Friday, February 25, 2011

Misfits & mixed messages

So I wanted to write a review of the Vampire Academy series which I'm almost finished reading, or the Vampire Diaries TV series which I'm painfully making my reluctant way through (bet you can't guess if the review'll be positive or negative), or the first season of Buffy which I'm watching for something like the fifth time (same bet applies) but instead I'm going to write about Misfits again, even though teenagers with superpowers aren't technically what I'm studying. Still, any time spent not watching the Vampire Diaries is time well spent for me.

Alan & I watched the first two seasons of Misfits in under a week (& although I have more to say on the show as a whole I think I'll stick to season one for now, lest this post become a novel). Some episodes were scary, some were silly, all were still very easy to watch, still funny, still well-acted, still prettily shot, & still quite problematic when it comes to women & sexuality.

The next character on my list of Bad Things That Happen to Women in Misfits When They Display Their Sexuality is Sally, Rage Zombie Probation Officer's erstwhile fiancée & replacement probation officer for our gang of unlikely superheroes. Sally suspects the motley bunch of knowing Rage Zombie's whereabouts (under the foundations of a bridge) & goes so far as to suspect that they've killed him (which they have, hence the under-a-bridge body dumping).

Sally spends a lot of her time appearing behind the main characters in locker rooms accompanied by creepy music & overhearing suspicious titbits of conversation only seconds after the fact that they've killed their probation officer & dumped the body under a bridge is mentioned. After trying to rouse an incompetent police force to find her missing fiancé (“No, Sally, see, we have records that he used his credit card this one time since his disappearance & that means he's still alive even though there's no evidence that he's withdrawn any money or made any payments at all since he went missing except buying a plane ticket to Somewhere Far Away. Maybe he just doesn't love you anymore. Did you ever think of that?”) she decides to carry out her own investigation, by way of seducing Simon.

There's lots of sexual tension & kissing & canoodling & soon Sally begins to believe that Simon's trying to cover up for the other, less sympathetic delinquents (less sympathetic to her I mean; I'm still pretty creeped out by Simon personally). Things heat up in the community centre one evening & when Simon's gone to get more wine Sally swipes his phone & sees all manner of incriminating evidence on the videos that he's always obsessively making (“I knew that'd come back to haunt them,” I exclaim, having scolded Simon throughout the previous episodes for filming such sensitive information). Of course Simon finds out. He then goes into Horror Movie Mode & they fight & it's pretty brutal & then he sort-of-accidentally-but-what-did-he-expect kills her by slamming her head against a door. Clearly this is what happens when you use your sexuality to get what you want. You end up dead with your head bashed in, stowed in a freezer for the creepy superhero dude who killed you to occasionally open so that he can stare forlornly at your slowly decaying corpse.

All of this makes the last episode of the first season all the more confusing, because the last episode of the first season is about Evil Brainwashing Virgins.

In an extraordinarily Buffy-esque plotline, a young woman bullied by her peers because of her virginity finds out that the storm has given her the power to compel people to renounce their wicked ways & give up smoking, drinking, swearing & “dressing like a slut” & join her & her group of pastel-wearing born-again puritans.

It's a great episode. It's just the right amount of silly (“this is breaking my heart – you're wearing cardigans!”) & serious (there's something sincerely unsettling about seeing the Virtue cult throw bags over people's heads & drag them to a secluded place for Rachel to politely compel them to believe that they could do so much better), & really makes the characters & the audience think about their vices, their nonconformity & the little quirks that make them them.

While it's obvious that a lot of Rachel's words make sense – she tells the gang they're wasting their potential, that they could do so much better than being petty delinquents with no thoughts of the future – it's just as obvious that making everybody a beige-clad replica of everybody else & stripping them entirely of their personalities is even more of a problem. Nathan (who clearly dominates this episode) gives Kelly quite a moving little speech about how he's always loved her foul mouth, quick temper & chavvy dress sense (“Argos is really underrated you know. Who says you can't buy an engagement ring & a George Foreman in the same place?”) & later gives an animated sermon to the assembled Virtue cult about how they are young & it's their right to make mistakes & screw up sometimes, to drink too much & have sex with whoever they like (well, until their late twenties, maybe early thirties) before he falls to his death impaled on a fence & later wakes up in his coffin to discover he's immortal.

Immortality aside, the episode's message seems pretty simple. Nobody's perfect, young people screw up, & that has to be okay or else everyone would be a conservative drone & no one would have any personality.

Rachel is ridiculed by the gang, like by her peers before the storm, for her modest dress sense & inferred virginity. Alisha becomes, in contrast, the modern, relaxed, sexually liberated young woman who doesn't brainwash people into chastitiy. So where does this fit with the messages the rest of the show has been giving its viewers about female sexuality? It seems to be a case of damned if you do & damned if you don't. If you engage in casual sex & are comfortable with your sexuality you get raped. If you refuse to have sex at all you're a brainwashing freak that people only like because they've been forced to & then you fall off a building & die but nobody notices because one of the main character does too & everyone forgets about you in the commotion. (Okay, maybe I'm pushing the point just a little bit for comedic effect.)

I don't really have an answer to my own question. I'm not even sure I have a question. Maybe Misfits is sending out mixed messages. Maybe it is a “damned if you do, damned if you don't” kind of situation. Maybe it's just reflecting the world rather than judging it. Or maybe it's something about women who decide what they want to do with their bodies; who don't let the culture they live in or the men who desire them dictate their sexual choices. These are the women who get punished. These are the women who get put back in their place. Alisha, before the storm, was unflinchingly confident in her sexuality & in the power her body afforded her. I'm not going to deny that this was a limited power, but rather than deny or dampen down her sexuality she used it fearlessly, & to her own advantage. Rachel, despite her peers' teasing, made a conscious decision to remain celibate, & faced harassment & ridicule because of this choice. Like Alisha, she took control of her body back from society. Whether they be virgins or whores, this seems to imply, the choice shouldn't be with the woman herself.

I'd love to hear your opinions on the matter (& you don't have to worry about spoilers any more; Vampire Diaries procrastination means I'm well caught up). Penny for your thoughts?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Misfits, victim blaming, & words that don't lose their meaning if you write them too much.

I want to write about Misfits even though I've only seen three episodes of season one (all in a row, with Alan, until two in the morning even though he had to be in work at eight) & I realise that means that I'm behind everybody in the whole world & possibly the known universe. Amoebas on Mars have seen more of Misfits than I have.

(Are there amoebas on Mars? Does it really matter?)

I've been recommended Misfits by a lot of friends, by my cousins (but not my aunt who doesn't like gorey violence on TV) & by my siblings. Some people said it is like a British, less cheesy Heroes & I really liked the sound of that. Some people said it is like Skins with superpowers & I really didn't like the sound of that. Alan mostly agreed with me, except that he hated Heroes. So we settled down with two cups of Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime tea & a gluten-free orange & chocolate chip cookie we bought from a lovely lady with a lovely hat at a stall in Waterford & we watched the first episode. And then we watched the second. Then we brushed our teeth & put on our pyjamas & watched the third. The first thing I'm going to say about Misfits is that the beginning gets you hooked.

In case I'm not actually the only person in the known universe (well, one of the only two if you count Alan which I really should, shouldn't I?) who hasn't seen the first season of Misfits, here's a summary:

Once upon a time there is a small group of young offenders in their late teens/ early twenties who are forced to do community service in orange jumpsuits. They fight a lot & flirt a bit & paint some benches & then get hit by lightning during a sudden hail-&-lightning storm. The next morning they all have superpowers, except for Cute But Annoying Irish Guy, whose superpower seems to be being cute & annoying but not in equal measures (he's a lot more annoying than he is cute. Also, he's probably a sociopath). Awkward & Slightly Creepy Nerdy Guy can turn invisible, Insecure Chav Girl can read minds, Disgraced Athlete Guy can turn back time & Sexy Black Girl can't touch anybody without them wanting to have sex with her. Oh, & Hot Probation Officer can become a rage zombie. After Rage Zombie Probation Officer has killed Really Annoying Chav Guy Who Doesn't Get a Superpower Because He's Only in One Episode & attacked the others, the motley group of superhero delinquents kill him & bury both of the bodies under a bridge.

Misfits does characters really well. Despite the way I've named them they become a lot more than caricatures & it's as interesting to learn more about them as is the having-killed-the-rage-zombie plot which quickly becomes secondary. Kelly, aka Insecure Chav Girl, is probably my favourite character so far (& not just because of her amazing accent that's so thick you could float rocks on it), & a lot of screen time has been given to her life outside of or around the superhero-powers-rage-zombie-killing plot. Alisha (Sexy Black Girl) & Curtis (Disgraced Athlete Guy) are also pretty sympathetic characters even if we haven't seen as much of their personal lives as we have Kelly & Nathan. Simon (Awkward & Slightly Creepy Nerdy Guy) makes me feel pitying but uncomfortable whenever we see him alone, which is probably intended & certainly effective. Nathan's background is the most explored & while he's the mouthpiece of a lot of the humour in the show he really is terribly annoying &, as Alan would say, a bit of a dick. I'm sure he'll grow up & get better as the show progresses but for the moment he reminds me a little too much of real life Cute But Annoying Irish Guys for comfort.

There's a sort of uneasy atmosphere running through the show that's broken by the increasing number of moments of slowly blooming camaraderie between the main characters & that really serves to put us in their heads. As well as that, Misfits is very clever, & very much aware of itself. Despite the often cringeworthiness of Nathan's behaviour, he gets a lot of the funniest lines, & the script is very, very funny if you like dark humour. One line that stood out for me (but doesn't necessarily show the dark humour of the show, I dunno, I just thought it was funny) was when the fledgeling superheroes are talking about their powers & Kelly wonders if there are people like them all over town. Nathan replies deadpan: “No, that kind of thing only happens in America.”

So Misfits is clever, & funny, & very prettily shot. I don't know much about camera work (I'm a literature student who only dabbles in film & television when it involves vampires) but the colours are bright & clear & the special effects are subtle & spot on. The actors are talented & the script is great.


I have a big problem with how women's sexuality is represented in the show, & with Alisha's storm-given power. I'm going to start slow, & dedicate a couple paragraphs to female sexuality in general in Misfits before moving on to Alisha's power. Yes, I know this is really long but it's interesting, promise. Stay with me!

We already know that Alisha is the Sexy Black Girl. She's beautiful & confident & uses her body & desirability as a tool to get what she wants. It'd be great to see a character like this on a television show that wasn't then somehow demonised or punished for her openness & sexuality, but I'll get to that later. Because she is ultimately punished for it, it's possible to almost see her as one half of the overused virgin/whore dichotomy. You know, if you squint up your eyes a bit.

In this case, Kelly becomes the unlikely virgin to Alisha's whore. She was arrested for starting a fight in Argos with a girl who called her a slag & hits her soon-to-be-ex fiancé for thinking the same thing, even though it's obvious from his thoughts & her words that they have never slept together despite being engaged, & therefore it's unlikely that she has ever slept with anyone. The care taken with setting her up as an underestimated & sympathetic character is interesting when put alongside her virginity & fear of being called a slag & put against Alisha's “bad girl” manipulative sexuality.

The third female character whose sexuality is explored in the first three episodes (which are very full episodes, really, although not as full as this post-slash-essay is turning out to be) is Ruth, a young volunteer working with elderly people at the community centre who catches Nathan's eye. (Quick note for my fellow Martian amoebas: here be spoilers!) Ruth is flirty & confident & she & Nathan end up getting drunk & high & messing about in the community centre until Nathan sees his naked stepfather (long story) & chases after him. The next day he shows up at Ruth's house & asks what would've happened the night before if he hadn't run off “chasing a naked guy through the carpark” & she answers something along the lines of “the best sex you've ever had.” Again, we're introduced to a woman who owns her sexuality & who is comfortable with sex, which is apparent in the sex scenes that follow. But like Alisha, her confident sexuality does not go unpunished. Nathan discovers – rather abruptly – that she is in fact eighty two years old & that the storm somehow temporarily granted her wish of being young again. For the awful crime of Wanting to Have Sex While Old she is insulted & ridiculed by a disgusted Nathan & although he finally regrets his harsh words she dies alone in her home before he can apologise.

So girls who don't have sex are the most sympathetic, & girls who have lots of sex are ridiculed or punished for it. Which brings me to Alisha's powers. Alisha is a young woman with a healthy sexuality & a no-nonsense attitude to men's reactions to her (“feel free to stare at my tits, yeah?” she tells Curtis when she catches him staring) but instead of showing us a woman who is comfortable in her body & with her sexuality, Alisha is introduced to the audience as the “my mum warned me to stay away from girls like you” girl who uses her sexuality to manipulate people (which isn't a problem in itself) & very quickly gets punished for it (which is).

Alisha's punishment is her powers. Where the others gain the ability to read minds or turn invisible, Alisha is given the “power” to cause anyone who touches her skin to be consumed with desire for her. At first she uses this power to sleep with men who shower her with compliments & can't keep their hands off her, but soon she realises that the power still works when she doesn't want to have sex, & after that several times an episode one or more men will attempt to rape her.

I have two problems with Alisha's powers. The first is the obvious: this is a textbook case of victim blaming. Each character's power is supposed to befit their personality, so the disgraced runner wishes he could turn back time to rectify his mistakes, the nerdy loner fees like he's invisible & the insecure girl can hear what people really think of her. The Sexy Black Girl, on the other hand, has the power to make men try to rape her whenever they touch her skin. Confident black woman who is empowered by her sexuality? Young person comfortable with having sex outside of a monogamous relationship? We can't be having with that now. The unspoken assumption is that Alisha, because of her powerful sexuality, deserves the “power” she has been given. The unspoken assumption is that a woman who has a lot of sex deserves to be raped. The unspoken assumption is that men simply can't help themselves because of how she dresses, speaks & carries herself, & that they have no choice but to rape her. The unspoken assumption actually becomes spoken in the third episode, when after Curtis & Ben, a young social worker, attempt to gang-rape her in a car, Alisha tearfully tells Curtis, “I know it wasn't your fault. It's all me.”

So needless to say that's all very problematic, but that's not the only problem I have with her powers, or with the way sexual assault is dealt with in the show. Firstly, there are a lot of rape jokes in the script, & while this is often problematic in that rape jokes in popular culture & media trivialise & normalise sexual assault, all of these jokes are said by Nathan, who, as I've said before, is a bit of a dick, & I think the audience is supposed to think so too. However, the nature of these jokes do support my argument about the one of the ways the show deals with sexual assault. Nathan makes a joke about prison rape followed by one about sexually assaulting a ninety-year-old woman. Sexual assault of people in prison & of elderly people are some of the least talked about or publicised & most joked about forms of sexual violence. We live in a culture that almost glamourises the “tragic life story” tales of sexual abuse or assault & the SVU style stranger-in-a-dark-alley rape cases that are the minority in real life, while simultaneously ignoring, making fun of & discrediting all other forms of sexual violence. In Misfits, all of this gathers together in the character of Alisha.

My second problem with Alisha's powers ties in to all of this. When Alisha touches someone they seem consumed with lust & throw themselves at her. We see her deliberately touch & have sex with a number of men in clubs before she approaches Ben at the community centre. When the sex is over he dresses himself, seeming a little confused. He says things like “I don't usually do this”, & “we did have sex didn't we?” Later, Alisha has a similar exchange with Curtis. She tells him that because of her power she could have him any time she wants but he seems uncomfortable & tells her not to touch him. She touches him anyway & they end up having sex in a toilet stall. When it's over & she breaks contact with his skin he is angry & confused. Later he explains that it's as if she'd drugged him. He says she had no right to do that & warns her never to touch him again. What we've just watched is essentially a rape scene. Unfortunately, like Nathan's throw-away jokes about prison rape or sexual assault of an elderly person, the culture we live in doesn't tend to take male rape victims seriously, especially if they have been raped by a woman.

So here we have a television show that in only three episodes has perfectly personified the idea of rape culture, where women raping men is ridiculous, prison rape is hilarious & the rape of an elderly person is just something to laugh about. Where women who dress to emphasise their body or have comfortable casual sex deserve to be raped. And while I suspect that Alisha's rape-victim-power storyline soon gets old & she learns how to use her superhero “gift” to influence & manipulate rather than to entice to rape, it's the fact that her power began as an enticement to rape that bothers me, because in real life there's no such thing (as enticement to rape I mean, not as superpowers which we all know secretly exist). And I don't think I've ever typed the word rape as many times as I have writing this.

So Misfits. I like it. I think it's very funny & very cleverly done & very well acted but I also think it's extremely problematic & I'm not sure yet that all the verys will trump the extremely. I suppose I'll have to wait & see. What about you, invisible reader? What do you think? (And because I'm still convinced I'm the only person in the known universe – except Alan & a couple Martian amoebas – who isn't already on season two, I might ask you to keep the spoilers to a minimum, in case I decide to go with the verys after all.)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Vampire Girls & Werewolf Girls

I've been writing a young adult book about werewolves because it's the closest I can get to vampires without feeling nauseous.

I really dislike it when people despair of the current generation of young readers who are obsessed with teenage vampires because I find teenage vampires very interesting (I'd want to; I'm writing a PhD on them) & I think people are too quick to dismiss trends in popular culture, especially when they're primarily adolescent trends. I also dislike it when people say Twilight is a badly written book, because it isn't. It's quite problematic in many respects, but it isn't badly written.

However. I have this theory-in-progress that there are two types of girl out there: the vampire girl & the werewolf girl. The former will usually be attracted to the Beautiful Mysterious Stranger (the vampire) while the latter tends to go for the Best Friend Next Door (the werewolf). I realise this is a very vague & limited theory-in-progress, but it's mainly intended as a humorous anecdote, so it shouldn't be taken too seriously. I think that's probably why we see so many vampire-human-werewolf love triangles (in fiction, not in real life where we all know vampires don't exist), but while I can think of three off the top of my head (Twilight, the first season of True Blood & Tantalize), I can't think of any where the girl gets with the werewolf in the end. Also I can't think of any that aren't heterosexual. I'd love it if anyone who knows of any could point them out to me. I'm sure there are some, but the top of my head is a little fuzzy this evening.

I guess I've always been a Werewolf Girl. So I've been writing a book about werewolves because they're like vampires, only not, & supernatural young adult fiction is seriously popular at the moment, so I figure it can't hurt. But I made the mistake of rereading the first half of the manuscript after having devoured a wonderful young adult book in one sitting on the train back from Waterford: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which is fast-paced & action-packed & about a spunky & resilient heroine forced to compete in a dystopian future's horrific reality TV show (somewhere between Goblet of Fire & Battle Royale) & which makes anything read right after it seem dull & lagging in comparison. So now I'm faced with terrible Writer's Angst & wondering if I should leave the supernatural genre to my research & just write a nice little piece of magic-realism-with-a-hint-of-romance (Aloof Mysterious Stranger or Best Friend Next Door, which will it be?) or maybe a story about the end of the world. I've always liked those. What do you do, fellow writers, when faced with this kind of Angst? I suppose I should just concentrate on my research until it goes away.

(Beside me, on the train, Alan was reading I Capture the Castle & I couldn't help imagining the three texts combining to form some sort of strange tangled tale about dreamy teenage werewolves in 1930s dress fighting to the death in the grounds of an old castle. Maybe that's the book I should be writing.)