So, as the ol' internship winds down, I wanted to try and think of my favorite city gal, the one makin' it on her own in a bustling metropolis. And call me a child of the 90's if you want, but while I can understand picking Carrie Bradshaw or Mary Tyler Moore, my own loyalties fall more in line with Seinfeld's Elaine Benes. Cue that funky synthesizer.
Introduced as Jerry's ex-girlfriend, brought in because executives didn't think the show would work without a female presence (yeah, I've watched a DVD commentary or two), Elaine offers the show's only womanly vantage point into the painfully self-aware, revolving-door dating world of New York City. She's burst a lot of bubbles at that booth in Monk's Café, including Jerry's concept of the female orgasm.
Check out that hair ... what is that? Some sort of 90's bouffant?
What's great is that in a sitcom that carries itself as having nothing to prove, Elaine represents an incredibly casual sort of feminism. She mentions being pro-choice once, but for the most part her views and accomplishments are only there if you're looking for 'em. Her jobs in the publishing world are better than George or Kramer's, and they're steadier than Jerry's lounge gigs. She has none of the standard female sitcom panics about having babies or not getting married before a certain age. And she sees men without being chided over the phone by some screechy mother figure for sleeping around and not settling down.
"John hit me with a book, Aunt Reed." "Well, Jane, you are of a lower station than he is. Go to the red room." "No." "Go." "Fine, fine ... the ghost of your dead husband'll probably show up again. I'll tell him you said hello." * * * "You ever feel like things are kinda blatantly classist around here, Bessie?" "Jane, whatever do you mean? What's 'classist'?" "Forget it." "The Missus is sending you to boarding school soon for being insolent." "Oh, thank Christ. And I mean that too, 'cuz I'm actually pretty religious." * * * "Eight years at this freakin' school, my best friend's dead, I've read every book here and learned to draw the hell out of these English moors ... Screw it. I'm gettin' outta here." * * * "Thanks for hiring me as the governess of your illegitimate, possibly unrelated daughter, Mr. Rochester." "Sure." "The Thornfield Estate's nice. Pretty big. Say, I don't know if Mrs. Fairfax forgot to give me the full tour or what, but I never got to see the third floor." "Nobody's up there. I mean ... nothing's up there. Just Grace Poole. She's a drunk, you know." "What? What does that have-" "Grace. Poole." " ... Well, it's a good thing your anger intrigues me."
Alright, I'm goin' sci-fi for the second week in a row, but instead of grabbing a character who thrives on muscle and sweat (of which there are plenty: Ripley from Alien, Alice from Resident Evil, Ana Lucia from Lost ... ), I thought, who's a woman who survives on stately conduct, politics and occasional intrigue?
Enter Battlestar Galactica's Laura Roslin: accidental president of the human race following the Cylon (robot) attack on the Twelve Colonies; foil to Commander Adama's initially foolhardy militaristic plans, then later his greatest ally; a breast cancer fighter, then survivor, then fighter again; a leader, a teacher, a speaker, a hard-nosed decision maker. In all seriousness, if humans ever create robots who become sentient, then leave, then descend from the skies years later to ask for our surrender, I say we nominate actress Mary McDonnell as benevolent ruler of the planet and just make her stay in character.
When you've got the likes of Gaius Baltar and Tom Zarek vying for your seat of power aboard Colonial One, you've gotta know how to play the game and how to play it well. Roslin knows just when to play the right octagonal-shaped cards from her deck: diplomacy for the striking workers, hard-bargaining skills for the skin-jobs (humanoid Cylons) demanding asylum with the colonists, and, finally, a willingness to take a couple risks. "Hey, say, so I've been having these visions lately, and I think they'll lead the way to Earth, and anyway how's about I send our best fighter pilot back to an invaded homeland, just to look for an artifact that only might lead the way to a planet that very possibly doesn't even exist?" Way to roll that hard six, Mrs. President.
Plus, she'd be able to unite the people better than anyone else. Liberals would support her stance on children's education, legalized abortion and fair trials for all, and conservatives would support her stance on sending Cylons out the frakkin' airlock whenever she damn well pleases.
Forget Clinton. Really forget Palin. Roslin in 2012?
So let's go back to 1989 or so for just a minute, to a basement somewhere in the U.S. It's late, the lights are off, a non-flat TV screen glowing from the middle of a faux wood entertainment center, the solid gray box of a Nintendo parked on blue shag carpeting.
There's a 12-year-old kid on a couch across the room, controller in hand, giant bag of Cheetohs at her side. She's been down here for hours, her parents already in bed, so she's got the volume on low. Not off, though. She needs the MIDI music for concentration. Normally she'd have been kicked off by now, but her older brother (by one lousy year) is at a friend's house. She's playing Metroid, and she's five levels in, and the manual says she's close.
The manual says a lot, actually. It says the character on the screen is named Samus Aran, a bounty hunter fighting for the Galactic Federation Police and collecting energy tanks and bombs just to survive. It offers names for the game's various monsters, clearly Japanese in origin (skrees and memus, to name a few), but the kid just knows them as spiky things or flying things. At least the game doesn't have a princess, she thinks, popping a Cheetoh. Mario, Zelda, every freakin' fantasy game's got a princess in a castle in distress. Not here, though. Nope. Just Samus jumping platforms and blasting away at space pirates on Planet Zebes.
So, anyway, here's the kid on the final level, and there's Mother Brain, the final boss, Samus firing missiles to take out the glass around the big red blob. Gotta be quick. A time bomb's set to blow once the giant brain's dead. But the kid makes it. She jumps a final platform, and Samus rides an elevator to the surface. She pops another celebratory Cheetoh as victory music plays, Samus standing at attention on screen. Then, suddenly, the character flashes, the body armor disappears, and ... it's a woman? The manual specifically said "he," but Samus, the ass-kickin', weaponized fighter with a literal hand cannon, is a woman.
It's brief, she's only there for a couple seconds in a skin-tight suit (it's gotta be hot inside that body armor). She gives everyone a wave, then she's gone. The kid smiles, though, taking a bit of satisfaction. Maybe she can piss her brother off telling him about it.
"There in a jif."
"Thanks a bunch."
"It's a real shame."
Long before Sarah Palin came along and pretty much ruined a whole regional dialect by way of association, there was Marge Gunderson, chief of police of Brainerd, Minn., and the lead character of that old TNT/TBS/USA network movie night favorite, Fargo. I can remember being entertained by how the stations would edit around all the swears.
There are inept criminals and bizarre crimes, but a lot of the comedy in the film stems from its scarily accurate characterization of the Midwest. Marge represents a faction of the American populace you'd most often recognize at small-town barbecues, parent-teacher assocation meetings, or the local diner, but here she walks with a badge and gun while pregnant, the Midwest still oozing outta her pores. Here are three reasons to love Chief Gunderson:
Alright, I couldn't resist this one when I saw it on Jezebel. Apparently, on the soon-to-be-released DVDs for The State, there's a promo shot for the Daria DVD collection, coming out in 2010!
Admittedly, it's a bit oxymoronic to be getting excited about a character like Daria. She's pretty much pure apathy wrapped in heavy boots and a green jacket. But I grew up on this series. I spent the night with a large pizza during every marathon. I set the VCR (whoa, remember VCRs?) for the two extended specials about summer break and college. I identified with and longed in reality for more of the sort of banter she and Jane enjoyed in bedrooms. And I watched all five seasons of the show until it went off the air in 2002, the year I graduated.
Daria's attitude encapsulated the trapped teenage angst of late 90's, middle-class suburbia; a place full confusing classmates driving loud cars with purple lights under the sides, or hypocritical, contradictory teachers and parents whose logic always seemed to go wandering in lazy circles as they put a happy face on everything. It was hard to explain those sorts of frustrations adequately in high school, and my own comebacks were mostly of the "well ... YOU are" variety, or occasionally I emitted a stitch of nervous laughter. I therefore had to count on Daria to express what I either couldn't or wouldn't, and she didn't disappoint.
A Daria rebuttal formula: one devastatingly well-articulated counterpoint plus a disinterested, monotone voice equals the sort of comment and expression that, should you be at its business end, leaves you reeling and hanging onto things for balance and generally questioning your own values and beliefs for days. Observe the following:
I'd like to see what, say, a 30-year-old Daria would be capable of doing/thinking/expressing. Maybe she'd have found an audience for her views. Maybe she'd be blogging (heh). More likely she'd still be staying in with a good book and a coffee. Either way, she'd be out of suburbia, finally freed, probably just the slightest hint of a pencil-thin smile on her face.
Go into any Barnes & Noble these days, and odds are you'll run into some gargantuan, employee-constructed edifice to the Twilight book series. Likewise, if you check out the New York Times Bestsellers lists, you'll find two other young adult vampire book sagas have sprung up: House of Night ("Vampires in school") and Vampire Diaries ("Vampires in school, with a love triangle.")
"Enough!" I say. Who would want to breathe life into do-nothing high schoolers such as Bella Swan? I've only read the first 10 to 20 pages of Twilight, but in talking to friends, I imagine it takes some endurance to spend three-books-worth of time wondering, "will they or won't they?" Instead, I would submit Sookie Stackhouse (the title character in the series by Charlaine Harris, since spun off onto TV as HBO's True Blood) as the woman with supernatural exploits worth watching in real time.
Sookie Stackhouse is a waitress in Merlotte's bar in a nowhere town in Louisiana, in a world where vampires have come out of hiding, thanks to Japanese-manufactured synthetic blood (sweet). Vampires aren't the only supernatural beings either. Sookie herself has ESP, and her boss is a shapeshifter (awesome). Sookie's trying to use her ESP to solve a rash of murders (amazing) while falling for 160-year-old vampire Bill Compton (what? Doubly amazing) who, as a vampire, is the first man whose baser thoughts Sookie doesn't have to endure. This is no doubt a total blessing when considering the split-second, moment-to-moment thoughts of most men in bars. Yikes, am I right, guys?
Anyway, there's murder, there's intrigue, there's (uh oh) harsh language. And there's sex, by god. Like any first-person narrator, Sookie seems like she'd be a little long-winded and oddly forward in actual conversation. Before the completion of the first page, she's informing readers, " ... I don't get out much. And it's not because I'm not pretty. I am." But she takes action and makes choices, damn it, and that'd make her a hell of a lot more interesting to listen to in real life than flip-flopping, adjective-happy Bella, who would bore folks into the ground with descriptions of people "frowning angrily" or "jumping excitedly" and questions about whether she should date Edward or Jacob (I swear I only read the first 20 pages).
After some shallow probing of the NYT bestseller lists, I count a total of 14 vampire-related titles, and 10 of them belong to Charlaine Harris and Sookie Stackhouse. Can't be an accident, right? Sorry, Bella. Stay home and try not to get pregnant again. Sookie, please, tell us a story.
The DC Comics universe was undoubtedly created by men. With its barrel-chested male superheroes saving a perpetual line of women in distress, with its anatomically impossible female superheroes wearing form-fitting lycra and sultry smiles, it might appear an unlikely place to find a lady to truly admire. But while there might be some women who need to start kicking ass again, I can think of at least one from DC comics who never stopped: Catwoman.
Table the fact that she dresses in tight leather if you need to, and forget about that movie with Halle Berry (really, please, forget all about it). I'm talking about the Catwoman, Selina Kyle, the morally ambiguous international thief who Batman wants a few minutes alone in the Bat Cave with as much as he wants to see her behind bars. She's not the walking PSA that other female DC staples like Wonder Woman and Supergirl sometimes can be. She won't save you and then remind you to always floss. Catwoman doesn't care. She does her own thing. She'll save you if she feels like it, but no guarantees, and she might nab your wallet at the same time.
My own knowledge of the character is best informed by Michelle Pfeiffer's interpretation in Batman Returns, seen in this clip beginning at about the 1:36 mark.
Now, this film and most (if not all) of the comics written about Catwoman were written by men, and we could have long, college-English-class-like discussions about the character's true nature, whether she's in control of her sexual power or simply a product of the male gaze, or whether the reclamation of the word "bitch" in the '90s was advisable or successful. However, can we please collectively acknowledge and get behind Catwoman's genius with that whip? I mean, c'mon! One minute it's a playful, swishing cattail, and the next it's a deadly cutting tool.
Plus, later in the film, Pfeiffer utters a line I've always loved. "Look, Batman napalmed my arm. He knocked me off a building just when I was starting to feel good about myself. I want to play an integral part in his degradation." Purr-fect.
And yes, fine, I'll acknowledge that there's a certain lack of logic to nominating a villain for real-life status, but I had to pick one, didn't I? And with the sort of violence you hear about on the news these days, wouldn't it be nice to be hounded by a villain who's more interested in jewels and cash than killing you? I know I'd feel a whole lot better. I think we all would.
In the days before Hulu, before Youtube, I can remember coming home from middle school every day, grabbing a jar of JIF, a spreading knife, a sleeve of saltine crackers (whatever, I ate a lot), and settling in with The Simpsons on FOX-KFXA at 5:00 and 5:30. The show raised my basic knowledge of the world on two fronts: Its writing informed my ideas about parody, subtlety, and self-referential humor, and Marge and Lisa shaped my ideas of female identity (pardon the buzzword). I would cite the near-frightening amount of Simpson side projects, books, trivia games, Wikipedia entries, Youtube mash-up videos and the like as evidence that I'm not alone in being influenced.
There's Marge the wife and Marge the mother, but neither role's ever been portrayed passively. Homer's gotten kicked out when he's deserved it, and it's only thanks to Marge that the kids haven't been lost to Social Services (except for that one time when they went to the Flanders'). Plus, the makers were smart enough to show some of her other sides, including Marge the second-wave feminist, Marge the working mom, and even (one of my favorites) Marge the cop:
Then you've got Lisa, who's pretty much impossible not to love as a youth role model. Intelligent, independent, precocious, a reader, writer, and maestro of the saxophone. Okay, she's got few friends (wah-wah, pity pity), but she's strong enough on her own. Here's an old clip of the Lisa I remember best, making such delicious meat of milquetoast Milhouse .
I always thought Family Guy (an inferior show if you ask me) made a huge mistake by establishing the daughter, Meg, as frumpy, dowdy, and nearly unworthy of mention. It makes for a good laugh here or there, I guess, but she's since become merely a foil for jokes, a non-character whose disappearance from the show would likely go unnoticed.
By contrast, Marge and Lisa (and Maggie too, I suppose, marginally) complete The Simpsons. Without'em, the show would just be Homer and Bart committing acts of stupidity for half an hour.
Age: Either 16 or 18, depending on which series you read.
Hair: Sometimes blond, sometimes red, but always perfect
Make-Up: Of course
Yes indeed, amongst female flatfoots, Nancy Drew reigns supreme. The young rogue has been hounding the criminals of River Heights (and more exotic locales; how does she pay for such trips?) since 1930. It was then that Edward Stratemeyer decided he needed a female counterpart to his Hardy Boys characters, created a few years earlier.
I myself know the character mostly through the Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys Super Mystery series, an offshoot of The Nancy Drew Files, a YA collection begun in the '80s and featuring a more mature Ms. Drew. Need proof it's more mature? Case #1, Secrets Can Kill, involves a car bomb. No joke. Still, Nancy and her team, the "curvy" Bess Marvin and "practical" George Fayne, plus her on-again-off-again, star-of-multiple-sports-teams boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, all of them exist in a nostalgically innocent world in which henchmen will knock you out before they'll kill you and the harshest expletive uttered is "shoot!"
Wanting to relive a bit of that nostalgia, I checked out from the public library Deadly Doubles, case #7 of The Files. It's an international tennis mystery set in Washington, D.C. Nancy is kidnapped inside of the first chapter, mistaken for someone else, and when the kidnappers realize their error, they drive her back and just drop her off at the very same spot! What does Nancy first do upon release? She takes a shower and fixes her makeup. Priorities.
That's the '80s for you, I suppose, but one hopes the character's creators have since wisened up just a bit.
I concede there are maybe more deserving (certainly more empowering) lady gumshoes I could wish to write into reality: Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, Murder, She Wrote's Jessica Fletcher, Law & Order: SVU's Olivia Benson, or even the more recent Veronica Mars. But Nancy Drew's outlasted 'em all, and she's drawn her fair share of discussion within gender studies at the same time. Plus, I kinda feel she's the one who most needs the reality check. Is there any other fictional private eye with a good chance of double-checking her eyeshadow after a near-death experience?
In light of Terminator Salvation's release and my disappointment with it, I'd like to go back to a better time in the series' history. Let's remember a woman who wasn't simply tough for five minutes before clinging to a man for survival. Let's remember a woman who didn't sit pregnant and worried for a whole film while men went off to war. Let's remember Sarah Connor, John's mother.
Yes, in the original Terminator, Sarah Connor is just a wispy waitress in need of saving by Kyle Reese, John's father from the future. She cries, she falls for Reese, and she gets pregnant. Even by the end of that film, though, she's fighting her way through a factory to take out Schwarzenegger's T-800 by herself.
By the beginning of T2: Judgment Day, she's a veritable badass, capable of raising her son on her own while turning ripped, resourceful, and vigilant. She still runs screaming from the T-800 in the psych ward, but anyone would do that. C'mon. It's an unstoppable killing machine. Otherwise, she's the very paragon of a maternal ass-kicker, taking down security guards, setting explosives, and trying to figure out what will become of her son. I can only imagine the writers kept her out of the Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines because they realized she was a hell of a lot more interesting than John Connor ever was.
Sure, in the real world she'd probably seem a little intense, spending most of her time warning us all about Skynet, but damn if she wouldn't be a hell of a lot more capable than any of the other women in this series. If I ever end up in a post-apocalyptic futurescape, it's Sarah Connor, and not her son, that I want by my side.