Here on The Fandomentals we usually write about and discuss things we love, but every now and then someone decides to bite the bullet. Well, now it’s my turn. I bit the bullet. I read Storm Front, the first of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels.
Oh, boy it was a ride. The worldbuilding was messy, but the plot was decent. Nothing great but enjoyable, or it would have been, if not for the sexism. The sexism ruined it. Not that sexism isn’t everywhere. It is. Still, given that the book is written using the first person perspective, the sexist perspective of the protagonist colors everything he sees. And, therefore, everything the audience reads. It gets nauseating. And since I had to suffer through this lens, you will, too.
Let’s start with the protagonist, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, the man who believes:
“men ought to treat women like something other than just shorter, weaker men with breasts.” (p.11)
Yes, that is an actual quote.
Harry is a wizard, the phone book says so, and he is behind on rent. Luckily a woman “with a voice that was a little hoarse, like a cheerleader who’d been working a tournament” (p.5) contacts him about her missing husband. They decide to meet up to discuss it further. But first, Harry has to take a look at a crime scene.
At the hotel where the crime scene is at we meet Detective Karrin Murphy, the original tough girl, who prides herself in never showing weakness. First thing Dresden does is an extensive and appreciative description of Murphy including her,
“kind of cute nose you’d expect on a cheerleader.” (p.10)
Seriously, what is this fixation with cheerleaders? Aren’t they usually pretty young? Is that an American thing? This is not the last time this comparison comes up, clearly.
He goes on to speculate how her legs look beneath her trousers, and physically races her to the door so he can hold it open for her, She finds this irritating and does not wish for it, yet he does it anyways. Chivalry may be an outdated concept, but in itself it is usually not malevolent. Undermining the authority of the woman who is supposedly in command by habitually going against her explicit wishes in said chivalry, that’s something else.
Before entering the actual crime scene in the bedroom, Harry looks around and finds some woman’s underwear, which is again described extensively and appreciatively. The first description of the actual corpses is this:
“They were on the bed; she was astride him, body leaned back, back bowed like a dancer’s, the curves of her breasts making a lovely outline. He stretched out beneath her, a lean and powerfully built man, arms reaching out and grasping at the satin sheets, gathering them in his fists.” (p.15)
Only then does he mention that both of their ribcages seem to have exploded. Clearly that is of lesser importance.
I…have a lot of questions that are unaccounted for in Dresden’s description. Why does rigor mortis keep them in this aesthetically pleasing position? Logic and biology would have them slump down long before it sets in. How can her breasts still be as lovely as described when her ribcage is exploded? Anatomy doesn’t work that way, Harry Dresden.
Harry then concludes that the murderer of the woman (in her twenties, in fabulous condition) and her lover is a woman. Why?
“Because you can’t do something this bad without a whole lot of hate. […] Women are better at hating than men. They can focus it better, let it go better. Hell, witches are just plain meaner than wizards. This feels like feminine vengeance of some kind to me.” (p.21)
This earns him a “Chauvinist pig” remark from Murphy, but I wouldn’t take anything coming from her as serious critique of sexism. Even if she intended it thusly, the outcome of her remark (i.e., nothing) doesn’t support reading it that way.
Speaking of outcomes, spoiler alert, the killer was not a woman. Does this undermine the sexist lens Harry sees through? Maybe it could have, had he ever reflected on it. We learn that the murdered man is a gangster named Tommy Tomm and the woman, a sex worker in the employ of the vampire Bianca.
We get another extensive and over-appreciative description of a female character when Dresden meets up with Monica Sells, the woman with the missing husband. It’s not worth repeating in full, but trust me, it’s more of the same. Turns out her husband, Victor, disappeared three days ago. He showed an interest in magic, which is why she contacted Harry rather than the police. She tells him to look around the family’s lake house and leaves him with a scorpion pendant that belonged to her husband.
The logical thing to do now is, of course, visit the nearest bar, McAnally’s, the pub for the wizarding community. There he meets Susan Rodriguez, the book’s only person of color. After the obligatory overly-appreciative female character description, this time including exotifying her darker skin and the “lazy appeal of her dark eyes” (p. 55).
Susan is a reporter, and she, too wants information concerning the murders.
“One of the things that appealed to me about her was that even though she used her charm and femininity relentlessly in pursuit of her stories, she had no concept of just how attractive she really was.” (p. 57)
The author was probably going for Obliviously Beautiful. But, it seems more like Susan’s lack of confidence is seen as more attractive than the presence of it given how Dresden treats Karin Murphy. She is also written as clearly attracted to Harry. While she is flirting in part to obtain information she is shown to be disappointed that “[Harry] didn’t look down her blouse even once” (p. 57). He did look, actually.
Harry then drives out to look around to the Sells’ lake house, where he summons a fairy to blackmail for information. Said information is that someone was having sex and ordered pizza the previous night. The conclusion Harry draws on the missing husband?
“He was lurking about his love nest with a girlfriend, like any other husband bored with a timid and domestic wife might do under pressure.” (p. 76)
When he turns to go, the warden Morgan appears and reminds Harry that he is the magic counsels prime suspect for the murders. he is being watched and any breaking of the laws of magic will lead to execution. Returning home, Harry decides to prepare an escape potion before meeting with Bianca. He doesn’t know the ingredients, so he summons Bob, an air spirit living in a human skull.
Bob, as can be expected of bodyless spirits, is obsessed with sex and easily insulted in his masculinity. After asking for details about Susan’s looks, he agrees to help with the escape potion but under the condition that Harry prepares a love potion, too. This, naturally, makes Harry contemplate Susan.
“I thought, if Susan should ask me for some kind of demonstration of magic (as she always did), I could always-
No. That would be too much. That would be like admitting I couldn’t get a woman to like me on my own, and it would be unfair, taking advantage of the woman.” (p. 94)
Clearly, he has his priorities straight (that’s sarcasm, if you can’t tell). Dear Harry Dresden, consent shouldn’t be an afterthought, especially not to your ego.
He does agree to brew the potion, even if he does not intend to use it. (Obvious Chekhov’s gun here.) As for the ingredients of a love potion? Tequila (“so long as it’ll lower her inhibitions”), chocolate (“chicks are into chocolate, Harry”), perfume, lace, the last sigh at the bottom of the glass jar, candlelight, a torn up $50 bill (Harry was out of diamonds and money is “very sexy”), and “the ashes of a passionate love letter” that turn out to be torn pages from a romance novel (p. 97). You better believe the quote Bob chose from the novel started with “her milky white breasts” because what else would it start with?
Now on to my least favorite chapter, the meeting with Bianca the ‘vampiress’. After a phone call from Murphy who complains that “that bitch won’t talk to us” (p. 102), Harry decides to stop postponing the encounter. They meet at Bianca’s Velvet Lounge. Harry is led in by her assistant, Rachel, and the description of her physical appearance is thankfully neglected. For now.
Bianca, when she appears looks “too good to be true” (p. 109). She flirts with Harry (as most women do), but when he brings up the murder of her employee, she attacks him, drawing blood. In losing control of her demeanor, she loses control of her appearance.
“It had a batlike face, horrid and ugly, the head too big for its body. Gaping, hungry jaws. It’s shoulders were hunched and powerful. Membranous wings stretched between the joints of its almost skeletal arms. Flabby black breasts hung before it, spilling out of the black dress that no longer looked feminine.” (p. 111)
It. In losing her attractive appearance Bianca goes from ‘she’ to ‘it’, from person to animal or thing. Like the warden, Bianca thinks Harry murdered her employee. Only when he manages to convince her otherwise and talk her down, does she return to her attractive human form. Her “flabby black breasts swelled into softly rounded, rosy-tipped perfection once more” (p. 115).
She is willing to talk now, yet she’s still embarrassed and furious at Harry and herself. Because she lost control? No, because what she wants most in the world is to be beautiful. He saw her ‘true’ form and now knows she is ugly; she f*cking cries because of it. Make it stop.
According to her, Tommy Tomm was one of the better clients, because “he treated [sex-workers] like real people” (p. 116). She has no idea to a possible motive, but provides Harry with the phone number of Linda Randall, the murdered woman Jennifer Stanton’s former co-worker and roommate.
When Harry leaves, Bianca, hungry from seeing Harry’s blood, feeds on her assistant Rachel. And this is when the story decides to describe her appearance. In full.
“Bianca’s tongue flashed out, long and pink and sticky, smearing Rachel’s wrist with shining saliva. Rachel shuddered at the touch, her breath coming quicker. Her nipples stiffened beneath the thin fabric of the blouse, and she let her head fall slowly backwards. Her eyes were glazed over with a narcotic languor, like those of a junkie who had just shot up.
Bianca’s fangs extended and slashed open Rachel’s pale, pretty skin. Blood welled. Bianca’s tongue began to flash in and out, faster than could really be seen, lapping the blood up as quickly as it appeared. Her dark eyes were narrowed, distant. Rachel was gasping and moaning in pleasure, her entire body shivering.” (p. 120)
Was all this necessary, for the characters? The worldbuilding? The plot? Hardly. Like the extensive description of female characters, this is purely to cater to the (presumably straight male) reader.
Harry contacts Linda Randall, she works as a chauffeur and repeatedly refuses to meet him. Does he leave her alone? No. He tracks her down while she is waiting for her employers.
“Well, you’ve got me cornered, don’t you? I’m at your mercy. […] And I like a man who just won’t stop.” (p. 126)
Like almost any other woman, she flirts with him, partly to distract him from the fact that she is hiding something. We learn that her and Jennifer Stanton were occasional lovers (hypersexualized bisexuals, yay!) and that they would often meet customers together (bisexuals in threesomes, yay!), including Jennifer’s fellow murder victim. The conversation ends with the arrival of Linda’s creepy employers, the Beckitts. It is implied that besides being the chauffeur she is intimate with at least Mrs. Beckitt.
Afterward, Harry confirms that there really was someone having sex at the lake house by talking to the pizza- delivery guy, who says it was more like an orgy. He also learns that there was someone taking pictures from outside.
The next day Harry visits Murphy at the police department. On the way up, he sees the arrest of an addict high on the pseudo-magical drug ‘three-eye’. The woman “looked like a teenager having a fight with an out-of-town boyfriend” (p. 142) . Gods, can you please stop infantilizing women/ comparing them to teenagers!
Anyway, he sees and stops the escape attempt of the three-eye addict, which leads him to conclude that the drug is in fact a magical substance. It’s supplier is a magician capable of murdering Jennifer Stanton and Tommy Tomm. After fainting in Murphy’s office due to a concussion (he was attacked the night previously), Murphy drives him home and tucks him into bed. She kisses him on the forehead when she leaves, because all women are attracted to Harry Dresden. He wakes up to a storm and realizes that it is an adequate supplier of energy to magically murder someone. Indeed, there had been a storm on the night of the murders.
He plans to get dressed for a meeting with Linda Randall but has not yet done so when the doorbell rings. It is Susan, the date he has forgotten. This he judges to be “a little rude of me” (p. 165).
He leaves Susan in his living room and takes a shower. Hearing someone come down the stairs to his apartment, he hurries to the door in a towel. If Susan opened the door and it was Linda “that would be the cattiest thing you’ve ever seen” (p. 168).
It is not Linda, it is a demon, who tries to kill him. Fighting the demon Harry loses his towel (of course he does). He shoves Susan downstairs with instructions to drink the escape potion. She drinks the love potion instead (of course she does). Eventually both her and Harry seek refuge from the demon in a small protection circle they are not allowed to leave. Which is obviously when the love potion kicks in.
Harry has to protect Susan from breaking the circle and accidentally killing them both because “she [is] beyond reason, the potion [has] kicked her libido into suicidal overdrive” (p. 179). He is the sensible one. Because female sexuality is irrational and animalistic. Through all of this Bob only comments how great the love potion is working.
They escape with help of the escape potion. At first Susan refuses to drink it, endangering them further. Harry has to promise to sleep with her afterwards to get her to drink it. Once outside they could easily shake of the demon by passing flowing water, readily available in the storm. But naturally the different potions Susan drank interfered and leave her vomiting and unable to walk. As it is there is no chance for both of them, our ‘hero’ “[would] never make it with her slowing [him] down” (p. 187).
Manly man that he is Harry decides to fight, especially when the demon’s master appears as a phantom made of shadows. Harry channels the storms lightning to vanquish them both. Oh and Linda Randall is dead, which is a why she missed her appointment with Harry.
Dresden and Murphy inspect the crime scene. Again, the first thing he does is inspect her underwear lying around and note that she liked her ‘toys’. Then we get more vivid description of her dead, naked body.
“Linda had been on the phone when she died. She was naked. Even this early in the year, she had tan lines around her hips. She must have gone to a tanning booth during the winter. Her hair was still damp. She lay on her back, eyes half-closed, her expression tranquil as it hadn’t been any time I’d seen her.” (197)
No anatomical impossibilities this time. An exploded ribcage still leaves some very nice hips to ogle, though. Sorry, dressed, non-sexualized corpses are clearly too much to ask for. Linda Randall with her “vulnerability that magnified the other parts of her personality” (p. 198) and her so-called “Slut act” (p. 129) is treated in death as she was treated in life, poorly.
We learn that Linda’s employers lost a daughter in a shooting involving some of Johnny Marcone’s men (the guy Tommy Tomm worked for). When Murphy confronts Harry with the fact that Linda had his card, he internally remarks that she doesn’t look at all “like a cutesy cheerleader” (p. 202).
Again, she demands that he share his information with her and the police force, because he is a strong suspect for the murders. Again, he refuses to do so, deciding that telling her would endanger Murphy, as if leaving her blind doesn’t. Also, he fears, that in admitting he knew Linda, Murphy might question whether they were lovers and as “Linda wasn’t exactly a high-fidelity piece of equipment” (p. 202) ascribe him jealousy as a motive. Harry leaves after Murphy, in tears, promises to arrest him the next day if he doesn’t start cooperating.
While thinking about “doing Murphy’s job for her” (p.206) Harry is attacked again. In the struggle his attacker manages to steal some of his hair, a necessary ingredient for the chest exploding spell. The guy escapes, but Harry recognizes him as one of Johnny Marcone’s men.
Since he is certain that the murderer is the one supplying the city with three-eye, he seeks out Marcone. Learning that his guard has collaborated with the drug supplier and undermined his control of the city’s organized crime, Marcone has him shot. Unfortunately for Harry ,the hair has already been passed on.
After wandering around in the rain musing about his dead mother and witnessing an execution, Harry breaks into the now abandoned apartment of Linda Randall. After sleeping there for a while he finds a film canister of the same type that was at the lake house. This time, it actually containing film.
That is when someone else breaks into the apartment. The man, Donny Wise turns out to be the photographer from the lake house and another occasional lover of Linda’s. She promised him sex in exchange for him taking photos of the orgy at the lake house she was participating in, supposedly trying to get leverage on some of the other participants. So many levels of wrong in this.
Harry burns the film, lets the photographer go, and heads of towards Monica Sells’ house. Monica, of course, breaks down crying. He learns that she was abused as a child, and that “she’d married a man who provided her with more of the same” (p. 243). Look, abuse narratives have a place in stories. They can be justified, even important, if the author can handle them respectfully. Here, it is treated as one note. It adds nothing vital to the story in a way to make it justified, nor is it more closely examined either. It’s a Tragic BackstoryTM for a Tragic Female CharacterTM. Full stop.
We learn that Monica Sells and Jennifer Stanton are sisters (there were no discernable clues for this). Victor Sells, a wizard, powered his spells for producing three-eye first with his wife’s fear of him, then with the lust of the people he was organizing orgies with, including his wife, her sister, Linda and the Beckitts. Worried about the wellbeing of her children Monica spoke to her sister, who got Linda to provide leverage on Victor and threatened him with exposure. He killed both them and Tommy Tomm, who was most likely collateral damage.
Leaving her to her weeping, Harry meets Jenny, the Sells’ daughter, who knows that her father’s not one of the ‘good guys’ anymore. Fueled by manpain, Harry decides to call Murphy. Murphy, however, has made good on her promise. Since Harry has not deigned to communicate anything at all, she is waiting for him, searching his office, handcuffs ready.
Panicked, he tells her not to look into his desk drawer because there is an evil wizard’s magical scorpion talisman in there he neglected to mention. Logically, Murphy does what every cop would do when a suspect tells them not to look inside the drawer. She looks inside the drawer.
Again, dashing hero Harry Dresden hurries to the aid of a damsel in distress that wouldn’t be distressed at all if not for him. When he reaches her,
“Murphy lay there, curled on her side, her golden hair in an artless sprawl about her head” (p. 264).
Seriously, please consider getting to the rescuing part. This is a woman in distress, who cares whether her hair sprawls artlessly or not!
The scorpion is alive, it is big and growing. Harry calls 911 for Murphy’s shoulder wound and poisoning. Murphy does the counterintuitive thing to staying alive and handcuffs Harry to herself. This effectively inhibits most of his movements and prevents him from fighting the scorpion. The “stubborn bitch from hell” is literally tying our protagonist down (p. 265).
They make it out, barely killing the scorpion. The EMTs arrive, as does the storm. Harry does not expect to survive the storm if he doesn’t act immediately, so he slips Murphy’s hand out of the handcuffs, leaves her with the EMTs, and limps over to McAnally’s. There, he borrows a car determined to outdrive the storm to the lake house, knocking out Morgan who has again come to confront him on the grounds of the murders. His dead mother gives him strength to get there.
He arrives just as Victor Sells is preparing the sacrificial rabbit for his ritual. The Beckitts provide the necessary lust as fuel for the spell. Harry breaks the circle in time to prevent the ritual, but not prevent the killing of the rabbit though. The naked Beckitts grab guns and start shooting while Victor sets more scorpions loose before resorting to starting a fire.
Harry doesn’t catch fire, but the house does. Then Victor makes the mistake of summoning the previous demon in Harry’s presence.
“I thought of little Jenny Sells, oddly enough, and of Murphy, lying pale and unconscious on a stretcher in the rain, of Susan, crouched next to me, sick and unable to run.” (p. 310)
Thinking of the poor women Victor harmed (not that two out of three weren’t put into harm’s way by none other than Harry himself), our brave hero wrests the demon’s control from Victor without claiming it for himself. Harry then watches the demon turn on Victor and devour both it and his scorpions.
Morgan shows up just in time to save him from the burning building. He ends up in the hospital, right down the hall from Murphy’s room. Harry sends her flowers, she throws them in his face. I hope the authorial intention here was to show that Murphy is still mad about the lies and needlessly endangering her, but I fear that it is meant to show that she is a Strong WomanTM who doesn’t need flowers from men.
In the end, Susan agrees to another date. They are implied to have had sex because this is critical information for the reader. it wouldn’t be part of the ending monologue otherwise.
Yes, this is the end, the book is finally over. It managed to be sexist on both character and narrative level. I didn’t even write down every instance; it’s that pervasive in the story. For everybody not reading this book, congratulations, you dodged a bullet. Thankfully, I’m not inclined to self-torture, which is why I won’t read the second Dresden book.
Pictures courtesy of Roc Books
Crazy Ex Girlfriend is Masterfully Deconstructing its Core
Here at The Fandomentals, it’s not hard to tell when we begin to fall in love with a show. You may recall the windfall of Black Sails articles surrounding its series finale, our rather overzealous coverage of Supergirl a year ago, or the way Steven Universe creeps into every podcast we record. We dig in and frenetically try to explain exactly the reasons why you should be so enthused as well.
Then there’s shows like Crazy Ex Girlfriend, where I find myself unable to say anything at all, since it’s more or less perfect.
I know what I’m setting myself up for when I say this, because I’ve felt the let-down quite keenly many times before. That’s part of why I’ve been so hesitant to write anything at all. The other part is that I truly feel my explanations won’t do anything justice; watch it yourself and you’ll see what I mean.
Is Rebecca Bunch’s character the answer to my prayers for jewish women in media? Absolutely. Do we all need Paula Proctors in our life? You bet we do. Is this finally the bridge between musical theater, sitcoms, and dramatic TV? Without a doubt. Hell, it’s a show whose entire premise involves calling attention to the tropes and storytelling conventions we bemoan, and then digging in and flipping them on their heads. All of this I could easily write dissertation-length papers on, while feeling that none of it is adequately explaining what is so great here.
So it’s only now that Crazy Ex Girlfriend is tackling one of the most important issues in our society, and doing it with a remarkably skillful hand, that I’m forcing myself to write out my thoughts. Because honestly? It’s a shondeh if I don’t at least try to spread the love at this point.
As a warning, there will be spoilers for major plot beats through the most recent episode, 3×06 “Josh is Irrelevant.” Which sure, may be a weird way to convince people into watching something, but as I’ve articulated a few times…knowing what’s coming and what a show explores actually makes me more prone to dig into it. If you disagree, let me just leave you with this before you bow out: the “crazy” in the title of the show is exactly why I didn’t watch it for a couple of years. And boy was that a mistake, because it is so intentional, and exactly what’s being explored now in one of the most nuanced and validating ways possible.
Yup, showrunners Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna are tackling mental health navigation and stigmatization. In the most recent episode, Rebecca Bunch receives a formal diagnosis (and even sings a song about getting one), and it’s made clear that all two and a half seasons were leading to this moment—not because of the diagnosis as an end in itself, but as a means to equip our character with the tools and understanding that empower her to push for a healthier state of mind. It is a show about a mentally ill woman lacking in traditional heroic qualities (dare I say antihero?). Yet instead of reveling in her moral greyness and watching her “oh my god” dissent, we are encouraged to actively empathize with her, and root for her to find balance. Because at its core, this show takes on a more positive view of humanity. We’re all just…trying to do okay with what we have, even if our weaknesses and anxieties can manifest in ways that hurt ourselves and those around us.
If that sounds interesting to you, watch the show. But for real now, explicit spoilers from here on out.
Rebecca Bunch was always meant to be a challenging character to the viewer. She makes an impulsive decision in the pilot episode to move to West Covina and pursue an old flame. Convinced this will make her instantly a happier person, she gleefully dumps her medicine down her garbage disposal (we’re unsure specifically what she took, though we do know anti-anxieties were in the mix) while whistling a merry tune. It’s clear this isn’t the healthiest thing you can do and she’s romanticizing the situation (and hilariously, the location as well).
At the same time, it’s also made clear that Rebecca truly was in an unhappy state in New York City, and her methods of coping through heavy medication and excessive work only fed into that. By midway through the first season, Rebecca tries to seek out a therapist to get new drugs, only to be told that she might actually need to explore her issues.
Rebecca: Those are the meds I was on in New York.
Dr. Akopian: Oh, my God. How did your body react to all this medication? You must not have been able to feel a thing.
Rebecca: Exactly. Numb as they come. So scribble scribble on your pizzle pad.
Dr. Akopian: Rebecca, your doctor in New York is a quack. He gave you a Band-Aid, not a cure. My method would be to do some digging and figure out what’s really going on inside your mind. And then we can discuss the appropriate medications.
Rebecca: So that’s great, but I need to be better by Monday.
The driving story continues to be about Rebecca’s quest for her fairy tale romance—a narrative that lives in her mind but not reality. Each romcom trope is broken down, from “unlikely suitor she actually falls for” (he turns out to be a fucking mess and leaves to be able to deal with his own issues in a healthy manner), to “the perfect prince who was always meant to be” (they both approach the relationship merely wanting to be in a relationship, without actually having a stable grasp on what they both need/want in life), to even the “screw men, we’ll just have a fun girl group and that’s enough” (Josh has a new girlfriend they need to stalk!).
However, it is always in the forefront that Rebecca is actively spinning the happenings in her life to fit whatever story she wants, all while resisting the core of what’s at her unhappiness.
Paula: Just let both of them go.
Rebecca: I don’t know who I am without them. I know that’s pathetic. I know it’s pathetic, but it’s true. Who am I supposed to be now?
Paula: Honey, be yourself.
Rebecca: What?! Who? No! Ew. Ugh! Who wants to be that?!
This becomes the most obvious when she enters into a relationship with Josh, but is not magically happier about everything. Rebecca very nearly has a breakthrough with Dr. Akopian to this point, only to be interrupted by Josh’s wedding proposal. Then from there, we get a tale as old as time: Rebecca stops feeling magical feelings about Josh, freaks out and kisses her boss in an elevator, freaks out from that and pushes their wedding date up to two weeks from that day, and then after not sleeping and going in full bridezilla mode, gets left at the altar because Josh begins to feel that he doesn’t truly know Rebecca. We also learn that Rebecca had previously wanted to marry another man in her past (Robert, a former professor of hers), but upon being broken up with by him, burned down his apartment and then was committed to a psychiatric institution for a time.
This is where Season 3 picks up, and in truth, I was very nervous about the Robert reveal. “Oh, so she really is ‘crazy’? That’s the point?” No. the point is that Rebecca is a troubled character who hasn’t received the help she’s needed. She has characteristics we all can relate to, from her self-deprecating thoughts to her struggle to feel ‘normal,’ even if we wouldn’t have necessarily made the same choices she did.
Season 3 shows her in crisis mode. Instead of confronting her insecurities, she lashes out at her friends, and even returns home to stay with her mother for a bit, despite their history with Naomi’s selfish and often inappropriate or harmful behavior. However, when her mom sneaks her anti-anxieties (out of fear of Rebecca wanting to commit suicide), Rebecca feels as though she has no one she can count on anymore, especially since she thinks she alienated everyone else. At the end of 3×05, Rebecca tries to commit suicide on a plane by taking a bottle full of anti-anxiety meds one a time, before telling the flight attendant that she needs help.
Other media has tried to depict suicide before, but it is so often done in a way that’s meant to shock, or even (distressingly) in a way that almost romanticizes the behavior. Hell, Life is Strange actually makes a student’s suicide a playable level, where if you’re just observant enough, you can stop it (for points!). Crazy Ex Girlfriend walked the impossible line of depicting the suicide attempt in a realistic manner—it was easy to track Rebecca’s feeling of hopelessness and isolation—without any sort of glamorization. She was in a rough, unhealthy state, and the audience was encouraged to root for that to change.
Better yet, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna made themselves available on Twitter immediately afterwards. That, in addition to a suicide helpline message which appeared on the screen following the episode, demonstrated that they were being as thoughtful as possible when approaching such a potentially triggering subject. It was difficult to watch, no question. But shying away from these topics doesn’t give equip us with the tools to handle them. We’ve praised Jessica Jones for starkly examining rape and rape apology; Crazy Ex Girlfriend is a show that should receive similar acclaim, particularly given how usual portrayals of suicide and mental health tend towards victim blaming.
Even that aspect was highlighted in the newest episode; Rebecca continually apologizes for the “hassle” she’s caused, and how bad she feels that everyone’s normal routine has been interrupted since like…her friends want to make sure she’s okay. It’s just so true-to-life. Too often our media has something *happen* to a character, and then it disappears an episode later. Rebecca’s deeply-felt self-loathing and general unworthiness isn’t gone just because her stomach was pumped, however. And that kind of consistency is important. Life doesn’t make narrative sense, so even though there’s a clear story that’s being told, it’s told in way that feels refreshingly familiar. Because it mirrors life.
Add to this the diagnosis. Rachel Bloom has talked openly about her own mental health numerous times. She also said this last week:
It’s clear this was written from a place of understanding, and with an attempt to be as validating and healing as possible. Rebecca sings a boisterous song about getting a diagnosis that will be her golden ticket to happiness (she’ll finally fit in somewhere), which amazingly captures the awareness of stigmatization alongside the often unreasonable weight people attached to their diagnoses. I just say this as a woman with OCD and general anxiety disorder, and I don’t want to speak for everyone ‘neurodivergent’, for lack of a better umbrella term. But in my opinion, the episode’s greatest strength was the way in which both of Rebecca’s doctors talked about her diagnosis. It’s not an identity, nor is it a fix; it’s a tool of understanding behavior, and one that can help guide treatment in a way that makes the most sense for her.
At the same time, Rebecca possesses the traits which define Borderline Personality Disorder. This was something I’ve said (mostly to Julia) for a long time, and something I’ve been scared for the show to tackle. I have intimate experience with this disorder, and without sugarcoating anything, some hurt as well. I have never seen proper depiction of it before this show, and I never in a million years thought it would actually be labeled, then fully described in a way that’s so accessible to an uninformed audience.
“A person with BPD is essentially a person that has difficulty regulating their emotions. Someone that lacks the protective emotional skin to feel comfortable in the world.”
It’s clear that Rebecca’s world is one that’s scary to be in. She never feels she fits, she has a terror of abandonment, and her impulsive actions that she does in order to control situations or feel accepted (be it breaking into Josh’s house to delete an embarrassing text, rushing to a wedding because she had a moment of doubt, or even sleeping with her ex’s dad because he was the only person being nice to her) have outcomes that usually result in more unhappiness. To be able to know that she’s not alone in this struggle is validating.
Though of course, and again realistically, the show doesn’t make the BPD simple or straightforward. Rebecca immediately Googles BPD and hates what she reads: that treatment can be lifelong, that there’s no “cure”, and even that 10% of people with BPD do kill themselves. She pushes against this diagnosis, even telling Dr. Akopian that she was bullied by the other doctor into agreeing with him on it, until Akopian whips out the DSM and goes through the checklist to see if Rebecca matches the criteria. Every point applies, and the show brilliantly provides flashbacks as these are read off. Rebecca sinks into despair, calling herself “certifiably crazy,”
Like…yeah. This is it. This is what happens. I was watching, half wanting to cry because of how easy it is to feel for Rebecca in that moment, and half wanting to laugh because finally what I’ve seen and experienced (second-handedly)—what I’ve even questioned and doubted—is on my screen for the first time, ever. We talk a lot about why fiction and representation matters, yet it’s almost unthinkable that the diagnostic process has been rarely been shown on our screens. Certainly not in this much detail.
The episode does end on a hopeful note, with Rebecca saying that she doesn’t want to ever feel like she did on the plane again. She goes to a group therapy, and gets a book to read afterwards. It’s not the end, nor was it ever meant to be. But it’s the means of getting her to a healthy place, and in that process, we see a lot of our own realities, from the hilarious to the uncomfortable.
That’s the story that matters, and that’s the story that was always being told. We’re just finally at the place where the characters see it too.
Images courtesy of the CW
A Bride’s Story is the Women’s Story You Were Waiting For
A Bride’s Story is a manga by Kaoru Mori (also responsible for Emma). Started in 2008, the series is still running and counts 9 volumes. It takes place in 19th century central Asia and follows several characters in their daily lives. The story is mainly focused on women of the region, but there is also the point of view Henry Smith, an English researcher. Anything else notable? Oh, I just remembered: it is really good.
Talking about a really good manga series could be enough on its own. But you know what’s even better? It is focused on women and their lives. Different women, with different lives, their work, their achievements, their pains. And it is written in a total love of all women. A good manga series, written by a woman about women? What else could we be asking for?
The Story of A Bride’s Story:
I am starting to not like this choice of title very much. But anyway, the manga opens on Amir and Karluk’s wedding. Amir is twenty whereas her husband is twelve (don’t worry there is no weird sexual content between the two). It is not the only thing that separates them. Karluk comes from a mainly sedentary village. Amir’s tribe still has a pretty nomadic way of life. Both spouses are pretty different so the first chapters of the manga follow their adaptation to each other (and to her in-laws in the case of Amir). The presence of Smith also allows the point of view of an outsider into the family.
The story then expands to other members of the family, friends, and neighbors, as well as people Smith will meet during his travels. Yet the story isn’t all over the place. We follow their lives and emotional development. And when Kaoru Mori focuses on one character she takes the time to tell their story. Even if she has to leave aside other characters for some time. But this is not a problem, as it is crystal clear she loves all her characters and will do them justice in time.
A Bride’s Story is going to focus on every aspect of the characters’ lives. There is high drama(military attack of one family on another) but also daily life (learning how to sew, finding your vocation).
In short A Bride’s Story is a really good read. But it is not the only thing that draws you in the narrative.
Art so gorgeous it sucks you in the story:
Another strings to Kaoru Mori’s bow which help you being completely absorbed in her world is that…
Which, considering the time we spend speaking about craftsmanship, is important. Having a visual representation worthy of the script is only doing it justice. If you don’t want to travel to central Asia to discover their handicraft after reading A Bride’s Story you are a liar, and that’s all there is to it. The characters and the details are insanely comprehensive. But we are also given amazing and dynamic action scenes.
This incredible art and interesting story combine to give us a narrative uplifting women at every turn.
An Hymn to women’s lives:
A Bride’s Story focuses, as its name clearly spells out, on brides. Sometimes young brides, sometimes bride-to-be, sometimes widows, but always women facing married life. And no it is not reductive. During the 19th century, marriage was (and still is in some cultures) one of the main events of a woman’s life. It was a literal change of family, of environment, and the real beginning of her adult life. So focusing around this event is not reductive. Quite the contrary. It reminds us that, as long as she is a good person, every woman’s life is worth telling.
Kaoru Mori spends a lot of time on women’s daily activity. Sewing of course (if the manga doesn’t give you a mighty need to start sewing you are a liar), but also cooking, taking care of the herd etc. Everything is worth the author’s attention, and ours. Do you know why? Because it is important work done with care. And this ask for our interest and respect.
Another thing which is incredibly well done in A Bride’s Story is the relationship between this women. They are supportive of each other. There is a mother-in-law ready to sacrifice herself to save her daughter-in-law. When Amir learns that she should go back to her family to marry another man because all the brides they have sent are dead (killed by their husband) she is not only crying because she is terrified. She is crying because she knew both of this girls and is devastated by their death. And the person reassuring her and saying that she is « not going anywhere » is her husband’s grandmother.
There are as many positive women relationship in there as there is stars in the sky. And not always just filial relationship. But also mentorship, friendship and emh…
And the icing on the cake is that every single one of these women is different from the others.
No wrong way of being a woman:
Truly it is refreshing to read about women helping each other. It is even better when they are allowed to be different. Because let’s be real, often in fiction women are created to oppose each other. The “good” kind of woman opposing the “wrong” kind of women. Just look at The White Queen and The White Princess, in which motherhood is glorified and “good” women are rewarded with it whereas “bad” women, women having a “man’s” ambition, became sterile and loveless.
Well, in A Bride’s Story we have traditionally feminine women who are soft gentle and love sewing. We have unconventional women who like to hunt and ride but are still good at feminine tasks (but let’s be real Amir is an amazement in universe too) and others which are not. We also have what other media often depicts as “failing” women, but are just unsure of who they are.
In short, Kaoru Mori is standing on her mountain screaming “They are all my daughters and I love them all!”. And trust me ,it feels good to be, as a reader, welcomed into this story.
To the surprise of no one, I heartily recommend reading A Bride’s Story. As a first manga, if it is your first, it might be putting the bar a bit high for future dives into the medium. But there are worse problems to have. Just to add to all I’ve said above, we also have good and interesting siblings relationships (my passion), making this manga almost without fault. It is worth a try. It really is.
All images courtesy of Yen Press.
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus Excels Because It Knows Its History
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a phenomenal game. It has an inordinate amount to say about racism, anti semitism, the cycle of abuse, ableism, eugenics, homophobia, fat shaming, PTSD, war, violence, and just about everything else under the sun. And developer MachineGames does all of that with this wonderfully strange combination of hyper-meticulous tact, high production values, and auteur confidence. Of course, none of that would have been possible if the setting surrounding the narrative didn’t work, and holy shit does it ever.
The newest iterations of the Wolfenstein franchise take place in an alternate 1960—leading into ‘61 for the second game—where the Nazis won the war. 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order was a game framed around the “how” of the world. How did the Nazis win? How do they keep their conquered states in check? How have things changed in this reality? How do we stop them from gaining more power? How do we fight back against a near global, yet also interplanetary, regime?
Throughout the game, you come across newspaper clippings and records (The Beatles sort of still exist) that fill the gaps between 1946 and 1960. The result is a fully realized world that isn’t just a horrifying coat of paint over reality; it’s how things would have happened…with a few super-science-y liberties thrown in because why wouldn’t the Nazis a moon base or fire breathing robot dogs? And, of course, the greatest twist of all: the Nazis’ inexplicable sci-fi advancement, the whole reason they won the war, was built on the backs of stolen technology from a secret society of Jewish science wizards. There’s even a sequence where the protagonist, William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, breaks into a high security compound and finds ancient schematics written in Hebrew, which he knows how to read.
We also knew, in broad strokes, what had happened to the other parts of the world. America had surrendered completely after Manhattan was obliterated by an atomic bomb, mirroring the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Nazis had yet to conquer the vast majority of Africa, as organized resistance was proving far more effective than they were willing to recognize. London was kept in line by a skyscraper-sized robot called the London Monitor, which you get to blow up.
Wolfenstein: The New Order took place almost entirely in western Europe (with a brief sojourn to the moon, of course) and exploring how the one region of the world that was, at one time, actually conquered by the Nazis, ended up being just familiar enough to what it was back then to what it became in their alternate history. It’s this foundation, this deep uprooting and deconstruction of history, that allows its sequel, The New Colossus, to head straight into the United States. We were shown what was comfortably familiar to us, so it was time to show what was uncomfortably familiar.
An America subjugated and ruled by the Nazis.
Enemy Of The State Of Affairs
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a game about “why”. Why do we fight against oppression when society around us punishes those who do? Why do we push back against systemic hatred, even when it has no bearing on us? Why does a man like William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, the perfect aesthetic poster boy for Aryan supremacy, reject those who would treat him like a king?
Why has America submitted to Nazi rule? The short answer is: giant airship. The long answer? Well, that one’s not so complicated.
Relatively early in the game, you meet up with a New York City resistance cell lead by a black woman named Grace, a survivor of the Manhattan bombing. In fact, all but one of her members are black with the exception of her partner Super Spesh. Their character designs explicitly invoke imagery of the Black Panthers and the overall Black Power movement.
The first game had you run around helping the Kreisau Circle, the Berlin-based Nazi resistance group that eventually cut the head off the Nazi war machine and stopping them from developing new weapons. This cell was lead by Caroline Decker, a paraplegic veteran. But, in the opening of this game, Caroline is executed by the main antagonist, Frau Engel, leaving a gaping hole in leadership that Grace fits perfectly. Who better to represent a 1960s violent uprising of the oppressed than a black woman in America?
She even goes so far as to move into Caroline’s old cabin in their captured Super U-Boat. From the start of the narrative, Wolfenstein is showing us that America is very different from a conquered Europe. For one, the English language is being banned, hearkening back to that old adage of “If the Nazis won, we’d all be speaking German”.
The largest among the differences though is that, just as Grace says above, America never stopped fighting the Nazis. The military did, yes, and the vast majority of the white population, including a South-governed KKK, but the fact that there is a dedicated anti-gravity airship, the Ausmerzer, whose sole role is to travel the country and crush resistance factions for the past decade tells us in no uncertain terms that the hold the Nazis have over America isn’t as ironclad as they believe it to be.
Even if they are able to put on one hell of a show.
We find newspaper clippings within the game describing resistance cells crushed by the Ausmerzer, and there’s even a moment during a trip to Roswell where you’re recognized (you’re the Reich’s most wanted, after all) by a local resident who, in a terrified act of defiance, whispers that he believes in what you’re doing when just seconds prior he was selling newspaper propaganda with glee.
The cap to this, however, is the final scene of the final mission of the game where you ambush Frau Engel’s live appearance on a talk show. You sneak through the bleachers and into the rafters, noting that every single person in the audience is a cardboard cutout. The show may be being broadcasted to every living room in the world, but it stands to reason that if people aren’t going to the live show…they’re not buying into the lies.
America is being crushed under the heel of the Nazis, yes, but it has yet to be crushed. Good people are still out there in the world, but they’ve forgotten how to resist. Those who were already filled with hate jumped on board, the minority, while everyone else is either putting their head in the sand or just trying to survive.
On the other side of the table, though, is how white America perceives the Nazis. I’ve already mentioned that the KKK controls the south, but it goes a whole lot deeper than that. Slavery has been legalized once more, and auctions are the talk of the town. We find out that, in true Nazi form, they rounded up the country’s degenerates—Jews, queer folk and people of color—and either purged them or sent them off to die in New Orleans…which is now a massive ghetto, Escape from New York style.
And if you “named names”, you were rewarded with what those same people left behind. Land rights, mansions, savings; everything they owned was either seized by the state or given as a gift to those who betrayed their friends and neighbors. This is not something we discover on a broad scale; it’s personal to B.J.
He visits his childhood home after nuking Area 52 (it wasn’t aliens, just ancient Jewish Techno Wizard secrets) and finds his abusive father, Rip, waiting for him, having heard he was in the area and assumed he’d come around. Rip, as we learned from flashbacks, was physically and emotionally abusive to both his son and his wife Zofia, a Jewish Polish immigrant. That, and he was a hardcore White Supremacist, having only married Zofia because he believed her father would be a business asset. He bemoans that no one knows what it is like to suffer as he does, thinking that everyone is trying to steal everything from the White Man.
In short, he represents everything that B.J. has spent his entire adult life fighting against.
When asked what happened to his mother, Rip admits that he sold her out to the Nazis and they took her away. The confrontation ends with B.J. killing his father after he presses a shotgun to his son’s forehead, but through their entire conversation he’d been on the phone with the Nazis. He’d sold out his son, too.
That’s the state of the world in Wolfenstein, and in The New Colossus you blow it the fuck up.
Terror-Billy Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass
While the game’s marketing may have been pointing towards a parallel with the American Revolution as for how the country ousts the Nazis, I posit that the historical context is far more evocative of our 1960s.
Grace’s existence and design are already evidence of this, but it’s the rest of the resistance that makes this all the more clear. The second big group you recruit, aptly enough from the New Orleans ghetto itself, is lead by a man named Horton. He organizes a group of communists, socialists and anarchists who you’d think wouldn’t fit in with Grace and her people. These are the people that dodged the draft, even if they did push the concept of equal rights earlier than most. Horton even flat out cites their attempted push for a civil rights movement in an argument with B.J.
Of course, there’s a key difference between refusing to fight on foreign soil in a war that benefits the military industrial complex and what’s happening to them now. Horton’s group draws upon sentiment from both the end of the Great War and the counterculture movements of the 1960s.
Again, many of them were draft dodging pacifists, but that goes right out the window when it comes to Nazis. It’s one thing to refuse to fight a foreign enemy on foreign lands when victory would have only spread what you’re rebelling against. It’s quite another to sit by and accept fascism in the very country that allowed, though not always encouraged, you to believe what you saw in your heart as just.
It’s at the end of the game, however, in the ending cinematic, that this entire idea solidifies. That this historical context isn’t an accident, and the frankly unbelievable amount of homework MachineGames must have done paid off in spades. Mere moments after B.J. kills Frau Engel on live television, Grace and Horton speak directly into the cameras and ignite a violent revolution. The Kreisau Circle may be organized like a guerilla military operation, but the American people aren’t. They don’t need to be.
It’s an angry, raw, improvised and imperfect call to arms, but that’s what makes it perfect. Violent uprisings don’t start with eloquence or deep debating over the justification to fight against those who oppress you. They start with whatever you’ve got on hand. The Civil Rights movement, the Stonewall Riots and the general counterculture protests that dominated the 60s are clear influences on Wolfenstein’s depiction of “retaking America”. Seriously, if it didn’t sink in already, they blast a heavy metal cover of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” over the end credits coupled with imagery of violent rioting and uprisings across the nation.
Wolfenstein does not attempt to hold a mirror to our world today, even if it does so inadvertently. It tries to make us look back, so that we remember how to keep moving forward. It’s message is clear because it knows what it’s talking about, no matter how over-the-top the presentation:
Equality is not a debate; it’s a right. Those without it won’t stop until they have it, because for them it’s literally “Fight, or Die”. So the best thing you can do, if you’ve already got it, is to pick them up with you. And if you don’t? If you keep trying to push others down? It’s gonna get bloody, just like it always does, and chances are it won’t be them who’s dying.
Images courtesy of MachineGames
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