Why Are Even Powerful Women Victims?

As I watched Emmie Mear’s #SuperWomen Twitter chat roll by me last night, and a variety of contributors trying to contribute names to a list of Super Women in popular culture today, I had some trouble articulating why I’m not a fan of Olivia from Fringe. She’s possibly the most bland character on television today—her evil twin was far more appealing—but that’s not what really bothers me.

No, I hate that she’s still portrayed as a victim: even her apparent “superpowers” came about because some mad-scientists experimented on her when she was a kid. Sure, she’s the only one to survive sane, with her powers intact, but those powers were forced upon her and she’s not that keen on using them.

Her reluctance isn’t caution: it’s fear. These powers only exist because she was abused as a kid. I get that it makes her noble for even thinking about using the abilities,  but the fact is, the show-writers perpetuate the effects of the abuse by forcing the character to never overcome them.

And she’s not the only example of the woman who only receives her powers through abuse: look at River Tam from Firefly, the perennial super-assassin-girl. She’s a badass, but she can’t control her badassery. Her skills are the result of years of brainwashing. A brilliant, bright girl was forcibly changed into a weapon of mass (and self) destruction.

That’s not personal power, folks. That’s rape.

It’s unacceptable for women to receive their super powers only as a result of tinkering by outside forces, especially when those forces are portrayed as male. These shows are basically telling us that these women are only amazing because a man stepped in and made her that way, forcing her out of who she was and into a painful new role. These women are powerful, and I won’t deny that. I just can’t redeem the victim-role they’re forced to play.

The journey for these women is then to integrate that power into their lives—and frequently that requires the aid of a lover, brother, or father. Although I hate to besmirch the name, River Song from Doctor Who is an example of where the path of abusive power-giving leads. She’s awesome (and empowering in other ways), but she only came into her awesomeness because she was programmed by a “religious order or movement” to kill the Doctor.

She overcomes that brainwashing, but only because the Doctor himself devises away to let her fulfill her mission, apparently killing him and satisfying her programming. All her well-laid plans to avoid the moment come to nothing, but the Doctor pulls her out of the fire and saves the day.

That’s really uncool when you think about it.

A strong woman’s journey should not require to overcome her abusive past. It should not require her to seek some man’s aid. It should not require her to integrate someone else’s idea of who she should be into her idea of who she is. Maybe she’s all the stronger for overcoming her past, but it’s still not okay to turn her into a victim. Perhaps making her overcome these challenges is more realistic—what woman doesn’t have to overcome some trauma and the perceptions of the world around her?—but the nice thing about television is that it allows us to move past what is and into what could be.

Buffy is awesome, and her power was inborn. Sure, she was “chosen,” but she had the latent powers there already. Part of her journey is to accept that these powers are a defining part of her, for better or worse.

I hate to be the lone nay-sayer, but I think the female superhero sub-genre has yet to reach its potential. We’re still a long way from giving women power without strings, and we viewers, readers, and writers, have the ability to change that. So let’s keep looking. Let’s keep fighting. We’ll have real Super Women across the board one of these days.

#SuperWomen

What do you think? Are you okay with this trope?

Who are some inherently super-powered women? How about:
Hermione from Harry Potter, who knows that nerdiness is awesome
Arwen from The Lord of the Rings films (who, sadly, chooses to give up her powers for a man, which could be a topic for another blog post!)
Daenerys Targaryen from A Song of Ice and Fire

Can you think of other powerful women victims? I can:
— Caroline Forbes on The Vampire Diaries received her powers from, well, a bite
— Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager, kidnapped and turned into a borg as a kid
Sookie Stackhouse from True Blood, powerful but still vampire bait

The Battle of the Great Ambivalence

Have you ever warred with your own apathy?

Apathetic cat feels… it doesn’t matter.

As some of you may remember, I’ve been trying to read The Wheel of Time and to watch Angel.

I haven’t really succeeded at either. I get excited in individual chapters or episodes, but somehow I reach a stopping point and never go back. It’s kind of getting to the point where I wonder why I’m even bothering.

It’s not the characters, because I like some of them… though definitely not all. And it’s not the plot, at least not entirely, because sometimes I enjoy it. But feeling like I should read or watch something just isn’t cutting it anymore.

What’s your breaking point? How little can you care before you just can’t carry on?

Worldbuilding Done Right

Happy Wednesday, gang. Don’t forget you have the rest of the week to enter my little giveaway! Just link back to this blog and show me in the comments that you did, or sign up to receive email updates, and you’ll get entered to win a Kristin-made craft!

Secondly, be sure to check out my new post over on Spellbound Scribes, Casting from Hell, in which I discuss how sorry I feel for actors that would portray my characters. Those poor suckers would be crying all the way to the bank.

Thirdly, check out Liv Rancourt’s new post, Anita Blake, Christian Warrior?, sparked by a comment she left in Friday’s discussion of Religion in Urban Fantasy.

Phew, that’s a lot of business for one day. Now, back to regularly scheduled programming.

Does anyone else remember when Battlestar Galactica was the best sci-fi show EVER? (Oh, good heavens, no, not the original one—the new one that aired from 2003-2009.)

Alcoholic, cancer patient, daddy-issues, sociopath, hallucination, sleeper agent: now there’s a slice of humanity. Image via Battlestar Wiki.

In the early seasons, the characterization, the suspense, and the knowledge that no one was safe drove the show to unbelievable emotional heights, and then it jumped the shark and everything got weirdly religious and super-depressing.

Yep, that’s a teaser for an upcoming religion-and-sci-fi post.

But the main thing that made this show so engrossing was almost unnoticeable, even though it was visible in every single shot of the show: the worldbuilding. You can see it in the aesthetics (there are no square corners), the costumes (female pilots wear the same thing as male pilots), the language (“Frak!”). It’s everywhere, and it makes this world complete.

Take the episode, “Water,” one of the most tension-fraught television episodes I’ve ever watched. In the midst of the paranoia and worry over the future, Commander Adama and President Roslin stop to have a conversation about books.  They discuss A Murder on Picon, just one of the many examples of arts and literature in this universe, and both know the book—wildly different characters have common cultural ground.

And that’s how it should be done. Check it out: you won’t find better worldbuilding on television.

What are some other examples of stellar worldbuilding, readers? I love me a brave new world to watch or read.

Freudian Friday: Religion in Urban Fantasy

Throughout season four of True Blood, my constant refrain was, “This has to be offensive to Wiccans.” From what I know of Wicca, necromancy and murder aren’t high on the list of healthy pastimes.

More prayin’, less slayin’!

Now that season five has rolled around, though, my refrain is, “Whoa, this is super-offensive to Christians!” The vampires worship Lilith and call the “vampire bible” the true sacred text? Yikes.

It’s gotten me thinking about the treatment of religion in works of urban fantasy. Most universes with demons, ghosts, or witches tend to look toward Judeo-Christian mythology and either corrupt it or use it to ‘preach’ to the audience. On the other side of the coin, we have worlds like the ‘Buffy-verse,’ where Wicca is synonymous with the practice of actual magic and there’s very little worship involved. Religion seems to inform these universes by adding a vocabulary and a mythology rather than shaping them with any remnant of accuracy. And that may not be acceptable to viewers with strong religious belief, of any creed or pantheon.

While we can’t treat religion with kid gloves, we should ask: how far is too far?

Note: this blog post will deal mostly with Christian and Neopagan traditions, only because those are the religions with which I am most familiar. Please, if you can think of additional shows with treatments of additional faiths, leave a comment!

Let’s look at a few portrayal of religion in televised urban fantasy (and/or sci-fi):

Supernatural
Operating within the Judeo-Christian mythology, the Winchesters fight demons, ghosts, pagan gods (who inevitably eat humans), witches (who deal with demons), and even angels. Season five deals with the battle between Michael and Lucifer (yep, that Michael and that Lucifer), who want Dean and Sam respectively as their “vessels.” The boys end up locking both Michael and Lucifer into “the cage,” some trap in hell from which even an archangel can’t escape.

That’s dancing on the line of what may be offensive to some viewers, Christian and Neopagan, but the real rub comes from the show’s treatment of God: he’s missing. Portrayed as an absentee father who never appears in the show and causes endless speculation among viewers, God has washed his hands of the whole race and no longer acts even in the capacity of a deistic “divine mover.” And Jesus? The elephant in the room, so to speak, is never even mentioned.

Angels are not soft and fluffy.

True Blood
As mentioned above, we had a season in which Wiccans appear as harmless Goddess-worshippers and quickly fall under the management of a true witch who wields the power of necromancy and harbors a serious vendetta against vampires. Now we’re learning that the Vampire Authority is split between those who worship Lilith by rote and “terrorists” who fight in Lilith’s name to institute the factory-farming of humans. They quote scripture, too.

Characters frequently pray and ask for God’s protection against the supernatural, but we rarely see truly “good Christian” behavior. Our only experience with a pastor is a man who has an affair with a main character’s mother and later performs an exorcism. That’s… not very inspiring.

It seems that True Blood is an equal opportunity offender.

One believer tortures another.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy exists primarily in a dualistic, secular-humanistic universe. There is a First Evil, but the power of Good and the power of Evil are accessible to humans. The Powers That Be employ and equip champions like Buffy and Angel to fight Evil, but other humans are perfectly capable of fighting against evil without supernatural powers. I’m down with that—I really enjoy system built from the ground up, and this one is such that most dualist believers can place their personal mythology around the show’s framework, while non-believers can watch without offense.

But then there’s the whole sticky wicket of Willow’s “Wicca” and subsequent addiction to magic, which I’ve written about before. The conflation of Wicca and “Powers of Darkness” probably isn’t appreciated by practitioners of a religion that aims to harm none and live in harmony with nature.

Willow prepares to sacrifice a lamb as part of a spell to resurrect Buffy.

Charmed
Confession: I’m not a Charmed fan. I never watched it as a teen, and when I tried to watch it as an adult, it just didn’t click for me. (I believe the words “sooooo cheesy” came out of my mouth repeatedly.) The show uses Wicca/witchcraft and Wiccan/witch synonymously, even though the characters operate within a Christian framework. Angst follows when a protagonist who identifies herself as Christian discovers that she’s a witch—even though she’s a witch that fights demons.

The show jams Christian mythology and dualism together with so-called Wicca (which is duotheist, not dualistic) and witchcraft, and the resulting blend tastes a little sour to me. The internet is rife with diatribes from both religions, complaining about how the show is Satanic or just plain inaccurate. (Aside: if you like Charmed, please tell me why. I’m always willing to be convinced.)

I’m not sure how they end up reconciling witchcraft to a Christian outlook.

The X-Files
This show spans way too many episodes and monsters-of-the-week for me to discuss them all, but a recurring theme is Scully’s semi-devout Catholicism at war with the things she sees in the show. The show takes that juxtaposition seriously, and it deals with the ongoing battle of how people explain the presence of great good and great evil in the world.

Although the show portrays witchcraft as a “black art” at times, it also presents a villain from Orthodox Jewish mythology: perhaps, like True Blood it offends across the board. That said, I believe that the show portrays supernatural or religious power as good or bad, depending on what the user makes of it. In this universe, Christians are just as likely to do evil as witches.

Mulder and Scully continually debate the merits of belief in a higher power.

Doctor Who
The X-Files‘s stance brings us to our final example, the classic British sci-fi show that perpetually looks askance at religion. Religion is forbidden on shuttle platforms, along with weapons and teleportation. The universe’s Big Bad, the Daleks, are the ones who kill because of belief and blasphemy. The Doctor himself treats religion with disdain, attributing to it more death and woe than many other human practices. While a discussion of religion in Doctor Who could run textbook length, I think it’s sufficient to say that religion occupies a fraught position in that war-torn universe.

The Doctor mocks the “impure” Daleks, whose own technology does not recognize them.

That’s just a sampling of portrayals of religion in urban fantasy and/or sci-fi, and it doesn’t even include books. What do you think, readers? How well does religion stand up in a world of magic and mayhem? What other shows treat faith with finesse or with brutality?

Top Ten Reasons I DO NOT Want to Be a Vampire

Last week, Emmie Mears wrote a blog post enumerating the top ten reasons she wants to be a vampire.

She said WHAT?

This week, I’d like to offer a rebuttal. In spite of the fabulous eyelash extensions she-vamps seem to get upon rebirth, the super-speed and super-strength, the eternal youth, and the occasional ability to turn into a bat, vampires are nasty parasites, little more than a sexually-transmitted disease. I’m just not down with signing on for that… and here’s why:

1. Vampires are parasites.
The definition of parasitism calls it “a type of non mutual relationship between organisms of different species where one organism, the parasite, benefits at the expense of the other, the host.” In the human-vampire relationship, vampires win… until humans die out because of global warming, and then the vampires are screwed because their only food source is gone. I can’t agree to join a race with such a glaring single point of failure. Plus, then I could be classed with things like tapeworms and fleas… ew.

So queenly, she relies on her servants for life.

2. I’m a vegetarian.
Those blood-colored juices coming out of your steak give me barfy feelings… so how could I possibly want to drink blood? I don’t like eating animals, so I definitely couldn’t like drinking humans.

I’m with Jessica: gross.

3. You’re just as likely to end up an animated corpse as a carnivorous supermodel.
Some alternate series, like Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels series, portray vampires as meat puppets, controlled by necromancers who retain their humanity while they make their stinky minions do their bidding from afar. I also hear that in Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, vampires are nasty animated corpses… and that’s a bestseller! I’m just saying, it’s a big gamble: sparkly, stone supermodel or rotting puppet. And I’m not willing to take the chance.

This is what Angel is going to look like in 1000 years, Buffy.

4. Vampirism is a sexually transmitted disease.
Ever notice how vampire-lovers frequently end up vampires themselves? There’s a reason for that. Vampirism is passed through the exchange of bodily fluids, after all. And, since I’m monogamous, I’d be pretty darn upset if that particular disease got passed on to me.

This can’t be sanitary.

5. Murder is bad.
We have these things called laws, and those laws say that killing people is bad. If your very existence depends on committing murder, you’re probably a fellow. And also, not a very nice person.

“You can’t do that. It’s wrong.”

6. Eternal life is overrated.
In Kelly Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series, vampires don’t live thousands of years… because they get bored. You can only go to high school so many times before it makes you suicidal. Plus, look at Godric in True Blood: after you’ve seen the world go to hellrepeatedlyand take your offspring with it, there’s really nothing left to live for.

High school biology again? I think I’m going to be sick!

7. Blood is salty… and salt equals bloat.
This is just Feeling Attractive 101, folks. Don’t go eating a bag of chips before a hot date, because it will make you look and feel all blimpy. And, even if you do look like a supermodel, if you feel like you can’t fasten the button of your jeans, you’re just not going to have the self-confidence to seduce that sexy young ingenue next to you at the vampire bar. 

And you can’t even check a mirror to make sure you don’t look like this.

8. I like food. And hot blood is just not as satisfying as hot tea.
I admit it: I look forward to meals. I like pie. And popcorn. And black bean burgers. I get positively murderous if I can’t have a cup of strong, sweet hot tea in the morning… now just imagine if I hadn’t had my hot tea for a century of mornings. That’s not a pretty picture. And we already talked about how killing people is wrong.

Giles looks much happier with his drink of choice.

9. SAD would get a lot worse.
No sun, ever? I already have to use a sunlamp for three seasons of the year. If it made me burst into flames, I’d cry every single day. And, in some universes, vampire-tears are blood. Worse, in other worlds, vampires can’t cry AT ALL. Depression + no tears = murderous Kristin again, and that whole murder-is-wrong thing causes a problem.

That’s not a good look for anyone.

10. I like to wear colors other than black. And corsets are so confining.
Sure, vampires look badass in their chest-exposing black shirts and their cleavage-exposing shiny corsets. But I like a little variety in my wardrobe… and really, my default uniform is jeans, t-shirt, and Converse sneakers. And no one would be intimidated by a short vampire in beat-up Chucks wearing a shirt with owls that look like Doctor Who.

Because the wannabe look is just SO cool.