The Mirror and Philip Wilson Steer’s Seated Nude. The choice of the John self-portrait here seemed to me to comment implicitly on the relationship between artist and model and, again, different kinds of work.
The Mirror shows a fully-clothed female model in a large hat looking glumly out at us – except she’s not looking at us, but at William Orpen, who can be seen working at his painting in the Van Eykian mirror above her.
Wilson Steer’s painting shows a naked female model, also in a large hat, sitting within roughly sketched unfinished surroundings, in the process drawing attention to painting’s backstage elements, its construction.
Gwen John shows herself fully clothed and looking at the viewer, but she is of course painting herself modelling herself.
These kinds of juxtapositions really bring out some of the nuances of the ‘History of British Art’, and the rehang is full of them. I could also go on about the new room of 1920s silent film responding to two Pre-Raphaelite paintings; the sudden influx of craft, sculpture and 3D works, and the re-instatement of the glorious Blake collection.
And other reviewers have talked at length about the choice to spread a single artist over multiple rooms, so you see the same artist appearing and reappearing at different points throughout the journey, depending on where you are chronologically. I won’t talk about it forever – I’ll just suggest that you go and see it.
- In fact, my one gripe with this new rehang is that it has an actual, literal, break for the gift shop. As in, you have to walk through the gift shop to get between two rooms in the middle of the big Walk Through Art. Tacky, guys, tacky. [↩]